Advice and Observations
I started keeping chickens in 2008. I'm an expert, right? No! I am, of course, always learning. But if you are just starting out, you may benefit from some of my experiences.
Cleaning eggs - Eggs will occasionally get spotted by muddy feet or a poopy butt. This is normal. The best way to clean an egg is with a dry cloth, pan scrubber, or fine sandpaper. If you must use water, clean only the spot since wetting the entire egg removes the protective coating that keeps it fresh. Lots of poop?
Shell-less eggs - This seems only to occur with young hens during their first few months of laying. Feeding them only layer food (no treats of any kind), cuts down on shell-less eggs. I don't have this problem with hens past their first year.
Collecting eggs - Once a day is a minimum. Leaving eggs in the nest just begs for breakage. If an egg gets broken and a curious hen takes a taste, she's hooked. Then, if you are unlucky, she will figure out that pecking an egg will break the shell. Now you have a real problem on your hands because it's hard to stop an egg eater and the bad habit can spread to other interested hens.
Egg Eating - Before blaming chickens be sure to rule out scrub jays and skunks. The damage will look the same, but skunks work at night so only eggs left in nests overnight should be subject. Scrub jays have been responsible for several egg eating incidents in my flock. A cell phone mounted on the barn wall set to record video caught jays on 2 separate occasions. Exclusion of either jays or skunks is the best bet if you can't catch them. Neither can get through 1 inch chicken wire. For the birds this means everywhere! For skunks, 3 feet high is enough because they don't climb.
Broken eggs will lure your chickens to sample the contents and may teach them, to break them too!
If you find broken and partly eaten eggs in nests, you need to spring into action to prevent a spread of this disgusting habit! My unproven theory is this happens in fall when the chickens have depleted their bodies of calcium and prefer soft eggshell with yummy filling over oyster shell.
Occasionally a hen will lay a fragile egg which can break accidentally when she or another hen steps on it. Once a hen tastes egg she may figure out she can break an egg to eat the yummy contents. Others learn by watching.
Culling the culprit is one option if you can figure out who is breaking eggs. In my experience, several or many are responsible and I choose to stop the behavior rather that cull the 'bad' girls.
Here are things you can do to fix this problem:
Broody Hens - Some breeds are notorious for this, others are occasional by individual. They think they have laid enough eggs and want to be a mother. This usually occurs in late spring/early summer. They stop laying and sit on the eggs endlessly--even if there are no eggs in the nest. They have an internal clock that tells them to stop after about 21 days--the time it takes an egg to hatch.
Around here, I discourage broodies because it takes up valuable nesting space, the hens get pretty run down as they don't eat much during this period, and they don't lay.
I take the offender out of the nest and put her in a separate pen that has no nests. I'm fortunate to have the space to set up an alternate area. It's the pen I used for youngsters till they begin laying. The broody will be a little stressed for a day or so not being able to sit on a nest, but she gets over it. Usually after about 4 or 5 days of separation, I put her back with the layers and that's that. It will still take a couple of weeks before she begins laying again. Some girls are very determined and after laying for a few weeks, go back to trying to hatch eggs I usually cull very broody gals.
Least to most broody breeds in my experience are:
Behavior - For more information about my experience with specific breeds, look for 'My Notes' on the Breeds page.
Keep them safe - Give chickens a safe environment. If they go outside, a 6-foot tall wire fence is basic--dogs/coyotes won't (usually) go over a fence this high here in central California. A coop free from burrowing animals gives hens a safe place to lay eggs and roost for the night.
Sleeping in Nests - Give your chickens a place to roost at night. For more information see my Coop tab. Usually if roosts are higher in elevation that the nests, they will go to the roosts out of instinct.
If you allow them to sleep in nests, they will poop there all night. Unless you want to go out every morning and remove the poop, they will lay their eggs in the poop. Poopy eggs mean cleaning every egg. The worst case is diseases like Salmonella are spread this way. If eggs get an occasional dirty spot, refer to the cleaning tip above.
Merging Generations - Youngsters should be kept separated from adults for safety and because the calcium content in layer feed is too high for adolescent chickens. (See the Feeding section below for more on what to feed when). Six weeks is usually the time the kids leave the brooder for life in an outdoor pen separated from the hens.
