Chicken Advice No One Tells You

I have all sorts of random chicken advice.  It’s the kind of advice that no one tells you in the books or at the tractor stores where many people buy chicks.

This list is not exhaustive and probably not applicable in all situations.  These random tidbits have been greatly valuable on our farm & may be helpful to your chicken-keeping-adventures too!

When I meet people new to chickens I always end up saying things that shock and alarm them.  I haven’t been at this for too long, but I guess in my eight years of chicken keeping I’ve gotten about 20 years of experience.  Unfortunately.

If you’ve been at this chicken gig a while – you may know some of this.  If you are new to chickens, or just would like to know what on earth I am going to say – here ya go!

Chicken Advice No One Tells You

ONE:  Collect the eggs every day.

If you happen to have a lazy child in charge of collecting the eggs who may or may not collect them on a regular basis – you might want to consider putting someone else (more reliable) in charge of the job – or simply doing it yourself.

When I have two or three dozen eggs sitting on my counter, somehow my children think this is a cue to take the week off from collecting the eggs.  I guess they think we have plenty & it’s cold out & they’ll go get them when we run out.

Wrong.  Wrong.  Wrong.

This is a bad idea for many reasons.

  1. Poopy Eggs –  By the time your child decides to bring the eggs in the house they will be covered in a nice coat of poop.  Gag.  This is no only disgusting, unappetizing and gross – it also greatly effects the shelf life of your eggs.  Huh?  Yes.  A freshly laid egg has a protective coating on it.  God did it.  An unwashed, fresh egg can be stored at room temperature (or middle east temperature) for three months.  Once that protective coating is washed off the egg needs to be refrigerated and consumed within a few weeks.  Poop covered eggs need washing.  Washed eggs need refrigerating.  Refrigerated, washed eggs have to be eaten.  United States is one of the few countries that requires eggs to be washed prior to selling them.  In most countries, American eggs would be illegal.  Other countries ban the washing of eggs (so the protective coating remains on the eggs).  In other countries you also wouldn’t find the eggs in the refrigerated section of the store.  Believe it or not, unwashed eggs don’t need to be refrigerated.  If you were in a supermarket outside America you would find the eggs next to the bread and onions.
  2. The opossum will eat them before you do.  We have had our share of varmint problems (and then some).  Opossums are quiet, sneaky and they don’t (usually) bother my girls.  The only time I realize I have an opossum problem is when the chicken feed is disappearing at a ridiculous pace or the eggs aren’t there.  The opossums I typically have visiting my coop are looking for a low maintenance free lunch.  They eat all my eggs and if it’s winter & there’s feed available they’ll eat it too.
  3. You’ll turn your Hens into Egg Eaters – If you leave the eggs in the coop for days and days and days, it’s just a matter of time before a chicken decides to peck one open and taste it.  Once a chicken becomes an egg-eater it is a hard habit to break.  Really hard.  They’ll lay eggs & eat them.

TWO:  Feed them for free (mostly)

If you don’t want to buy food (often) there are some ways to feed your chickens for free.  This may or may not be possible depending on where you live.  Here in Kentucky, we can get away with free eggs most of the year.

How to feed your chickens for free:

  1. Free-ranging.  For a quick intro to keeping chickens completely free go here.  It’s called “Keeping Chickens The Redneck Way” and will have your chickens eating all the wild things chickens were born to eat.  If you fence in your chickens or they have limited access to forage, you probably need to supplement with some good quality chicken feed.  Our chickens are free with access to pasture, compost, woods, bugs, creeks and anything else they care to find on our 23 acres.
  2. Kitchen scraps.  We are in the habit of tossing anything “organic” into a giant stainless bowl that lives by my kitchen sink,.  By organic I mean:  dryer lint, nut shells, scraps from meals, onion tops, lemon rinds, watermelon shells, egg shells (crumbled into bits), beef bones from making stock, old leftovers that never got eaten, any food beginning to rot from the bottom drawer in the fridge, etc.  The only thing we don’t toss in the “scrap bowl” is chicken.  We take this mash of random food and other organic junk and deliver it to the compost pile (which happens to be just outside the chicken coop door).
  3. Garden debris.  Any time I rotating crops, ripping out plants, clearing a bed or just weeding my garden I carry around a five gallon bucket to toss all the matter into.  This makes it easy to deliver the goods to the compost pile/ chickens.
  4. The Compost Pile.  This is the best tip ever.  If you don’t hear anything else I said, listen to this:  Put your chickens on top of your compost.
    You may have already caught on….. our compost pile is just outside the chicken coop.  They have access to it and all things composting. This is such a beautiful arrangement.  The chickens are going to partner with you to make some the most beautiful soil you’ve ever seen.  There are some considerations and tricks to this.

