No to Chicken Rental

You might have heard about this – companies are renting laying hens to people. I’ve wanted to avoid commenting on it, but it’s in the news enough that I have to. The Boston Globe ran an article yesterday. It’s a typical fluff piece – a supposedly feel-good column, but it made my heart sink.

For a fee, the chicken rental company brings two or four pullets, housing, and feed to your home. You keep the hens for the spring through fall laying season. Then they take them back. If you get attached to your chickens, you can “adopt” them.

Recently, a woman who does chicken keeping workshops in a nearby city said enthusiastically to me let’s get chickens in every backyard! There wasn’t time to discuss this with her, but my response would have been a firm NO. Not everyone should have animals. Not everyone should have hens. If the purpose of having a backyard flock is just have a source of good eggs, then support a farmer that raises hens on pasture. Only get chickens if you actually want to have animals in your life. Get hens if you want to know the bird that lays your eggs. Chickens require care, and care requires time and observation, and that requires a connection to your flock. Not everyone has or wants that. The argument is that this rent-a-chicken program will allow people to figure it out. Maybe they’ll go on to get a larger flock. Perhaps. But I have further issues with this business.

The idea of renting a farm animal perpetuates the idea that you have no responsibility for that creature beyond the short period of time that it is productive. In the case of a chicken, that’s her first year of lay. A real farmer has crucial moral end-of-life issues to deal with. Are the unproductive stock harvested for meat? Discarded? What happens when an animal is sick? When there are predators? In the rent-a-chicken model, the hens are replaced. The customer remains removed from these dilemmas. If you rent a chicken to experience raising your own food, then you are missing out on the real picture.

Along with my qualms about the overall business, I have major issues with the housing and care of the hens once they are dropped off in the customers’ backyards. The coops are little more than boxes (this is the sort of “coop” that is supplied. The runs are small and easily accessible by predators. The food and water is exposed to the elements.

Chicken keeping isn’t as easy as so many of its proponents would like you to believe. No animal is easy – if it is, you’re likely doing something wrong. For example, a rabbit in a wire hutch in the backyard is no trouble to take care of – simply give it food and water daily – but you’re not providing what the rabbit needs to live a decent life. Same thing with chickens. Can you keep two in a small coop for a few months? Yes. Is it what those chickens need to thrive? No. Is it being a responsible animal steward? Definitely not.

black star

Chick Care FAQ

Over the years, I’ve written a multitude of posts about chick care, and it’s all available through the search button, but finding the information that you need when you have those chicks peeping in the box has been difficult. So, I’ve put the most essential advice into a FAQ.

While writing Chick Care, I had to sort through old posts and photographs. What fun! Here is Veronica, giving me her exactly same gaze as she does today. Those personalities are obvious from the get-go if you look for them!

maran

 

Please feel free to share the FAQ with others, and to share on Pinterest and FaceBook.

Chick Care

Those tiny, peeping chicks that you bring home from the feed store or post office are ridiculously adorable and are obviously babies. They will require special care for the first four months of their lives. Have their housing ready for them. It’s likely that they’ve traveled to get to you, and they’ll need water, food and heat as soon as they arrive home. Chicks need to stay warm; their fluffy coats don’t insulate them like their adult feathers will, and so they have to live in a brooder, which will keep them safe and the right temperature as they mature.

chick

As cute as they are, do not be tempted to keep the chicks in your kitchen, or for that matter, anywhere in your house. First of all, they grow rapidly, and they will soon be too big for whatever box you thought would be adequate. Secondly, and most important, is that chicks make a mess. They poop – a lot – and they scratch their manure into a fine dust. That mixes with the sticky keratin that they shed as they lose their down and unfurl feathers. All of that will coat every surface in your house, and you’ll be breathing it in. So, plan ahead and have a place in the barn, the coop, the garage, or your basement, but not in your own living areas. While on this topic – don’t kiss the chicks. Poultry naturally carry bacteria, including salmonella, in their guts. You’ll stay safe if you wash your hands after handling your birds. You run a risk of getting seriously ill if you put your mouth to their bodies. I’ve written more about chickens and human diseases here. For more about handling chicks, read this.

Chicks have a few basic requirements. They need to stay warm. They need food and water. They need to be able to scratch the ground with their feet. They need enough space so that they aren’t stressed. I also firmly believe that a major factor in raising healthy hens from chicks is usually overlooked. Chicks are curious, busy, and social beings. A typical brooder, which is basically a heat lamp, bedding, food and water is too boring for them. The very first week that they arrive, I set up an enriched environment. I give them interesting things to do so that pecking each other doesn’t become a pastime. I’ll get into that later in this article.

