Creating a Delightful Chicken Home

Fall is the best season for a family to prepare for the delightful experience of welcoming a small flock of chickens to the backyard. For poultry newcomers, fall gives them plenty of time to research the breeds they’d like to welcome, acquire or build a coop, and read up on chicken care. Perhaps there’s even time to visit other families who already have chickens or take a beginning chicken class at a nearby farm store or nature center.

This is the first in a series of blogs that will detail the construction of a sturdy, attractive coop. It’s not always necessary to build a coop, but construction is a fun family learning experience.

Characteristics of an ideal coop

Whether a coop is made by a family from scratch, purchased as a kit, or crafted from an existing building, these characteristics are necessary for chickens to be comfortable, safe, and productive.

  • Sized right: Be sure to have at least four-square feet of coop floor space per hen. More is even better and attaching an outdoor run to the coop adds living space. Coops can be as small as eight or ten square feet, suitable for two hens. More common backyard coops are 20 to 30 square feet and designed for four to six hens. If space is tight, consider bantam chickens. They only need half to a third as much space as full sized birds.
  • Comfort: Coops should provide plenty of ventilation, yet thwart chilly drafts come winter. Hens enjoy a cool breeze on sultry summer evenings and need to be protected from winter’s harsh winds. Great coops allow opening windows or vents when the weather is warm yet closing them down when frost arrives.
  • Protection: Raccoons, opossums, mink, and a host of other furry predators love eating fresh chicken. Mosquitoes and gnats enjoy a meal of blood. Good coops have heavy duty wire mesh on the outside and mosquito netting on the inside stretched over windows to keep predators at bay. A sturdy door, locked each evening after the chickens go to bed, keeps nocturnal predators out.
  • Furniture: Chickens sleep while standing on a perch. A pole or 2×4 with rounded off corners a couple of feet above the floor, makes a comfortable sleeping structure. Hens prefer to lay in nest boxes, which also keep eggs clean. Coops should have at least one nest per four birds. Many small coops have a hinged door that allows for egg collection without entering the coop.
  • Feeders and waterers: These should be easy for hens to reach and humans to clean and fill.
  • Light: Chickens need light. Windows should be positioned to gather as much natural daylight as possible. In the northern regions, positioning a coop so windows are on the south side helps gather the most sunshine and warmth on cold winter days.
  • The weather: Chickens love frequent drinks of clean fresh water, but a wet coop is an invitation to disease and foul odors. The coop must have a good roof that will always protect the interior from rain and snow.
  • Electricity: It’s not necessary to have electricity to the coop, but it makes care of chickens easier, especially in cold climates. Having electricity allows adding artificial light on dark winter days. That increases egg production. Also, a great convenience is a waterer with an electric heating unit inside it. This eliminates the need to keep replacing frozen waterers with fresh water.

Ideal coops should look great in the yard and be part of a backyard decor.  Access should be easy, so hens can be examined, feeders and waterers filled, and cleaning a snap.

Four ways to acquire a coop

  1. Modify an existing building: Often one of the easiest and least expensive ways of creating a backyard coop is to modify an existing building. A large corner of a garage or storage building may work well. Modification may be as simple as making a frame of 2×4 lumber, framing in a door, and covering the interior with chicken wire. Add a feeder, waterer, nests and roost and, bingo, it’s ready to house the flock. Cut a pop hole door in the exterior, create a fenced outdoor run, and the chickens have a snug home to sleep in and escape foul weather and a pleasant outdoor place to loiter and search for tasty insects and seeds. Many home stores sell pre-built or kit garden sheds. These can be modified into a coop.
  2. Buy a pre-built kit: Most places that sell chicks and chicken supplies sell coop kits, and they are also available from chick hatcheries and online. Most kits are small and lightweight. Many allow the purchase of an attached outdoor run. Some kits seem quite frail and may be best suited for people trying chickens for the first time. If they grow to love their hens, they may graduate to a larger or more elaborate coop. Some coop kits are high quality and durable. Take a close look at materials before buying.
  3. Buy a custom-made coop: Many garden and farm stores sell custom made coops. These are often high quality. They look great and are durable but may be relatively expensive. Well-made coops are heavy, so make sure the seller is willing to deliver it.
  4. Building a coop: This is an ideal way to enter the backyard chicken hobby. Later blogs featured on Scoop from the Coop will detail why and how to build a coop perfect for any yard.

