Do you own chickens? Our poultry care video series with retired Extension Educator Dr. Mike Darre can answer your questions. There are 10 videos, topic include: how to hold your birds, how to inspect your birds, determining if your chicken is a good layer, watering systems, nest boxes, feeding, housing and heating, bird litter, housing, and the egg cleaning and quality check. You can watch the entire series on our YouTube channel.
There are several basic needs that need to be provided for poultry. These are feed, water, fresh air, light, darkness, proper thermal environment, protection (from the elements, predators, injury and theft) and proper space. Proper housing and equipment will take care of many of these items. Poultry and other animals function normally when they exist in harmonious balance with the other living forms and the physical and chemical factors in their environment. Therefore, it is the role of the poultry owner to properly manage the animals in their care.
Poultry require a dry, draft free environment. Depending upon the number of birds to be housed, almost any type of building that provides controlled ventilation, such as windows and doors, can be used. Birds should be reared in high, well drained areas. The windows of the coop and, outside run should face south to allow maximum exposure to the sun throughout the year. This helps with warmth in the winter and dryness during the rest of the year.
If you are building new, consider a concrete floor and starting your walls with two concrete blocks. This will prevent rodents, snakes and other predators from digging under the walls and floors for entrance into the coop. If you use plywood for floor construction, consider using two layers of 3/4″ CDX plywood, with a layer of 1/4″ or 1/8″ galvanized wire mesh between the layers, then raise the floor off the ground with posts or 6″ x 6″ runners. Using runners allows you to move the coop as needed. Being off the ground also helps prevent rot and moisture in the coop. All this helps prevent predators from chewing through the floor. Some have found that using the double layer of plywood with wire mesh and insulation between the layers helps keep the coop warmer in the winter. Windows should also be covered with wire mesh to keep wild birds and other predators out. For summer, a wire mesh screen door helps keep the coop cooler at night.
Ventilation provides comfort for the birds by removing moisture, ammonia and other gases; provides an exchange of air and helps control the temperature of the pen. You can use natural or gravity fed ventilation with windows, flues and slats. Or you can use forced air ventilation if you have a larger number of birds. In a small coop (less than 150 sq ft of floor space) you can use a bathroom fan in the ceiling and slats in the walls or windows to remove excess moisture in the winter, much as it does in your home. It is important to remove excess moisture and ammonia from the coop, especially in cold weather when ventilation is at a minimum.
For predator protection, keep your birds confined with fence and covered runs. Outside run fencing should be buried at least 12″ to 18″with an 6″ to 8″ “L” or “J” to the outside, backfilled with rocks and soil to prevent digging predators. To prevent problems with flying predators, cover your outside runs with mesh wire or netting. A 3-4 ft. grid over the pen made from bailing twine has also proven effective against flying predators. A good outside run can be made by digging 12-18” with a slight slopeaway from the coop, and laying plastic sheetingdown (if you don’t have good drainage) with a drain pipe at the end to catch runoff. Add 4-6” of sand, cover with 1⁄4” wire mesh, add 4-6” of coarse gavel, cover with 1/4” wire mesh and topwith 4-6” of pea-gravel. Put a barrier around therun of 2×6” to keep the gravel in place. Or youcan use a good ground cover of millet, broomcorn, sorghum or other tall leafy vegetation which provides hiding space for the birds.
Birds need adequate space for feeding, exercise, breeding, nesting and roosting.
Minimum Space Requirements
Roosts: Provide chickens with 6-10 inches of roost space per bird. Round roosts are the best, and a tree branch of about 1″ to 1.5″ in diameter works well. Meat birds and waterfowl do not require roosts.
Nests: It is best to provide one nest box for each 4-5 females in the flock. 12-14” cubeswith front open with perching space for the birds to stand on while entering the nest.
Floor material: Litter floors of wood shavings is the best. Wood has an excellent capacity to absorb moisture and then re- release it into the air. Whatever you use, keep it clean and dry.
FEED AND WATER
Birds need free access to fresh feed. Feeders can be made of wood, metal, or plastic, but it is important to provide about 2-3 linear inches of feeder space per bird and up to 6″ for meat type birds and turkeys. They should be adjustable in height so the lip of the feeder will be at the level of the back of the bird when standing. Keep troughs only half full to prevent feed wastage.
