Isolation Helps Keep Small Flocks Healthy

Many people dread taking an airplane trip to a distant city.  It’s not the flying they’re afraid of. It’s sitting in an enclosed metal fuselage filled with coughing and sneezing fellow passengers. Sure enough, healthy passengers often come down with a cold a few days after being cooped up in an airplane.

Microbes have many techniques to move from a sick individual to a healthy one but most require close proximity. The closer people are crammed together the more likely a disease will spread.

The same goes for chickens. When crowded together, as sometimes tens of thousands of layers or broilers are in commercial operations, a sickness can quickly spread from just one ill bird and infect the entire flock. Commercial growers are well aware of the threat and practice careful biosecurity to keep disease away.

Small flock owners tend to be less aware of biosecurity. In many ways the keepers of backyard chicken flocks are fortunate. Their birds are protected by isolation. Even though thousands of families have started raising chickens in recent years they still are a tiny minority of households. Typically, a family flock lives in a small coop miles from the next chicken. Given nutritious food, a clean place to live, plenty of space for exercise and privacy, and protection from predators, backyard chickens live healthy lives. Many families have kept flocks for decades without ever experiencing a sick bird.

Isolated flocks make it hard for a germ to spread – as long as chicken owners exercise caution. Recently growing interest in backyard chickens may be a disease’s best friend.

People love their chickens and often enjoy keeping several breeds in a small flock.  There’s always the temptation to add a new bird or two to the flock. Swapping chickens is common and sometimes a family needs to disband their flock and is happy to give the birds away.

That’s a concern. A new bird may bring hitchhiking microbes that could quickly infect an otherwise healthy flock. Here are some ways to reduce the odds that newcomers will bring a disease with them:

  • Before accepting a new bird ask the owner if the flock has had any evidence of disease or if any birds have died or gotten sick recently. If so avoid taking a bird.
  • Inspect the living conditions of the donor’s flock. It should be clean, tidy, and have good ventilation. All the birds should look healthy.
  • Carefully examine the new bird to be added to a flock. Does she look healthy. Some signs of a healthy hen include clean feathers, an alert and active temperament that resists being captured, and no sign of discharge from the eyes, nostrils, or vent.

Even the healthiest appearing hen can carry a disease. Most poultry experts recommend keeping a new bird or birds in isolation from the flock for about a month.  If no sign of disease appears the bird probably is healthy enough to integrate into the flock. Unfortunately, quarantine isn’t feasible for most backyard flock owners since isolation requires keeping the new birds in a separate coop a distance from the original flock. Few people have two coops. Still, it’s good advice.

Diseases don’t always move from chicken to chicken. Germs can hitchhike on the clothing or shoes of a coop visitor who inadvertently delivers them to his healthy flock.  After visiting a distant flock change into clean clothes and disinfect shoes before entering the backyard coop.

As a general rule here are some tips for keeping chickens healthy:

  • Start the flock with chicks from a reputable hatchery.
  • Always provide chickens with quality nutritious food and clean water.
  • Keep the coop dry. Dampness enables disease.
  • Give the birds plenty of space. Cramming many birds into a small area fosters aggression, odor, and disease. Just like humans, chickens are healthiest when they have access to fresh air, sunshine, and room to exercise and stretch.
  • If a chicken dies immediately remove its body from the coop and dispose of it properly. Most municipalities allow the body to be placed in the trash if it is in three layers of plastic bags. Then watch the rest of the flock for signs of disease.  If others sicken consult a veterinarian immediately.

Good Practices Also Keep People Safe

A sick chicken can spread disease to other birds but generally people aren’t susceptible to bird diseases. There are a few scary and rare exceptions. A common human health threat that can come from chickens is salmonella.

After being in the coop it’s always a good idea to clean up. Thoroughly washing hands before eating is essential to reduce possible human illness. Adults need to make sure that children also wash well after being in the coop.

Fortunately, most owners of small backyard flocks never have to contend with a sick chicken. When well cared for chickens are amazingly healthy animals, but careful attention to sanitation and biosecurity reduces the odds of disease outbreak.

