Keeping the Coop Happy During Winter

It’s no surprise that the winter months can be as long and arduous for chickens, as they are for us. Gone are their days of roaming free in the sunshine, while scratching up treats and exploring new places. The warmth of the coop becomes the new norm during these cold months, and the diet might start to feel as repetitious as their daily winter schedule.

Although commercial feed is an important mainstay for winter chickens, ambitious owners sprout grain to give their flock a winter treat of greenery. Table scraps also add diet variety but be careful as wet soggy foods can dampen the coop litter and create odor.

Among the best table scraps for indoor feeding are small amounts of salad greens, pumpkin and squash seeds, and bits of vegetables, popcorn, and almost any other food that’s relatively dry. Only put in as much as the birds can clean up in a few minutes.

Chickens love a snack of scratch grain or cracked corn, but only a few handfuls daily are all a small flock should have. Too much grain causes chicken obesity! A NatureWise Scratch Block of compressed grain sold at feed stores and left in the coop helps to provide exercise and diversion as the birds gradually peck the blocks apart.

Perhaps the most important help a flock owner can give birds is space. Cramming hens together in winter guarantees squabbling, pecking, and other social problems. Four square feet of floor space per birds is an absolute minimum. The more room the better, and a coop that has an array of perches and roosts at different heights and angles gives the hens a place to exercise, while adding three dimensions to a coop.

So go ahead, add some variety to their winter lives and just keep reminding your feathered friends, Spring will be back…someday!

Getting My Ducks in a Row

I am what you would call a “newbie” to waterfowl. I have raised chickens for many years and thoroughly enjoy them. This past summer, I felt the need to expand onto our feathered family. Cayuga ducks.

Cayugas interested me because I live in New York and the Cayuga originates and take their name from an area of New York west of me, Cayuga Lake. Well, actually the origination of this species is debated, but that is one of the histories. Another is that they came from an English duck breed that was brought to America. If you are at all interested, check out this and other facts and fables about breeds at The Livestock Conservancy site.

Requirements in New York are to purchase six chicks or ducklings at a time, so I ended up with six Cayuga ducklings through my local farm store. I raised them in a stall in my horse barn, which worked really well. Later in the summer, they moved outside to a large grassy, fenced area with a small lean-to shelter with a kiddie pool to drink from and swim in. This fall, we created the duck area, with a homemade duck house, kiddie pool, water and feed tubs. Please remember, from a biosecurity perspective, it’s important to not mix species.

The ducks are doing great and I enjoy them very much. Their feathers are gorgeous; black, oily green and so shiny. They have very different personalities than the chickens and their antics can be very comical. It is winter now, and they seem to enjoy the cold. They are outside when it’s the worst and even sleep outside overnight in the snow sometimes.

There are many great resources out there for raising ducks. Here are a few things I have learned in these past six months:

  • Believe the books when they say ducks are messy! They need water near their feed and will bathe, drink, splash, excrete and play in every container of water you give them. This makes for a sodden, messy area. Things that have worked for me: Put the kiddie pool and water tub on top of a well-drained area. I use landscape timbers (4×4 posts) made into a frame on the ground, filled with small stones. This allows the splashed water to drain. Next summer I want to try a more rigid pond and put a drain in it, making it easier to clean.
  • Cayuga males and females have the same coloring. If you want to tell their gender before the males develop their curly tail feathers at around 10 weeks, listen to their quack. Once they start quacking, pick them up one at a time and listen to the sound they make. If it quacks, it’s a she. If it make a raspy bark sound, it’s a he.
  • I use tough, flexible rubber tubs for their food and water. This makes it easy even in the winter to clean and dump old feed or ice. I give my ducks warm water 1-2 times per day in a 24” round tub that’s about 6” deep and their Feather Fixer pellets in a smaller, shallower tub.
  • I handled my ducklings every day, sat in the stall with them, talked to them…Sure, judge me! But my ducks are not what I would say, friendly. They are aware and make better watch dogs than my dogs, quacking at anyone who comes in the driveway. They are curious and fun to watch and when I pick them up they relax, but they don’t run over to hop in my lap. This may just be the Cayuga breed, however I have read other people who say they are easily gentled.
  • Be sure to make a wide entrance to your duck house or shelter. We built the cutest duck house with a ramp and door, but had to widen the door in order to get them to go in. To make sure they would choose shelter when needed, we also reused a cracked plastic 100 gallon stock tank from my horses. Flipped over, with an opening cut out with a sawsall, this is their preferred shelter.

