More than just eggs

When someone new to chickens decides to get their own flock, it is usually images of fresh eggs and cozily clucking hens that dance before their eyes, not poop-splattered walls patterned after Jackson Pollock. The first hint that chickens produce so much more than just eggs usually hits right from the start, when the new flock-keeper brings home the box of cute little yellow flufflets.  How many among us remember committing that first and terrible neophyte mistake – stashing the  new brooder  in a back bedroom?  And who among flock owners has not wondered how something so small could smell so awful?

img_0151Never doubt the power of raw chicken poop to drive off people and make enemies of your friends – it has even been employed as a city management tool.  In 2013, the city of Abbotsford BC gained some unwelcome notoriety when it spread chicken manure throughout a homeless encampment in an effort to disperse long-term homeless residents.  When both citizens and the targeted homeless called foul – the city government was forced to apologize and presumably also to clean up the mess.  And as any  Alaskan backyard flock owner knows, after dealing with a coop through the long, long winter, raw chicken manure can be eye-wateringly strong.

Therefore, no matter the size of your flock, managing chicken manure not only makes for healthier birds, it makes for better relationships with neighbors.  The proverb, “Good fences make good neighbors” might be recast for backyard fowl owners, both large and small, as “Good manure management makes good  neighbors”.

For their size, chickens are awesome manure manufacturers, and like all birds, indiscriminate  about where they poop. An average layer produces two cubic feet of manure/year.  Some small flock owners are so conscientious that with gloved hands they remove daily droppings from litter.  But let’s be frank – chicken-coop detailing is not going to be done by the vast majority of us.  Another alternative is the chicken diaper, which can be found in a wide variety of prints, plaids, and holiday-themed motifs. As with poop, never underestimate the raw power of American entrepreneurs to market to emerging trends. Not a serious manure management tool, chicken diapers are for those – you know who you are – who can’t bear to leave their pet chicken outside in some tiny coop, and instead bring Henny Penny inside to lounge alongside Fido.

Diapers and hand-detailing aside, what is a flock-owner to do with all of that manure, plus the feathers, nest material and other litter mixed in with it?  Chicken manure is an excellent source of nutrients and minerals for gardens and home landscapes. Compared to other animal manures, it is higher in nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus and calcium, and with proper management and application can reduce or eliminate the need for other fertilizers. However, as  with any  animal waste used for garden compost – there are a few important caveats to bear in mind.

img_0153It is important to compost or age chicken manure for two reasons:  to reduce the number of pathogens potentially harmful to humans, and to “cool” the manure.  Chicken manure, because of its high nitrogen content, is the hottest of manures; if not aged or composted before application, fresh chicken manure will burn, even kill, young or tender plants.  Like all manures, safe handling includes wearing gloves, making sure the pile is not easily accessible to children, pets and other livestock, and treating it before use.  Composting, when done properly, creates high enough temperatures to kill pathogens. Aging does not kill  pathogens, but inhibits reproduction through unfavorable conditions, leading to an eventual die-off of pathogens over time.  To that end, it is important that if using the aging method, sufficient time is given for this to occur. It also bears noting that a healthy flock will produce relatively healthier manure – so sound flock husbandry (keeping your birds clean, uncrowded, well fed and unstressed) is also part of sound, safe manure management and usage.

While the Alaska Cooperative Extension does not have a publication specifically for chicken manure, there are many excellent, accurate and free publications available digitally; for visual learners, there are even YouTube videos. People with good attention to detail can compost chicken manure as any other organic material and if done with the proper mixture of greens and browns, turned and tended conscientiously, chicken manure can be ready and safe for application within 10 to 12 weeks after composting.  Aging (just letting it sit in a pile) can take at least a year in temperate climates, and probably, to be on the safe side, two years in Interior Alaska.  However, this is a perfectly acceptable approach to converting poop to soil amendment – provided you have enough space such that the pile is not the first sight or smell your neighbors encounter when picking up the morning newspaper.

