Feeding Chickens in Winter

The days are getting shorter, the girls are finishing up their molts, and you are getting less eggs as winter approaches. You might be wondering, “is this normal?” The answer is, yes, it’s perfectly normal.

Chickens need about 16 hours of light per day to produce eggs, with the exception of some over-eager first year hens who may lay throughout winter. But with the shortened daylight hours, and the cold weather requiring more of their energy resources be directed to keeping their body temperatures where the need to be, egg production will go down.

Chicken in the snow

Just because your ladies have slowed down on their egg production, or even stopped, however, doesn’t mean they need less nutrition. Continuing to feed a quality, nutritious, energy-providing diet, just like you would through the warmer months, will help your girls continue some egg production and provide them the energy reserves they require to stay warm and fit. It will also help them show up next spring in prime condition to start laying regularly again.

You may hear some chicken owners say they feed a cheap layer feed, or even nothing but scratch in winter, because it is cheaper and “they aren’t laying anyway”. If you pay attention, these are often the same folks that lose birds in the winter, or their birds look pretty rough come spring time. Scratch grains should never make up more than 10% of any birds diet – or what they can clean up in about 5 minutes.

Don’t forget to provide grit throughout the winter as well, as they may not be able to find it on their own due to snow and mud.

Summer Feed Storage – What You Need to Know

Summer Feed StorageWe all know summer brings heat, as well as important considerations when storing poultry and any other pet or livestock feed.  We think about summer feed storage and keeping feed the right way and serving it to your flock in the most efficient way, saving you time and money.

I have likely made all the mistakes that can be made in my poultry keeping days, so hopefully my experience can help some of you be the best livestock keepers you can be.

When I buy a bag of feed and bring it home, I pour it slowly into a metal storage container in my feed room. I use this same storage method all year long, to ensure consistency and quality in what I am feeding.

My feed room maintains a nice, cool temperature as its shaded by a large magnolia tree that protects my barn from the sun and elements. I only buy one bag at a time, maybe two if it’s on sale, because my bin perfectly fits two 50 lb. bags. Once my feed is in the bin, I use a basic 4 quart feed scoop to fill my feeders. 

I keep two 5 lb. feeders for 15 birds. I keep them full most of the time since my schedule doesn’t allow me to monitor them at all times. If you choose to fill up your feeders to free feed, I would recommend putting them up in the evenings (in a metal storage container) and putting them back out in the morning. 

This will keep pests away. I also always check the age of the feed I buy to make sure it’s not out of date and free of pests. I let my birds empty their feeders before I refill them, no room for pickiness here!

Keep in mind my birds also get treats and free range during the day so they get plenty to eat.

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

1. Environment

Feed kept in the hot sun and dry conditions will get overly dry and lose palatability. Feed stored in hot, humid conditions can mold and be prone to insects. Keep feed in a container that stays out of the elements and is in a dry, cool location.

If the feed that’s already in the feeder gets wet or starts to age, dump it out and start fresh (maybe with a little less this time). Allow the birds to completely empty the feeder before you refill it so it’s always free of build-up and mold. 

Mold can make your birds sick in large amounts, so once in a while its best to check and wash out your feeders even if they haven’t been exposed to extreme elements.

2. Pests

Any time feed is old, has gotten hot, moist or been left exposed, it can attract lots of pests. These can include various types of bugs that will get into and feed on the product.

It also includes rodents and other small animals that would enjoy a free snack. It’s my personal recommendation that feed is stored in a rodent safe container (preferably a metal bin) that has a tight fitting lid. The metal will keep small rodents like mice and rats from chewing through and getting into your feed bin.

A tight fitting lid will also keep larger pests like racoons and opossum from pulling the lid open and helping themselves to an easy meal. If you keep feed in a feeder all the time it’s always best practice to put your feed containers up in a bin at night and pull them back out in the morning.

If moving the feeder is not an option, then you may look into getting a feeder that opens when the chickens step on a pedal and closes back when they step away. Typically mice are going to be too light to open up these types of feeders.

3. Age of feed/rotation

When buying from a feed store or even when you keep multiple bags of feed on hand, it’s always best to check and make sure you are buying/using the oldest feed first. 

There should be dates (typically a manufacture date) somewhere on the feed tag or the bag that will let you know when it was made. 

Using the oldest feed first ensures that you always have the freshest feed on hand.

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

Are you feeding treats correctly?

Chicken pecking the ground
Keep treats to less than 15% of the total diet

As a poultry owner, I love the feeling I get when I feed a treat to my flock. They see me coming with grapes, blueberries, or grain and they come at a high speed run (well, as fast as that waddle/wiggle/chicken run can go). I feel like a hero, the chickens love me (at least while the goodies last), and we are all happy. It’s so much fun, I am always tempted to throw out just a little bit more… but the old adage “if a little bit is good, more is better” is something that’s not a good practice when feeding treats to your flock. In fact, you can seriously harm the production, health and well being of your birds by overfeeding treats.

First, let’s clarify. What exactly is a treat? For our purposes a treat is anything that you feed your birds that is not grit, oyster shell, or a commercial ration (layer feed, all flock, etc.). Note: As soon as your birds have access to anything other than pellets or crumbles you need to provide grit free choice. We don’t count oyster shell or grit as treats; these are additives that help with digestion (grit) and calcium supplementation (oyster shell). Anything else, however, should be considered a treat and fed appropriately. This includes scratch grains.

