Monthly Archives: July 2011

Don’t Eat THAT…It’s Dirty!!

This post is about one of my concerns about backyard poultry keeping.  How do you keep the chickens, eggs, the owner and her kids safe from the bacteria that often surround hens?  Professional egg farmers invest a lot of time and money in sanitary programs, egg handling procedures, audits and environmental controls in order to keep the food supply safe.  Backyarders don’t necessarily have the ability to do these things.

Now, don’t get me wrong, chickens are not walking bacteria factories…..well, I guess they are, but no more than a dog or cat.  The difference is that a) you don’t eat your dog or cat, or their products, and b) most owners pick up after their dog, and cats have litter boxes.  Chickens, like all birds, and most toddlers, are indiscriminate poopers….wherever, whenever the urge strikes.   Often in the most awkward places, like the nest, or on an egg, or on the kid’s tricycle, if they have access to it.  And the bad news is, poo is FULL of bacteria…even from healthy birds, and, while most of the bacteria actually won’t cause disease, enough of them will that it is a real risk.

When designing your coop, it is crucial to think ahead and set it up in such a way that

Plastic coops are much easier to clean

every aspect of the coop is clean-able.  This speaks to materials….wood is considered un-cleanable by professional egg farmers….you can pressure wash it with hot water and detergent, disinfect it with strong disinfectants, and it will often still give a positive on a bacterial test.  The reason is that it is porous, and the little critters get snug little hidey-holes that protect them from being cleaned out.  Painted wood is much better, smooth plastic is better yet, and the Cadillac of clean is stainless steel. 

The next important consideration for safety and hygiene (now that you built a stainless steel coop 😉 ) is nest design.  This is where your eggs are going to be placed, all moist and warm, early in the morning.  Then they sit there, and cool and dry off.  As they cool,

Drawers like this make it more convenient (and more likely) to clean and sanitize...without disturbing the hens

the contents contract a little, actually acting as a tiny bit of suction through the pores of the egg shell….if the nest is dirty, there is a reasonable chance that some bacteria could get sucked into the shell matrix, or even into the egg itself. 

Design your coop so that the nest-boxes can be cleaned out EASILY.  Easy clean out means it will happen often.  If the cleaning process is awkward, or messy, or annoying in any way, it will happen less and less often….it’s human nature.  Drawers are a great idea, which allow for easy egg collection, and simple clean up.

Other considerations for managing your backyard chickens is dealing with eggs that may be dirty; getting eggs cool as soon as you can, and keeping them that way; and developing a system of cleaning up the areas that the hens have access to….this includes the ground in the chicken run, which will accumulate bacteria and nitrogen until it gets “fowl sick” and won’t grow anything at all.  These are topics for another day, but keep em in mind….especially if you have little kids who like to play with the hens.

Mike the Chicken Vet.

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The Best Nest, and how to Fill it

Most people who have backyard flocks do so because they enjoy chickens….or want to get closer to nature….or want their kids to understand where their food comes from…..or mistakenly believe that home-grown eggs are healthier…or want a self-sufficient ecosystem in their back yards.  Despite the myriad of reasons cited to keep laying hens, the major benefit to keeping chickens, indeed, the defining one is this: they produce a small, self-contained, portable, single serving of nutritious, delicious, low-cal goodness….almost every day.  If it weren’t for eggs, there would be a LOT less backyard chickens around our cities and towns.

With respect to coop design, the nest area needs to be a small, discrete, shaded area that gives the hen privacy for the period directly leading up to oviposition (egg laying), and provide a comfortable surface upon which to lay the egg.  Several hens can share a nest,

A nest doesn't need to be elaborate

but there should be at least 1 for every 3 hens, since often the hens will all lay their egg within the first hour after sunrise.  Hens prefer a nest box with solid sides and a soft (ish) floor, such as Astroturf, straw or wood shavings. It is also important to have a design that you can easily clean, since anywhere that a chicken spends time will eventually get turned into a toilet.

