How to Practice Biosecurity in Your Own Backyard Silkie Flock

7a31a8c5e329aa4f6b0d5ac6083b2c62Everyone wants their chickens to be healthy, but are you truly giving them the best protection possible?  There are some very lethal poultry diseases out there and you may, without even knowing it, be bringing those pathogens into your backyard. It is important to think about setting up some kind of defense between disease and your birds.

When we use the term “Biosecurity” we are talking about a system of methods that, used correctly, will help to protect your birds from the unseen viruses and bacteria that are looking for a new home. We don’t want that new home to be your chicken coop.

There are many contagious diseases out there that can effect your flock.  There has been an outbreak of Virulent Newcastle Disease is southern California this summer.  This particular outbreak is effecting small backyard flocks and not the large commercial poultry houses like we saw with the Avian Flu a few years back. The Newcastle outbreak highlights the need for year round poultry biosecurity.  If biosecurity is not practiced it would be very easy for Newcastle disease to make its way across the United States infecting birds as it hitches a ride on the tires of a truck or on the bottom of someone’s shoe.

The first thing that you can do is to keep things clean in your own backyard.  Something as simple as washing your hands or using hand sanitizer  before entering or exiting your bird area can be effective. Change food and water daily in your pen.  Clean and disinfect cages, tools or other equipment that comes in contact with your birds or their droppings. There are several good disinfecting products.  I use Oxivir on everything. Other good products include Oxine and Virkon S.  Cleaning and disinfecting are important steps to keep your bird’s environment healthy.  Disinfectants only work effectively when you first clean all dirt,  manure, and bird droppings from your tools, cages, boots and equipment. Clean these things outside of your house to keep germs outside.

Have a separate set of clothes and shoes that you wear only in your poultry area. I have a pair of slogger boots that I only wear when I am doing chicken chores. They slip on and off easily and can be cleaned daily with a garden hose.  I do not go down to the chicken coop unless I am wearing those boots. I have a set of snowmobile boots that I use in the winter for chicken chores. When I go into the house I change into my house shoes.  Those shoes I will wear in the brooder room and the incubation area.  I wear an apron in the brooder room that is washable.  Outside in the adult chicken area I have a coat that I only wear when doing chicken chores. It is washable as well. I also wear gloves that are easily washed as well.   It is important to me to keep the adult chicken germs away from the baby chick area and the rest of the house.  Wash and disinfect shoes and clothes often.

It is important to keep other people and other birds away from your flock as much as possible. That includes birds you just bought and wild birds. Both could carry disease to your chickens.  Restrict access to your property and your birds.  Avoid visiting farms or other households with poultry.  At your own place, do not let visitors near your birds at all if they have their own birds. It is sad to have to say this, but you need to protect your flock.  If you can’t avoid contact with others then make sure that you disinfect your shoes and clothes before being with your birds again.  This is why you need separate boots and coats that you only use with your chickens.  Don’t use other people poultry equipment without disinfecting it first.

If you like to exhibit birds at poultry shows, make sure that you quarantine birds for at least two weeks after the event. Wear different shoes and clothing when at the show or fair and disinfect when you return home. Disinfect cages that were used for transport.

Be sure to buy birds from a reputable source. Check and see what kind of biosecurity they practice.   Someone who is an NPIP breeder has their flock pullorum tested every year and can only buy from others who are NPIP.  A state inspected hatchery has a state vet come out and inspect the premises every year and discusses biosecurity standards with them.  Whoever you do buy from make sure that you keep new birds quarantined for at least 30 days.

Don’t let wild birds have contact with your flock.  If your birds are outside, consider keeping them in a screened area. Do not let wild birds eat food in your chicken run. This will also help keep insects and rodents away.  Hang fly strips or fly traps in the coop. Flies can transmit disease on the bottom of their feet. Put out mouse traps and clean up spilled feed to keep your area rodent free.

Change is always hard especially if you are used to doing things in a certain way. Just pick one suggestion and start with that. Once it becomes a habit, choose another biosecurity measure to implement.  You will feel better knowing that you are keeping your flock safe and healthy.

 

 

For tips and tricks for raising outstanding silkies check out our Chicken Learning Center at VJPPoultry.com .  VJP Poultry is an NPIP and state inspected hatchery located 30 miles north of St. Paul.  We hatch out silkies all year long so we always have stock available.  Like us on Facebook to get weekly updates on what we currently have for sale.

Victoria J. Peterson

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Building a Coop for Silkie Chickens

20180527_124135-1Silkie chickens have slightly different requirements when it comes to housing.  Silkies are different from other breeds of chickens in several ways and these differences can be reflected in the type of coop you end up designing or purchasing.  The only chickens we have at VJP Poultry are silkies so we are always thinking of ways to improve housing with their uniqueness in mind.