Help Your Chickens Beat the Heat

Summer is officially upon us! This crowd-favorite season means outdoor activities galore, and with some easy planning for us humans, we can manage the heat with cooler, lighter clothing, hydration and shade…but what about our feathered friends?

When cold, chickens (and many birds) are the ultimate in resourceful heating. They fluff up their feathers, which traps air between the layers, creating an instant downy coat. In summer, there’s no way to strip down – and molt won’t happen until daylight decreases in the fall months.

Because chickens cannot sweat, it makes them much more susceptible to overheating. Chickens normally lose heat as warm blood flows through the comb, wattles and limbs, cools, and is returned to the body’s interior. Problems occur in extreme heat, when the chicken’s temperature (on average 102 – 103 degrees F) cannot be reduced by this method. Heat stroke, low egg productivity, or death can happen.

Heat Stroke Symptoms:

-Panting with wings spread to release extra heat

-Reduced feed intakes (can negatively impact egg production and overall health)

-Increased water intakes (can result in diarrhea)

 Hot Weather Care Tips:

• Water

A hydrated bird is able to regulate its temperature more efficiently – and keep its egg production up. An egg is almost 75% water – so keeping this nutrient available is essential for egg production. A fresh supply of cool, clean water is a necessity year-round, but especially in the heat of summer. Have more than one source of water, so chickens don’t have to move far or fight to get it.

• Shade

Coops and runs should be partially shaded if possible. Keep the shaded area large enough so that birds aren’t huddling in a small space. Chickens without shade tend to stay inside, away from cooling breezes. If you have darker birds, they’ll need more shade to stay cool and reduce fading, since they don’t reflect sunlight like light birds. Conversely, white birds may take on a “brassy” appearance from having their feathers exposed to too much sun.

• Ventilation

Proper ventilation is a must. It provides comfort by removing moisture, ammonia and other gases, and provides an exchange of air. Mesh-covered windows let air in and keep predators out. A wire mesh screen doors helps keep the coop cooler at night. Increase circulation with a fan.

• Dust Baths

Chickens love taking dust baths and working the cool dirt particles into their feathers. Soil, mulch and sand all work for dust bathing areas. If your chickens are confined, you can make a great dust bath for them by filling a large shallow container with your chosen material. Your chickens will be happier, cleaner and cooler if you provide a good dust bathing area for them.

• Treats

Provide chilled or frozen summer treats. Create your own giant popsicle by floating fruit in a bowl of water and freezing. Chickens also love fresh fruits and veggies from the garden (who doesn’t?). As with all treats, don’t overdo it. Feed no more than 10% of the total diet in treats, and make sure a complete commercial ration is the main source of food.  Avoid high starch grains, such as corn, which heat up a chicken’s body temperature during digestion.

• Low Stress

Keep stress levels down and avoid getting your birds all worked up. Give them plenty of room to stay calm, cool and quiet. No one wants to “play chase” or be held on a scorching day.

Tiny Predators Take Toll on Chickens

Some things are certain about racoons. They seem to live everywhere, are always hungry, and their favorite meal is a tasty chicken.

Few animals are as adept at raiding a coop as a hungry raccoon.  Outstanding climbers, they can clamber up siding to reach a window or hole in the side of the building. Their forepaws are almost as nimble as human hands and enable the hungry predators to open simple clasps and enter a pophole or even coop door. Added to that is their amazing ability to squeeze through small holes and gaps. It’s no wonder that chicken keepers take precautions to keep them out of their coop.

Unfortunately, many people who keep their flock safe from raccoons, dogs, cats, foxes, opossums, weasels, and mink, ignore the tiny predators that suck blood from their hens. Mosquitoes, gnats, and flies easily buzz through hardware cloth or heavy-duty wire mesh used to exclude hungry mammals. They enter by the thousands to steal blood meals and torment the flock.

Chickens are extremely vulnerable to biting insects. Although thick feathers provide some protection, fleshy combs and wattles are inviting blood-rich targets. Most mosquitoes and gnats aren’t usually active during the day and wait until twilight and evening to hunt for dinner. Biting flies often work the day shift and welcome the chance to bite chickens. Sometimes a foraging hen will turn the table and snatch a fly from the air and turn it into a protein rich treat.  But when fly numbers are high chickens are vulnerable to their bites.