Chicken Feed Storage Must-Dos

The area where feed is stored can quickly turn into chaos if you’re not paying attention, especially with a flock that seems to grow daily (chicken math, anyone?).

Failure to store feed and equipment properly can be a headache for you and your flock.

Feed storage areas should have the following characteristics:

  1. No direct access by birds (or other pets!) – While keeping sealed bins of feed inside the coop is convenient, other equipment that’s not currently being used can quickly pile up next to the feed – making them at risk for collecting droppings and even worse, becoming a home for a feed-loving pest. Store feed separate from your flock and if that’s not feasible, think of ways to contain it all. We like this idea. Securing your feed isn’t just to keep it from your flock or pests. Some types of poultry feed can pose a serious health risk to horses.
  2. Dry and well ventilated – Feed must be protected from moisture. Feed bags should not be stacked directly on the floor as moisture may be absorbed in the bottom bags and the feed may mold in the bag. Any feed storage containers (bins, garbage cans, etc.) should be water and pest resistant.  Also, you should completely empty and clean out the feed storage container on a regular basis.  If you store feed in bags, make sure old feed is not allowed to accumulate by stacking new feed on top of the old bags.
  3. Well lit  – It is important that you can clearly see the condition of any feed you have stored. Once the feed has left a feed mill, it may be exposed to other conditions in storage, so it is wise to be able to see clearly what the feed looks like every time you feed your flock.
  4. Clean – It is important to keep the feed room/storage area free of spilled feed, dust and potential sources of contamination.
  5. Pest free – Feed tends to attract rodents, birds and insects. Spilled feed should be cleaned up.  If pest control is required, make sure any pesticides or rodenticides cannot contaminate the feed and that animals cannot access the pest control material.

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.

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.

A Diversity of Eggs

Delightful gifts that a hen gives the family caring for them are delicious eggs with shells of varied sizes, hues, and shapes. Some are speckled. Most are solid color. These gorgeous gems soon transition into tasty and nutritious food.

Many flock owners keep several chicken breeds that lay a diversity of shell colors ranging from light to dark brown, blue/green, white, and virtually every shade in between. Some shells are smooth and glossy, while others are more textured. When arranged in an egg carton they are a delight to the eye and a striking contrast to the sameness of supermarket eggs.

Many wonder why eggs are so diverse. The answer is simple. Chickens are genetically complex.  They have between 20,000 and 23,000 genes in about one billion DNA base pairs. This compares with the 20,000-25,000 human genes in 2.8 billion DNA base pairs.  Enormous genetic complexity results in much individual variation.  Just as people come in many shapes, sizes, and colors because of genetic diversity, so do chickens.  This explains why chickens range in size from the tiny Serama bantam breed to immense Jersey Giants.  Chicken feathers come in dozens of color shades and marking patterns.

Chicken breeds were developed over centuries by human selection for certain traits, like egg production, shell color, fast growth, pleasant demeanor, and attractive feathers. As a rule breeds developed around the Mediterranean Sea, such as Leghorns and Anconas, are relatively small in body size, are nervous and active, and lay many white shelled eggs. Some more northern European breeds, like Hamburgs, also lay white eggs. In contrast, most breeds developed in England, the United States, and Australia are large bodied and lay brown shelled eggs. Marans, a French breed, lays exceptionally dark shelled brown eggs.  Araucanas from South America are oddballs that lay eggs with shells ranging from greenish to blueish.  No matter how diverse chickens are, they are all of the same species.