    • Here’s why you want your chickens on your compost:
      1.  They will eat anything they like & the rest will turn into soil.  I toss all things into the compost – whether the chickens want it or not.  The cow manure, old moldy hay, litter from the coop, debris from the garden, scraps from canning, weeds, old (disease free) plants, rinds, peels, seeds, etc.  Everything gets tossed onto the compost pile.  The chickens get in the middle of it and eat everything they find appetizing.  Anything they don’t care to eat will stay put and compost into soil for me.
      2. It will be filled with tasty chicken treats.  The compost pile is always bursting with bugs, beetles, grubs, maggots, rolly pollys, worms and assorted other chicken delicacies.  If we every need earthworms for fishing – the compost pile is a sure thing.  The warmth, ripeness, and rotting food will always produce an insect buffet for your birds.
      3. Those chickens scratch, peck, rotate and turn the compost.  I am not fussy about my compost.  I have not attended any classes on composting or even read a book about it, so I don’t know what I’m doing…. At the same time, I always have piles of glorious soil each spring to top dress my gardens.  I throw everything into the pile & let the chickens & mother nature do the rest.  I will add that cow manure is not as hot as other manures & is quick to break down into soil.  I have this going for me.  Between the manure & the chickens helping, I have been able to avoid “turning” my compost for years
      4. They eat for free and deposit more glorious manure during the process.  Yup.  As they scratch, peck and consume all the free goodies from your organic pile they’ll be fertilizing it too.
    • Here’s some logistic issues to contemplate as you design the compost & chicken set-up:
      1. The chickens need to be able to get to the compost.  If you want to put up a fence to keep your chickens safe, be sure to include the compost pile inside the chicken fence.  This way, no matter if they are having a free-range day of exploring the farm, or if they are being kept fenced in, they will have access to all that wonderful compost & goodies.
      2. You need to be able to get to the compost to add to it.  If you use equipment (side-by-side, tractor, etc) to move manure and debris to your compost be sure you have a gate that opens wide enough so that you can get to the pile & dump into it easily.
      3. You need to be able to get the compost out.  Consider how you will get the precious black soil out of your compost bin and into your gardens & pots.
  5. I still buy feed sometimes.  There are a couple of months here in Kentucky that we do offer free-choice chicken feed for our girls (and boys).  Those would be the deep winter months when it’s tough for a hen to scratch out a living.  I find that they still prefer the scraps from the house and any hidden goodies they can dig out of the compost pile.  I don’t want any girls to go hungry, so we have some good (non-GMO) feed available in winter if they want it.

THREE:  Good luck getting rid of the fox.

If you get a fox near your hen house you could be in for a world of hurt.  I’ve been told that once a fox finds your flock they will stick around until they have eaten every last chicken.  One of my best friends watched her hens disappear one at a time until the fox consumed every last one of them.  When she got new chickens he ate them.

I know another lady who no longer even tries to keep chickens.  A fox found her flock and ate every chicken she brought home.  She finally gave up.

Foxes are smart.  They are sly.  They don’t fall for traps.  They can smell your scent on every hole, claw, line, bait, cage or trap you set.

How do I know?

Ugh.  I don’t really want to talk about it.  But…… this is why I’m here.  To tell you guys the real deal.  This ain’t no “fluffy, everything is perfect, sunshine and rainbows blog.”  This is real life.

So, in real life, after keeping chickens completely free range for over seven years – a fox found our flock.

He started with our ducks, because, Pekin ducks are slow and easy to catch.  He ate five ducks in one week.  Then he went to work on the laying hens.  He ate a chicken every day.  Each night when my son would close up the chickens and count the heads we would have one less.  It wouldn’t be long before they were all gone.

We put our lazy, comatosed hound dog to work.  As long as he was stationed at the chicken coop on guard, the fox didn’t strike.  If Short dog took the day off – down went another hen.

Well, I don’t have an ending to this fox dilemma.  We are hanging in there, we still have a nice flock, but we still see that fox meandering around our property.  Mama Fox is here and she has a baby.

We have traps set.  We have tried to catch her in the act.  She’s good at what she does.

I’ll keep you posted.

FOUR:  Don’t put the water in the coop.

I don’t know what most coop floors are made of.  Ours is made of wood.  We covered it in a laminate flooring to protect the wood from the “eeeew” that would be laying all over it thanks to the chickens.  Even with a coat of laminate, I still don’t want water in there…

There are lots of great reasons not to have a chicken watering facility located inside your coop.  First, there’s the damage to the floor: rotting, molding, yuck.  Additionally, cold weather is not what causes most cases of frostbite in chickens.  Moisture is.  If your coop is soaked, saturated, wet and humid – it can make your chickens sick.  The goal is dry litter in the coop.  Whenever I’ve attempted to keep water inside their domain it ends up making everything soggy and miserable.

We keep the water outside the coop.

