From the dirt to our plate; the trials and realities of first-time farm ownership

Preparing for Poultry: What’s Needed

I have decided Dirt On My Plate was in dire need of a section focusing on farm animals hence the addition of The Animals in my menu selection.  What better way to christen the category than by writing about my duck and chicken experience?  

The food on my plate is no longer coming solely from the dirt but also from the animals we intend to raise here on the farm.  Over the course of my adventure I will have plenty of posts to share what I learn, as I learn it.  ~Krislee

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If its your first time considering chicken, duck, goose or even turkey ownership there’s plenty to learn and numerous situations to be prepared for.  You’ll make plenty of changes along the way as the needs and requirements of your flock evolve.

Over the last 6 months of caring for my chickens and ducks I’ve been absorbing every bit of knowledge I can to make sure my flock stays happy and healthy.  The internet has been a wealth of information and through trial and error I’ve tweaked what I’ve learned to cater to my specific needs.

Through it all, I’ve found some things a first time coop keeper definitely needs and other items I could have done without.  As the saying goes, “If only I knew then what I know now…”, I would have saved money better used on feed.

THE BROODER
Since I didn’t raise my flock directly from fuzzy little chicken nuggets I can only share with you what I learned through raising my hatched ducklings.  The process to care for most chicks closely mirrors that of my experience with Huey, Dewey & Launch Pad.

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First off, you will need a designated brooder area.  Conditions are much easier to control in a small area and it allows new hatchlings to feel secure.  Choose an area with electricity and lighting, keep in mind you will be cleaning daily.  It doesn’t have to be fancy.

For me, it was easiest to keep them in a very large tote early on.  Not only did it help to retain heat, it kept moisture from damaging floors and it was easy to move all the ducklings at one time.  Until my coop was ready the ducks lived in my laundry room.  Depending on your space, use what works best for you!

Temperature is important.  If you know you will be raising a few of your own birds from the chick stage its best to invest in a heat lamp or two.  It’s probably one of the least expensive options available and it’s relatively versatile.  Just clamp it, plug it in and adjust the temp by adjusting the distance and direction…simple.


When ducklings and chicks are young, maintaining body heat is important.  If your coop is anything like mine then it is drafty and doesn’t come equip with a furnace or thermostat.  The general rule to follow is 95 degrees Fahrenheit during their first week of life, reduce 5 degrees each week or two thereafter until the outside temperature is reached.

As feathers develop and their bodies gain weight, you will gradually increase the size of their area.   To facilitate this, I moved my ducks into an adjustable dog/baby playpen which I could easily move from the coop to the lawn.  This space change conveniently coincided with their feather development and warm summer weather.  If you choose to let your ducklings bathe in shallow water make sure to dry them and use a heat lamp if their feathers are not fully developed.


A good thermometer is great to have in the brooder area and the coop.  I started with a basic thermometer and recently graduated to a wireless digital version which tells me the temp of the coop without even leaving my house.  It stores the minimum and maximum temps of the coop within the last 24 hours.  More expensive options  will also monitor the humidity which could prove to be useful in the winter (more on that later).

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NESTING & BEDDING
Bedding is important and pine shavings work well to reduce moisture underfoot.  A block of shavings can be easily purchased at TSC or your local farm and feed store.  Even as my flock has gotten older I use it to line nesting boxes and to keep moisture down under the roosting bars and near their water.


As my ducks grew and my chicken pullets arrived, straw became an ideal addition to the floor bedding and nesting boxes.  It has higher insulation properties than shavings and by comparison it was much less expensive.  Straw does tend to mat down but it’s easy enough to fluff with my pitchfork, poo quickly separates out and the straw quickly dries.

Nesting boxes don’t need to be fancy and you don’t need one for each hen.  With my 8 hens I could have easily gotten by with 3-4 boxes, each measuring a minimum of 12 inches by 12 inches.  The rule of thumb is to have the nesting area lower than your roost and preferably on a different wall.  Your hens should use this area for laying eggs…not for sleeping.


The roost is the preferred bedroom for your chickens.  I started out with two levels of roosting bars but quickly removed the lower one as my crew likes their shoulder height bar the best.  Even though they have a good 10-12 foot bar, they squeeze together on the last 4-5 feet for safety and warmth.  Good sized bars are 2 inches by 2 inches in thickness.  This allows the chicken to grab the bar comfortably and their poo easily makes a clean exit to the floor.


FOOD & WATER
Feeding and watering can be challenging and this is especially the case with messy ducks.  Initially, I started out with a 1 gallon waterer and a crumb feeder which worked well in my small brooder area.  As everyone grew bigger, the waterer could no longer keep up and the crumb feeders became a soggy, semi-solid mess by the end of the day.

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The waterers themselves and the surrounding area quickly became a battle ground of pot holes and mud.  To solve this situation I invested in some durable rubber patio squares.  The ducks could no longer slop water on the ground and dig in with their bills.  The patio squares were easy to clean, withstood pecking and the water now stayed clean enough for the chickens to enjoy.

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From there I confidentially graduated to a 3 gallon plastic waterer (shown above) and to a galvanized metal waterer (see below) which can be used with a heater base for winter.  There are pros and cons to each type of waterer and I’ll break those down in a separate blog post.  You need to decide for yourself which of these will work best for your situation.