When breeds are crossbred, egg shell color is usually (but not always) a blend of what the parent breed lays. Genetics get complicated but modern poultry breeds generally understand the key to traits and have created hybrid broilers that grow astonishingly fast and also hyper laying strains.

Eggs of all birds are amazing far beyond their color. Shape varies with species and within a species. Generally, wild birds that make sparse nests on rocky cliffs lay pointy, oblong eggs that roll in a circle, keeping them in the nest. Birds that nest in tree cavities, where it’s impossible for eggs to roll out, tend to lay more round eggs.  Chickens fall somewhere in between.  In the wild they nest on the ground, so eggs are mildly asymmetric, although some are nearly round.  Usually during laying, the blunt end emerges from the hen’s body first, followed by the tapered skinny end.

Individual hens usually lay similar eggs that may vary in shape from another hen of the same breed. For example, a Barred Rock hen in a small flock may lay eggs that are unusually round while another Barred Rock may lay much more oblong ones.  Each will continue laying eggs of that shape throughout her life.  One hen may also lay darker brown eggs than a sister of the same breed, and this characteristic will persist through her life. Generally, brown eggs get somewhat lighter in shell color as a hen ages.

According to Pat Leonard, who wrote an extensive article on egg color for the Summer 2017 issue of Living Bird magazine, egg pigments are complex molecules synthesized in the shell glad.  A pigment called protoporphyrin produces reddish-brown colors while biliverdin produces blue and green shades. Varied amounts of each explains the intensity of shell color and when pigments are absent the shell is white.

The article lists several other interesting egg facts. For example, eggshells can have from a few hundred to tens of thousands of pores and eggs that hatch into chicks able to walk and feed shortly after hatching, like chickens, have larger yolks than species that hatch naked and helpless, like baby robins.

People who tend small flocks enjoy the delightful diversity of eggs of many shapes, sizes, and hues. A carton full is a delight to the eye.

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.

DIY Your Coop with Scrap Lumber

Backyard flock owners tinker with their coop attempting to increase chicken comfort while making flock management easier. There’s always need for lumber for a new pop hole door, roost, or angled boards to keep birds from perching and pooping on otherwise horizontal surfaces. Only modest carpentry skill are needed to craft them and make waterer stands, feeders, and many other useful items. Even making a new modest sized coop isn’t difficult and can be mostly built with free scrap wood.

It’s possible to buy almost everything a well-equipped coop needs. Feeders, waterers, nests, and even gourmet specialty food are stocked in stores that sell chicks each spring. But, shopping for chicken needs can get expensive. A solution is finding and using free lumber and to craft coops and chicken furniture at home.

FINDING FREE LUMBER

Plenty of useful lumber, plywood, and insulation are free for the asking and hauling.   Often building sites, industrial and shipping areas, and stores that sell large items are great sources for free wood.

CONSTRUCTION SITES

One of the first items to appear when a house is about to be built is a dumpster. Carpenters regularly toss lumber, insulation, and plywood into it to be hauled off to the landfill. Since everything in the dumpster is new wood it’s clean and often nail free. Sometimes even full sized 2x4s are tossed in the trash.  Visit the site when carpenters are working and ask if it’s ok to remove items. They’ll usually happily grant permission.  After all anything that gets hauled off reduces the cost of disposal to the builder.

STORES

Motorcycles, garden tractors, and machinery of all sorts are often shipped in wooden crates. Once at the store employees remove the items and toss the wood in the dumpster. Again, asking usually secures permission to take wood. Crate wood is normally new but may have some nails in it.

PALLETS

Every day two billion pallets are shipped virtually everywhere in the world.  Many are reused, but far too many companies simply toss them in piles and eventually pay to have them hauled to a landfill.  Most pallets are perfectly safe to use for dozens of projects, while others could be hazardous.

Look for piles of pallets near businesses that ship or receive large quantities of heavy items. Companies are often happy to have people remove them to save disposal cost.

