West Mountain Farm

Pastured Pigs, Free-Range Chickens, Biodynamic Gardening, Homesteading

Archive for the category “Chickens”

Supplemental Lighting For Laying Hens

So, its been a great spring and summer with a daily basket full of eggs, as a homesteader you couldn’t be more thrilled. Then, the temperature drops, the leaves turn colors, and the hours of daylight begin to shrink-along with your bounty of eggs. You walk into the coop one morning and it looks as if a pillow fight has occurred, the coop is more quite, and your once fluffy chickens look a little worse for wear. The autumn molt has began and the process should be allowed to continue, they usually lose their feathers in patches, the most noticeable being the neck and tail feathers (a good time to collect for crafts).  The process takes one to three months depending on what kind of nutrition they are given, breed, and age of the chicken. They need extra protein at this time to regrow new feathers and get back to laying eggs and staying warm. The first molt usually occurs their second fall after their first laying ‘season.’ So if you had spring/late winter chicks they should  begin laying that first fall and then go through a molt the NEXT fall.  If they have adequate nutrition your first season chickens should lay all winter, spring, and summer with a gradual increase and subsequent decrease, without the help of lights. Now that your hens are molting its time to accept the empty basket of eggs and simply feed them well and give them peace and quiet until they all but through with the process. Handling should also be limited because the tender new feathers coming in damage easily and are probably uncomfortable to be messed with.

Around mid-October or early November the molt should be coming to a close and your hens got a rest from laying. You may notice that their combs and wattles are light pink instead of bright red and they seem to have smaller hips, instead of the volumptous hen petticoat booty. This is a sign that their hormones still haven’t kicked back into gear after the molt, this is were the supplemental lighting comes in handy.  The short day length will keep it that way until spring as a way to adapt to the lack of food in winter. Since they have you to graciously feed them year-round this winter survival adaptation is no longer necessary. The coop lighting will stimulate the pineal gland and kick start the endocrine system back into laying mode. There are many ways to do this and it may take some research on your part to find what works best for you and your flock. I will describe our method as it has worked well for us and is backed by experience and scientific research.

When we see that the molt is coming to a close and the hens have had at least a one month rest, which happens to be this time of year, we place a soft white bulb (you could even use christmas lights) in the coop and put it on a timer to come on in the MORNING and turn back off anytime after sunrise to save electricity. I heard you shouldn’t use fluorescent lights because chickens can see the slight flicker and it drives them nuts. All kinds of inexpensive timers can be bought at your home improvement stores. This will ensure constancy in the light sequence because you are going to forget one morning. The reason not to artificially increase day length in the evening is because we want them to go to roost at night and not be confused by the light and get lost.  We set it to come on 30 minutes before sunrise for a week, and increase it by 30 minutes every week until they have reached 15-16 hours of light. A quick google of sunrise times for your location will give you  a specific time and continue to adjust to keep up with the changing sunrise/sunset cycle. In 2-6 weeks they should start laying again (so they still get a little more of a rest).  When it gets really cold I switch the light to a heat bulb, but please make sure that it is secure.  You still run the risk of an accident with a heat lamp, but its one I am willing to take  to prevent frostbite, conserve calories, and have a defrosted water pan. We still run electric cords to the coop but plan to wire it soon, we even have the supplies to bury the line, we just have an endless to-do list. We also need electricity because we plan to wrap our Chicken Fountain in heat tape so we can use it year round. The places where I plugged extension cord to extension cord and where the light is plugged in is protected by a feed bag that I cut the other end off. I basically put a ‘pillow case’ at each plug in so the chickens can’t scratch or peck at it. Yes, I know its hillbilly, but we make the best of what we have 🙂

Some people leave a light on all the time, I do not agree with this nor do poultry experts. They really need 8-9 un-interrupted dark period, just like we do. I think if you allow the hen to come into and out of the molt without interference coupled with sound nutrition and fresh water she will have adequate rest and won’t be ‘used up’ before her time or have her lifespan shortened. Each hen is born with more ova than she can turn into eggs in her lifetime, so no worries there either. I know some people feel like chickens deserve a break all winter, but I don’t think it harms them, and this is a homestead, not a zoo. It just wouldn’t be sustainable to feed them all winter every winter with very few eggs. And this was an adaptation in response to lack of food, which isn’t a problem anymore, they are quite spoiled compared to their ancestral jungle fowl. No body freeloads around here as we all work together and support each other, and if I don’t have some eggs to fuel my body to work the farm then everyone is in trouble and hungry.