Hens are attracted to a dim space to lay their eggs.  If there is not sufficient nest space for the hens to all lay eggs in a nest, look for extra eggs in the dimmest corners of the coop, or underneath anything that will cast a dark shadow.

Laying hens typically reach sexual maturity at 15-20 weeks of age.  Until then, they are referred to as pullets.  Professional egg farmers keep pullets and laying hens in separate barns.  Pullets need much warmer temperatures, and very different diets than laying hens do.  In fact, laying hen ration is harmful to pullets, and vice-versa. 

In order to get laying hens to start laying, chickens need a few things.  They need good nutrition, including enough calcium to form the eggs.  They also need to be convinced that spring has arrived (or at least not left).  This means that chickens need to have increasing

There is often a "preferred" nest, and hens will compete for it...even if there are other empty nests available

day length in order to start laying eggs.  If the number of hours of light start to decrease (June 22 here in the Northern Hemisphere….), hens will stop laying eggs.  In order to keep birds producing all year-long, it is necessary to maintain a consistent day length….if the hours of daylight don’t decrease, there is nothing that pushes the hens to stop laying.  Light intensity has a bit of input into this, but not nearly as much as day length.  More intense light helps promote egg production, and more diffuse or dimmer lights cause the birds to go out of lay….but again, this has a much weaker effect than daylength. 

So…if your flock is not laying well (or at all), ask yourself if the hens are getting enough feed, and is it good quality (I have some basic outlines in a couple earlier posts).  Then consider the time of year, and relative amount of daylight the girls are getting.  If you need to, putting a light on a timer in a coop is usually not difficult, and will maintain day length, if the hens are in the coop in the evenings and mornings.  If all these factors seem to be in order, consider the breed of hen you have….some are more ornamental than functional, and will not lay very well, even in the best of conditions.

Mike the Chicken Vet

How to Protect your Chickens

If you have made the committment to keep backyard chickens, you have to provide certain things to your hens.  Your chickens are relying on you to keep them safe.  Safe from heat, cold, predators and disease. 

I’ve already discussed, in general terms, how to feed chickens, and providing a well-balanced, complete ration will protect your hens from most nutritional diseases. 

Other diseases are a different story though.  Bacteria and viruses are always around.  E. coli, Salmonella, Coccidia and Campylobacter infections are real concerns for

Salmonella bacteria magnified 10000 times

anyone caring for live chickens.  Regardless of the size of your flock, you will have exposure.  To protect hens from disease, professional farmers adhere to strict biosecurity guidelines.  What is biosecurity you ask?  It comes from the latin “Bio” which means “keep things” and “securitas“, which means “out of your flock”……at least I think it was latin…..or maybe romanian….whatever. 

Seriously….biosecurity is a huge concern for professional farmers, and it revolves on two tenets….1: keep any bugs that live on a premises ON that premises (this is often referred to as biocontainment), and 2: keep any bugs that are not on a premises OFF that premises.  The problem is that you can’t see bacteria or viruses, so you have to assume you ALWAYS could be carrying them.

Overkill for everyday biosecurity, but I've worn this in times of high risk - truly uncomfortable

  That means that every time you enter the place where your flock lives, you are crossing an imaginary line from “Clean” to “Dirty”, or vice-versa.  This is the point at which you have a chance to control disease transfer. 

To get an idea of a biosecurity protocol for backyard flocks, the following link will give you the basics.  http://campus.extension.org/index.php It is a program designed by a Masters of Science student at the University of Maryland.  You need to sign up, and then click on “Agricultural Disaster Preparedness”, then choose the backyard flock module.  It is based on Avian Influenza, but the ideas will help control any disease you might have in mind.

Protecting your hens also means building a coop that protects the hens from environmental extremes.  This includes temperature extremes and extremely sharp teeth and talons.  Temperature is high on my list of risks today, since the temperature in Ontario is at record highs.  Protecting your birds from the heat is not something we Canadians are as prepared for as our colleagues in places like Georgia and New Mexico.  Your 3 biggest allies are shade, wind and water.  Shade is self-explanatory, wind can be provided by fans of various sizes, and water needs to be cool and abundant.  Don’t have water puddles though…..have tons of cool water for the birds to drink, but don’t provide a bath.

