Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Chicken wire and cheap coops: don't do it.

Tl;dr:  Chicken coops aren't cheap.  You might try to make them cheap at first, but you're just going to end up with more headache/sick birds/pest problems/predator attacks later.  Spend the money to do it right the first time.

I recently received an email from a pet fencing company that advertises "Chicken fencing" and even sells an "Eglu"-like plastic coop on their site, asking me to consider purchasing their products for my clients and recommending them on my site.

Maybe for a chihuahua.  Or a cat.  But only between, like, 50 and 65 degrees F and definitely not in the sun.

Their description:
Our chicken wire fence is made of 20-gauge galvanized steel wire that is completely chew-proof and black PVC-coated for rust protection and a virtually invisible appearance in your landscape from as close as 15-20 feet. It features a 1-inch hexagonal design that is stronger than a traditional square mesh. We offer chicken fence rolls in heights of 6 and 7.5 feet to protect against climbers and jumpers, and with when properly secured to the ground with our ground stakes, digging predators will have a tough time getting to your coop. Also, our steel hex rolls for chicken enclosures offer a humane alternative to electric poultry fence options that can often cause more harm than good to your chickens.

Any of you who have been to one of my Backyard Chickens 101 classes or talked with me about coop and run design can probably imagine my response.  For those of you who haven't made it to a class yet, here is a brief version of my thoughts regarding "chicken wire" and "cheap alternatives"...

Hi there, and thanks for getting in touch! 

Unfortunately, a lot of the information you have on your website is exactly the sort that I spend hours of my time counteracting when I get called in to fix a backyard flock setup that wasn't designed well from the start, and contributes to people mistakenly thinking that backyard chicken housing can be cheap and also keep their girls healthy and happy.

For example, while I appreciate the coating feature, your chicken fencing isn't rodent-proof (which is a key point for most city permits) - anything larger than a dime and a mouse can get through, a quarter and a rat can get through - or predator proof in many cases given that a racoon can easily reach right through a 1" opening and smaller predators like fisher cats or weasels can sometimes scoot right on through.  Though, since you aren't recommending that the wire is buried at least 1.5' straight down, or 6" down and a foot+ out, then anything that digs (which is everything) will be under it, "secure ground stakes" or no, in less than an hour. 

Hardware cloth (1/2" openings) is the way to go!

Secondly, those tiny plastic on-the-ground coops aren't actually large enough for two full-size birds (minimum 2 sq ft per bird of inside space with 8" linear roosting space for each, and I recommend a minimum flock size of 3-4 anyway, for a number of reasons), encourage the excess moisture that is a chicken's kryptonite and are actually a huge hassle to take apart every time you need to clean them which leads to dirty coops and sick birds, and aren't winter-ready for at least 1/3rd of the country.

And she's not even quite full grown yet!  They need plenty of space, and a coop with good ventilation that's a breeze for you to keep clean and dry.

If your company truly is committed to helping provide products and resources for people to keep their own chickens as pets, I would be very happy to talk with whomever makes product decisions at your company about what my experiences have been over 9 years of managing more than 100 flocks and probably over 1000 backyard chickens in the New England region, and perhaps we can find a few more options to add to your product list that I *would* be glad to recommend on my site.

Thank you so much for your time and consideration.  Chickens for all!  :)

(For more on what I *DO* recommend, check out my previous blog posts on bedding and winter and more winter, my website for upcoming classes in the Boston, MA area, and the following picture of the coop I built this fall at The Chickery when it was about 90% finished.)

10-12 sq ft/bird outside space, 2-3 sq ft/bird inside space, raised off the ground 2.5 ft, solid ramp, 1/2" HW cloth on all walls and windows plus across the top and buried all the way around, and a solid roof on the whole thing.  Now THAT's a coop that will make your chicken-keeping life SO much easier all year round!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Call for participants in lead and salmonella study, and free necropsies!