During daylight hours chickens are amazingly alert but once they flap up to the roost and nod off for the evening, they enter a near comatose state. When sleeping they can’t protect themselves from either biting insects or toothy mammals.  After dark they especially need the help of their owner.

When gnats and mosquitoes make it unbearable for humans to sit outside on an otherwise pleasant evening it’s likely they’re drawing blood from vulnerable chickens that are equally uncomfortable. Fortunately, there are ways to make it challenging for both insects and mammalian predators to enter the coop. When owner keep them out, the flock will enjoy a good night’s sleep.

REDUCING THE MOSQUITO POPULATION

Reducing the local mosquito population is a good place to start. Success makes life more pleasant for people and hens.

One stage of the mosquito life cycle makes them vulnerable. As aquatic insects they must have standing water to breed. Fertile females lay eggs in tiny rafts on stagnant water. These hatch into larvae within one to two days. Larvae feed on nutrients in the water and eventually pupate and emerge as adults. The time from egg to adult depends on the temperature but can be as short as a week. Male mosquitoes are content to spend their lives feeding on nectar and mating, but females need a protein rich blood meal to produce eggs. They are the aggressive biters.

The key to reducing a local mosquito population is to eliminate standing water they need to breed. That’s not always easy to do but it’s the first step a homeowner should take to control skeeters. They don’t need much water to produce thousands of mosquito babies. Rain filled toys, tin cans, and even a bird bath can breed them by the thousands. Here are some tips for reducing mosquito breeding sites:

  • Tidy up the yard. Remove toys, tools, cans or anything else that can hold even a small amount of rainwater.
  • Check and clean rain gutters. Sometimes a wad of old leaves blocks a gutter, causing a standing pool of water. One gutter can produce thousands of mosquitoes.
  • Change chicken drinking water often. Buckets and waterers for chickens, dogs, or other animals can quickly become mosquito breeders. So can a bird bath. At least every two days dump out the old water and replace it.
  • Encourage mosquito predators. Birds, bats, fish, frogs, toads, and even some insects, like dragonflies, eat mosquitoes. Yards with a diversity of vegetation encourage mosquito predators.
  • Stock decorative backyard pools with a few goldfish to snack on larvae.

KEEPING THEM OUT OF THE COOP

The coop is the last line of defense chickens have against biting insects. Many flock owners are diligent about covering windows with strong wire that repels racoons. Yet they forget about fine mesh netting that allows biting bugs easy entry. The same type of mosquito netting that keeps bugs out of houses works just as well on coop windows. There is a problem.

Metal or nylon insect screening will hardly slow down a raccoon, so windows need two layers of mesh. Heavy duty hardware cloth or other strong wire mesh on the outside of the window deters raccoons and makes it impossible for them to tear the mosquito netting that’s installed on the inside of the window. The double system allows cool summer breezes to enter while keeping both big and tiny predators outside. Screens allow chickens to snooze in peace.

Insect screening tends to collect the abundant dust created by chickens. Over time, the screen will nearly plug up with dust and not allow much light or air to pass through.

They need to be cleaned a couple of times a year. An easy way is to remove the insect screen in the fall after the end of the bug season and spray it with a jet of water from a hose. Once dry, they can be stored for the winter. Permanently installed screens can be cleaned in place by using a cordless vacuum cleaner with the hose set on the blower mode. Simply blow the dust out of the screen.  A leaf blower might also work but sometimes the force of air is so strong it might tear the screen. Be sure to wear ear protection to block the high-pitched sound.

Nearly all flock owners are aware that furry nocturnal predators love to raid a coop after dark. They take precautions to keep them out. Remember too that you can help your flock be comfortable and work to reduce insects that love to feast on chicken blood.   Wise flock owners protect their birds from both kinds of predators.

