Free Range Poultry, the Inside Scoop

free range chickensA hen lounges in the grass soaking in the sun, on her side with her wing partially open. The rooster pecks, watches, pecks, watches, then circles the flock, always on alert. A pullet scoots through a cluster of hens after a grasshopper, scolded by one of the older ones. Just a snapshot of the flock dynamics from a few minutes watching chickens in a large run or while free ranging.
If you enjoy this view like I do, free ranging or pasturing chickens is a pleasant way to raise your flock. The added food the hens or broilers pick up while foraging can help save on your overall costs, once fencing and predator prevention has been paid for.
When considering nutrition for free range or any poultry, first consider your overall goals. Are you raising for meat or eggs? Are you working to maximize egg production, size and eggshell quality? Do you have a flock for eggs and perhaps meat for your family and enjoy watching the flock more than you care about the number of eggs you collect? Are you rotating your flock maximize the nutrition from the pasture? What are your winters like and do you expect egg production in the cold seasons? Your answers determine your nutrition program for your flock.
Pastured or free range chickens pick up as much nutrition as the pasture has to offer, until they are full that day. If you have ever built a new run, delighted at the lush green grass and plants as you let your chickens out the first few days, only to be horrified at the decimation they caused in a short time, you understand how completely chickens will take advantage of the food sources in an area.
Here’s where the old adage, you are what you eat, comes in. Chickens will get the nutritional value of what they are foraging on. So, if they are free ranging on a fairly well-manicured lawn, the variety of species of plants and insects is quite limited. If they are being rotated weekly within an electric netting fence in a large field that’s mowed twice per year, housed out of a chicken tractor or hoop house, the variety will be much wider.
charlie barred rockNo matter where you raise your poultry, their nutritional needs are pretty much the same. They’re all individuals, just like us, so one hen may need more calcium, for example, than another to keep the same eggshell quality as another hen. Whenever we take away feeding consistency, we change what we know the poultry are receiving as far as nutrition. So, you can change how much nutrition they are getting, but their needs are the same. Whenever these needs for calories, vitamins, minerals and amino acids are not met, a bird will have a deficiency which can cause health issues. These health issues can range from minor to severe; from dull colored feathers and poor feather regrowth after molt or hen pecking, to decreased immune system that leads to susceptibility to respiratory infections.
So, does this mean you cannot raise your poultry out in nature with a varied diet? Absolutely not! Just keep in mind that the commercial feed and supplements that you’re feeding are that much more important because your birds are consuming a much smaller amount of them. For example, a chicken’s diet in a coop and small run is 90% layer feed, like Nutrena® NatureWise® Layer Pellets, and 10% a combination of scratch, calcium chips, unlucky insects that wander in and vegetable scraps. Since 90% of the hen’s diet is balanced for egg production, feather quality and overall health, the hen is healthy and produces large, thick-shelled eggs.
If we take the same hen, open the coop door and let her free range from 7am-7pm, the percentage of the layer feed she eats will dramatically decrease. Let’s say now 80% of her diet is free ranging, and 20% is layer pellets. Now, keep in mind, depending on where the flock is going, she can eat some yummy and nutritious things like insects, worms, frogs, all sorts of plants, flowers, vegetables, even mice. None of this is bad for her, chickens are omnivores and meant to eat all these things. The result we may see is that since the hen is not eating very much layer pellet, she may be deficient in vitamins, minerals or amino acids if she is not getting those from her environment.
Think about it like your diet. If you are eating three balanced meals a day, you’re most likely getting everything your body needs. If you are on the run and your meals are unbalanced and inconsistent, you may need to add a multivitamin, protein shake, meal bar or other supplement to prevent a deficiency.
So, give your free range hens a concentrated diet in addition to their free ranging and you will ensure that they get everything that they need in the smaller amount of feed they eat. For example, Nutrena® Country Feeds® Egg Producer is a concentrated formula that is high in energy, amino acids, vitamins and minerals that hens need to stay healthy and lay beautiful eggs for your family or customers. This type of feed is also helpful if you’re mixing in whole grains, fermented feed, compost or large amounts of vegetable scraps from your kitchen. It’s like giving hens all the amino acids, vitamins and minerals they need in a small amount like a meal/energy bar that we humans would eat.
Use nutrition as preventative medicine to keep your hens healthy and laying. And keep enjoying the sight of your flock and their antics outside!

