There is no denying the dramatic recent rise in poultry popularity and the booming backyard chicken trend. More small farm, suburban and even urban residents are learning that there are a number of benefits to having chickens in the backyard in addition to the eggs or meat they provide.
Andy Schneider, better known as the Chicken Whisperer, has become the go-to guy across the country for anything related to backyard chickens. He hosts the “Backyard Poultry with the Chicken Whisperer” web radio show, and serves as a national spokesperson for the USDA-APHIS Bio-Security for Birds Program. He is the editor of “Chicken Whisperer Magazine” and author of “The Chicken Whisperer’s Guide to Keeping Chickens.” This spring Schneider toured Kalmbach Feeds distributors around Ohio and shared plenty of poultry pointers.
“We know chickens are really good composters. For the most part your group of chickens will eat just about everything off of your plate. You only want about 10% of their diets to come from food scraps. It prevents food waste from going into the landfill,” said Andy Schneider. “They are also pumping out a lot of poop. But a lot of people who have chickens know that is like gold for your compost bin, your garden and your yard. Chickens can make absolutely wonderful all organic pest control. They eat just about anything they can get.”
Schneider’s goal is to help educate novice (and not-so-novice) chicken owners about the more important points of responsible chicken management. Most of his audience already understands the benefits of chickens, but they have plenty of questions about nearly every aspect of raising homegrown birds.
While many new owners of chickens are familiar with the benefits of chickens, they may not be as familiar with the inherent risks of working closely with birds. To combat the rising numbers of Salmonella cases associated with backyard poultry, for example, the Centers for Disease Control launched a “Don’t kiss your chicken campaign” to educate poultry owners about the public health issues with bringing their birds into their homes and the potential perils of smooching their Silkie.
With this in mind, Schneider talks extensively about biosecurity measures to protect the health of both the birds and their owners.
“When you are somewhere in the car around wild birds, stop and rinse off your tires — no one is going to do that,” he said. “But when you invest in a flock you want to protect them. There are a few thing that are cheap and easy and reasonable to do.”
Here are some low-cost and easy biosecurity measures that Schneider suggests for a backyard flock:
• Use hand sanitizer before and after you handle your birds. That can go a long way for biosecurity.
• Have one pair of designated boots that are only worn in the backyard and around the birds.
• If designated boots are a problem, a footbath can be used to scrub boots before entering the bird area.
• Cheap coveralls that are designated for wearing around the birds is also good.
• When it comes to disease, don’t take it out and don’t bring it in. If the birds are taken off the farm, quarantine them.
Schneider also really emphasizes his great disdain for the use of heat lamps and the safety hazards that result.
“The No. 1 most common source of heat used is a $10 heat lamp. I can’t stand them. They are a true fire hazard. They get hot and people don’t even know they are a fire hazard. In Maine a popular local vet recently died because she had a brooder in her bedroom with baby chicks and she burnt her house to the ground,” he said. “If you must use one, clamp the lamp to one end of the brooder. Get good quality duct tape and tape the clamp. Now get another clamp and clamp the first clamp over the duct tape. Get some chain and hooks and chain that lamp to something up above. Then there is still potential for problems because the bulbs are made in China and they get hot and melt the glue used to hold the bulb in and the bulb falls out of the socket.”
Other than very young birds, heat is generally not necessary for chickens anyway.
“Heat is far more detrimental to your chickens than the cold will be,” Schneider said. “They are very cold hardy. Chickens produce a lot of heat themselves.”
In his presentation, Schneider covered a wide array of additional topics including housing, nutrition, and bird care throughout the life of the chicken.
Here are more general tips:
• At $239, the Universal Brooder Box it is the best on the market dollar for dollar because “it makes brooding a breeze.” But, he said a large Rubbermaid bin works fine, is low cost, easy to use, and easy to clean.
• The best bedding is pine wood shavings. Hay or straw can work but you will have to clean the brooder more often to prevent odor and disease. Sand is bad.
• There are endless amounts of waterers that can be used, but the birds need access to cool, clean water 24 hours a day seven days a week.
• Lift the feeders as the chicks grow and start with the 50-pound bag of feed. They eat more than most first-time chicken owners think.
• Coop options are almost endless, but be sure to make every effort to predator-proof them and make them easy to clean.
• Coops should also be well ventilated but free of drafts.
• Only one nesting box for every three to five hens is needed and 12 square inches is ample for most breeds.
• Chickens may be on the roost for half their lives. Do the chickens a favor and provide a good roost. Wood is the best material for a roost that is 2.5- to 3-inches round or a 2X4 with rounded off corners. There should be at least eight to 10 inches of roost space per bird.
• For the first eight weeks, chicks need high protein starter in crumble form. After eight weeks, switch to a grower feed and at 16 weeks switch to layer feed in crumble or pellet form with lower protein but extra calcium.
• Medicated feed prevents coccidiosis. It is not an antibiotic.
• Scratch has no nutritional value. It is like candy for chickens.
• There are only two 100% ways to get a hen to stop eating eggs: 1. eat her or 2. incorporate rollaway nest boxes so the eggs roll to an area where they cannot be accessed after being laid.
For more from the Chicken Whisperer, visit chickenwhisperer.com.