Water Is Essential, but Can It Be Harmful?

Providing clean, free choice water 24/7 is the most essential aspect of management when keeping your poultry healthy.

As those of us in cold climates know very well, it is a challenge to keep water liquid during harsh winter temperatures. Poultry will actually need more water in the winter because of the dry air. There are many options for you to choose including:

  • Hauling warm water multiple times a day and breaking ice
  • Heated buckets and waterers
  • Heated bases
  • Keeping the coop above freezing

All these solutions have their benefits and drawbacks. Keep in mind that anything involving electricity provides a potential cause for shock and fire. Be safe!

Can water be potentially harmful?

Yes. Water, in vapor form from breath, evaporation from wet litter and water sources can cause unsafe conditions inside your coop. It seems counterproductive to have a well-ventilated coop when you are trying to keep it warm, but this is one reason airflow is important.

High humidity in the coop can cause condensation and a wet environment causing these potential problems:

  • Wet feathers that lose their ability to insulate; especially in fancy breeds (Silkies, Frizzles, etc)
  • Icing on perches, windows, electrical outlets
  • Frostbite on wet combs and wattles
  • A breeding ground for bacteria and microorganisms that can cause disease

How can you tell if you have this problem? Check windows for ice accumulation on the inside, this is a sign that the humidity in your coop is high. Also, check your birds’ feathers for ice accumulation and to see if they feel wet. Birds who are wet will be cold and more susceptible to sickness.

Brave the cold. Keep water where it belongs, fresh liquid in your birds’ waterers!

For more information on air quality in coops, read our post about Ventilation in Chicken Coops.

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!

Free Range Poultry, the Inside Scoop

free range chickensA hen lounges in the grass soaking in the sun, on her side with her wing partially open. The rooster pecks, watches, pecks, watches, then circles the flock, always on alert. A pullet scoots through a cluster of hens after a grasshopper, scolded by one of the older ones. Just a snapshot of the flock dynamics from a few minutes watching chickens in a large run or while free ranging.
If you enjoy this view like I do, free ranging or pasturing chickens is a pleasant way to raise your flock. The added food the hens or broilers pick up while foraging can help save on your overall costs, once fencing and predator prevention has been paid for.
When considering nutrition for free range or any poultry, first consider your overall goals. Are you raising for meat or eggs? Are you working to maximize egg production, size and eggshell quality? Do you have a flock for eggs and perhaps meat for your family and enjoy watching the flock more than you care about the number of eggs you collect? Are you rotating your flock maximize the nutrition from the pasture? What are your winters like and do you expect egg production in the cold seasons? Your answers determine your nutrition program for your flock.
Pastured or free range chickens pick up as much nutrition as the pasture has to offer, until they are full that day. If you have ever built a new run, delighted at the lush green grass and plants as you let your chickens out the first few days, only to be horrified at the decimation they caused in a short time, you understand how completely chickens will take advantage of the food sources in an area.
Here’s where the old adage, you are what you eat, comes in. Chickens will get the nutritional value of what they are foraging on. So, if they are free ranging on a fairly well-manicured lawn, the variety of species of plants and insects is quite limited. If they are being rotated weekly within an electric netting fence in a large field that’s mowed twice per year, housed out of a chicken tractor or hoop house, the variety will be much wider.
charlie barred rockNo matter where you raise your poultry, their nutritional needs are pretty much the same. They’re all individuals, just like us, so one hen may need more calcium, for example, than another to keep the same eggshell quality as another hen. Whenever we take away feeding consistency, we change what we know the poultry are receiving as far as nutrition. So, you can change how much nutrition they are getting, but their needs are the same. Whenever these needs for calories, vitamins, minerals and amino acids are not met, a bird will have a deficiency which can cause health issues. These health issues can range from minor to severe; from dull colored feathers and poor feather regrowth after molt or hen pecking, to decreased immune system that leads to susceptibility to respiratory infections.
So, does this mean you cannot raise your poultry out in nature with a varied diet? Absolutely not! Just keep in mind that the commercial feed and supplements that you’re feeding are that much more important because your birds are consuming a much smaller amount of them. For example, a chicken’s diet in a coop and small run is 90% layer feed, like Nutrena® NatureWise® Layer Pellets, and 10% a combination of scratch, calcium chips, unlucky insects that wander in and vegetable scraps. Since 90% of the hen’s diet is balanced for egg production, feather quality and overall health, the hen is healthy and produces large, thick-shelled eggs.
If we take the same hen, open the coop door and let her free range from 7am-7pm, the percentage of the layer feed she eats will dramatically decrease. Let’s say now 80% of her diet is free ranging, and 20% is layer pellets. Now, keep in mind, depending on where the flock is going, she can eat some yummy and nutritious things like insects, worms, frogs, all sorts of plants, flowers, vegetables, even mice. None of this is bad for her, chickens are omnivores and meant to eat all these things. The result we may see is that since the hen is not eating very much layer pellet, she may be deficient in vitamins, minerals or amino acids if she is not getting those from her environment.
Think about it like your diet. If you are eating three balanced meals a day, you’re most likely getting everything your body needs. If you are on the run and your meals are unbalanced and inconsistent, you may need to add a multivitamin, protein shake, meal bar or other supplement to prevent a deficiency.
So, give your free range hens a concentrated diet in addition to their free ranging and you will ensure that they get everything that they need in the smaller amount of feed they eat. For example, Nutrena® Country Feeds® Egg Producer is a concentrated formula that is high in energy, amino acids, vitamins and minerals that hens need to stay healthy and lay beautiful eggs for your family or customers. This type of feed is also helpful if you’re mixing in whole grains, fermented feed, compost or large amounts of vegetable scraps from your kitchen. It’s like giving hens all the amino acids, vitamins and minerals they need in a small amount like a meal/energy bar that we humans would eat.
Use nutrition as preventative medicine to keep your hens healthy and laying. And keep enjoying the sight of your flock and their antics outside!