In summary, lights are usually needed only their second winter after they have completed their first laying season. Your situation may vary depending on when they were hatched and other environmental factors.  Allow them to have a natural, uninterrupted molt and rest. After the molt, introduce light gradually in the morning with a timer for convenience and then put it away in spring when the daylight has lengthened again. Be safe with bulbs and electricity, chickens do fly and get rowdy. Consider professional wiring for safety and ease of use.  Devise and provide a good nutrition plan with access to fresh drinking water and good husbandry.  As the hens mature you will probably get less eggs over time, but they will increase in size and have less egg abnormalities

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Sprouts as Feed and Information on Anti-Nutrients in Grains

To vary your chickens’ diet, reduce your feed bill, and make your chicken and eggs more nutritious all sorts of extras can be added to their feed or by hand as treats. Eggs are not ‘ 100 % Organic’ if they are being fed commercial feed, even if they are local and free-range (although they will still be much better than store bought eggs). Feed can be eliminated or reduced by hand mixing grains, corn, oyster shells, and salt. The only local source I know of to buy organic pre-mixed feed is from Ozark Natural Feeds. Please speak with them for more information on their feed program.

In this post, the concentration will be on grains, legumes, and seeds. Chickens can eat them raw, soaked, or sprouted. Some require soaking and pouring the water off to remove the anti-nutrients and soften them, making them more digestible. Anti-nutrients? In the healthy bean, rice, or wheat?? Yes, all grains are seeds (but all seeds are not grains) and they have various anti-nutrients that help protect them from being eaten or helps them stay intact enough to still be viable after it passes from the gut of the perpetrator that just ate the plant or trees means of passing on its genetics. There are many types of anti-nutrients, and each grain or seed you choose to feed, or eat yourself, should be researched individually. These anti-nutrients are many reasons people choose to eat a Paleo diet.

Luckily, most seed eating birds have developed enzymes to combat some of the anti-nutrients found in many seeds (we will just say seeds for simplicity here, since all grains and legumes are the seeds of the plant). Simple soaking, cooking or sprouting can unlock the nutrients even more. Sprouting is quite simple, soak in water (I use warm water to speed up the process) for 5-24 hours, drain, and place in a cool dark place that has air circulation. I use multiple methods- a sprout jar, a crock with a towel or cheese cloth on top, a muslin bag for big batches, a plate with a towel on top, etc. Rinse every day (2-10 days) until they are the desired size, then a short sunbath (15-30 minutes) to activate the chlorophyll thus greening them up nicely. You can even pre-srout seeds before putting them in the garden. For more info on sprouting visit the Sprout People, as this post is only the tip of the sprouting iceberg. Here are some mung bean sprouts that are ready to eat over the next couple of days. We feed them to the chickens and eat them ourselves as well, especially in the dead of winter when greens are scarce.

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Bringing seeds to a rapid boil then simmering will often rid or reduce them of anti-nutrients, some people choose to dump the first batch of water in case some of the anti-nutrients don’t break down in high temps. I don’t because I don’t want to lose so much of the valuable nutrients, and I don’t have an anti-nutrient phobia.

Cooked legumes or rice are a favorite of chickens. You can even drizzle in some healthy oils if it has been very cold, chickens need extra fats and carbs in winter to stay healthy and continue laying eggs. If any of my pantry items (beans, rice, quinoa) get mealy bugs I will cook it up for the chickens. Adding kelp is also another huge nutrient boost. When feeding more of my own ‘chicken feed’ and when foraging is at its best I leave out a hopper of oyster shells and will soon be making one for salt.

