Clucking in the Coop

The flock has been so enjoying their fall free-ranging (after being cooped up all summer) and they’ve fallen a bit behind in their musings. They’ve asked me to extend their apologies. And I have to apologize for waiting until the Thanksgiving break to put their thoughts to digital paper. It’s been a bit hectic.

The lady’s thoughts on the state of the world:

Babs Hen House

Advertisements

Poultry as part of your IPM Strategy

IMG_0443

Chickens can play an important part in your IPM strategy.

First, what is IPM? And why do you need to strategize? And why now? Well, summer is over and winter is generally when you plan next year’s garden. Part of the planning should include IPM.

IPM, or Integrated Pest Management, is an effective method of pest management. Formal IPM programs use the most current information on pests. This information, in combination with available pest control methods, is used to manage pest damage by the most economical means, and with the least possible hazard to people, property, and the environment.

Home gardeners can benefit from IPM as much as commercial settings. Both have essentially the same goals: manage pests and increase yields. By incorporating an IPM strategy when planning your garden, you’re getting a jump on the problems before they start.

Just realize, you’ll never get rid of all the pests in your garden. And that’s okay. While pests are not our friends, they do have a place in the ecosystem. And chances are anything you do to reduce the pests will impact the beneficial insects and plants as well. That’s why it’s Integrated Pest Management, rather than Integrated Pest Eradication.

There are several strategies you can use in your IPM plan, however, I’m focusing on backyard poultry.

In my opinion, one of the benefits of a backyard flock is the positive impact they have on pest management, especially when you go the “no chemical” route. (Frankly, that’s pretty much a necessity when you have backyard poultry. Otherwise, they’ll ingest the chemicals which is bad for the birds and for you as it ends up in the meat and the eggs.)

And a quick note on the chemicals… one, it’s important to remember to exactly follow the directions on the label. If you don’t, you won’t get the desired result and may end up with a worse problem than what you started with.

Another thing to remember is organic chemical controls can be dangerous, too. Organic does not mean “safe,” even when approved for use in organic settings. As with non-organic chemicals, follow the labels exactly to avoid harming yourself, your family, your critters, or any native wildlife.

My last reason for not recommending chemicals are pollinators. If you are IMG_0373trying to attract pollinators (and I hope you are, for your garden’s sake!), you may you inadvertently harm the pollinators. We need them to help our gardens grow and more of them, not less, is definitely better.

Now back to the fun stuff!

If you let your birds free range, chances are you’ve already seen the advantages of their use in controlling pests. While they eat all bugs, not just the ones you don’t like, you should notice a drop in the pesty bugs. You’ll see a similar effect if you have a chicken tractor and move it around your yard/garden.

To manage pests with penned birds, you can manually pick off the pests, put them in a glass half full of water, and then toss the bug-filled water into the pen. Your birds will quickly learn what you’re doing and that it results in tasty treats! And of course, short free range forays also help.

But what if you want something lower maintenance and not have to worry about plant life? You could try guinea fowl. In my limited experience, I find them a little more difficult to raise than chickens, however, once grown they are more independent and eat the crap out of bugs. They will eat some plants, especially in the early Spring. However, their focus is bugs and they are fun to watch as they chase one through the air.

——————————————————————————

Christmas is coming! Take care of your girls:

——————————————————————————

As with chickens, they do need a home to be safe from predators and the weather. And even during the summer their diet of bugs should be supplemented with layer pellets and garden scraps. However, they will clean your property of ticks and fleas as well as other types of pests. They also lay eggs. The eggs are smaller and the guineas may hide them, but they do lay. As I understand it, you can have more than one guinea rooster — they get along together much better than chicken roosters. Currently, I have 3 females, so I can’t personally verify this.

Keets! (Baby guinea fowl)

Guinea fowl tend to be noisier than chickens, especially in their first year of life when everything is new. Their call is loud and raucous and they are a wonderful watch-dog type of animal to have on your property, especially if you don’t have neighbors. They quiet down considerably their second year but if something unnerves them, you’ll definitely know! They also talk a lot so you’ll almost always hear something from them. A plus with guinea hens is this little trilling sound they make when laying an egg. I really need to record it. It’s absolutely lovely.

