Tag Archive for: Backyard Poultry

Free-range Chickens

Free range chickens are great for the small scale grower or modern day homesteader for their eggs, bug control, funny antics and sometimes meat. One thing to be aware of is some of the dangers that face chickens, such as coyotes, dogs or hawks. Ravens are very fond of the eggs, often waiting until they know that a fresh egg is available and swooping down to carry off a tasty snack.

Another danger has recently re-surfaced on a free range chicken farm in Denmark. A pathogen that is commonly carried by horses has been shown to be the cause of a deadly outbreak of respiratory illness in the chickens. The bacteria Streptococcus equi zooepidemicus, often shortened to “Strep zoo” will colonize the skin and respiratory tracts of horses. It can cause pneumonia, strangles and other diseases, but also can be inactive in the horse, never showing signs or causing illness. These “silent carrier” horses can spread the pathogen within their area and to other animals. This is a prime reason for once or twice a year vet visits for your horses, as the vet will know what diseases are active in the immediate and surrounding areas along with what methods are best used to counteract them.

A large free-range poultry farm in Denmark had 80% of their chickens die over a four month series of outbreaks of respiratory illness. After laboratory testing at the University of Copenhagen traced the disease to the herd of horses living on the same property, researchers found that separating the horses from the chickens is one of the best methods of preventing the spread of the disease.

Outbreaks of Strep zoo in poultry have been very rare in recent decades, mainly due to the decline of the small farm with its varied populations of animals. With the increasing popularity and economic viability of the diversified small farms returning, we must be careful not to repeat the hard lessons learned by our grandparents and great-grandparents. This is just such one lesson; that of keeping the poultry separated from any direct contact with horses. The Strep zoo bacteria is a respiratory illness, so secondary contact should be fine, such as chickens pecking through the horse manure to control flies.

A Major Outbreak of Streptococcus equi subsp. zooepidemicus Infections in Free-Range Chickens Is Linked to Horses

Backyard chicken owners looking for an alternative to heat lamp bulbs to keep coops and water warm in the winter should beware of “rough service” bulbs that have a coating that makes them shatter resistant. That coating is Teflon or PTFE, and is deadly to your chicken flock. There have been a number of people experiencing this problem, but there remains a lot of folks who have not heard of this yet.

The Teflon gives off toxic gasses when heated. Birds (such as chickens or other poultry) are very sensitive to airborne toxins and can die from the exposure to such fumes. This can happen quickly. There have been a number of reports of small flock owners finding their entire flock dead in the morning after installing this type of light. A large scale poultry research facility has experienced the death of all 2400 birds over the course of a few days following the changing out of regular heat bulbs for the rough service lightbulbs. Sylvania and GE both make these rough service lightbulbs and are readily available, often close to the heat lamps in stores. GE has no warning labels on their bulbs, but Sylvania does have a sticker warning that the bulb can be harmful to poultry.

The Teflon starts to off gas as low as 325F and possibly lower. Many light bulbs will reach better than 500F, creating a lot of initial off gassing when first turned on. This cloud of toxic gas is what kills the chickens and other poultry in their coops on a cold night.

On a side note, this is the same Teflon used to coat the common household pans, with the same off gassing into your kitchen where you and your family are breathing the air!

Free-range Chickens

Raising backyard chickens is becoming increasingly popular, no matter where you live. There have always been rural chickens, but now there are small and large city chickens, happily living in coops and backyards all across the country. Chickens can do a lot for you, both in the garden and in the kitchen. First off, they give you a real measure of food security and increase your resiliency. The eggs are a great bartering tool, as very few folks that we’ve talked to weren’t interested in some fresh home-raised eggs. Chickens are great for bug control, light soil tilling and fertilization. The chicken manure is very high in Nitrogen and is a great addition to your compost. Home raised eggs are some of the highest nutritional content of any chickens, including free-range. The reason is that most home raised chickens are pampered and given extra nutrition and care. It is very easy to provide a highly nutritious and healthy diet for your backyard chickens from your home garden. We will look at several heirloom vegetables, herbs and flowers that you can easily grow in your garden that will not only provide some tasty treats for your chickens, but give you some great greens as well.

Almost any of the greens and vegetables that you enjoy your chickens will love. You have probably seen them get really excited if you share salad fixings or old veggies from your refrigerator. Think of how they will get when they know that the garden is providing treats for them all of the time! You don’t have to plant a special garden just for the chickens, as they will happily devour any greens that come their way.

The question is often asked of why grow your chicken’s food, why not just buy the 50lb. bag of chicken scratch and call it good? There is nothing wrong with going this route, and realistically you will most likely need to have some commercial feed available as your garden may or may not produce enough greens and grains for your flock. This will vary depending on the size of your garden compared to the size of your flock. The real answer to growing fresh greens for your chickens is the same answer as to why you would want to grow your own garden- taste, nutrition and choice.

Spring Chicken

Spring Chicken

Let’s look at several varieties of vegetables and herbs that are easily grown in a home garden setting that will provide some tasty and highly nutritious greens for both you and your birds. Starting off in the cooler season with some cold-hardy greens will help jump-start the hens energy levels. Kale, Swiss Chard, mustard greens and beet tops are a great start to the season. They all like a cooler soil, sprout quickly and will provide some serious nutrition. Speaking of sprouting, sprouts are an absolute powerhouse of nutrition and are ready to eat in 4-7 days. Alfalfa sprouts are possibly the best known, but there are several different types of sprouts such as radish, mung bean and red clover that work well. Sprouts take up minimal space, use little water and need only the most basic equipment to produce a couple of pounds of fresh food. This is a technique that works especially well in the depths of winter when other greens are scarce and expensive. You can produce plenty of sprouts for yourself and a half dozen chickens from a half gallon jar with a sprouting screen lid on your kitchen sink.

Once the weather starts warming up more options open up for different vegetables and greens. Cabbage, chicory, mustards, spinach and a number of greens do well in the early spring once the soil has started warming up. These include Miner’s Lettuce, French Purslane and Aztec Red Spinach. Once the true spinach starts to bolt in the warmer weather, switch to the spinach substitutes such as red and green malabar spinach, the Aztec Red spinach and New Zealand spinach. All of these love the heat, won’t bolt and produce all through the hotter weather. Traditional winter cover crops such as alfalfa, clover, vetch and annual rye should be considered for later in the year.

If you have the space, pumpkins and squash- both summer and winter- can be excellent feed choices. Winter squash and pumpkins that can be stored until later in the winter give you an additional resource for high quality feed when nothing else is growing. Corn is another great choice, space permitting, as it is the base for the commercial feeds. Other grains that will grow well in a smaller home garden set up is Mennonite Sorghum, Amaranth and Quinoa. Don’t forget Sunflowers, as they can provide both shade and a wind break for your garden along with seeds for your girls.

Many folks don’t think of herbs when it comes to providing food for chickens, but there are some great choices here. Borage is one such, as it has lots of mineral-rich leaves as well as flowers that are edible and make excellent additions to a chicken’s diet. Comfrey is in the Borage family and is another great choice.

To help you get started, we have created a section on our website called “Backyard Chickens Collection”, appropriately enough. We list all of the varieties that are mentioned in this article to save you the time of looking throughout the website to find them. It is really easy to incorporate the chicken feed aspect into your existing gardening plan. Planting one or two extra plants of each variety for each half dozen chickens is usually sufficient, with grains such as Amaranth and sunflowers going almost exclusively to the chickens. As with most things gardening related, a little experimentation will prove the way as you see what volumes of fresh garden produce you particular flock of chickens needs.