Managing Chickens: In the Bitter Cold

This post is our sixth post in our Managing Chickens Series.  You can read previous posts by clicking the following links:

Managing Chickens: Housing

Managing Chickens: Housing Part 2

Managing Chickens: Feeding and Watering

Managing Chickens: Integrating Chickens

Managing Chickens: Breeding

Although we have touched on the topic of how we handle the cold weather in some of the previous posts, we decided to dedicate an entire post to the topic to bring all the information into one place and to go into more detail.

We live in the high-altitude Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  Our winters involve times of bitter cold, where the temperatures drop down to the -20s and -30s at night.  We sometimes go several days without the daytime temperatures getting above the single digits.  We also have quite a lot of wind.  Several times each winter we will get gusts up to 60-80 mph.  We also get snow.  We have snow storms from October through May.  Our deepest snows occur in the spring when we are not getting our coldest temperatures.  We usually have a spring blizzard or two that drop 4-6 feet of snow on us.  The great thing about our snow is that because of the huge amounts of sunshine we get, the ground is not covered with snow all winter because we have several melts throughout the winter that get rid of it before the fresh stuff falls again.  However, shady spots can keep snow all winter long.

Bitter cold temperatures, wind, snow, and high altitude can be a recipe for disaster with chickens if you aren’t prepared.  We have found several ways that work for us to raise our chickens successfully in our climate.

Housing

All of our housing is double walled (exterior wall and interior wall with space in between), insulated (in the space in between the walls), and the wall cracks are sealed to prevent drafts.  We have used many different types of insulation – most of the time it just depends what we have on hand when we are building our coops.  Our favorite insulation for the coops is wool.  When a fleece is shorn off of a sheep there is quite a bit of un-useable fiber.  The fiber from the legs, belly, and rear end are usually ruined with hay, straw, and sheep waste.  Once the fleece comes off the sheep it is laid out flat and “skirted.”  Skirting means removing the waste wool from the edges so it doesn’t contaminate the whole fleece.  We keep this wool from our sheep and use it for insulation in the chicken coops.  We have also been able to get this wool from our breeder since she shears so many sheep so many times a year she often throws away the skirtings – she is happy for us to take them away for her.  If it is dry it doesn’t smell at all and it provides excellent insulation value.  It is also a deterrent to rodents.  Mice and other rodents do not like lanolin, which is an oil found naturally in sheep’s wool.  All of these things help keep the drafts out and give them an excellent shelter to go to out of the wind.

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At this point we do still use heat lamps in our coops.  We are working to breed our chickens to be extremely cold hardy, but since we are still in the early years of our selective breeding program, and it gets so very cold here, the chickens are not yet able to handle the severe cold that we are dealing with.  Heat lamps are absolutely a fire hazard in a barn or coop.  We had one fall into the shavings early in our farming experience and almost burn down the coop and barn.  Thankfully, we heard our farm dog barking and went to investigate.  We got there before the flames broke out, but there was plenty of smoke and some minor damage.  We take the use of heat lamps very cautiously and seriously.

Almost all of our heat lamps are installed into a light fixture.  We put a 100-watt heat bulb into a normal light fixture in the coop.

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The heat lamp in a light fixture in the lower coop. It is on a thermostat control that turns it on around 40F.

However, this doesn’t always work and we sometimes need the lamp to be closer to the ground, as is true in the Mama Hen Pen that has a 9-foot ceiling.  In these cases we hang the heat lamp from the rafters on a metal chain.

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Heat lamp hung by chain in MHP where Eve is brooding. It is not touching the hanging waterer right next to it, the picture just makes it look like it is.

Almost all of our heat lamps are on thermostats.  The exceptions are the ones used for the mama hens – the one in the Broody Coop and the one in the Mama Hen Pen.  Those two run constantly and we turn them off when they are not needed.  But the rest of the heat lamps are on thermostats set for about 35-45F.

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Sarah sitting on her eggs in the Broody Coop. You can see the glow of the heat lamp behind her. It is installed into a light fixture and is not on a thermostat.

The last thing we do in our housing to help with the cold is use the deep-bed method of bedding the housing.  We use pine shavings and put about 12-18 inches of them in each coop.  We keep our waterers outside, so the bedding stays dry.  The bedding gets cleaned out completely whenever needed – which is usually only about 4 times a year.

Feeding

We free-feed our chickens store-bought chicken feed.  We have never had a problem with this since we free-range them.  They never hang around the feeders and chow for hours, nor do they sit there and wait for their next meal.  They choose to go scratch in the compost heap and eat the scraps we provide them before they choose to eat the feed.  Some birds are better at this than others, but we have never had a problem.  I have heard some people have a problem with free-feeding their flocks.

In addition to their store-bought feed our chickens are given plenty of kitchen scraps.  All of our plates are scraped for the chickens, as long as they don’t have any chicken or egg products on them, and don’t include excess salt or sugar.  We also give them all the extra cuttings off of veggies, fruits, and meats when we are preparing food.