Select the right light for your winter coop

Bulbs_1_CargillHens lay best during long summer days but production drops off as nights lengthen in the fall. Installing a light bulb controlled by a timer in the coop keeps chickens happily laying through winter’s short days.

Here are some basic must do’s when lighting your coop:

  • Set the timer to turn the light on in the early morning and shut off shortly after sunrise.
  • Lighting does not have to be fancy or extremely bright. A good rule is that the light in the coop should be just light enough to read by.
  • For optimal winter laying, artificial and natural light should total about 15 hours per day.

To start an artificial lighting program, most chicken keepers simply screw an incandescent bulb into a fixture and control it with an inexpensive timer, without a second thought.  Thing again! That bulb is costing you money – and there may be better options. Incandescent bulbs, invented over a century ago, are inexpensive, work well in the cold, and create bright light the instant the switch is flipped on.  Unfortunately, they are fragile, burn out frequently, and are expensive to operate.   Incandescent bulbs convert most of the electricity they consume into heat instead of light.

About 20 years ago compact fluorescent bulbs entered the market.  Much more efficient than incandescents, fluorescent bulbs convert most of the energy they use into light, not heat. Unfortunately they are not ideal in the coop as they are fragile and don’t work as well in the cold. While fluorescents last thousands of hours before they burn out, when temperatures are below zero they barely glow. The bulbs also contain tiny amounts of toxic mercury.

A few years ago ideal bulbs for coops, outbuildings and barns entered the market.    LED, or Light Emitting Diode, bulbs are perfect for cold locations like chicken coops.   LED’s are durable and have no glass to break.  Their globe is plastic, comes on instantly at any temperature, hardly ever burns out, contains no toxic chemicals and is amazingly efficient. Their only disadvantage is cost, and that is rapidly dropping.

By giving your girls a little extra light through the winter and utilizing the right bulb to do it, you can keep them happy and productive even during the coldest months of the year!

 

How to prepare your flock for molt

Ready or not, molt is coming…the dropping feathers, the lessening egg production, the 100_3184embarrasment of a flock who’s in a full blown molt. We know that molt is a natural process, but what, if anything can you do to help your birds get ready to go through the annual loss and regrowth of their feathers? Can you help them prepare and get through the process faster or more easily? It turns out you can – here’s how:

  1. Start now. If you do not use supplemental light in your winter coop and your hens are 18 months or older, chances are good that one or all of your hens will experience molt in the coming months. Preparing for this transition now will help you stay ahead of the curve.
  2. Feed appropriately. Now is the time to dial up the protein and cut back on the treats. A higher level of protein is required in birds who are molting so that they can replace those protein-rich feathers. Treats like scratch and straight grains dilute protein content and should be avoided, or fed at no more than 10% of the birds’ total diet.  NatureWise® Feather Fixer™ from  Nutrena®is a feed designed specifically to help your birds get through molt quicker. It has elevated levels of protein as well as a mix of vitamins, minerals and amino acids that help maintain healthy skin and develop strong and beautiful new feathers. Start to feed Feather Fixer™ at least 30 days in advance of anticipated molting for maximum benefit to your birds.
  3. Clean the coop thoroughly. This is a great time to get you coop and run prepared for winter by giving everythig a thorough cleaning and disinfection. Include nest boxes, perches and cracks and crevices in your cleaning plan. Having your facility as clean as possible will help reduce the bacteria and chance of infection for birds with bare skin due to molt.
  4. Check for creepy crawly critters. Because molting affects your birds’ feathers, it is important to make sure that molt is the only challenge that is presented for feather regrowth. Parasites like mites and lice will affect feather quality and will be an added stress on birds who are molting. Examine your flock and their housing for any parasites and treat accordingly, repeating treatment as necessary.
  5. Monitor aggressive flock mates. If you have a flock member that has had a history of being a bully or acting in an agressive manner, you may want to take this opportunity to decide whether or not the bird should be kept in the flock or not. Tender, exposed skin and blood filled pin feathers can become prime targets for aggressive birds.
  6. Alert the neighbors. If you are in the habit of giving away or selling your eggs to neighbors, friends and family, you may want to alert them as soon as you see the drop in egg production that usually goes along with molt. They’ll appreciate being given a heads up that they’ll need to source their eggs elsewhere for a while.