Summer Feed Storage – What You Need to Know

We all know summer brings heat, as well as important considerations when storing poultry and any other pet or livestock feed.  Keeping feed the right way and serving it to your flock in the most efficient way, will save you time and money. I have likely made all the mistakes that can be made in my poultry keeping days, so hopefully my experience can help some of you be the best livestock keepers you can be.

When I buy a bag of feed and bring it home, I pour it slowly into a metal storage container in my feed room. I use this same storage method all year long, to ensure consistency and quality in what I am feeding. My feed room maintains a nice, cool temperature as its shaded by a large magnolia tree that protects my barn from the sun and elements. I only buy one bag at a time, maybe two if it’s on sale, because my bin perfectly fits two 50 lb. bags. Once my feed is in the bin, I use a basic 4 quart feed scoop to fill my feeders. I keep two 5 lb. feeders for 15 birds. I keep them full most of the time since my schedule doesn’t allow me to monitor them at all times. If you choose to fill up your feeders to free feed, I would recommend putting them up in the evenings (in a metal storage container) and putting them back out in the morning. This will keep pests away. I also always check the age of the feed I buy to make sure it’s not out of date and free of pests. I let my birds empty their feeders before I refill them, no room for pickiness here! Keep in mind my birds also get treats and free range during the day so they get plenty to eat.

There are three main points to address when considering feed storage and containers.

1. Environment

Feed kept in the hot sun and dry conditions will get overly dry and lose palatability. Feed stored in hot, humid conditions can mold and be prone to insects. Keep feed in a container that stays out of the elements and is in a dry, cool location. If the feed that’s already in the feeder gets wet or starts to age, dump it out and start fresh (maybe with a little less this time). Allow the birds to completely empty the feeder before you refill it so it’s always free of build-up and mold. Mold can make your birds sick in large amounts, so once in a while its best to check and wash out your feeders even if they haven’t been exposed to extreme elements.

2. Pests

Any time feed is old, has gotten hot, moist or been left exposed, it can attract lots of pests. These can include various types of bugs that will get into and feed on the product. It also includes rodents and other small animals that would enjoy a free snack. It’s my personal recommendation that feed is stored in a rodent safe container (preferably a metal bin) that has a tight fitting lid. The metal will keep small rodents like mice and rats from chewing through and getting into your feed bin. A tight fitting lid will also keep larger pests like racoons and opossum from pulling the lid open and helping themselves to an easy meal. If you keep feed in a feeder all the time it’s always best practice to put your feed containers up in a bin at night and pull them back out in the morning. If moving the feeder is not an option, then you may look into getting a feeder that opens when the chickens step on a pedal and closes back when they step away. Typically mice are going to be too light to open up these types of feeders.

3. Age of feed/rotation

When buying from a feed store or even when you keep multiple bags of feed on hand, it’s always best to check and make sure you are buying/using the oldest feed first. There should be dates (typically a manufacture date) somewhere on the feed tag or the bag that will let you know when it was made. Using the oldest feed first ensures that you always have the freshest feed on hand.

With these considerations, you are sure to keep you and your feathered friends happy and healthy!

Enter Today – Chick Days Giveaway from Nutrena

Join in on the fun and enter our Nutrena Chick Days Giveaways. We are offer twice weekly drawings for eight weeks. Enter each giveaway of your choosing. We’ll draw winners every Wednesday and Friday during the contest period, ending April 25. Prizes include poultry starter kits, gift certificates to your local feed store, egg aprons, and much more. Enter for each prize for a chance to win. Click here to enter today!

Follow along on our Facebook page – Nutrena Chicken & Poultry Feed to enter each giveaway. Don’t miss out on great prizes!

What’s in Chick Starter?

The golden crumble your new baby chicks are devouring these days  was carefully formulated for their unique needs.

You won’t be surprised to hear that a  large component of chick starter is grains. Poultry have a unique digestive system that you can learn more about here. Their digestive system is suited well for taking advantage of the nutrients found in these grains. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common grains found in poultry feed. These ingredients are carefully selected in order to support a baby chick’s nutritional needs:

  • Energy to support daily needs and growth
  • Protein (including critical amino acids like Lysine) to support muscle growth and development
  • Fiber for optimum digestion
  • Vitamins and minerals to support rapid skeletal system growth and other essential functions.