This experience of owning ducks has been a fun and educational one, and I encourage those interested to do your research. One thing is for sure, these beautiful creatures have added enjoyment and entertainment to our home!

Biosecurity for Poultry Shows

Biosecurity is always an important consideration for your feathered friends, but especially when attending poultry shows. Here is a list of some considerations to take into account when preparing, attending and returning home from shows.

  1. Pre Show: Pay close attention to the birds that you are planning on bringing to the show. It is a good idea to monitor birds at least 14 days in advance to the show. If your birds are lethargic or have any signs of illness, those animals should be left at home to prevent spreading disease to other animals at the show. We also recommend giving your show poultry electrolytes about a week before the event. The electrolytes can give a boost to the bird’s immune system, which will help the bird fight off disease.
  2. Shoes: Have a pair of shoes that are dedicated to your flock. This means that you only wear these shoes on around your flock at home. There are many poultry diseases that can be spread to your flock by wearing shoes in public places. There are potentially numerous avian diseases at poultry shows and you could carry those diseases on your shoes and bring them back to your flock at home.
  3. During the Show:
    • Make sure to clean water and cages daily. Do your best to prevent wild birds from eating or drinking from your feed and water. Wild birds are a primary culprit to spread avian diseases to poultry and your birds may have a higher chance of exposure to wild birds during shows events.
    • Make sure to separate different species of poultry. You should never have chickens, ducks, and turkeys co-mingled.
    • Do not share equipment with other exhibitors. It is a nice gesture to help your competition, but sharing equipment dramatically increases exposure to avian diseases.
    • Always wash your hands after handling animals.
    • Make sure to thoroughly clean your cages and equipment after the show. You can disinfect cages and equipment with household bleach and water at a ¾ cup of bleach per gallon of water ratio.
  4. Post Show Isolation and Best Practices: It is good to keep your show birds isolated from the rest of the flock for about 30 days after a poultry show. The show birds may not initially demonstrate any signs of illness or disease, but an outbreak could occur a few weeks after the show and cause an infestation to your entire flock. The stress of traveling and the show environment can weaken the immune system of birds and make them more susceptible to illness. For this reason, we also recommend that you wait at least 30 days before you show the same birds at the next event.

Good luck and take time to enjoy the showing experience!

Winter Water: Keep it Flowing!

Like all living things, chickens need water to thrive. But keeping your hens hydrated in winter can be a challenge when temperatures plummet. Consider these tips to keep the fluids flowing, even in the coldest climates. Above all, make sure your girls always have access to water that is fresh, clean and unfrozen.

Why Water Matters 

Granted, chickens don’t drink as much water in winter. But abundant liquid water is essential for a variety of reasons. First is egg production. Lack of water – even for just a matter of hours – can throw off egg laying, which may already be comprised due to molt and waning sunlight. This thinking applies to meat birds, too. Without water, they won’t have as much of an appetite and won’t grow as big.

Lack of water can also cause problems with digestion and a chicken’s ability to metabolize food. Chickens need water to help soften and dissolve their feed, and keep it moving smoothly through their crop.

Fresh Not frozen

Access to fresh, liquid water 24/7 is especially important because chickens don’t drink large amounts all at once. They take in small amounts frequently. That’s impossible to do if the water bowl keeps freezing.

You have two choices to prevent the problem: Haul heavy buckets from a distant source and replace the water each time it freezes, or use an electrically heated chicken or pet waterer. The latter are thermostatically controlled to keep ice from forming. (NOTE: Curious chickens have been known to unplug heated waterers.) In really cold locales, some chicken owners rotate two waterers. One stays in the coop half the day and is rotated out with a fresh one from indoors for the second half of the day. The waterer that gets removed then sits indoors to thaw, if needed.

Also keep in mind that even if your coop is heated or has a heat-producing bulb, the warmth may not be evenly distributed. If you have extremely chilly winters, always check the water bowl to make sure it’s liquid or not covered in an icy layer. While some chickens will “eat” snow, it’s unlikely they’ll ingest enough for adequate hydration.

Pecking Order and Water

New chicken owners may not realize that basic flock psychology can hinder water access. In fact, in any flock of chickens, there is a pecking order, Alpha on the top, Omega on the bottom, and everyone else in between the two extremes. This is seen initially with baby chicks. If there is a weak chick, the rest of the flock will eliminate it from the gene pool. “Vote her off the island,” so to speak.

