How to Have an Enjoyable Flock

Discussion in 'Managing Your Flock' started by The Yakima Kid, Nov 26, 2013.

  1. The Yakima Kid

    The Yakima Kid Cirque des Poulets

    The key to having a good experience with a backyard flock is careful planning and breed selection.

    The first step is to select a coop. Although more expensive, the plastic coops - Eglu, Formex, Brinsea - have fewer issues with mites and are incredibly easy to clean. A good run is also a necessity; the average backyard does not have anything remotely resembling adequate forage. Free ranging in the average tree lawn means starvation and nutritional imbalances.

    Breed selection is also paramount. To have the least drama in the coop, select birds of all the same breed and color. Birds that are a different color, different temperament, or different comb shape will be attacked by the others. Crested breeds should not be kept with non-crested breeds as they will probably be victimized since they can't always see a more aggressive bird approaching. Leghorns will happily kill meat hybrids and less aggressive dual purpose breeds.

    Choose breeds from the calmer, quieter more traditional small farm and courtyard breeds. These include many of the classic American dual purpose breeds, and those British breeds that descend from the chickens brought inside at night by cottagers. Very good birds for this purpose are the Dominiques - who can be very lively and may not be a good choice with small children; California Grays, Plymouth Rocks, Orpingtons, Sussex, Buckeyes, Iowa Blues, and a few others - Cochins and Brahmas are good if your interests run more to pets than eggs; Jersey Giants are fine if you provide housing large enough for these fascinating birds. Remember that larger birds eat more feed.

    Most of the Mediterranean breeds and many Continental breeds are too high strung and noisy for the average backyard; they also tend to have a nasty tendency to cannibalism, even when uncrowded. Feather legged birds seem more likely to have mite problems and have difficulty foraging since it is more difficult for them to scratch.

    Feeding is simple. Chickens eat chicken feed. Purchase starter feed or starter and grower feed for chicks. Be careful to purchase the correct kind - broiler feed is too high in protein and calories for egg layers. Layers need a complete layer ration and supplemental oyster shell. They will also need grit if you feed them greens and other treats. Do not trust a backyard to have adequate grit in the soil for chickens. Follow manufacturer's directions on which life stage to feed a specific feed. Generally I switch from a starter/grower to laying chow after the first pullet begins to lay.

    Chicks should be immunized for Marek's. Find a supplier who immunizes for Marek's in order to avoid heartbreak. Chicks should either be immunized for coccidiosis or should receive a feed containing a coccidiostat - otherwise your young chickens may die horrible early deaths.

    I currently keep an older Black Star hen and some replacement Dominique pullets hatched last spring. Dominique pullets are very "gamey", and if you have Dominiques, you may begin to wonder if your birds are cockerels as they fluff up and hold dramatic fights worthy of a game cock. No birds seem to get injured, but it can be a shock if you are more used to staid Barred Rocks or Sussex.

    I have kept white Leghorns. Like most Mediterranean breeds they are nervous, noisy, tend to be human avoidant, and enjoy flying over fences into neighboring yards. They are also highly cannibalistic and will literally amputate each others toes. Unless you are prepared to deal with severely injured chicken feet, complaining neighbors, and animal control, they are not the best choice for the backyard unless confined to prevent escape or you are willing to clip their wings. You must also be willing to undertake drastic measures to prevent cannibalism - be it chicken bits or beak trimming to dull the end of the beak. Chicken bits mean you must use a wide trough type feeder. I kept Leghorns as part of a project that involved earning money with their high egg production - but I would never keep them for fun. White Leghorn bantams are less cannibalistic and far less human avoidant; but they still sail like a witch over fences.
     
