Free Range Management Tips

Free range chickens still take proper management  In an ideal world they happily roam about as they please, weeding your garden, eating bugs, and leaving just enough eggs for your morning omelet right on your doorstep. In reality, free range chickens take some management. While they do roam, it may be over to your neighbor’s house where they are chased by their dog. A young garden does not hold up well to hungry chickens and most days all they leave on your doorstep is… well, something you don’t want to step in. But free range chickens, when managed correctly, can provide entertainment, eggs in abundance, and a very satisfying addition to your home.  Here are some tips for free range management:

  • Get chickens used to their “home base.” Even though you want your birds to roam, you still need to establish a spot for them to lay their eggs and roost. Keeping them in a coop or other confined area for a few weeks before turning them out to explore is a great idea. After being set free they will instinctively return to this spot to roost at night. Offering scratch or other treats is a good way to lure them back in their coop or confined area if the need arises during the day.
  • Keep track of where they lay. I didn’t know our first group of chickens were laying until I found a clutch of 18 eggs in the dog house! Keeping them confined to the coop for the first week or two of laying and providing comfortable nest boxes (1 for every 3 or 4 hens) will help – as will adding fake eggs to the nests. If you do have a rogue hen who insists on laying elsewhere, keep your ears open. Chickens usually make a racket when laying an egg, so the “egg song” may help lead you to her nest.
  • Watch out for predators. Make sure that your chickens are not going to be harassed by dogs, cats, or other predators. Keep an eye on the sky; hawks and eagles enjoy a chicken dinner just like the rest of us. Make sure your chickens always have access to shelter if they need somewhere to hide, and consider getting a rooster, as one of a rooster’s main instincts is to guard and protect his hens and alert them of any impending danger. Even with supervision during their ranging time, there is always a chance that a predator will attack your flock.
  • Fence off young garden plants or tender flower shoots since they can be a favorite meal for a chicken. Newly dug earth and freshly mulched beds can be a dream come true for a hen looking to take a dust bath.
  • Keep fresh clean water available at all times where your chickens can always access it. This may mean having multiple watering stations set up around the areas where the birds will be ranging as well as in the coop.

With just a few management strategies, you can enjoy your free range chickens (and their eggs) for a long time to come.

How To Switch Feeds

Feed transitions should happen gradually.

Well, you and the girls made it through another molt. The pinfeathers have emerged, and your hens are no longer walking around like they are embarrassed to be seen (and you’re no longer embarrassed when the neighbors do catch a glimpse). What now? If you have been feeding the new Nutrena Feather Fixer feed, you have the choice to continue to feed it year round for maximum feather quality and mite prevention. You should certainly continue feeding this product at least until all new feathers are fully grown in. At this point if you decide to go back to a layer feed there are a few things you should keep in mind as you make the change.

Form is important. Chickens eat more by sight than by smell or taste. That is why it can be difficult to switch your birds from pellets to crumbles and vice versa – they aren’t familiar with the shape and/or size of the feed.

Take your time. With any feed switch, you should do it gradually over time. A week to 10 days is recommended for a seamless transition.

How to make the switch:

1. Start with your current feed as the main part of the diet. As you start the transition, begin with 80% current ration and 20% new ration.

2. Gradually increase the amount of new ration vs. the old each day until your old feed is totally replaced.

3. If you notice the birds going off feed at any point in the process, take an extra day or two and slow the transition down.

4. You should always limit how much scratch and treats you feed. This is especially important during a feed transition. If your birds are filling up on goodies, they won’t feel the need to learn to eat a new feed. Keep scratch and treats at no more than 10 – 15% of the total diet.

5. Keep in mind that you still want to provide grit and oyster shell free choice while you are switching your ration.

6. Plenty of fresh, clean water is necessary all the time; during a feed transition keeping your birds well hydrated will make the process easier by helping to stimulate appetite and aid in reducing stress.

