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    Chicken Chat Q&A

    Tractor Supply Company has a great Facebook page where people can connect and find out what's going on and what other people are doing to celebrate the Out Here lifestyle. Recently TSC Facebook hosted an opportunity for folks to chat live with Purina Poultry Expert Mikelle Roeder, PhD, Animal Nutritionist and Poultry Expert. Here are some of the questions and answers that came out of that chat. All answers come from the poultry expert unless otherwise noted.

    General

    chicken

    I have baby chickens. How do you tell if they are hens or roosters?

    It is very difficult to sex chickens until their primary feathers begin coming in. That's why you have to pay extra to get all chicks of the same sex from hatcheries.

    If the chicken lays an egg on a poopy nest, or soils some on it after layed, is the egg edible after wash?

    Always wash eggs in water that is warmer than the egg; if you use cold water, it causes the egg to contract, which will pull bacteria into the egg. But yes, the egg should be fine to eat as long as you are cooking it thoroughly.

    I got my chickens a new house with 2x4s for their roost. A few weeks later my chickens were having trouble walking. I made a round roost and it seems like they are doing better. Would that be the reason?

    This was a great change for your birds, a rounded edge is much more ideal. Using 2x2 boards with rounded edges would be even better for your birds.

    Are silkies OK with a little cold?

    Silkies are a very versatile breed. They handle both warm weather and cold weather very well. Their additional feathers, covering their feet and small combs allow them to thrive through colder weather. Make sure to keep drafts out, and they have plenty of clean, dry bedding and you should be good to go.

    Best egg layer?

    Leghorn, hands down.

    Winter Care and Laying Patterns

    Anything we need to do now to ensure good fertility of eggs come spring? I know they won't really be fertile until around March in Michigan. We hatch not only layers, but bantams, ducks, and turkeys.

    Good management and good feed are the key to optimal health and fertility. If you have healthy birds, you should not have any problems.

    I have around 30 hens and haven't gotten an egg in three weeks. I know they slow down in the colder weather, but I usually get a few. What could be the problem this year? I have a nice house for them but can't have heat and a light in it.

    Without supplemental light, the birds will have greatly reduced egg production and may go into a molt. But don't worry — they will start laying again as natural day length increases in the spring!

    How old before the first molt?

    Most chickens will begin molting around 18 weeks of age. But, molt is driven most often by season, not age. Molting typically begins in the early fall and lasts usually between 12-16 weeks.

    When will my hens quit laying?

    Generally, hens will quit laying completely when day length slips below 12 to 14 hours. If you are supplying supplemental light and you want them to quit laying, just stop the additional lighting and they will likely stop.

    How long can a chicken go without laying an egg?

    If she is molting, months. If she is in peak lay, she should be laying an egg every 25 to 28 hours.

    Do you recommend supplemental light or should you let your hens naturally take a break from the tough egg laying schedule of the warmer months?

    This is your call and it depends on your needs. If you would like your hens to continue producing eggs through the shorter days, supplemental light is necessary. But, if you would like your ladies to have a well-deserved rest, go ahead and let them take in the natural light. You may consider transitioning them off their layer feed during this off-season to a balanced complete feed that does not contain the extra calcium — just make sure you switch back to the layer feed as day length increases so they are ready to produce strong, quality eggs next spring. Generally, I recommend adding light the first year and then allowing them to molt their second winter and then each subsequent winter.

    I have 12 hens and only getting 5 eggs is this normal? We are not using a light. They have a big coop and run, and we free range when we can (weather permitting). We live in MI. Should we be using a light?

    If you are not using additional light, then this is perfectly normal. All areas of the U.S. are now below the threshold for natural light that is required to maintain optimal egg production. Chickens require 16 hours of light daily to stay at peak production.

    If you want to get chickens to take a break from laying, what can you feed them?

