Chicken Molting: Molt Is Coming, Are You Ready?

It’s hard to imagine that dreaded time of year is almost upon us, you guessed it, molt. Even though moly is a very natural process for poultry, it doesn’t make it any easier as a flock owner. Fortunately, there are ways to prepare for the less-favorable chicken molting season.

  1. Be proactive – Supplemental light, especially in the winter months, is a great consideration for your flock. Hens 18 months or older can benefit from this practice, and it can possibly lessen the extreme experiences of molt.
  2. Feed adjustments – Now is the time to dial up the protein and cut back on the treats. Higher levels of protein are required for birds in molt so they can replace those protein-rich feathers. A product like Nutrena NatureWise Feather Fixer can also aid in getting through the painful period of molt just a little quicker. Feeding this at least 30 days in advance of the onset of molt will provide maximum benefit to your birds.
  3. Clean is key – A clean coop will not only prepare you for the long winter months, but it will also reduce the bacteria and chance of infection for birds with bare skin due to molt.
  4. Keep the creepy crawly’s out – Parasites like mites and lice will only make the molt process more challenging. Examine your flock and their housing for any parasites and treat accordingly, to prevent the issue from affecting your birds during the regrowth period.
  5. Make sure everyone can play nice – If you have a flock member that has a rap sheet for being a bully or acting aggressively, it may be time to assess if that bird should continue to be kept in the flock. Tender, exposed skin and blood-filled pin feathers can be a prime target for angry birds (no pun intended…ok, maybe a little).

Just remember, molt is no one’s favorite time of year, but it does serve an important purpose in the life-cycle of your chickens and the health of the flock.

Check out these posts to learn more about molting and what to expect.

Caring for a Multi-Species Flock of Chickens

Flock expansion can be an exciting endeavor, especially when you are looking to add a new species or two. It can be a fun and challenging task to meet the needs of a multi-species flock of chickens.

Here are a few tips and recommendations to consider if you plan to take your flock to the next level.

There are three main areas of focus before caring for a multi-species flock:

  • Coop Cleanliness
  • Living Space
  • Management Techniques

Coop cleanliness

Providing your multi-species flock with a clean home is of the utmost importance in preventing sickness.

Keep the coop clean and dry, and keep waterers out of the coop area to prevent splashing and playing by waterfowl.

Remember, anytime you bring new poultry in, you must quarantine them before mixing with the rest of the flock.

Not only will the aid in preventing any pre-existing disease they may bring in, but also is safer for the birds until they are acclimated.

Living Space

Larger poultry need more space, so plan accordingly. Factor in a minimum of 4-square-feet per chicken and even more for larger birds. Failing to provide adequate space can lead to boredom and birds will likely begin to peck at one another.

If space is an issue, or the birds are more confined during the winter months, make sure there are plenty of food/toys/distractions to relieve boredom.

Management Techniques

A successful multi-species flock is an environment where there is little stress on the birds. Having a good ratio of male to female poultry will help keep a balance in the coop.

A good rule of thumb for chickens is approximately 7 hens to 1 rooster. For ducks or other waterfowl, a good balance would include 5-6 females to 1 drake.

Remember that waterfowl are different from chickens and other birds in that they like wet conditions. So their bedding should have more absorbency like straw, pine shavings or grass from lawn mowing.

Additionally, ducks don’t like to roost like chickens, so don’t expect to see them on the perches of your coop! They also prefer cooler weather, are more active at night and thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to take a dip in a pool or other body of water.

Another multi-species management recommendation would be to keep chickens and turkeys separate. This is to preventing Blackhead disease carried from chickens to turkeys.

Although not extremely common in a small flock setting, it can be fatal to turkeys if contracted.

These considerations and many more should be made before you dive head first into managing a multi-species flock.

If you are up for the challenge, undoubtedly much enjoyment of watching them grow and flourish is in your future!

Storing Chicken Feed: 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.

Poultry Feed Storage – Something You Mite Watch out For

People ask us often about poultry feed storage and how to properly store feed. Have you ever had the following situation happen to you? You go out to feed your chickens and notice a fine dust on the outside of the feed bag. You look closer and realize the dust is moving! Yes, you can see all those little bugs bustling about, in search of food and other little bugs to reproduce with. Yuck! Where do they come from? Is the feed safe to give to your chickens? Can they harm you?

It turns out that these little critters are grain mites (Acarus siro L). Grain mites are common and exist in all grains, but only thrive and appear when the conditions – temperature and humidity – are just right for reproduction and growth. Their ideal environment is warmer than 77 degrees F, and over 85% humidity. Hence, you would have more problems with them in the warmer months of the year. Temperature changes, condensation, and poor ventilation may produce areas with enough moisture to encourage mite infestation.

If you have infested feed you should not feed it to your animals. These mites can contaminate the feed with allergens and can also transfer nasty germs. Infestation can negatively affect palatability and when animals are fed infested products the results can be decreased intake, inflammation of the intestines, diarrhea, impaired growth and allergic reactions. The good news for you personally is that these mites do not bite humans.

To help reduce your incidence of mite outbreaks:

  • Store your feed in a cool, dry place
  • Use your oldest feed first
  • Keep no more than a two week supply of feed on hand (especially in hot weather) to ensure freshness
  • If you store your feed in a container, clean it regularly between fillings to prevent buildup of fines
  • Keep your feed area clean and neat
  • Air movement, such as from a fan, can help prevent outbreaks

If you do have an outbreak in your feed storage location, remove affected feed immediately and thoroughly clean the area. Pyrethrin can be applied to the area with a hand held fogging machine or aerosol spray can.

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. Here’s how to help keep small flocks healthy.

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.

Keeping Chickens Cool: 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? Here’s what to do when keeping chickens cool?

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.

Gnats and Chickens: 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. (Gnats and chickens go hand in hand as well.)

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.

Gnats and ChickensThe 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.