Put your chickens to work in your garden!

 

ChickensEnterCreating new vegetable garden space from an area of lawn is often hard work. Advice is often to spray the lawn area with Roundup or a similar herbicide, let the lawn die, spade the dead grass deeply or remove it, and then soften the soil and plant seeds.

That involves lots of work and the use of herbicides that many people avoid.  There is an easier way. Let chickens do the work.

Chickens love scratching up dirt, dust bathing in it, and gobbling up grass, weed seeds, and insects, worms, and other invertebrates they find while scratching. When confined to a small outdoor run even a few chickens will soon devour every bit of grass and convert it to bare dirt.

ChickenScratchingOne Iowa family recently converted a small lawn area into a vegetable garden using hens as unpaid helpers.  Here is what they did: 

1. Purchased a 100 foot section of seven foot tall light black mesh fence marketed to keep deer out of gardens, several seven foot metal fence posts, and 100 cable ties. Total cost was about $50, and the fencing will last for years and is highly portable.  

2.   Pounded the fence posts into the ground forming a rectangle around the lawn area to be converted to garden.  Attached the deer netting to the posts using cable ties.

 3.   The new garden area was immediately outside the existing chicken run, so the family cut an easily repairable hole in the existing fence that allowed the hens to move into the enclosed lawn area.    

Within 15 minutes the hens had abandoned their grassless old run and moved into the green grass. It took them about ten days to eat the grass, scratch up the soil, and make the area ready for planting. While eating grass, seeds, and worms they left droppings to fertilize the new garden plants.  

Spade_RAs soon as the ground was nearly bare of lawn the family repaired the temporary hole in the original fence, confining the hens to their old run. They spaded and smoothed the new garden area, added compost made from chicken droppings and kitchen scraps and lawn clippings and planted seeds.  Because deer are plentiful in the area they are leaving the temporary deer fence in place for the growing season but will remove it in the fall.

Using and portable fencing to confine chickens in an area being converted to gardens is easy, inexpensive, and flexible since the fencing can be used over and over to allow rotation of garden spaces.

The truth about chickens and bugs

These chickens are searching for earthworms and centipedesThere is a common belief that free ranging chickens will rid a yard of pesky insects, snails, slugs and ticks. Many think that a flock of chickens converts pests into eggs, meat, and fertilizer. It is important to remember that chickens are opportunistic omnivores who spend hours combing the yard for edible tidbits.They scratch through leaves, tall grass, and garden mulch looking for bugs.  Sometimes they’ll even snatch a fly from the air.  Chickens aren’t picky and don’t care whether a newly found morsel is a pest or beneficial earthworm.  Insects, worms, seeds, grass, spiders, ticks, and a host of other morsels quickly become lunch.  

Turn a few hens into a growing garden and they’ll dine on Japanese beetles, squash bugs, and many other invertebrates. Unfortunately, they will also devour tasty lettuce, chard, spinach and other greens.  Chickens love to peck tomatoes just beginning to ripen and immature squash, and they can damage other garden crops. 

The trick is knowing when and how to allow chickens access to the garden so they eat the pests and ignore the crop. The simplest way is to let them forage in mid fall after all crops are done for the year. Many pests overwinter as larvae or eggs, and chickens will methodically scratch through remnants of the garden, devouring pests as they go and leaving fertilizer in their wake. This certainly can reduce pest numbers in next year’s garden.  