Fresh water should always be available to your birds, inside or outside. If using an open waterer keeping the lip of the waterer level with the back of the bird is essential. For winter watering, metal waterers can be placed on low temp heaters, keeping the
water at about 50oF. However, nipple waters are the best, since the birds cannot produce suction in their mouth. I recommend them over any open watering system. Use of a fish tank heater in buckets used for nipple waterers helps prevent freezing in the winter.
Commercial poultry feeds have been specially formulated for the type and age of your birds and are the best source of nutrition for your birds. For egg layers, a 14 or 16% CP laying mash or crumbles can be fed from the first egg until out of production. Chicks should be fed a 18-23% CP medicated starter, unless they received cocci-vac, then use a non-medicated starter feed, for six weeks. Then put on a 16-18% CP layer grower feed till 15 weeks or first egg, then on to the layer feed. Broilers should be feed a broiler starter (21-23% CP) feed for 3 weeks, and a 18-20% CP grower/ finisher till market.
Poultry require artificial lighting to maintain egg production during the short days of winter. Poultry are long-day breeders and we normally provide laying hens about 16 hrs of light per day throughout the year. Light timers set to come on at 5 am and off at 9 pm will supply the hours required. Low wattage CFL, LED or Incandescent lamps that supply about 1 foot candle of light at bird level is adequate. Use a 2700K lamp.
Never decrease the hours of light on laying hens or increase the hours of light on a growing bird.
Raising and brooding baby chicks requires special care. Chicks need to be reared in isolation for disease prevention. They should be reared in a clean, disinfected environment. Baby chicks cannot properly regulate their body temperature for a few days after hatching and require a heat source. Heat lamps, brooder stoves, hovers and infrared heaters work well. A brooder guard, a ring of cardboard or plastic at least 18″ high on the floor circling the heat source keeps the chicks from getting too far from the heat and reduces drafts. Watch the birds, if they huddle under the heat source, they are too cool, if off to one side, a draft, if spread evenly, just right. For newly hatched birds is it best to provide them with water for the first couple of hours before giving them solid feed. This helps clean out their excretory system. If you get chicks from a distant hatchery through the mail, then give them a 5% sugar water solution for the first few hours to boost their energy level.
Having back yard chickens has become quite the trend. In Connecticut, many towns have instituted ordinances where none existed or where backyard farm animals were not previously allowed. In Hamden, for example, an ordinance was passed in 2010, allowing up to six chickens (but, alas, no roosters) in any residential zone. Now over 27 towns in Connecticut have backyard chicken ordinances. In addition, many small farms in Connecticut now raise chickens and produce eggs. At a little less than one egg per chicken per day, these farms and backyard chickens will produce thousands of eggs. And someone will need to eat them.
As a result, you are likely to see signs proclaiming eggs for sale as you drive along any country road. Your backyard chicken owning neighbor may also be looking to share or sell you a dozen or two.
Because the production or the selling (or giving away) of these eggs are not subject to any local or state government inspection program, it is really up to the consumer to ask questions and to know what they are buying.
If you purchase your eggs at a grocery or big box store, you are buying eggs that undergo federal and/or state inspection. If a producer has 3,000 hens or more, they must register with the FDA and comply with a 2010 FDA Egg Safety Rule that requires the development of a Salmonella Enteriditis Prevention Plan and refrigeration of eggs at 45 degrees F or less within 36 hours of laying. Government regulations require that USDA-graded eggs be carefully washed and sanitized using only compounds meeting FDA regulations for processing foods.
But many consumers are choosing to go buy local eggs. There may be some nutritional advantages: one study by Mother Earth News in 2005 showed that eggs from chickens allowed to roam “free” or “free range” are lower in cholesterol, higher in omega-3 fatty acids and lower in saturated fats than those from large commercial producers. Likely even more important to those who choose local is that the chickens are humanely treated and allowed to roam, eggs are very fresh, and considered tastier.