The main thing we do differently in the bitter cold weather is to feed them hot mash twice a day.  Hot mash is just store-bought chicken feed with hot water added to make it the consistency of a hot cereal that humans eat.  We hot-mash the chickens anytime the temperatures are below about 15-20F.  We do it right before they go to bed, and right when they wake up in the morning.  So if it is 20 degrees or under at dusk we hot-mash them, and if it has gotten 20 degrees or below over night we hot-mash them in the morning.  They love it and come running for their chance at some hot mash.  We are careful not to give them so much that there is any left when they are all full, because that freezes into a solid mess.  But we make sure to give enough that even the birds low on the pecking order can get their fill.  We use the bases from large plant pots to feed them the mash.

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Water

Keeping water thawed and drinkable can be a challenge in the winter.  We use “chicken nipple” spouts attached to the bottom of 5-gallon buckets to water our chickens.  We have tried many methods to keep them thawed, but finally found the best option this year.  We use sinking bucket de-icers down in the buckets.  So far, the one we purchased that sits about 1/2 inch off the bottom of the bucket and is 500 watts has been able to keep the spouts thawed all the way down to -24F.  It is in a bucket that is kept outside all the time.  And we have not had trouble with it damaging the plastic of the bucket, nor keeping the water too warm.  The thermostatic control in it seems to work just right for the 5 gal bucket.  We use lids on the buckets that have a hole in them (the kind for painters).  This makes it easy to run the power cord down the rope that the bucket hangs on and through the hole on the lid.

As you can see in the pictures above (the 2 pictures with brooding hens in them), we use small gravity waterers (the ones with yellow plastic bottoms) in the Broody Coop and Mama Hen Pen.  Husband used duct tape to make a hook on top of those to hang them in those areas.  Those are hung close enough to the heat lamps in those areas to keep the water thawed.

Frost Bite

We have dealt with frostbite both on feet and on combs & wattles.

Our previous rooster had much too big of a single comb and struggled with frostbite.

The severe foot frostbite we had was due to a broken toe.  We don’t think he would have gotten the severity of frostbite he did if his toe hadn’t gotten broken.  We have had a few hens get mild frostbite on just the tips of their toes as well.  This is one of the reasons we are working to breed the feathered feet into our stock.

We have had severe frostbite on both combs and wattles.  We are now choosing stock with small combs and wattles and are also selectively breeding them to get them even smaller.  Our rate of frostbite this winter has been much much lower than previous years, so it seems the selective breeding is going in the right direction.  We are hoping to get it completely under control next year.

We treat the frostbitten combs and wattles with a homemade herbal salve to help heal them and protect them as much as possible.

We are continuing to learn new ways to help the chickens survive the bitter cold and continuing to selectively breed them to withstand it on their own as well.  For now, the methods I have listed are working well to help keep them healthy and happy through the long winter months.

Managing Chickens: Breeding

Next up in our managing chickens series we are going to share how we manage our chicken breeding program at Willow Creek Farm.  To read previous posts in this series you can use the following links:

Managing Chickens: Housing Part 1

Managing Chickens: Housing Part 2

Managing Chickens: Feeding and Watering

Managing Chickens: Integrating Chickens

Any breeding program starts with keeping a rooster, or a few roosters, with the hens.  We have found keeping roosters, when it is the right rooster(s), to be very beneficial to the flock.  Many people have heard horror stories about mean roosters.  We had heard those stories before we started breeding chickens as well.  We even have a few of our own stories of mean cockerels, but our stories end very quickly and always with the same destination for that cockerel – the stew pot.  We refuse to keep cockerels or roosters that are aggressive to humans, or the farm dog, or the hens.  We want our farm to be a safe, harmonious place, and we do not want to continue to pass the aggressive traits down to the next generations.  Breeding aggressive males just leads to more aggressive males.

Aggressive Males

We handle the cockerels regularly as they are growing up, as well as handle “their” girls regularly in their presence as well.  We have found that the males are usually aggressive when we are catching their girls, so we do this often to get them used to it and to quickly remove any males that show aggression towards us.  We have also had very young cockerels that show aggression without provocation at a very early age, like 7-9 weeks of age.  Often, when we enter the pen to feed or water they immediately come after us.  In those situations we label that pen off-limits to children and we manage the situation long enough to get the male to a good butcher weight.  However, there have been times that we have butchered as early as 12 weeks just because we were so tired of dealing with an extremely aggressive little cockerel.

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Just a quick sidetrack here for those who are wondering, a cockerel is a young male chicken, and a rooster is a sexually mature male chicken.  At our farm we use the term cockerel for a male bird that has not completed his first breeding season and a rooster is a male bird that has completed his first breeding season.  We use these terms in this way because of the type of breeding rotation that we do, which will be discussed later.

Once we have weeded out the aggressive males we find that keeping males is great for the flock.  The males alert the females to danger, and then, as they all run into the coop fleeing danger, the lead male goes in last (what a gentleman!).  Also, when the males find a yummy treat they call all the hens over and share it with them.

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Lastly, a good male will “dance” for a hen before he breeds her instead of just aggressively grabbing her and jumping on.  It is nothing like the fancy dances of many wild birds.  He drops his inside shoulder as he circles her and kind of shuffles his feet.  Much of this behavior has been bred out over the years while other things were selected for, so we have had trouble finding roosters that really “dance.”  But our roos do give at least a little dance, and we remove ones that are aggressive when breeding the hens.  Hopefully, over time, our breeding program will produce roos that dance more and more.

