Broody hen

Broody hens can be useful or a nuisance. “What’s a broody hen?” you may wonder. For those who are unaware, when a hen decides that she wants to hatch a clutch of eggs and proceeds to sit on the eggs day in and day out, THAT is a broody hen. Hens can become broody whether the eggs are fertilized or not. If you want to take advantage of this broodiness, you can obtain fertilized eggs or baby chicks and watch the wonder and fun that is a hen and her chicks. But if you don’t, then you need to “break” the hen’s broodiness.

When is it useful? Broodiness is useful when you want to brood another batch of chicks without the work–the mother hen does it all! No heat lamp needed, no cleaning of a brooder. Plus, watching a hen and chicks is just so…darn…sweet. I figured that if one of my hens went broody in a year or two, I would use it to save some work while getting replacement chicks. I didn’t count on it happening when they were 8 months old.

When is it a pain? It’s a pain anytime you don’t want it to happen. One of the issues with a broody hen is that she will stop laying eggs (not a big deal as I’m not a commercial operation with my 9 hens), but she will also stop eating as she devotes her time to sitting on a clutch of eggs, and will rip out the feathers on her abdomen to provide eggshell-to-skin contact for incubation. I had a hen who was broody for two months and became so darn skinny, she looked like a shell of herself.

So did I get fertilized eggs? Chicks? Or try to break her? While making contact with folks offering fertilized eggs on Craigslist and perusing pending baby chick deliveries at local feed stores (it is currently “chick season”) I decided to still try and “break” the broody hen, a Double-Laced Barnevelder who went broody a mere 2 months after she started to lay. “Breaking the broodiness” may sound mean, but it’s not. All you do is try and stop the hen from sitting on the eggs.

How did I know she was broody? I noticed that when I went to check for eggs, the hen, “Velma” would be in the nest box. I thought she was in the midst of laying an egg but 3 hours later she was still there (while other hens had laid their eggs). She wasn’t sitting there 24HRS a day until several days later and I KNEW she was broody when I went to collect the eggs and she did this:

 

Breaking the broody hen
There are several ways to break the broodiness, but I chose to combine two methods that worked for me in the past: tossing the hen off the nest whenever I found her there and setting her in a bucket of water (so that she floats). I decided if Velma remained broody two weeks after I started my campaign, I would get her some chicks. Well, the first day I combined the two techniques, I also kept her AWAY from the nest box by letting the girls out to roam. She stayed away for a while before trying to sneak back in. When I would find her sitting on the nest, I would put her in the bucket and hold her there–the goal is to maximize contact with the bare skin she uses to incubate the eggs. You are NOT trying to drown her!! The contact of cold water with her skin lowers her body temperature and lessens either the ability or desire to incubate. I ended up doing this several times over two days.

Only two days later, she was back to roosting with the girls. I thought I was in the clear until I saw her in the nest AGAIN, at which point I just tossed her off the eggs she was hoarding. In addition to the issues mentioned, another is that a broody hen gathers the eggs laid by ALL the hens: she moves the eggs from one nest box to another by hooking her beak over the eggs and pulling them over. The eggshells are quite tough and can withstand some serious force (especially these eggs–they’re like breaking rocks it seems), but Velma’s repeated efforts would occasionally crack an egg. If the egg cracks enough that the contents are accessible and a hen starts to eat the egg, it can become a serious problem to have an “egg-eater.”

Chicks or Eggs?
If the broodiness would not stop, I had settled on getting chicks simply because the chicks would be sexed. With fertilized eggs, there is a 50/50 chance of getting roosters–I did NOT need 6 roosters. And certainly not 6 roosters when other folks would be trying to get rid of their own roosters.
Thankfully, thankfully, she stopped being broody–Velma has been out and about with her coop mates.

Hesitant Hens

With the snowfall comes a personality change; my normally energetic and outgoing hens become “hesitant hens.” When the welcoming and familiar brown ground is covered by new white stuff, you get this:

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Chickens popping their heads out and wondering if that white stuff is okay…or not. “What’s this?? Where’s the floor!? How am I supposed to go OUTSIDE? THERE IS NO OUTSIDE!!”