So while you’re huddled next to the fireplace sipping on a cup of hot chocolate, take a look at your property layout and your bird management and figure out what works best for you. Use your poultry to create a better garden and don’t be afraid to try a couple of things. Then enjoy pest-reduced garden!

(If you want to learn more, sign up for the UNH Cooperative Extension newsletter by clicking here.)

Babs Hen House

Flock Safety

Predators are everywhere. Even if you live in the city, your flock could succumb to dogs, IMG_0788hawks or even neighbors. The predator issue triples when you’re in suburbia or the countryside. So what do you need to do to secure your flock? You evaluate your particular situation and address each weakness you find.

Start with the coop. Make sure it is secure. If your coop sits on the ground and does not have a floor (like mine!), you have some options:

  • Dig the dirt floor down several inches, lay chicken wire, fold up and secure to the bottom frame of the coop, and cover with dirt. This will help prevent predators digging up through the bottom.
  • Dig down along the sides of the coop several inches, and insert chicken wire, then cover up. This discourages predator digging as well.
  • Line the outside of the coop with large and small rocks. Again, it discourages predator digging.

If your coop does have a hard floor, that will go a long way to keeping your flock safe at night. If a predator can’t dig through, they can’t get in for a yummy chicken dinner.

Discussing the upcoming snowstorm.

With all coops, ensure there are no holes in the walls, roof, or floors. And I’m sure you know to shut everything up at night. If penned, make sure both the gate and coop are secure.

Make sure the coop door shuts completely and latch it. You don’t want it flapping open in the middle of the night.

If you have windows, make sure they are screened. For instance, during the summer, I like to keep the windows on the second floor of my A-Frame coop open. To keep the girls secure, I put some cut out fencing over the openings. They get air, they get to feel like they are outdoors, but the fencing keep out predators.

If your birds are penned, evaluate how the pen is secured. Many people like to put deer netting over the top of their pens. This serves two purposes: keeping the chickens in while keeping the predators out. I did not go this route as I have a tree in the pen to help discourage predators from the sky. I also don’t worry about the girls getting out as my fence height is a minimum of eight feet. Last, I do want the guineas to have the option of flying in and out at will. While they tend to be needy and want me to open the gates for them, they can come and go as they please. Deer netting would stop that.

  • I strongly recommend putting a light in or near your pen. Predators don’t like lights and will avoid them. It can be light or motion activated, whatever you prefer for your situation.
  • I also strongly recommend putting a small radio near the pen and play it all night. Predators will think there are humans nearby and will most likely avoid the area.

After the Fishercat Incident of 2013, I found the lights, radio, and rocks really did the trick. I didn’t even have electric lights to begin with, just solar powered garden lights. Now that I have a pen, electric lights and radio, I don’t even close the coop down completely. Rocks around the bottom of the coop are my friend and the girls get to boogie all night if they want. While it’s no guarantee, I can’t recommend a radio strongly enough.


 

The holidays are coming. Eggs make the best present and your eggs deserve the very best!


 

During the winter, since the flock was “cooped up” in the hoop house, with several feet of snow on the outside, I didn’t do anything except try to keep them warm. When the snow started to melt, I saw there were several holes where the wood for the raised bed had rotted. I was worried sick about predators. So I stuffed the holes full of rocks, got my garden lights out and turned on the radio. I’m happy to report I had no predator problem although I didn’t sleep well until the pen was completed.

Bear in mind, though, I’m in a suburban neighborhood, with a fenced yard. While we do have wildlife (I’ve even seen a coyote), the more rural the area, the more predators there are hanging around.

Completing your security evaluation is dependent on your set up. Do your birds free range during the day and are penned at night? If so, the pen suggestions may help with night security. During the day, I’m not sure there’s a lot you can do. From my observations, the birds are pretty good at staying under some type of cover to avoid air predation. If possible, a fenced yard or field may help guard against other predators, both during the day and at night.

Waiting to be moved to the hoop house. No one likes the snow!

Waiting to be moved to the hoop house. No one likes the snow!

Are bears or foxes an issue in your area? Maybe you need to invest in an electric fence and very bright, blinking, motion activated lights. Raccoons? Get raccoon-proof latches and if possible, double-fence (i.e.,  fenced coop and fenced pen, or a pen with a few inches between an inner and outer fence). Why a double fence? Raccoons can reach through a fence and injure your chickens. Putting space between the outer fence and where the birds are can reduce or eliminate that hazard.

