Early fall is the time our chickens change their feathers. As winter approaches, this provides birds with a brand new set to give them the best possible protection from cold, wind, and precipitation (snow, rain, and ice). It is a great advantage for our birds to change their natural “clothing” each year just when they need the most protection.
This annual change of feathers is called a “molt”, and the fact that it coincides with the reduced daylight of fall and winter is no accident. In poultry, light stimulates the pituitary gland, causing hormone production. This in turn causes tissues to elongate and soften, including the ovaries, and results in egg production. As day length shortens, hormone production slows and egg production ceases.
We also have feather moisture at play. When feathers are first growing, the body is able to supply the feather follicles with nutrients – the follicles are soft , moist, and sensitive. As the feathers complete their growth, nutrients are directed toward other bodily activities – such as egg production. During egg production, much of the nutrition consumed is directed into the eggs. After months at peak production, little to no nutrition is available to the feathers, so they begin to dry out. This drying out is enhanced as the body seeks to find enough calcium to form eggs. The result is not only dry feathers, but brittle feathers that begin to wear and even break. As day length lessens, molt begins and the birds have new feathers just in time for cold weather.
In order to grow a good set of feathers, and for those feathers to last as long as possible, our poultry need good nutrition. This starts with a balanced diet having a good level of protein and vitamins. A good supplement can help ensure that adequate levels of oils and nutrients are available when poultry need them the most. Omega Ultra Egg™ offers a host of benefits as a supplement for molting poultry. The natural oils help produce wider, stronger, more weather resistant feathers. It also helps extend the useful life of feathers, these same oils making the feathers less brittle. The calcium and vitamins Omega Ultra Egg™ contains help provide increased levels of those needed nutrients.
So why are oils important? Natural oils help repel water – keeping the body of a chicken warm and dry on damp days. Oils also help maintain flexibility and prevent the feathers from losing moisture as their structures endure use over prolonged periods. Essentially, the internal moisture content of feathers ensures that the feather barbules, the small, hook-like structures that web together to form feathers, are flexible from the inside so that they do not break open. When feather moisture is lost, either from the surface becoming brittle or from the internal feather structure becoming brittle and breaking, the feathers begin to wear more quickly and lose their insulating and protective properties. Brilliant feather sheen is the result of good oils in the diet and of good feather moisture levels.
Calcium and protein also both play a role in feather makeup and quality. Protein is the main building block the body uses to grow and to produce feathers. Some producers find higher quality feathers produced from low protein feeds – causing slower feather growth and thus longer periods for the hens being out of production. My own experience, and that of those I have mentored, has been that better feather quality, and less time out of production, come when feeding higher protein feed (usually 18-22% protein feeds). Feathers contain calcium carbonate, and thus calcium is needed to grow and maintain good feathers. When hens are laying and there is too little or just enough calcium in their diets, feathers become brittle and hens may even peck at each other’s feathers a bit to gain this much needed nutrient. After all, there are no eggs if there is no shell; and we all know egg shells are made of calcium.
Extra nutrition is needed anytime birds undergo stress. Molt and peak production are just two examples of stress. Bad weather or harassment by dogs or small children are two others. The best plan is to have this supplemental nutrition incorporated as a regular part of the poultry diet. In this way, there is no deficiency to overcome or to aggravate a weakened condition.
I use Omega Ultra Egg™ as a supplement all year round. Not only do my birds have healthy feathers, it ensures that my birds have supplemental nutrition from which to pull during times of stress. The fact that the oils in Omega Ultra Egg naturally have the correct balance between Omega 3 and Omega 9 fatty acids, and that the eggs the hens are healthier for me is just icing on the cake.
So as you care for your birds during their time of molt, be sure that they receive everything they need to produce strong, healthy feathers that will last them through the winter until molting season next year. You will have happier hens and more eggs for your efforts.
Don Schrider is a nationally recognized poultry breeder and expert. He has written for publications such as Backyard Poultry, Countryside and Small Stock Journal, Mother Earth News, Poultry Press, and the newsletter and poultry resources of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. He is the author of the revised edition of Storey’s Guide to Raising Turkeys, which is due for publication this fall and will be available at bookstores by January, 2013.
This summer of 2012 has turned hot and we on the east coast have been hit hard with storms that have taken the power out for many days at a time. The chickens are surviving this handsomely, needing no electricity as long as they have food, shelter, and water.