So much coaxing is involved: mealworms, sweet talk, scratch, just to have them TRY to come out.

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They’ll come out all right–but only if they can float their way around the run. That’s Pancho (who started life as Francesca) on the branch. He flew–as much as chickens can fly–from the door to the roost with nary a toe grazing that snow. The girls would LAUNCH themselves from the pop doors–there were so many chickens on that roost than any addition would knock off a perching chicken.

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Finally! All that cajoling paid off. Except they were back inside in less than 5 minutes and the mealworms and corn/millet mix was still there… When they saw patches of brown, they would come out. Next year I’ll have to remember to save a few bags of leaves for them just for occasions like this.

Blizzards are good…

For updating a blog. We started hearing about a potential snow storm early in the week, this was upgraded to a blizzard a couple of days ago and the snow started just as I was coming home from work on Friday. By evening we had a few inches, by morning it was up to my knees.

The wind is incredible, the snow is blowing horizontally and there are very high drifts due to the wind.

We have the wood stove going, hot coffee and lemon scones served with homemade Meyer lemon curd…yum. I just came back from trudging out to the coop to retrieve the chickens’ frozen water bucket and was able to take a few pictures of the chickens and the bees.

In the past week, I managed to put some fondant onto the bees (I could see bees in the top box of two hives) and plan to make some pollen patties this weekend.

As for the chickens, the last 2 batches never cared for the snow and refused to step on this strange white stuff. I was wondering if the new chicks would feel the same way and apparently they do. I have seen them stick their heads out of the pop doors and a couple would even try to fly from the door to the space under the coop to avoid the snow! It’s very funny because they are NOT graceful since they can’t “fly” the way most birds do. I’d be curious to hear if other chickens also avoid the snow. WordPress has a new format for the pictures so I think you click on the pictures for the captions.

 

All this crazy wind blew snow into the chicken coop. Everyone asks me how the chickens are handling the cold and if my coop is heated. People are nuts. I have had a chicken die from heat (RIP Simone), never of cold. Chickens have very warm down under their feathers, just like the birds you see everyday. When they perch on their roost, they fluff out their feathers and cover their feet to keep them warm. Minimizing drafts while allowing plenty of ventilation (chickens exhale moist air just like we do) significantly reduces the risk of frostbite. Make sure they have access to liquid water and plenty of food–they use the digestion of food to generate heat.

I had to remove their outside water bucket since the deicer had stopped working. This left 5 gallons of ICE to carry into the house and muscle into a sink to defrost. Ugh. I have an alternative I’ll post about in a few days. Hope everyone’s bees do well this winter.

Second time around

I used Craigslist to unload my laying hens. They were my first batch of chickens, received in the spring of 2010. There were 10 hens, they were 2.5 years old and were laying ~4 eggs a day. During their peak, they were laying 8 eggs a day. As chickens age, their production drops but more importantly, the quality of the eggs drops as well. The whites become more watery, there are more blood spots and blemishes in the yolks and whites, and the chickens become more predisposed to other issues such as prolapsed vents.

While owning chickens I have had to perform chicken surgery twice! Each time, thankfully, it was a success due to clean technique and lots of reading. We had to perform crop surgery due to an impacted crop (the smell was so foul, fetid, and putrid). The second surgery was for bumble foot. After cleaning out her foot, expressing the pus (ick) I used ichthammol which is a drawing salve and kept her foot wrapped with gauze and vet wrap. It actually worked and cleared the infection up. I hope I don’t have to do any surgery this time around.

Soaking in epsom salts to clean and soften the scab. Wrapping her in a towel keeps her quiet but you'll be amazed how calm they'll be.

Soaking in epsom salts to clean and soften the scab. Wrapping her in a towel keeps her quiet but you’ll be amazed how calm they’ll be.

The scab.

The scab.

Applied the salve, wrapping it up to keep the drawing salve intact with the skin and to keep it a bit cleaner.

Applied the salve, wrapping it up to keep the drawing salve intact with the skin and to keep it a bit cleaner.

