Wednesday, January 22, 2014

What I've Learned in The Year of The Chicken

Hens cruising the beds at Garden Dreams Urban Farm & Nursery
Wilkinsburg, PA
Well I've kept chickens at my place of employ for almost a year.  I've learned a bunch, and there's much more to know.  It might be time to sit down and make a list of what I've found so far from our flock of 10 layer hens...

  1. There is an endless list of different ways to raise chickens.  You have to figure out what works best for you and your birds.
  2. Does something look off with a bird?  Don't worry straight off.  Pay the most attention to how the bird is acting, do your research (not on the internet, from a book you trust!) and check back in with her soon.  It may likely be something perfectly normal.
  3. Beat the heat.  They can take the cold, but not the heat, especially the sturdy dual-purpose breeds.  Give 'em shade and lots and lots of cool water (ice water if its really bad) when the temperatures are in the 90s.  They will pant and hold their wings away from their body to cool down.  When temperatures are really high, check on them often.
  4. Ventilation is KEY.  Seriously.  Summer and winter.  Even on our -8 degree F night I left their pop door open so fresh air could move through the coop and roof vent.  Ventilation ensures that moist air doesn't build up in the coop from the birds' breathing, creating conditions for disease in summer and frostbite in winter.  The importance of ventilation applies to honeybees too and I find it very interesting.  
  5. Bugs and greens are preferred foods.  They are pissed that they don't have many of them in winter. Hopefully by next winter we will have a better supply of winter greens and bugs.
  6. If you don't handle them much as chicks, they won't want to be handled as hens.  At least this bunch, which I don't mind, but its inconvenient when I need to give them once overs and health checks.  Next time around, I'll be holding the little ones more.
  7. Got mites?  Use neem oil and diatomaceous earth.  In the heat of the summer, the whole flock picked up poultry mites from wild birds.  It took some elbow grease, but I got rid of them with these 2 things.  I'll do a step-by-step post on that whole process.
  8. Keep feed fresh.  Don't buy more than you will use in a few weeks if you can help it.  If powdered bits gather at the bottom of the feeder, mix with water and they'll likely clean it up.
  9. Give them places to roost and to dust bathe.  It lets them do what chickens do as well as stay free of skin parasites.  Plus they obviously enjoy both activities.
  10. Think about what will happen when they stop laying eggs.  If you plan to keep them as pets, go ahead and name 'em.  If you plan to put them in the freezer, take great care of them, but keep some emotional distance.  
  11. If you are raising chicks, get more than you want to end up with.  A few will likely not make it.  Prepare yourself for this reality and be prepared to end the life of any of your chickens if they are suffering or putting the rest of your flock at risk of infectious disease, or have some one lined up who can do it for you.
  12. Chicken language is fascinating.  I don't know exactly what they are saying but I can understand their tones of "I'm happy", "Holy crap there's a hawk in the tree", & "I'm gonna lay an egg!"
  13. Keep them safe.  Know what predators are in your area.  Don't forget dogs.  Chicken wire keeps chickens in, not predators out.  Build their coop and run so nothing can get in and eat or kill them.   No losses to predators yet for these gals, thank goodness.
  14. Think long and hard about your waterers, because they are going to try and poop in them, no matter what you do.  I have had success with a homemade bucket waterer with poultry nipples in the summer (that gets its own post too) and a waterer with a heated base in the winter that only pops on when temps go below freezing.  
  15. Litter is a pain in the butt.  I've used pine shavings on the wooden floor of their coop and I ain't lovin' it.  Lots of poop and the labor of moving it to the compost pile.  I'll be trying new things this year...sand, deep litter, droppings boards...who knows?
  16. Don't let their run turn into a barren wasteland.  Have a composting run (that has worked for us) or 2 paddocks you alternate turning them onto so the vegetation can recover and the poop and disease organisms don't build up.
There's more, so much more, but that is a good start.  Bottom line, I enjoy them.  They are entertaining as heck to watch going about their business and their eggs taste just plain yum.  

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