Are they safer? Well this is a question that is often debated. One potential problem is Salmonella. There are several types of Salmonella that have been associated with egg-borne food outbreaks, but most common is Salmonella Enteriditis (SE). Salmonella grows in the intestinal tracts of birds. Humans can get infected when they come into contact with chicken feces or manure, birds that have manure on them, coops, bedding or any part of the environment that may be contaminated with feces, or eggs that may have feces on the surface.
These bacteria can also infect the ovaries of a chicken. When this happens, the interior of the egg is contaminated before the egg is formed. Now that we know this, most public health agencies caution against eating raw eggs or foods such as homemade mayonnaise, egg nog, or any food containing uncooked or undercooked eggs. In fact, it is estimated that approximately 1 in 20,000 eggs are contaminated this way. So, truthfully the risk is rather small…unless you are very young, over 65 or have a compromised immune system.
The point is that you are probably not less likely to contract salmonellosis from eggs produced by a small, local or backyard farmer than from those large, well operated egg producing operations. Salmonella does not differentiate by farm size and, unfortunately, a chicken may show no signs or symptoms of illness when laying eggs that are either internally infected or coated with feces containing the bacteria.
If you buy your eggs from a farmers’ market, a neighbor with back yard chickens or a small farm, then it is up to you to make sure you are buying safe eggs.
What you should ask, observe and do when buying from a small producer
Is the place clean? Look around. If you are going to a farm, make sure that all looks well. The chickens are roaming, there are no signs of rodents or overwhelming smells or swarms of flies—indications that things might not be as clean as they should be.
Are the eggs clean? Do not buy eggs that are very dirty or if they are cracked or broken. At the very least, eggs should be dry brushed or cleaned. When laid, eggs are encased in a protective coating or bloom. This gelatinous coating protects the egg from bacteria and other contaminants. Once the coating is removed, as when eggs are washed, then the egg must be treated with extra care, they must be dried, stored in a clean carton (to minimize dehydration) and refrigerated at 45 degrees or below. Some farmers choose to wash, some do not, but in any event, avoid eggs with obvious dirt, remnants of bedding or feces on them. And be sure the cartons are clean. They can be reused, but must have no evidence of dirt, feces, or raw egg residue.
Are the eggs refrigerated? It is true that in many European countries, eggs are not sold refrigerated. Some, like Great Britain, require chickens to be vaccinated against Salmonella. This is not true in this country. And it does not really make sense to store eggs at room temperature for more than a few hours (producers are allowed to store at room temp for 36 hours after laying). First, it shortens the shelf life. Quality deteriorates rapidly, the white thins, and there are fewer barriers to bacteria. If bacteria are already in the egg (or simply on the surface), they will multiply quickly at room temperature, increasing the chance of illness or cross-contamination.
Eggs sold directly to consumers in Connecticut must be in cartons that are labeled with the farm name and address, and the safe handling statement:
SAFE HANDLING INSTRUCTIONS: To prevent illness from bacteria: keep eggs refrigerated, cook eggs until yolks are firm, and cook foods containing eggs thoroughly.
Eggs must also be refrigerated at 45 degrees or less.
When you get your farm-fresh eggs home
Even if a farmer tells you that you do not need to refrigerate the eggs, it still is prudent to do so (unless you plan to eat them that day, perhaps). Keep them in the original carton. If there is any dirt or feces present, and you choose to wash the eggs, allow them to come to room temperature and wash with warm (about 90 degrees F) water. Too cold water may actually cause shrinkage of the egg membrane, and result in dirt or bacteria from the surface of the egg being drawn in through the now coating-free pores. Dry them well before storing in the carton. While commercial eggs, due to the processes used to wash and sometimes to coat the eggs, have a fairly long shelf life of as many as 6 weeks from the date on the carton, use your farm fresh eggs up within 3-4 weeks for best quality and safety.
Hello small flock owners. Avian Influenza (AI) is still a major threat to our poultry. With more cases being diagnosed in the Midwest, it seems it is only a matter of time before it strikes our area. The USDA has set up a new website with all the information on AI. Please go to the website and find out more. Pass this along to anyone else you may know who owns chickens.