Now the old girls are gone and the new ones have arrived. In mid-September I received my chicks in the mail. They hatched Monday and shipped that afternoon, I had them by 10:30 AM Tuesday the next day. “What about water and food?” you may ask. Chicks can be mailed when so young because for the first three days of life, they are still absorbing their yolk sac thus their water and food intake is minimal.

Cardboard boxes, a plastic window pane and a red heat lamp.

Cardboard boxes, a plastic window pane and a red heat lamp.

When you have chicks, you keep them in a brooder with a heat lamp, preferably a red one. The heat lamp is provided because it takes the place of the mother hen, who is obviously not there, and it provides the necessary 95 degrees F. The temperature is adjusted by the height of the lamp and it is dropped by 5 degrees every week. The chicks should be fully feathered in about 5 weeks (yes, it happens very quickly).

The brooder can be a fancy structure or a very basic one. Mine is made of cardboard boxes. I PROMISE you that you will want to make yours as high as humanly possible. Though chickens as adults are not good fliers, they sure are when they’re chicks! You do not want the chicks flying out of the brooder and away from the heat lamp. That is sure death. The brooder should also be large enough for the chicks to move away from the heat lamp if needed, but not so huge that they will become lost and cold away from the lamp. They need to be provided with chick starter and water. I use nipple waterers exclusively as this keeps the water clean. I truly dislike the standard waterers as the water becomes filthy very quickly. To prevent the chicks from billing out the food (knocking the food out with their bills), you will want to elevate the food dish as they grow.

The food dish, the waterer with nipples. They caught on in less than10 seconds. And you don't need to worry about anyone drowning.

The food dish toward the front and the waterer with nipples in the back to the right. They caught on to the nipples in less than10 seconds. And you don’t need to worry about anyone drowning. Chickens explore by pecking, so the nipples work extremely well.

When you get your chicks, you need to get them under the heat lamp promptly. When putting them into the brooder, dip their beaks in the water if using a basin or just tap their beak on the nipple. They’ll figure it out. I’ve only used nipples with my chicks and I LOVE them.

For the first few days I use paper towels to line their brooder. Newspaper is not recommended as the chicks can develop “splayed legs.” Something with traction but that they cannot mistakenly eat is called for. I don’t use pine shavings when they’re very young because the chicks don’t understand it’s not food (normally the mother hen will teach the chicks what is food and what isn’t). Paper towels are cheap, easy to use, easy to change and provide plenty of traction. This week or next I will switch to a newspaper-based bedding.

Water

Unlimited supply, keep it clean, keep it from freezing in the winter. That’s about it.

Food

You start with chick starter, moving to grower and then layer. It depends on the formulation of the maker, so just follow what they recommend for the food you’ve purchased.  I buy organic chicken feed but for my old girls I also provided loads of kitchen scraps; they ate slugs, crickets, worms, grubs, whatever they could find.

Medicated feed or unmedicated? Medicated feed, contrary to what some people believe, is not medicated with antibiotics. It is medicated with anticoccidials, which are thiamine inhibitors. The most devastating illness a chick can develop is called coccidiosis which causes severe diarrhea and usually results in death. The coccidia use a great deal of thiamine during growth, so by giving your chicks a thiamine inhibitor, you help to prevent or lessen an infection. But you see, chicks need thiamine too. What can you do since their immune systems are not built up enough to withstand the onslaught of microbes in tthe soil? Last time I gradually introduced the microbes to the chicks. I would take them out onto the grass for about an hour, dig up worms and various bugs to expose them to the local microflora slowly. Knock on wood, it worked 2.5 years ago. I hope it works again!

Checking for problems

When you get chicks check their rear ends for pasty butt, this is when poop has dried and started to block their vents and will spell certain death! Make sure you run warm water on this blockage, very gently working the clump off AFTER it has started to soften. You don’t want to rip their skin or down off. Dry the area gently and use a blow dryer for a bit. Even after the blow dryer my chick’s down was still wet and flat. After putting her back in the brooder, within seconds her down fluffed back up and was nice and dry (the heat from the heat lamp did it).

This one had a pasty butt and it being dried with one of my towel rags.

This one had a pasty butt and it is being dried with one of my towel rags.