  2. ChickenCanoe

    ChickenCanoe Chicken Obsessed

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    I like it when people take the time to do a write up like this. Especially helpful for newbies and those with small yards.
    I especially agree with the importance of good housing and breed selection is utmost.
    The outline on feeding is good and immunization is probably a good idea for backyarders.
    For the most part, you're right about lighter birds being good flyers. On the other hand, one of the flighty Mediterranean breeds I raise are content to stay inside a 3' fence as there are exceptions to every rule.
    The only part I disagree with is the cannibalism issue. I've raised over 30 breeds totaling in the thousands and sometimes 100 at a time. About a third were Mediterranean and Continental including a couple varieties of leghorns, minorcas, penedesencas as well as anconas, buttercups, polish and welsummers. I've even kept large flocks of Mediterranean roosters together with no issues. Right now I have a flock of Penedesenca roosters confined in a 2 foot high fence. They are very high strung, avoid humans at all cost but they don't fight and have never once tried to get out of that wimpy little fence.
    I've never had a hint of cannibalism or even picking to the point of drawing blood. I guess it is like the old expression - "your results may vary".
     
  3. donrae

    donrae Hopelessly Addicted Premium Member

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    I've also had leghorns and never, ever any cannibalism. I even had leghorn layers when I had Cornish cross meaties with the flock. No problems. I think it's a matter of space, personally.

    I also disagree about keeping all birds of one breed/color. I have a highly varied flock most of the time and never have issues of birds picking on each other. Again, space and flock management IMO.

    I do agree having crested breeds, silkies, etc can be an issue. But as long as all birds are basically the same size, I've been good to go.
     
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  4. bobbi-j

    bobbi-j Chicken Obsessed

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    I will have to say, too, that I have chickens of various breeds, sizes and comb types. Never have I had a problem with them fighting or picking on any certain birds. I've had brown leghorns and they were no more temperamental than any other birds I've had. I've also never had a problem with cannibalism. Those types of problems can be caused when there are overcrowding issues.

    My coops are just plain wooden sheds. I've never felt the need to sanitize my coops and I've never had a problem with disease, lice, mites or anything else. I think that is because my chickens free range. I believe that free range chickens are healthier as a rule. I do agree that free ranging in the average urban or suburban backyard would most likely need to be supplemented with a commercial feed. It doesn't take chickens long to clean out an area of bugs and plants.
     
  5. The Yakima Kid

    The Yakima Kid Cirque des Poulets

    Your results may indeed vary. As long ago as the 1910s it was observed that flocks in adjacent, seemingly identical enclosures on research farms under the same system of management could vary widely in behavior, although all birds were from the same strain. One flock might suffer cannibalism losses of 15% or more, while another might be problem free. However, some things do hold true - different breeds have different temperaments. I had cannibalism issues with two dozen white Leghorns in a 4,000 foot yard, and no problems with six dual purpose chickens kept in 64 square feet.

    The suggestions I make are based on agricultural research. I make them because I am sick and tired of people giving up their flocks because of drama in the coop. When people have bad experiences with biddies, this can mean horrendous experiences for the poor biddies.

    Milo Hastings, in his book "The Dollar Hen" advised that one choose dual purpose flocks from the following three breeds - Barred Plymouth Rocks, White Wyandottes, or Rhode Island Reds - unless you had a very good reason to choose another breed. His advice is sound today as it was in the very early 20th Century, with the caveat that many modern RIRs are from production strains with unpredictable temperaments, and white Wyandottes can be hard to find.

    Some people consider the calmer breeds "beginner breeds" - which would have come as a shock to the Little Compton growers who raised RIRs and Delawares, and would have been an insult to the generations of the Hanson family of Corvallis, Oregon, who raised outstanding Barred Rocks. Although Leghorns are far more profitable as egg layers, more than a few farmers stood by their heavier dual purpose brown egg breeds until debeaking was invented by Ohio poultry researchers and layng cages became common because their experience was the greater feed costs were offset by much lower losses to cannibalism and the sale of stewing hens and cockerels for meat.