Hen Jackets

Even with roosters that are not aggressive, sometimes the female’s backs can begin to get torn up because of the frequent breeding.  When this happens we have little jackets that I make and we put them on the females to give their back a break.  You can read about those here.  One caution about jackets is that it makes it a bit harder for the ladies to dust bathe well and can lead to parasite troubles (such as mites and lice).  So the duration of jacket wearing needs to be limited, and under the jacket, especially under the wing-pits (like armpits) needs to be checked often.  We also will sometimes switch around the pens so the females that are getting damaged are living without a male for a while.

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Selecting Breeding Stock

When we first decided to breed chickens we sat down and made a list of what traits we wanted the chickens to have, in order of importance to us.  It is important to not completely ignore other traits that are not on the list while selecting breeding birds because that is exactly how dancing males were bred out and aggressive males were bred in – because other things were being selected for and no attention was being paid to the behavior, only the looks of the birds.  But we knew we needed to have a list of traits that we were aiming for, so we made the list.  I did a post on what we are selecting for awhile back, it is not completely accurate to what we do now, but it will give you a basic idea of what we select for.  You can view it by clicking here.

The short version of what we decided to select for is this:

Our goal is to have dual-purpose birds that are good layers as well as adequate meat birds.  We want them to survive, lay, and grow well in our climate and cold conditions with long, dark winters.  We want them to be hearty birds that live to old age and lay well into their old age.  We don’t want to have to replace our layers every few years.  And we don’t want to have to use supplemental heat and light except in extreme weather conditions.

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Once we had our list of what we were breeding for we came up with a way to score each bird for each of the items.  If possible, it is best that the scoring be objective.  And example of objective scoring is weighing the bird.  The scale doesn’t have an opinion, it is unbiased, it gives a measurement.  Another objective score is how many eggs the hen lays in one week.  But it is nearly impossible for all the ratings when selecting birds to be completely objective.  Some have to be subjective (somewhat based on a person’s opinion, which can be biased and change over time).  An example of subjective scoring is giving a score for how the bird’s tail looks.  It isn’t an exact measurement.

To keep the scoring as consistent as possible, we feel it is important that the person scoring is always the same person.  So my husband always gives the scores, while I do the record keeping and write down what he is telling me.  That way we have as small amount of subjectivity as possible since our opinions could differ.  However, when he is having trouble deciding between giving a hen a 2.5 or a 3 for her tail, for example, he will ask me and I will help him decide the final number.

The scores are weighted by making things that are more important to us have a higher perfect score than things that are less important to us.

We rate a bird several times over its life.  We have several things that will disqualify a bird from the breeding program right away, no matter how well they score on other things.  These are genetic defects such as crooked keel, split wings, any beak deformities, etc.

Breeding Season

Because of our location and climate we aim for our breeding season to run from about February through June.  We don’t want chicks hatching after July 1st because that lands us butchering in the coldest part of winter and it can be hard to get the males up to weight because of the cold.

When we are ready to start breeding season we separate out the pre-selected females with the male we planned to breed them with.  We usually go for a ratio of one male per 6 females for breeding, although sometimes it is higher or lower than that.  The more females per male (especially above 6) the lower the fertility is usually.  We have found it to be very important to separate out the groups at least 2-3 weeks prior to when we want to collect the hatching eggs.  This gives the group time to settle and get their pecking order figured out.  It also gives the rooster time to take control of the flock and have all the females willingly submit to his breeding.

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We use a rolling breeding system.  We chose this system because it seemed the best fit for a backyard farm of our size.  It only requires separating the birds into two different groups during breeding season, which is ideal for our small space.  It also can be done for several generations without bringing in new stock.  When it is time for new genetics to be brought in it can be accomplished by adding just one new male.  Since it can be hard to find new breeding stock that fits what you are selecting for without setting you back, this aspect was appealing to us.

In a rolling breeding system first year males are bred to second year (or older) females, and second year (or older) males are being bred to first year females.  So we breed cockerels to hens, and roosters to pullets.  By doing this system we never have to worry about full brother and sister breeding – which is not good breeding practice with any animal.  With rolling breeding there will some be father/daughter and mother/son breeding taking place, which is called line-breeding and can help us reach our selection goals faster.  This type of breeding is ok with chickens to a point.  As I said earlier we will have to eventually add in some new genetics because when line-breeding goes on for too many generations the quality of birds begins to decline.  Also, because we are line-breeding, we are trying to be very careful with our selection because while line-breeding strengthens the good traits we are selecting for, it also strengthens any bad traits.  We keep a close eye on our stock because of this.

Collecting Eggs

So…We have carefully selected our breeding stock based on the traits we want.  Our birds have been living in their selected breeding groups for 2-3 weeks or more.  They have figured out their pecking order and the males have taken charge of the flock.  The females are submitting to breeding and everything looks to be in line for good fertility.  We are making sure to feed these flocks a nice balance of ration, scraps, and oyster shell or crushed egg shells to be sure they are in optimum condition for reproduction.  Now it is time to collect the eggs.  We will cover how we do that, as well as incubation, and chick care in future posts in our managing chickens series.

There are so many different ways to handle a chicken breeding program.  Each program needs to be set up in a way that works for what the final goals are, as well as what works for the size and set-up of the farm.  We have shared what is working for us here at Willow Creek Farm for our chicken breeding program and how we handle the different aspects of it.  If you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments section.

