Monthly Archives: December 2011

Merry Excess-mass

I hope you all enjoyed the holidays as much as I did.  I think the tendency to overdo it is universally human.  At least that’s what I tell myself as I try to wade through the new crop of plastic junk that my kids accumulated over the past week. 

Come to think of it, the tendency to overdo it is not limited strictly to us.  Chickens will compete for anything and EVERYTHING.  The winners win big, and the losers seem to always lose.   Chickens don’t play fair, and playground rules don’t apply.  They don’t share, play nice, respect their elders or help old ladies cross the street.  So, it is up to you, as the flock supervisor (chickens will never admit to being owned….kinda like cats), to convince them to be proper citizens.

The consequences of failing in your responsibility can be pretty significant.  The losers can end up injured or malnourished, and the bullies will can get diseases from overeating.   Strategies include the gradual introduction of newcomers into the flock, providing enough distance between feeding stations to allow all your hens to eat simultaneously (and keep the bullies from guarding a lot of the available food), and keeping a close eye on the “timid” birds to ensure they are not being pushed around too much.

The major concern is around food distribution.  If there is competition for food, the bully birds will take more than their share….partly as a greed thing, but mainly as an expression of dominance.  “Pecking order” is called that for a reason.  Nobody has ever been low on the “grazing order”.  Once a hen is dominant, she will make it apparent to anyone who cares to watch that she a) gets to eat first, b) gets to eat the best stuff, and c) decides if and when somebody else can eat.  If you have one of these fascist leaders in your flock, there is not much you can do about “a” and “b”, but it is important to make sure that “c” is impossible.  Having several feeding stations, at least 6 or 8 feet apart will help control her tendency to “guard” food.  She will spend a day or two running back and forth, trying to chase subservient hens away, then usually give up, and hoard the one feeder she can control….this gives the rest of the hens a chance to eat at the other one(s).

This strategy for the kids is not too different…..if we bury them in toys, they will always have some new toy to play with…..less fights, less “parenting” needed, less stress, and a happier holiday for all…..

In all honesty, I do kinda wish that raising my kids wasn’t so similar to looking after chickens……somehow I had higher aspirations for them….

Mike the Chicken Vet

The Future of Egg Farming?

I spent this afternoon working with a group of researchers at the university laying hen barn, teaching some students about how normal chickens act and look.  The point was how to examine the hens to look for health issues that might impact their welfare and to compare the impacts of different housing systems.  This in itself is not that far removed from what I do…..what made today cool for me was that I got to see chickens in a new type of cage.  A new technology that helps provide more complete behaviour opportunities than regular cages, but still offers all the welfare benefits that cages provide.

The new type of "furnished" sofas or TVs, just the chicken-centric stuff

I am excited to be involved with projects like this, and others that are pushing the envelope with respect to laying hen farming.   The new technology…furnished cages….has huge potential to improve welfare and still keep eggs safe and affordable for consumers.  The issues are complicated and involved, but I would (and have…often) argue that furnished cages can provide the best possible welfare currently available for laying hens.  And there are some truly smart, educated people who agree with me.  In fact, these cages have been evaluated by the most accomplished animal welfare experts, and have been approved and endorsed by all of the ones I have met or talked to….and I’ve met and talked with a great many of them.  

Furnished cages in action in Europe

There is some question as to whether these fancy cages will be able to do what they are purported to do….given Ontario’s climate, feed types, labour availability, etc.  That’s what the research project today was about….the university is evaluating the feasibility of these cages.  You see…new technology is the same, no matter what field it is in.   Electric cars…..enviromentally friendly homes….today, there are almost no people who would argue that they are not progressive, valuable, and a trend of the future.  They are also as rare as hens teeth (pun intended).  Why?  Because they are expensive and unproven.  Look at big screen TV’s…..5 years ago, they were cutting edge, and only the wealthy and risk tolerant types would buy them.

Birds-eye view...perches, dustbaths and nest areas are the Mariott of hen housing!