As I try to sleep, windows open, a faint breeze stirring the hot, humid air, I reflect on just how well my chickens are taking the heat. My pens are airy, letting the air move and whisking away body heat. The roosts have plenty of airspace all around them. My chickens live in a wooded part of the yard; they love the shade the trees provide. My hanging feeders are under roof, protecting them from the rains, and holding enough food for a few days. I use plenty of water containers, providing a three or more day supply – which proved very advantageous once the power went out and the well pump had no electricity with which to operate.
Each morning I am awakened by a chorus of crowing – each rooster being sure he is the first to sing in the new day. The chickens begin their day scratching around in search of some breakfast. The majority of the day is spent satisfying both their hunger and their curiosity – exploring, scratching, running to see what another chicken has found. The hens quietly withdraw to the privacy of their nest, and then publicly announce, with a loud BAH-KA, that they have laid an egg. During the middle of the day, even in this heat, some of the chickens take the time to sunbathe. They lay on their sides, with one leg and one wing stretched out, basking in the warm golden sunlight. As I arrive to collect eggs and feed treats, they follow me around and hungrily peck up the corn and leftovers I provide for them. As dusk arrives they begin to take their individual places upon the roosts, settling in for the night.
Even without electricity my chickens are safe. I use a solar charger to power their electronet fence. I have a solar light in their yard to discourage predators. And my partner, Roxy, my chicken guard dog, patrols the property day and night driving away such dangerous creatures as deer, neighbors, hawks, and sneaky nighttime visitors like raccoons and possums.
For the chickens, nothing has changed. The loss of power goes unnoticed. Life is as enjoyable today as it was yesterday. This is due to the fact that electricity is not a large part of their experience and care, and to the fact that both pens and food and water systems are designed to be safe, comfortable, and to provide days of nutrition without the need for power.
Now is a good time for you to take a look at your pens and the care you are giving your chickens this summer. Do they have shade? And is the shaded area large enough for all the birds? Is it open enough to allow breezes to blow through. Do you have multiple waterers set out so that every chicken get a drink without being driven away by a bossy hen or rooster? Are the waterers large enough to provide several days of water if needed? Are the roosts roomy? Do you have plenty of feed stored in airtight containers? Is your fence strong and in good repair?
Are you feeding a diet with extra vitamins and a good level of nutrition? Remember, chickens eat less in the heat, so be sure you are using a good quality feed and supplement with Omega Ultra Egg – its vitamins and nutrition helping to ensure both good eggs and healthy chickens during the summer heat.
This summer is also a time for miracles. Each year I like to let a hen or two sit and hatch out a clutch of eggs. This year I had a Light Brown Leghorn sit on a small clutch of her own eggs – four to be exact. Twenty-one days later, she brought off a clutch of three healthy chicks. One of the interesting things about this, is that momma retained most of the redness of her comb during her broody stage. This can be credited to the extra nutrition she received from supplementing her laying mash with Omega Ultra Egg.
Momma hen is fiercely protective of her clutch and an all around attentive mother. She clucks to her chicks, drawing them to tasty food morsels. She warms them, letting them nuzzle under her breast feathers. Sometimes a bold chick decides to leap up on momma’s back to get a better view of the world. And woe betide the foolish human that picks one of her chicks up – momma is there in an instant, attacking with wings, beak, and feet, then retreating, spinning, and returning to attack again. A broody hen seems to have the courage of an army; even roosters avoid a hen when she is protecting her young.
If you decide to brood your own chicks, there are a few tips to keep in mind. Once a hen begins to go broody, she will spend most of the day on the nest. She will cluck and raise her feathers as she walks or if you disturb her nesting. You will notice she is missing many feathers on her breast, allowing the warmth of her body to warm the eggs, and later the chicks. She will begin to spend nights on the nesting box once she is fully committed.
Other hens will want to join her on the nest to lay their eggs. This will cause many eggs to be broken. It will also mean that the eggs she is sitting on will be at unequal stages of growth. For best results, move the hen to a secluded nesting site at night. Take care to disturb her as little as possible. Make sure the new site is secure, can contain day-old chicks, and preferably a little dark and private. Provide momma with good food and water, even though she will consume little of each. And after twenty-one days she will turn a batch of fertile eggs into a brood of healthy chicks.