Some seeds I frequently give my chickens are cooked rice, beans, barley, lentil, peas, amaranth, etc. Some soaked or sprouted seeds we enjoy are wheat berries, peas, lentils, kamut, alfalfa, oats, barley, flax, etc. Raw sunflower seeds, oats, and sesame are quickly pecked clean. Most of these can be given prepared (cooked or sprouted) or raw, except for amaranth it needs to be cooked. For sprouting purposed organic, raw seeds must be purchased. Play around with it, you will be amazed at the flavors and nutrient value of each seed in its different form. Pay attention when purchasing at the price per pound and quality.

Anti-nutrients is a highly debatable subject with much more research to be done, so a little investigation paired with common sense and these powerful foods can be added to you and your chickens (and your rabbits, dog, cat, etc.) diet.

 

*If you choose to completely quit commercial feed a more detailed plan will need to be followed to get optimal production out of your chickens.

 

Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog!

Nera

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My friend, flock protector, entertainment, eager to please, well-behaved border collie/chocolate lab dog. She is 5 years old this November, I bought her as a family christmas present and she has become a loyal companion. Her name is because since she was a pup, she always wanted to be near us. She does not get eggs out of the henhouse or kill chickens, but she knows she is allowed to eat the ones she finds in the woods. We are lucky to have her, a good dog starts with good genetics and develops from persistent care, companionship, and discipline.

Do you have an egg-sucking dog, or a dog that just likes to hang out in the coop and disturb your chickens? If a dog is utterly useless, a persistent problem, and not your best friend, I would consider re-homing, but sometimes we have to make adjustments for our furry or feathered friends. Cutting a triangle on your coop door can be a deterrence to dogs and other large predators. It even deters flying predators because they don’t like to feel trapped. My windows are designed to keep hawks from flying in, from above it doesn’t look open to them like your traditional windows that have hinges on the sides. These adjustments also give you more ventilation and temperature control options. In the winter you can keep the big door closed with the chicken door open.

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*If you have children make it very clear that they are NOT to play in the windows, if they were to remove the wooden sticks that keep them open, they would get smashed head or fingers, same precautions need to be taken for adults! I’m sure some kind of safety option could be made by a creative carpenter. I use sticks of various lengths to prop open my windows, thus controlling the ventilation and temperature. In my opinion children shouldn’t be playing in the coop unsupervised unless they can be trusted (yeah that’s funny). They should beware of flogging roosters as well, and the coop is where someone is most likely to be flogged, as it is the roosters territory and they are protecting their hens.

Back to the chicken door, in the picture you should can see that we used a hinge at the top of the triangle, and a lock at the bottom (yes, it needs to be closed at night if you don’t have a secure chicken yard that closes up). I unlock it at the bottom, flip the door up, and I have a nail that has a hole that is just for it (a bit primitive, but it working for now). You may want to keep an eye on it when you first install it to be positive it isn’t going to fall, and make it where the chickens can’t get back in to lay.

Obviously, this only keeps out medium to large dogs, but I have yet to have a chihuahua get by my roosters, or even try, for that matter. This door option also helps the coop stay warmer in winter-time, be able to open it and ventilate more in the summer, and makes the hens feel more cozy, which reduces easter egg hunting year-round (yeah, that gets old). In this picture I am in the process of cleaning the coop, amending the gardens with the hay/straw/wood chip/manure bedding, and replacing it with new bedding. I practice the deep litter method, but more on that later. Good luck with an ornery dog, I’ve had to send a few to the big chicken house in the sky.