It’s important to understand pallets to choose and those that are most useful, easiest to reconstruct, and safe. Many pallets have the logo of the International Plant Protection Convention or IPPC printed on the wood. They also contain printed codes. Pallets shipped long distances are usually treated to kill insect pests or their eggs that may be hiding in the wood, waiting to hitch a ride to a new place to infest.

Pallets bearing the IPPC logo have been treated to kill pests. Most have “HT” printed on them in bold black letters. This stands for HEAT TREATED and means they were baked in an oven to kill insects. Avoid any pallet marked “MB”. This means it was treated with methyl bromide, a toxic chemical that could be hazardous to humans and chickens.  Also avoid pallets that have had chemicals spilled on them. Some pallets shipped smaller distances domestically may be unmarked.

It helps to be able to identify the species of wood used to make pallets. Usually they are fabricated from spruce or pine, which are soft, easy to work, and light in color. Other pallets are made from oak, ash, elm, or even exotic hardwoods.  These often are darker in color than softwoods and are heavier and more durable. These woods are expensive to buy at the lumberyard but free from the pallet pile.

Deconstructing a Pallet

Often wood scrounged from construction sites are short boards that are new, clean, and free of nails. No extra work is needed to put them to use. Pallets and crates, in contrast, are held together by nails and screws. They must be deconstructed before use in the coop.

These tools are very helpful for deconstructing a pallet or crate:

  • Claw hammer
  • Pry bar
  • Nail puller
  • Pliers
  • Saw – Cordless crosscut saw can be very useful
  • Leather gloves
  • Hearing protection – Ear muffs or plugs

Some companies even sell special prying tools for removing boards but they aren’t essential.

There are many ways to disassemble a crate or pallet but the most common way is to use a pry bar and hammer to separate nailed boards. Sometimes boards split when pried, but these make excellent kindling for starting fires. Pull nails with the pry bar or specially pulling tool, but be careful. Wear leather gloves. Discard nails in a container.

A quicker way to deconstruct a pallet is to use a power saw to cut the boards free of the 2x4s they are usually nailed to. It works fine but results in shorter boards.

For detailed information on pallets and projects that can be made from them check www.1001pallets.com/pallet-safety/.

Once free wood has been gathered, denailed, and stacked it’s time to begin converting it into useful chicken projects. Salvaging wood otherwise destined for the landfill saves money and feels good.

Turkey Talk

“I am going to raise my own Thanksgiving turkey someday!” Has this thought crossed your mind? With Thanksgiving just a few days away, we thought the time was right to give you a brief overview about raising turkeys and some of the key differences between commercial and heritage breeds.

Let’s review some quick turkey terminology first.

At the grocery store

Commercially raised turkeys are primarily white and bronze breeds. These turkeys typically dress (or finish) at 40+ pounds for a Tom and nearly 20 pounds for a hen. Tom turkey meat is traditionally used for deli meats, turkey bacon, or ground turkey while almost all whole birds on your thanksgiving table are female hens. They are a mix of both dark and white meat, and it is their large white breast meat that make them a popular choice for the commercial turkey business. These breeds of turkeys also are common for 4-H show projects. As a backyard flock, however, they are not ideal, unless you have a strict harvest date in mind. Bred for fast production of breast meat, these breeds are unable to mate naturally, so, in a commercial setting are bred using artificial insemination.

Heritage breeds for your backyard

Heritage breed turkeys are often a logical choice for the backyard poultry enthusiast. These birds dress at around 15 pounds, and include almost all dark meat. Breeds within the Heritage family include Black Spanish, Blue Slate, Red Bourbon, Royal Palm and Narragansetts. Heritage turkeys serve as an advantage due to their longer life-span and ability to breed naturally. If you’re looking for a smaller option of Heritage turkey, a great breed would be the Midget White turkey. These dress at around 8-13 pounds and are known for their friendly temperament.