The commercial feed that our birds eat are formulated specifically to deliver the correct amount of protein, vitamins, minerals, amino acids and energy to our birds in perfect balance. Adding other things to their diet (like scratch, kitchen scraps, etc.) can throw off this delicate balance and result in deficiencies in the diet. Deficiencies can manifest themselves in many different ways in our flocks, including feather pecking, egg eating, decreased egg production and poor overall feed utilization and performance.

So how do you know how much to feed your birds when it comes to treats? There is a good method to follow that will keep the treat portion within the recommended 10 – 15% of your birds’ diet.

1. Pick your treat of the day and make it something your birds really enjoy! Mealworms, fruits, vegetables and insects are all good treats.

2. Give your birds only what they will clean up in 15 minutes. Do this one time a day to prevent unbalancing their diet.

3. Be a hero to your birds and enjoy your 15 minutes of fame!

4. Repeat daily.

 

How to introduce new birds to your existing flock

 

Birds of a feather truly do stick together. That’s why it can be a challenging task to bring new birds into your established flock – new flock members often get picked on and harassed by hens who don’t want to share their territory. For a seamless integration of new birds into your flock, there are a couple of tricks that work well. All you need is patience – and some ninja-like moves.

To start with you want to make sure that your coop/run setup is large enough to accommodate the new birds that you are adding. Each adult bird will need 3-4 square feet of space. If bringing in birds from another flock, make sure they have been through a quarantine period of at least 30 days and are healthy.

Keeping new birds in a cage will let them interact with the flock without being harmed.

You’ll want to introduce birds to each other gradually and let them interact without the opportunity of pecking or abuse. To do this, place your new birds inside the run or coop in an area where they can see and get to know each other but where they are still separated. A wire cage works well, but you can also put new birds into a dog crate or use chicken wire to fence off a portion of the area and make two separate spaces. If introducing new chicks to your flock, you’ll want to make sure they are fully feathered and acclimated to the coop temperature.  You want to keep new birds in their own area and let everyone get to know each other for at least two weeks. Patience is key here, so don’t rush the “getting to know you” phase.

The ninja moves come into play when it is time to introduce the new birds into the existing flock. Wait until night, when it’s dark and all birds are sleeping comfortably. Moving quickly and quietly, you want to take the new birds from their resting spot and put them on the roosts next to your other sleeping birds. When the birds wake up in the morning they are next to another hen that they are familiar with (because they’ve been in close proximity, although separate areas, for several weeks) and they are often tricked into thinking that they’ve always been together. You’ll want to carefully monitor the everyone during the next week while the pecking order is reorganized, but this approach should give you a fairly seamless merging of your flock.

The right nutrition at the right time for layers

Timing is everything when it comes to feeding your laying hens. Ensuring they have the correct nutrition at just the right time is an important part of having a happy and healthy flock.

Hatch to approximately week 6: Provide free choice access to a quality chick starter ration and make fresh clean water available at all times. Proper nutrition in this critical growth stage will impact the performance of the chicken for their entire lifespan. Use a heat lamp to keep birds warm and provide 1 sq. foot per chick.

Approximately 6 weeks to 16 weeks: Continue to provide free choice access to chick starter and water. If you choose to feed treats (scratch grains, kitchen scraps, etc.), put out what birds will consume in about 15 minutes once per day. This a good guide to follow to make sure treats don’t exceed 15% of the total diet. Add treats only after week 6. If birds have access to anything other than a crumble or pellet, provide grit free choice in a seperate feeder.

16 weeks +: Now is the time to switch to layer feed! Provide layer pellets or layer crumbles and grit free choice along with access to fresh clean water at all times. Treats can be provided at no more than 15% of the diet. At this point it is also important to make oyster shell available free choice to provide supplemental calcium for hard-shelled eggs. Adult birds require approximately 3-4 sq. feet of space per bird in the coop; you also need to plan on one nesting box for every 4-5 hens.

Care Tips for Healthy Hens

Raising layer hens is an investment in fresh, wholesome eggs. Your hens will perform best if they have room to live and roam, nutritious feed, fresh water, and a safe, comfortable coop to nest and roost.

Your coop should have a minimum of four square feet of space per hen, and one perch and one nest box for every four or five hens. Spread a 6-inch layer of shavings or sawdust on the floor to absorb droppings and give the birds a place to take a dust bath. Chickens tolerate temperature extremes but will suffer in cold winter drafts or stifling summer heat. Make sure the coop is free of drafts during the winter and well ventilated in the summer.

Protect your chickens from predators by keeping them penned within good, sturdy fencing and closing the coop door each evening after your flock goes to roost.

Because hens rarely find enough nutrients on their own for a complete, balanced diet, your choice of feed is important. Select one with the protein, vitamins and minerals they need to meet their unique nutritional requirements. Keep feed and fresh, clean water available at all times. Give your hens oyster shell or coarse-ground limestone to help maintain their calcium levels and grit to help them digest their food. An occasional treat of scratch grains will satisfy their pecking instincts and keep them busy.