Managing Chickens Series: Integrating Chickens

Our Managing Chickens Series has thus far covered how we handle housing, feeding, and watering our chickens at Willow Creek Farm.  You can view those posts here:

Now we are going to move on to how we integrate our chickens.  By integrate we mean how we introduce new chickens into existing flocks that they either haven’t lived with in a long time but used to live with, or that they have never lived with before.

Integrating chickens is a very complicated topic.  So many factors come in to play that it can be hard to explain how to balance all the factors involved without addressing a specific situation.  And even when you follow all the recommended procedures you can still have issues because you are dealing with living things that have their own opinions and you cannot control their behavior.  I struggled a bit to write this because it is hard to put integration into general terms.  Each situation is so different and so many things affect the outcome.  So I am hopeful that in my sharing how we integrate our birds here, and the basic rules and procedures we follow, I will be able to help give you all some tips that might help you in your future chicken integrations.

One of the most important things is to know your chickens.  Sit out and watch them interact.  Know who is very dominant, who is very submissive, and what normal chicken behavior and interaction looks like.  I love watching our chickens, it is almost therapeutic for me.  So I can often be found spending any extra time I have sitting out watching my chickens.  I know who is who and how they normally act and interact.

We have dealt with many integrations with our chicken breeding program.  It seems like every few months or so we are doing the “chicken shuffle” and changing around who is living where for various reasons.  Sometimes the chickens are going back in with chickens they have met before, sometimes they are strangers to each other.  Often there are age differences.  For the most part, we have had great success moving our chickens around and bringing in new birds.

Sharing a Wire Wall

The easiest integrations are always the ones where the chickens have been living near each other with just a wire wall between them for a while.  Many of our housing pens share wire with other pens, and if we have the chance to we put chickens we plan to integrate together into a housing situation where they can share a wire wall, even just for an afternoon, and find that everything goes much smoother.  We have even used our wired livestock panels to build a little pen in the barnyard to put new birds in for a few hours before we integrate them.  It really helps.

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Chickens in wired livestock panel “pen” in barnyard to get to know the flock through the wire before integration.

 

Sometimes people don’t have the space to do a shared wire wall situation, but even just putting the newcomers in a metal dog crate inside of the chicken pen for a few hours can improve the introductions.

Introducing at Night

One thing we have NOT found to help at all is the method of introducing chickens by putting them together in the middle of the night while they are all sleepy.  I know some people love this method but we have tried it, and they either start fighting right away even though it is night, or they start up first thing in the morning.  And this causes the fighting to happen inside the coop – which is definitely NOT where we want it.  We want them to be out where they have plenty of space so the submissive chicken can move away quickly and no one gets hurt.

The Amount of Space Available

The more space the better.  Always.  Trying to introduce new chickens into tight quarters is not a good idea.  We always use the biggest area possible to introduce them.  They need space to move, and posture, and especially space for the ones trying to submit to get away from the dominant one.

In addition to being sure that the introduction area is big, we are very careful not to let our chicken housing get overcrowded.  Bringing birds into an already overcrowded situation is just making the problem worse, and the integration is not likely to go well if the established birds already don’t have enough space to live.  To see what our guidelines for chicken housing spacing are here at Willow Creek Farm, read our Managing Chickens: Housing post by clicking here.

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The three main factors we see that are being juggled when integrating chickens are:

  • The age of the chickens involved
  • Who owned the territory first
  • The amount of chickens being introduced into the group versus the amount of the established chickens

We aim for a good balance in these categories for it to work out well.  But it is not totally cut and dry because all three categories affect the status of the bird.  So we look at who is coming into the group and evaluate them by the three categories, and then look at who is already in the group and evaluate them in the same way so we can make the best choices for introductions.

The Age of the Chickens Involved

Older = More Dominant (to a point).  Once you are dealing with full-grown adults, age doesn’t matter it is more of who has a dominant personality and who is more submissive.  But if you are dealing with any birds under about 25-30 weeks or so, they will generally be more submissive than any adult.  And the younger you get the more submissive they are to the birds older than them.

Who Owned the Territory First 

The chickens who have been living in the current space you are introducing into are going to be territorial and more aggressive than the new birds who don’t know where they are.

The Amount of Newbies Vs. the Amount of Established

Because the established birds will be more aggressive about their territory you need to be careful about the amount of newbies vs the amount of established.  The larger the flock, the less of an issue, as long as the amount of newbies isn’t below 4.

Examples

The easiest way to explain this seems to be to just give several examples of how we attempt to make it balance out and work well.  I will also tell about the two times it did not work out for us and why.  Later I will talk specifically about roosters, and describe what a good fight looks like and what a bad fight looks like.

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One important note is that with our breeding program there are often birds both leaving and joining the established flock.  This is actually very helpful and we time our chicken shuffles so that it all happens at once.  A bird might be leaving because it is a cockerel ready for butcher, or a hen or pullet I am selling, or it is being moved to a different pen for some reason.  So we purposefully time it so all that happens the same day.  We butcher the cockerels, and have people pick up the hens/pullets for sale, and move other birds to other pens all the same day that we move other birds in with the flock either from an outside source or from another pen on the farm.  The leaving of birds stirs up the pecking order enough that it seems the flock takes it easier on the newbies because they are in a bit of disarray themselves.