Hens differ in their mothering ability. Some young hens will not sit the full three weeks it takes to hatch a clutch. Some hens make poor mothers – caring little for their chicks, even killing some or all of them. A fair number of hens can tell their chicks from those of other hens and may do harm to strange chicks. I have even had a hen that knew the chicks she hatched were the wrong color (were another breed) and refused them. Most hens are good to excellent mothers. A few are great mothers and will raise any chick offered to them. For the few that are bad mothers, often you can remove the chicks and raise them in a brooder.
I like to keep the hen alone with her chicks for the first few days. Often I will decide to integrate them with the flock after a week or so. I do this by placing them in a wire pen, within the yard of the flock – so that the other hens and rooster can get used to seeing them. After about two weeks, I will let momma and brood run out in the yard with the other hens while I am around to watch – a few little squabbles may happen as momma decides another hen has gotten too close to the babies. But if everything goes well, on the second day I will let the brood join the flock.
As the chicks grow and feather out, they will first join mom on the roost. Later, momma will decide that they no longer need her protection and they are abandoned to care for themselves as members of the flock.
With some good planning and proper nutrition, like that found in Omega Ultra Egg, your chickens can survive summer and power outages and can even raise a brood on chicks.
Hello from the great state of West Virginia. At the beginning of April we moved our household from Virginia to West Virginia to a new home. This was a very positive and exciting move, but laborious too as we had to move not only all our household belongings, but our animals and pens as well.
Moving with poultry takes a good bit of planning to avoid potentially lethal mistakes. Since we have both a guard dog for the chickens as well as the chickens themselves, we had to figure how we could transport both safely. We also had to dismantle the pens and set them up again in order to have a place for our hens. Planning had to include the transportation of dog, hens, and pens as well as the order of packing them. We had to know what we were going to do with the animals while we reassembled their pens and we had to know how long it all would take and how to feed and water everyone during this transition.
Since many of you may find it necessary to transport your poultry at some point, whether to a county fair, vet, swap meet, or moving to a new home, let me break down the basics that will keep the birds alive and healthy. Chickens can actually survive a few days without food and water if necessary. I don’t recommend stressing the birds this way, but they can survive. What will kill the birds are high temperatures, a lack of airflow, and too much sun in conjunction with one of the two preceding. So how do we address these three primary concerns?
I have a truck with a cap on the back. Seems like I have always had a truck with a cap and have transported poultry in such at all times of the year. The cap has the advantage of shading the birds and the disadvantage of restricting airflow. I open all the windows of the cap to provide as much airflow as possible. I also follow a rule a friend of mine suggested – once your birds are loaded, get moving and keep moving. Good airflow will help to overcome high temperatures.
I have several types of crates for different purposes. I have commercial, plastic crates that are extremely ventilated. I have Pullman crates that are four feet long and designed with four compartments – the fronts of which are extremely well ventilated. Lastly, I have enclosed boxes that are designed to carry individual male birds safely without damaging their tail feathers. These male crates are perfect for fall, winter, and early spring but they do not have a large amount of ventilation so are the worst possible crates to use during warm weather. For this move I used only the Pullman and the commercial crates.
Before loading the crates I counted my hens and the number of spaces I had available. I also feed the birds a good meal that included Omega Ultra Egg™ so that they would have full crops before loading. I also had to consider how many would fit on my truck without packing too tightly or airflow would be restricted. While the commercial crates could handle eight birds in summer when transporting a short distance, I opted to reduce the number in those crates to six. In the Pullmans I placed one bird per hole (four per crate).
I started loading all the birds, being sure to put them into the crates head first – which makes their natural tendency to go forward into the crate. I found myself in a position of have two extra birds, and so I placed two birds per hole in two of the Pullman holes. For these two doubled up pens I made sure they were in the last, most open positioned pen so that they received the most airflow. I also made sure the paired birds were pairs that got along well and which were smaller in size to reduce the amount of body heat possibly trapped in the pen.
