Monday, February 22, 2016

Revamping the Hen House (edited)

One of the best workshops I attended at the Mother Earth News Fair this past weekend was a one hour Q&A on troubleshooting poultry health. Aside from inspiring me to seek out a health-specific poultry book (I'm thinking I might go with The Chicken Health Handbook), I also was able to talk to a poultry management expert about some of the specific problems my flock has been having.

The biggest issue right now for just under half my girls is feather loss. I originally thought the feather loss was because of the bully bird we had in our flock a few weeks ago, but she's gone now and no one's feathers are growing back. Sadly, two of the girls look a little worse, and their raw skin is starting to look chapped.

The farm animal vet I spoke with at this workshop narrowed down the list of possible causes based on exactly where they were missing feathers on their bodies (base of tail, around rump, and under vent almost down to the thighs). I learned that my flock is most likely suffering from a two-fold issue concerning space; first, they are suffering from a lack of privacy in the nesting boxes, leading to the girls crowding in to lay eggs at the same time in the same box, which causes pecking and feather breakage/loss (especially if they are in a head-first position with their tails sticking out of the nesting box). Secondly, they are crowded on their roosting perches, leading some of the girls to sleep on the ground with their bums in direct contact with their droppings all night long... so basically they're getting diaper rash!

About the time the weather turned chilly I noticed droppings building up in the nesting boxes over night, and I figured a few of the girls were sleeping in the nesting boxes because they were warmer... nooooooooope. Apparently they were pushed into the nesting boxes by the girls higher up in the pecking order because they were too crowded on the perches I had provided them.


I am a fixer by nature, and it felt so good to come out of that workshop with a plan to fix my girls' feather issue! So this morning as soon as Audrey was off to school, I pulled on my workin' boots and headed out to the coop. Step one: deep clean the hen house and nesting boxes (no more ammonia!).

Step two: address the nesting box privacy issue. Both presenters in the poultry health workshop had agreed and reiterated that all nesting boxes should have curtains. I thought they were joking the first time they said it- picturing Pinterest-worthy polka-dot or plaid curtains pulled back with little tassels- but nope, they were serious. They explained that a hen will instinctively seek out the most private, secluded, and usually darkest spot to lay her egg, which curtains would facilitate, but also if there was an issue with other hens breaking the feathers of the layer while they waited their turn in the box, the curtains would protect her from attack.

So I grabbed a strip of heavy-duty black plastic drop cloth and the staple gun and went to work.

As soon as I had stapled the last corner of plastic over the boxes, the girls were all up in their freshened-up, private little spaces. They had no trouble pushing through the little slits in the plastic, and as an added bonus the plastic aided in keeping the straw in the box instead of it all spilling out as they nestled down in it to lay their eggs. (In the summer I may regret black plastic curtains, but if that ends up being the case I'll revamp again!)

Finally I addressed the roosting perches. They've always had natural branches from our woods secured to the studs and all on one plane (I'd read somewhere that if you keep the perches on one plane instead of graduating them it would temper the severity of the pecking order assertions... so much for that!).

For my perch revamp I turned to this website and decided to go with 2x4's this time. I think it's interesting that in this how-to they argue that chickens don't grasp perches when they sleep like wild birds, but that they prefer to sleep on a flat surface. I made my roost "ladder" 4 feet wide and 58 inches tall so it would utilize most of the space in the hen house but still be able to be removed for cleaning and repairs. I turned all the 2x4's with the 4" side facing up so if in fact they prefer to sleep on flat surfaces, they have the most surface area on which to perch.

It was a beast to maneuver up into their hen house because I barely gave myself enough room to clear the door when it's all the way open (sheesh), but I got it up there and secured, and finished the whole process with a fresh layer of straw (by the way the poultry experts at the fair workshop said the end-all be-all for chicken bedding is actually peat moss! hmmmmm...)

The last suggestion I was given in reference to my flock's feather problems was to try and force a molt. I had no idea you could manage molts, and since they didn't have time to elaborate on exactly how one forces a molt, I guess that'll be what I'm researching next!

For now, though, I'll be counting down to sunset so I can go sneak a peak in the hen house and see how they like their new perches!

At least I feel better about the whole feather-loss thing. Hopefully now my girls will start feeling better, too.

Post edit: I peeked in at the flock after they'd gone up to roost for the night, and alas not a single girl had figured out that the new structure in their house was for perching on! They were all sleeping down in the hay. So this morning I'm scouring the web to figure out how to train them up onto the larger, wider, higher roosts and get them off of the floor!

Sheesh. Featherbrains!

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