The first coop we had was a refurbished ice house. This worked perfect for our needs. It was built very sturdy and was well insulated for winter. We added electricity out to it, put in nest boxes and roosting poles and had a ramp going down to a chain link fence enclosed run.  We had a variety of breeds of chickens to start out with but I really fell in love with the silkies.   I found that the silkies did not “fly” up to the roost pole with the others but would sleep on the floor directly under them. The next morning they would be covered in poo from the roosting birds above them.  They also did not use the nesting boxes, but preferred to find a corner on the floor in which to lay their eggs. Silkies go broody often but can’t fly up to nesting boxes that are very far off of the ground.

In a few years we found a second ice house to refurbish as we continued to expand our chicken habit. By now we only had silkies in our coops. We did not bother putting in a roosting pole or nesting boxes.  We made sure that the ramp to the ground was a long gradual incline.  Silkies do not like high ramps, especially with their eyesight often being blocked by feathers.  I find it best to trim above and below the eyes so that they can find food and water.

The third coop we built ourselves. We overbuilt it, but I was glad that we did. It is very sturdy and tall. There is a long walkway inside with four sections of divided pens. Everything is easily stored inside of the coop, such as food, bedding, brooms and assorted tools. It has electricity.  The pen walls and floor are painted with industrial enamel which is super easy to keep clean. The other coops had plastic sheeting on the floor and sides. I scrubbed them weekly but they eventually started to come away from the walls.  The enamel paint is much easier. A silkie pen needs to be kept neat and tidy. You want them to be looking at their best and poo stains are not attractive.

Now we are building our fourth coop and using all of the information gained from the other coops, we are able to have the best silkie coop possible. We started by making the floor of the coop. You want to make it up off of the ground but at the same time as low as possible for silkies. They have a hard time with steep inclines, so the ramps need to be long and low.  Next the walls were built and the roof rafters put on. We put on a metal roof with a steep slant. We want the snow sliding easily off.  The roof has long overhangs.  In the future we will put on gutters.  Silkies do not do well in the rain. Their fluffy feathers do not let water bead off of them. When they get wet, they look drenched.

We installed windows up high, so that there is plenty of air movement. Silkies do not do well with drafts so you want that air moving up above them.  Ventilation is very important to the health of your birds. I keep windows open at all times. Use hardware cloth stapled over the window screens to keep predators from making their way inside.

When making the run, you will want to lay down hardware cloth on the inside and as a skirt around the outside to keep digging predators from making their way in. We piled gravel on top of the the hardware cloth and placed pea rock on top of that.  Silkies have beautiful feathered feet. You want to protect those feathers by having soft bedding or even using dirt or sand in the coop or run.  Large rocks can often break off foot feathers, so use as small of rock as you can.

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We covered the run with a metal sloping roof.  Hawks can be a big problem for silkies. They are small enough to be lifted and taken away. Their crests are large and impedes their ability to look up.  Even their coloration can make them a standout when free ranging. Try to limit their free ranging to when you can be there to watch out for them. Otherwise a covered run is their best protection from flying predators.

Know the silkie predators in your area and design your coop with them in mind.  If your predators are diggers like fox, make sure that you have buried hardware cloth around your run. If you have trouble with weasels or mink, make sure that all small holes are plugged up and windows are secure with hardware cloth.  Larger animals such as bear will need electric wire around the outside.

If you don’t want to build a coop yourself, there are a few coops that are available for sale that are good for silkies. Look for something that is all one level such as this.  The smaller the ramp the better. Coops that are described as rabbit hutches are often on one level .  Look for sturdiness in these pre-made coops that can withstand the elements and predators.  If you live somewhere with a cold climate, you will need to insulate and possibly have heat lamps.

For tips and tricks for raising outstanding silkies check out our Chicken Learning Center at VJPPoultry.com .  VJP Poultry is an NPIP and state inspected hatchery located 30 miles north of St. Paul.  We hatch out silkies all year long so we always have stock available.  Like us on Facebook to get weekly updates on what we currently have for sale.

Victoria J. Peterson

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Strengthen Your Chicken’s Egg Shells With the Shell of an Oyster

20180515_123422-1Hens work hard to provide us with their daily eggs.  Making egg shells takes a lot of calcium.  The more eggs they lay, the more calcium they need.  If a hen doesn’t get enough in her diet, her body will steal calcium from her bones to make the egg shell.  This leaves her bones very brittle. You may think of Osteoporosis which women sometimes get as they age.  Hens often have that same problem.

The egg shell that a hen lays is 95% calcium by weight.  In one year the amount of calcium put into her shells can equal 20 times the amount of calcium that is contained in her bones. In order to stay healthy  and create strong egg shells, she needs to consume a large amount of calcium in steady intervals.