    Hens will naturally reduce egg production as the days get shorter; they will gradually increase production as spring approaches and the days get longer. If you are supplying supplemental light, then reduce the supplemental light to a point where the birds are only getting eight hours of light. Keep the supplemental lights off for at least four weeks at which time you could bring the light back up to 14 hours of light. During the molt you should feed them a feed formulated for starting or growing birds, as the birds no longer need the extra calcium, provided through layer feeds. If you increase supplemental light or the birds begin to lay again, provide a layer diet designed for laying hens.

    How can we get more egg production in the winter?

    The most common reason hens reduce egg production or stop all together during the winter months is because of the shortened day lengths. Your hens should be provided with at least 16 hours of light per day in order to maintain production through the winter. If your hens are still laying, I would add this supplemental light as soon as you can. It is possible that we are too far into the winter for your hens to respond to the supplemental light and that they will not come back to peak production until spring. The rule of thumb for laying hens is to never expose them to a decline in the amount of light they receive. They don't need bright light, but they do need low light intensity of a duration of 16-18 hours. I would provide supplemental light during the first winter and then molt the hens each subsequent winter.

    Maintain a lighting schedule of 16 hours light and 8 hours dark. You need to start this program BEFORE day length starts to shorten in the fall. If you start the lighting program now, you may have some success, but you may not, either. Once the short day length triggers the hen to stop laying, it can be hard to get her started again until spring, even if you supply additional light. As long as you are feeding properly (90% of the daily ration should be a layer feed), providing light, and have a safe, comfortable coop, you are doing what you need to.

    My egg production is all over the place. I have 10 hens. One day I'll get 10 eggs; the next five; and then the next eight. Do these sound normal?

    Any chance they are hiding them? Birds at their peak lay will produce an egg about every 25 hours, but not every bird will be that productive. For some it may be 30 hours or longer. If your birds are allowed to free-range, they may be hiding some under bushes, etc.

    How long should molting last?

    It really depends on the genetics of the chicken. "Lazy molters" will often start molting after just 6 or 8 months of laying and may molt for 6 or even 8 months. "Hard molters" are usually good layers — they will lay 12 to 14 months before molting and are generally done in about 3 months.

    We're curious how long the molt will last, and what suggestions do you have for 'bumblefoot'? We have one hen that has it, but it doesn't really seem to bother her, yet.

    Depending on the genetics of the bird, molt may last as little as 2 to 3 months and as long as 6 to 8 months. Bumblefoot is a Staphylococcus bacterial infection of the foot and really should be treated by a veterinarian, as improper or lack of treatment can result in mortality. The foot will need soaking in Epsom salts so the scab can be removed; the area under the scab will then need to be packed with an appropriate antibiotic salve and then bandaged. It's a rather labor-intensive treatment that you want to stay on top of so the bird fully recovers.

    How old are chickens when they stop laying?

    Again, this will be somewhat dependent on the genetics of the bird, but by their third year most birds are slowing down considerably in egg production, though you may continue getting some eggs from a bird through 5 or 6 years of age. But certainly the first and second laying cycles will be the time of major production. Egg production decreases with increasing age. Good hens will productively complete two egg-laying cycles of 50 to 60 weeks each. After that, production will drop off dramatically.

    Do you have any suggestions for safely removing humidity from a small roosting area to avoid frostbite?

    There should be ventilation holes near the roofline of coops so that air can move from the bottom of the coop to the outdoors, taking moisture with it. This will keep the litter drier and the birds healthier because the air will be fresher. We tend to worry too much about keeping them warm and may close coops up too much; ventilation is critical, and well-fed birds in an insulated coop can ride out pretty severe winters very well.

    Some of our hens got frostbite on their combs in a recent cold spell. Is there anything we should do to the combs now? Is there a way to prevent future problems?

    You can apply a little Vaseline to help with keeping the combs supple, and the next time it is going to get really cold, you may want to supply some supplemental heat if your coop is not insulated. A red light bulb will supply some heat in a small coop without disrupting your light/dark schedule (if you are using one).

    You really will need to keep the birds warm enough in order to prevent frostbite. A bit of Vaseline can help prevent chapping, but true frostbite is due to the tissue literally being frozen, so keeping the birds in an insulated coop when the temps are very low will prevent frostbite.