I placed my crates into the truck after they were all loaded, and just before we were ready to leave. Until that time, the birds were crated in a shady and cool location. I put the Pullman crates into the truck facing the rear, in this way as I drove they would get the most airflow. Between each crate I placed 2×4 boards, to ensure there was air space between crates. (My mentor told me of a breeder who once placed his prize bird first into his truck. He packed the truck so tightly that the bird ran out of air and died before they arrived home. Air space is very important.) I place my commercial crates on top of the Pullman crates, placing 2×4 boards between them and being careful not to seal in the birds in the centermost holes of the Pullman crates. Once we started moving we drove straight through and all the birds made it to our new home safely.
Upon arrival, it was going to take several hours to set up the chicken pens and it was late at night. I opted for leaving the birds on the truck overnight. In the morning I got up early to make sure the sun was not going to overheat the birds, making sure I was parked in a shady location, and opened the tailgate of the truck so that more air could move. I fed the birds a breakfast of slices of apple. Apples make excellent food for crated birds. They are not too messy and provide a source of energy, food, and moisture. It took a couple of hours to set up the pens, but everything went well.
Once the pens were set up, I first filled water containers in each pen. My birds had gone twelve hours without fresh water, so I knew the first thing they needed was a good drink of water as they were uncrated. I removed each bird from its crate head first, being sure to maintain good control of its legs. I carried them cradled in the crook of my arms, their heads a little lower than their tails to keep them calm – never hold them upside down, as it can cause them to suffer strokes and is very stressful. Instead of tossing the birds into the pens, I lowered each one so its feet touched the ground and let it walk away. Doing this builds trust in the birds for being handled. Each bird walked over and had a satisfying drink. Next I feed each group a fresh bit of feed with Omega Egg Ultra to ensure that they got plenty of vitamins and nutrition and to help keep their stress level down and egg production up.
When I was done unloading, not only did all the birds survive in good shape, but the hens had laid eggs in the Pullman crates. One of the reasons I like the Pullman crates is that they feel like being on a nest for the birds.
I have had friends transport their birds to and from county fairs in the heat of summer with no bad effects. What are some of the points they follow for success?
Plenty of airflow around the pens
Never pack the crates too tightly – use boards and board scraps to maintain space around each crate
Never more than two birds to a pen if using a Pullman type, and never fill to capacity a commercial type crate
Load late in the day, near evening, or at night
Keep in mind how long the first birds loaded have sat in the truck without a breeze – once you start crating birds move quickly
Unload in the morning so that you are not stressing the birds by handling during the heat of the day
Remember, direct sun in the summer can kill crated poultry – use as much shade as possible without restricting airflow
Once you get moving, keep moving
If the birds will be crated for more than twenty four hours, stop and water all the birds (bring water cups for this purpose). Also feed the birds – corn makes a good feed for this purpose
Apples make an excellent food and moisture source and will help relieve boredom for transported hens
Cardboard boxes can be used, but large or many ventilation holes must be cut – even when the birds will only be in these boxes for a short time, as cardboard retains heat
Pine shavings or straw work well as good bedding sources. Bedding will keep the hens comfortable while traveling over bumps in the road
The most important things to remember are airflow and temperature during transportation. By keeping these tips in mind, you can transport poultry safely any time of the year.
It feels like spring here in Virginia, and thoughts are turning toward hatching and raising baby chicks. Many of you will be starting your chicken adventure by purchasing baby chicks. Here are a few tips I’d like to share to help you achieve great success.
The first thing to do is to build or purchase your brooder. There are many designs out there, from a livestock tank with a heat lamp to a cardboard box with a desk lamp. But basic brooder design provides an area that is warm, 95 degrees Fahrenheit, prevents drafts, and provides cooler areas with food and water. I have seen a wooden brooder 2 foot by 4 foot by 18 inches high with a ceramic lamp base mounted on the side. This design is nice and puts the bulb near the chicks. A 100 watt bulb can be used and replaced with a lower wattage bulb to reduce the temperature when needed.
Another good brooder is made from a single 4’x8′ sheet of plywood and is called an “Ohio Brooder” after the Ohio Experiment Station which invented it in the 1940s. You simply cut a 4 foot by 4 foot piece for a top and then rip the remaining plywood into four 1 foot by 4 foot pieces which act as sides. Use 1×2 or 1×1 lumber to lightly frame this and make four 18 inch tall legs. I suggest using a set of hinges on one side so that the lid can be opened. Inside, mount two ceramic bulb bases in the center of opposite-side walls. Use 100 or 150 watt bulbs and your chicks have a brooder that hovers and can be placed inside any large pen.
