Ask the Expert August/September 2021

Ask the Expert August/September 2021

Reading Time: 13 minutes

Chicken Advice 

I am looking for advice. My chickens have a climate-controlled, clean, well-maintained environment.  The only thing they don’t have is calm music, dim lights, and a daily massage. 

They clearly do not like to have their eggs collected. Some have chosen to lay their eggs in private areas. I thought they just stopped laying until we stumbled on a large cache of eggs hidden on an outside corner of my house. 

They have automatic doors and free range on nine acres daily. Does it seem my only workaround is not to let them out? 

I am looking for suggestions. 

Ken 

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Hi Ken, 

Your hens aren’t trying to extort that daily massage out of you. Choosing a hidden place for egg-laying is a natural, evolutionary trait to help propagate the species, and when it comes to their instincts, your breakfast choices are just as predatory as those of a fox or a snake. Cooping them up is a good idea, at least for a short time. It ensures their only choices are the nesting boxes or a cold, lonely corner of their coop. After that short time, let them out to see if they go back to their old habits or continue using the box. But because instincts are instincts, you will also want to make their other choices less appealing, which means cutting back foliage, raking up leaves, and moving any landscape structures that may offer a hidden and cozy nesting location. (Chickens love permaculture, as all that natural and organic substrate makes for excellent nesting materials!) Considering this is nine acres of maintenance, employing a netting fence to limit them to a much smaller area means less leg-work for you when you need to find those eggs.  

Good luck! 

Marissa 

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Sand on Coop Floors 

Hello,  

I just read a piece on bumblefoot that affects chickens. The article recommended using sand on the floor of coops and runs. How do you clean the sand of chicken droppings, what type of sand would you use (sandbox, etc.), and could you use the same sand under coops for raising quail? Thanks for your time. I truly enjoy reading the articles, and I look forward to hearing from you. 

Michael 

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Hi Michael, 

Sand is fantastic bedding and substrate medium for mature chickens, chicks, quail, goats, horses…the list goes on. It’s natural, is easy to clean, and adjusts well to temperatures. But the type of sand is essential. Play sand, and all those pretty, artsy types, are often made of crushed quartz. It’s so finely crushed that it creates dust that can harm animals’ lungs. But the better (and cheaper) option is construction or landscape sand. The kind dug directly from a good, old-fashioned sandpit or beach. Check at hardware stores, construction companies, or garden/landscape centers. Be sure it has larger particles that indicate it’s natural. Wash the sand and allow it to dry in the sun before adding it to the coop. 

Cleaning is relatively easy if you have good ventilation. Use a kitty litter scoop for smaller areas. I’ve seen some people line manure rakes (the kind used to pick up horse manure) with hardware cloth to make the holes smaller. Scoop and shake. The sand falls through, and the droppings stay in the rake. I’ve also had luck with a leaf rake and an old broom, lightly flicking them across the top and leaving the heavier sand behind. If the sand/manure mess is wet, scrape it out and lay it on a tarp in the sun. When it’s dry, shake through your scoop and put the sand back. 

I hope this helps! 

Marissa 

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Marissa,  

Thanks so much for the follow-up and information. This information helps me out a lot as I move my 81-year-old mother up to Georgia from Alabama. We have found almost seven acres with a private fishing pond, 2400 square foot home, etc. We plan to raise most of our food from gardening, raising chickens (for meat and eggs), guinea fowl for insect control, quail for meat, and possibly some rabbits. I hate to take up more of your time, but I’m considering three different chicken breeds that lay brown eggs (Rhode Island Reds, Barred Plymouth Rocks, and New Hampshire Reds). I would like to know your opinion on these selections and who you would recommend for a mail-order hatchery. I appreciate your time and any information you can provide me. The welfare of our animals has always been a priority. 

Michael 

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Hi Michael,  
 

There’s a good reason those three breeds are American standards. They’re strong, hearty, and significant assets to have on farms. I expect you will have to make some decisions regarding bullies since all three are also strong-willed and tend to want to be at the top of the flock structure. But with seven acres, you should be able to provide enough space and forage that any bullying will be at a minimum. 

Regarding hatcheries: I like to order from whichever hatchery is highly rated and closest to my location. But whether you order from Murray McMurray (in Iowa), Cackle Hatchery (in Missouri), Meyer Hatchery (Ohio), or Ideal Poultry (Texas), they’re known for their chicks arriving in great shape, and they have refund policies if something happens in shipping.  