    Behaviors

    Is there any connection between a red heat lamp and chickens pecking at each other? It's gotten to the point that we don't even want to run a heat lamp at all. Our chickens feathers are getting destroyed and look unsightly.

    A dim red light should not inspire chickens to peck each other. It is more likely some other issue — overcrowding, too hot, not enough space around the waterer or feeder, something lurking around the coop at night... Stress is what incites pecking. Very bright light can also be stressful, but if you are providing normal lighting hours, then the dim light from a heat lamp shouldn't be a problem.

    Two weeks ago, my new rooster mounted my hen, and gave her a bit of a bloody comb. Now she's terrified of him, even though he doesn't do anything. She jumps high up onto a shelf and sits there all day and night and only comes down a few times a day. I have four hens all together, but plan on getting more in the spring. I love my rooster a lot. Will she ever just get over it?

    Roosters can be very dominant during mating and unfortunately, the hen can suffer. Every hen is an individual and reacts differently. If your hen continues to be terrified of the rooster, you may want to separate them.

    My hen is sitting on eight eggs still after three hatched the last two days. It is winter here in UT, I am nervous that they won't all be OK. We put a red light in a separate coop for her and the babies at night. When can the little ones come out and not be cold anymore and are they safe in this cold weather?

    The best place for baby chicks, especially during colder weather is a brooder. Chicks need at least 2-3 square feet of floor space each for the first six weeks. Set the brooder temperature at 90°F (chick level) for the first week and then gradually reduce heat by 5°F each week until reaching a minimum of 55°F. You'll want to make sure that your brooder area is not too large, which will allow you to conserve more heat for the little ones. So your chicks need to be close to adults to be exposed to cold weather.

    I have a rooster with nine hens, all about a year-and-a-half old, in the last couple months he has gotten a little aggressive when we go in to feed, he hasn't made physical contact yet but he does jump up and try to intimidate. How can we calm him back down?

    Don't be offended by your rooster's new behavior, he is only doing what he sees is in the best interest of his hens. Roosters see themselves as the guardians of the flock. Typically, roosters will go through a phase of seemingly sudden aggressiveness around 6 months of age as they enter sexual maturity. But, your rooster is older than that so should have already passed this phase of his life. Try carrying him around with you (under your arm) as you work with the flock. He may struggle a bit at first, but after a few minutes, he'll realize that he is in no danger. I would try this for a few weeks (10 minutes per day) and see if progress is made. In going through this process, your rooster will acknowledge that you are at the top of the pecking order, or at least not a threat to his dominance within the flock.

    Why do chickens pluck out each other's feathers even when free range?

    Chickens are naturally aggressive toward one another. Minimizing this aggressiveness can be accomplished by increasing the amount of space, providing barriers to allow separation between chickens or providing toys or other objects for the chickens to peck. Some breeds or strains of birds are more aggressive than others. Choosing a less aggressive breed would reduce feather picking. If you have mixed breeds, choose breeds that have similar temperaments and size. This will help reduce aggressive behavior.

    I have a hen that suffered a predator attack a couple months ago and recovered. Until wounds were completely healed she stayed inside in a cage. Now I let her out during the day if it's not too cold or raining, but bring her back in at night. She's not used to the cold temps at night, so I'm wondering how to get her staying back outside at night without getting her sick?

    Unless you live in a very cold area, she will probably be fine if you have an insulated coop and she is with other birds. You can also provide heat using a heat lamp; just be careful to make sure cords are where the birds cannot peck at them. If you live in a very cold northern area, you may just want to keep her in until spring.

    Just recently, our chickens have started eating their eggs. How do we stop this?

    I'm afraid I have bad news — egg-eating is pretty much incurable. Once they start, you cannot get them to stop. You might look closely and see if you can identify the birds that are the perpetrators — they will often have yolk stuck on their beaks. If you remove them from the flock, the others may stop, but don't count on it. To avoid egg eating in the future, be sure to gather eggs at least twice a day, make sure the nest boxes are well padded, and make sure that the hens aren't all trying to use just one or two of the nest boxes, thus causing heavy traffic in those boxes that results in broken eggs. Also be sure that at least 90% of their daily ration is a good quality layer feed so that their shells will be good and strong.