I am working on some exciting research this year, primarily looking into lead exposure and salmonella in backyard chickens, AND also starting to collect some data on what might be killing our birds by offering free basic necropsies for birds that die of unknown causes.  SO, first of all, if you keep chickens in the greater Boston area and would like to participate in the lead and salmonella research, please see the flyer below for more info.

Secondly, for those of you in Somerville, there is another student from Tufts who is working on some backyard chickens research this year, so please check out her study as well.  The questionnaire/google form survey can be found here, and here is her info:
"Hi all! My name is Sydney Giacalone, and I am a rising senior at Tufts University studying Food Systems through Anthropology and Environmental Studies. This summer, I'm conducting research on chicken keeping in Somerville and the Boston area, and I'd love your help. If you have chickens, please fill out this quick 10 minute questionnaire. All info shared will be kept private, and I would love to have you participate. I am happy to provide more information about my project (via or 434-825-5406), and thank you so much for getting involved!"

Finally, if you are in the greater Boston area (including west towards Worchester) and have a bird that has died - even if you think you know the cause - and would be willing to donate the body for our research, we would be glad to come pick it up and add that one more piece to the puzzle of backyard chicken illnesses.  Please email as soon as possible with the time of death, breed, age, health history to whatever extent it is known (including any vaccinations), and any notable changes in behavior or other symptoms within the previous days and weeks, and we will coordinate pickup within 48 hours of death.  In the meantime the body will need to be kept cool but not frozen (refrigerator, or even a cool basement should be fine).  Thank you so much for helping us gain the knowledge to better diagnose and treat our beloved birds!

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Q&A: Coop size, and the Deep Litter Method

I gave my Yardbirds Backyard Chickens 101 class to a lovely group of folks at the Marshfield Farmers' Market this past Saturday, and one of the attendees sent me this follow-up question that I get asked about a lot! 

So, here are the thoughts of The Chickeness on the Deep Litter Method in our usual backyard micro-flock settings... Enjoy!

Hi Khrysti,

My wife and I attended your workshop on Saturday (we were the ones that had to leave early).  I wanted to say thank you, we found the class informative and helpful.  We don't have chickens yet so we're in the due diligence process right now, which leads to a question I wanted to ask you at the class but didn't have the chance.  I purchased a book called "The Small-Scale Poultry Flock" by Harvey Ussery.  I don't know if you're familiar with it but it advocates for the deep litter method.  I wanted to see what you're thoughts were on that.  Also, in the book he emphasized the need for good ventilation, even in the winter and more space inside the coop (approximately 5 ft/bird).  In reading this it makes sense to me but so does the small keeps a coop warmer concept.  Again, I was hoping you may have some experience that would help shed some local insight on the matter. 

Thanks again,
Hi P.,
I'm so glad you two enjoyed the class! 
Short answer: I'm not familiar with that book, but that sounds to me like a classic "traditional farming" approach where he's talking about the henhouse being their primary enclosure, without a secure, attached run... so, think about having a shed or a barn that is their entire house - dirt floor, probably a flock of at least 50 birds or more, feed and water is kept in the henhouse, maybe let them out to roam the property during the day, maybe they don't really get let out much, especially in the winter... So I don't think those recommendations are wrong, I think they simply reflect a different style of chicken-keeping than we tend to see in a backyard micro-flock.  (Just out of curiosity, how does he define "small-scale"?  For example, the State of Massachusetts considers anything up to 300 birds to be a "small flock"!  Makes sense in comparison to some of the 3-million-birds or larger commercial farms in the midwest...)
To address those two points specifically (and their overlap):

My experience with the deep litter method is that it works fine if you have a "traditional" ground-level coop with a dirt floor, but the raised coops I was describing as helpful for smaller yards mean that the "auto-composting" function that is at the heart of the DL method just doesn't seem to work super well.  Maybe it's that you aren't getting all the great microbes that exist in the dirt, maybe it's just that it can't get hot enough with the raised floor (i.e. airflow underneath)... I'm not sure the mechanism, but the poop doesn't really break down fast enough to avoid getting some build-up (and therefore ammonia, which is the real problem). 
This is also part of the argument for more space inside the coop - if you have X number of hens, and you're using the DL method in your traditional henhouse, having more surface area per bird means you have more dirt/bedding to "dilute" the poo that is being created.  Another way of thinking about that is that you have a higher "brown" (bedding/carbon) to "green" (poo/nitrogen) ratio, which will aid in the proper balancing of your in-house compost system (an ideal compost ratio is somewhere around 3:1 or 4:1 brown to green).