That was for a TV….maybe a $5000 investment.  These furnished cages will cost the average farmer around $250,000 MORE than regular cages, when he is refurnishing his barn.  You can imagine that these guys wanting to know that this new scheme for looking after hens is all it’s cracked up to be (I got this pun thing NAILED!).   If the research works out, I know that the farmers in Ontario will jump towards the new technology if it means better care for their hens.   I’ve discussed the technology and the costs with several interested farmers…..if we can show that the hens get the welfare benefits that have been described for the furnished cages, they will absorb the extra investment. 

Soooo….the egg-heads at the university will try to validate the claims made by the equipment salesmen, and progress will be made that will actually improve the welfare of laying hens.  It is really cool that I have positioned myself to have a front row seat to see it happen.  I will be one of those old curmudgeons saying “I remember when……”

Mike the Chicken Vet

How eggs are made

I recently had a question posed to me by someone who is starting out with a backyard flock.  His hens laid an egg each on the first day, but it has been several days now, and nothing.  What’s up?  He describes his coop, and I get the impression that he is doing everything right, but still no eggs. 

To answer his question, I started describing how eggs develop in the hen, and then thought…..others might want to see this….so, for Andrew, and the rest of you….here is how an egg is made:

The yolks are made in the ovary of the hen.   They are stimulated to grow by a hormone cascade that is started by the hen sensing an increasing day length.  As long as the hen is old enough to be sexually mature and has the nutrition and health to allow her to build the yolks, they are all but inevitable.  For Andrew’s question, I would suggest he give the birds an increase in day length….maybe 15 minutes every week for a couple weeks.  There is another factor though…..

A drawing of an ovary with developing yolks....notice how many are developing

It takes 5-6 days for an ovum to grow into a yolk and be released.  Now…if a hen is stressed (by moving homes, illness, etc, etc), and she goes “out of lay”, she will need to re-start that process of yolk growth.  If she is ready to begin again immediately, it will take 6 days before she lays again (5 days of yolk growth, and 1 day for the rest of the egg to be produced).  If she takes a couple of days before she feels good again, it will take 6 days from then.  In professional barns, even with pretty much ideal handling and preparation, most pullets don’t start laying until the middle to the end of the week after they get into the laying barn.

This is the real thing...the pink bulge under the ovary is an egg with white around it in the shell gland, starting to get the shell added.

This “reset” is not uncommon.  It will also happen if the birds have a health setback, feed or water interruption or have decreasing day length.  This is different than the bird taking a day off.  Hens develop a group of eggs at a time.  The number of eggs in this “clutch” is variable, and the more the bird has been selected for egg production, the longer she goes before reaching the end of her clutch.  After the clutch is done, the hen takes 1 or 2 days off until the next yolk is ready to become an egg.  The clutch started off as the number of eggs a hen would lay each year….ie she would lay an egg a day until she had the nest full (5-7 eggs), then stop and sit on em until they hatched.  Now, clutches can be as long as 100 eggs without taking a day off.

So….basically….if a hen gets “bumped” out of production for any reason, it will take her a minimum of 5-7 days to start back to laying eggs.  If she is “in lay”, she may take the odd day off.  In order to stimulate a flock to lay eggs, keep the day length increasing, and don’t let it decrease.  Beyond that, the hens will do the work, once they are comfortable and settled in.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Kindergarten Hatcher Update

If you look back through my posts, you will see the story about building an incubator and hatching some eggs for my daughter’s kindergarten class.  Today, Ducky (NEVER let 4 and 5 year olds name pets….) was moved to a new home.  The kids were wildly excited when I showed up today to get Ducky and take him to his new digs.  If you’ve never visited a kindergarten class, trust me….the next time you meet a kindergarten teacher, give her a hug (it’s almost always a woman), and say “thank you”, and “I’m sorry for what you have to put up with everyday”. 

Anyway….the chaos subsided a little, and all of the kids wanted to show me Ducky.  Since it was late in the day, they were supposed to be getting ready for the busses, but….