Good luck with your new homestead! 
 

Marissa 
 

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Marissa,  

Thanks for giving me the feedback. Regarding the bully situation, should I pick some different breeds of chickens? We want brown egg layers, but I will not have the time to babysit, and because I’m a disabled veteran and my mom is also on a fixed income, we will only have the funds to invest in one coop and one run. Only about two of the seven acres are maintained by mowing etc.; the rest of the property is woodland, fish pond, etc. The entire property has a seven-foot fence around it. If you have any suggestions, I would appreciate them. Thanks for your help. Stay safe in these uncertain times. GOD BLESS! 

Michael 

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Hi Michael, 

When it comes to brown egg layers, there are tons of choices! And not all of them want to be the boss of the bunch. I’ve found Australorps and Orpingtons to be laid-back and excellent layers. If you want many eggs and don’t want purebreds, I also love sex-links for their egg-laying powers and gentle dispositions: Black Stars and Golden Comets are two great breeds. For gentle, fluffy chickens that don’t lay as many per week but are great company to have around, consider Brahmas and Cochins. These are all available from most hatcheries, though the sex links can have different names depending on hatchery and which two breeds were used for the cross. 

Good luck! 

Marissa 

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Chicken Coop Lining 

I’m building a chicken coop here in Northern Michigan. It has eight-foot sidewalls. I am going to insulate it, and I need to cover the insulation. What are the best materials to use? My thoughts are OSB or plywood. Are there any materials that would be more appropriate for the interior of the coop? If I use wood, should it be painted? 

Thanks for your help. 

Ed 

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Hi Ed, 

Insulating a chicken coop is an excellent idea in northern Michigan. When choosing materials, keep in mind that chickens will pick at anything, and the old belief that “a chicken won’t eat what isn’t good for them” has proven untrue with many chickens. I agree with OSB and plywood, which chickens are less likely to pick at, and they won’t come apart in fragments that end up in crops. Protecting the wood is a good idea, but avoid cheaper colored paint that is likely to peel off, especially red. Chickens love to peck at anything red! A clear non-toxic sealant will make your coop easier to clean and help the wood last much longer. A quick Google search of “non-toxic wood protectors” can list many products that are low or free of VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Of course, be sure any substance is thoroughly dry before chickens enter the coop. 

Good luck with your coop. We would love to see pictures when you’re done! 

Marissa 

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Chicks with Dirty Vents 

Some of my young chicks came home with very hard, dirty, stuck-on-them poop. What can I do to clean them? 

Thank you in advance. 

Jan 

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Hi Jan, 

Pasting (when the poo sticks to the vent) is very common in shipped chicks and those kept in brooders. It’s essential to clean off the poo because otherwise, it seals off the vent and can kill them. To clean, dip a paper towel in warm water and hold it against the poo until it softens enough that you can remove it. Be careful not to pull on the umbilical cord, which is a few centimeters below the vent. 

I hope this helps! 

Marissa 

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Raising Chickens With Physical Challenges 

Thank you for your response to my letter about Backyard Poultry magazine’s inclusive articles. It was especially joyful to read that, in these hard times, the response “has been 100% positive.” I’m celebrating. 

I do have another question: How do folks with physical challenges tend birds? Are there exemplary pathway styles, coop designs, nesting box heights, door styles, feed and water systems that work well with wheelchairs, walkers, different grasping abilities? 

As I age, these are possibilities I may encounter. But many folks work with physical barriers their whole lives. How do they skillfully tend to their poultry? 

Have you had any experience with this? 

Thank you for your time, 

Kali Kaliche, Arizona 

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Hi Kali, 

That’s an important question! Our love for poultry doesn’t stop just because our bodies are not as capable of bending and lifting. We ran a story in our February/March 2021 issue, titled “Disabled and Keeping Chickens,” that profiled two women and how they keep chickens while working with their disabilities. Coops set off the ground can avoid too much bending. Large-wheeled garden carts allow people to carry feed where they need it. Some people have designed coops according to their specific needs, including features such as wheelchair ramps, higher and more accessible nesting boxes, gravity-feed water systems that negate the constant hauling of fresh water, and automatic feeders. What I love about these different scenarios is the acknowledgment that every disability is different. A program called AgrAbility works to facilitate the disabled agriculture community (agrability.org). In Wisconsin, Zachariah’s Acres has designed accessible coops to connect children with special needs to farming and nature. 