The counter-point to all that is that the "auto-composting" idea IS what will happen in your run - if that's on a well-draining dirt/sand substrate AND you have plenty of space per bird, all the poo that gets deposited out there will gradually break down and you basically never need to remove it.  Maybe just till it a bit if you notice that it's getting a hard "shell" on the top, and perhaps add more sand.  Might be a good idea to turn it all over every other year or so... otherwise it should be fine!
And, of course, that "plenty of space" idea is variable depending on what aspect you're talking about... 5 sq ft/bird in the run might be enough space for your in-run composting to function just fine, but it's not enough to keep your birds happy and healthy as far as behavioral issues, so my recommended 10-12 sq ft per bird of run space takes care of both!  :)

I hope that helps answer your questions - please let me know if you have more!
Happy chickening,

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Get thee to a Chickery!! And supplies needed...

Hi and happy March!

I have some crazyexciting news that I've been waiting to share with you all, and that is that we are officially starting our own Yardbirds Chickery!  :D

...And everyone says, "That's great Khrys!!" 

<blank stare>

"What's a 'chickery'?"

I'm so glad you asked!  Basically it's a nursery for chickens... we needed space to hatch and grow out our own healthy, happy hens (and to quarantine older birds we get from local folks to be sure they're healthy before they go to new homes), and a friend of a friend has graciously agreed to let us set up camp on her property in Milton, MA, just down the street from our home office!

We will primarily be raising breeds that are ideal for our customers' needs, specifically docile, family-friendly birds that lay well, with a few oddball ornamental breeds thrown in for fun.  Being able to raise birds that are from high-quality breeders is a top priority for us, because we believe that will mean a higher likelihood that your birds will live (and lay) longer into their life, without being as susceptible to some of the illnesses or injuries we've seen in hatchery-stock birds as they get older.  And we prefer to be able to support responsible breeders who care about the quality and longevity of the breed, instead of the hatcheries that often have a breed in name but not quality and without any consistency in the characteristics people are looking for in choosing that breed. 

Sourcing eggs and chicks from top breeders also allows us to talk with the breeders directly, and choose ones that are selecting for docile temperaments in addition to appearance and egg quality/color, which means a greater chance of friendly, tame birds that will get along well with each other as well as be more fun for you and your family!

We already have hatching eggs on their way to us (ameraucanas and silkie mixes first!), and we would LOVE your help getting the Chickery all set up and ready for when they hatch at the end of March! 

First on the list is materials and supplies, listed below.  If you are local and have any of this stuff laying around that you'd like to donate to the Yardbirds Chickery (or if you're not local and want to mail something to us), please let me know - we'd be glad to help you clear out some of your clutter! 

If you're not local, or don't have excess stuff you don't want (good job!), or would just like to donate towards the purchase of materials, we would gladly and gratefully accept any monetary donations you'd like to send via paypal to TheChickeness at gmail or by check (email for details).

If you're interested in setting up your own chickery, see below for a list of recommended supplies and materials... (wink, wink)

Breeds on our must-have list are: orpingtons (all colors), ameraucanas (all colors), Plymouth rocks, Rhode Island reds, marans (all colors), modern game (tame dinosaurs), Polish (smooth and frizzled, of course!), Belgian bearded d'Uccles (all colors), and bantam cochins (because we're all in love with little Lucifer).  We have chosen this list because these are the breeds we've found to be most successful in our urban and suburban micro-flocks (less than 10 birds) - the most tame, best at getting along with their flockmates, best personalities, and with fun egg colors too!  If you are interested in a breed you don't see here, send us a note with your request and we'll let you know if we can get it, or why we don't recommend it at this time.

