Monthly Archives: October 2011

A Real Backyard Experience

Yesterday was an exciting day for me.  I got to meet a backyard “henner” from Toronto.  This was a bit of an event, since it was necessary to develop a little bit of trust before the meeting could even take place, because technically, it is still not legal to have hens in the city, and whoever hosted me was at risk that I could report them and have their hens confiscated.

The Egg Farmers of Ontario had asked me to work with them to help the City of Toronto develop a responsible set of rules for allowing backyard hens in the city.  Through these contacts, I was introduced to Lorraine, an active participant in the grey world of quasi-legal farming in the city.  I visited Lorraine’s home with a representative from city council who is working to develop a policy for the city that will accommodate backyarders, and keep them, their neighbours and the hens safe and getting along.

Lorraine turned out to be the perfect representative for the backyard henners!  She was open, honest and super-accommodating to me and the city official.  We were welcomed into her home, her backyard and her coop.  We spent over an hour talking about the pros and cons of henning, and tried to help the city official understand the needs of backyard hens.

I asked Lorraine what her biggest challenges were with respect to maintaining her flock, which usually numbers between 2 and 3 hens.  Her yard is a riot of different flowers, vegetables, shrubs and trees.  Besides a path down the middle of the yard that leads to the coop, there is little grass.  As such, Lorraine has no problem disposing of her manure as organic fertilizer, and it looked to me (no gardener here!) like the yard was thriving. 

Lorraine's hens amongst the riot of plants in her backyard/garden.

She told me that getting good quality chicken feed was not much of a trial either.  Despite not having a car, and her source of feed being 15 or 20 miles away (which, in Toronto is an epic journey!!), the group of backyarders have such a co-operative group that anyone who is going to get chicken feed will come back with extra, and then distribute the extra to others who are running low.  Lorraine even talked about an idea that was being floated that one of the Toronto chicken keepers would order in a pallet of feed, keep it in a garage, and act as a “depot” to the group.

Lorraine also pointed out that the group covers for each other….”hen-sitting” for vacationing friends and sharing tips and tricks.  I asked how she managed her flock in the winter, and she told me that she wrapped her coop in bubble-wrap, and had a heat lamp ready, but the insulation was enough that she didn’t need to plug it in. 

Lorraines coop….eggloo in the back, then the half-moon run that she bubble-wrapped in winter. The hens had a larger run, then access to the backyard too.

Bubble wrap.  Really.  I think this is the thing that I enjoy most about interacting with backyard hen keepers.  I loved the show McGuyver when I was young.  He could take a swiss army knife, a stick of chewing gum and a coat hanger, and make a missile out of them.  That is what backyarders do.  Bubble wrap is phenomenal insulation….its also water-proof, doesn’t completely block the light, and is cheap and available.  I would have NEVER thought of using it for this purpose, but it is ideal….Love it.

The biggest concern Lorraine had, and she said was the same for many of her henning friends was medical care.  She was unsure what to do if one of the hens got sick….how to treat…what to do with the eggs after treating….who to call in an emergency….etc, etc.

I feel that this is something I can help with, and am working on a way to assist the Toronto chicken keepers group in some way.  I was able to help Lorraine with her hens, and hope to be able to pass along some advice to others in a similar situation.  There is a real opportunity for someone like me to fill a gap and help both the people involved and improve the welfare of the hens they keep.

In summary, I would like to thank Lorraine again for hosting me and illustrating how invested people can be in their hens; the City of Toronto staff for diligently working on a responsible bylaw to make henning “work” in Toronto; and the Egg Farmers of Ontario for helping me get together with a group of people I would never have met otherwise.  There is a lot of potential here for mutual learning and benefit.

It’s Egg Month!!

Last Friday was world-wide EGG DAY.  This month is Egg Month in Ontario.  Eggs are becoming more interesting to people of all walks of life in Canada.  Our consumption is up, our choices are amazingly varied.  Eggs are fascinating, new and cool.  

This is amazing to me, since eggs and chickens have been a part of my everyday life since I was 4.  My first “job” paid me $2 per week to pick the eggs on the bottom tier of cages in my grandparents’ barn.  Mom picked the rest of the eggs, and it was more about keeping me occupied than getting me to do something productive. 

It was also the first job I got fired from, too.  I was caught throwing eggs at the rats that lived in the manure gutters under the chicken cages.  Grandma wasn’t impressed….then Mom wasn’t impressed…..then I was unemployed… therapist says I’m making good progress though….

A silly little story, but (unfortunately) completely true.  The funny thing is, that barn is the type of place that most “investigative” video footage on the web come from.  This barn was typical of (gulp) 1975, but the science and care of laying hens has changed a LOT since then.  Materials used in cages….cage sizes….group size….water design…..feed delivery…..slope of the floor….manure management…..all these things have changed in ways that have improved the lives of the hens and the farmers.