FIVE:  Don’t buy sick chickens.

We made the HUGE mistake several years ago of buying some silkies from a girl showing them at our county fair.  The chickens appeared healthy and adorable.  There was no way to tell that they had been exposed to infectious bronchitis.

Once a chicken has had infectious bronchitis, it is a carrier for life.  This means that even though the chicken got sick & recovered – it will contaminate every chicken it meets forever…. that those chickens may NOT recover.

We brought our four silkies home (we have four children – each one got a silkie) and chickens started coughing and dropping like flies.  We had around 70 chickens that year (including the cornish-rock meat-chicks) before the silkies descended and destroyed……. and the majority of them died.  We were in the unfortunate situation where we had to cull or sell our entire flock in order to get rid of the disease.  We talked to vets.  We talked to chicken folk.  We weighed our options.  If we wanted a healthy flock, we would have to wipe the slate clean and start fresh.  Sadness.

The good new is we had plenty of chicken to eat & we found a great home for all our favorite hens.

Once everyone had moved out we cleaned the coop, bleached the coop, torched the coop (used DH’s red dragon to burn off any remnants of ick) and then we opened the doors to let all things air out & freeze.  Then we got a new flock.

We have not had any problems with diseases when ordering chicks from hatcheries or buying them from local farm stores.  I have bought chicks from numerous farm stores in our area & haven’t had any issues.  It was only when buying from a person that we encountered problems.

SIX:  Put the food in the coop.

As I mentioned, we offer free-choice food during winter for our chickens.  In the past we have filled our king feeder (holds 50 pounds of feed) outside the coop, but every night some local varmint would show up, eat most of it and dump the rest all over the ground.  Ugh.

Since I don’t have unlimited funds, this consumption of feed had to stop.  I am not trying to feed the local wildlife.  I am trying to provide sustenance for my chickens.  We tried two solutions.

  1.  Move the feed in the coop.  This was my first thought.  It worked, kind of.  It kept the nighttime visitations from eating and scattering all the chicken food….. but it didn’t stop the daytime consumption.  Dang it.  Dang, stupid, gnarly, gross, tick-infested, mangy-looking opossums are eating all my chicken food….. and eggs.  The good news is that this family of opossums don’t like chicken.  They are just eating all my eggs and chicken food… during the day.  And the chickens don’t seem to mind.  Come on cocks!  This is why you are here.  Can we please get some crowing when a non-feathered critter enters the coop?
  2. Ration the stores.  Since the opossums are BFF’s with my chickens and they are happily sharing their food and eggs with them, and I can’t catch them to save my life, we’ve started scattering a days worth of feed on the ground each day.  The chickens love scratching and pecking at the food & the opossum can’t eat it all.  This doesn’t stop them from eating eggs, but my feed bill is lower.

Speaking of opossums.  I have a story that may or may not have happened last week….

We were visiting with family & out past dark.

DH got home before the kids and I did.  If it’s after dark, the general rule is:  First one home put the chickens to bed.  “Putting the chickens to bed” means – go out to the coop and close the door to the hen house.

So, DH heads out to the chicken coop to close the door and saw some sort of commotion scooting away from the coop. It was Mr.  Opossum.  Probably the one eating my chicken feed & eggs.  Busted.

Well, DH owns a pawn shop.  Which may as well be called a “Gun shop” because that’s the majority of what we do.  Guns.  Since we are in the gun business, we are pro-gun, pro concealed-carry, pro open-carry, and 2nd amendment enthusiasts.  DH always wears his gun.  His 1911 .45 caliber.

If you don’t speak “gun” I’ll explain.  A .45 is quite the pistol.  It easily fits in a holster on your hip – but is not your everyday, average, run-of-the-mill handgun.  It’s a pretty powerful handgun.  It’s all that and a bag of chips.  I’m pretty sure you can stop King Kong or a T Rex with a .45.  It’s not something to mess around with – it’s a bad boy.  DH was at the chicken coop and he was armed and dangerous – especially if you happen to be an opossum.

DH saw him scurrying away from our coop where I’m sure he was partaking of all MY eggs and feed.  Being the loving cowboy he is, DH secured the chickens in the coop first before giving Mr. Opossum his full attention.  DH knew which way the varmint went and he knew what opossums do when they run for their lives…… they climb.

Well, one of the great things about iPhones is the flashlight feature.  Need a light?  You got one in your back pocket!  DH used his phone flashlight and spotted Mr. Opossum quickly where you can bet that varmint would be hiding – in the trees.

Once the slimy, egg-eating, feed-spilling opossum had been spotted he didn’t stand a chance.

Varmint versus .45.

Let’s just say if you lived in my county you may have heard a couple of loud gunshots about 8:00 last Tuesday night.  And I may have one less critter to deal with.

Maybe.

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XO,

Candi

 

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