Tag Archives: coop

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

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

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

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.

Environmental Considerations

This is the last installment in my series of advice blogs on coop design and function.  From my “Scoop on Coops” post, I laid out the following topics that were important considerations when setting up your coop:

  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

Now, I want to mention some things about the environment.  Not global warming and carbon footprint so much….something a little closer to home, and much more in your control.  I’m more interested in the environment in your backyard and inside your coop.

There are 2 things about chickens that make them a little tricky to manage. 

1 – they EAT EVERYTHING….and anything they don’t eat, they scratch up and denude

2 – they CRAP EVERYWHERE…..birds have evolved all their facilities for flight…no teeth, hollow bones, don’t carry their young inside them, and don’t hold their excrement for a nanosecond longer than necessary….ie, where a bird walks, there will be poop

These 2 factors result in the major environmental problems caused by hens.  They will destroy the ground cover of any area you keep them in unless you a) have a lot of land (think acres), or are able to periodically move the coop (think every week or 2).  Chicken manure is an excellent fertilizer (professional egg farmers do a good business selling their manure to other farmers), but in too high a quantity, it will burn grass to death.

So….removing the manure is necessary so that the area the chickens live in won’t become fouled (sorry).  The problem is, unless you have a good size garden (or very small flock), there will be more manure than you can use.  Composting it is often unsuccessful, since the high nitrogen and phosphorus content will kill small composters (remember each chicken will produce around 2 lbs of manure per week).  Some plan needs to be developed to deal with the manure that is produced.  Some municipalities allow it to be disposed in municipal compost, but some don’t.  I’ve talked with some backyarders who collect the manure and flush it down the toilet….your call.

These habits need to be dealt with individually….a large lot, small flock, big garden situation is very different than the flock that uses up most of the lot in a static coop.  But think about your situation, and plan for the pollution….because, trust me, you can’t stop it.

Mike the Chicken Vet


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.

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

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