Much like the “Free Range vs Pen” question, security is dependent on your unique situation. But with a little bit of thought and preparation, you can keep your girls safe from predators looking for a chicken dinner.

Babs Hen House

To Free Range or Pen?

To Free Range or Pen? That is the question.IMG_0761

The answer? It depends.

Let me digress a bit… My absolute favorite time of the day during my favorite time of the year is just after work in the Fall. I let my girls out of their pen to free range. Their excitement at wandering and getting to fresh greens and bugs is wonderful to see. Their cooing and bupping at finding something good to eat is calming. Their movement as a flock around the yard is soothing. For me, this is the most calming, most beautiful time of the day, even if it’s raining a bit. I could sit there for hours, watching them wander.

And the best part? They’re so imprinted on the coop, they go back in when it’s dark and all I have to do is close up.

So, if I, and the flock, enjoy this so much, why don’t I free range all the time? Well, last year I did. And while I enjoyed watching them roam the yard (and eat the bugs!) they ate my grapes. They tore up the little garden I had digging for bugs. They dug holes in the yard for their dust baths. They got into the neighbor’s yards and I was worried about dogs or my neighbor’s gardens being wrecked. And they had increased exposure to predators.

So this year, Mr. HenHouse and I (mostly Mr. HenHouse) built a fair-sized pen with 8 foot+ high fencing. The guineas are able to flyIMG_0788 out, and rarely Big Red is able to make it out, but for the most part everyone stays penned — but not caged. (If I didn’t want anyone getting out at any time, I would put deer netting across the top of the pen.)

Now, I don’t enjoy keeping the flock penned, but I did get a great crop of grapes and tomatoes this year. And by manually feeding Japanese beetles to the flock and having the guineas roam, we still had relatively decent pest control.

And that’s why free range versus pen is a “it depends” question. It really depends on your set-up, your goals, your unique situation. Some things to consider:

  • Do you have a garden? If so, can you easily chicken-proof it?
  • Do you have neighbors?
  • Can you keep predators out of your yard?
  • Is your flock imprinted on their coop?
  • Are you using your girls as part of your integrated pest management system?
  • Do you worry about your girls?

And those questions are just the beginning. You have to evaluate your situation, your yard, your garden to see what works for you.

Snoop is sad summer is over.

Snoop is sad summer is over.

After this year, I have my plan: Pen most of the time and roam at dusk in early Spring and Fall. They’re not out long enough to get into the neighbor’s yards, but are still able to get fresh greens and bugs. I supplement their diet when penned with garden scraps, weeds, and Japanese beetles.

Now I have seen some ingenious set-ups where people have made tunnels for the chickens (or fenced the garden) so the birds can roam the garden eating bugs. Or they let the birds out for 30 minutes and herd them back into pen. And of course, chicken tractors, which I almost did. However, it all seems like way too much work! For me, my plan has the least amount of effort while keeping the flock safe. I still get some benefit for my pest control as well as the wonderful chicken poop.

What works for you?

Visit Chicks 101  as I’ve put a quick update on flock integration.

Blue Hen House

NPIP & Blinged Out

So, I had my flock NPIP inspected. What is NPIP? The National Poultry Improvement Plan. The NPIP program requires testing for

Penny, Marcia, or Kelly all blinged out with nowhere to go.

Penny, Marcia, or Kelly all blinged out with nowhere to go.

Pullorum-typhoid, but New Hampshire goes one step further and tests for Avian Influenza. I really like it because I find out if my birds are healthy or, mighty Thor forbid, asymptomatic carriers. The inspector does a great job and inspects the coops and living areas as well. And if I get to a point where I’m breeding my own chicks, she’ll inspect the incubator(s) and brooder(s).

The best part is Cooperative Extension had enough money from a Federal grant that it didn’t cost me anything. But even if I had to pay, the cost was minimal and so worth it. Bottom line, even if I could find a poultry veterinarian, I probably couldn’t afford them. So yay Tax Dollars at work!!!!