For the first example let’s talk about introducing younger birds to older birds.  If the younger birds are the established ones in the territory, it is usually fine to introduce just a few adults in with no problems.  But if the older birds are the established flock, the more younger birds you introduce the better.  Our friends bought 39 chicks from us.  Several weeks later they decided they wanted a rooster from our stock that wasn’t full sibling with any of their chicks so they could potentially breed them.  The chicks were 7 weeks old and the rooster I had for them was 16 weeks old.  They introduced him into the flock with no problem because while the babies had the numbers and the territory, the rooster out-sized and out-aged them enough that it all balanced out.  That is one of the only situations where I would say bringing in only one bird to a big flock would be acceptable.  With a mainly adult flock on our property of anywhere from 10-20 adults, if we want to put some of the 9-week-old chicks in with the group, we need to be sure there are at least 4 (preferably more) of the younger ones and watch carefully for several days to be sure they are not being bullied away from the feed and water, or just bullied in general.  Most of the time they are very quick to submit and as long as they do the adults ignore them.  But we would never just put one or two young ones in with the adult flock.

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We ALWAYS watch the flock closely after integration.  In fact we only do integrations when we can sit out and watch for the first couple hours.  We are usually working on something around the area, not just sitting and watching, but we are within view and keep an eye on them very closely for a few hours. We also take extra care to watch the interactions for several days.  Even if it seems to be going well at first we still keep a close eye on how everyone is doing for about the first week.  We watch for any scabs on combs and wattles, birds that are “hiding” in corners or isolating themselves from the flock, and we watch to be sure we see everyone getting a chance to eat and drink.

When dealing with all adult birds we again look at the balance of the numbers and who owns the territory.  We never move just one or two newbies in unless they very recently came out of that same flock.  For example, two weeks ago we took one of our Dark Brahma hens and moved her down to the lower coop with several of the teenage pullets because we were contemplating selling them all.  I wanted to keep an eye on them for a while and see how well the Brahma was laying before I decided.  Then one of my Dark Brahmas in the upper coop died, so I decided to keep the one I was thinking of selling.  Because we know our birds well we knew that this particular hen was laid-back and got along with everyone.  So we took her and moved her back up with the flock.  There was no problem at all, it was like she never left.  But besides a situation like that, we would never try to move one or two new adult birds in with a big existing flock.  If the existing flock was only 1-3 birds, then two newbies would be fine.  It is all about balancing the numbers, ages, and territoriality of the situation.  When dealing with adults the more newbies the better because the existing flock has the territory.  But don’t overdo it in that direction either.  Balance it.

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Our Two Bad Integrations

We have experienced two situations where our integration didn’t work.  The first involved two 18-week-old pullets and four 10-week-old pullets.  The birds had never shared a wire wall so they were complete strangers and they were all moving to a new pen where they never lived before so there was no territoriality.  We felt that the ratio of more young ones to less older ones and the fact that the older ones didn’t have territory would make it work out all right.  It didn’t.  The older two, one in particular, bullied the younger four to the point of almost killing them.  Even though they completely submitted and tried to get away from her she wouldn’t let up.  I sat out and watched and waited for her to get over it for several hours and she didn’t, so we split them up before anyone was injured.  What went wrong?  I think the space was too small so even when they tried to get away they couldn’t go far.  I think that the bully was a particularly dominant bird and I just didn’t know her well because I hadn’t spent much time with her.  I think that the fact that they didn’t share a wire wall even for a few hours was not good.

The second experience that didn’t work involved a rooster and a cockerel.

Roosters

So before I share that instance, let’s talk a little about males.  In general we have found that moving a male in with all females, as long as they have shared a wire wall, usually works out fine.  Even just one rooster with several hens.  The younger the rooster is, the more trouble there is.  A 16-22 week-old rooster put in with 10 adult hens will have a lot more trouble than an adult rooster would.

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As far as putting males with males – it is a tricky business.  We have found that one of the males must be under about 10 weeks old, and there must be other chickens in the flock in order for it to work.  We wanted to move our adult rooster in with a 12-week-old cockerel we had to live as a bachelor group for a bit.  We were surprised when the 12-week-old went after the roo (who outsized him by about 5 times) the second we put them together.  At first the roo couldn’t figure out what was happening and why the heck this tiny thing was attacking him (he was a very gentle laid-back adult roo), but then he just took one foot and flung the cockerel across the pen like he was nothing.  The fighting continued and the 12-week-old refused to submit to the roo, and there was no way the roo was going to give into this little speck of aggressive cockerel.  We were afraid the only way it would end would be death of the cockerel so we separated them.  Since then we are very careful to be sure that any males we want to live together are together before the youngest of them reaches 10 weeks of age, and that they are living with more than just each other.  An exception is a group of cockerels that have been together since they were very young, such as a pen of meat cockerels.  We will often split off groups of cockerels we know are headed for the stew pot and have them live together in the grow out pen until we butcher them at 16 weeks.  But we have found that after about 16 weeks more serious fighting starts happening and they either need to be butchered, or put with a big group of girls.

