Category Archives: Backyard Flocks – How Tos

These posts will contain information that describes the “how-tos” of backyard chicken keeping.

Spring is Coming….So is Coccidiosis!

Yesterday, spring sprung.  It was the warmest, sunniest, “springiest” St. Patricks day ever!  There were people in green t-shirts and shorts all over the place.  Shorts….in March….in Ontario, Canada.  This has been the year of the absent winter, and so I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that spring has come early.  I’m guessing that the spring has caught some backyard hen keepers a little by surprise.  There are some things that you should keep in mind, if you have hens outdoors this time of year.

All the organisms in your backyard are waking up….the water is sinking into the lawn, melting the frost, and sparking growth in plants, flowers, worms, bugs and all sorts of good things.  Unfortunately, along with all the good things, the nasty things in your yard are also waking up and rearing their ugly heads.  In terms of backyard hens, the big risk is parasites that have been lying dormant or under control all winter, that are bound to become more of a challenge for the flock as the weather gets warmer and wetter.

Coccidiosis is by far the biggest concern for backyard chickens.  Coccidiosis is a disease that encompasses a bunch of different “bugs” that live in the intestines of the bird, and are deposited in the environment every time the bird poops.  According to wikipedia, coccidia ” is a subclass of microscopic, spore-forming, single-celled obligate intracellular parasites belonging to the apicomplexan class Conoidasida.”  Hope you got that.   In english, coccidia are small parasites that MUST live inside the intestine cells of animals (in this case, chickens). The interesting thing is that they produce spores when they reproduce.  A spore makes a cockroach look like a frail butterfly.  Nuclear war, napalm and fire-breathing dragons are the only reliable ways to kill cocci spores.  This means that if you have chickens, you WILL have cocci spores in the area in which they live.  Spores start to develop and become infective after they get moist.

Cocci under a microscope. The shell around the 2 organisms is INCREDIBLY tough, and can live in your soil for months to years before it becomes infective.

Depending on how you manage your coop, now is the time that any build up of manure from over the winter will have the best chance of getting wet.  Also, any fresh droppings this time of year will sporulate almost immediately, since most chicken runs at this time of year are bound to have muddy areas.  Although treating coccidiosis is usually relatively effective, depending on the strain of cocci you have, and what other bacteria are present in your environment, birds can become very ill very quickly if coccidiosis gets going in your flock.  For this reason, it is best to manage the problem before it happens, since responding to it is sometimes too late. 

This is a milder stage of coccidiosis. She just looks "off", with ruffled feathers, a shrunken comb, and droopy wings. She will be contaminating the environment for the other hens.

If at all possible, move your chicken run regularly.  Any area that is consistently fouled with manure will eventually become severely contaminated with bacteria, viruses and parasites, so this is a good management practice regardless.  You should make it a special priority to move the run in the spring, however.  Because of the “load” that has built up over the winter, the disease challenge during spring thaw and muddy period  is especially high.  If you can get the hens to a clean area for several weeks until the yard dries up, you can prevent most of the parasite infections, and the severe illnesses that can follow coccidiosis infection, which can result in sudden death in affected hens.

This is a severely affected pullet. Notice the ruffled feathers, closed eyes...you can imagine how quiet and depressed she will act

If your birds do get coccidiosis, you will see chickens that look ruffled, rough coated, lethargic and will want to spend a lot of time sitting around.  Sometimes they will lay on their sides to keep pressure off their sore stomachs.  Their droppings will range from diarrhea to green paste, to blood tinged loose manure to black blobs that are made primarily of digested blood.

This is one way coccidiosis can show up in the manure....wet droppings with a fair bit of mucus.

If you see any of these signs, quick response is important.  Besides not wanting you birds to be sick, it’s important to treat the birds because they are full of cocci, and they are vigorously contaminating the run and coop, putting all the hens at greater risk of getting sick.  If you do get coccidiosis, it is most effective to treat the entire flock, since sub-clinical cocci is very common.  If you treat individual birds, you will just get one better, then another will come up sick.  If you treat them all, you break the life cycle of the bug, and the hens can get back to normal.

So remember, keeping the hens’ environment dry and clean will prevent many infections from occurring.  I realise this can be very difficult, depending on the weather, but the effort is worth it.  Also, treating the entire flock at the first sign of infection will help prevent more hens from coming down with the disease.

