By Sharon Biggs Waller
The Old Fashioned Way: The Basics of Poultry Keeping – Top Five Things Every Chicken Owner Should Know
Those who read my blog regularly know that I am fascinated by the old fashioned way of doing things, from housekeeping to canning and preserving to making your own ginger beer. I recently asked my friend Sharon Biggs Waller, a historical novelist and regular contributor to my site, to share a little about her life and experiences doing things the old fashioned way on her small hobby farm. Today she’s sharing the basics of raising your own chickens… and I am starting to think I need a coop of my own!
More on Sharon and my other contributors here. ~ Tori
When I first started out a chicken keeper, there wasn’t much information available for the backyard fancier. I attended a few poultry shows, but the owners of these fancy feathered fowl looked at me oddly when I mentioned I wanted to raise hens for eggs. So it was pretty much trial and error and asking people who had backyard hens already. I’m always eager to help the newbie, because starting out can be perplexing. And to be honest, all these years later, I’m still learning. So here are the top five things I think every chicken keeper should know.
Choose the Right Breed
The descriptions of chicken breeds in hatchery catalogs are downright seductive. I want two of everything, thank you! But just like with dog breeds, you want to be careful when you’re choosing chicks for your setup. The urban farmer generally wants a quiet chicken that won’t fly the coop and end up in their neighbor’s yard, but yet will lay enough eggs to make keeping hens worthwhile. My husband and I made a mistake when choosing chicks one year, and accidently scooped up a couple of Cornish Rocks. We weren’t interested in meat birds, especially slaughtering said meat birds. Because “broilers” grow rapidly they will have health issues (such as leg-disorders and a fatal affliction called flip-over). We learned this the hard way and had to slaughter them eventually. So make very sure that your chosen breed is appropriate for your situation and your needs. For instance, if plentiful eggs are what you’re after and you aren’t looking for a pet, steer away from old-fashioned breeds that go broody (which means to attempt to hatch eggs) at the drop of a hat. Instead choose chickens that have been bred to lay, for example the industrial Leghorn. If you don’t have much space and you need a chicken that doesn’t mind confinement, look for a breed that’s more laidback. Chickens are classified into three categories to help you choose: egg-laying, meat-type, and dual purpose. There is another category for fanciers called ornamental.
Chickens are not Egg-laying Machines
The phrase “if you lay you stay” makes me cringe because this assumes that hens can lay an egg every day for the rest of their lives, and this simply is not true. Although some breeds, such as the Leghorn, have been bred to be superlayers, even they have to take a break from laying eggs.
The main cause of egg-production shut-down is molting, which is a natural occurrence to replace damaged feathers. Usually molting happens in the fall, but not always. A lot of energy has to be put into feather regrowth, which makes egg production difficult. It takes about seven weeks for the feathers to regrow and for the birds to begin laying again.
Hens can stop laying in the fall and winter for reproduction reasons, but this varies by breed. This drop in production is caused by lack of light. You can keep your birds laying through the colder months by placing a lamp inside the coop. Plug it into a light timer and set it for spring/summer hours such as six to seven o’clock in the morning and four to eight o’clock at night.
Hens also stop laying when they become broody. Some breeds have had this bred out of them, but others are known for broodiness, such as the Cochin, Orpington, and most bantams, in particular the Silkie. Signs of broodiness include sitting tight on the nest, puffing her feathers and squawking at other hens, and molting feathers from the chest. Hens can remain broody for weeks and weeks until their hormones shut off and return to lay. You can, however, stop broodiness by switching off the hen’s hormones. Place her in a wire-bottomed cage (no bedding) with food and water away from the coop for a few days. If she returns to being broody when you put her back, place her back in the cage for another few days.
Hens can stop laying for good when their reproductive days are over. You can tell if she’s still in lay by sight: she’ll have a bright red comb. Because her egg organs are working she will have a soft abdomen. An older hen that is no longer laying will have a shriveled looking comb and a firm abdomen. To be absolutely sure, check her pelvic bones. These will be flexible and wider apart in order to allow an egg to pass. If the bones become firm, the hen will no longer lay eggs. To check for this, hold the hen with the head facing toward your elbow. Feel for the points of the pelvic bone, which are located above the vent. If you can get three fingers between these points then the hen is in lay. One to two fingers means the older hen may have finished laying for good.
Those tiny chicks that arrived in a cardboard box will get big quite quickly so you’d better be ready with a coop that has enough space. Chickens are a lot like children in the back seat of a car on a long road trip. If one comes into the other’s space, fights occur. Chickens by nature are aggressive to one another, and if a less dominant chicken can’t get away, the dominant chicken will exert herself by getting on her back and grabbing the feathers with her beak. Symptoms of a too-small coop include pecked, bald backs, injuries, fighting, and health problems. Manure will also build up in your coop quickly.
Coops should have four square feet of floor space per chicken. This does not count outside space, even if the run is covered, nor nesting boxes. Coops need windows, roosts that are at least a good 18-inches off of the floor, and ventilation that draws air up and out. Without these criteria being met, even a small flock will have health and behavior issues.
Chickens are attracted to blood, and if your bird has been injured and is bleeding you need to stop the bleeding right away or the other birds may injure the chicken further or even kill it. Patricia Wakenell, DVM, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Avian Diagnostics/Comparative Pathobiology, Co-Head, Avian Diagnostics at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana swears by tree-pruning sealer. “It acts as a second skill while the feathers grow back and the skin heals. You can find it at any garden center or hardware store. Chicken skin is moist so you may have to spray it on in layers and fairly heavily. Because the sealer is black, and chickens aren’t attracted to black, the pecking will stop. If a chicken continues to peck you’ll see the stain on her beak and you’ll discover the aggressor in your coop.” Make sure you wear old clothes and gloves because the sealer stains.
Another option is cornstarch. It doesn’t last as long as the tree-pruning sealer, but it will stop the bleeding and buy you some time until you can purchase the sealer.
I love seeing my rooster and a few hens free-ranging out on the lawn. They look so pretty and so content out there. But pull back the picture and you’ll see the hens surrounded by an electric mesh fence. This is because my farm is well known to area coyotes. My former urban farm in England was a favorite haunt for foxes, and I learned the hard way that my farm was under surveillance day and night. Free ranging is a fabulous concept, but you still have to think strategically in order to keep your girls safe. Understand that when you open the chicken coop door you are introducing your birds into the food chain. Your chickens will be vulnerable to dog attacks and wildlife looking for a meal. Movable electric mesh fencing or snow fencing surrounded by a strand of hot wire are great ways to keep away predators. Place plywood on upturned buckets to give the hens places to hide from aerial predators.
The fence will also keep your hens away from your garden. Chickens love to scratch in mulch and will make a beeline toward your landscaping, upending your flowerbed and exposing the root of your shrubs and perennials. They will also help themselves to your vegetable garden, merrily eating all the produce they can reach.
So there it is, my top five things every chicken owner should know. I have to say that this was a hard list to narrow down because there’s so much to know, but that’s the fun of keeping chickens. You learn something new every day.
Sharon will be sharing more details on poultry keeping in future posts… stay tuned!