The most recognizable sign of calcium deficiency is thin shelled eggs or even eggs laid without a shell .  Lack of calcium in the diet can also lead to soft  shell eggs which look rubbery.  This can also lead to egg binding which can be fatal in hens.  Rough spots and wrinkles on the shells are another sign of low calcium.  The egg shells should look hard and smooth.

Ground oyster shell is the most common supplement to increase the amount of calcium in a hen’s diet. Oyster shell is inexpensive and lasts a long time. It does not spoil or go bad. Oyster shell is eaten by hens and the shell dissolves in the gut.  It is not the same thing as grit.  Grit aids digestion by grinding up food in the crop.  Oyster shell has nothing to do with digestion.  It also does not stimulate egg laying. It simply provides the mineral calcium to the hen.

To lay well, a hen needs 16% crude protein .  Most grains range 7-12% protein and are low in certain essential amino acids.  High amounts of protein can contribute to more frequent ovulation in a hen. Make sure that you are giving your hens a balanced feed with the correct nutrients and protein. Most of their food should come from a nutritionally balanced food. If you give them treats or let them free range you can be upsetting this balance.

Most hens start to lay at about 20 weeks.  Wait until the hen has actually laid an egg to begin giving them oyster shell supplement.  Giving it too early can damage the young pullet’s kidneys. Oyster shell should be given free choice in a separate bowl so they can eat as much as their body needs.  Laying hens who aren’t getting enough calcium can produce weak or irregularly shaped eggs.  This issue can also cause slow laying or even problems like egg eating because they are so desperate for the calcium they need.

How much calcium a hen needs is an individual issue and all hens are different. Some breeds lay eggs every single day. Other breeds take more time off, such as silkies.  The hen’s bodies will prompt them to eat the oyster shell as they need it. If you don’t see them eating it, they may not need it

Do not mix the oyster shell into the food.  This can force them to eat too much calcium which can damage their kidneys.  Feed it to them in a separate bowl or even scatter it on the ground.  Some commercial feeds contain calcium, but it is often not enough for typical layers, especially if they have access to table scrapes and treats.

In order for the hen to be able to absorb the calcium, two  nutrients seem to affect it the most. These nutrients are Phosphorus and vitamin D3.  Phosphorus is easily found in grains. D3 come from sunshine so you want to make sure that your hens have exposure to sunlight.  Powdered vitamins added to the water will help with this.

I have found oyster shell to come in many different sizes.  Some pieces are so large they can barely swallow it,  down to basically nothing but powder. The ideal particles size of supplemental calcium ranges between 2 mm and 5 mm.  Larger pieces of calcium carbonate take longer to digest than smaller particles and are more desirable.  Hens seek out large particles of oyster shell late in the day before the period of shell formation occurs.  Shell formation usually occurs during the night.  Too much calcium will give the eggs an extra coating of powdery calcium around the entire egg or you will see calcium deposits around the shell.

Hens do best when fed a balanced crumble or pelleted diet, especially an all-flock diet with oyster shell in a separate bowl on the side.  Meat birds should be given a separate feed.  Birds that eat other things besides their layer food such as free range foragers or birds that get extra treats need the extra calcium from oyster shell.

Oyster shell is not for pullets that haven’t started laying eggs yet. Wait until they actually start laying eggs to give them the extra calcium.  Chickens who are not laying will get enough calcium in their daily feed for normal calcium use.  When they are laying they need four times as much calcium as a non laying hen.  Giving additional calcium to chickens who are not layers is detrimental to their health. This would include roosters, cockerels,  and older hens no longer laying.

Oyster shell should never be mixed with the food.  Just leave it out in a separate bowl.  They will instinctively know to take it when they need it.  Do make it available all year round.  If they aren’t laying as much in the winter, they will just lower their intake of it.

There are other forms of calcium you can use. Limestone is a rock that contains calcium. If you live in an area with limestone gravel they may naturally pick some up.  Some people save egg shells and offer these back to the hens.  Remember that a hen’s own shells will not provide enough calcium if she doesn’t have other supplements.  Bake the shells first in a 350 degree oven for 10 minutes to kill any bacteria that may be present.  Crush them finely so that they do not look like egg shell, otherwise you are teaching the hens to eat their own eggs.

For tips and tricks for raising outstanding silkies check out our Chicken Learning Center at VJPPoultry.com .  VJP Poultry is an NPIP and state inspected hatchery located 30 miles north of St. Paul.  We hatch out silkies all year long so we always have stock available.  Like us on Facebook to get weekly updates on what we currently have for sale.