Mike the Chicken Vet

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Winter Concerns

I write the title with tongue firmly in cheek.  Our winter has been disappointing.  At our extended family’s Christmas, one of the cousins’ (I think he’s a cousin) wives (I think they’re married….they have a couple kids) had her family (I think they were related to her…..AARRGGGHHH, Christmas is SO confusing) in from New Zealand.  Nice folks, really interesting, but they had never seen snow except on mountains, and were looking forward to Canada in winter.  I am embarrassed at how poorly Canada has performed for these valued visitors.  Right now, my lawn is pretty green, and there is a tiny snow bank in the corner.  Weak.

All that aside, it is important for backyarders to “winterize” their flocks if they live in a climate that traditionally has winter.  I’ve mentioned this in previous posts about using lightbulbs and bubble wrap or some other form of insulation to keep the hens’ environment above 10 degrees Celsius.  Chickens don’t tolerate cold very well, and it is important to try to keep them in their “thermo-neutral” zone if you can.

There are other considerations for keeping the environment comfortable for your hens.  Especially when the coop is “closed down” for the winter, humidity, ammonia and dust can be serious concerns.  It is necessary to bring fresh air into the coop for the birds’ comfort and health.  Birds staying inside and just breathing will add a lot of moisture to the air, and moisture, along with manure will result in ammonia, which is damaging to the eyes and lungs.  In poorly ventilated spaces, I have seen birds develop severe burns to their windpipes and corneas from the acid that results from ammonia.

The most convenient way to ventilate your coop is to allow air to escape from the top of the structure, and allow air to enter through the bottom portion of the coop.  It is awesome when physics works for you once in a while…..warm air rises, and the air exiting the “chimney” will draw air in through the bottom.  This will pull ammonia and carbon dioxide out of the coop, and make the hens more comfortable.

Now you will start to face the dilemma that professional farmers face each winter…..how do you balance the need to bring in fresh air with the need to keep the birds warm.  If the outside temperature is -20, you can’t bring much fresh air into the coop before you cool them too much.  Plus, wherever the cold air enters the coop (or the inlet in a professional barn), physics says that there will be condensation form from the warm air meeting the cold.  This results in more moisture in the coop, which means you need to bring in more fresh air, which makes more condensation……fun, huh?

The bottom line for the health of the birds is that they can handle being a little cool much better than they can handle high ammonia in the air (read the warning labels on some old type cleaners to see how nasty ammonia is).  So, if you have to make a decision between lesser evils, put your head in the coop at the level your chicken’s heads are at, and take a deep breath in through your nose.  If tears well up in your eyes, allow more fresh air in, even if it allows the temperature to drop below ideal…..then go to the hardware store and get a higher wattage light bulb, or turn up you heater’s thermostat. 

I apologize for not being able to give you a “recipe” for providing a good environment for your hens.  Your coop is unique, as is your climate and hen’s tolerances.  Even in professional barns, which are pre-designed to very direct specifications, the environments are subtly different and need to be “felt out”.  I can’t tell you to keep the temperature at 12 degrees and replace the air every 20 minutes…..that is a reasonable place to start, but then you need to watch your hens, and listen to what they tell you….if they huddle under the heat source they are too hot….if they are crowding the walls, with feathers puffed up, they are too cold.  If they sit with their eyes squinted shut, and the air hurts your eyes, you need to allow more airflow, regardless of the temperature.

Again, if it was easy, I wouldn’t have a job.

All the best, and if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.

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

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…..one 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

Chickens in the City

The City of Toronto is wrestling with the question of how to allow chickens in their city.  I have been involved somewhat in their discussions, and I believe that there is interest in finding a way to accomplish this, the question is…..how?

I have been asked by other municipalities in the past to give advice on requirements for bylaws to control backyard flocks in urban environs.  I usually give a bit of a talk showing some of the risks to the hens, their keepers, and people eating the eggs the hens produce.  It is important to point out to the councils some of the problems that they may face if they allow backyard flocks.  Some of the councils have felt that they didn’t want to  allow chickens in their jurisdictions because it was too complicated to do properly.

I have been accused of being “against” urban hens.  Once in the hallway outside the council chambers by a group of people who were quite upset…..as I answered their questions, I scanned for the nearest exit….just in case.  These henners….all of whom were illegally keeping hens “underground”, felt I was trying to put them out of business.  The really sad thing is that I have a huge amount of respect for almost all the people I have met who have backyard hens.  They like em….they care for em….they do research and try to do everything right, and do a great job, for the most part. 

