Thursday, June 7, 2012

Small Tricks Raising Poultry

One of Valhalla's Ancona
ducklings at five days old. She
had a lot to say to the camera!
It is hard to believe that six months have passed since our last blog entry, yet things have been incredibly busy with enormous progress in all areas to report!

We'll start with this report on raising different poultry flocks that will soon provide all the eggs and some of the meat needed for post-9/11 combat soldiers and war zone civilian workers who come to the property.

Over the past months we’ve raised Guinea fowl keets, Freedom Ranger chicks, Ancona ducklings, Midget White and Narragansett turkey poults with success. Sure, we’ve had a few losses early on, especially with the Guineas who seem particularly fragile as keets, but have been 100% with the chicks, ducklings, and, so far, with the poults. Knock on wood.

One of the scrawny chickens we saw during a cordon-
and-search operation outside Gardez, Afghanistan in
2010. Valhalla's flocks have a much more peaceful
life here in the Ozarks, and will eventually provide
all the eggs and at least some of the meat needed
for post 911 combat soldiers and war zone civilian
workers who come to the property.
We don’t have any secret touches. We read just about everything we can, select the most applicable lessons, and learn from trial and error. However, we have picked up on a few tricks that have worked for us and may be helpful to anyone in a similar situation.

With the Guineas, we found that introducing finely chopped greens (clover and dandelions were favorites) at a very early age really pleased and stimulated them. The keets seems extraordinarily shy and fearful of any new object added to their brooding facility. Even a rock would spin them into fits for hours. We made a small roost for them and they cowered for two days before finally climbing all over it.

Valhalla's Guinea fowl hens took turns laying eggs
in the Palace built by Specialist Jen Manning last year
and are still sitting on them as of this writing. Guineas
normally hide their eggs away from people yet this
flock feels more comfortable right under the back
deck where they can sound the alarm to have
humans rush out to defend them against predators.
We had read extensively about introducing greens to chicks and ducklings but none of the literature mentioned offering it to Guinea fowl. Intuitively, it made great sense. Guineas are omnivorous and should be interested in greens. Atypically, when we poured a small amount of greens around the litter they hit it like a school of piranha, cleaning it all up in minutes. Daily, we’d add more, varying the type by what was handiest to clip and always trying to include some of the clover and dandelions they favored. Every offering was multispecies and included grasses as well as broad leaf “weeds.”

We handled the keets a lot, and have followed that same pattern with chicks, ducklings, and poults. It seems to give them much more confidence around humans when they free range later, for all of the birds approach very close and many actually snuggle or ask to be petted. Visitors have noted that they’ve never seen Guineas as tame as ours.

This Freedom Ranger hen found a small bag of
trash and spent half an hour carefully emptying each
piece of paper and fly screen scrap out of it before
shaping a little bed for herself out of the bag itself.
Chickens are very curious, love to watch humans
at work, and will play with just about anything!
In contrast to the keets, the chicks, ducklings, and poults are intensely curious and are immediately attracted to anything new introduced into their environment. So we began experimenting with different “toys” – anything ranging from a plastic cup, to a small ball, to a cardboard box, or even an empty plastic soft drink bottle – and they seem to enjoy it immensely. 

When we see aggression – and it pops up with every poultry species in our experience – it seems to indicate boredom. So we give them something to distract them from picking on the weak by introducing new experiences into their environment.

Portable pet fencing is invaluable for safely moving ducklings
around the yard - and for separating out any injured birds while
still allowing them to safely stay with the flock.
As our Ancona ducklings were growing we moved them to an outside brooder where they began to pick on two fellow ducklings, pulling out wing feathers till they drew blood. We quickly isolated the two injured birds, placing them behind a screen adjacent to the main flock where they could see their fellows and not be too nervous, but be free from aggression.

As soon as possible we moved the Anconas outside during the day, using a combination of supervised free range and the remainder of the day in an enclosed portable pen. The variety has reduced aggression considerably – we simply don’t see them picking on each other any longer – and today we moved the two healing ducks into a similar pen adjacent to the flock so that they could get some sunshine and fresh air too, and enjoy themselves foraging. Within a few more days we expect to be able to reintegrate them back into the main group without any feather pecking.

Unlike the other birds that arrived within days after
hatching, the Khaki Campbell duckings were almost
a month only when they came to live at Valhalla. As
a result they were extremely nervous in their new
surroundings and it took several weeks before they
finally calmed down into a set routine.
As soon as they don’t need brooder lights any longer we push poultry outside in nice weather either in protected, portable pens, or letting them range under supervision, and get a taste for the outside world. This gets them eager about foraging at a young age, lets them see the other resident fowl and animals (including the cats) up close, and gets everyone accustomed to living with everyone else.

 These little tricks have worked for us and we hope that others might find something useful here that will help you, too. Most of all we have greatly enjoyed the interaction with the poultry and look forward to them getting older (and, we hope, wiser) so they will free range together without serious argument.

Living in harmony: Valhalla's 17 Anacona ducklings, 10 Khaki Campbell ducks, and 21 Freedom
Ranger chickens (unfortunately the Guinea fowl saw the camera and ran away screaming
just seconds before this photo was taken yesterday). 

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