If we step outside the traditional coop setup, there are so many ways to enjoy poultry when our bodies aren’t as willing. 

Thanks for your letter! 

Marissa 

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Dear Marissa, 

Thanks for your quick response regarding alter-abled poultry systems. 

I’ll get some copies of Feb/March 2021, so I can share them. 

Also, thank you for the referrals to AgrAbility and Zachariah’s Acres. 

And especially thank you for your understanding that we all will need help someday and that physical ability does not equate to exclusion. 

I have enjoyed your responses to my letters. 

Stay woke, 

Kali Kaliche 

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Geese 

My sister thought she had two male geese, but one just laid eggs. Is there anything that will stop the geese from having any more babies after this clutch hatches? Also, how do you keep the sibling geese from mating with each other or their parents? 

Michelle 

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Hi Michelle, 

Male and female geese can be difficult to tell apart, so you’re not alone! After this clutch hatches, she most likely won’t lay more until she raises those goslings. After that, find where she lays her eggs and check daily, then put those eggs in the refrigerator. Though the gander may fertilize the eggs, they won’t develop into goslings unless she sits on the clutch to incubate them. As far as stopping them from mating: you would need to separate males from females. Geese don’t care who their parents and siblings are, so it would be up to your sister to divide the flock as necessary if she didn’t want the mating to take place at all. 

Good luck! We would love to see gosling photos after they hatch. 

Marissa 

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Thank you so much for your help. Unfortunately, none of the eggs hatched. The geese rolled a bunch out of the nest, and the ones they were still sitting on, I guess, disintegrated into the nest. I don’t know if there were any goslings in the eggs. Too bad. Maybe next time, there will be goslings I can send you pictures of. 

Michelle 

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Mystery of Missing Chicks 

Hi Melissa, 

We are still grieving the loss of 18 two-week-old meat chicks that disappeared in the night. I had them in a small stock watering tank with a heating lamp, approximately 20″ high, with a screen and blanket covering the tank 90% to keep heat in. The tank is in a former horse stall on a cement floor. At approximately 7:30 pm, I went in to check on them. All was good. At 7:30 am, I went back in to find an empty tank. No feathers, no carcass. The only disruption was one overturned feed tray two and the screen ajar just a little. The feed bag was not touched. The room was closed off to the outside, as we had experienced late spring snow.  There were no footprints (human or critters) outside of any of the entries and no known infestations of rodents (that we could tell). We have our barn baited regularly. We are devastated as we have successfully raised our chicks this way for the past three years. In your experience, what would take 18 chicks in 12 hours with no physical signs left behind?   

Thanks so much for your expert counseling, 

Sandy & Ed Pirdy 

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Hi Sandy and Ed, 

With no physical signs left behind, I would first suspect two-legged predators … the kind who might know you have chicks there and who ignore their mothers’ teachings not to steal from other people. If humans didn’t steal the chicks, I would consider something also remarkably intelligent, such as raccoons. They might hide in the eaves of a horse stall, watching how you access the brooder, and could skillfully grab chicks. To steal 18, though, they would be working as a team — which raccoons are known to do. I recommend investing in a barn camera so you know whether you should padlock the outside or just secure the brooder with a latch that raccoons can’t open. 

I’m sorry to hear about your loss. 

Marissa 

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Thank you, Marissa, 

We have not seen signs or sightings of raccoons, but we will be on the lookout, and I think a barn camera will be on my shopping list. We were concerned it was a rat. I don’t think it was a human — but I would rather think of the chicks still alive and cared for than being used as an appetizer! Thank you so much for all your willingness to educate us. This is how we learn. 

Sincerely, 

Sandy & Ed 

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Broody Hen 

I have a year-old hen nesting. She doesn’t want the other hens around. We do not have a rooster, nor do we want any more babies. Any advice? 

Julie 

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Hi Julie, 

You have two choices: either let her continue to be broody or try to break the broodiness. Allowing a broody to keep sitting is usually not a bad idea unless she’s very dedicated — meaning she will sit on the nest in high temperatures and only eating once a day, which means weight loss. Also, broodiness is contagious, and the other hens might decide to sit … which means no egg for you. Breaking her can be as simple as removing her from the next every time you see her on it or putting her in a separate cage that has no nesting area. Some people put cold packs in the nest, which convinces her to get off. 