It has worked fine for us by following those rules thus far and we often have 2-3 cockerels/roosters over the age of 16 weeks living with the flock of 15-25 hens happily, and often there are also a few young (under 12-week-old) cockerels in the flock with them too.  It seems that as long as there are plenty of females to go around to the mature males, and the young males know their place (which is the very bottom place) all can live in harmony.  Right now we have 4 roosters that are about 27 weeks old, one of which is an extremely submissive little silkie, living with our flock which is a mix of about 14 actively laying hens, 12 young pullets not laying yet and one 16-week-old rooster just barely coming of age.  They are currently living in harmony, but as that 16-week-old starts wanting a place as a breeding roo we are going to need to cut it back to 3 roosters total, two of the big boys and the little submissive silkie, in order to keep the peace.

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Good Fights vs. Bad Fights

It is important to know how to spot acceptable fighting behavior that will lead to harmony eventually, as opposed to unacceptable fighting behavior that will likely lead to death or serious injury.

A fight generally looks like this:

First, they stare at each other for a second, making intense eye contact, then they stick their neck feathers straight out to the side (around here we call this “put their umbrella up” because that is exactly what it looks like), then they bump chests, grab at each other’s heads or necks with their beaks, kick at each other with their feet, etc.  They usually come apart and then back at each other a couple of times.  The whole of a “good fight” that is establishing pecking order lasts anywhere from 2-15 seconds.  Sometimes it ends at the stare-down, or even at the umbrellas going up.  It ends by one giving up, indicated by ducking their head down and moving away from the other quickly.  And the winner struts away and goes about their business.  The fight can be very noisy, and sound very awful, but usually there is absolutely no blood shed and it is just a big noisy nothing.  That explains a good fight.

A bad fight is when they keep going at each other for longer and longer, neither seeming to be willing to give up.  If it lasts longer than about 30-45 seconds, or is clear that injury is imminent (like they are grabbing violently at combs or wattles or we see blood) we run at them making a bunch of noise and stick something between them (NOT a body part – a stick or jacket or something) to break them up.  Then we back off.  If they go right back at it then we assume this is not going to end well and we safely separate them.

Another example of a bad fight is when they do a normal good fight, and the one that submits runs off, but the one that won chases them and continues to attack them or peck at them over and over even though they are submitting.  This is bullying and if it goes on and on the bullied will eventually die.  It might take days, but the one doing the bullying will keep them from the food and water and stress them out so bad they die.

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Integrating chickens can be a challenging thing to explain, and to perform as well. I have described how we handle it here, and what has worked for us and what hasn’t.  And, like all things involving live animals, there are always exceptions to the rules.  There are certain birds that will not get along no matter what you do.

Please feel free to ask questions in the comment box.  That is always an option with my posts, but I am specifically saying it here because it can be a confusing topic.  If you have a certain situation and want our opinion on it, put it in the comments and we will help as well as we can.

Watch for more posts coming up in our Managing Chickens Series.

Managing Chickens: Feeding and Watering

So far in our Managing Chickens Series we have discussed housing:

Managing Chickens: Housing Part 1

Managing Chickens: Housing Part 2

Now we are going to move on to feeding and watering.  I think sometimes feeding can become a controversial topic these days, with organic, non-GMO, etc.  We are simply going to share how we handle feeding and watering here at Willow Creek Farm and not go into all the controversial parts of it.

Feeding

We use both the store-bought gravity type feeders, as well as a couple of built-in feeders my husband made in the two main coops.  The built-in feeders are gutter feeders, long and skinny along the wall so they provide plenty of space per bird.  One of them has a box built-in above it that holds about 50 lbs of feed and gravity feeds it down into the gutter.

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With our store-bought gravity feeders, we always hang them since our bedding is shavings and if we leave them down on the ground they get all messed up and full of shavings.  Plus, we have several birds with compulsive scratching tendencies, which is good because they are great foragers.  But the downside to the scratching tendencies is that if a feeder is on the ground they will scratch at it and the feed ends up all over and a bunch of it is wasted.  So even when we are dealing with the Mama Hens with their chicks, we still hang the feeder, we just hang it very low so it is barely setting on the ground and the chicks can reach it.

Because our flock is composed of so many different ages (we have newly hatched chicks, young birds of all ages, along with adult laying hens all living together and eating the same feed) we have to do our feeding a little different.  We do not allow any bird under 18 weeks of age to eat layer feed.  So when our flock has any birds in it that are younger than that (all spring, summer and fall) we feed grower to everyone.  We supplement this by putting oyster shell and crushed egg shells in a separate container in any of the housing that has laying hens in it.  That way the laying hens can choose to supplement their calcium as needed, and the younger birds are getting the feed they need.  We use the grower with chicks as well, instead of chick mash, since they are living with the adults and growing young birds too.  In the winter, when the flock is back to only adults, we feed layer feed only.  I still provide crushed egg shells in the extra containers.

As far as our egg shells go – yes, we feed them back to our hens, and no, they have never eaten their own eggs because of it.  However, we crush them down to tiny pieces.  We have a container next to the kitchen sink where we put the egg shells.  When it starts getting full I make sure to let them all dry fully (the goop inside need to be very dry to crush them) which is easy in our dry climate.

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Then my kids take turns using the mortar and pestle to crush the shells up (this is the kids’ favorite job – crushing something up to a fine dust – what kid wouldn’t love that!?)

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I put them in the built-in boxes my husband has put in each coop area.