    Nutrition

    You have a liquid supplement to add to chicken feed?

    Our complete feeds such as Purina Layena® or Purina® Start & Grow, do not require additional supplementation and already contain the necessary vitamins and minerals for your flock.

    Should you put supplements in the water during winter?

    If you are feeding a good quality feed and are providing fresh, clean water, you should not need any supplements.

    What's a good feeding plan for show birds that are a dual purpose or egg layer? Every feeding plan that I can find is for meat birds.

    If you are looking for a higher plane of nutrition for your show birds that is not found in a typical layer diet, I would recommend a product higher in protein, which will benefit the show birds. The disadvantage here is that you will not be getting the adequate calcium they require for quality eggs. A simple solution here would be to provide free-choice oyster shell to maintain eggshell integrity.

    What is a healthy treat for chickens in the winter months, with them being cooped up in the barn? Also, I have chicks that are 10 weeks old. Can I give them any treats?

    Yes, you may give chicks treats as long as it is not more than 10% of their daily ration. They are still growing and need the complete nutrition provided by a starter/grower feed. Chickens love many veggies, as well as yogurt and even cooked meat. They are also appreciative of many fruits. Avoid raw potato peels that have green tinge, and don't offer any moldy or rotten foods.

    I have been giving my hens cooked ground beef (small amount). How often can I do this? Also I have a hen with a split on her beak from tip up not quite half way. Thanks for any help.

    I wouldn't worry so much about the frequency of feeding meat to your birds, but rather how much of their diet consists of treats and scraps. To maintain an optimum nutrition profile, make sure that at least 90% of your birds' diet consists of a complete feed. It is also important to ensure that the scraps are fresh, especially meat, as that can go bad quickly.

    Healthcare

    I live in Florida and am very new to chickens. Would you recommend the fowl pox vaccine for my small backyard flock? If so, what is the protocol for giving it? Thanks in advance!

    I would defer to your local veterinarian on this issue. Fowl Pox is not a fun disease to have, as it is incurable once a bird is infected. You may want to give vaccination some strong consideration, given that you are in a warm climate year-long and this disease if most often carried by mosquitoes. Download this PDF for more information from Texas Cooperative Extension on recommendations on when to vaccinate birds for Fowl Pox.

    I have a hen that was acting broody one day and she eventually got up and walked around. The next day when we went to the coop she was acting the same way only this time when we tried to get her up to go eat she was not able to stand and walk. We thought that she might have sprained her legs so she has been inside in a box for almost two weeks and she still will not stand or walk. Any ideas what might be wrong with her?

    I would suggest reaching out to a veterinarian with avian experience to help answer your question.

    For fly control what is your opinion on fly predator insects that can be purchased for the coop?

    Biological fly control can certainly be an effective alternative to controlling fly populations. If used, I would recommend implementing in early spring, before increased fly populations appear. As a proactive measure against emerging fly populations, it is important to make sure your facilities are clean and dry. Any moist areas or unkempt feeding/watering areas are a prime breeding grounds for flies.

    What causes a neon yellow/green egg white? I cracked one open and it didn't smell bad at all but I didn't trust it so I threw it away.

    Diagnosing the causative agent for a single egg to produce a neon yellow/green egg white is very difficult and we are unfortunately not able to provide a reasonable answer. There are reports that aging or bacterial growth will cause egg whites to become green in color, but this type of discoloration doesn't match your description. Discarding the egg was the correct action.

    What is a safe and effective way to worm egg layers? All the worm meds say do not give to egg layers.

    That is because the medications may be transferred to the egg. Veterinarians can use pharmaceuticals off-label and can provide withdrawal times (how long you should wait until being able to eat the egg again). Some people promote deworming using diatomaceous earth or tobacco. These are ineffective at best, and misuse could make the birds ill. However, diatomaceous earth added (in small amounts!) to a dust bath can be helpful in reducing external parasites.