The sad thing is....she's sitting on top of the coop.

Hard as it is to believe on a day like today, protecting your hens from cold is an issue for many backyarders as well.  Knowing you live in a cold climate should impact your choice of breed, and should be considered in your coop design.  Chickens are little furnaces, and a well-insulated coop that has an appropriate volume for the number of hens it houses can be quite well heated by body heat.  Another simple solution is a heat lamp.  A single heat lamp can heat a surprising amount of a coop, and gives the benefit of a temperature gradient, which

Remember threats from above also.....

will allow the hens to self-regulate their temperature….if they are too cool, they can move closer to the hotter part of the lamp.  If they are too hot, they can move away from the “hot spot” until they are comfortable.

Finally, you need to keep your feathery charges from becoming prey.  Modern chickens

have had a lot of the wily, wild bird instincts they started with.  They are now nature’s

Not only did he not control the rat population.....

version of a twinkie.  Not especially hard to hunt down, and DELICIOUS!!  The only way chickens survive an interaction with a predator is if that interaction is through a fence.

Raccoons, foxes, rats, weasels, owls, falcons, hawks, dogs, cats, ferrets and skunks are all risks to your flocks….it is astounding the “wildlife” that exists, even well within the city

I'll admit it, this is probably a worst case scenario....this was NOT in Charlotte's Web....eeewwwww

limits.  A coop needs to have tightly woven wire enclosure (think smaller than a rat’s head), or solid sides, it should be dug at least 6 inches below ground level (imagine your inattentive neighbour’s terrier, out on a tour), have a roof (swooping birds of prey), and complicated gate mechanism (raccoons are more dexterous than most 5 year olds).  It sounds simple, to outwit some animals, but (and maybe it’s just me) when there are a bunch of predator types, it takes some complicated planning to keep your hens safe.  Surfing the net on backyard flock discussions makes it obvious that a LOT of “henners” get their chickens stolen, and that predation is a huge issue.  Plan for it…think about it from a rats point of view…and a hawks…maybe not from a spider’s though….its kinda creepy.

Mike the Chicken Vet

How to Feed Chickens

I’ve talked about chicken feed before in the “What do hens eat” post.  Hopefully that post also gives you an idea how important good, balanced nutrition is for hens who are laying eggs.  Professional farmers are EXTREMELY precise about the feed they give their hens, and we usually change rations 5 or 6 times during a flock.  I’ve debated long and hard with farmers and nutritionists the pros and cons of changing the protein level in the ration by 1/2 a percent.  In the backyard flock, where egg size control and feed consumption issues are not as big of a concern, there is less control needed. 

A good feed will include between 16-19% protein, and 4-4.5% calcium.  You should

Not a balanced diet....

provide most (or all) of the birds’ nutrition via chicken feed.  I prefer people use premixed, complete feed, since you know what is in the feed, but with research and care, you could mix your own feed from raw materials.  The “extras” that you give your hens (scraps, bugs, etc, etc) should be considered bonus, and not part of their base ration. This post is not going to discuss a detailed description of nutrient levels, but those are ballpark targets.

Providing feed for the hens is a trickier business than it may seem.  Birds have a strict and immutable social structure.  If there is not enough room for all the birds to eat at once, the same (timid) bird will always be the one who is pushed away.  Any time that there is competition, the SAME bird always loses.  It is a good idea to put feed in at least two separate locations, far enough away from each other that the bully birds cannot guard them both. 

For coop design, it is important to get the feed into your hens.  This means that you don’t want freeloaders helping themselves.  Rodents, birds and even pets can raid the coop and eat a LOT of the feed that was earmarked for the hens.  When municipalities are

Don't let this happen to you....

concerned with rodents or raccoons becoming a problem associated with backyard flocks, the major draw is actually the chicken feed, rather than the chickens themselves.  Use feeders that are not accessible to any other beasts, and make sure your “stash” of feed, either bag or bin, is rodent and vermin proof, since animals LOVE chicken feed as an easy lunch.