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!

Kids & Chickens: Bathing Chickens and other adventures

In the last article, we covered choosing chicks and getting them tame and calm. My kids (4 and 7) worked on this skill throughout the summer, and with the fair fast approaching on Labor Day weekend we realized we needed to get serious about the details of showing chickens. What did we need to do to prepare? What should my girls know? What would the chickens be asked to do? We asked some friends who had chicken showing experience, looked online, and investigated other community resources, like our extension office and 4-H clubs. Here’s what we found out:

Peach standing on table
My 4 year old practicing with her bird, Peach.

Chicken Skills – the chicken should be able to stand on a table during the show with minimal holding by the handler. It should be calm and be able to be approached/held/handled by the judge without getting its “feathers ruffled”, so to speak. We practiced for this by setting up a small table with a cloth that provided good footing for the birds. The girls would set their birds on the table and to get them used to it at first we gave them small treats – like pieces of grain, etc. This distracted them and made them look forward to standing on the table.

To get them used to be handled even more, the girls would recruit their dad or I to play “judge”. As pretend judges, we would approach the birds and feel their legs and feet,  stretch out their wings, and feel their combs and pet around their faces.

Showman Skills At our fair, the rules clearly state that the child must be able to carry their own bird to the table and handle it. We practiced this a lot – for my 4 year old it was hard to get that big bird up and into her arms (she has a Buff Orpington named Peach). With practice came competence – my daughter became competent at carrying and Peach became competent at being manhandled. The girls also had to know basic information about their birds. We practiced with questions like:

  • What breed is it?
  • How old is it?
  • What do you feed it?
  • Does it lay eggs? What color are the eggs?

Then came the time when we realized that the chickens would need a bath in order to be clean and ready for the fair.   And so the adventure began.

Harley going into the water
Harley, the Barred Rock, gets a bath.
Harley in a towel
Don’t worry, this isn’t one of my “good” towels…

To be honest I think I was more nervous about this step than either my kids or the chickens! It just seems a little unnatural, doesn’t it? Dipping a chicken in a tub of water? At any rate, about two weeks before the show we gave it a shot, following the advice given in this video by my colleague and friend Twain Lockhart. And everything went fine. The chickens, I believe, were so flabbergasted at what was happening that they didn’t react. At all. They went into a weird chicken paralysis as we dunked them, swished them, rinsed them, and dried them. That was just fine with me. We repeated the process the night before the fair with equally good results and got ready to go to the fair.