Did I mention we are SO FRIGGIN EXCITED?!  :D
Stay tuned for pictures and updates!

Chickery supplies list (will be updated as donations come in):
shop vac (DONE!)
trash cans (need 2)
recycle bin (need 1)
broom/large dustpan (need 1 of each)
3-4 cu.ft. mini-fridge (need 1)
upholstery fabric to cover unfinished basement walls (natural fibers only for fire safety) OR plywood/sheet rock (need to cover a room that's ~17'x14')
wood for shelves (2x6s or 2x12s at least 4' long)
brackets for shelves (need 6-10)
wood to build out the brooders (can use anything from 1x2s to 2x4s that are at least 2' long)
hardware cloth to build out the brooders (DONE, I think, though we can always use more for the coops!)
hardware (screws, washers, nails, hooks, screw-eyes, etc)
folding tables (need 2)
folding chairs (need 3)
hose + sprayer end (need 100' of hose and one sprayer)
chick feeders (have 1, need 3 more)
chick waterers (have 1, need 3 more)
heat lamps (have 1, need 3 more)
ceramic bulbs (have 1, need 3 more)
daylight bulbs (have 1, need 3 more)
small scale that can do tiny amounts (need 1)

Old towels/t-shirts/rags (we'll take however many you want to give us, and donate extras to the MSPCA) 
Chicken feed
Paper towels
Vaccines (Marek's and Fowl Pox)
Hatching eggs

Grow-out coops supplies list:
coops (will be buying 2 coops from our supplier in NH)
wood (need 4x4s + 2x4s in varying lengths from 5'-15')
hardware cloth (need 83 linear feet of 4' wide HW cloth)
clear roofing panels (need 12 of the 8' panels)
paving stones (need... 12, I think?)
hardware (screws, washers, hooks, screw-eyes, S-hooks, etc)
feeders (have 2, need 3-4 more)
waterers (have 2, need 3-4 more)

Monday, February 1, 2016

The endless battle between light and dark, as it pertains to chickens.

Egg-laying in winter... Shed some light, or embrace the darkness?

Some questions I get asked a lot around this time of year are about light and heat in the winter...

"They need a heater, right?" 

"Do I have to bring them inside in the winter?"

"Why aren't my birds laying?"

"My sister's grandfather's brother-in-law says I should always use lights and that I should plan to get new birds every 2 years."(1)

Well, these questions are really about two separate issues - light/laying and heat.  Since light is what affects winter egg-laying, let's turn the burner down for a moment and walk towards the sun...

The lights-or-no-lights question can usually be boiled down to a matter of priorities: "higher production now" or "longer egg-laying life".  Occasionally with a splash of "natural, seasonal food experience" thrown in as a bonus round.

Personally, I tend towards embracing the dark (said no fantasy or sci-fi hero ever), at least when it comes to chickens.

I got into the local food movement as one way of counteracting our thoroughly-unsustainable industrial food system, and I feel that embracing seasonal cycles is part of that.  That said, I completely understand, support, and respect that others have different priorities and therefore may have different approaches.  So I'm here to help you make an informed choice.  :)

The gist of it is this: hens hatch with a set number of potential future eggs in their single functional ovary (it's the left one... not to be confused with Katy Perry's Left Shark), and while all birds naturally have a dormant period in fall/winter, some smarty-pants figured out that day length is the cue that tells their bodies what season it is. (2)
Like so!

So if your goal is Lighting Option #1: maximum production now!, then having lights on a timer will trick their bodies into thinking it's not winter and keep them laying.  Not as much as spring or summer because there are a few other factors at play, but still more.  