Soybean meal: Dried and crushed beans from the soybean plant, soybean meal offers the highest concentration of protein of plant proteins. Often 44 to 48% protein.

Canola meal: Also dried and crushed seeds from the canola plant (noted for their beautiful yellow blooms). Canola meal also is very dense in protein. It is often used in conjunction with soybean meal, or as a replacement, when soy is not desired in a formulation. Nutrena NatureWise Hearty Hen, our soy-free, omega-3 from flax poultry layer feed, contains canola meal.

Corn: Corn is a go-to source for energy in poultry feed. Cracked corn is often viewed as a pastoral, traditional form of poultry feed. However, as nutrition research has advanced, we now understand that a diet made entirely of corn is lacking in protein as well as essential vitamins and minerals.

Wheat midds: Never heard of it? We’re not surprised. Wheat midds are a byproduct of the wheat milling process. Byproducts can sometimes be viewed as a filler or leftover, but, in the case of poultry feeds, wheat midds make a great addition to poultry feed. Midds are a good source of energy, protein, and fiber. They also help create a nice pellet that holds together and reduces dust.

Besides grains, premium poultry feeds often contain value-added ingredients. Nutrena NatureWise poultry feeds, for example, contains the following:

Pre and probiotics: These feed additives benefit both microbes in the chicken’s gut and adds beneficial bacteria to the existing population in the chicken’s digestive tract. To learn more about prebiotics and probiotics, click here. 

Vitamins and minerals: Just like humans, supplemental vitamins and minerals help poultry stay healthy and preform regular body functions like seeing, growing, and eventually, laying eggs.

New Chick Checklist

 

Chicks thrive in ideal conditions, so consider these tips for getting started:

  • Heat: Suspend a warm bulb about a foot above the brooder floor for warmth – and have a second bulb on hand in case one burns out. Keep temps in the brooder about 90-95 degrees F for the first week, decreasing about 5 degrees per week. Raise the light as chicks grow.
  • Environment: Be sure your brooder is big enough so your chicks can move about comfortably. Keep it out of drafts. Stock tanks, plastic tubs and homemade brooders are a few good options. Do not allow the brooder to become wet or damp.
  • Bedding: Pine wood shavings are ideal. Avoid straw and newspaper as these become slippery for chicks. Clean bedding daily.
  • Water: Be sure clean, fresh water is always available. Dip chick beaks into water and let them drink 4-5 hours before introducing feed. Elevating the waterer a couple inches off the floor will help it stay clean and prevent bedding from contaminating it.
  • Feed: Scatter feed on the brooder floor so chicks can find it at first. Then place in a feeder. Have chick starter feed available 24/7. Your chicks will eat just what they need. One chick will eat about 10 pounds of chick starter in its first weeks of life. There are some great options available when considering chick starter feeds.

Nutrena Chick Days Giveaway from March 7-April 25

Join Nutrena Poultry Feeds in celebrating Chick Days – by entering our Chick Days Giveaways campaign! Starting on Wednesday, March 7, we’ll offer twice weekly drawings for eight weeks. Enter each giveaway of your choosing. We’ll draw winners every Wednesday and Friday during the contest period, ending April 25. Prizes include poultry starter kits, gift certificates to your local feed store, egg aprons, and much more.

Follow along on our Facebook page – Nutrena Chicken & Poultry Feed to enter each giveaway. Don’t miss out on great prizes!

Can Chickens Smell and Taste?

Anyone tending a backyard flock quickly learns that chickens can be as picky about food as a crabby child. Put a pan of kitchen scraps into the run and hens enthusiastically devour bread, meat scraps, and some greens yet shun citrus, turnip chunks and many other goodies. They seem to instantly know what foods are a delicious break from dry feed.

Midsummer is a time of food plenty for chickens and wild birds, and it’s fascinating to watch what they will and won’t eat. Any grasshopper misfortunate enough to hop into a chicken run becomes an instant protein-rich snack. Hens entirely ignore box elder bugs buzzing around them. They’ll eat grasses that grow in their run and shun other plants, like motherwort. How do they know what’s good to eat and what’s not?

