Sunday, February 23, 2014

Lessons Learned from the Hen House

Moltie, the goofy runt White Leghorn with Comet & Zucc.
Fostering six 3-yr old chickens has nearly come to an end. In July the family that raised this flock of White Leghorns and Brown Comets will be returning to Virginia from a military stint in Hawaii.

We had never had chickens so initially we were a little afraid of them. Scampering around adorned with sharp pointy toes, floppy red combs, and flappy wings. Attempting to take flight when anyone approaches or while the owner is proudly showing them off. Pecking at your calf, shoe, or heaven forbid eyeglasses! Unknowingly I had a tick on my calf and my chicken made me aware of it, two strikes and it was quickly removed.

We hauled in a kids playhouse from freecycle.
Each chicken has a different personality. We had the runt, the vocal one, the one that was constantly victimized, the curious one, the scaredy-cat, and the pecker (that would be the tick grabber). Small backyard chicken owners get to know their individual chickens and become attached to them, like any pet. You want to protect them, love them, care for them, and play with them. Some people even bring them inside to live, buying chicken diapers for them.

Don't be alarmed when they Molt - drop feathers - it's natural.
We went to great lengths to provide a safe and healthy home for our feathered friends. Designing and building an elevated coop that has proven to - so far - be predator proof and a dry place for the chickens to hang out on rainy days (Chickens want to be outside regardless of the weather but do not like to be rained or snowed on). We installed two windows so the coop would naturally heat up in the winter (one that opens to cool it off in the hot summer).

Our coop nearly buried in snow - keep a path shoveled.
I've lost many nights of sleep worrying about our little flock locked up in the coop all night... will a fox get to them, will they freeze to death, or will they turn on their own and kill the runt! Chickens can be very cruel, going after the most timid. We spent one whole year devising fencing and rotation to keep one chicken away from the flock otherwise we would find her battered and bloody. Finally after a few of the meanies died off, we could put her back with her flock. We always let her go up to roost in the coop at night LAST. Hell or high water, chickens will NOT come off their roost at night so she was safe to roost but we had to open the coop at the first crack of morning light or she would have been massacred. It's amazing that after the natural deaths of 4 of our 6 chickens, she still remains!

You should see grains in the feed!
I sold eggs when I had 4 - 6 hens finding two loyal customers on craigslist. We would feed a locally ground non-GMO feed. Feed is very different depending on where you buy it. We started with the standard feed store variety and moved up to a better grade of feed. We didn't spring for the soy free organic as it was so expensive. Do not buy your girls low grade crap. Seek out a nice grain that LOOKS like grain! I was shocked to see the difference. One looked like gravel compared to my feed - never buying it again. They say girls quit or slow down laying by 30% each year but I did not find this to be true until the later years. My Comets laid a huge egg EVERY DAY for 5 years! My leghorns slowed down a little with each passing year after age 4 but I have 2 leghorns living now and all my Comets have passed on so all that egg laying really does wear them out. If you are going to raise chickens for selling eggs - good luck - I never made a profit because feed is so expensive (any feed).

We adapt to predators, our Coopers Hawk.
Chickens have a reputation of being garbage disposals, being able to consume anything. After trying many foods, I've learned that carbs can nearly kill them! They love spaghetti and one day I cooked them a big pot - they gobbled it all up and for 3 days they hardly moved and their crops were blown up and clogged. I massaged their crops 3 times a day for 3 days and gave them teeny pieces of bread soaked in olive oil to try and get some grease in there. I think they would have died if I would not have helped. LESS is BEST. I do like to give them a little treat every other day. Very small portions - often in small bits of ONE thing. They love corn cobs (one for 2 chickens), blueberries, strawberries, Zucchini, and watered down oatmeal (1/4 c for 4 chickens). Anything that expands (bread, pasta) can clog their crop so I stopped giving both - do not kill them with kindness! DO NOT GIVE AVOCADO or APPLES (seeds toxic)! My chickens refuse to eat purple lettuce!  Only green for them! They also LOVE STINKBUGS! Google before you give them anything to ensure not toxic! Each chicken will like different things - they are often picky!

In the coop - nice and clean!
I learned early on that keeping grass alive in the immediate Chicken Coop area was near impossible. I do rotate the chickens into one area while I reseed the other - swapping back and forth so it doesn't all turn into solid mud.  I'm not raising pigs here! Chickens will also mess up a food or water bowl in a minute if you don't elevate them.  They only have legs to scratch with and this is what they do all day long - peck and scratch - in the dirt and on the food tray. We've devised some inexpensive ways to elevate both. I use plastic plant trays to take care of the water bowl and bent rebar into a hook to hang the food.

Wire, fencing, and CDs to deter Hawks!
I visited a coop located in downtown Cville to get some free supplies and felt so sorry for the hens. The family was afraid to let them out to roam because one day they saw a hawk.  YES, I too freak when I see a hawk but you can provide a little scratching area without keeping them locked up in a wooden box 24 X 7. I've hung wire, plastic fencing, and shiny CD's from my coop over to the fence to hopefully frighten off hawks. I would rather my chickens live a life doing what they love most than to be no better than factory farm raised. But heed the warning - you MUST first and foremost protect your flock. We all want our flock to merrily free range to their hearts delight BUT there are many, many predators and I've heard the sad stories over and over... but I just forgot one time... You can not let your guard down for a single day. Do not forget to lock them up at dusk in their coop, possum and foxes are cunning and smart. Raccoons have been known to pick locks. We have 2 doors that open differently so if they get in one, hopefully they will give up! We have four partitioned fenced areas: 1) under coop area 2) immediate right side coop area 3) left side coop area for emergency separation 4) expansion free range area.  When in the (4) expansion area, I have to be outside or keep one eye outside to make sure they don't fly over or get nabbed by a predator (beware of possible visiting dogs - the biggest killer of chickens). If you plan to totally free range without fencing, plan on tears - it's just a matter of time before your flock gets attacked.

Keep your coop clean - we laid linoleum in the bottom of our coop and it has worked great for 3 years! I completely clean it out and wipe it down - windows and all in Spring and Fall - periodically removing waste each month. We also built an elevated wire grate that sits over droppings from roosting at night so the girls don't walk or stand in their droppings.   I get donated sawdust (as long as not treated or cedar) that I sprinkle over the grate and droppings each am. I have a water bowl in the coop and outside that gets changed EVERY am when I feed them. Do not over feed! You will only attract RATS! Keep all feed tightly contained in metal - animals will eat through the toughest plastic.

Chickens are work but provide so much joy. It's even fun getting the system down! The returning family that raised my flock has expressed interest in raising a new flock, may be they will let the two old gals live out their days here with us... we'll see.

-Rebecca

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