This was state of the art in the early '70s. These cage systems no longer exist in Ontario.

This is a typical cage system represents over 90% of the barns in Canada









Other things have changed in chicken barns too.  The projects and organizations I  am currently involved with, and the different aspects of egg farming that are being improved upon are really extensive:

  • I am working with the National Farmed Animal Care Council and the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association to help develop national welfare codes of practice
  • I just helped make a biosecurity instructional video with the Poultry Industry Council, a research group that funds and organizes a lot of poultry studies
  • I’m involved with the Ontario One Health organization that is a co-operative group of public health, poultry vets, environmental planners and many other groups to prepare for any type of zoonotic disease outbreak such as influenza
  • I consult with the Egg Farmers of Ontario to develop practical, sustainable, and responsible programs for the professional egg farmers in the province
  • I work with the Ontario Association of Poultry Practitioners to improve poultry health, egg quality and food safety
  • I consult, discuss and share ideas with people from Ontario Farm Animal Council, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, and several municipalities and city councils on subjects ranging from animal welfare, food safety, disease control, emergency response, backyard flocks and food safety

To make a long story short, there are a lot of good organizations with great people working on innovations and improvements on all aspects of egg farming.  It is a great time to be involved in this sector of agriculture…..this ain’t your grandfathers chicken barn anymore….

So, go out and enjoy Egg Month.  You can be comfortable and confident in the eggs you find in the grocery store, farmers market, farm gate, or your backyard….the safety, quality, sustainability and compassion are being analysed, assessed, and improved upon constantly. 

Mike the Chicken Vet


The Life of a Chicken

It is funny….I often sit and try to think of a subject for a post for the blog.  Nothing too sciencey”, or too basic….nothing boring (hell…thats what we have schools for!).  Sometimes I forget that I grew up with chickens, and the most basic things are mysterious and interesting to a lot of you.

So, with that in mind, I am going to give you a highlight by highlight description of a typical chicken’s life…in a commercial setting, or in a backyard.

Day 1….an egg is born

Chickens naturally live in a harem of 8-12 hens per rooster.  As such, he is not able to breed each hen each day (I’m sure he starts off trying, but at some point, the riches of female companionship overwhelm him).  As such, hens are able to store semen for about 3-5 days, and will lay fertilized eggs for that long after being bred by a rooster.  Like many mammals (not to name names….) the males are loud, large and aggressive, but the female controls the mating schedule, and if a rooster gets out of line, his ladies will VERY quickly set him straight (it’s called “hen-pecked” for a reason, and is a common cause of rooster injury and mortality on breeding farms).

Day 21 – Bustin’ Loose

This picture is posed....newly hatched chicks are wet and, lets face it, ugly. This was too cute to omit though.

The chick…who has been singing for several days now, finally leaves the “small time” and emerges from her egg.  After drying off, she is cuter than she will ever be again in her life.  She will live for 3-4 days on the yolk material she internalized from the egg.  She has that long to discover water and food in her environment.

Day 1 (the old day 21, but now start counting days of “chickenhood”) to 14 weeks

The cute little chick grows into a pullet.  She grows relatively slowly, developing organs, bones and muscles in different phases.  There is a period of primary organ growth, followed by frame growth (bones), followed by muscle growth, followed by sex organ growth (as puberty approaches).  In commercial flocks, several feed phases target these times, while in backyard or extensive flocks, usually chick starter and pullet grower are all that are used.  The following scheme works well for backyarders….

An effective pullet feeding strategy for backyard flocks.

14 weeks to 19 weeks – Puberty and a New World

Now is the time that the pullet starts to become the “amazing egg producing genius”.  Her ovaries, uterus, shell gland and comb develop as hormones cascade through her body.  It is now that she will lay her first egg, but it is before the first egg that her nutrition is crucial.  Under the hormonal control, hen’s bones change, and her ability to store calcium for eggshell production for the rest of her life is established.  If you don’t give her enough calcium early enough, she will be impacted for the rest of her life.  High levels of calcium should be given a week or 2 before her first egg is laid.  (I know…its like saying, you should take a left at the intersection a mile before the bridge)  This is fairly easily judged in professional farms, since the breeds are very consistent, the birds’ development is constantly monitored, and the farmers have lots of experience (usually).  In backyard flocks, it is a good idea to provide oyster shell for the flock to pick at if they want to at about 15 or 16 weeks of age…if they want it, they will eat it…if not, they won’t.

Now is also the time that egg production is messed up.  The cycle is erratic, double yolked eggs are more common than any other time….eggs laid with no yolks aren’t rare, and I’ve seen everything from triple-yolked eggs to an actual fully formed egg INSIDE a second egg white and a second shell.  Once the hens get on track, their hormones settle down and their nutritional needs stabilize, these freaky egg events mostly disappear.