“Ducky”, outside of his home in the class


The kids then wanted to hold Ducky for “one last time”, before he “moves to the farm, and we never get to see him again”.  It’s surprising all the little lessons this project involved.  My daughter made a card, so that Ducky would remember her forever.  We then loaded Ducky into his travel crate, and walked him down the hall towards the parking lot.   Because it was bus time, the hallways were lined with little kids waiting to go home.

Ducky and his hoarde of admirers

Other than flashbulbs going off, I felt just like George Clooney walking down the hall….people crowding around, yelling questions, trying to get close… was mayhem….I don’t recommend it.  Of course, George has Stacey Keebler to help him through it, so he will probably be OK. 

Sydney and I loaded up the car and took Ducky to a local farm where they had graciously agreed to take our little orphan.  We put the cards and decorations up to make the empty horse stall a little more homey, and left, promising to visit soon.  Syd is now in her craft corner, drawing a picture of Ducky’s new home to take to school tomorrow to show her friends how he will be living from now on. 

Syd releasing Ducky into his new home

It was an amazing experience for the kids, the teacher, and, I have to admit it…for me too.

The conversation my daughter and I had on the way home from the farm was priceless.  If you ever have a chance to do something like this for little kids, do it…its truly worth it.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Hey Doc….Why Won’t my Chickens Lay?

It’s a question I get asked a lot.  Professional farmers usually expand the question to “why aren’t they laying more”, or “why aren’t they laying bigger/smaller eggs”, or “why are they laying later/earlier in the day”.  These guys know a lot, and hardly ever ask simple questions.  Which is why I hardly ever give them simple answers (hah! take that 😉 ).

Backyarder’s sometimes have less experience with Gallus domesticus (science speak for chickens).  This gives me the chance to explain the basics of egg production, which is a pleasant change for me.  Getting back to the title question, “Why won’t my chickens lay” is usually asked this time of the year, or a little earlier.   Egg production is controlled by the season.  Scientists and farmers discovered that the important criteria is daylength.   Hens want to lay eggs in the spring, hatch em, and then have the summer to raise em before having to deal with cooler, wetter weather.  (Note: in Southern Asia, Northern India, and the Philippines, where red jungle-fowl came from, winter is not snow and sleet and sub-zero temperatures….minimum temps there are about 10 C.)

So…if you want your chickens to lay eggs during our period of decreasing daylength (June 21 – Dec 21), you have to fool them into thinking its spring.  Luckily, you don’t have to teach the chickens anything….if you’ve never tried to teach a chicken something…don’t… or both of you will get really frustrated. 

Daylength is actually sensed directly by the brain….it doesn’t even take vision.  The pineal gland in the birds brain actually reacts to light energy penetrating the thin spot in the bird’s forehead.  Researchers use a strain of genetically blind birds to experiment on light impacts on hens.  I don’t know about you, but I find that REALLY cool.  Interestingly, it also corresponds to the location of the fabled “third eye” that psychics use to “see” things us Muggles can’t.  Maybe psychics just have thin skulls?  But I digress….

Back to practical.  In Toronto, the longest daylength is 15h 26m on June 21.  This is latitude dependant, so if you live somewhere else, you will have to look up your area (Saskatoon is 16h 45m for example).  If you don’t want your hens to stop laying eggs, you need to keep daylength static.  It’s easy enough….lights and timers are cheap and easy to install.  They don’t have to be very bright either  (the lights, I mean, not the chickens).  The minimum is about .25 foot candles in intensity….the easy way to tell is to sit in the coop with a newspaper…..once you let you eyes adjust, if you can still read the paper, it is bright enough.

Effecive, and HUGE style points!

Effective, Available and cheap....a timer will make your life WAY easier.

Soooo….if your hens are going out of lay, you should look up the daylength at your latitude (Google is magic!), set a light and timer up at that daylength.  Then keep it set at that time for a week or two.  Then increase the daylength by about 15 minutes per week until they start laying again.  I should take less than a month before you see eggs again.  One small point…when you set up your timer, make sure your lights come on before dawn and go out after sunset, or you will have really weird daylengths.  Also, if your birds aren’t at least 18 weeks old, this won’t work either…..they have to be physically capable in other ways before light can have an effect.

Hope this helps.

Mike the Chicken Vet