This one already has it's tail feathers coming in only 2 days after hatching.

This one already has it’s tail feathers coming in only 2 days after hatching.

More later! Have a good night and I hope everyone has a wonderful New Year.

Lovely spring for gardening

We have been very fortunate that our mild winter, coupled with a mild spring have resulted in early harvests. I can’t decide if this bodes well or ill for the overall harvest. For a while we were getting 1/2″ to 1″ rain every week, which is perfect. It would seriously be six days of sun and one day of rain; in my gardening memory I don’t remember a spring like this.

I’ve been picking alpine strawberries for almost 2 months now:

Red Wonder: super intense strawberry flavor.

Yellow Wonder: these are ripe when they are fuller, the skin is a creamy off-white and the seeds have darkened. Also, the berry almost falls off the stem when you go to pick it. They have the most wonderful tropical, pineapple flavor.

Bumblebee on asparagus flowers

Sugar snap peas: this picture was taken a month ago, the plants have easily quadrupled in size.

Sugar snap pea flower

Bee using my moist potting soil to collect water. “Dirty” water also carries salts and minerals necessary for the bees. See her extended proboscis? Click to embiggen.

I’ve picked a quart and a half of blueberries, here are a few:

This is just to show you scale regarding the strawberries. They are small but mighty flavorful! The blueberries are incredible. I expect to pick another quart tomorrow.

Mr. Fox longing for the chickens.

“I wish I could get in there!” He was there for over 30 minutes. He actually laid down and just stared at them for most of the time. He eventually got up and left…I thought, only to circle back around and stare some more. The chickens were on high alert.

Baby meyer lemons!

Beautiful poppies, the bees love them.

We’ve picked several quarts of sugar snap peas, about a dozen rogue potatoes, a cabbage, some broccoli (which was amazingly delicious), black raspberries, a few red raspberries and we just pulled the garlic yesterday. The problem with this early harvest is the plants that only produce one crop: they’re producing it one or more months earlier and once that harvest is done, it’s done. I can think of a few off the top of my head: blueberries, ALL tree fruits, June-bearing strawberries (all DONE in MAY!!!). I’m sure there are more. Normally you wait until July and August to have peaches and nectarines, but this year we should have them in the next week or two. So once those months roll around, I wonder what there will be? The one good thing for us regarding this mild spring is that we’ve actually been able to harvest heads of broccoli, usually the spring is just too warm for broccoli and it bolts before we can even harvest any heads. We shall see what this summer will bring, it will be 97 degrees F on Wednesday and Thursday. Summer in Maryland…hot and muggy, yay.

Frequent questions about chickens

Here are some questions I’ve come across about chickens and their answers:

1. Aren’t they noisy? Chickens (hens) are not noisy all the time. Roosters are, they crow all day, not just in the morning. Hens make most of their noise around egg-laying, it’s commonly called the “egg song.” It’s the bawck, baw-guk you hear. It’s also the same sound they’ll use as an alarm call. I have one chicken that makes this call for a good 20 minutes. And others that make it once. You cannot tell which chicken will do what until they do it.

2. Don’t you need a rooster? No. Hens lay eggs regardless of whether there is a rooster around or not, just like women’s ovaries release eggs every month. You need a rooster if you want fertilized eggs and hope to hatch chicks. Without a rooster, the hens will lay unfertilized eggs.

3. Can’t you just put chicken wire around them to protect them? Uh, NO. People don’t seem to realize that chicken wire is meant to keep chickens OUT of areas, not to PROTECT chickens. Chicken wire is USELESS against foxes, raccoons, loose dogs, weasels, minks, etc. You may be lucky for a few months but I can promise you, your chickens will be found by something that wants to eat them. Also, you need a covered run to keep out the hawks. It is seriously unfair to lock up an animal in an unsecure run and provide it with no escape options. Don’t make your chickens into “sitting ducks.” Everybody likes chicken, right?

4. Then what can I use to protect them? I will tell you what I do. I have a fixed coop and run (meaning it’s not portable/movable). It is completely enclosed in hardware cloth 1/2″. It is aproned with the same mesh around the edges to prevent any digging. You can go back to my coop pictures to see. This technique addresses all predators from land and air.

