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Back yard poultry keeping

Date: 29/04/15

Backyard poultry

Husbandry

Housing  In general the hens require a hen house and an outdoor run. The house provides shelter for the hens but also keeps predators away. A hen house can be quite expensive but they do not have to be (can convert a garden shed). Hens like to perch up high at night and they naturally look for a place to roost. The accommodation should have large (about 4cm wide) round perches (square perches can increase the incidence of bumble foot). The perches should not be too high as jumping down from a height every morning can cause bruising and as a result bumble foot. Nesting boxes provide a place for the hen to lay eggs. These should be well bedded with shavings to keep the eggs as clean as possible. The floor of the house should be bedded with shavings – this absorbs liquid and is less likely to harbour parasites although other materials can be used. Quite often you will need to train the birds to use the house as their home. This can be done by keeping them shut in the house for 48hours with plenty of food and water.

Nutrition In the past hens were very much foraging animals. They would root around and scratch up worms and insects whilst also feeding on grass, berries and seeds. Nowadays it is more advisable to feed a commercial feed to ensure a balanced diet with the correct mineral balance. This can be supplemented with vegetable food waste and bread etc. They will also forage for worms and insects etc as part of their natural behaviour.

Behaviour The pecking order is the way of maintaining the social hierarchy. The birds which are higher up the pecking order try to perch higher so having perches at different heights in the house can help this. If you are having problems with fighting then adding a cockrel to the group can sort this out. Hens have short memories so you can occasionally have problems when returning a recovered hen to the house. Chickens are attracted to the colour red, so if a hen has a wound then she will be targeted by the others who won’t stop until she has died, unless you can intervene. Cockrels can become aggressive towards humans. They can be very intimidating and are best culled as they can cause serious injuries with their spurs and by pecking. There has been evidence that cockerels have a positive feedback mechanism that makes cockerels more aggressive if you fight them off.

Moulting Hens moult once a year. It is the annual shedding and replacement of their feathers and takes about three to four weeks. The hens can look very scruffy when they are going through the moult and they can go off the lay.

Wing clipping Chickens are inquisitive animals and may try to escape out of the run. You can prevent them from flying out by cutting the primary feathers on one wing (if do both wings then you will even them up!). To do this you extend the wing and cut the primary feathers. You need to do every year after they moult.

The healthy chicken

• Chickens should be bright, curious and lively animals. They have combs and wattles which are normally bright red in a healthy chicken. A change in colour of the wattle can indicate illness: o Pale –> anaemia (think mites) o Purple –> poor circulation (older birds can get heart failure) o Yellow –> avian TB o Black –> frostbite/infection

• The comb is also a secondary sex characteristic and they are much larger in males. Males also develop spurs (as weapons for fighting).

• A healthy chicken should have smooth (in most breeds) and scaley legs. A parasite can cause lifting of the scales (scaley leg). After treatment the legs still look scaley even though the mite has been killed as the scales are not replaced until the moult. Physical examination

• Birds should be examined and handled frequently to check body condition and to look for external parasites. This is easiest at night as the birds are dozy. To catch them make sure both wings are clamped against the body and hold them like a rugby ball with their head tucked into your armpit. This leaves a free hand to examine the bird. Never pick up a chicken by one leg as their hips dislocate very easily.

Egg laying

• This is often the reason for keeping hens. A common misunderstanding is that you need a cockrel to get eggs but this is not true (although keeping a cockrel can have other benefits). A hen will generally produce between 100 – 300 eggs per year but the number of eggs that a hen lays is determined by many different things: o Breed – rare breeds lay less than hybrids o Feed – eg layers pellets increase egg production compared to mixed corn o Daylight – longer days increase egg production therefore they naturally produce less eggs through the winter

• A hen lays on a 25h cycle so they will normally later and later every day until they miss a day. Hens often return to the same place every day to lay. They can be encouraged to do this by placing a clay egg in the nesting box. You need to remove the eggs regularly or the hens will go broody. Hens require soluble grit to form normal egg shells (oyster shell grit is high in calcium).

Problems 

Egg pecking – This is a bad habbit and can be very frustrating. Generally it is one hen but it can start others doing it if don’t catch it early. To sort you need to collect the eggs every day and leave clay eggs/golf balls. If that doesn’t work then may need to remove her. 

Mis-shapen eggs/thin shells – can be lack of grit in diet. It can also be a sign of disease (Infectious bronchitis being the most important) 

Egg binding – This is where the egg becomes stuck in the oviduct without the shell. It is due to low calcium in the diet and it is important that these are seen quickly by the vet. You may see the hen straining to pass the egg but this is not always the case and they may just appear dull, may not be eating and not laying. They can be difficult to treat but need to try to lubricate the oviduct (this can be done by steaming over a tub of water). Can give oxytocin and calcium to aid the passage of the egg. 

Egg peritonitis – this occurs when the yolk is passed into the abdomen instead of into the reproductive tract. This often leads to infection within the abdomen which can become distended with fluid and the bird will be very ill. Treatment is very difficult and involves invasive flushing of the abdomen with sterile fluid to remove the infection.

Routine health management

Endoparasites – Worming is an important part of routine health care for your chickens. The get infected with worms by ingesting worm eggs and larvae from the ground. The worm eggs are very resistant and can survive for months in the soil. Wild birds are a high source of contamination as they shed large numbers of eggs in their faeces. Signs of worms are vague but include ill thrift, decreased appetite, weight loss and intermittent diarrhoea. Egg production may decrease and you may see smaller eggs, pale yolks and fragile shells. Worming your chickens 2-3 times a year with Flubenvet will treat for worms. It is mixed with food and then fed for 7 consecutive days – larger birds eat more food therefore they ingest more wormer. There is a zero egg withdrawl on Flubenvet therefore you can still eat the eggs while treating for worms.

Ectoparasites - Mites are very small organisms that live on the chicken and in the environment. The red mite and the northern mite both feed on blood so can cause anaemia and sometimes death. As they also live in the hen house (in the cracks in the wood) treating the environment is essential for the control of these mites. The birds can be treated with a spot-on (ivermectin based) and the house can be treated using a spray (permethrin based). Scaley leg mites burrow under the scales on the chickens legs and cause the scales to lift. The spot on also treats these mites. You can also cover the legs with Vaseline which suffocates the mites. The legs will still often look rough until the moult when new scales will grow in. It is not necessary to repeatedly treat them. 

Lice are slightly larger ectoparasites which are visisble to the naked eye. They can often be seen around the vent or under the wing and appear as about 2mm long flat organisms that are yellowish in colour. They feed off skin debris and can be quite irritating. They can be treated with louse powder. Also need to treat the house with the powder.

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