The flock may do this as adults, too, if they sense the need to eliminate another adult from the gene pool (even a healthy, egg-producing hen). One way they do this is to keep the hen in question from drinking. Thankfully, wintering birds will expire less quickly from dehydration than in summer. You can help reduce the chances of this by adding a few extra watering stations that allow more options for drinking. This simple step can be key to keeping the entire flock healthy.

Along these lines, make sure your coop is big enough to accommodate your flock. A variety of issues may cause pecking or other aggressive behaviors. One common cause is possible changes in weather (winter’s cold) that would force the birds to spend more time indoors, where crowding may trigger aggression – and limit some birds’ access to water.

Keep the Coop Dry

While keeping water bowls filled with non-frozen water is critical, so is keeping that water in the bowl. Wet living conditions for chickens can foster cold and disease. Unfortunately, the downside to some electric water dishes, is that the birds can easily tip them over. A simple, level cradle made from scrap wood can solve the problem.

Your specific winter conditions (from mild to downright miserable!) will dictate what’s needed to keep your hens hydrated. As ways, stay diligent about flock care and you’ll keep them happy and healthy until warmer weather arrives.

Molt Season is Here, but No Need to Fear!

Are your guys and gals looking a little bare right now? It’s likely the result of molt, a naturally occurring process in chickens from August through December. In the molt process, chickens can lose their feathers starting at the head and neck and working its way down the body. It can take 4-16 weeks for the molt process to be complete. But all of this is not in vain, the process actually serves a vital purpose in the health of your chickens, protecting them from skin infections, the cold and precipitation of winter.

But fear not, there are options to help speed the process along. Products like, Nutrena’s NatureWise Feather Fixer can help your birds get through molt quicker! Visit NutrenaWorld.com to learn how Feather Fixer can help you get through molt, naked but not afraid!

Pecking order and water care, what do they have in common?

In any flock of chickens, there is a pecking order, ALPHA on the top, Omega on the bottom, and everyone in between. Basic flock psychology, is the flock is only as strong as the weakest member. We see this initially with baby chicks, if there is a weak chick, the rest of the flock will eliminate it from the gene pool. “Vote her off the island”, so to speak.

They may do this as adults as well, there may be a bird that they sense needs to be eliminated from the gene pool. This may be a healthy, egg producing hen. One of the ways they do this is to not allow the hen in question to drink. In hot weather they expire pretty quickly. I get phone calls from customers every summer, after the birds were posted, in most cases they died of dehydration. Adding a few extra water stations can easily prevent this, by allowing more options for birds to drink from. This simple step can be the key to keeping the entire flock healthy.

 

Raising Chicks in Two Phases

Phase I: The Brooder
Young chicks must have a brooder for warmth and protection. Prepare the brooder by cleaning and disinfecting it 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. Place the brooder in a draft-free location. Carefully Three Chicks Huddled Together in the Grassposition 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. Chick starter grower rations are available in medicated and unmedicated formulas. Select one with 18% protein that has the vitamins and minerals chicks need to flourish. It is important for the right blend of nutrients to be age specific, as this feed lays the groundwork for the birds entire future.

Phase II: The Coop
Within a few weeks, your chicks will soon be big enough to move into their coop. As they grow it will become obvious that your brooder won’t hold them forever and forming a plan around how and when to introduce them to the coop or outdoors is a great idea. Here are some important things to remember when moving from baby brooder to adult coop.

  1. Chicks should be mostly feathered – At 5 to 6 weeks your fluffy chicks will start to resemble adult birds by growing out pinfeathers. These adult feathers will help them regulate their body temps better than fluffy chick down.
  2. Chicks should be acclimated – Although they start off at 90 – 95 degrees in the brooder the first week of life, you need to decrease this temperature each week until the temperature inside the brooder is close to what daytime temps will be. For the first few weeks (and especially if outdoor temperatures are fluctuating), you may want to bring the birds back into the brooder at night or in bad weather .
  3. Chicks should be integrated – nobody wants henhouse drama, and taking a few simple steps to introduce new birds to old will save a great deal of time and potential injuries. These steps include having a “get acquainted” phase when the new and old birds are in separate, but attached areas so they can interact without aggressiveness. You also want to do the coop consolidation at night so that the old and new flock wake up together to help minimize bullying. At this point it is also important to remember if you have youngsters joining your existing flock to only feed chick starter to all birds until the youngest bird is 16 weeks. The extra calcium in regular layer feed can harm young chicks.
  4. Chicks should be eating treats and grit – it’s a great idea to get your birds used to eating treats (if you plan to offer them) a few days prior to putting them outside. That way, you can use the treats in case you need to lure the birds into a secure space at night. Until they are used to thinking of the coop as “home base” they may need just a bit of encouragement. Just remember, if you start feeding treats (offer no more than 10-15% of the total diet) you also need to offer grit free choice to aid in digestion.