    A free educational experience is available on the Cackle Hatchery website. They have videos of some of their breeder flocks, and one can observe the differences in temperament. The Dominiques mass around feeders and waterers without concern, while many other breeds veer off from groups, apparently afraid of being pecked.

    Cannibalism is not always a matter of management; the individual temperaments of birds and breed temperament can and do contribute to the problem and its avoidance. I have never said that different breeds cannot be kept together - but the odds of avoiding drama in the coop do go down. Roosters of non-game breeds can often be kept together safely in groups of three or more if separated from the pullets, or provided enough pullets, feeders, waterers, and space to establish their own territories.

    Attributing cannibalism to "bad management" and "not enough space" does a disservice to many flock keepers. There are significant differences in temperament between breeds, strains, and individuals. When I raised Leghorns in high school, to sell eggs to the "hippy movement" folks, I didn't debeak them since the hippies didn't like that and I hate doing it. My high school agriculture teacher told me this was a bad idea. When I talked to someone at the Oregon State University, the response to my cannibalism issue was "they are Leghorns" and the suggestion that I tip them until they were well established in lay. I learned that before debeaking and caging a good mortality rate from cannibalism in Leghorns was somewhere between 10% and 15%. I finally tipped their beaks (they grow back) until they were established in lay and no longer as interested in vent picking.

    Cannibalism can have surprising causes. One of our Black Stars, Big Bird, began to lose weight and feather pick. When she became to weak to reach the lowest perch I brought her inside. She rapidly deteriorated and was euthanized. A free necropsy at UC Davis confirmed my suspicion of reproductive problems - she had adenocarcinoma. Although the other Black Star, Bird On Hand, had begun to feather pick during this period, she quit with the departure of poor Big Bird, and today lives in harmony with our much younger Dominiques. Without her lifelong companion Big Bird, she seemed at a loss, perching alone and dust bathing by herself; within a few weeks she made friends with a young Dominique pullet, Daisy, who gained both a friend and some advantages at the feed trough as the shadow of the much higher status Bird On Hand who lets her near when she eats which means she gets access when Bird On Hand is done eating.

    Your experiences may indeed vary - but my suggestions are guidelines for avoiding drama in the coop. Not everyone has a large area; and if one must keep birds in a tighter enclosure, one is well advised to keep breeds adapted for that purpose.
     
  6. enola

    enola Overrun With Chickens

    I have had leghorns for years. I also never saw cannibalism in my flocks. I think you are doing a HUGE diservice to a great breed of chickens. Any one thinking about buying a breed of chickens that can turn small amounts of feed into large numbers of eggs should not listen to your advice.

    Sorry
     
  7. The Yakima Kid

    The Yakima Kid Cirque des Poulets

    You have been very fortunate. Unfortunately, many others are not so fortunate. If people know what they are getting into, Leghorns can be an excellent choice. Mine had few problems after the initial period of lay, when they discovered vent picking. After a few weeks I let their beaks grow out and they had forgotten all about it. The reality is that losses of "only" 10%-15% are and were considered "normal" in Leghorn flocks before the widespread use of cages and debeaking.
     
  8. donrae

    donrae Hopelessly Addicted Premium Member

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    I have no problem believing that. I'd just wonder how many birds were crammed into a space. Seriously, during the winter I feel like pecking my family sometimes cause we're all packed in a small house [​IMG]
     
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  9. ChickenCanoe

    ChickenCanoe Chicken Obsessed

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    40 to 50 years ago we had flocks of about 100 white leghorn hens. Never the problems you describe.

    Since then I've had black leghorns. Very nice birds. Even though they avoided humans, they were among the most subdued birds of the flocks.
     
  10. enola

    enola Overrun With Chickens

    I just wish he had worded his opinion differently. After all, his statements were based on "agricultural studies". A back yard flock's dynamics are completely different than an agricultural flock.

    Personally, I have had much more trouble with "dual purpose" breeds. And they eat a lot more feed..........
     

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