If you’re interested in starting your own turkey flock, doing your research is vital. Turkeys require slightly more attention than your typical backyard chicken, so making sure your facility is ready to take on turkeys is key.

Some of the unique turkey-keeping aspects include:

  • Location: Choose a spot that has never had chickens grown on it – some diseases like Blackhead won’t impact chickens but will kill turkeys.
  • Feed: Young turkeys need an extremely high protein content feed. Without enough protein, turkeys have been known to eat eachother. Country Feeds Gamebird feed is a great choice. Don’t worry about limit feeding as turkeys can have access feed 24 hours a day.
  • Poults: Baby turkeys grow quickly, but, like chicks, cannot regulate body temperature well. Even though they may look like adult birds, don’t introduce young turkeys to outdoors until after 10 weeks of age
  • Space: Turkeys are much bigger than chickens, so allow an appropriate amount of space for them to grow without being crowed.

If you are raising for the purpose of harvesting the turkeys, it’s important to get your timing right. You will want to be purchasing poults in April/May for butchering at Thanksgiving time. Don’t forget to book your butchering far in advance, as facilities book up fast on these services.

Turkeys can be a fun and rewarding project with proper preparation and care.

So go forth and gobble!

 

Coop Upgrade – Automatic Pop Hole Doors

People forget but hungry raccoons never do. Keeping predators from decimating a flock is the best reason for installing an automatic pop hole door on the chicken coop.

Sunset signals bed time for chickens. As daylight dims they’ll leave their outdoor run, enter the coop through the pop hole and hop up to a roost for a good night’s sleep.   Unfortunately, just as chickens tuck themselves in for the night, raccoons, opossums, skunks, coyotes, foxes and even mink wake up hungry and begin seeking dinner.

Wise flock owners tighten up their coop so nocturnal predators can’t enter, but the weak link in predator defense is the pop hole. Forget to close it even once and odds are good sleeping chickens will become a tasty meal for a hungry wild creature.

Manually closed and clasped pop hole doors work fine for keeping predators at bay but they require someone to always be available to close it at sunset and open it the next morning. That’s not always possible for forgetful people or those with busy schedules who might not be home when chickens doze off and predators waken.

Automatic pop hole doors close without the need for someone to physically be present.  They frustrate hungry raccoons but save flocks. Automatic pop hole doors don’t do anything that human fingers closing a manual door do, but they work when no one is around or someone forgets to close the pop hole. Controlled by either a timer or light sensor automatic devices close the door at a set time and reopen it the next morning.   There are generally two types and each works well.

Timer Controlled Doors

An electric motor closes and opens the door controlled by a timer plugged into an outlet. This requires the owner to set the timer to close the door just after sunset and reopen it after sunrise. Because day length changes with the seasons, resetting the timer five or six times a year is necessary so the door closes and opens around sunset and sunrise. Not too early in the evening to avoid having a chicken left outside, and not too late in the morning so chickens are not unnecessarily cooped up.

Sensor Controlled Doors

Some doors are controlled by a light sensor so they close as light dims and open after the next morning’s sunrise. They eliminate the need to reset a timer as day length changes but often are more expensive than timer operated doors. Some users have reported that the light sensor controlled doors have closed on dark cloudy days with the chickens still outside, but generally they work fine.

Some sophisticated doors can be opened and closed remotely with a smart phone and they can be fitted with a battery so the mechanism works during a power failure. A solar photovoltaic panel can be fitted to keep the battery charged. These may be appealing options for people who love technology and aren’t concerned about cost.

Automatic pop hole doors aren’t foolproof and need occasional attention. Sticks can blow into the opening and snow and ice can form. Either can keep the door from properly closing. Power failures are threats to auto doors that don’t have battery backup. However, these problems don’t happen often and doors generally work flawlessly.