Chickens can also be allowed to forage into growing crops that they tend to not eat or when crops are at a stage of maturity when their fruits or leaves won’t be damaged. For example, chickens rarely bother tomato plants but they love to peck on their nearly ripe reddish fruit. So it’s probably safe to let the birds forage in the tomato patch before ripening fruit is present.   

Because chickens don’t distinguish between garden pests and beneficial invertebrates they will  dine on beneficial worms and pollinating insects as well as pests, although they probably don’t significantly reduce populations of these gardeners’ friends.

Chickens will eat nearly any invertebrate they can catch, but most of the bugs that bite people, chickens, and other animals are stealthy, fast, or very small, giving chickens less of an opportunity to reduce their numbers than slow moving plant pests. They’ll devour the maggots of pesky flies if they can find them but they have a hard time catching adult biting flies other than an occasional one they snap from the air. Mosquitoes are mostly active when the light is low and chickens are nearly comatose on their roost, so they have a hard time reducing those populations.  Hens love to eat ticks, and guineas enjoy them even more. They may reduce the population of larger tick species but likely won’t get all of them. 

You should never assume that free ranging chickens render a yard free of disease carrying pests.  Wear insect repellent when outside, even in the yard, and conduct a personal tick check before taking a shower.

Letting a flock of chickens forage in a back yard reduces their food bill, as the birds eat a diversity of protein rich insects. When carefully managed they will eat garden pests but may not be as effective in devouring the tiny animals that bite humans and other animals.

Adding New Birds to Your Flock

Place birds in separate pens side by side to get them used to each other

Place birds in separate pens side by side to get them used to each other

Backyard chicken owners are sometimes faced with a dilemma. Sometimes a friend needs to find a home for a surplus hen, the flock needs to be expanded, or it’s time to integrate young layers with the oldsters. Successfully introducing new birds into an established flock comes with a caution, and can be tricky.

The caution comes because a new chicken may bring diseases or parasites into a healthy flock. Always make sure new birds are healthy.  It’s a good idea to keep them in quarantine from the established birds for at least 30 days to make sure they are not ill.

The trickiness comes from the existing flock’s well established pecking order. Birds that have lived together for months know exactly their place in the flock. Add a new bird, and the pecking order is disrupted and needs to be re-established. Chickens are not friendly to newcomers, and the old flocksters will attempt to dominate newcomers. Pecking and aggression can be so severe that the new bird might be killed.

However, there are a few tricks for successfully adding new chickens to the flock to reduce problems:

  • Break up the pecking order just before adding new birds. If several members of the old flock are butchered, sold, or given away immediately before the new birds are added, the old flock will have just had its pecking order disrupted. They’ll accept the new birds with less aggression and soon the joined flock will establish a new pecking order.
  • Raise replacement chicks in a separate but adjoining pen. This allows both young and old birds to get to know each other before they are allowed to intermingle.
  • Add new birds at least as large as the existing ones. Putting one or two smaller or younger birds into a flock of larger chickens puts the newcomers at a disadvantage.
  • Keep them on even terms.  Adding one new chicken into a flock of a half dozen oldsters will be traumatic to the loner. She’ll be the sole recipient of aggression.  But, introduce three or four new birds to an existing three bird flock and they are on even terms, making adjustment is easier.

How to raise chicks with a broody hen

 

HenWithChickHelping a broody hen raise a clutch of chicks provides fascinating entertainment and a great example of superior parenting skills! Here are some simple steps assure success:

First, get 6 to 12 fertile eggs from someone who has a rooster. Make the broody her own nest box, line it with dry straw or sawdust, and put the nest outside the coop, but inside a secure place. 

After dark remove the hen from her nest inside the coop and gently put her on the fertile eggs in the new location away from other hens.  She may want to return to her normal nest and it may be necessary to put something in front of the nest box the first night so she can’t escape. She will soon settle into incubating the new eggs. During incubation she will only leave the nest for a short time each day to eat, drink and defecate.A small bowl of water and feed is all she needs near the nest box.