Victoria J. Peterson

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Why Your Chicken Needs a Dust Bath

20180323_145950-1   All chickens should have access to dust baths.  It doesn’t matter what breed or age of chicken, it is instinctual for them to wallow in the dust and dirt.  It is their way of getting clean and practicing good hygiene.

When you first witness this dust bathing, you may think that something is wrong with your bird.  It almost looks like they are in trouble or having a seizure.  They are lying on their sides with one leg sticking out and the other scraping dirt and dust in kind of a circular motion.  The wings are throwing dirt up into the air so that it falls back down on top of them.  It looks scary , but it is perfectly normal.

Chickens will create a dust bath area all by themselves.  A chicken scratches and digs out a bowl shaped depression in the dirt or will even use the shavings inside of the coop.  The chicken settles into this hollow, fluffs up its feathers and then scratches up the dirt.

It might look like they are making a nest to lay eggs because it is round in shape but these are preparations for dust bathing.  Chickens use their feet and wings to get loose dirt throughout their skin and feathers.  Once they are completely covered in a layer of dirt, the bird will fluff and shake off the substance to evenly distribute it on their bodies.

A chicken’s dust bath helps to remove excess oil, as well as parasites such as lice, mites and ticks.  Dust bathing is an important part of keeping chickens healthy and clean.  It is important that your chicken has access to areas where dust bathing can take place. Most will look for a sunny spot with loose dirt.  Even if they never get to free range, you can set up a dust bath in their coop or pen.

There are four main behaviors when dust bathing: vertical wing-shaking, head rubbing, bill raking and scratching with one leg.  The hen scratches with her feet and beak at the ground.  She then erects her feathers and lies down. They create deep bowls as they wiggle and squirm to get dirt deep under their feathers.  They make happy noises while flipping dirt all over themselves.  The dust collects between the feathers and then is shaken off.  This helps to give the feathers good insulating abilities.

Chickens clean their feathers and skin by preening with their beaks and using an oil gland at the base of their tail. After a dust bath a hen will spend time primping and pecking at their feathers. This helps to smooth their feathers and removes sheaths on new feathers.  Feather maintenance is very important.  Birds of all kinds take dust baths and certain mammals do as well to keep clean and remove parasites.

Most dust bathing occurs in the middle of the day. Warm temperatures increase dust bathing behavior. Hens will tend to dust bath if they see other hens doing it.  It ends up being a very social activity.  It is not just hens that will dust bath, but roosters enjoy doing it as well.

The need for a dust bath is ingrained in their behavior.  They will dig holes if you don’t provide them with a spot.  Free ranging birds will find a place in your garden if you let them.   Battery hens in cages will sham dust bathe.  They will go through the motions of dust bathing even if there is no other material in their cages.

Here at VJP Poultry, we decided it was time to create some dust bathing areas inside of our runs.  We used treated 1″ X 4″ lumber and made 18″ X 24″ boxes with no bottom.  We set them in the run and filled them half full with play sand.

There are other things that you can use to create your dust bathing areas. Any large shallow pan such as a kitty litter pan or small kiddie pools.   Fill it with a variety of substrates.  Some examples would be :  Fine sand, dry dirt,  or peat moss.

Some people like to add food grade diatomaceous Earth or DE.  The sharp edges pierce the soft body parts of parasites and kills them.  Be careful with DE as it can be very harmful if inhaled and can damage lungs.  Use a small amount as part of your substrate.

Firepit ash or ash from a wood stove is another product that can be used. Birds can absorb magnesium, calcium and vitamin K from the ash.  Use ash from hardwood trees and make sure that if you remove it from your own fire pit that there isn’t any additional chemicals such as in treated lumber.

Dried herbs are natural pest repellents.  They can get rid of mosquitoes, flies and ants as well as parasites such as mites, lice and ticks.  They provide calming aroma therapy and have antibacterial properties to heal minor scratches and wounds.  Add them to the substrate as well.

You can also purchase ready made dust bath products.  It is easy to add to what ever other products you want in your dust bath mix.

Remember that you will need to periodically clean out your dust bath area.  I pick out the big chunks daily and give it a good raking.  A cover or a beach umbrella will help to keep out the rain.  You want your dust bath to stay as dry as possible.  One of those turtle sand boxes with a cover or any sandbox with a cover can make a great dusting area.  If possible, move your dusting area inside in the winter to prevent the substrate from freezing.

For tips and tricks for raising outstanding silkies check out our Chicken Learning Center at VJPPoultry.com .  VJP Poultry is an NPIP and state inspected hatchery located 30 miles north of St. Paul.  We hatch out silkies all year long so we always have stock available.  Like us on Facebook to get weekly updates on what we currently have for sale.

Victoria J. Peterson

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