Arcadia Farms

  (Portage, Michigan)
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Winter Egg Update

In mid-November I shared that our hens had stopped laying eggs completely due to molting, cold weather and minimal daylight hours. Though chickens can and will lay occasional eggs during cold, dark winter days, we decided not to endure an entire winter of feeding chickens who aren’t ‘giving back’ (or the shame of buying eggs at the grocery store)! After research and input form other homesteaders, we settled on the following plan:
  1. Add artificial light in the early morning hours so that the hens receive at least 14 hours of light a day.
  2. Use an eco-friendly white light in our heat lamp. Saves money and energy.
  3. Avoid using a red heat lamp to insure against the scenario where the chickens get used to the extra heat and we subsequently lose power.
  4. Feed more protein to the flock.

Today I’d like to give you a quick update on the progress of our plan.

First, I bought an outdoor automatic timer found in the holiday lighting section of Menards (less than $10). Though I can only plug one thing into it at a time, it allows me to create several (maybe a dozen?) different schedules for times of the day and days of the week. We’ve opted to turn our light on from 2:30 AM to 8:30 AM every morning. It’s a little longer than necessary, but based on the shifting time of the sunrise it will keep us covered without me having to remember to revise the schedule. (Call me lazy…)

The day after I finally go the light installed I went out to feed the chickens. I peeked into the coop from the door opposite the nesting box to see if there were any eggs. (I’d been doing this for several weeks – since the chickens hadn’t laid in egg in sooo long – and because it’s easier then hopping the fence to get to the nesting box.) I noticed that an egg was laying on the floor of the coop below the nesting box; it must have rolled out. How exciting! We had an egg! I hadn’t expected the light to work so quickly…

I hopped the fence, opened the nesting box and, imagine my surprise, when I discovered 16 eggs! No wonder one had rolled out…

The lesson: Yes, chickens still lay winter eggs naturally in the absence of supplemental light and heat.

True as this may be, I had no idea how many eggs per day this 16 represented (it had been three to four weeks since I’d checked… I think… I wasn’t keeping track) and one egg every few days is still not going to cut it as justification when Mr. Shank is reviewing our feed bill.

At any rate, using the light seemed to work fairly well. The girls started laying about 3 eggs a day. Recently we’ve had several four-egg days.

winter eggs

By adding supplemental light and heat we’ve been getting about three eggs a day.

winter eggs

Three eggs a day ain’t bad!

However, two things happened that made me alter the plan. First, the chickens did seem to be getting restless, even a little aggressive from their 6-hour stints locked up inside the lighted coop. Also, on very super cold days (of which we several in late November/early December) they stopped laying completely. With these things in mind, I decided to switch to the red heat lamp.

red heat light lamp chicken coop

As I mentioned in last month’s winter egg production post, red light has proven to be useful in calming chickens’ nerves. (Weird, right?) I’m certainly not conducting a scientific experiment here, but I can say that the hens seem to be calmer now that we’ve been using the red light. I have no idea if it’s just a factor of time or if it has to do with the warmth of the heat lamp, but the two chickens whose feathers were very sparse have filled back in nicely.

So far things are going well – we’re pleased with three or four eggs a day. I’ve been cooking up food scraps (like carrot peelings, apple cores, sweet potato leftovers, bits of steak, etc.) into a warm batch of… goop… for the hens to enjoy. And though I know they’re a heavy breed intended to withstand winter just fine on their own, I can tell that they’re not fond of the snow. They come out in the morning to eat and drink but usually spend their day in the coop.

I bet they can’t wait for six-eggs-a-day season spring.

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Caring for Baby Chicks

Chickens may be “easy to care for” but baby chicks are fragile. Follow these tips to give you little peeps the best chance at a healthy adult life.

Before the Chicks Arrive – Brooder Setup

Baby chicks need a warm, safe, clean place to live during the first 4-6 weeks of their life. That warm, safe, clean place is called a brooder and it can come in all kinds of shapes and sizes.

The brooder can be as simple as a cardboard box or as complex as a wood and wire box built for the occasion. The container should be able to keep bedding (i.e., pine shavings), chicken poo, chicken feed and, well, chickens, enclosed at all times while still allowing air flow. Our brooder was initially a large plastic Rubbermaid tub. As our chickens grew we graduated to a large cardboard box and eventually a large dog crate with cardboard inserts to keep the bedding inside.

plastic tub chick brooder cardboard box chick brooder dog crate chick brooder

Temperature is critical during the first few weeks so you’ll want a heat lamp to keep those chickees warm! During the first week the temperature inside the brooder should be 95*. Every week after that you lower the temperature by 5* (move the lamp higher) until eventually you settle around 70* and turn the lamp off. To be able to accurately determine the temperature you’ll also want to include a thermometer. I placed my indoor/outdoor thermometer inside the brooder – tells me the brooder temp and (remotely) tells me the greenhouse temp.

DSC03623

Chicks also need something to eat (typically commercial chick feed) and something to drink (whiskey water). Becuase they’re messy creatures, it’s your job to make sure their food and water don’t get (overly) contaminated with poo. Ergo, these puppies come in handy:

DSC03622

Pardon the mess… these were photographed right before being cleaned.