A Few Things to Consider

Automatic pop hole doors are ideal for busy families. Often, no one gets home until after school or work hours, which can be several hours past sunset. Having the device close the door gives peace of mind. Pop hole doors aren’t completely free of the need for a person to visit the coop daily. Someone should collect eggs, fill feeders and waterers and make sure the pop hole door is working properly every day. Nothing beats having a neighbor, friend, or relative available to care for the flock during vacations or long weekends away.

Automatic doors of many types can be purchased through the internet, and kits are also available that offer some cost savings. A few inventive people have designed and built their own.

Automatic pop hole doors save chickens owned by people who forget to close the door or who simply love the convenience of sitting indoors on a cold morning and watching the chickens troop outside when the door opens by itself. They make life a little easier and keep hens safe.

Breezes and Drafts – Proper Ventilation Keeps Chickens Comfortable and Healthy

The only difference between a breeze and a draft is temperature.

Both people and chickens savor a cool breeze on a sultry summer evening but that pleasant summer air transforms into a knifelike January draft that slices through the coop and chills hens.

It can frostbite tender combs, freeze water containers quickly and make life miserable for the coop’s occupants.

Proper ventilation is critically important to keep chickens comfortable, safe, and productive. Well-made coops enable managing airflow to welcome summer breezes yet bar frigid drafts.

Managing a coop’s air starts with litter and manure. Almost as soon as litter gets wet odor permeates the coop.

Soggy litter, caused by leaky roofs or tipped over water buckets, generates ammonia that no amount of ventilation can transport outdoors.   Well managed coops don’t smell.

The secret in preventing odor is to make sure no rain can enter and that any damp litter is immediately removed and added to the compost bin. It also helps to keep chicken density low. Crowded coops are more likely to be pungent than those where chickens have plenty of individual space.

Managing Coop Airflow

A well-designed coop has at least two windows on opposite sides for cross ventilation.  Ideally the chickens’ roost is located between them so the birds enjoy summer breezes while snoozing.

Windows should be easy to open and close so the volume of air that passes through them can be adjusted depending on the temperature.

During summer’s inferno, they should be wide open but cramped shut in winter.

Spring and fall bring mild temperatures and windows only need to be open an inch or two to let enough fresh air in.

Windows do more than admit air and light. They can be the entryway for raccoons, opossums, and even mink dreaming of a tasty chicken dinner. Windows should be configured to exclude predators while welcoming fresh air and light.

Good coop windows have three layers. The first is the glass that permits or excludes breezes depending on how far they are opened. The second is mosquito netting to keep biting bugs outside.

Insect screening is not strong enough to even slow a hungry raccoon, so the third layer is a mesh of wire strong enough to deter powerful predators.   A heavy-duty mesh screen can be made of 2X2 lumber with wire stapled onto it.

The frame is then screwed over the window. One half inch square hardware cloth will even keep out lithe mink.

Glass plus netting plus wire screen let in a summer breeze while frustrating hungry bugs and furry predators.

Breezes and drafts don’t just enter at windows. They discover every crack and hole in the coop and enter uninvited.

Even in the coldest weather fresh air entering through a few cracks brings the oxygen chickens need and voids moisture coming from their breath and manure.

A few narrow cracks are good but too many let frigid air in and can be an entryway for weasels.

Filling most cracks with caulking or expanding foam every fall helps keep both the cold and skinny predators outside.

Chickens have a high heat generating metabolism and feathers, nature’s best insulation, to keep the warm. In an uninsulated but draft free coop body heat raises the interior temperature a few degrees on the coldest nights.

When nature’s mid-summer furnace is going full bore roosting chickens pant to increase cooling evaporation from their throats, and they often hold their wings outward to void body heat.

Having plenty of roost space allows them to partly spread their wings. That and a cooling breeze helps hens enjoy a good night’s sleep. On the hottest and stillest nights hens may appreciate an artificial breeze from an electric fan.

Managing coop ventilation keeps chickens comfortable, clean and productive and is an important task of any flock owner.