The people I am warning the council to be aware of are the people I liken to the “Christmas morning puppy” bunch.  A squirmy, cuddly puppy is a great idea on Christmas morning, but by February, the adolescent creature is dropped at the shelter for shedding, barking, chewing and being just too much bother.  I’m afraid that when chicken keeping is sanctioned by the city, people will be tempted to buy hens with the same amount of forethought.  It’s even worse for chickens though, since almost everyone has a basic idea of what dog ownership entails, while chickens are….well….weird.  Exotic is a nicer way of putting it, but not as accurate.

I have posted an Urban Farmer’s Chores List, which gives an idea what the background needs of chickens is, and some of the hurdles you can plan on facing if you decide to keep hens.  The municipality must be aware of these things, and find a way to make sure that anyone who keeps hens does it in a responsible fashion.  If not, there are significant animal welfare and human health risks, as well as a likelihood of neighbour issues.

The people who have hens now have found out most of these things themselves, either through hard experience, or advice from a friend.  I want to be clear that I am in support of backyard hens being kept responsibly.  I think that knowing about chickens and eggs, and being interested and involved in food production (at any level) is a hugely beneficial exercise for any city dweller.  If nothing else, it will make you more knowledgeable and appreciative of the things that us rural folks are involved in every day.

So….those of you who are involved in trying to get hens in your cities, keep up the fight….make sure that the rules are in place so that anyone who joins your ranks does as good a job of looking after the hens as you do.  I will be behind any group that has that as a goal.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Winter’s Coming!!

I woke up yesterday morning, and the ground was white.  A mad scramble ensued….finding winter coats and snowpants and hats and mitts and scarves before we had to trundle the kids off to kindergarten.  How is it that winter catches us by surprise….EVERY YEAR?!?!?  I mean….we live in Canada….It’s November….what did we think would happen???

I hope that the same thing doesn’t happen to backyard flock keepers.  Winterizing your coop, or re-homing your hens to someplace with a source of heat should be on everyone’s agenda (or probably should HAVE been a few days ago).  I hope everyone knows that chickens are not native to our climate….they evolved in the sub-tropical jungles of Borneo (lucky them!). 

Chickens have a fairly wide ability to cope with heat and cold, but as you’d expect from their historical home, they deal with heat better than cold.  Laying hen welfare experts (ie people a WHOLE lot smarter than me!) say that chickens should have their environment maintained above 10 C.  The upper limit of whats called the thermoneutral zone is around 30 C.  Outside this range (10-30 C), hens have to work hard metabolically to maintain their body temperature.  I have personally seen frostbitten hens.  It’s unfortunately not uncommon to see chickens with gait problems because 1 toe is shorter than the others, or stubby little combs….both of which are long-term legacies of frostbite damage. 

 

Blackened comb tips from frostbite....the black areas will fall off, leaving a blunt, gnarled comb

 

Frostbitten foot
 
 
There is no doubt that these conditions are painful and can be debilitating.  Some breeds are more cold tolerant than others…as a rule of thumb, larger breeds, and those with smaller combs (pea combs) do better in the cold. Heating a coop can be as simple as wiring a 60 watt lightbulb into the coop.  Realize, however, that this will totally mess up their lay cycle, since their day length will effectively be 24 hours.  They will go out of lay, and will be difficult to bring back into production in the spring.  A well insulated coop, several birds housed together, and a very small heat source should be plenty, but only you can know what will work for your coop.  If you are worried about frostbite, and there is an especially nasty bunch of weather on the way, there is some protective value in putting a vaseline coating on all the featherless parts (wattles, combs, legs, feet), but this should not be your primary way of protecting your birds.  Give them access to a warm area, then let them decide if it’s worth it to wander in the run, or stay bundled up inside.  A more crucial consideration is making sure that the birds are never out of water.  Birds have no teeth, and store food in their crop (basically a skin bag on the front of their necks….my grandmother has a similar looking appendage, but she can’t store seeds in hers).  If a bird has access to feed (which is generally dry), and her water supply is frozen, several nasty things can happen.  She can get feed impaction, in which a ball of damp feed can harden in the crop and get stuck, damaging the lining, or the food bolus can begin to rot, or fungus can take root because of the stasis (called crop mycosis), or just serious discomfort.  Heated dog bowls are available that won’t freeze up, watering systems that keep a small trickle of running water, or just providing water several times per day can get around Mother Nature, but, again, only you can decide what will work best for you.So, bundle up, and go forth to care for your chickens….then when winter REALLY shows up, somebody HAS to make one of these, and send me a picture…..it will be the talk of the neighbourhood!!!I
 

I GOTTA do this in my yard!