Some recommended resources for the process of composting/aging/applying chicken manure:

University of Idaho Extension: Composting and using backyard poultry waste in the home garden, https://www.cals.uidaho.edu/edcomm/pdf/CIS/CIS1194.pdf

University of Nevada, Cooperative Extension: Using Chicken Manure Safely in Home Gardens and Landscapes, https://www.unce.unr.edu/publications/files/ho/2013/fs1323.pdf

Seattle Tilth:  Composting Chicken Manure, http://www.seattletilth.org/learn/resources-1/city-chickens/compostingchickenmanure

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Ground truthed!

Proof of the theorem of the Absolute of Chicken-themed Gift Receiving.

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Christmas 2016

 

 

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Tis the season for receiving…

…chicken-themed presents.  How many amongst us hobbyist flock-keepers have received such gifts  for birthdays, holidays or just because? I think it is safe to say that nearly all of us have – from friends or family who just couldn’t resist that cute little ___________ (fill in the blank with your poultry gift of choice).

Personally, I love all of the chicken gifts I have received since I started keeping layers over a decade ago.  Chickens have sprung out of gift boxes and wrapping paper adorning  all sorts of items – both practical and whimsical.  There are the  the pot holders and kitchen towels covered in chickens, the white and black hen salt and pepper shakers, the mug with the chicken on it, and the chicken what-not that simply sits on the shelf.  I have chicken wall hangings, numerous stuffed chickens along with one lone stuffed duck, hand-crocheted chicken doilies, and a chicken that lays jelly-bean eggs.

There is the rooster stained-glass rondel, hand-drawn chickens, chicken fridge magnets,   several  chicken tree ornaments,  and – my favorite – a  clock in the shape of a flying chicken.

In recent years, keeping chickens has increased in popularity – as has, it seems, chickens as a decorative motif, and thus as sources of poultry-related gifting.  Or perhaps the sighting and gifting of chicken tchotchkes is the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon   in action: friends and  family  are a titch more preternaturally  aware of chickens because someone they are close to  keeps chickens.  That is why, even though chicken-laden objects  are plentiful in my house and office, I enjoy and cherish every odd one of them:  they are mementos and reminders of the  times  my friends and family thought of  me as they picked out that chicken timer/mug/potholder/pillow/rug/tea kettle/basket.

 

 

 

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Merry Christmas wishes…

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….from our flock to yours!

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How long do chickens live?

This is a question that I am frequently asked, and a flippant answer might well be: as long as the flock keeper decides they should live.

Many people  think that chickens are short-lived,  and in our modern, factory-farming approach to eggs and chickens, they are:   the average layer is culled at three years when her egg-laying naturally begins to taper off, and many layers may be culled as soon as their first molt occurs.

For people who prefer a less-utilitarian approach to their layers – backyard chickens can live for a decade or more.  The average is about 8 to 10 years for a chicken that is healthy and kept safe from predators, although there are reports of pet chickens living well into their teens. Possibly one of the most famous long-lived birds of our modern era of backyard flocks was Victoria, a crotchety black rock hen, which according to an article in the Daily Mail in 2013, laid two eggs at 17.

Consideration of layer longevity cannot be divorced from the other question of how many eggs can a chicken lay? After all, the primary reason for keeping layers is to have a steady supply of fresh eggs.  Like humans, hens are born with a specific number of eggs.  How many they actually will lay over their lifetime is tied to their health, lighting and diet.  Generally, during  her first two years, a hen will lay about 200 eggs a year; starting in year three, egg production declines by 1/3 to 1/2 of her first year egg production.