Next installment – At the show!

 

Kids & Chickens: Getting ready for a chicken show

Our family started on a unique adventure this spring when my two girls (ages 4 and 7) decided that they wanted to show chickens at our fair, which lands yearly on Labor Day weekend. With this in mind, we headed for the feed store at the end of April to check out their selection of baby chicks. Since this was the girls’ first year showing and they are both rather small, I thought a bantam breed would work well. Bantams are about 1/4 the size of a regular chicken and would be easier for my little girls to handle. However, when we got the store we saw that the tubs of bantams were straight run only – meaning we did not know if we would be getting males or females. We knew we did not want to have roosters, and so we moved to plan B and decided to go with a standard breed chicken for each of them. These birds had been sexed at the hatchery and so we were fairly confident that they were, in fact, females (pullets). We picked up four chicks – a Buff Orpington, a Golden Sexlink, a Barred Rock, and an Easter Egger.

Thebaby chick girls were very excited with their new chicks! We set them up in a warm brooder and let them settle in. We gave them several days to acclimate, and then “show training” began. The girls started to handle each chick for 5 – 10 minutes each day (turns out baby chicks and small children have similar attention spans). At this time, it really helped that each chick was a different color – so we could tell who had already had their turn being held and petted! SAFETY NOTE: We kept a jug of hand sanitizer right next to the brooder. As soon as the girls were done holding the chicks, feeding, watering and cleaning, they each got a squirt until we got into the house where they would wash their hands thoroughly with soap.

Sadie and chickAs the chicks grew, the girls continued to try and handle them on a daily basis. I learned it is best to get them into this habit when the chicks are very small. We were out of town for two weeks and had someone else taking care of the birds for us. During that time, they grew significantly and the girls were a bit intimidated by their larger size when it came time to start handling them again. The tamer you can get the birds when they are still small, the better.

We moved the chicks out of the brooder and into a large pen inside our barn towards the end of June. While this was a much needed change from the chicken’s perspective (they had outgrown the brooder), it was no longer simple for the kids to scoop one out of the tub to pick them up. The kids now had to learn how to calmly and quietly move around the birds, get them into a corner and pick them up without causing widespread panic. This was definitely a trial and error period – at times my kids can make way more noise trying to be quiet than they do at normal volume.

Once we hit August, real show training had to commence. Up to this point, the girls had simply been catching and holding their birds. Now, though, we realized that more would be required of them at the show. Our next installment will cover Advanced Show Prep (Hint – chicken bathing is involved – you don’t want to miss it!).

Why do hens crouch when approached?

It is fairly common for a hen to crouch to let another hen mount her as if it were a rooster. Occasionally if you approach your hen she may squat down as well. Just what is going on when your hen exhibits this behavior?

A hen mounting a hen is social, not sexual, behavior. If there’s a rooster in the flock he is almost always the dominant bird.  Before mating a hen crouches low to the ground and slightly spreads her wings enabling him to climb on and mate. The crouching posture also signifies submission. In an all-female flock a submissive hen will go into a crouch and be mounted by a female higher in the pecking order. The dominate hen is asserting her place in the pecking order and not mating.

Large breed hens seem more likely to crouch when a human is near than light breed counterparts. Sometimes a person can slowly approach an Orpington or Brahma and hover over her, causing her to crouch. She’s telling you that you’re the boss. It’s often easy to reach down and pick up a crouching hen.

A hen that mounts another hen remains female and will continue to keep her feminine characteristics and lay eggs.  So don’t be concerned – this behavior is absolutely normal and does not mean that something is wrong with your hens!

The Naked Truth about Molt

Molt is the natural shedding of feathers and regrowth of new ones that usually occurs any time from August to December. Learn from Nutrena Poultry Specialist Twain Lockhart what you can do to help your get through molt faster.

Leave a comment if you have one, or feel free to ask questions below!