Lately, I have been seeing a lot of articles and even entire books written about what are called “hacks,” bits of wisdom and common sense that tend to accumulate around one subject or another. In other times it might have been called lore, the experience and the essential skills and knowledge that have grown out of a particular calling or pursuit.
Yes, even concerning chickens, there are practical hacks — hacks and what old-timers might call tricks of the trade. One that comes to mind is the practice of wing clipping to prevent fully feathered birds from flying up and over enclosures.
Most know to clip just one wing to make the bird unbalanced and unable to get aloft, but which is the best wing to clip? Can it possibly matter? Clip the bird’s left wing. The internal organs on the left side of a chicken’s body are generally more developed, making that side of the body a bit heavier. By clipping that wing the reasoning is that the bird is made more imbalanced for flight.
A lot is now being made of a bird being in an heirloom variety or a heritage breed, but, what exactly, do these terms mean? Perhaps the best definition for them was established by the Livestock Breeds Conservancy when they defined such birds as being of pure breeding and of one of the pure breeds recognized by the American Poultry Association by no later than the year 1950.
A heritage broiler must be taken a step or two further and not harvested from a range situation until they are 16 weeks old. The added time on range affects muscle development and gives the resulting broiler meat the color and flavor more traditionally associated with chicken.
Limit Scratch Grain
Scratch grain, rather than being fed with a heavy hand to pare down mash consumption and feed costs should be used as not much more than a treat fed for a very short time each day. Grain to a chicken is like ice cream to an old farmer and they will fill up on it if it is freely offered. The result is that they will not eat enough of the complete laying ration to assure good egg production and body condition.
Most layer rations are offered as complete feeds needing little or nothing in the way of supplementation. A light feeding of grain in cold months will give the birds a bit of added energy, may be strewn across the floor litter to encourage the birds to scratch and turn the litter material and, in small amounts, may be used to draw the birds back into housing at the end of the day.
Chickens are the creatures that defined the term “pecking order” and the task of introducing new birds into an existing flock can be a rather challenging one. Roosters will quickly challenge each other, and serious injuries caused by fighting can result. More likely though, a bird will succumb to the heat stress or other stress factors stemming from the fight.
Even females will scuffle, and newcomers can be pecked and held back from feed and water. Some will position newcomers in a fairly open coop set in the housing for a few days. It should offer them protection from pecking but still allows the birds to see and somewhat interact with each other. After a time, the new birds should be placed on the roost with the established group after dark.
The old joke is that the intellectual properties of the chicken are such that it wakes up in a whole new world every day, but new introductions must be monitored carefully. Ahead of adding birds, some will try to break up the pecking order by removing the two most dominant hens to be reintroduced later. There should be sufficient space for chased birds to have a place to escape to, and some birds may never make a successful transition.
The most important of all feedstuffs is the drinking water. In very hot weather it may be necessary to change or freshen the water pans up to three times a day to encourage consumption and the needed hydration for birds in production. A vitamin/ electrolyte product is an inexpensive addition to the drinking water during times of stress on the birds when they will drink but won’t eat.
Sooner or later a problem with egg-eating by the birds on hand will emerge. I once wrote an entire article on just this subject, and there have been some rather elaborate nest designs and practices employed to stop it.
Most important is to bring the problem in check as soon as possible after it is first detected. It is a practice that can be learned by other birds in the flock if exposed to broken eggs in the nests or on the house floor. It is a bad practice that may begin with just a single bird.
The producer should always be on the watch for birds showing signs of egg-eating activity. Look for birds with egg-related staining around the beak and head and down the feathers of the breast. There are many ideas on how to break them of this behavior, but the best recourse would be to turn them into chicken salad for a Saturday night supper. The chicken salad solution actually has a great many applications.
With any number of chickens on range, even day ranging, there is always the questions of, are they all there, and is all in good order with them? The addition of a few birds of a distinctly different color can make a rapid head count of at least those birds possible. If you can only count four of the eight white ones it is a safe bet that even more of the red ones are missing.
Think At the Chicken Level
When human beings enter a farm building most of their senses are focused at head and shoulder level. Chickens, on the other hand, live their lives at floor and roost level. A popped knothole the size of a nickel can allow a chilling draft to blow across the birds at roost on a winter night. And minor changes in a floor’s surface in a far corner may be the first indication of problems with predators.
In growing out a set of as-hatched chicks remove the first few males that reveal themselves in their development. They should be the first considered for retention as breeding males due to that rapid development, but their presence will discourage secondary sex character from developing in other males in the group. On more than one occasion, and especially with very large-breed birds, I have had the pullet count change once I began removing the early developing males from the group.
There is growing evidence that young pullets and cockerels should be separated and grown out in different groups. They will certainly grow at different rates and may respond differently to feeding practices. The presence of young males as pullets approach point-of-lay may become a source of stress on the females.
Before going all in on baby chicks from a single source it might be best to buy small lots from multiple sources to do one’s own on-farm genetic trials. Closer to home is always the best place to buy as those chicks should be from flocks acclimated to the region.
That is not always possible if something very rare is being sought or new blood for a complete outcross is needed. It is the task of the good producer to find and match the needed genetics to his or her farm environment and farming practices as closely as possible.
Though not always possible, it is always best to move chickens after dark. I once received a set of Wyandotte hens that were moved across three states in the course of a single night. They were transported in boxes that were painted black and topped with a fine black wire mesh. One egg arrived that morning, and the hens continued to lay well after their arrival.
Transporting can push a bird into molt, and a change in water source and feed can dramatically affect bird performance. Any changes in rations are best done gradually over a period of seven to 10 days. Some will buy a portion of the ration birds are currently being fed to assist them in adjusting to a new farm environment.
When taking up birds to breed from, I prefer buying adult birds over chicks. On a per-bird basis the costs are substantially higher, but there is a finished product to view before any money changes hands. It also cuts down the time to get into production by as much as a full year.
Further, a trio or even a pair of well-bred birds can produce substantial numbers of chicks in fairly short order. They are chicks from birds that are better known and understood by the producer.
A growing number of people wanting a few layers for a small flock or family needs are opting again for what were termed started pullets. They are doing it for many of the same reasons that I gave for buying older birds for breeding. You see what you’re buying. Many don’t want the bother or aren’t equipped to grow out baby chicks; they want birds in such small numbers or want the eggs to begin arriving right away. And there is no doubt about their gender.
A started pullet in the 12- to 20-week range is no small investment, but convenience has always had a price. The started pullet business has legs, many commercial hatcheries are already offering them despite high shipping costs, and it may be one more way for the more experienced poultry producer to be paid for what he or she knows and puts into the birds developed for sale to others.
It is the little things that are learned in the course of the farming life that often prove to be of the greatest value.
Read an excerpt of Beyond the Chicken here.