The Brooder

I’ve found that the easiest way to construct a brooder is to get a big cardboard carton, like one that a washing machine comes in. Or, you can tape together sturdy packing boxes. The thick high sides will keep out drafts. A hanging heat lamp provides warmth. Because chicks have a crowd mentality, and because even those fluffy sweet-looking babies peck and chase, block off the corners so that no one gets trapped and pounded on or smothered.

brooder

 

This is inexpensive, temporary housing.

 

When the chicks arrive, keeping them warm is key. The temperature should be 95º F. But, I don’t use a thermometer. The chicks tell me if they’re comfortable. The heat lamp is on a cord that can be raised to regulate the temperature. Notice that the brooder is big enough that the chicks can get away from the heat if they want to. If they’re peeping loudly and crowded under the heat lamp, then they’re cold.

huddled

 

If they’re in the shadows, away from the light, they’re too hot.

kumbaya

 

If they’re evenly spaced, and either active or dozing here and there, then it’s just right.

evenly-spaced

Every few days they require a few degrees less warmth, and so I raise up the lamp. Because my chicks are kept in an outbuilding that isn’t heated, I adjust the lamp during the day as the outside temperature fluctuates. This is a basic heat lamp. One of these days I’ll try the new radiant brooder lamps. But this one works, and so I haven’t felt the need to spend the money.

 

Feeding Chicks

When chicks hatch, they still have some yolk remaining inside of them. This provides them with nutrients and water for the first few days of life, which is why chicks can be shipped in boxes through the mail. As soon as they arrive home they need to be fed and watered. Gently hold each chick and dip her beak in the water. If she gets a bit on her beak, she’ll swallow and that’s all it takes to teach her where the water is. Use a waterer designed for chicks, as the little ones can drown in a dish.

The bulk of a chick’s diet should come from commercial feed formulated specifically for them. Chick feed differs from laying hen ration in several important ways. First of all, it is in the form of crumbles, which, being smaller, is easier for chicks to peck and swallow. Secondly, chick feed is higher in protein, around 18% versus 14 to 16% in laying hen pellets. Lastly, and of the greatest importance, chick feed is low in calcium. Mature birds eat laying hen pellets formulated with calcium because that mineral is necessary to create eggs. What’s good for layers is not good for chicks. Chicks fed a ration with calcium will develop kidney disease. Chick feed comes plain or medicated. Although chicks in large production facilities are often fed sub-therapeautic antibiotics, the bags of feed sold to backyard keepers don’t have those drugs in them. Rather, the “medication” refers to a drug that kills a lethal protozoa called coccidia. Not all backyards harbor coccidia, but if yours does, the chicks might get bloody diarrhea and die. Some people wait until there is a sign of the ailment before treating the flock with a coccidiostat. Other chicken keepers routinely offer a medicated ration as a preventative measure. Some, like myself, get chicks vaccinated for coccidia. If your chicks are vaccinated for coccidia, then you cannot use medicated feed. (This is for the coccidia vaccine. If your chicks are vaccinated only for Marek’s disease, you can feed a coccidiostat.)

It’s best to provide the crumbles in a dispenser made for this purpose. If possible, use a hanging feeder. This keeps the chicks from standing and pooping in their ration.

SEG6527

 

Feed your young birds a starter ration until they reach point of lay, about sixteen to eighteen weeks of age. At that point they will do better on a lower protein ration, and their systems can handle the calcium. Do not feed chicks that are destined to be laying hens a “finish ration” or a “show and grow.” These products are designed for meat birds, and put weight on fast. Not only is the protein and fat content wrong for layers, but a few companies do put antibiotics into them.

Keeping Chicks Busy

Within a day of hatching, a chick is ready to search for food, to explore, and to interact with others. Unfortunately, a typical brooder is a boring place. There’s nothing to peck at except for uninteresting crumbles and the other chicks. In a perfect world, the chicks would be able to go outside and scratch up bugs in the dirt, eat greens in the yard, and try little bits of this and that. But, the weather often doesn’t cooperate. Chicks will grow okay if fed only crumbles. But, from the get go they’re omnivores, and a varied diet will do them good. That doesn’t mean that you should give them piles of treats. Chicks are designed to eat continuously, and they are gluttons! Give them an easy to chow down on food and they’ll overeat; depending on what you feed, it could be like letting a toddler eat only Lucky Charms cereal.

You might have read that you can chop up vegetables and bread into fine bits and feed it as treats to your chicks. I disagree. Chicks don’t need their treats minced. By day four a chick can swallow a whole worm with no problem (and digest it easily thanks to grit.) I want the treats that I feed my chicks to take time and effort to consume. Also, the treats must be nutritious. Chicks require a higher protein content than adult hens. Bread and corn won’t provide that. On the other hand, don’t feed dried mealworms, as a few too many can lead to kidney disease.