Scraps

Our chickens get plenty of fresh food scraps.  We feed them all types of scraps: meat, dairy, grains, fruits, and veggies.  We do NOT feed them: any poultry products (chicken meat, turkey meat, etc), eggs, onions, citrus, banana peels, potatoes, or avocado.  We have a container sitting by the kitchen sink and we scrape into it off the cutting boards while we are preparing food (such as the broccoli stems, ends of carrots, tops of strawberries and tomatoes, etc.  We also scrape into it after meals from our plates.  The things that are in their scraps the most include: dairy scraps such as milk, yogurt, and sour cream, small pieces of meat (not poultry), some grains (we eat a lot of hot cereal for breakfast, like cream of rice, buckwheat, or quinoa flakes so the small amounts left in the kids bowls), and a lot of fruit and veggie scraps (apple, pear, and plum cores, carrot tops and peels, zucchini and cucumber ends, the bottoms of heads of lettuce, spinach stems, watermelon and cantaloupe rinds, etc).

We also have a few egg customers who pay partially with scraps.  I take $0.50 off the cost of their eggs if they bring a bag of scraps each week.  I have given each of them a list of acceptable scraps.

We have found that when we have a decrease in the amount of scraps we are feeding we also have a decrease in the amount of eggs that are layed.

We don’t feed scraps to the Mama Hen Pen or Growing Pens.  So, in general, our chickens are not given scraps until about 8 weeks of age at the earliest.

We feed the scraps in the large, short sided dish things that go under a potted plant pot to collect the water that flows out of the holes.  We have one in the lower coop’s exterior pen, and two in the upper coop’s exterior pen since there are more birds up there.  We do NOT feed scraps inside the coops.  We have found that some of the scraps end up buried in the shavings and will mold and get very gross.  So we always feed them outside.

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We do have a few of the traditional gravity waterers.  We use them with newly hatched chicks especially.

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Traditional waterer hanging on the left side. This is the mama hen pen, where the broody hens raise their chicks.

But mostly we use “chicken nipples” that we have installed in 5-gallon buckets.

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The buckets hanging have spouts installed on their bottoms.

We do 4 spouts per bucket, and we set the lid loosely on the bucket to keep dust, dirt, and chicken poop out of them (sometimes the chickens try to get on top of them).  We also have a couple of spouts attached to soda bottles or juice jugs, with just 1 or 2 spouts per container.  These we use in the smaller housing areas with just a few birds, and to train the chicks in the brooder.  If the chicks are being raised by a mama hen she will teach them to use the spouts, but we still always start them off the first week with a normal waterer that has standing water in it.

Our free-ranging chickens also have access to our livestock troughs.  They actually prefer to drink from them than from anything else.  The danger with this is that if the chicken falls in it can drown.  So we have put a piece of welded wire sitting diagonally across the trough in each one, so if they fall in they can climb out.  We have seen them fall in before and get out.

2.5Freezing water in the winter is definitely something we deal with in our location.  First of all, we aim to use just 1-2 of our housing areas in the winter.  We cull the flock down so they fit well in 1-2 areas, and that really helps limit the amount of waterers we have to deal with.  So usually it is 2-3 buckets at most.  Our livestock troughs have stock tank heaters/de-icers in them to keep them from freezing.  So each night we take the buckets down from their hooks and set them into the water troughs.  They float in there and the tank heater/de-icer keeps them from freezing.  Most of the winter, using the troughs at night is enough, but when the days are really cold, and the water is freezing during the day, we bring them inside and run warm water into them from the tub to thaw them, and then fill them about halfway with lukewarm water and put them out.  In our worst weather this has to be done three times a day.  We have a new plan we are going to try this year, and I will update this post with it later this winter if it works.

We keep all of our waterers outside in the pens (if the housing has an outdoor pen) because we find that regardless of the type of waterer they cause too much moisture mess inside the coops.  Because our pens are covered there is very rarely a time when the chickens can’t come out into their pen to drink during the day.  Occasionally, if the weather is really really bad, we will hang the waterers inside the coops.  But we try to avoid it.  All feeders are indoors to keep wild animals away.

That covers how we feed and water our chickens here at Willow Creek Farm.  In our next several posts in our Managing Chickens Series we will discuss breeding, hatching, brooding, health care, and more.

Managing Chickens – Housing Part 2

In this post we are going to look at each of the different coops/housing areas for our chickens here at Willow Creek Farm.  To read the first post in the series, which covers basics about our housing, click here.  We have 6 chicken housing areas on the farm.  We call them The Lower Coop, The Upper Coop, The Mama Hen Pen, The Small Grow Pen, The Large Grow Pen, and The Broody Coop.  This doesn’t include our indoor brooder area, which will be discussed in a later post in this series.

First, here is a sketch of where all the chicken housing areas are located in relation to each other.

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Now, on to each area specifically.

The Lower Coop

This was the first coop we built on the farm.  Back when we built this coop, our plan was just to have 7 laying hens for our own use.  Since then, our flock has grown and we now sell eggs, chicks, and chickens, as well as selectively breed our own chickens.

This is our smallest full coop with exterior pen and one of our smallest housing areas for multiple birds.  Interestingly, this coop was our most expensive housing area.  That is because we bought quite a bit of the materials for this coop, whereas the other housing is mostly recycled and free materials.