Though be careful how you hang them.
If you're going with Mission: Production, then I recommend using a *very low heat* light source (Christmas lights, perhaps?  And they look cute too!) and setting them on a timer to wake the girls up 14-16 hours before dusk and turn off after the sun is up.  Letting them have a natural dusk in the evening will ensure they still put themselves to bed on their own and help keep you from having to round up confused hens when the lights suddenly go out and they're all left wandering around the run. 

As for the type of light, there have been studies showing that white LED bulbs are the most effective, and they are also, conveniently, the ones that give off the least heat so they are also the safest option (see our next post for more on heat, but the short of it is: don't bother).

DON'T use any of the Teflon-coated "shatterproof"or "safety-coated" incandescent or fluorescent bulbs - they can emit vapors that are deadly for your birds.

Also DON'T leave a light on all the time!  The cold of winter is enough for their bodies to deal with without adding 24 hours of artificial insomnia into the mix.  Use a timer, have it come on at 5AM or whatever is appropriate for 14-16 hours of daylight before a natural dusk followed by 8 hours of shut-eye.

And, of course, for anyone in the greater Boston area I would love to do an on-site consultation with you to check out your coop, give your girls a health-and-happiness check, and go over your lighting options.  I can even install the lights and timer for you!  Find more information on our consultations and classes here.  :)

(Note that all hens will go through a molt in the fall to replace their feathers, and will stop laying for a bit while this is happening.  Check out I'm so upset that I'm MOLTING! for more on that.)

Lighting Option #2: Laying for a longer life, or embracing your hens' dark side.
Given that they only have a fixed number of total-eggs-for-their-entire-life to work with, adding artificial light to keep them laying means they'll run out of eggs sooner in life, so if it's more important for you and your family that your girls are able to have a "longer egg-laying life" overall, and possibly keep laying until their 8th year or even later, then I'd leave the lights out of it and let them have their winter rest. 

Yes, that means you might need to buy eggs during the winter OR change your family's eating habits while you're not getting as many eggs.  That's where the "seasonal food experience" part of the larger global food system conversation comes into play...  If part of your goal of having chickens is to have a closer connection with your food - where it comes from, how it's produced, etc. - then accepting that most naturally-produced foods are seasonal may be part of that experience for you.  Leafy greens grow best in the cooler temperatures of spring and fall, squashes and melons and apples get harvested later because they tend to need most of the growing season to mature, and chickens have their most prolific egg production during birds' natural breeding season in the spring then lay less in the fall and winter.

(How long they live and how well they lay later in life is also related to breed and bloodlines - I strongly suspect that birds sourced from many of the big hatcheries, which includes chicks bought at nearly all feed stores, tend to be less likely to lay over time and also be more susceptible to health issues after their first year or two.  This is why I love being able to help connect backyard chicken owners with birds from local breeders who have higher-quality bloodlines!)

So there you have the endless battle between light and dark, as it pertains to chickens.  Stay tuned for our next post, where we'll turn up the HEAT.  (But, you know, not like the brimstone and hellfire kind of heat.)  :D

(1) The maximum production option also means that you may want to plan to rehome your ladies as they stop laying as much, which tends to happen after their 2nd or 3rd year depending on the individual bird.  This isn't an easy-breesy thing to do - the reality is that many city hens who get rehomed to the classic "friend's farm in _(rural area)_" or wherever end up dying within the first year from complications resulting from the stress of moving, disease exposure from being in a new flock, or predators they aren't used to.  You also may have to work a little harder to find a home for your beloved pets that you can be 100% sure doesn't involve a stewpot.

(2) Egg-laying hormones are governed in part by the pineal gland, which is a part of the endocrine system that lives in the "third eye" brain area just above and behind the eyes and is affected by light.  It is also the gland that produces our sleepy friend, melatonin.)

As always, The Chickeness is available for one-on-one consultations by phone or email, and on-site consultations in the greater Boston area.  Please find more information on our website here, or send us an email at TheChickeness at gmail dot com.  Please include a little about your flock (how many, breeds, ages, where you got your birds, etc), where you are located, and a thorough description of your current issue or question, and I'll reply ASAP!  :)