Scientists have been debating how well birds can taste and smell for years. Because they have tough bony beaks and small hard tongues it’s more difficult to study their tasting ability than it is with mammals.  According to an ornithologist, Dr. Neil Bernstein, the bird brain is heavily developed for sight, sound, and balance with smell and taste much less acute. Their sense of touch varies by species.

Humans mouths contain about 9,000 taste buds compared with 50 to 500 for birds.  One researcher discovered about 400 taste buds in ducks. Chickens have some taste buds, but they are located in the back of their mouth. So, before they can taste something they’ve already committed to swallowing it.

Studies on the chicken sense of smell and taste are scarce, but more research has been done on wild birds visiting feeders stocked with diverse seeds.  Wild birds, such as chickadees and cardinals, use their keen sense of vision to locate seeds and seem to know which ones are tastiest or most nutritious. For example, they’ll pick every sunflower seed out of a blend of seeds before eating a single milo seed.

Chickens aren’t bird brains. They have intelligence and memory, and this may be a clue on how they react to food.  “I once ate popcorn not knowing I was about to develop the flu.  To put it politely, I tasted popcorn that night on the way out.  It was years before I could eat popcorn again because I unconsciously associated it with illness,” said ornithologist Bernstein.  The same might happen with chickens. A bird who gobbled down a box elder bug and had her throat badly scratched may remember it and take this common insect off her food list.

In many ways, chickens are like humans. People have food preferences. So, do hens.  Although generally, every bird in a flock is likely to like or dislike a certain food, this can vary.  One hen may like tomato scraps, but a flock sister won’t touch them.

Some birds can detect odor. Turkey vultures can locate food hidden under a dense tree cover by chemicals emitted from decaying dead animals. In contrast, great horned owls have been known to kill and eat skunks. “Because skunk spray can hurt owl eyes I don’t think they seek skunks often.  Owls don’t seem to have a sense of smell, but they certainly have food preferences,” said Karla Bloem, Executive Director of the International Owl Center. “For example, they don’t seem to like ground squirrels but love voles,” she added. For a great horned owl having no sense of smell is a benefit. But, how about chickens?

Chickens don’t seem to have much ability to smell or taste. That may be an advantage. They seem to prefer foods of certain colors. Toss scraps of red tomatoes into the run, and they’ll be instantly devoured, while green pepper scraps are ignored. Why hens will eat green grass yet avoid nearby green motherwort or buckwheat plants is a mystery perhaps known only to chickens.

One thing is certain. When given a diversity of foods chickens, and other bird species, have an amazing ability to choose those that are nutritious. One of the benefits of keeping a flock is observing them. It doesn’t take long to learn that they are amazingly perceptive.

 

Boredom Busters in the Coop

Winter getting the best of you and your chickens? Cabin fever set in? Then take a look at these boredom busters to incorporate into your coop during the long winter months.

Variety in Diet

It’s important to continue your regular commercial feed regiment during the winter, but other variety in the way of diet can go far. Ambitious owners can sprout grain to give their flock a winter treat of greenery. Additionally, table scraps can serve as an exciting treat for your feathered friends. Among the better scraps to feed chickens are small amounts of salad, greens, pumpkin and squash seeds, bits of vegetables, popcorn, and almost any other food that is relatively dry. Please remember that MODERATION is KEY when it comes to scraps and treats.

Other treat options can include a snack of scratch grain or cracked corn, but only a few handfuls daily are all a small flock should have.

Space

Giving your birds space in the coop is important in keeping peace and contentment among the flock. Four square feet of floor space per bird is the minimum. Include perches and roosts at different heights and angles to offer exercise for hens. Add some stumps to the coop floor as well, to add some variety in perch options for your friends.

New and Different

Your girls will love the addition of something new and different to the coop during those long, cold months. Try securing a mirror in the coop, chickens find their own reflection fascinating! Do avoid if you have a rooster as they may mistake their reflection for another rooster in the flock.

Additionally, just spending more time with your birds can help to break up their day (and yours!) And remember, stay strong, Spring will be here eventually!