This coop resides in our backyard, near the garden and the kids’ play area.  We use this coop mostly as a breeding coop – to separate off a breeding group (a roo and 5-6 hens usually).  It is also used to separate off the cockerels headed for butcher to grow them out from 8 weeks to 16 weeks sometimes, or occasionally we use it to separate off hens that need a break from the rooster’s affection.  We try to be sure no one chicken lives in this coop for longer than 3 months at most, because this coop doesn’t have access to free-ranging in the barnyard.  It is a convenient place for separating off a group of birds for whatever reason.

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To read a post done last year about this coop specifically, click here.

The Upper Coop

This is our main coop/housing area.  It is attached to the barn.  The majority of our flock lives here, and when we cull down to our smallest flock in the winter they all live in this coop and all the other housing is vacant.  This coop is our $1800 coop made for $120.  It includes an indoor coop, an enclosed and covered pen area, and opens into the barnyard for free-ranging.  This coop also contains our 4 trap nests, which we use as needed to identify who is laying.  To read about how we built those trap nest boxes, click here.  To read a more detailed post about this coop and how we built it, click here.

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The Mama Hen Pen

This is our most recently built housing for the chickens.  The purpose is exactly what it sounds like.  It is used to house our hens that are setting on eggs, and that have young chicks.  It includes nest boxes directly on the floor, and lower roosts.  This pen is built into our barn, in an area that used to be she sheep stall.  It is accessed from inside the barn, but it also has access for the chickens to go into the barnyard to free-range.  It shares a chicken-wire wall with the barnyard, so it makes it easier to integrate the mamas and chicks back into the flock when the chicks are big enough to not be an easy meal for the barn cats.  But a sliding door can close off that wall for warmth and security at night.  It also shares a chicken-wire wall with the Large Grow Pen inside the barn.

Here is the chicken section of the barn.  On the far left you see the doorway into the Mama Hen Pen (MHP), on the right you see the Large Grow Pen, with the Broody Coop on the lower far end of the Large Grow Pen with a small window into it near the floor.  There is a wire wall that separates the MHP on the left from the Large Grow Pen on the right.

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Here is the entrance to the MHP from inside the barn.

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And this is the inside of the MHP.  The shelf up on the wall is a nest the hens used to use when this was the lamb stall, it isn’t used now, it just hasn’t been removed yet.

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Here is the exterior wire wall and chicken door from the MHP into the barnyard.  As you can see the big stall door slides shut at night.

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Because this pen was a pre-existing area, most of the cost was simply putting up chicken wire all around it to secure it.  There was a little framing needed, for the wire to hook onto at both the interior human door, and the chicken-wire wall/chicken door that goes to the barnyard.

This pen measures 8×11, and contains four nest boxes at floor level.  It is our hope it might someday house 4 mama hens at once.  For now, it is housing some of the chicks we hatched inside and brooded ourselves, as well as the mama hens with their chicks.  It is a nice space for separating off a breeding group as well, when there aren’t any broodies living in it.

The Small Grow Pen

This pen is inside the barn.  We use it as a brooder in the barn (for 1 week old chicks and up depending on the season).  It is also useful for a hospital/quarantine pen.  It measures 2.5 x 5 and is only 2.5 feet high.  There are no roosts or nests, but we could add a nest if needed.  Because of the low height it has it is best for young chicks, or a broody hen with chicks.  As a side note, this pen is also used as a grow out pen for our rabbits from weaning to butcher age.  I also plan to use it as a kitten nursery if our barn cat ever has kittens.  It could also house a young lamb if need be for some reason. It is a very useful multi-purpose pen.

As you can see there is a boarded section on the left side of the lid, that is removable to hang a heat lamp down into if needed.

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The Large Grow Pen

The larger grow pen measures 3×11 and is 8 feet high.  Part of that space is taken by the broody hen coop (as seen in the right side of the photo).  It is built into the barn, right next to the Mama Hen Pen.  It includes roosts, but no nests.  This is used to grow out cockerels for butcher mostly.  If a nest was added we could use it as a breeding pen, but we haven’t needed it for that yet.  Because this was built into the barn it only used a little recycled wood for framing and roosts, and chicken wire.

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The Broody Coop

This is a tiny 3×3 coop that is only 20 inches in height.  It has a floor level nest and an optional enclosed exterior pen which is also 3×3 that is inside of the enclosed pen for the Upper Coop.  We built it for broody hens originally, but with the Mama Hen Pen we now use it more for a hospital/quarantine area.  Because it shares a wire wall with the Upper Coop via the optional exterior pen, it can be useful when integrating birds together.  It has a wire window into the barn so we can easily keep an eye on what is going on in there.  To access it for feeding, cleaning, etc. we have to go into the Large Grow Pen and lift the lid of the coop.

Here it is looking down into it with the lid lifted.  I am standing in the Large Grow Pen to take these photos.

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And here it is looking in from the interior of the barn.  This is the wire “window” we put in so we could keep an eye on the chicken(s) inside of it.

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Here is the optional exterior pen for the broody/hospital coop.  It is inside of the Upper Coop’s exterior pen.  When not in use, we tie the one section open so the Upper Coop birds can use the space if they want to.

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That covers all the different chicken housing areas we have here at Willow Creek Farm.

In our next post in the “Managing Chickens Series” we will discuss how we manage the feeding and watering of our chickens here.