Are your chickens looking a little naked? Learn what molting is and why chickens lose and regrow their feathers. Don’t forget Nutrena’s NatureWise Feather Fixer can help your birds get through molt quicker! Check out www.featherfixer.com.
Like all living things, chickens need water. It’s essential for digestion, egg production, and regulating body heat. On oppressively hot summer days hens, because they lack an ability to sweat, spread their wings and pant. Water evaporating from their mouths and throats cools bodies but must be replaced by frequent drinks. Chickens don’t drink as much in winter but they still need plenty of fresh water daily.
Owners have many ways to keep clean water constantly accessible to chickens. The simplest and least expensive waterer is an old fashioned bucket. Those made of heavy duty rubber never dent and are indestructible. The downside of buckets is their relatively small capacity, the ease birds have tipping them over, and a large water surface, which allows dirt and feces to enter.
Commercially built waterers work well. Most hold three to five gallons and have a relatively small surface area, tending to keep water clean, thus reducing evaporation and spillage. Because they hold more water than buckets they need to be refilled less often.
Hauling heavy buckets from a distant tap is a time consuming chore. Rain falling on the coop’s roof and channeled through the gutters into a rain barrel puts plenty of water right where it’s needed without pipes. Typical rain barrels hold around 50 gallons and fill during a light shower. Filling buckets from a spout at the bottom of a rain barrel is easier than hauling it a distance.
Fortunate chicken owners have a hose tap near their coop. They can use automatic waterers hooked to the hose. These systems refill by themselves. There’s no chance of running out and spillage is minimal.
Winter challenges all types of waterers, but there is a simple solution. Electrically heated chicken and pet waterers can be purchased. All are thermostatically controlled to keep ice from forming. The downside is that birds can easily tip over some electric water dishes. A simple cradle made of scrap prevents the problem. Even on the coldest days the heating unit keeps the water liquid and the birds happy.
There’s an advantage to not having teeth. Chickens never need to visit a dentist! But they have a dilemma.
Chickens happily dine on pieces of food as hard as a stone. Somehow it must be moistened and masticated before the digestive tract can extract nutrients. Mammals have teeth to get the job done. Birds use a different strategy. Small stones, called grit, are their surrogate teeth.
Chickens fortunate enough to have daily access to an outdoor run occasionally swallow pebbles that go down the throat and end up in the gizzard, a hollow circular organ about the size of a golf ball. Grit ends up in the gizzard’s interior. As food enters the gizzard, its’ powerful muscles contract, grinding the food into pieces between the stones. Those tiny
particles then can be digested as they move through the bird’s interior.
Grit gradually wears down in the gizzard, so birds need to occasionally swallow new stones. Chickens confined to a coop where they have no access to the ground are unable to locate natural grit and so, rely on their owners to supply it.
Bags of grit are usually sold in the feed aisle. Look for the NatureWise 7-pound bag. It will be enough for a small flock for several months. It is a combination of fine and medium particles of granite, so is edible by both small and larger breeds of chickens.
A handful can be tossed onto the litter once in a while, or it can be placed in a small bowl where birds can access it. Heavy pottery bowls sold as dog dishes work perfectly because they are not easily turned over. Chickens know when they need grit and will swallow a few stones every now and then. A bowl full will last for weeks.
Chickens that are only fed a commercial pellet probably don’t need grit, but almost every owner of a backyard flock tosses the birds an occasional handful of corn or table scraps. Grit is a chicken’s teeth and to ensure good digestion they need access to it.
A good rule of thumb with both grit and oyster shell is, “if in doubt, put it out.” It is very inexpensive and will assure your flock is able to fully digest the food and other tidbits they are eating.
One of the most common questions I am asked in my job time after time is “Can you tell me what is in your feed?” People are naturally curious about the ingredients in their animal’s feed and have been trained to read labels on the food we eat, so why not on the feed our animals eat? Most poultry feeds consist of similar main ingedients, the most common of which are discussed below:
Soybean Meal – This is the most common form of plant protein, and if your feed tag lists “plant protein products” as an ingredient, chances are soybean meal is what is being used. Soybeans are readily available throughout the country and have the highest concentration of protein of any of our plant sources, with a typical level of 44-48%. When high protein soybean meal is blended with other ingredients, it can raise the overall protein content of the feed. Additionally, soybean meal contains a close match nutritionally to what animals require for amino acids. Especially important in this profile is the amino acid lysine, which is essential in young growing animals.
Canola Meal is sometimes used in conjunction with or as a replacement for soybean meal. While the protein content is not quite as high, this ingredient is still considered a great source of plant-based protein.
Corn is added to feed as an energy source and provides a whopping 1.54 Mcal of digestible energy (DE) per pound (1.54 Mcal/lb = 1540 Kcal/lb = 1540 Calories/lb) . If “grain products” are listed on your tag, it is usually referring to corn, wheat, or other grains. Feeding grain as an ingredient in a complete feed helps to provide the energy necessary for maximum egg production and optimum growth. However, feeding straight corn or other grains (like those found in scratch) in excess by themselves can be detrimental to the health of your birds. With low protein content and no vitamins or minerals added, too much grain alone can affect laying rate, growth rate, and overall health and immunity. Keep any added straight grain at no more than 15% of the total diet, with the bulk of the ration being a commercial poultry feed.
Wheat Midds are obtained from the milling of wheat, wheat bran, wheat shorts, wheat germ and wheat flour. Wheat midds may be represented on your feed tag as “processed grain by-products”. To many people, by-products have a negative connotation. Most think of by-products as “left overs” or “fillers”. This is simply not true. Some of the most nutrient rich ingredients we have for poultry feeds are made of the product that remains after a grain has been processed for another specific purpose. Midds in particular are a good source of energy, protein and fiber. Additionally, wheat midds help create a nice pellet that holds together well; midds can enhance the quality and make a clean pellet with minimal dust and fines.
These main ingredients typically make up the highest inclusion of most poultry feeds. In the next article in our series, we will explore the differences in nutrition that can be made by value-added ingredients, such as probiotics and prebiotics, marigold extract, and others!
There 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.
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.