 

Molting: the naked truth

There comes a time in every chicken’s life (usually around 14 – 18 months old) where they start to lose all their feathers, look gangly and downright ugly. But don’t be alarmed! This is a natural process that occurs annually. This process is called molt.

example of a chicken going through a hard molt

This would be considered a hard molt.

What is molt? Molt is the natural shedding of feathers and regrowth of new ones. This usually happens in the fall as day length shortens. It is the chickens way to refresh old feathers and grow new ones for the coming winter. Molt happens in an expected order, starting at the head, down the back, breast and ending on the wings and tails.

There are two types of molt that chickens can go through, hard and soft. A hard molt means all feathers are lost at nearly the same time. A soft molt, however, means feathers are lost over a longer period of time. Chickens use molt to build up their nutrient reserves and typically slow or even stop laying eggs during this time. Though they are not laying eggs, it is important that your chicken continues to need a high quality diet since feathers consist of approximately 85% protein!

How to help your chickens get through molt
40 lb. Feather Fixer Bag ImageThe best thing for your chickens in molt is to offer a feed that is high in quality and protein such as NatureWise Feather Fixer™. Feather Fixer™ is a complete feed, so you don’t have to worry about finding other protein supplements to feed along with layer feed during molt. It is simple and easy. In addition, Feather Fixer™ is optimized in other ways; it has organic trace minerals, which are more bio-available to the chicken than regular forms. Especially important are zinc and manganese which are needed for feather growth. Another great feature of Feather Fixer™ is that it can be fed year round to prevent mites. This is a brand new feed, so ask your favorite retailer about their plans to stock it today!

Another way to help your chickens through molt is to reduce stress as much as possible. Try to avoid handling your chickens, and bringing new birds into the flock, if possible. Molt is a normal process, so your chickens shouldn’t act differently, even though they make look very different. In total, molt will take between 4-16 weeks, depending if it is a hard or soft molt. You do not need to add any medications or other vitamins if you are already feeding a high quality and high protein feed. So don’t panic the next time your chickens start to lose their feathers and stop laying eggs! Instead, use these tips to help ease the process.

Are you feeding treats correctly?

Chicken pecking the ground

Keep treats to less than 15% of the total diet

As a poultry owner, I love the feeling I get when I feed a treat to my flock. They see me coming with grapes, blueberries, or grain and they come at a high speed run (well, as fast as that waddle/wiggle/chicken run can go). I feel like a hero, the chickens love me (at least while the goodies last), and we are all happy. It’s so much fun, I am always tempted to throw out just a little bit more… but the old adage “if a little bit is good, more is better” is something that’s not a good practice when feeding treats to your flock. In fact, you can seriously harm the production, health and well being of your birds by overfeeding treats.

First, let’s clarify. What exactly is a treat? For our purposes a treat is anything that you feed your birds that is not grit, oyster shell, or a commercial ration (layer feed, all flock, etc.). Note: As soon as your birds have access to anything other than pellets or crumbles you need to provide grit free choice. We don’t count oyster shell or grit as treats; these are additives that help with digestion (grit) and calcium supplementation (oyster shell). Anything else, however, should be considered a treat and fed appropriately. This includes scratch grains.

The commercial feed that our birds eat are formulated specifically to deliver the correct amount of protein, vitamins, minerals, amino acids and energy to our birds in perfect balance. Adding other things to their diet (like scratch, kitchen scraps, etc.) can throw off this delicate balance and result in deficiencies in the diet. Deficiencies can manifest themselves in many different ways in our flocks, including feather pecking, egg eating, decreased egg production and poor overall feed utilization and performance.

So how do you know how much to feed your birds when it comes to treats? There is a good method to follow that will keep the treat portion within the recommended 10 – 15% of your birds’ diet.

1. Pick your treat of the day and make it something your birds really enjoy! Mealworms, fruits, vegetables and insects are all good treats.