 

Practical Coop Design

I was recently asked where to find a plastic or steel coop in Ontario.  The Eglu is very popular, but is not available for delivery here, and since I had mentioned that wood is almost impossible to clean properly, the wooden coop designs available online were not ideal. 

My solution is one that has been very popular lately on professional egg farms: plastic covered plywood.  Many farmers who are building or retooling their barns use this product to create a waterproof, disinfectable surface for the inside of the barn.  A couple of places to find this stuff in Ontario (I found them on a quick search, and don’t recommend any of these companies….they can just act a starting point for interested people.) are

www.taylorsplastic.com , and  www.duraedgeinc.com

This is what the inside of a barn looks like with the plastic plywood for walls

I would use the plastic coated plywood on any surface that is exposed to the hens….ie the inside of the coop, inside of the nest boxes, etc….any surface that you would like to be able to clean and disinfect well.  The exterior of he coop can be anything that fits your style and decor….backyard coops can be as elaborate and decorative as you want them to be!!

This material is not cheap, and it is heavy, which will mean you need to make sure you build the coop sturdily, but it makes for a great finished product.  The other advantage of something like this, as opposed to a product like the Eglu is that you can design it to the number of hens you want to house, the shape of your space, etc.

Other recycled plastic products are also available for construction, but some of them are less than ideal, since they are designed to mimic real wood, and have some of the problems of real wood.  They are not porous like wood, and as such are MUCH more cleanable, but my feeling is that if you are going to make the investment, you should get the best you can, and that would be the smoothest material you can find.

Recycled plastic boards are not as good, since they are not smooth, and are therefore harder to clean....SHINY = EASY TO CLEAN!!

I hope this helps, and welcome any comments or questions.

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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qysMwtE4sdM

http://www.youtube.com/user/USDAAPHIS?feature=mhee#p/a/u/0/GU8sw6mfjas

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

http://www.healthybirds.aphis.usda.gov/

Mike the Chicken Vet

 

Chicken Talk

I know it has been a while since I added a post.  I wanted this one to be a video, and these things seem to take a while.  Hope you enjoy!!

Mike the Chicken Vet

Chickens Need Rest Too!

I just got home from my summer vacation.  I imagine my brief hiatus in blogging has left a huge void in many of your lives, and for that I apologize.  It makes it easier to come back to work and I feel more productive.  It’s amazing what a little rest can do for you.

Many people forget that chickens that are laying eggs regularly are working hard too.  They need rest periods as well, or they burn out, the same as us.  Problem is, high producing hens don’t like to take breaks, and need to be convinced.  I was going to make a comment about them being “bird-brained”, but my wife insisted we go to a place where I couldn’t even use my Blackberry, and I didn’t like the implications.

I was sent a question by a vet friend of mine on behalf of a friend with a small flock of hens.  I was sent a few pictures, and was asked why the hens were balding.  They looked like this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Upon further questioning, I was told that the hens had been laying for over a year, and had been acquired as mature birds.  They were fed feed from the feed store, and whatever they could scrounge (horse manure, scraps, tomatoes, etc).  There were other, younger hens in the mix, and their feather cover was good.

Because there were no wounds, the distribution of the feather loss, and the fact that there were no roosters in the mix, made me think that these hens needed a rest, and were in the process of partially molting.  The way to achieve this in a flock of hens is to fully molt them.

The way to do this is to feed a low-calorie diet (such as alfalfa, wheat shorts and barley hulls), decrease the calcium level, and enclose the hens and give them a lot of darkness each day (20 hours if you have the ability to put them in a light-tight enclosure).  Once the hens stop laying (or decrease to negligible amounts), replace the normal feed, give 12 hours of light, and increase the amount of day length by 1/2 hour per week until the hens come back into production.  They will look like new pullets, and will have a new lease on life.  Molting is a normal process for hens, and allows them to “reset” their metabolism and gives them a chance to regain body stores and rebuild bones.  One word of warning though, the hens will look worse, before they look better….they will lose more feathers, and look really scraggly until they start to rebuild.  Most birds, including wild geese, swans and others will stay on their nests while they molt….this gives them lots of feathers to line their nests, and since they are sitting on the nest a lot anyway, it is a great time to re-boot.

Mike the Chicken Vet