Raising Thanksgiving Dinner

No meal is as traditional as Thanksgiving’s turkey dinner. Cattle, sheep, hogs, and chickens all evolved and were domesticated in the Old World and were brought to North America, but not the turkey.  It was domesticated during prehistory in Central and South America.  Spanish explorers quickly learned to enjoy delicious turkey meat and shipped live birds back to Europe, where they quickly spread through the continent and beyond.

Turkey is a popular commercial meat in the United States. The average American eats just over 16 pounds of turkey per year, but very few people raise turkeys in their backyard.

If you do decide to raise turkeys with your chickens, realize they are very different and most experienced poultry growers recommend housing them separately.  For example turkeys are susceptible to diseases that chickens carry, but that chickens themselves are resistant to. Turkeys also require more space and a large yard or open area is recommended.

Many chicken breeds, such as Plymouth Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, and Orpingtons are true dual purpose birds that lay abundant eggs and get meaty enough to make tasty chicken stew.   This is not the case with turkeys. They are strictly meat birds with an average hen turkey laying only around 80 to 100 eggs per year, compared to 200 to 250 or more for many chicken breeds.   

There are many distinct turkey breeds ranging from the wild birds roaming woodlands to the white, broad-breasted types used for commercial production.  There are many beautiful ornamental or heritage breeds to choose from, with feather colors ranging from buff to gray to the bronze hues of wild birds.

Anyone interested in raising a few turkeys for delicious roasting should stick with heritage breeds or ornamental varieties.   Heritage breeds grow more slowly but can mate naturally and are better foragers.  Plan on feeding them for 4-6 months before they will be ready for the table. Each turkey will require four to five pounds of feed per week.

Start your turkeys on a high protein diet (like Country Feeds Gamebird Starter)  in June or July, protect them from predators and the weather, feed them well, and expect to have large and tasty turkeys for your Thanksgiving dinner. Their meat is simply delicious.

How To Switch Feeds

Feed transitions should happen gradually.

Well, you and the girls made it through another molt. The pinfeathers have emerged, and your hens are no longer walking around like they are embarrassed to be seen (and you’re no longer embarrassed when the neighbors do catch a glimpse). What now? If you have been feeding the new Nutrena Feather Fixer feed, you have the choice to continue to feed it year round for maximum feather quality. You should certainly continue feeding this product at least until all new feathers are fully grown in. At this point if you decide to go back to a layer feed there are a few things you should keep in mind as you make the change.

Form is important. Chickens eat more by sight than by smell or taste. That is why it can be difficult to switch your birds from pellets to crumbles and vice versa – they aren’t familiar with the shape and/or size of the feed.

Take your time. With any feed switch, you should do it gradually over time. A week to 10 days is recommended for a seamless transition.

How to make the switch:

1. Start with your current feed as the main part of the diet. As you start the transition, begin with 80% current ration and 20% new ration.

2. Gradually increase the amount of new ration vs. the old each day until your old feed is totally replaced.

3. If you notice the birds going off feed at any point in the process, take an extra day or two and slow the transition down.

4. You should always limit how much scratch and treats you feed. This is especially important during a feed transition. If your birds are filling up on goodies, they won’t feel the need to learn to eat a new feed. Keep scratch and treats at no more than 10 – 15% of the total diet.

5. Keep in mind that you still want to provide grit and oyster shell free choice while you are switching your ration.

6. Plenty of fresh, clean water is necessary all the time; during a feed transition keeping your birds well hydrated will make the process easier by helping to stimulate appetite and aid in reducing stress.


Tips to help protect your flock from disease

A serious problem looms as increasing numbers of families keep a few chickens in their yards.  Small flocks isolated from other chickens are usually healthy. Diseases have a hard time moving from one remote flock to another…unless pathogens catch a ride on a human or new bird.

Check new birds carefully for parasites.

Homeowners with just a few chickens often want to add new birds of a different breed.  A friend may need to sell or give away their chickens. Chicken swaps on weekends are becoming increasingly common, as is adopting orphaned birds. 