End result, the girls passed and I can sell birds and eggs across state lines. Since I’m walking distance from Maine, that’s a nice flexibility to have. While the younglings were too young to be tested, they fell under the certificate since they were living right next door to the main flock.

And the blinged out part? The big girls got nice little bands for their legs. All blinged out and nowhere to go. And you can barely see the band on the left leg of Penny/Marcia/Kelly in the photo. And no, I still can’t tell the guineas apart!

If you get a chance, stop by www.EggCartons.com and for your poultry needs.

Blue Hen House

Chicks 101

Welcome to Chicks 101!IMG_0837

So, you’ve made an impulse purchase of some cutey-patootie chicks or, you’re planning on buying some cutey-patootie chicks and you don’t know what to do. You’re not alone – that’s how most of us got started with our backyard chickens. Hopefully this overview will help you figure out that chicks are easy, mistakes will happen, but in the end you’ll have some lovely, friendly, and egg-producing chickens in your backyard.

You bought chicks! Now what do you do?

Relax! Their needs are simple: Home, Heat, Food, Water. First, their home.
It can be almost anything… a plastic or metal tub, an old aquarium, basically anything that encloses them, contains their food, water, bedding, and can handle a heat lamp. Keep in mind, you’ll want some kind of breathable cover sooner rather than later. As they begin jumping around, exercising their little legs and wings, they can jump out and you don’t want that. For me, the best bedding is flat newspaper when they are really little, graduating to wood shavings at around 2 to 3 weeks. The number of chicks and size of their home will determine the frequency of cleaning but no less than once a week.

And don’t forget they need room to grow. Generally you’ll graduate to a bigger home at least once, maybe more. Again, it’s dependent on the number of chicks. But they need room to move and to be able to sleep apart from the others, if the chick prefers. Crowded chicks can pick up bad pecking habits.

Food & Water: If you don’t have a regular chick feeder or waterer, you can use shallow bowls until you get those items. Keep the water low, and refill frequently. It gets dirty very quickly and the chicks can drown if it is too deep. When you do get a waterer, you might want to put some rocks in it to keep the chicks from falling in. Of course, it’s all dependent on the size of the waterer and the size of the chicks. Use your best judgement and when in doubt, err on the side of caution. And yes, the waterer will need to be cleaned frequently, although generally not as often as a shallow bowl or dish.

Start the chicks off on mash (available at a feed store or Blue Seal or Agway). I tend to use medicated, but only if the chicks I’ve purchased have not been vaccinated. Since you generally have to request it, you’ll know if they are or not, plus the information is sent with the chicks. If you purchase them from an auction, feed store, etc., you don’t know if they’ve been vaccinated. Don’t take someone’s word for it – you need a copy of the certificate. If you don’t know, get the medicated mash. Again, err on the side of caution.

I generally graduate the chicks from crumbles to granules around 5 weeks and to big girl food (pellets) around 10 weeks. It’s a judgement call for me and depends on where I’m at with their feed. Since I generally have enough chicks to buy a 50 lb bag of food, if  I’m worried a bag will go to waste, I’ll buy the next step up and phase it in so they get used to the new texture and food type.

ALWAYS keep them watered and fed. Keep the water as clean as you can.

Heat: This is a little more tricky. You truly need a heat lamp the first few weeks, regardless of where they are housed or what the weather is. It needs to be a few inches above their heads. Watch their body language. If they are crowding under the lamp or running around looking confused, it’s too far up. If they are scattering to the far reaches of their home, it’s too close. The general rule of thumb as they age is to move it up about an inch a week until they are fully feathered. Again, watch the body language. They may need the lamp longer if the weather is exceptionally cold. They may need it removed sooner if the weather is extremely hot.

Let me give you two examples:

  1.  I removed the lamp from this year’s chicks after four to five weeks because the weather was exceptionally hot and their cage, housed in the addition we’re building, was not drafty. I watched them closely and they were fine. No loss of life and no crawling on each other to keep warm.IMG_0686
  2. When we purchased the guinea keets last year, it was so incredibly hot and there were no drafts (they were housed inside), we used a low-heat lamp initially and two of the keets died. When I saw a third one exhibiting the symptoms of the two who had died, I immediately put on a hotter lamp as it was the only thing I could think of. Fortunately, it worked. They fell asleep almost immediately and behaved more normally after that. Good thing to keep in mind: If your keets are running around 24-7 and sleeping for 30 seconds at a pop, chances are they are cold. Get those little babies warm!