Speckled Sussex

Speckled Sussex

The speckled sussex is a hardy dual purpose breed that lays about 200+ light brown eggs a year when fed a well balanced diet and a constant supply of fresh clean water (as all animals need especially laying hens!). I ordered my current flock of chickens from Cackle Hatchery and this is what they have to say about them: “This chicken originated in the county of Sussex and is a very old English breed.  The Speckled Sussex chicken was recognized as a distinct breed in 1914.  The Sussex is a very gentle and colorful bird. This variety of the Sussex breed makes for a good backyard chicken and dual purpose for meat or egg production. This bird is a very good layer and handles confinement well.  Their speckled coloring makes them blend in with the background and camouflages them from predators such as coyotes, and foxes. They molt year and more speckles appear so they become even more colorful the older they get.”

The hens are around 7 pounds and the roosters around 9 pounds. They tend to take a little longer to mature than other similar classed breeds, 8-9 months versus 6-8 months. I do not use artificial lighting once the need for warmth is gone, until they are in their second season of producing, as I want them to mature slowly, I find they are hardier birds in the long run if given proper time to mature sexually and support egg-laying. In the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas we have hot humid summers and cold winters, they do well in both extremes. They also forage well and have a good feed conversion ratio. If you have a garden, flight ability is another thing to consider, they are too heavy to get over a 6 foot fence, which is a bonus if you want to have some tomatoes for yourself. Wing clipping is an option, which I avoid doing because I think they need the freedom to fly properly to run from predators and because it doesn’t feel right to clip a birds wings (there’s the hippy talking).

Over all, they are a highly recommended bird for the backyard poultry owner and pleasing on the eyes. Here is a picture of my rooster and one of my hens, they are 8 months old, and have not gone through a molt. They are laying daily and have almost reached their average weight. Rashie the roo is one of my dominant roosters out of the 8 I have, and he tends to be a bit cocky to everyone but me, he knows who is boss!

Why I don’t wash my eggs….

Nature has a way of doing things right; and with small scale farming the human has a unique opportunity to go along with nature. When a hen lays an egg she coats it with an oil to protect the embryo from harmful things entering the egg (salmonella for instance), and to let the thousands of egg shell pores keep a correct oxygen and moisture balance. This coating is called the the ‘bloom’ I had no idea why it was called a bloom until I walked in the coop to gather an eggs on a cool sunny day, one of my buff orpington hens jumped out of a nest box singing her egg call, I looked in and saw a shiny egg, picked it up, before my eyes the coating dried, in a way that resembled a time lapse flower bloom. Where I had held the eggs with two fingers was my fingerprints left on the egg shell, where my interactions had interfered with natures bloom. Washing removes this coating and leaves the egg to lose its ‘freshness’ quicker and absorb refrigerator smells. The freshness of an egg is measured by its ability to hold together while frying, and beat into nice peaks for impeccable meringues and other culinary goodness. If washed,  the egg will age quicker because air will enter the egg, create a larger air sack, and the albumin (egg white) will break down quicker. No need to throw out older eggs use them for boiling or scrambling. Very fresh eggs are a frustrating to peel as the albumin is too tight against the shell, thus making them hard to peel, despite putting them in ice water. So fresh eggs for frying and baking, and older eggs for boiling. If you want to speed up the aging process because you want to make deviled eggs the next day, simply wash the eggs and leave them in room temperature for a day or so. CLEAN, unwashed farm eggs *may be safer from internal contamination of salmonella and other harmful organisms.

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So what does this mean if you keep your own chickens? Nest boxes clean and full of fresh bedding such as: straw, wood chips, hay, etc. Coop needs to stay clean as well so the birds aren’t walking in their own mess, either clean the coop regularly, till the coop, or practice deep litter method and clean twice a year. Gather the eggs at LEAST twice a day and refrigerate immediately, preferably in a separate freezer if you sell eggs, this will prevent eggs absorbing fridge odor. Sanitize re-used egg cartons. Keeping the fridge clean and sanitary is important as well. Keeping a clean and healthy flock (TPIP free) will give you piece of mind that its safe to lick the batter and have runny yolks.

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