The other thing you’ll need in your brooder is bedding. The bedding absorbs chicken waste. I’ve heard rumors that pine shavings are bad for chickens because they give off some manner of harmful emission. Unfortunately I didn’t learn that until after I had already filled my brooder with pine shavings. I did more reading (especially in the forums at www.backyardchickens.com and the overwhelming majority of chicken owners said they had been using pine shavings for a long time with no signs of impact on the chickens. All the same, after we ran out of wood chips I used timothy hay. I have to say, the wood chips definitely did a better job of absorbing moisture and smells. Plus the with the way our final brooder was setup (dog crate with cardboard sides) there were small cracks where the bedding would fall out onto the floor when the chickens scratched in it. Long story short, I ended up with chicken bedding on my floor. Not. Happy. I’m going back to wood chips. (On a side note, resist the urge to use shredded newspaper. Apparently it is very slippery under the little chickees feet and can lead to abnormalities in foot development.)

pine shaving bedding brooder

In this picture you can see that the bottom of the brooder box is covered in pine shavings. This type of bedding did an excellent job absorbing moisture and odor.

timothy hay bedding in brooder

In this picture the brooder has timothy hay for bedding. Not nearly as effective as the pine shavings.

timothy hay bedding in brooder

When the chickens scratch they are constantly causing the hay to fall out onto the floor. Huge mess! That’s why there are blankets on the floor. Have I mentioned how happy I am that it’s time for these girls to go outside??

Bringing the Chicks Home

Now that your brooder is setup and the temperature is just right, you’re ready to bring some babies home! If you ordered chicks to be delivered through a hatchery, they’ll arrive a little stressed. The chicks are packaged in a way that they’re collective body heat keeps them warm, but as soon as you open the packaging, getting them into an appropriately warm environment is critical. Also keep in mind that it’s not uncommon for one or two chicks to die during delivery because of the stress. Keep that in mind if you have little ones who are helping you get the chicks setup. (Knowing that this is common, hatcheries will often send you a couple of extra ‘insurance’ chicks.)

If you’re picking your chicks up, you’ll want to keep them warm in transport. Our six chicks came home in a cardboard box from Tractor Supply Company that looked a little like a happy meal with ventilation holes. (Perhaps we should name one nugget?) The ride from TSC to our farm is about 5 minutes so I just made sure the temp in the car was comfortable.

Whether you bring them or the mailman does, the first thing you want to do is encourage your chicks to take a drink of water. Gently pick them up and dip their beaks into the water container until they drink.

Now is a good time to take note of how the chicks behave. If they huddle together under the light, they are probably too cold and you’ll need to lower the heat lamp. If they scatter to the edges of the brooder, they are probably too hot. Having a thermometer in the brooder takes some of the guess work out of this part.

Another thing to check for is “pasting up.” This is a condition where a stressed chick gets a buildup of feces on their vent (where their poo comes out). You want to check your chicks often for pasting up. (I checked mine a couple of times a day during the first week they were with us – their second week of life – and since none of them ever had a problem, I stopped checking after that.) If one of your chicks has a problem with pasting up, guess what you get to do? Clean it. Grab a damp, warm towel and wipe away the problem. Sounds gross, but think of all the street cred you’ll gain in the backyard chicken community…

Ongoing Chick Care

In addition to the things mentioned above, remember that you need to adjust the heat lamp every week so that the temperature drops by 5 degrees. This process is essentially “hardening them off” just like you would do with a plant that has been living indoors and is now ready to live outside. You’ll also want to change the chicks’ bedding at least once a week or more often if it gets especially nasty in there. After the chicks are 2-3 weeks old, they can take field trips to the outdoors so long as the temperature is warm. Keep a close eye on them to protect them from family pets and predators like hawks or racoons. Our chickens ventured outside twice before they moved to the coop – once at four weeks old and once at five weeks old. Both occasions were on warm (60*) sunny days and lasted for about 30-40 minutes. Marley helped us to keep a watchful shepherd eye on them both times.

marley shepherd chickens

Although Marley looks like a lab, he is part Australian Shepherd. We see the shepherd in him coming out when he interacts with our chickens and our bunny.

When your chicks are four to five weeks old, they’re probably ready to be called chickens. They’re also ready to move to their permanent outdoor home. Because our chickens are old enough to get the heck out of my spare bedroom already be outside now, they’ve moved to their new home in the backyard (more on that later this week!). Though daytime temps are up in the 50?s and 60?s, our April nights still dip down to nearly freezing. For that reason, I plan to keep the heat lamp on at night for another two weeks or so. I’m being careful to keep it clipped to a spot where the hens can benefit from the warmth without danger of touching its hot surface.

A Note on Food

I ran into conflicting opinions about what to feed my baby chickens. Many hard-core permaculture peeps felt it was important to reject commercial starter feed. (After all, our grandparents or great-grandparents probably didn’t rely on medicated commercial chick feed to get their flock off to a good start.) The idea is that commercial “starter feed” has everything a baby chick needs, namely proteins that are easy for little chick stomachs to digest. You can buy medicated or unmedicated feed. The medication – as well as an available vaccine – are intended as a preventative measure against coccidiosis, a disease caused by an intestinal parasite. On YouTube I saw several videos where chicken owners have chosen to give their chicks yogurt as “insurance” against intestinal issues. For easy to understand info on coccidiosis, medicated starter feed and vaccinations, I recommend this article at Urban Farm Online: Hatching the Facts on Medicated Chick Starter Feeds for Layers. We opted for non-medicated starter feed and have given our chicks a few doses of yogurt. I have no idea whether or not they have been vaccinated. We’ll plan to feed our chickens starter feed for the first two to three months.

Chick starter feed chick starter feed

Chickens also need grit. Grit is a substance (usually small stones) that chickens use in their crop (the first part of a chicken’s digestive system) to help grind their food. (Look ma, no teeth!) Whether or not you need to feed your chickens grit depends on their diet. I suggest doing some research before you decide what to do. Here’s a good place to start: Chicken Grit; Grit for Baby and Adult Chickens. I still haven’t made a plan for the kind of grit we’ll provide our chickens.

Did you enjoy this article? Visit www.arcadia-farms.net for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally.    

 
 
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