It’s been 10 weeks and they have feathers and are too big for their home! What now?

Start getting them used to the big outdoors. I bring them out during the day (penned and in the shade of course!) and put them back in their crate/box at night for about a week. They generally like sleeping close together so I don’t worry about the crowding at night. The outdoors is scary for a creature who’s never really seen it and I like to reduce the trauma. After the first week, they move outside. The first night, I usually lock them into their coop so they know what it is and that’s where to go at night. After the first evening, you should be okay – they’ll go in on their own. Now, if the flock is free-range (and my was for a while), I keep them penned during their adjustment period. Usually another week.  Now my flocked is penned, but cage free. Keeps the garden safe.

As with everything else, use your judgement and watch their behavior. When they start going outdoors, it can be weather dependent, especially if their area is not weather proof. You don’t want them getting sick or dying from exposure. As always, ensure they have plenty of food and water, shade, and room to roam.

I have a flock already and need to integrate the new birds.

That’s always an interesting challenge. I’ve had the most success letting the birds get to know each other in separate cages for as long a period as possible. The current set of chicks (well, now true pullets) will be slowly integrated at about 16 weeks. By this time, I’ve culled the ones that are going in the freezer or are being sold. The chicks have been penned, either daytime only or fully for about 10 weeks. The hot weather of the summer really helped as I didn’t have to worry about their getting too cold as they adjusted to the outside. Since their current area is penned off the original flock’s pen, I’m going to peel back the separating fence a bit and let the flocks interact for about a week. As long as there are no major issues, I’ll keep it open and then remove the separating fence, pullet crate, food, and water. Then, if they’re not using the main flock’s feeder and water, they will be forced to. If they don’t go into the coop on their own after they lose their place, I’ll put them in manually and lock it up for the night. I’ll update this post after the integration so you’ll know if my plan worked or not.IMG_0866

At the end of the day, sometimes things will happen. Chicks may die and you just don’t know why. An attrition rate of roughly 20% is supposed to be normal, although I’ve never been fond of it. I will say this batch of chicks from McMurray all lived, as did the smaller batch my husband bought from Tractor Supply last year. And I had a keet slip through the fence when I was getting them used to the big outdoors last year in addition to the two who died before I put them under the hot lamp. I never could catch that little sucker and he/she ended up contributing to the great circle of life. Sometimes the best laid plans fail and sometimes they just take a long time to implement. But don’t give up! The chickens are great for their eggs and soothing clucks. So take a deep breath and relax.  It will work out.

I’ll update Chicks 101 from time to time — and it will have it’s own page for quick reference. My goal is for you to learn from my mistakes and make your backyard chicken experience more enjoyable and less stressful. Feel free to ask questions and I’ll answer to the best of my knowledge.

UPDATE:

Well, I did a forced integration a couple of weeks sooner than anticipated. I went out a couple of nights ago to put Guapo away and turn on the lights and radio (for security). First, I surprised the guineas off the porch. Odd, as they have not wanted to roost on the porch for almost a year. They went into the pen fine, when I opened it up to get Guapo. After I put him into his evening quarters, I saw the guineas were on top of the fence. Okay. Weird, but not unusual weird. When I turned on my little security measures, I saw the younglings were freaking out. They would not go into their box and were trying to get into the “big girl” pen. So, I let them. Of course, now they were totally discombobulated and tried perching for the night. It was going to be cold and I did not feel comfortable leaving them there and physically moved them into the top of the coop.

I did that for two nights.

Tonight they decided to sleep in their pen. I’ll let them, but as it gets colder, I’ll have to get them fixated on the coop. Challenges challenges!

They’re getting along with the big girls for the most part. However, the Reds and Dirty Girl like to be bossy and terrorize them a bit. Not attacking, at least not what I’ve seen, but just walk around and look at them. Chicken culture. Interesting.

And the Disclaimer: I don’t claim to be an expert. I’m relating my experiences and what worked/didn’t work for me. While I would love to make you a guarantee, I simply can’t. Live is too full of variables and uniqueness. It’s what makes life fun. So keep at it, treat your birds well, and enjoy!