One variant on this design uses the new insulation made of silver bubble wrap – a material made of plastic bubble wrap sandwiched between silver, reflective foil sheets. This stuff is nice to use with chickens as they will do little damage to it and it will reduce your heating bills.
A variety of heat sources can be used with the chicks. Incandescent bulbs are getting harder to find, but they have the advantage in a brooder of giving off both heat and light. I am not a fan of the large heat lamp bulbs – they can start a fire easily if too close to bedding, splashes of water from drinking chicks will cause them to blow out, they eat energy, and they are quite large. There is an infrared halogen bulb design that replaces these and is much safer and a better product – Syrvet offers these. My favorite heat source now is a product called the Sweeter Heater. This is a plastic rectangle that emits radiant heat. It does not go much above 95 degrees, but its height can be adjusted and even on the coldest days the temperature under it stays the same. I’ve put dayold chicks in a brooder in an unheated shed in January and they were happy. The disadvantage with this new heater is that you still need a light source near it, though you could simply use an appliance bulb.
Often you will see recommendations to brood at 95 degrees and then drop by 5 degrees per week. This is not the plan I suggest; rather, provide your chicks with a warm zone and a cool zone. Start by placing the food and water near the warm zone so that the chicks will venture out, without becoming chilled, to eat and drink. After day 3, start moving the food and water a little further out every few days. This will encourage them to exercise. They will come out from the warm area, eat and exercise, and drink, and when they get cool they will return the heat source. This imitates nature best – chicks going to mom when they are cool, and mom brooding them at the same temperature each time.
One of the best tools to tell if chicks are happy is to watch them in your brooder. Happy chicks will sleep in a group under the brooder, and when awake will spread out evenly around their pen. When all the chicks lay as far from the heat source as possible, then the brooder is too hot. When they crowd under the brooder and seldom come out, then they are too cool.
The biggest killers of dayold chicks are dehydration and chilling which occurs when their down becomes wet. When you first receive your chicks, you should have the brooder setup and warm (having run it for a few days to be sure it is up to temperature), and food and lukewarm water should be ready. Dip chick’s beak into the water as you add them to the brooder. In this way you ensure that some will know where and what water is; chicks imitate their parents and each other, so if some eat and drink others will follow them. Water devices should be designed to prevent the chicks from falling into the water and getting wet. If your water device is a bit too big, add marbles to the drinking area so that chicks cannot get wet.
To keep chicks from eating the bedding (pine shavings make the best brooder bedding) place newspaper or brown paper bags in the area of the feed. Be sure the material you use is not slick, as slick surfaces will cause leg injuries – usually pulled ligaments. You can remove the paper after a few days. Sprinkle a little bit of Omega Ultra Egg™ over the top of the feed – its color will attract the interest of the chicks and aid them in learning to eat. Keep the dosage low the first few days, gradually increasing over the course of a week.
As the chicks grow, their natural curiosity will cause them to peck things; when they become crowded, growing larger and the brooder staying the same size, they will sometimes peck at each other, even to the point of wounding and killing each other. Allowing plenty of space is one cure. When space is limited, simply building some visual barriers will help greatly. Visual barriers imitate bushes, giving chicks places to go where bullies do not see them and creating the feel of fewer chicks. You can nail boards or cardboard against walls, on an angle, to creating places the chicks can explore and hide in. You can make little a-frames that can be moved around. You can even clip bushes or branches and hang them from the top of the pens to create private little areas. Visual barriers work for adults as well as chicks.
Another idea is to give the chicks something to peck, thus positively applying their natural instinct, or reduce their pecking inclination. Hanging bits of wood or bone from strings just a little above their heads will entertain them for hours. Hanging cabbage from a string will give them a nice treat while focusing their attention. Millet heads or, for older birds, sunflower heads are also excellent treats and vent pecking instincts. You can also prevent brooder pecking and cannibalism by using yellow bulbs, a.k.a. bug lights. My experiences show that chicks exposed to yellow light alone will not peck each other even when badly crowded.