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Knowing what to feed your birds can be tricky but it’s best to keep things simple and use crumble as the bulk of their diet.  When your poultry is young stick with starter crumbles.  I used starter crumb that was specifically made for both ducks and chicks.  Why?  Because sometimes you’ll see chick starter that is medicated and ducks have no use for that.  Their immune system is made for smelly pond water and whatever else they might dig up.  Besides that, some of the medicated versions are not duck friendly and I wanted to be med-free with my chickens anyway.

There will be so many choices your mind will be boggled.  You’ll also have the option of pelleted food which is essentially the same thing as crumb but in different form.  It can be more difficult for small mouths to eat and in my experience the birds didn’t like it.  Most of it ended up on the pen floor as they pecked it out to reach the crumbles.  Also, don’t mix scratch with your crumble as chickens will shove perfectly good food to the ground to get at the seed.

Each morning my gals clamber for their scratch grain feed.  A 30 pound bag stored in a plastic tote will last a good month as I generally offer it only in the mornings along with a pan of crumble.

Once they see my scratch bowl they know good eats are on the way.  I toss scratch by the handful in the area surrounding the coop.  I also sprinkle it in piles of leaves for active scratch-n-seek play, with an additional handful into the coop pig feeder for the ladies still laying their morning eggs.

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As far as feeders are concerned, that was another task I wish could rewind and adjust the learning curve.  When my birds were smaller, the crumb feeder worked well on the ground.  As poultry adolescents and adults, I realized I should have saved money and not opted to purchase two larger versions of this multi-purpose feeder.  Yes, you can hang them but since I don’t opt to regularly feed my chickens and ducks inside the coop, the North Dakota wind regularly flung feed to and fro under my covered pen.

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My final feeder of choice ended up being simple, cheap and very sturdy – a large galvanized pan with tall sides.  If you worry about it tipping, put a rock in it.  If you see poop in it, pick it out.  Better yet, I had no clumpy crumble because it sat away from the drinking water and didn’t have the feed separators like the hanging feeder.

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For those brutal blizzard filled winter days when nobody wants to leave the coop I did invest in a couple galvanized piglet feeders (found on Amazon).  With the deep front lip and it’s ability to attach to the wall, crumb or pellets can’t spill across the floor of the coop.  One feeder is meant for food while the other holds oyster shell which I keep out at all times.

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For those keeping chickens to produce eggs, you’ll want to make sure your layer hens get the proper nutrition.  This means you’ll graduate from starter crumble to layer crumble and you will need to provide them with extra calcium to produce quality egg shells.

Crushed oyster shell is another supply I purchase for my flock of 8 ducks and 10 chickens.  As tempted as you may be to buy that 30 pound bag it’s hard to handle let alone store.  5 pound bags are convenient and do last me a few months.  Your chickens and ducks can sense when they need more calcium and will delve into it as needed.

Beyond that, from time to time I love up on my feathered friends with treats.  High protein treats like dried meal worms are one of their favorites.  Garden fare such as zucchini, melons, corn and cucumber are also great to have on hand and can be frozen for future use.

For the winter I have also bought some sprouting seed such as alfalfa and green lentils.  They will be healthy supplement for fresh greens which will be non-existent given the snow.  A quick Google search can tell you which fresh foods to avoid but don’t be afraid to feed your flock scrambled eggs…with the shells!

FLOCK HEALTH
Because I’m all about raising my flock as naturally as possible I wanted to focus on DIY remedies to maintain their health.  Food grade diatomaceous earth is a great place to start keeping pests at bay.  Chickens like to dust themselves to keep critters from invading their tender flesh.  In a previous post I shared a recipe for a dust bath you can keep on hand year round.

Recently I also created a shaker of diatomaceous earth, dried catnip and ash to sprinkle around the coop and in the nesting boxes.  Again, a quick Google search can help you get acquainted with a few of these ingredients and how they help keep mites and lice away.

Beyond that, I have also started adding oregano, either dried or a drop of oregano essential oil to their water.  It’s a natural antibiotic and will help keep my chickens healthy.  I’ve even made natural Balm of Gilead with a coconut oil base to use on wounds, combs and feet.  If you are more comfortable with purchasing a store bought remedy I also keep on hand VetRX for poultry.

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Environment has a lot to do with the overall health of your flock.  Making sure your coop is clean and well ventilated is the first step to reducing ammonia build up in the air.  Humidity and ammonia are not just issues in the hot summer months;  that same stinky, moist air can lead to frost bite on combs and feet.  Besides having the chicken access door open all day we have also installed a roof vent to allow adequate air circulation.


Remember, you are the guardian of your flock.  Handle them daily and inspect them nightly.

THE SHORT LIST
In an effort to help you through your set up here’s a summary of what I feel every new flock keeper should have.  There are so many tools out there and a million different ways you can get the job done.  You just need to make your set up work for you and your flock.

Heat Lamp
Thermometer
Brooder Crate
Waterer
Water Heater (in areas with freezing temps)
Feeder
Bedding
-pine shavings
-straw
Feed
-starter crumble
-layer crumble/pellet
-scratch grains
-oyster shell
-protein treats & fresh eats
Feed Storage (dry and secure)
Coop
Nesting Boxes
Roosting Bars
Healing Remedies
-diatemaceous earth
-VetRx
-oregano
Pitchfork, Shovel & Wheelbarrow

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FUN FACT:  Free ranging your chickens and ducks will dramatically cut down on the amount of feed you need to provide your flock.  They get the grit needed to grind their food as well as added protein and moisture from grasses and bugs!

 

 

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