The first week I give the chicks a small clod of dirt with a clump of clover or dandelion attached.

week-old-chicks

This is better than grass, which has long blades that can get impacted in the crop. The chicks peck and eat bits of green and they even find bugs to eat. You might see a chase and tug of war when a worm has been found. They’ll scratch at the dirt. Scratching is another innate behavior that chicks are preprogrammed to do. Giving them an outlet for this is important to their well-being. You’ll hear much excited and happy chirping. If nothing is growing, or just for a change, give them a vegetable to work at. They’ll peck at it and not at each other. Win-win!

acorn-squash

 

As the chicks get older, you can give them a clod with short blades of grass attached. An added benefit is that once the greens and the bugs are eaten up, there will be dirt for them to take a dirt bath in. Your chicks will know how to do that their first week, too!

Grit and Probiotics

Along with providing food and water, there are two other things to offer your chicks that will greatly improve their vitality: grit and probiotics. Chickens, like all birds, do not have teeth. They don’t chew. Rather, they swallow food whole. Their digestive tracts are designed to deal with this. Specifically, a chicken has a gizzard, which is an exceptionally strong muscular pouch that grinds up food. The gizzard does this with the help of small rocks that the chicken swallows. Even if your hens free-range, it’s unlikely that they can find just the right pebbles for their gizzard. Certainly chicks, in a cleanly bedded brooder, don’t have access to what their gizzards need to function properly. That’s why they need you to provide grit.

You can buy a bag of grit at the feed store or online. Basically, it’s ground up granite. Chick grit is finer than chicken grit. It might seem crazy to spend $10 on a bag of pebbles, but it is essential to the health of your new flock. This is not a new idea. I have a catalog from 1919 that offers bags of chick grit for sale. Give the chicks a couple of days to eat their crumbles before introducing grit. Then, set out a dispenser filled with the grit. The chicks know what they need and will eat the right amount. In their first two weeks, 26 chicks consumed all of the grit in this container!

grit-feeder

 

The other supplement that I provide my chicks are probiotics. Everyone’s intestinal tract has both good and bad bacteria in residence. When the balance is off animals don’t thrive and can sicken. You can provide your chicks with the right microorganisms by adding a product like Gro2Max to the drinking water. I do this for the first two weeks to give them a good start.

Roosts for Chicks

Vegetables and dirt clods will keep your chicks busy, but it won’t take care of all of their active energy. By the second week, chicks will be looking to perch. Provide them with small roosts. I make them out of branches nailed to 2 x 4 blocks. Soon you’ll see your chicks jumping up, finding friends to roost next to, and taking naps in their favorite spots. This primes them for good roosting behavior when they are adults.

2-week-roost

 

Cleaning the Brooder

For the first day or two, the floor of the coop should be covered with a surface that is easy for the chicks to walk on and that they can’t eat. I use old towels. Newspaper is too slippery. Paper towels will do. Once the chicks know to eat the crumbles, switch to an absorbent bedding, like pine shavings.

maran

Keep the manure picked out as best you can (I use a kitty litter scoop) but soon enough, the chicks will have shredded it to a fine dust. Shovel it out and replace. Keeping the air fresh and clean is essential for your flock’s respiratory health.

 

Going Outside!

As long as the weather is warm and dry, your chicks can go outside for daytime playtime. Do keep an eye on them, as everyone from cats to hawks find chicks irresistible. Make sure that they have water and food. If it is sunny, have a spot of shade for them. One reason why I like to have the brooder inside of the coop is that the transition to going outside becomes seamless. By the time they’re two months old, they’re able to go in and out at will (into my safely fenced pen.)

DSC_74641

 

The Chicks Grow Fast

That fluff-ball stage lasts all of 4 days. In no time at all they lose their down and get long, hard outer feathers. They get tall and leggy, stretch their wings and legs and act like mini-pteryodactyls. So, while you’re enjoying the chicks, keep in mind that they soon need their adult housing. I’ve written a FAQ about the criteria for a good coop here. You’ll need that coop sooner than you think!

Good Boy, Tonka!

Having graduated from the KPA-TP course, I’ve decided to get back into being a professional trainer, and part of that plan is to have Tonka assist me. He is a young horse (9 years old) but sane and careful. He’s also one of those unique individuals who’s very presence calms down other horses. Tonka and I will be teaching others how to enjoy getting out of the riding ring and onto the trails. For horses who have always been restricted to a flat surface and told where to place their feet, a path through the woods can be scary. This is true for the riders, too! We’ll be there to guide and reassure.

Tonka and I haven’t gotten out for months. My trailer was under several feet of snow. The paths were too deep and too icy. But, before we can teach others, (our students include two retired Grand Prix dressage horses and a young horse who’s never been outside of a ring) we have to get the miles under us. I also need to scout out the best places to take my clients.