On the 21st day expect chicks and a very protective mother hen.  She’ll keep her babies warm, and offer an opportunity to observe her parenting. It is important to keep baby chicks away from mature birds, which sometimes will kill them if they get the chance. 

Feeding baby chicks who are hatched by mom is also important. You need to make sure that you are only offering chick starter to the entire group. Young birds cannot eat layer feed because the elevated levels of calcium can harm their internal organs, so feeding chick starter (even to the hen and any other older birds that have access to the feed) is a must.

Mom has a diverse vocabulary of clucks. She almost constantly gives a low cluck to re-assure the chicks.  When she scratches in leaves or dirt, revealing food,  she’ll give a special higher pitched cluck that means, “Come here and eat, kids.”    If she feels threatened or thinks her chicks are in danger or are getting too far away, the tenor and speed of the cluck increases. Initially the chicks scamper to her. As they get more confident, they roam further away and the intrepid chick that does not adhere to the call “Chicks, come home,” gets scolded by the mother hen when it does return.

Being a good mother hen is hard work, and after her chicks are eight or ten weeks old and putting on weight she’ll decide it’s time to quit parenting and rejoin the flock. After a couple of weeks she’ll likely start laying again.

Medicated Chick Starter Facts

A dry and clean brooder is a must for chicks.

A dry and clean brooder is a must for chicks.

You’ve decided on a breed, you decided how many to get, you may have even decided on some names – now there is one more decision to make: should you feed medicated or non-medicated chick starter? This is a personal choice, and to help you make an informed decision, we’ve summarized what medicated starter does and does not do.

Medicated chick starters utilize coccidiostats, which help limit the incidence of coccidiosis in young birds. Coccidiosis is an intestinal parasite that is widely spread and found just about everywhere. It multiplies rapidly in the gut and then appears in the feces. As chicks scratch and peck they ingest the coccidiosis from the feces and become infected. Symptoms of infected chicks are a red or orange tint to the feces, a drop in feed consumption and lethargy. This disease can quickly infect your whole group of birds and is often fatal if untreated; Coccidiosis is one of the leading causes of death in baby chicks. One way to help protect your birds against this disease is to feed a medicated chick starter.

It is important to note a few things that medicated chick starter is NOT:

  • Medicated chick starter is not necessary if your chicks have been vaccinated for coccidiosis. However, the coccidiosis vaccination is relatively new and fairly rare so chances are your chicks will not have been vaccinated.
  • Medicated starter is not a cure after you have an outbreak of coccidiosis. There is only enough medication in the feed to act as a preventative – and once your chicks become sick with coccidiosis their feed intakes usually drop dramatically, so feeding them medication will not help.
  • Medicated chick starter is not targeted to prevent anything other than coccidiosis. It is not a dewormer, respiratory medication, etc.

There are certain instances where it is usually a good idea to feed a medicated starter:

  • Brooding large batches of chicks – 50+ at one time
  • Brooding large batches consecutively
  • If you live in a hot, humid environment
  • If you have a history of coccidiosis in your facilityNotes on Amprolium:
    Amprolium is the coccidiostat that is used in Nutrena’s NatureWise® and Country Feeds® medicated chick starter. Here are some specifics about this medication:

    1. Amprolium is a drug that has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
    2. Amprolium IS NOT an antibiotic
    3. Amprolium has no withdrawal period, either in birds raised for meat or those used for egg production.
    4. Amprolium works by limiting uptake of thiamine (vitamin B1) by the coccidia parasite, which needs the thiamine to actively multiply.
    5. Amprolium allows some of the coccidia to remain in the system, stimulating creation of antibodies to develop against the disease.

