Getting started with pastured chickens, Part III


By Jean Nick
Originally posted on August 16, 2005

Chickens need access to clean, fresh water during waking hours. If they run out they won’t eat (which slows growth and egg production) and if they are without water for more than a few hours they may be permanently stunted or thrown into a molt cycle (and stop laying eggs).

For chicks you need to start with at least 1” of waterer space per bird and add 1/4” per bird per week. Fill up your waterers with water mixed with a chick starter (per the package directions) or with 1 ounce of raw cider vinegar and a few drops of black strap molasses per gallon of water (per Karma Glos owner of Kingbird Farm in Berkshire, N.Y., and author of Humane and Healthy Poultry Production: A Manual for Organic Growers and Remedies for Health Problems of the Organic Laying Flock). As you unpack your chicks take the time to dip each one’s little beak in the water before you set her down. The sooner they start drinking the better.

Dump out the waterers each day, rinse, and refill them with fresh water mixture. Cut back the vinegar to a few drops per gallon (or follow the directions on the vitamin packet). Scrub waterers out as needed with a stiff brush (white plastic fonts grow algae pretty fast, galvanized ones tend to stay cleaner).

Raise the level of the waterers as the birds grow (either hang the waterers and keep shortening the supports or put blocks under the waterers) so that the water is at chest height. This makes it easier for the birds to drink and helps keep them from hopping in (and scratching bedding into it or pooping in it).

Adult chickens need sufficient waterers so they can all drink at the same time, especially on hot days. One huge waterer may sound like an easy solution for you, but hens are not known for waiting in line, so think about hen access space rather than total gallons. Keeping at least two water sources in every enclosure is a good idea so that if one malfunctions, the other will be available.

There are a number of types of waterers on the market. For just a few chickens you can use self-contained fonts, but if you have a lot of birds filling the fonts gets to be a hassle. Many folks use a low-pressure “Bell” type waterer that is gravity fed from 5-gallon buckets hung a few feet above the drinking bell. Other folks have crafted chicken-sized troughs with float valves and supply them with water from hose lines or 55-gallon drums set up on a portable wagon that can be moved around the pasture with the birds. We are still using fonts but are looking into switching to a more efficient system.

Food
While your chickens will be getting some of their food (and lots of great vitamins) from grazing (the percentage varies from 5 to 10 percent, and up to 30% in rare cases, depending on your pasture, according to Jeff Mattocks, a livestock nutrition expert in Bainbridge, Pa.), you will still need to give them a good quality feed ration of ground grains, protein, and vitamin supplements every day. Most people start out feeding their chickens with whatever chicken rations their local feed store sells, and when you have just a few chickens this is probably your only option – other than having food shipped in, which gets expensive. If you can find a feed mill that grinds its own mash frequently that is a better choice than preserved, pelleted food (which may contain cheap, low-quality ingredients). Many pastured poultry farmers, including us, choose non-medicated starter mash to avoid feeding our birds unnecessary meds.

Since ground feed and the vitamins added to it lose nutritional value over time, buy only as much as you can feed within 14 days. If you have a cool, dry storage area with no air movement it will stay fresh longer–up to 60 days under ideal conditions; but at room temperature it will be degrade significantly in 3 to 4 weeks and, in warmer conditions, even faster.

If you have a local feed mill that will custom grind (ours will make batches of as little as 500 pounds) and you have enough birds, you can have mash made to order. Jeff Mattocks recommends getting it ground “medium,” as very fine mash slows down digestion. There are also natural vitamin/mineral supplements many pastured poultry farmers swear by. And some supplement companies offer standard recipes so you can have your local mill grind mash to your specifications, and if you can’t get an ingredient they will help you develop a nutritionally balanced recipe based on the ingredients you do have access to.