Good luck! 

Marissa 

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Poopy Butts 

I have six four-year-old hens. Three or four of them frequently have messy butts. This has been going on and off for the last year. At first, I thought it was because they were getting too many veggie/fruit treats. So I completely stopped the treats. But they still have poopy butts. I’ve never noticed any blood; it ranges from whitish, yellowish, to brown. I have given them probiotics, washed and trimmed their bums, and it comes back. Do you think it could be vent gleet I’m dealing with? And if so, how should I treat it? Thanks in advance for any help you can provide. If pictures would help, I can send some. 

Karen Carlson 

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Hi Karen,  

Yes, I believe treating for vent gleet would be your next step. First, because messy butts usually are vent gleet, and second, because it’s so easy to treat without compromising the health of your flock. 

Treatment is simple: First, clean off the poo with warm water and a little mild soap. Then bathe the vent in an antimicrobial solution like Betadine. The cloaca will suck some of it in due to a response that aids fertilization during mating. Some people use an over-the-counter fungal cream, which works great if a fungus causes the vent gleet. (It most commonly is, but can also be caused by bacteria and viruses.) Do this every day for at least a week, and it should clear up. However, if it doesn’t, you may need to escalate to an oral antifungal such as Nystatin, which you need to get from a veterinarian. 

Everything else you’re doing is excellent, and I recommend continuing the feather trimming and probiotics during treatment and after. 

Good luck! 

Marissa 

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Double Yolks 

A while back, I sent you an email asking about my Ameraucana hen (Phoebe) and her undersized eggs. Her eggs are still undersized, but as time has gone on, nearly half of her eggs have double yolks. I’ve never had a hen like this. Are certain breeds prone to laying double yolks? None of my other Ameraucanas have been like this. 

Thank you, and keep up the good work. I really enjoy your magazine! I included a pic of my special girl. 

M. Booth, California 

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Hi, 

Double-yolked eggs tend to happen more often in younger hens, and it can happen with any breed. Though age is the most significant factor in double yolks, they also happen more often with the high-productivity breeds; since they are so productive at that age, two yolks often come out where one usually would. Since Phoebe is about a year old, that would explain why her eggs are both smaller and double-yolked. Phoebe’s eggs should be sizing up to what’s typical for her breed by now, which is “medium,” certainly smaller than what you would see from the majority of standard egg or dual-purpose breeds. I’ve owned some Ameraucanas that laid eggs that were small even for their breed, so she might always lay a small egg. The double yolks should taper off as she gets older.  

I hope this helps! 

Marissa 

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Today I found three yolks in one of her eggs. 

M. Booth 

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Weird Things in Eggs 

We have seven ducks (five breeds, two age groups) we’ve raised for eggs. We’ve had our usual share of thin shells, no shells (membrane only), etc., but have only seen one instance — thankfully — of this. We don’t know which duck laid this, and none of them appeared to be injured or ill. Can anyone identify this? 

Jim Ingram, Wyoming 

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Hi Jim  

That looks like a salpingitis infection that got shed from the epithelial layer and encased in an egg on its way out. The red blood and the spongy texture indicate that it’s more than just a meat spot. If this is the only egg you’ve found, and you haven’t found any lash eggs in the nest, then your duck probably just shed the infection and healed on her own. I wouldn’t do anything at this point other than keeping an eye on them. But if you see this again or a lash egg in the nest without its shell, then it’s time to investigate which duck is the culprit so you can treat the infection. 

Good luck! 

Marissa 

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Thanks, Marissa.  We took the photos on 6/11/2019, so we’re long past the event, and all are happy and healthy. Our oldest three are “Golden 300” breed, two of which ceased laying about then or earlier. Despite its claimed “300 laying days per year,” we suspect this hybrid breed only lays for a couple of years before starting to lay some weird stuff or stops laying altogether. (Actually, one of the Golden 300s is still laying three or four eggs a week as long as the other “girls” are laying … or maybe they’re taking turns.) Our other four came of laying age about that same date — no lash eggs from either group. At the moment, we’re getting four or five eggs a day from our little drake-less flock. So, this is old history. We just hadn’t been able to find anyone who recognized this or had ever seen it before. Your expertise is greatly appreciated! Thanks again. 

Jim 

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Originally published in the August/September 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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