Hen with her chicks

Black Langshan hen with chicks, Lugu Hu, Yunnan Province

The amount of light (natural daylight is always better, but not always realistic in Alaska) that a hen is exposed to affects her laying schedule.  Again, like humans, the low-light days of winter signal to hens that it is time to slow down.  Many flock-owners, commercial and backyard, maintain a steady supply of eggs through fall and winter by exposing their layers to long hours of artificial light (>12 hours).  While this will keep most hens laying, it does not give their bodies the natural downtime needed to recover from the heavier schedule of egg-laying during spring and summer months.  This may lead to earlier mortality and somewhat increased chances of disease susceptibility, however, this does not militate against the practice for flock-owners seeking to maximize egg production  through the steady replacement of two to three-year old birds with new young ones.

In over 14  years of having a backyard flock, I have always kept my chickens through their natural life cycle, and currently have four elderly, but spry, birds – all of whom are 10 or older. As an additional, admittedly unscientifically-based plug for the benefits of keeping older birds, I have never had any of the terrible bad habits (cannibalism, feather-picking) that can plague backyard flocks.  I believe this is because an all-ages, diversified flock (including a rooster) is more in keeping with the natural flock habits of chickens – which, like sled dogs, prefer hierarchal groups. It is my oldest hen, who at 11 is really the flock head – she keeps all of the other ladies and rooster in line.  Although it is not a philosophy for everyone, it can be beneficial in effect to keep the older hens around, even after their peak egg production has stopped.

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An Unusual Weather Event

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Warm enough in Fairbanks on January 11 that the chickens are out and dusting.

Now that is warm!

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Brrrr….

First week of the new year, and first day of -30 so far this winter.  Really, nothing to gripe about, but if it’s weather and Alaskans are talking about it – well, more times than not, there will be complaints, comments, and reminiscences about the Big Ice Storm of ’10 (or whatever  the latest weather event d’jour is)   rather than just a mere acknowledgement that yes, like everywhere else on the globe, we have weather.

With the arrival  of the first true cold day of this winter this morning, the chickens went onto a 24-7 heat lamp.  This winter I have been trying something new.  Early in the fall, I decided to be a bit less stingy with the electricity and give the girls (and Gandolf the Rooster) more heat regardless of outside temperature.  For all of my other chicken-keeping years – the heat lamp didn’t go on until zero to -10 degrees F. This meant that most times, the coop was pretty chilly: about 35 to 40 at perch-level, definitely in the 20s at the far reaches.  Previously,  if a heat lamp was on when it was 20 degrees above zero – well in my view that  was like leaving the front door open with the heater going full blast: a needless waste of energy.    I also had a  (half-baked) notion  that if I kept the coop relatively cool/cold in its far reaches, it would  slow down decomposition of droppings and generally help in keeping eye-watering ammonia fumes at bay. I had also heard (through the coop rumor-mill) that turning on/off heat lamps repeatedly when the bulb was cold would lead to faster bulb demise.

Wrong on all accounts.  By putting the heat lamp on a timer, and having it come on four  times throughout a 24-hour period even  when we hit close to 32 degrees,  the coop stayed much, much drier.  There was less frost build-up and the troublesome problem of condensation seeping down the walls (which always plagued the coop in outdoor temperatures above 32) never materialized during our Christmas chinook.  This in turn led to not only happier chickens (and warmer chickens) but because there was less moisture, the bedding stayed fresher longer and the droppings did not decompose as rapidly.  Clean-up of the coop is also much easier – because nothing is frozen to the walls or the boards in the far reaches.  I also was surprised at how small an impact there was on my monthly electric bill.  For sure, there was an increase, but I estimate it to be about 10$.  And of this writing, the bulb is still going strong  even though it’s well over a year old.

On a closing note – apologies to all for being AWOL for a considerable period of time.  Other work got in the way of the  enjoyable task of writing about chickens.   The home flock is still going strong – with at least three hens pushing 10.  Yes.  I know.  Most do not keep their layers around into their dotage.  Perhaps it is just because it’s sort of interesting to see how long these girls will live when they are safe from predators and get three squares a day.

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