Saturday, May 28, 2005

New Chicken Questions

This is the time of year that people approach me with questions about the poultry that they have recently acquired.

Last night it was the bus driver at work who had brought home the chickens that hatched out of their eggs at the Montessori school. Often it is people who have raised chicks until they've feathered out but they're not sure how to house them next.

I keep my chickens in a barn because I have a barn. If I didn't have a barn I would consider using a "chicken tractor" or lightweight open-bottomed cage during all but the coldest months. The idea is that the chickens feed on vegetation and insects in the ground in addition to their regular feed, yet they are prevented from being as destructive as free range chickens can be. When they have worked all of the weeds and insects out of a piece of ground it is ready to plant as new garden or rejuvenated lawn.

Here is a great link with pictures of over 100 small movable chicken pens. Also an article from the Seattle Times about custom chicken coops to give you an ideas for housing in the colder weather.

For folks who suddenly find themselves responsible for a handful of baby chicks,
The City Chicken has a nice page on how to care for them.

I'm always on the lookout for a "broody hen", one who is in the mood to sit on a nest of eggs long enough to hatch them. Conventional egg producers discourage broodiness in their flock; it is more cost effective to hatch large numbers of eggs in incubators and then raise them under lights. The broody instinct has been bred out of modern commercial chickens, but I always try to select breeds that still have the potential to become good setters and good mothers.

It's been about 8 or 10 years since I had a hen raise a brood and I'm beginning to wonder if there is something I can do to encourage the mothering instinct in a few hens. A recent article in Discover magazine described how social problems in large pig pens --called ear and tail biting syndrome-- can be cured with large doses of vitamins. The article went on to describe how this experience inspired one hog farmer to devise a similar vitamin therapy for human mental illness. I started wondering along different lines. I've always known that you could stop chickens from pecking each other by providing lots of grass cuttings and weeds in their pen. I always assumed that this worked by distracting them; perhaps it was the dose of vitamins in the fresh green stuff that did the trick. It is also known that hens who free range are more likely to go broody, they just disappear from the flock and turn up 3 weeks later with chicks. Maybe the better diet is triggering the mothering instinct.

At any rate, I'm working too hard. Looking at those cool movable chicken pens makes me realize just how much work I'm doing digging up weeds and bringing them to the chickens. A small pen could hold half a dozen hens and I could rotate them out of the big pen for R&R while moving the pen around to the areas that I need to get de-weeded.

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