To medicate or not to medicate… I have never been a big fan of medicated feed. The chief aliment that medicated feed is designed to cure is coccidious – an ailment caused by the organism coccidi, which can be found anywhere. Coccidious is manifest when an overabundance of this organism enters the chicks’ mouths, make their way to the chicks’ intestines, and damages the intestine lining. Outwardly, the chicks express their discomfort by hunching up – that is, holding their shoulders high, tails low, and neck retracted. You will notice blood in their droppings. Coccidious occurs most frequently when there is wet bedding in the brooder, usually near the water fountain. So keep the brooder dry! A natural coccidistat (preventative) is apple cider vinegar. Simply add 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar per gallon of drinking water as a preventative. This may be increased to 6 tablespoons per gallon if you have evidence of coccidious. It will take 5 days at this level to cure the coccidious. Apple cider vinegar has the advantages of providing some vitamins, it provides riboflavin which causes the feathers to be more flexible and beautiful, and it will prevent algae from growing on the water fountain. Apple cider vinegar can be fed to poultry of all ages.
Some other good brooding tips: Add a handful of shavings each day. This will help keep the chicks from laying on their own manure and keep the brooder smelling nice. If you smell ammonia, clean the brooder. Ammonia causes damage to chicks lungs long before we smell it. Clean up feed spills. Feed in moist shavings begins to mold and molds are very bad for poultry, sometimes causing sickness and death. In general, keep the brooder clean and you will have few problems.
Feed the chicks treats from day one. Chicks will learn to eat many things, such as garlic, if offered from the beginning. Pulling dandelion clumps and placing them, roots and dirt and all, in the brooder will give the chicks something to peck at, teaches them to forage, and offers them healthy treats. Give them slices of soft vegetables, bits of cooked egg, and grains beginning after the first week. Just be sure to remove leftovers after an hour or so, so that these foods do not mold.
Last, but not least, spend some time watching your chicks. They will become better accustomed to you and you will find hours of enjoyment!
December. This is the time of year for reflection and for remembering what we value. Do you remember what attracted you to poultry? What was that early fascination? What benefits has this passion brought to your life? Why do you put so much work into this hobby?
I start my winter mornings before the sun. I get up and go down to the barn where my guard dog greets me. The chickens hear me coming and the roosters all compete to be the first to announce the morning and breakfast. The world is largely cold and quiet in those dark early hours, but the chickens start to stir. They greet me with great interest and what I imagine is a bit of greedy hopefulness that the “man” may have a special treat today. Every now and then I even manage to remember to pause and just look around, watching the sky start to glow, smelling the fresh, cold air, hearing the sounds of the new day. Greeting each morning with the chickens is one of the wonderful experiences my hobby provides for me again and again.
Each evening, after I get home from a long day at work, I go down to the barn for my evening chores. As I collect my eggs and empty water buckets (so I don’t have to beat ice out of them in the morning), I observe my flock and decompress from the tensions of the day. By the time I get back to the house I feel relaxed again. Keeping my chickens is the best therapy I have ever found, and has a way of bringing good to a bad day.
In our family photo album is a picture of me when about 2 1/2-years old, showing a friend the neighbor’s flock of White Leghorn hens. Exposure to this and other neighborhood flocks probably is to blame for instilling the chicken bug into me. I remember standing and watching the chickens for hours. The way they interacted and moved and the noises they made fascinated my young mind. I still love to sit and watch the chickens. Their antics are humorous and even my neighbor, who was never fond of having chickens next door, has found watching the chickens to be a surprising delight.
Now when I spend time watching the chickens there is an additional sensation – looking over birds with high caliber type and color is a visual experience that, for me, compares to drinking a fine wine. I love the glossy feathers and rich colors. As my flock has grown in quality over the years I have drawn more and more satisfaction from observing it. This satisfaction is perhaps enhanced, owing to the fact that I have produced my own stock for over twenty years now – each bird representing generations of my selecting decisions. It is a blessing to have my chickens.
So as you reflect on the old year and plan for new, take a moment and consider all the joy keeping poultry has brought for you. What do you enjoy the most? Giving eggs to friends and family? Giving the birds treats?
As you make resolutions for this new year, be sure to include providing your birds with the best care you can. This should include treats that keep them in the best condition and in perfect health. If Omega Ultra Egg™ is not a part of your feeding program, it should be.
Text copyright ã Don Schrider, 2012. All rights reserved.
Don Schrider is a nationally recognized poultry breeder and expert. He has written for publications such as Backyard Poultry, Countryside and Small Stock Journal, Mother Earth News, Poultry Press, and the newsletter and poultry resources of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.