Yesterday we went to Hazel Grove, where there’s a big grassy riding field to stretch out in, and flat trails through the woods to walk down.

hazel grove

Even for a horse like Tonka, it’s asking a lot to leave his friends from the barn and to go out alone. Horses are herd animals, and can be insecure and scared when away from other horses. Tonka has to put his trust in me. We are a herd of two. A frightened horse can be dangerous. A horse’s first reaction to something that startles him is to flee and then look. I’d rather that Tonka not bolt off, but wait and ask me if everything is okay. There are different ways to train this. One method teaches the horse to be compliant. It doesn’t matter what happens, he behaves the same way, regardless of what is going on around him. This is taught by shutting down the horse’s natural flight reaction. In the science of behavior, it is called learned helplessness. This can feel safe to the rider, but to achieve this state requires training with punishment, which I don’t do. Besides, it’s not what I want. I want a cooperative horse, one that is calm because he’s thought through the situation and knows that he can handle it, one that trusts that communicating with me will be worthwhile and rewarding. I want an engaged partner. This takes time and skill, and it also takes listening to one’s horse. It paid off yesterday in an unusual way!

horse on trail

We were the only ones at Hazel Grove when we arrived at 10:30 am. Tonka and I warmed up in the field. He was a bit “high” which means he was on alert. There was tension in the way he moved, but we talked it over (my deep, calm breathing relaxed him) and I let him look around. He settled. So, we headed down the trail. About 400 feet into the woods we came across a tree blocking the way. I was riding “on the buckle” which means that the reins were loose. We stopped and I looked about to try to figure out how to get around the obstacle. A worried horse would have jigged or tried to wheel around to get back to the safety of the trailer. A compliant horse would have stood there like a statue. My cooperative horse put his head down and snuffled in the leaves. What the heck was he doing? There wasn’t any grass there for him to eat. He was clearly telling me that there was something on the ground that I should pay attention to. I looked. There was a small black leather purse. I got down and picked it up. Someone had lost their cell phone. I’ve known dogs who find things, but a horse? This is what happens when you allow a horse to be curious and to talk with you.

There was no convenient stump to use as a mounting block, so we walked the short way back to the trailering area. (I can get on without a stump, but it’s kinder on his back if I use one.) Tonka raised his head to alert me to something going on up ahead. Sure enough, things had changed. Two trailers had pulled up. I hoped that someone had arrived who was connected with the group that manages Hazel Grove. I could give them the phone to return. I asked a woman. She said, no, she’d just driven up from Rhode Island, which is two hours away. I said I’d found a phone. That’s mine! Her excitement was the first thing to rattle Tonka all morning. She had been to Hazel Grove the day before to do a 16 mile ride. She had no idea where she’d dropped her phone purse. So, she and a friend had returned with two horses, assuming they’d have to ride the full trail again, in the vain hope of finding the phone in the leaves. What a coincidence that we were there at the same time! If not for Tonka’s curiosity and communication, it would have remained lost. Tonka has a new fan.

We said our good-byes, and returned to the trail. Not many horses would have willingly left the company of other horses to go back into the woods. There wasn’t anything else to find and we had a pleasant, uneventful walk. Good boy, Tonka!

horse in trailer

Guess the Breeds Contest

We’ve played the guessing game for years.

What breed is Lily?

lily sitting

 

I got her from a border collie rescue, and yes, she’s black and white and the right size. Other than that, she has none of the traits one would expect in a BC. Lily has no urge to herd, and she doesn’t have the crouch and low posture of a BC. She does hunt. She air and ground scents. Going after prey, or chasing off a predator, Lily is a speed demon. She’s smart as can be, but her intelligence isn’t exhibited in the command-focused mindset of a border collie, rather, she’s an independent thinker. She’s hyper-vigilant and wary. I joke that if she was a person, she’d be on the internet with all of the other conspiracy theorists.

And then there’s Scooter.

Svooyrt on stairs

 

What could his parentage be? His mother was found on the streets of Hartford a day before she whelped three pups. Even skinny, she weighed 25 pounds. She had upright ears and the coloring of corgi. Scooter is 10 1/2 pounds of adorableness. Bow legs. Overshot lower jaw. Tucked up waist. Floppy ears. He is a dog of little brain, but what is there is sweet as can be.

Scooter head

 

I bought two DNA testing kits. All it takes is a swab of the inside of the lip to get what the lab needs to run the report. Fifteen seconds.

Lily was sure that there was a plot behind this torture. She hid under the desk when I was done.

DNA swab

 

Scooter said that it felt weird,

Scooter swab

 

and did he earn a cookie?

dog cookie

 

Your guess about my dogs’ lineages is as good as mine. We have a month or so before the results come back, so in that time, let’s have a contest! Whoever guesses the parentage will get a copy of my book, Vintage Dog Photographs. There will be two winners, one for each dog.

Let the games begin!

The winner will be announced in a post as soon as I hear back from the lab.