Week 19- ~80 weeks

Boring old laying hen period.  All she does is the equivalent of a human having a 7 pound baby every day.  She is one of the most efficient converters of vegetables (yuck) into animal protein (Mmmmm), with a feed conversion of 1.9 or less.  This means that for every 2 pounds of feed, you get about 8 eggs.  Also, the protein in eggs is still the standard by which all other proteins are compared.  Egg protein is evaluated as a 1.0 for quality (makeup of amino acids, and digestibility).  Beef protein scores a 0.93, while wheat gluten is 0.25.  This means that the value of protein you can get from an amount of wheat gluten is only a quarter of what you can get from an egg.

Hens are also amazing in that they can (and do) eat almost anything.  Corn, soybeans, wheat, worms, grubs, tomatoes, mice, and anything dead will be happily turned into eggs by these voracious omnivores.

After Week 80 (or 72 in Canada) – End of first Lay Cycle

After laying eggs for a year, hens are getting tired.  In the past, it was common to molt hens to get them to stop laying eggs (surprisingly hard to do…they are the original workaholics).  This is true in professional barns, and in backyards.  Hens start looking like this:

A tired backyard hen, naturally starting a partial molt

Professional farmers in many jurisdictions in the world will “molt” hens by giving them a very low nutrient diet.  This causes the hens to stop laying, at which time, they will drop most of their feathers (like the hen above, only more so), and then re-set their hormones, regrow their feathers, re-build their bones and rejuvenate their entire bodies.  After about a month, they will start laying eggs again, and look like young pullets again.  There is a lot of discussion on the welfare implications of molting, and different methods of encouraging the birds to stop laying are being experimented with.
In Canada, the egg farmers never molt flocks unless there are some extremely extenuating circumstances (like barn fires, or some other catastrophe….I know of only 2 flocks molted in the past 10 years).  After a year of lay, hens in Canada are sent to a processing plant to be made into processed chicken products or soup.
If you want to keep your backyard flock longer than a year and a half or so, it is important to give them a rest (See my previous post “Chickens need rest too”), get them to stop laying eggs for a while, and let them rejuvenate themselves.  It is a normal, natural and necessary process.  Most birds will molt while brooding their eggs…..sitting still on a nest decreases the amount of food available drastically, and all those dropped feathers go to great use in lining the nest!!!
Now, your hen is ready to start magically delivering eggs again….turning bugs and veggies into omelets and quiches.
Mike the Chicken Vet

Work on Welfare

I just got home from a whirlwind trip to Ottawa.  I was invited to be on the scientific committee for the development of the “Codes of Practice” for poultry in Canada.  I actually felt pretty honoured to be asked, and was excited.  This was my first project at the national level….my projects before this were at the provincial level.

In a truly Canadian fashion, a committee was struck to work out what the main welfare questions were in poultry production, and which ones would benefit from scientific analysis by experts (and me!).  I am sure that the public would be surprised to know how invested in this process the professional poultry producers are.  Money, man hours, and committment are all available in spades.  These groups invest a lot of time and money in a process that has the potential to force them to change the way they run their farms.  It shows the real committment they have to the welfare of the birds they raise.

At the meeting were farmers, truckers, processors, humane societies, veterinarians, and welfare researchers.  It was amazing to see all these divergent groups agree fundamentally on what needed to be looked into, and what potentially needed to be worked on for ideal care.

After the Code development meeting, I attended a day and a half conference put on by the National Farm Animal Care Council….the group that arranges for the production codes to be developed.  It was a bunch of presentations on the direction of farm animal welfare development in Canada.  It involved representatives from all species, from dairy cows, to chickens, to mink, to pigs, as well as vets, welfare scientists and some international representatives. 

It was also attended by 6 or 8 animal rights groups, and as many humane societies.  Again….only in Canada can a cowboy (complete with hat and dinner-plate belt buckle) discuss (politely) the welfare needs of feedlot cattle with a natural-fiber serape wearing, tofu-eating vegan animal rights advocate.  They didn’t end up holding hands and singing Kumbayah, but they each allowed that the other had some valid points.

In other jurisdictions (a little south of us), the same crowd would have resulted in a LOT more excitement and possibly the involvement of police and paramedics.  I think the honest committment by all parties to the improvement of the welfare of farm animals makes everyone involved willing to work together. 

I am excited to be able to continue to work in this arena, because attitudes like this make me confident that welfare advances will be achievable.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Disease Prevention Tips for Backyard Flocks

Hi everyone.  I came across these two videos made by the USDA.  I thought I’d share them, because they have some great, simple, and cheap ideas to help keep small flocks clean and healthy.

Other tips to help keep your flock disease free can be found on the APHIS website.

Mike the Chicken Vet