2. Give your birds only what they will clean up in 15 minutes. Do this one time a day to prevent unbalancing their diet.

3. Be a hero to your birds and enjoy your 15 minutes of fame!

4. Repeat daily.

 

Getting Ready For Eggs!

Summer is just around the corner and your spring chicks are approaching puberty, which means you can anticipate the arrival of eggs soon! Assuming they’ve enjoyed good food and care, the young hens, called pullets, begin laying sometime between their 16th and 24th week of age.

Discovering a hen’s first egg from your own hand-raised chicks is a thrill. Pullet eggs are tiny and look like gems in the nest. Although the first eggs your birds lay may be small, irregularly shaped and/or inconsistent, don’t panic! The eggs should norm out over time in size and frequency.

If your pullets are over 16 weeks of age, now is the time to switch them to a layer feed, as laying hens need special nutrition. Producing eggs places great nutritional strain on a hen’s body. Just think of the calcium she is giving up each time she lays an egg! Look for a layer feed that has the minerals, vitamins, protein and other nutrients needed to help keep your birds healthy and productive. Now would also be a good time to supplement calcium by putting oyster shell out or sprinkling it on the coop floor for hens to discover and eat.

Are your pullets ready to lay eggs? Here’s how to tell:

  • Chickens will be between 16-24 weeks old
  • Pullets look full grown with clean, new feathers
  • Combs and wattles have swollen and are a deep red color
  • Bones in the hen’s pelvis will begin to separate.

To check if the hen’s pelvis bones have begun to separate, cradle the hen between your side and arm with the hen facing your back so you see its rear end. Carefully hold the bird’s feet so it can’t kick. Place your other hand gently on the hen’s rear end. If three prominent bones are close together, don’t expect eggs for a few more weeks, but if the bones have separated, expect eggs soon!

Pullets like to lay eggs in privacy, and it’s important to have nest boxes in place before the first egg arrives. These can be purchased or made of lumber and should be approximately 10-12 inches square and about 18-inches deep. Install one nest box for every two to three hens and place them from one to three feet above the floor. Line the nests with straw, dried grass, wood chips or even shredded paper to help keep the eggs clean.

In no time at all, you’ll have an abundance of eggs – right from your own backyard!

Rain Barrels For The Chicken Coop

Many backyard chicken coops share an annoying problem. They’re located a distance from a water source. Hauling buckets of heavy water from the house to the chickens is time consuming work. Plus, water costs money, whether you buy water from a municipality or pay for electricity to run a pump.

There’s a simple solution.  Rain barrels harvest and hold the water that nature provides for free.     A single rain barrel typically holds enough water to fill a five gallon chicken waterer upwards of a dozen times. Even droughts produce occasional showers and most people are astonished to learn how quickly a light rain falling on a small roof fills the barrel.

For example a half-inch rain falling on the 250-square-foot roof of a modest sized chicken coop harvests 78 gallons of water – more than most rain barrels hold. That water is clean, fresh, and free.

 According to Lynn Ruck, owner of Rain Barrel Solutions in Apex, North Carolina, water coming off metal or asphalt roofs is safe for small animals to drink.  Only water coming from wooden roofs treated with preservatives shouldn’t be given to animals. Rain barrel water is also ideal for irrigating garden plants.

Position your rain barrel just outside the coop where the most water comes off the roof or under a downspout. This puts water only a few feet from where the hens need it. Remember that a gallon of water weighs 8 pounds, so a filled rain barrel will weigh up to 400 pounds. Be certain it is secure and sits on a flat, level surface. Positioning it on a few cinder blocks makes it easier to draw water out of the tap at the base.

Dozens of rain barrels are on the market or they can be made at home. Good rain barrels are made of opaque material that keeps water dark to prevent algae growth and have a secure lid to keep animals or children from falling in. The lid has holes covered with mosquito netting to allow water to enter from gutter downspouts but prevent entry by insects and debris. A hose tap near the bottom makes it easy to fill buckets or attach a hose.