There is a revolution happening all across the backyards of America; a revolution of hen keeping has found its renaissance. If you are reading this newsletter, then perhaps you are a revolutionary, a patriot of local, sustainable cuisine, a libertarian of food independence, a builder of a new food system, and an independent thinker. If so, you are part of a growing group of people who care about the nutritional value of the food they consume and the impact it has on the environment and society. And maybe, just maybe, you have found that keeping chickens is just outright fun.
Fall is the time of year when leaves turn red, yellow, and orange and fall from the trees. It is also the time of year that our best egg layers drop their feathers and produce the new ones that will protect their bodies all winter long. Feathers are an important part of the chicken — they help shed rain and snow, protect the birds from cool breezes, and trap body heat to help keep the birds warm all winter long. Feathers need to last an entire year, so the value of their durability, flexibility, and quality are much more than cosmetic for the home flock.
So what does it take to produce quality feathers? Don’t commercial feeds contain all the ingredients needed to produce and maintain good feathers? The answer to the second question is “No.” Commercial poultry feed has been developed to supply just the bare minimum of expensive nutrients needed to keep a hen in top laying condition – no extra expense has been considered and no consideration has been made in its formulation for the production of high-quality feathers. As a revolutionary you need to understand that feed formulation has economics as its guiding principle.
Feathers are comprised of many tiny, finger-like fibers, hooked at their ends, that are called barbules. As you might expect, the barbules hook together forming solid webs. It is the quality of these barbules meshing that gives good feather quality. Good feathers require a great deal of quality protein to produce. Vitamins, such as riboflavin, aid in producing durable, flexible feathers. And naturally occurring oils, such as those found in Omega Ultra Egg, are needed to maintain water resistance and sheen, and are used to prevent the feathers from becoming brittle and wearing out before the next molt.
Quality feathers are an essential for pastured poultry as the feathers are the hen’s natural protection from the elements. So it is as the new feathers are growing that we poultrymen (and women) should concern ourselves with feeding to grow better feathers. I suggest to you that this is the best time to feed out supplements like: probiotics, poultry mineral supplements, poultry vitamin supplements, oils as found in Omega Ultra Egg, wheat germ, and codliver oil, and to feed a protein supplement, like fish meal, or feed a breeder quality feed such as game-bird breeder layer crumbles. Omega Ultra Egg has high percentages of protein and calcium to help increase the total amount of those necessary dietary items.
November is also the best time to consider internal and external parasites. Both of these can reduce the quality of the feathers and will cause the bird to consume more calories to stay in good shape. There are some good wormers on the market for poultry, but if you don’t have access to these you can use an old method that was once sanctified by the U.S. Army (circa World War II), that of dropping walnuts with husks still on (preferably green husks) into buckets of water and allow to stand overnight. You use one walnut per gallon, though you can put in two or three walnuts and then add one or two more gallons of fresh water when you feed it out. This feedout a few times weekly will rid your poultry of internal parasites. For external parasites, I recommend adding wood ashes to the areas your chickens choose for dust bathing. This should be mixed in the soil a little bit so that it does not blow away. Don’t worry when your chickens eat some of the charcoal in the ashes – it is a natural anti-toxin and helps in the absorption of calcium. Your chicken poop may be black for a few days, but your chickens will be healthy.
Speaking of calcium, the practice of offering oyster shell, or another calcium source, free-choice alongside granite grit, is still an excellent idea for pastured hens. The grit is needed to help digest the choice food the chickens forage and the grains we feed them. The calcium will allow our hens to balance their own diets when their forage does not provide the needed levels. A lack of calcium is also one of the main causes of poor feather condition during summer months and can even lead to feather-pecking and eating (as will low protein levels). Again, Omega Ultra Egg can help increase calcium levels in feed.
So let’s feed our birds for good feathers and make sure they enter winter free of parasites. The result will be lower feed consumption, healthier chickens, and an earlier return to laying. The chickens will be happy and so will we!
Text copyright ã Don Schrider, 2011. All rights reserved.
Don Schrider is a nationally recognized poultry breeder and expert. He has written for publications such as Backyard Poultry, Countryside and Small Stock Journal, Mother Earth News, Poultry Press, and the newsletter and poultry resources of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.
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