Introducing a new chicken into your flock is risky and may bring with it diseases or parasites that can quickly ravage a healthy flock. Commercial chicken farmers keep their flocks isolated from outside birds and people who have may been in contact with chickens.   In contrast, owners of small backyard flocks often welcome others to see their birds and bring orphaned birds into their flock.

The best way to avoid importing diseases or parasites is to buy chicks from a reputable source, keep them isolated from other chickens, and resist the temptation to bring in new birds.   However, if adding a new chicken to the flock is necessary minimize the risk by taking prudent precaution. 

Be certain the new bird comes from a healthy flock with no sick birds.   Visit the flock in advance to make sure it is sanitary and all birds appear healthy.  But be aware that chickens can look healthy yet carry diseases.

Pathogens can hitchhike on clothing or shoes.  So, after visiting someone else’s chickens but before checking your own birds put on fresh clean clothes.  Shoes can transport diseases clinging to the soles in bits of soil or manure.    To kill them brush off dirt and dip shoes in a bleach solution before visiting healthy birds.

Always make sure an outside bird is parasite free before introducing it into the flock.  Many chickens harbor mites or lice.  Gently but firmly hold the bird and part the downy feathers near the vent or under the wings. If lice are spotted scurrying away from the light don’t take that bird or any other from its flock home.

Quarantine any new bird before introducing it to the flock. Keep it as far away from the flock as possible, preferably in a separate building, for at least a month.  Carefully watch the newcomer for disease symptoms. If it remains healthy for a month it’s probably safe to introduce it to the flock.

A Halloween Treat for Hens

     ‘Tis the season of treats – and while we don’t recommend fun-sized candy bars for your birds, the truth is that every once in a while a flock of hard working hens needs a diversion and snack. One treat your chickens will enjoy is a humble and inexpensive bale of straw or hay.

     Put a bale in the chicken run and get ready for hen enthusiasm as they gleefully tear it apart. Each bale holds thousands of tiny tasty tidbits hidden amid grass stems.  Insects, seeds, and bits of dry green leaves are devoured as chickens quickly convert the rectangular bale into a horizontal mass of vegetation.  Leaving the strings intact (or just clipping one and not both) will help ensure your hens don’t act like grade school kids and overeat this “candy”.

     Chickens readily attack either hay or straw bales.The former are usually more expensive and may hold more snacks, but straw bales are sometimes easier to find in suburban and urban areas where they are sold for decorations and mulch.Straw and hay bales are often sold in garden and farm supply stores.  Prior to Halloween many grocery stores sell them as decorations, but usually with a healthy mark up.They may sell them inexpensively, or even give them away, the day after Halloween.

           Not only is a bale a good treat, but your hens need something to do, especially during long winter days when there’s no greenery to scratch in or bugs to chase and snack on. Nothing relieves hen boredom or offers more interesting winter exercise better than tearing apart a bale. 

     Winter thaws sometimes turn chicken runs into gooey mud, but having an inch or two of fresh straw on the ground insulates the soil, keeping it frozen and reducing mud.    When the ground finally thaws the straw absorbs moisture and offers a better walking surface than gooey mud.   By mid-summer the straw will have completely rotted into soil organic matter, leaving only happy chicken memories of tearing the bale apart and finding delicious treats hidden in the stems.



How to Winterize Your Coop

If you live in the north like me, the nights are getting chilly, the leaves are changing and there has even been some frost on the pumpkins in the mornings. All this means…winter is coming! Whether we want it to or not, it will soon be upon us. So instead of scrambling with frozen fingers when it’s really cold and snowy, prepare your coop now for a healthy flock through winter.

Check the health of your birds. Any health issues will be exacerbated by the cold weather. Treat any ailments, keep waterers and feeders topped off so their immune systems are at their peak.

Things to do:

Clean and disinfect feeders, waterers and perches
– Healthy birds require a clean environment. Wash away any microorganisms that have grown happy in the warm weather.
– Perches and laying boxes are often forgotten during cleaning. Birds spend a lot of time in these places and bacteria are plentiful! Don’t forget these spots.