Whether  you decide to feed a medicated or non medicated chick starter, there are other things you can do to help decrease your chances of coccidiosis in your flock:

  • Chicks kept on wire have less access to feces to peck at and this reduces their chances of becoming infected
  • Clean regularly, change litter frequently and keep  the brooding area dry
  • Don’t crowd your birds – overcrowding quickly leads to unsanitary conditions

Helping Baby Chicks Thrive

Many people associate spring with fuzzy baby chicks, but modern hatchery practices make chicks available year-round. Once you know which breed is right for you, select a reputable hatchery or dealer from which to purchase your chicks.

Young chicks must have a brooder for warmth and protection. Prepare the brooder by cleaning and disinfecting it at least two days before the chicks arrive. Once it has dried, cover the floor with 4 to 6 inches of dry litter material. Pinewood shavings or sawdust is recommended to aid in disease prevention. Hardwood litter is not recommended. Place the brooder in a draft-free location. Carefully position an incandescent bulb about a foot above the box floor to provide heat and add a second light in case one bulb burns out.

Newly hatched chicks will find their perfect temperature in the brooder. If it’s too hot under the bulb chicks will move away from the heat; if too cool they’ll move closer. Give chicks space to move about. Baby chicks huddle together when they’re cold, which can cause smothering or suffocation, so check your chicks regularly to be sure they are comfortable. Raise the height of the lights as they grow, because their need for artificial heat will diminish as they grow feathers.

Clean, fresh water is the most important thing to give your chicks. Make sure it is always available and that the waterers are clean. Check water levels daily to be sure your chicks are consuming enough. Chick starter grower rations are available in medicated and unmedicated formulas. Select one with the protein, vitamins and minerals chicks need to thrive. Sprinkle the feed on the brooder floor at first but use a chick feeder when the chicks are a few days old.

Given a snug brooder, fresh water and good food, your chicks will soon be big enough to move into their coop.

Caring for your flock in extreme cold

In extreme cold, measures can be taken to warm the coop

There’s cold…and then there’s extreme cold!

Generally well cared for chickens easily handle temperatures down to zero or a few degrees below. But once in a while the mercury drops to 20 or even 30 degrees below zero.   That’s extreme cold for both chickens and their human caretakers. When it gets that frosty chickens need special care.

Anyone living where the thermometer could plunge should stay tuned to weather forecasts. If subzero temperatures arrive a flock owner normally has a few days to prepare, and the following actions can help the birds survive in reasonable comfort:

  •  Eliminate coop drafts. Plug cracks in walls or around windows with caulking or bits of fiberglass insulation that can be pushed into gaps with a screwdriver. Bits of cloth work in a pinch.
  • Keep feeders filled and treat the hens to some extra grain. Corn and scratch are low in protein but high in cold fighting energy. Chickens also eat more when it’s cold.
  • Put a coating of Vaseline on combs and wattles. These are the body parts most likely to be frostbitten.  (Thinking ahead, consider buying breeds that have tiny pea combs, which are much less likely to freeze than breeds that sport large single combs.)
  • Warm the birds – slightly. There is an enormous difference between zero and 25 below zero.   It’s not necessary to make the coop warm but it is important to take the edge off extreme cold. Warming the interior of the coop to zero on very cold nights will help the birds come through the chill in good shape.   

As a first line of defense, you can try sheeting off portions of the coop to make the overall space smaller and easier for the chickens to warm with their own body heat.

If you are confronted with extremely cold tempratures, your last resort may be to use brooder lights to warm the coop. A chick brooder heat bulb in a porcelain socket fixture positioned CAREFULLY in the coopwill reduce the chill… but be careful. Bulbs get very hot. Keep them away from anything combustible and the hens, which could get burned. Suspending the fixture from the ceiling and away from roosts and anything that could catch fire will warm the air.  NOTE: using heat lamps in your coop in the winter is usually not encouraged. However, some situations may call for this drastic measure.     

Coops lacking electricity present warming challenges, but filling a five gallon pail with hot water, covering it, and putting it in the coop can add a few degrees to the interior temperature without creating a fire or burning hazard.

Over most of the country normal weather winters come and go without extreme subzero temperatures, but when the mercury plunges it is important to take action to keep hens alive and healthy.