Okay, so your baby chicks aren’t babies anymore, and the brooder house is bulging, it’s so crowded. Time to house the young chickens with the old. So how do you do that?
This is an important question, because sometimes it goes horribly wrong:
- Young chickens whose response to stress is to pile in corners may smother each other in a new and frightening environment.
- Dominant chickens can bully newcomers to the point where they hide somewhere and refuse to come out to eat or drink.
- Chicken coops and yards can harbor diseases and parasites that the older chickens are resistant to, but the younger ones are not.
So there’s a lot that can go wrong. Let’s talk about making it go right.
Piling and Smothering
Baby chicks respond to stress by diving underneath the mother hen’s feathers. This is instinctual, so even incubator chicks do it. The problem is, if there’s not mother hen, the chicks hide in a dark place, typically the corner of the chicken house, and heap themselves in a big pile. Birds have very weak lungs, so the ones on the bottom smother. Not good!
Practice perches. As it happens, when the chicks learn to roost, the roosting instinct replaces the piling instinct. So the earlier the chicks learn to roost, the shorter the danger period. Chicks learn to roost by roosting, so the way to speed up the process is to give them something to roost on. I set long 2×2’s on the floor of the brooder house to start with, when the chicks are just a few days old, so the chicks can roost before they can fly. Later I move them a couple of feet up in the air.
Night lights. Chicks also panic more easily in the dark, so when I put them out in their pasture houses, I hang a flashlight from a rafter and leave it on all night (hooray for rechargeable batteries!). That really helps.
Shipping crates. Another gimmick that works pretty well is to move them into the chicken coop in poultry shipping crates, set the crates inside the coop, open the lid, but don’t remove the chickens. They’ll gradually start jumping out, but it takes a long time before the timid ones emerge, and in the meantime, the crates are sized to make piling impossible. It’s a long time before there are enough chickens in any one place to get a good pile going.
Fencing. Keeping the older chickens away for at least a day or two also helps prevent piling. Electric garden fence (electronetting about 18″ high) does a pretty good job, and doesn’t exclude the farmer, who can step over the fence without bothering to turn it off.
Being bullied to the point of death happens mostly when you add a few chickens to a large existing flock. Surrounded by strangers, every one of which wants to shove you to the bottom of the pecking order, is hard on the new chickens, who will retreat into a hiding place and refuse to come out, often starving to death.
There are some time-honored ways to prevent this:
Add large numbers of new chickens at a time. The bigger the group of newcomers, the less trouble they will have, because of flocking behavior. The new chickens will band together and head to the feeders and waterers as a body, and the old chickens will back off in the face of the mob. This only works when the new chickens all know each other, though. It’s one reason why I have little difficulty introducing a batch of new pullets into the mix.
House the new chickens separately. If you think you can get away with having just one chicken coop, you’re fooling yourself. You need at least two. (I have more than a dozen!) Life is much simpler if you can house the new chickens in their own coop. They can share a yard with the other chickens. Having a house of their own helps. Keep the new chickens cooped up in their new house for a couple of days so they know where home is, then let them loose to mingle in the yard with the others. Just make sure that the older chickens have equally good feed as the new ones, so there’s no incentive to raid the newcomers’ coop.
Segregate the newcomers. Keeping the newcomers fenced off from the oldsters for a few days helps. The chickens can see each other and interact somewhat, which helps. It also lets the newcomers get used to their new environment without having to deal with the older chickens. This technique can be used when housing two groups of chickens in the same coop, by partitioning the coop with chicken wire temporarily.
Disease and Parasites
These days, most flocks are disease-free, but not parasite-free. Roost mites, coccidiosis, and various kinds of worms are hard to avoid. Older chickens usually have a tolerance to these things unless your environment is particularly unhygienic. Unfortunately, lots of people have small, barren yards for chickens. A muddy, over-manured yard is parasite paradise.
In fact, it’s so bad that I noticed the following pattern when surveying the poultry literature of the past 100 years: People with yarded operations would have a wonderful first year, an okay second year, and would suddenly vanish without a trace the third year. What happened was probably this: Their first batch of chicks was given access to a pristine yard. They quickly denuded it, but it takes time for parasites to build up. In year two, the yard is entirely barren and has an increasing manure and parasite load, but the hens’ tolerance to the parasites keeps pace with the threat. The replacement pullets, however, don’t do so well. The effect of this is masked because most of the original hens are still laying.
Then Year Three comes around. The baby chicks die off horribly as soon as they are added to the older flock, killed by the ever-increasing parasite load. The original hens are too old to lay much. Egg production plummets, and the farmer goes out of business. The End.
So don’t do that. Permanent yards are bad news, but if you must do them, recognize that they’re an accident waiting to happen. That’s why everybody went to confinement in the first place. The method that seems to work best is the one proposed by Geoffrey Sykes in “The Henyard” (sadly out of print, like most great books): put down a thick layer of straw, add more whenever the yard gets a little mucky, and remove it all once a year (preferably with some spiffy piece of machinery like a Bobcat, though you can use a spading fork and a shovel if you really want to). This removes the parasites and thus imposes some kind of upper limit on their density.
The other technique is to plow, roto-till, or spade the yard at least a couple of times a year, to bury the parasites. It also aerates the soil and allows some of the nitrogen from the manure to outgas, delaying the day at which the yard is so over-manured that nothing will grow there. If you combine this with double-yarding, you can get to the point where one yard is barren and has chickens on it, and the other one grows something. Of course, as soon as you put chickens on the green one, it will soon become barren again, but by planting it you get some value out of the manure and mess with the parasites’ life cycle.