Feed chicks starter/grower mash containing 18 to 19 percent protein for the first 18 weeks. Do not feed layer mash to birds under 18 weeks, as the high levels of calcium in it may permanently damage their developing organs. You will also need some starter grit (tiny bits of sharp stone) for the first few weeks and coarser chicken grit thereafter. Offer mash in chick feeders as soon as they arrive, and keep the feeders full so the chicks can eat all they want. You need enough feeder space (edge) so that all the chicks can eat at once. Start with 1” of feeder space per bird and add 1/4” per bird per week. Plastic ice cube trays (cheap at yard sales) fastened to boards make great chick feeders. As with waterers, raise the level of the feeders as the birds grow. Dump out any soiled or wet food once or twice a day–wet food that sits around is a breeding ground for problems. Rinse out soiled feeders as needed.

Once a day for the first few weeks, sprinkle a bit of grit over the food (as if you were salting your own food). After that keep a separate dish full of coarser grit where they can pick at it when they want it. Chickens need grit in their gizzards to grind up the food they eat so they can get the most nutrition out of it.

After about 10 weeks you can start feeding pullets (young hens) about 10 percent scratch grain (a mix of small grain and cracked corn) and 90 percent mash to lower the total protein a bit.

Once your young hens are 17 or 18 weeks old (or your started pullets arrive) feed them laying mash with 16.5 to 17 percent protein, plus scratch grain. Keep their feeders full of mash so they can eat all they want whenever they want. Continue to keep separate dishes full of coarse grit available to help them digest all that expensive mash they are gobbling up, and add additional dishes full of crushed oyster shell so they can self-select calcium as needed to make good strong egg shells. Lengths of plastic roof gutter (with end caps) screwed down to boards at right angles make easy-to-move field feeders.

We like to feed our hens their mash wet, mixing only as much as we know they will finish in a day’s time with water to make a thick mixture and piling it in their troughs. It takes a little more time to prepare but they love it, and more mash in equals more eggs out. Twice a day we take in a smaller bucket of scratch grain and throw it around in the pasture for them to scratch after (good entertainment for everyone involved).

Bathing
No, chickens don’t like water but they are hard-wired to scratch up loose soil or other material and work it in under their feathers. Dust bathing helps control parasites and keeps the chickens healthy and happy. When they are on the pasture they will take any opportunity to dig holes and dust bathe. If your pasture is too lush for them to find their own dust, or in the winter, you may want to provide a large, shallow box full of nice “clean” dust for them to wallow around in. Karma Glos recommends filling the box with wood ashes mixed with a little diatomaceous earth.

Eggs
You will need to provide nest boxes for your hens to lay their eggs in. Some folks have the nest boxes in the same building the hens roost in at night, others have separate buildings. Either works. We have dual-purpose portable barns. Make your nest boxes so that the hens can access them from the inside of the building and you can access them from outside the building as well (it makes egg collection much easier for you and is less disruptive to the hens). Nest boxes with flip-up roosts that double as door blockers are good, as they allow you to shut the girls out when egg-laying is done for the day, preventing the nests from getting soiled by sleeping hens or being taken over by broody hens. You need enough nest boxes so that hens are not standing around with their legs crossed waiting for a nest box to open up (or worse, hopping in and laying on top of another hen, which leads to cracked eggs and cranky hens). The 10-holer we have for our 65 Buffies isn’t quite enough; 15 nest boxes probably would be, and we are working on expanding the facilities. Wood shavings work well for lining nest boxes, and seem not to get kicked out as fast as hay or straw does. Clean out any soiled bedding when you see it and add fresh material to keep the bottom of the nest box well padded.

The first few eggs a hen lays will be small (“pullet” eggs), but they size up quickly, so be patient. The little eggs are just a tasty as full-sized ones. Joel Salatin calls the early eggs “maiden eggs” and gives them away as samples.

Plan on collecting eggs a few times every day if at all possible, especially in very hot or very cold weather (warm eggs start losing quality, frozen eggs aren’t good for much). Go ahead and reach under any hens in the nest boxes when you are collecting, they will get used to you and even learn to stand up briefly when they feel your hand. Once you figure out what time your hens finish laying, make your last collection visit then and close the nest boxes up. Open them again when you go to shut the barn door for the night after the girls are settled on their roosts (trying to get up before the chickens to open the nest boxes isn’t workable for most of us).