5. Have you lost any to predators? No, see #4. But I have lost one to heat. We had a day at the beginning of June 2011 that got up to 115 with the heat index, they were outside as usual and the run is shaded but the humidity was unreal. When I came home and checked the coop, I found Simone, my favorite Salmon Faverolle dead in the coop 😦 The farmers we know at the market all lost chickens that day.

6. Do the different eggshell colors mean one is better or healthier than the other? No. Though the colors may be different the contents are the same. It is the hen’s diet that makes the difference in the actual “goodness” of the contents.

7. Do you color the green eggs? No, these eggs come from my Easter Egger chickens, so-called because they lay green or blue colored eggs. There are several breeds that lay these kinds of eggs, I will cover the three you will hear discussed most often.

The first is an Easter Egger. It is a “mutt” breed meaning it is not an actual breed as breeds require standards. The EE carries the blue-egg gene but it is NOT guaranteed to lay blue or green eggs, you can still get an EE hen that lays light brown eggs.

The second is an Ameraucana. It is a recognized breed with standards established by the American Poultry Association Standards of Perfection. These will lay green or blue colored eggs, breeders try to get as close to blue as possible. These are the breeders in the US that sell to the public. I had one Ameraucana and I purchased it from Whitmore Farms. If you buy one from an online hatchery or your local farm store during chick days, it is an EE. EEs are not Ameraucana chickens; EEs are not a breed, they can look like anything, lay a green or blue egg and they will be an EE. Easter Egger and Ameraucana are not interchangeable terms.

The third is an Araucana. This is a rumpless chicken from South America. They are VERY hard to breed and thus quite rare. Because they are rumpless, fertilization is difficult and they also have a genetic glitch that affects hatch rate. Various online hatcheries call their colored-egg layers Araucanas, that is incorrect.

Personally, I’m anxiously awaiting the Cream Legbar to become accessible here.

8. Does the same chicken lay all those colors? No. A chicken will lay only one color it’s entire life. If it starts out laying white eggs, it will only lay white eggs. All other colors are essentially “spray-painted” onto the egg and thus may vary slightly from egg to egg. But a green-laying hen will never lay mottled brown eggs.

9. Does the largest chicken lay the largest egg? No. Actually, the most efficient egg layers are generally the lightest such as Leghorns, which are usually kept in factories. They have the most efficient feed to egg conversion factor meaning a Leghorn requires less food to make an egg than a Speckled Sussex, for example.

If you have any questions, feel free to comment or email me.

Update on all fronts

I have something to say about all of our projects! Chickens, bees, garden, meyer lemon.

I let the chickens out twice today and they really enjoyed it. When we had a large pile of compost in the back, they would go over there and dust bathe and just loll about in the warm, soft dirt. Today, there was no pile but there was sun:

Doesn't this look relaxing?

We have a couple of raised garden beds under a maple tree and over the years, the yields just haven’t been so great from those beds. The roots of the tree infiltrated the beds and sucked the water and nutrients out. Today was the day to move it:

The old location.

A very large pile of dirt that we then screened and replaced in the new location.

The raised bed was moved. It was leveled and the screened dirt was replaced.

Another bed in the line. The second one from the right was the home of the monster crookneck squash plant last year. I'm so glad we're not growing squash this year.

The bees were bringing in pollen: bright orange, light yellow and a grayish color. The bees were hard to photograph:

Full pollen basket at the top of the picture.

My hive stand has kind of started tipping. I’ll need to level it off before I can install the Freeman hive beetle traps:

Can you see it leaning a bit toward the front and to your left under Demeter (purple hive)? We had A LOT of rain this past year and the weight of the hives just sunk the stand into the ground a bit...but not evenly.