If chicks are started in early spring some breeds can begin laying at 18 weeks. This is a good time to introduce the kids to the big girls. Before releasing the kids, I go out after dark and clip the feathers on one wing of each baby so they can't fly over fences to get back to their comfortable baby pen.
Next morning, I open the youngster pen gate and allow the two groups to merge as they wish. I leave the gate open for the first few of nights. The little girls will usually go to their roosts in the baby pen at night and the big girls go to the big girl roosts. After 3 nights, I close the gate. I check on them after dark to make sure the kids get a place on the big girl roosts. Sometimes they seek refuge in a nest. We don't allow sleeping in nests--see the previous entry. After that, they work things out and we have had no problems.
Parasites - Chickens get worms. Unless you keep hens closed up all the time, they will come in contact with wild birds or other varmints that are infested with internal parasites. No big deal except a chicken full of worms lays fewer eggs and generally doesn't feel or look good.
If you want to be chemical free like I do (well, most of the time), you can use Verm-X herbal wormer. It is pricey but hey, nothing is too good for our chickens! It contains several natural herbs that discourage and even anesthetize worms so they leave the body through digestion. Check Amazon.
Other natural foods that discourage worms are garlic, pumpkin and pumpkin seeds. Puree these three and you'll be amazed how much the hens will eat. They seem to know what they need.
Year around I add food grade diatomaceous earth to their feed. I get it at my feed store. Add 3 cups to each 50 lb of feed. I have a plastic storage bin I use for feed. After I empty a bag into the bin, I put the diatomaceous earth on top and stir. The DE is actually little fossils that cut through the soft bodies of internal parasites.
As a last resort, in fall when egg production drops and birds begin to molt, I worm with chemicals (pesticides). I use 2 products--Ivermectin and Piperazine-17 in their drinking water. Both can be purchased at most feed stores. Piperazine is a liquid and Ivermectin is a paste used for horses. Here's my recipe for one gallon of drinking water--enough for 30 chickens for one day:
Be sure the hens have no other drinking water available for one day. Repeat in 10 days to kill any worms that hatch during that time. You cannot use any eggs laid for at least 7 days after a treatment. Although I do feed them to our dogs--figure they can be wormed too!
I learned this the hard way. ALWAYS get your chicks vaccinated for Marek's Disease. If you can't buy them vaccinated, consider getting the vaccine and doing the injections yourself. It has to be done as soon as you get them--one day old is best. You can order it online--no prescription needed. Or your feed store may be able to get it for you. You'll toss most of it unless you have A LOT of chicks! Medicated feed does not protect against Marek's.
In California, Marek's is spread by wild birds that enter your coop or if your chickens can go outside. Once it's in your flock, every bird you introduce will be exposed. I read it stays in the ground for up to 5 years.
Symptoms include paralysis, blindness, internal tumors. I had one blind chicken (pictured above) who survived and was a carrier. Marek's is spread by droppings and has a 5-year life. Some breeds are a little more resistant than others. Most hatcheries don't vaccinate unless you ask. Here are instructions I found on the web for vaccinating a day-old chick:
Once you have Marek's in your flock, keep this in mind if you visit other people's chickens. Shoes can carry it to other locations and of course don't share birds with neighbors if you have Marek's. I ask my visitors to wear protective shoe coverings if they go into my hen pen--everyone wants to! I have a pair of 'poo shoes' on the back doorstep I use when I tend the hens.
Killing a Chicken - It may sound horrible, but even if you don't butcher to eat, you should be prepared to dispatch a chicken that is suffering. If you didn't vaccinate for Marek's, you'll eventually have some sick chickens that won't recover. For us, after the first time, it wasn't so bad.
We were prepared by purchasing a 'Restraining Cone'--photo at right. It is made of sheet metal. This is attached to a solid wall and holds the chicken head down for easy access to the neck and to restrict violent movement after death. You can either cut the neck with a knife, or we use garden hedge shears. A bucket beneath catches bleeding. Consider it an act of mercy--very quick.
Unfortunately, my local feed stores had never heard of this restraining cone! I found one on eBay for $15. Here is a link to purchase one on the McMurray Hatchery web site--get the big one for full size chickens:
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