Muck out and deep-bed your coop
– Remove the bedding you use in your coop and replace with a thick layer of pine shavings, sawdust or straw.
– Pile the bedding up against the walls or leave a few bales of straw in your coop so if you need to remove some bedding during the winter during cleaning, you don’t have to haul fresh bedding in.
– Piles of straw provide a warm place for chickens to cuddle through the coldest weather.
– Don’t forget to place straw or other bedding in the nesting boxes. Soft, dried grass makes a great (free!) nest that protects eggs from cracking.

Feed and supplement your birds correctly
– Chickens need a source of calcium all year, so don’t neglect providing oyster shells in winter.
– To stimulate the scratching instinct and keep birds entertained, provide scratch grains periodically.
– To beat boredom, consider adding a Scratch Block to the coop for a healthy distraction!

Check for drafts
– Drafts can cause respiratory problems and sickness in your flock.
– Check for drafts where your chickens roost and spend most of their time when in the coop.
– Make any repairs to your chickens’ house while the weather is still fair.

Set up any heat lamps and water heaters
–  Develop a plan so your chickens have access to fresh, unfrozen water 24 hours a day.
– Frozen water isn’t any fun. Set up your heating devices early so you’re prepared and safe.
– If you use a heat lamp, make sure you have a spare bulb on hand.

Hopefully this got you thinking and adding to your winter-prep to-do list. I know I have a big list for my husband and I to work on in the coming weeks!

Keeping a Rooster

Keeping roosters offers the opportunity to see beautiful colored feathers, as well as enjoy fertile eggs for chick-raising.

Neighbors of a family keeping a few backyard hens may not even be aware there are chickens nearby. Hens cackle occasionally but the sound doesn’t carry. Roosters, however, are a different story. They announce the dawn with repeated crows that can permeate a large neighborhood, advertising the presence of a chicken flock. Because so many people don’t appreciate an early morning racket, most towns that allow people to keep hens forbid roosters.

However, keeping a rooster is an interesting part of the poultry raising experience and those who can legally keep one enjoy the interesting dynamics he brings to the flock. Fertile eggs and gorgeous colored feathers are bonuses added by a male bird, even though he lays no eggs and eats costly feed.

Roosters grow larger than hens of the same breed and have an instinct to protect the girls. While some roosters are non-aggressive and never threaten humans, others work overtime to intimidate an approaching human.

If a rooster is to be part of the flock a few tips may help in keeping him a more pleasant experience:

  • Acquire a rooster that’s not overly aggressive.  This is easier said than done, as the personality of the bird may not be known until he’s well established.   If buying a rooster from someone who has several ask for the one that’s least aggressive.
  • Never let the rooster intimidate you or any other human. An aggressive rooster will try to make a person number two on the pecking order. He will puff up his feathers, cluck or crow loudly, and aggressively approach a person. The bird must be convinced that humans are number one and he’s number two on the pecking order. Once he recognizes that he is number two, you should get along peacefully.
  • Keep children safe. Young kids are not much taller than a big rooster, and the bird could attempt to intimidate them resulting in a traumatic experience for children.

How to Hold Chickens Properly

You may have some chickens that allow you to catch and hold them with no complaint. Other birds, however, may be a bit more cautious. Orpingtons, Brahmas, and a few other heavy breed chickens seem to enjoy being caught and held. Sometimes they’ll even sit quietly perched on an arm or hand, especially if they are held frequently while being softly talked to.

Unfortunately, they are the exception.  Most birds don’t like being held and furiously flap their wings and can kick, which risks an injury to the bird or to the handler. This unruly behavior can generally be avoided by using a simple technique:

  • Once you have caught the chicken, gently but firmly grab the bird with both hands –  one hand over each wing so she can’t flap her wings.
  • Manipulate the bird so she is facing the opposite direction from you.
  • Tuck her between your ribs and upper arm. This prevents flapping and helps keep the bird calm.
  • She’ll still try to kick, and this can be prevented by holding her legs between the fingers of the hand pinning her body between ribs and arm.
  • This leaves your other hand and arm free to gently pet her, or to part the downy feathers on her rear end to search for parasites, or to check the pelvis to determine when hens are about to begin to lay
picture of man holding a hen