My meyer lemon tree has had some serious yellowing of the leaves and they were DROPPING!!! Can I just say how much I was flipping out? Within 2 weeks it must have lost at least 3 leaves a day. I was wondering if I was watering too much but Al’s 5-1-1 mix should pretty much eliminate that problem. I stopped watering for a while and the leaves still yellowed. One thing that told me it was okay was the presence of new growth–the tree had new leaves coming on almost all of the branches. If it wasn’t water, then the only other option was lack of fertilizer. I was using Foliage-Pro (just a tiny bit) every time I watered and there was some citrus granular fertilizer in the mix but I have a feeling it just wasn’t enough. Citrus trees need lots of fertilizer and I’ve been giving it about 1/2 cup of the granular fertilizer every 3 months or so. It was time to fertilize when I repotted it but I didn’t want to stress the tree any more. I guess I waited too long.

I added the fertilizer under the top layer of dirt and just watered it last night–I left it in the sink to drain and then set it back on it’s rock-filled saucer. It’ll probably be a few days before I know if it worked. I really hope I didn’t mess it up with this new mix…

Winter garden and dirty chickens

Last year I planted some lettuce seed in a garden bed thinking I would have enough time to harvest the lettuce before winter came. It’s Maryland after all, my husband and brother were playing golf on Christmas Eve for heavens sake! Well, it got cold before I could harvest the lettuce so I threw a row cover over the lettuce sprouts. Then it snowed and snowed. I left the snow on the row cover figuring it would just help insulate the poor things underneath. In March I went out to check on the lettuce and there were FULL HEADS under the snow and row cover! FULL HEADS of lettuce in MARCH! I was so excited.

I’ve read Eliot Coleman and his ideas for 4 growing seasons and we’re giving it a shot with this:

 

We put the hoop house over 2 garden beds (about 4’x8′ each) and covered it on 4 sides with thick plastic sheeting. It will have an entrance on one end to allow us access to inside. The wood plank is just to avoid stepping in the garden beds. We’ll build something better next year, or rather, Steve will build something better 🙂

In the hoop house we have kale and collards (for the chickens) and lettuce and carrots (I think) for us. Ideally the hoop house will keep it just above freezing inside and the plants can grow slowly. You can only do cool season veggies like this, not summer. I’ll let you know how it goes.

As for the chickens, I had to clean their coop today. I couldn’t stand all that poop everywhere. Goodness chickens poop all the time…all the time. I have a poop tray that catches the majority of the poop at night and helps keep the inside of the coop pretty clean. But every few months I clean it all out and wash it down so it looks like this:

You can see the roost (bar), the poop tray and just below the BEST pine shavings EVER.

A closer view of the roost where the chickens sleep and the poop tray. It's filled with Sweet PDZ which acts as a dessicant and dries the poop to allow me to scoop it out with a cat litter scoop. The Sweet PDZ is granular so it sifts through the slots of the scooper. A couple of chickens actually sleep right on the ledge by the window...brrrr.

The nest boxes, usually filled with straw.

The roost is a 2″ x 4″ with the edges rounded off. The chickens sit on the bar, fluff their feathers over their feet and keep their feet warm that way. If you tried to use a narrower roost, you could give your chickens frostbite and that would not be fun for either of you.

They have lots of ventilation, even during the winter. Chickens put out a lot of moisture in their breath and this needs to escape otherwise it can settle on their combs and feet and cause frostbite. You must avoid direct drafts onto the chickens because a constant cold wind can make them sick. But air flowing above or below them is fine, just not ON them. They have 2 windows about 8′ in length and 2 more about 2′ in length for a total of 12’x1′ of wall ventilation (they have a window I close in the winter to prevent drafts).

The chickens come into the coop only to eat, lay eggs and sleep. Otherwise they are always outside.

 

This is their completely enclosed run. There is hardware cloth that is aproned around the entire perimeter to stop predators from digging.

The pictures above show you how the run is enclosed. The girls are always outside, if it’s raining or snowing, they go under the coop and hang out there. The coop is raised to prevent mice, rats and whatever else from building a home there. The food is kept in the coop exclusively, this is to prevent mold and to keep from tempting other critters. The water is outside and I use nipples to keep the water clean (in the first run picture, it’s the white thing hanging on the left).

This is what it looks like after the bedding has been added inside:

Pine shavings that the girls will compact with their feet.

And now they are sleeping and pooping and the whole cycle starts all over 🙂