Ineffective rodent control

One small point that slips some people’s minds is that hens teeth are….wait for it….rare.  This means, that to digest their food properly, hens NEED some form of grit to seed their gizzard with.  The gizzard is a muscular organ that squeezes whatever is inside it, over and over.  If there are pebbles in there, the feed components are ground up.  If there are not, the feed gets held in the gizzard much longer, and there is a risk of disease forming because of slow passage.  One handy trick is to provide calcium chips for the birds to pick up….this provides extra calcium for use

Effective Rodent Control

in eggshell formation, and helps grind up the feed.  Just remember that this grit or calcium chips needs to be available on an ongoing basis, since the stones in the gizzard will gradually get worn down and passed through the birds’ intestines.  

Water is possibly the most critical nutrient you will give your birds.  It needs to be fresh, preferably cool in summer and somewhat warm in winter.  Ideally it will be running water on demand, but changing it daily is adequate.  Basically, if you wouldn’t drink it, it’s not great for your chickens.  Having the water in open containers that the birds can get into quickly results in a septic tank situation, so keep your waterers

Effective Waterers....simple, inexpensive and fairly easy to maintain.

sealed.  Also, if you can have the water 3-4 inches off the ground, the hens will drink out of them more easily, and spill less.  Also keep in mind your climate…if the temperature gets low enough to freeze the water, you need to find a way to manage it so that water is always available.

Besides dehydration and discomfort resulting from lack of water, birds won’t eat much if there is not sufficient water available.  Chicken feed is dry…..it would be like eating a big bag of popcorn without having a drink….it quickly becomes less appetizing.

Mike the Chicken Vet

The Scoop on Coops

There are very few issues that elicit opinions as strong as the housing of hens.  Professional egg farmers have struggled with this issue for decades.  Cages have huge

Modern Cage Barn - clean, healthy, but boring

benefits to chicken health and comfort in a lot of ways, but obviously restrict movement and are, in a word, boring.  Loose housing allows the hens to move around, scratch, dustbathe and fly, but they also end up dealing with more disease, fight a lot, and suffer a LOT of fractured bones.

These issues are different than those faced by people with a couple (or several couples 😉 ) of chickens in their flock.  Professional farmers invest huge amounts of money on a housing strategy that fits their management style.  These housing systems (either cage or aviary or free-run) are the product of decades of experience, research and engineering by big companies with big budgets.  They are constantly evolving and improving, and are absolutely fascinating when you consider the innovations that have been developed to fix a myriad of problems that used to exist.  If you are putting up a shelter for your flock, you won’t have access to this type of resource.

Since every backyard is different, it is more effective to think of what a good housing system will provide for your hens, rather than describing an effective coop.  There are

There are a LOT of ways to design a coop

many ways to skin a cat, and HOW you provide for your hens needs is less important that THAT you provide for them.  An ideal hen-house will do the following:

  1. Provide access to fresh food and water
  2. Protect the hens from excess cold, heat, predators and vermin
  3. Provide a place for hens to lay their eggs
  4. Maintain hygiene for both the hens and the eggs
  5. Protect the immediate environment that the hens live in

If you are thinking of beginning a backyard flock, or are considering re-tooling your current setup, keep an eye on this blog….I will address each of these issues in detail over the next few posts.  As always, if you have specific questions, please don’t hesitate to chime in.

A well designed coop can double as a baby-sitter, but you may need to add extra ameneties if you are going away overnight

Whats a Chicken Vet?