    What are the benefits of putting Apple cider vinegar in the chickens water.

    Vinegar may slightly delay bacterial growth, and it can supply some electrolytes.

    Should I worm my chickens? How often?

    Worming should not be done unless it is really required. You might take a fecal sample to a vet for analysis. If no parasites — great!! If there are some, you will know exactly what kind they are and can target with the appropriate dewormer. Indiscriminate deworming costs you money and increases the chance that parasites will develop resistance.

    There is a lot of hype about MG/MS and I know of many people who have depopulated entire flocks for outbreaks. On the flip side, many Ag vets say that between 75% and 90% of ALL domestic flocks are carriers. What is YOUR take on MG?MS?

    There are chronic and acute forms. I think there are probably many flocks living with a chronic, subacute form.

    What's the best thing to treat chickens with colds? I have one that is coughing and sneezing, but no discharge.

    It really is best to get a veterinarian's assessment. Many things can cause a chicken to sneeze and cough, and you want to be sure that the treatment targets the condition the bird has.

    Are there any diseases a whole flock of 20 chickens can get? We got them as chicks in spring. We've been losing about 1-2 a week recently and only have 2 left. We are stumped...?

    There are many diseases that chickens can get. You will need to take one to a veterinarian in order to determine the problem. It would be wise to do that before bringing new ones in, as some diseases require a total clean-out of the premises. You can also take a non-frozen dead bird to the vet for a necropsy. It is best to refrigerate it ASAP after death and get it to the vet as soon as you can.

    I have a large flock some of them are getting respiratory issues. I have given them vet ex and sulmet. What else can I do?

    There are many different diseases that cause respiratory issues, and you must determine the disease to know what medication is going to be effective. Only a veterinarian can perform the necessary tests to reveal the pathogen involved. 

    User comment: Fresh Eggs Daily had a post about her ladies getting respiratory issues from pine. She switched back to straw! You might search her site for it! 

    Questioner's response: Thank you. I have been putting pine shaving in the floor of the chicken house. I will switch.

    Some of my older birds have developed rough legs with raised scales. From what I've read, I think they have leg mites. What is an effective treatment for leg mites in poultry.

    If it appears to be mild, you may be able to get rid of the mites by soaking the legs in warm water to soften the scales, then exfoliate gently with a towel. Slather the legs in oil, let them soak, then wipe off the oil and coat them with Vaseline to suffocate the mites. You will need to THOROUGHLY clean your coop and ranging areas. More severe cases may need veterinary intervention with injectable ivermectin. Adding a small amount of diatomaceous earth to their dust bathing area can help to keep external parasites at bay.

    Is there any way to prevent blackhead in turkeys if I have both chickens and turkeys?

    Keep the two species separate. Chickens are carriers, but turkeys die. Do not let the turkeys free-range, as earthworms and some nematodes can be host organisms for blackhead. Keep turkeys in an enclosed area with a roof to keep wild birds (carriers of many parasites) from excreting in the pen, and make sure they have plenty of litter so they are not digging in the soil. This will help to minimize their exposure.

    I was told to use Redman chewing tobacco to worm chickens like they did years ago. Is this true and will it help with mites, too?

    This is a popular old wives tale, but it doesn't really work. Diatomaceous earth added in small amounts to the dust bath will help with mites and other external parasites. Some people believe that DE also helps with internal parasites, but research has not verified this.

    Best upper respiratory infection medicine?? Anyone have problems with them getting swollen eyes, nostrils draining but never slow them down?

    I suggest reaching out to a veterinarian with avian experience to help answer your question. Respiratory diseases can be caused by many different pathogens, and you need to know the causative pathogen in order to use the correct and effective medicine.

    What's a natural repellent for mites?

    Sarah, Thanks for the question. Sanitation is very important and there are a number of compounds that can be used to help control mites. Sulfur has been known to be effective. Many university extension websites provide recommendations for mite control.