The right nutrition at the right time for layers

Timing is everything when it comes to feeding your laying hens. Ensuring they have the correct nutrition at just the right time is an important part of having a happy and healthy flock.

Hatch to approximately week 6: Provide free choice access to a quality chick starter ration and make fresh clean water available at all times. Proper nutrition in this critical growth stage will impact the performance of the chicken for their entire lifespan. Use a heat lamp to keep birds warm and provide 1 sq. foot per chick.

Approximately 6 weeks to 16 weeks: Continue to provide free choice access to chick starter and water. If you choose to feed treats (scratch grains, kitchen scraps, etc.), put out what birds will consume in about 15 minutes once per day. This a good guide to follow to make sure treats don’t exceed 15% of the total diet. Add treats only after week 6. If birds have access to anything other than a crumble or pellet, provide grit free choice in a seperate feeder.

16 weeks +: Now is the time to switch to layer feed! Provide layer pellets or layer crumbles and grit free choice along with access to fresh clean water at all times. Treats can be provided at no more than 15% of the diet. At this point it is also important to make oyster shell available free choice to provide supplemental calcium for hard-shelled eggs. Adult birds require approximately 3-4 sq. feet of space per bird in the coop; you also need to plan on one nesting box for every 4-5 hens.

Pasting in Chicks – Causes, Prevention & Treatment

Baby chicks go through a lot before you get them home. They are hatched, shipped, and stocked at your favorite feed or pet store where they encounter all the hustle and bustle of a retail environment. Then you select them, transport them yet again and bring them to another new environment. For a baby animal that is only a few days old, that can mean a lot of stress, and stress can greatly impact the health of young chicks.

One of the most notable problems in chicks that are stressed is pasting. This problem (also called “pasty butt” or “poopy butt”) is what happens when feces that are not the right consistency get stuck to the bird and can “paste” the vent (area where feces are excreted) closed.  Left untreated, this problem, which on the surface just seems a little gross, can actually be fatal.  Pasting can be caused by a few key triggers.

At the hatchery, chicks are not fed or watered since they are equipped to live on the yolk reserves inside their bodies for the two to three days it takes to ship them to their final destination.  When they arrive they are thirsty and hungry and impulse for us is to place feeders and waterers immediately. However, one important step in preventing pasting is making sure that the baby birds in the brooder are all drinking before they are given food. When placing chicks in the brooder, have your waterer set up but do not place the feed right away. As each bird goes into the brooder, dip the beak into the waterer so they can get a small drink and also learn where their water source is.  Watch your birds carefully at first, when you feel that all birds have found the water and had a good drink you can add the feed, but not before. This will prevent the birds from filling up on feed and not going to water like they should. Without water in their system, they cannot correctly digest their food, which leads to pasting.

Incorrect brooder temprature is also another scenario that can lead to pasting. If birds are

Baby chicks are under a lot of stress during the first weeks of life.

too warm they will dehydrate quickly, and chilled birds are highly stressed - both these conditions can result in pasting. Keeping waterers clean and water fresh is also essential – this will increase water consumption which is the best defense against pasting.

Identifying this problem is relatively easy for all the reasons you’d expect: chicks will have a build up of feces around the vent area, alerting you that they have a problem. Treating pasting can be unpleasant, but it is not difficult or costly. All you need is some warm water and latex gloves as well as lots of patience. Take the affected bird and gently try and swab the feces from the vent area. Using a wet paper towel works well; for extreme cases you may need to hold the vent area under lukewarm (not hot) running water. Sitting the chick in a mug or bowl of lukewarm water is also another option to loosen the feces before wiping them away. The main goal is to clear the vent area so the bird can resume defecating normally. After you have cleaned the bird up, applying some sort of lubricant, like vaseline, to the affected area can help prevent further problems. Closely monitor all your chicks for the first several weeks of life so you can catch signs of pasting and treat it quickly!