When most people tell others what they do for a living, people usually smile, nod, maybe say “Oh, really…..thats nice”.  My job is not like that.  I’ve tried for years to answer with “I’m a vet”, and people look moderately impressed, and invariably ask “What clinic do you work at”…..at which time, I have to confess to being a chicken vet.  Insert blank stare here.  It is a source of great amusement at the annual vet alumni hockey tournament.  All the dog and cat and horse and cow vets think I’m odd…and not just because I’m a goalie.  Even the pig vets poke fun at me….I may need a therapist soon.  My so-called friends and colleagues have called me “Mike the Chicken Vet” at the tourney for years before I started this blog.

So….to save time, I’m going to explain what I do here….once.  Please refer your curious friends to this post, so once…JUST ONCE….I can meet someone on the street who will respond “Oh, a chicken vet….I’ve heard about you people”.

This is not how it works...but would be nice to have "minions" to deliver to my office

So…kidding aside, what do I do?  I look after the health of laying hens….from day old peepers to old hens who have produced more food for us, pound for pound, than any other type of food-producing animal.  My job consists primarily of driving all over the province of Ontario, visiting flocks. I drive over 85,000 km per year, because it’s tough to bring a barn full of chickens to a vets office.  I know the location of the vast majority of small towns in the province.

I work regularly with all types of commercial hens…brown, white, organic, free-run, and traditionally caged.  I rarely treat disease, but spend my time on vaccinations and management advice.  I need more than a passing knowledge of nutrition, bird psychology and food safety, as well as vet medicine.

When I do get a call for a sick flock, its my job to figure out why the birds are doing what they’re doing.  Usually, the signs are subtle…the hens are eating or drinking a bit less than normal, or the average egg size has dropped a bit….then the detective work begins.

Not how it works....chicken heart rate is 275 beats per minute....YOU count that....

Have you ever noticed that some days you aren’t all that thirsty or hungry?  Imagine a doctor asking you why you didn’t eat much today.  Now imagine that he can’t talk.  Now imagine that you can’t talk.  Now imagine that there are thousands of you, and he is wondering why the average amount of food eaten is low…but he can’t talk….and neither can you….

You get the idea as to why my vet “friends” mock me….

The bad news is that a lot of the problems I deal with are behavioural in nature.  Chickens don’t play well in groups.  They are very hierarchical, and aggressive.  Often, the feed is well-balanced, good quality, and abundant, but the “bully” hens don’t allow the “timid” hens to eat enough of it.  Or apparently healthy chicks won’t eat or drink the food that is right in front of them.  Then there are the times when birds will crowd together so tightly that they start to squish each other….occasionally to the point where the birds on the bottom of the pile can suffocate….

I’m starting to get involved a bit with backyard flocks lately.  That is an ENTIRELY different

Also not how it works...I'm usually in a barn, on my knees, and the light isn't nearly this good

ball game.  There is no standard type of backyard flock, so each bird must be looked at completely anew.  Many birds are on ad-hoc rations, in cobbled together living conditions, and of many different breeds.  Don’t get me wrong, most of them are well cared for and well provided for, but it’s never the same situation twice.  It’s fascinating to see how “backyarders” get around the problems that face them….most of the solutions are ingenious. 

I’ll tell you one thing though…its never boring.  The farmers are usually great to work with, and the problems are complicated enough that it gives me lots to think about as I’m driving. 

I hope this gives you a small glimpse into what I do.  I rarely do the same thing 2 days in a row, and I get to drive all over this province, which I love to do.  Some days it’s frustrating, but it sure beats working for a living!

Mike the Chicken Vet

If you Can’t Stand the Heat, Get out of the Coop

Beating the heat this time of year is a challenge.  Pools, baths, ice-cream and freezies get my family through it.  For laying hens, it’s not that simple.  Chickens get heat stressed when the temperature gets above 25oC (80 oF), so summer can be hard on hens.  It is hard for chickens to stay cool, since they don’t sweat. Chickens get rid of extra heat in two ways.  Their wattles and combs (the red parts 😉 in the picture to the right), act as heat diffusers when the birds are moderately hot.  When it get scorching hot, chickens pant to cool themselves….just like dogs. See video: Panting is a lot of work (try it for a minute) and has other, unwanted impacts on the birds’ bodies.
Laying hen farmers are well equipped to keep barns cool, with thousands of dollars invested in massive fans, mist dispensers, and ingenious heat sinks that will act as weak air conditioners  

Each of these fans is 4 feet across.
 