 

 

Care and Feeding of Meatbirds

Chick Care
The basic care of meatbird chicks is similar to other types of chicks. You’ll need to provide a heat source along with free choice fresh water and appropriate feed. An important part of raising meatbirds is allowing for enough space for them to grow. With a growth rate that is

A dry and clean brooder is a must for chicks.

A dry and clean brooder is a must for chicks.

second to none, these birds will become too big for a brooder that seems the right size in just a week or two. Make sure to plan for expansion of your brooder to allow the space to get bigger along with the chicks. A dry and clean brooder is always essential; this will keep the birds comfortable, discourage the development of flies, and help prevent disease.

Dual purpose breeds are traditional breeds like Orpingtons, Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, etc. They can be raised for eggs or meat. These birds are the slowest to finish and are typically harvested around 22 weeks of age. They have less developmental problems than hybrid meat breeds, and they will usually yield less meat.

Red Rangers are a type of meat chicken that provides a ‘happy medium’ between dual purpose breeds and Cornish Cross. They should be harvested around 12 – 14 weeks. They aren’t as delicate as Cornish Cross and have less developmental problems. In addition, they do better foraging than a Cornish. Their meat yield is in between a Cornish and dual purpose.

Cornish Cross is a hybrid and is the most common meat chicken. It makes up the majority of meat purchased in stores or consumed in restaurants. Cornish are very economical with their feed to meat conversion, which means they grow very fast –  they

A typical Cornish Cross bird

A typical Cornish Cross bird

are usually ready to harvest around 8 weeks! A few things to be aware of with this breed: because of their rate of growth they can have problems with organ failure and leg issues. These birds do not do well when comingled with other breeds – it’s best to keep Cornish separate. Additionally, they are ONLY suitable for meat production – do not try to keep them long term.

Feeding meatbirds
For dual purpose chicks, you may choose to feed a meatbird ration from the start. However, if you have straight run chicks and are not sure which are males, you can start the  batch on chick starter and then switch the ones you will harvest to meatbird feed once their gender becomes apparent.

For faster growing hybrid birds, you’ll want to feed a specific meatbird ration from day one. This will ensure that the birds are getting certain amino acid levels and protein amounts to encourage muscle development and growth. Because meatbirds have been developed to put on muscle mass quickly, the ration must be balanced to make sure that nutrients are present for skeletal and internal organ development as well. If the correct ration is not fed, the birds are more apt to fall victim to common maladies like organ failure and leg issues. Follow these simple feeding recommendations to help avoid complications:

  • Feed free choice the first 3 days of life
  • After 3 days, allow 12 hours with feed, 12 hours without

 

Kids and Chickens: At the show!

In previous articles, we’ve covered selecting chickens for kids as well as preparing your children and chickens to go to a poultry show, including how to wash your birds.

At this point my two girls (ages 5 and 7),  were as ready as they would ever be to show a chicken. The birds were somewhat trained, the kids were fairly well prepared, and we hit the road. We arrived at the fairgrounds the evening before the show and took the birds to the waiting area. A vet check is required at our fair for all incoming animals. The vet looks to make sure that the bird has no nasty communicable diseases that could spread to the rest of the birds. Once we were cleared to unload, we took the birds into the barn and got directions from the barn manager as to which pens were ours. Then we put the birds in and immediately filled the waterers and feeders to make them feel a bit more at home.

The girlShow Day Sadie and Peachs were hesitant to leave their birds in a strange place all alone that first night, but eventually we decided they were in good hands and headed for home. The next day was the big one – show day!  We began by getting the birds fed, watered and checked up on. They were in good shape – more so than my girls who needed clean shirts and hair done and new jeans, etc. etc. The first rule when showing is to always look professional. A collared and nicely pressed long sleeve shirt is a great idea. Tuck your shirt in and make sure your hair is off your face. We talked about smiling and keeping their eyes on the judge while they were showing and – most important of all – don’t let your chicken get away!

The time for their class finally arrived and I have to admit, they did great! We had lots of adults on hand to help, but those kids had their birds in control (well, mostly). Each one did great and showed off their birds as well as answered questions from the judge. They all learned valuable skills and experience and earned beautiful ribbons!  They were proud of themselves when the show was over and really enjoyed showing all their friends at the fair their birds.

All in all our chicken showing experience was a great one – and I have a feeling that we won’t be strangers to the poultry barn in the future!