We pack the clean eggs directly in cartons and scrub the soiled eggs under running water (slightly warmer than the eggs are, so as not to drive any bacteria into the pores of the egg) before packing them. Any cracked eggs get sorted out (we eat those with hairline cracks, the dogs get the occasional badly cracked one) Other than taking out any very small or very large eggs we pack our eggs as they come in mixed sizes. We keep them refrigerated until they are sold.

We direct market some of our eggs to friends and co-workers, and have just started supplying a local restaurant who wanted high quality local eggs to feature on their omelet bar – compete with pictures of the hens and a write-up on our farm! Everyone pays $3 a dozen, and our eggs are worth it. Once you’ve eaten a fresh egg from a hen that spends her days scratching up bugs and tender bits of grass all day long you’ll know what we mean. Pastured eggs have a thicker texture when raw, a brighter yellow yolk, more omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins, less cholesterol than those from confined hens (even organic ones), cook up light and fluffy, and taste great!

Winter management
In areas of the country where soil temperatures don’t fall below 50°F and where snow never sticks on the ground, you can keep chickens on pasture year-round. In colder areas you should plan on keeping your chickens and the majority of their manure contained in the winter. According to Joel Salatin, the soil organisms that take care of manure go dormant below 50°F, and any manure that arrives when the soil is dormant is at best wasted and at worst pollution waiting to happen.

Plan on wintering your hens in an enclosure that is large enough to give them room to move around in as well as roost (a portable pasture shelter can be smaller since the birds spend most of the day outside). It should let lots of natural light in and be well ventilated, but not drafty. Cold is less of a problem for chickens than drafts or dampness are. A number of farmers use large hoophouses as affordable winter barns, and have found them quite suitable.

Use plenty of dry bedding (hay, straw, wood chips) to soak up all the goodness of the chicken manure and bind it until spring. Keep adding layers of dry bedding as frequently as needed to keep the floor dry and the area smelling like chickens, not ammonia. Throwing scratch grain around will get the hens scratching, which will fluff up the bedding and keep it well mixed.

Hens will molt and stop laying when the days get short, so plan on providing some supplemental light if you want eggs all winter long. It doesn’t take much light to do the trick: Keith Morgan, of Windhaven Farm in Sauquoit, N.Y., uses just two, 60-watt bulbs, timer-controlled to come on at 5 a.m., in a large winter barn to keep his girls churning out eggs all winter long.

Where are we?
So, here we are, almost a year since my initial unwary “Sure, why not” answer. Where are we? We now have about 250 laying, or just starting to lay, hens and a handful of very busy roosters. They spend their days being happy chickens on the green grass in the fresh air and sunshine (and occasional rain shower, of course), and they lay absolutely delicious eggs. For the most part we think our little experiment in commercial pastured egg production has gone very well and, even better, we are selling all the eggs we can produce for a good price ($3 a dozen) — we enjoy our little feathered friends and the time we spend taking care of them pays us a quite adequate return.

The 2 acres of pasture we planted this year is coming in well, which will allow us to expand next year. So next spring we plan to increase the laying flock to 500 hens. Their eggs, plus a steady stream of pastured meat birds from April through November, and some pastured Thanksgiving turkeys, will allow my partner Tom to earn a good living from the farm during those months — which was one of our initial goals as he is a full-time ski instructor during the winter months. So, I guess you can now sign me: The Chicken Lady.

p.s. Now if anyone can tell me how we will ever be able to get away to go on vacation…

Jean Nick and her partner Tom Colbaugh raise pastured chickens for eggs and meat, and a variety of other animals and edible plants on their farm in eastern Pennsylvania, overlooking the Delaware River Valley.

This material was developed with the support of the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the Risk Management Agency, under Agreement No. 031E08310147.

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