 I’ve been in barns that are 2 or 3 degrees cooler than outside, and generate their own breeze that passes over the birds to cool them.   Few things put me in a “Twilight Zone” frame of mind like walking into a barn and seeing thousands of birds, all facing into the breeze, standing stock-still on their tip-toes, stretching their heads up and luxuriating in the relative coolness of the moving air.

Professional egg farmers invest in many, large fans to keep hens cool

If you have a small barn, or a backyard flock, and this isn’t possible, don’t worry, there are things that can be done.
Providing shade is crucial for backyard flocks, and even small fans can make a big difference for the comfort of the birds.  Also, because of panting, providing lots of fresh (preferably cool) water is important, since the hens are at real risk of dehydrating.  I would avoid putting out a “bath” for the hens, since it is impossible to keep this from becoming a cesspool, which will act as a huge risk for disease in both the hens and the people who look after them.  I would DEFINITELY not share the bath with them….ever…..

Do you want Backyard Chickens?

Henners….backyarders….urban farmers….call em what you want, they’re all over the place.  London, Windsor, Ottawa, Toronto, St. Catherines, Vancouver, Burnaby, Calgary, Kingston…..all these cities have had debates in city councils and in the media regarding backyard chickens.  The voices calling for this right are not especially numerous, but boy, are they loud.

People want hens for their companionship, for urban sustainability reasons, for environmental reasons, and hey, lets face it, the free eggs are nice too.  Like anything else that gets decided by city councils (or governments of any level), the discussions become, well, political.  Food security, cheap food for the poor, and city diversity are arguments I hear in council chambers.  Amusing, since the bylaws usually limit the number of birds to 4 or 6 per household, and limit them to affluent areas of the city by mandating a minimum lot size. 

I’m all for city folk keeping chickens, if they commit to doing it right.  The rewards are great….many people like the hens as pets, people get an appreciation of where their food comes from, and kids start to understand the responsibility of caring for food producing animals.  The people who are pushing for the right to keep hens are really “into” chickens, and are really motivated to look after them….heck, most of them are breaking the law currently to do it.  My concern is that once “henning” becomes legal, the chickens will become like Christmas puppies….a great idea at the time, but an unexpected pain in the butt later.

People who go into backyard farming unprepared are very likely to put their chickens and themselves at risk.  To protect both the hens and the people who look after them, I’ve developed an “Urban Farmer’s Chores List“, along with the Egg Farmers of Ontario, to help prepare prospective hen keepers for what they are getting into.  Keep in mind, this is only the tip of the iceberg of things you’ll want to know about keeping hens, but it will get you started.

I’d like to point out one other thing.  Some people argue that keeping hens is not a big deal….on a par with keeping a dog.  There are two major differences….most people innately know what a dog needs, since we are exposed to them commonly.  Not so with hens.  More importantly, you do not eat what your dog produces (toddlers are the occasional exception, but lets not dwell on that).  This is a serious health consideration.  Professional egg farmers do a LOT of things that protect the eggs you buy in the store from contamination by bacteria.  If you produce your own eggs, PLEASE make sure you do it safely.

Having said all that, I can imagine the satisfaction of eating the eggs your kids collected from your own feathered friends that morning.  Enjoy the experience.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Free range zoo

Ostrich Dustbathing - much less silly looking than a chicken doing the same

We took the kids to the African Lion Safari.  It’s a gigantic zoo here in Ontario that you drive through, and it allows you to see animals in an approximation of their natural habitat.  It was great, and the family got to see wild animals close up….a bonus was that the baboons neither soiled nor disassembled my car. 

Only I would see a see a parallel to laying hens here.  What started it was seeing an ostrich egg, and thinking of the omelet it would make….a one egg omelet would fill a pan!!  Problem is, you’d only get a panful of omelet a couple of times per year.

The parallel was the failed attempt to mimic the natural environment.  Don’t get me wrong, the animals were well looked after, healthy, and had all the amenities….I respect what the Safari does.  The problem is that you cannot have “tame” wild animals.

The same holds true for chickens.  Regardless of the housing system, flock size, location or attention given, chickens are kept in unnatural circumstances.  They have to be, unless all the eggs we need can be collected from ground nests in the jungle. 

All we can do, similar to the zoo, is to provide the things we think are most important to the animals, and compromise on the things that they will miss least.  As more research is done, scientists are constantly re-evaluating the most important needs, and developing ways to provide for them.

There’s one thing to remember, however.  People who want to will ALWAYS be able to criticise any method of keeping chickens, since there will always be something missing.  For instance, once egg farmers started keeping chickens in large enough groups to lay a significant number of eggs, the most pressing welfare detriment was disease.  This was in the 1940s.  Often, up to 50% of the flock would be sick or dying.  To deal with this, cages were developed.  Disease rates plummeted, and mortality dropped to negligible levels. 

The downside to cages are obvious, and movement and freedom are now the biggest problems facing laying hens in this housing system.  Now, the egg-laying world is working on mitigating these deficits.   Progress is being made.  The issue, from my point of view, is that people unfamiliar with the history of laying hens have forgotten why birds moved to cages in the first place.  We cannot go back to high disease rates and mortality in order to give hens more freedom. 

Smart people are working on the problem, and progress is being made.  It is important to remember that everything is a trade-off, and reverting to an older time is often not progress.

Mike the Chicken Vet

What do Hens Eat?

What Chicken Feed is Made of

If you are what you eat, eggs are just a tastier way to eat corn, soybeans, wheat and sometimes flax.  The chickens, who turn the yucky vegetables into the yummy eggs (thanks, by the way….not a big veggie fan, here), also need vitamins, minerals and water to let them do what they do.  The main minerals are calcium and phosphorus, which make the handy carrying case called the shell.  

One thing laying hen feeds do not contain is hormones.  I hear that more often than Bigfoot, Elvis and Yeti sightings combined.  As a laying hen vet, I visit about 5 barns per week, 50 weeks per year, for the past 12 years, and I have never seen it done, or heard of it happening.  “Hormone Free Eggs” is on a par with saying “Vegetarian Cucumbers”.   Oh, and laying hens are almost never fed antibiotics.  The hormone and antibiotic issues are urban myths.   Laying hens are only treated if they are sick, and with modern egg farming practices, this happens very rarely.

Professional egg farmers are very exacting in their rations, and do a great job of providing what the hens need, but backyard rations may not be as precise.  I’ve been looking around on the web, and some of the advice out there on making your own backyard chicken feed is downright scary. Many online “experts”  I came across claim that chicken nutrition is “not as complicated as human nutrition”, and hens can easily be fed on items you likely have on hand.  Really? Let’s compare:

I am a relatively big guy, and weigh about 200 lbs (don’t tell my doctor).  That is 91kg or so.  I eat about 2000 calories per day so I don’t get fat(er).

A chicken weighs about 1.8kg, and eats 300 calories per day.  Proportionally, that is like me eating over 15000 calories per day!!  And, the hen doesn’t get fat!!  Even Michael Phelps’ amazing 12000 calorie per day diet wouldn’t keep up.

Before I start to moan about the unfairness of it all, consider that this same hen lays roughly a 60 gram egg, almost every day.  That is 1/30th of her weight.  That is like me having a 3kg (7lb) baby every day.   That’s disturbing, on a lot of levels.

Now….how important is proper nutrition for a healthy laying hen?  Tossing some various grains and greens to her would be like having Michael Phelps compete on a diet of Froot Loops and Twinkies.  They can survive, but they would never thrive.  Anyone who cares for hens owes it to them to find out what a balanced diet is, and provide it.