FAQ: Chicken Feeding Tips

Here are my most reliable tips on feeding your chickens: feeding them simply, feeding them cheaply, and feeding them well.

1. How Can I Save Money on Chicken Feed?

Here are some tips:

  • Girl feeding free-range chickens by handAvoid “cheapskate feeds.” There are a lot of cheapskates out there who don’t care about quality. Most mills have a line of cheapskate feeds that you need to avoid, because they’re bulked out with fillers like wheat-milling byproducts that have little nutritional value. Cheapskate feeds often have keywords telling you what they are; words like “Country,” “Thrifty,” and so on. You’ll save money if you quality feed.
  • Buy from the best. Ask your practical-minded acquaintances who the best feed mill is. Usually the verdict is almost unanimous. Buy from the best feed mill: it’ll saves you money.
  • Use the “grain-on-the-side” method described further down in this FAQ.
  • Minimize feed waste. Most feeders on the market are really just baby chick feeders, no matter what the manufacturers say. Their feed pans are too shallow, and the chickens throw feed in all directions. In some tube feeders, it pours over the side on its own! Losing at least 10% of your feed to the poor design of the feeder is very common. Find the deepest feeders you can get your hands on, or make them yourself. Never fill trough feeders more than 1/3 full. Spend more time watching your flock. If you slow down, you’ll notice things and everything will magically improve, including the bottom line.
  • Get a book about poultry nutrition. A lot of what you’ll read on the Internet or hear from your neighbors will be nonsense, and you’ll want to immunize yourself. Also, it helps to have a complete reference manual handy! The best poultry nutrition book in print is the one I reprinted myself, Feeding Poultry by G. F. Heuser. There are other excellent books on the topic, but they are all out of print. (I can’t figure that out.)
  • Read my blog postings on saving money on chicken feed.

2. Do I HAVE to Feed Free-Range Chickens (or can they find their own feed?)

Remember: Chickens can’t find feed that isn’t there, and the more chickens you have, the less feed there is to go around. You have to match the number chickens to the feed supply, or nature will do it for you through poor health and starvation.

How it was done in the old days. A farmer of 100 years ago might have kept a dozen hens and a rooster through the winter, and allowed the hens to hatch a brood of chicks each in the spring, giving, say, 72 chicks plus the original 13 chickens, or 85 birds total. The old rooster would be sold after the chicks had hatched. The old hens and most of the young chickens would be sold in the fall, and one cockerel and twelve pullets would be kept through the lean months. By having 85 chickens during the fat months and only 13 during the winter, the amount of supplemental feed needed by the chickens would be minimized.

The old ways always involved malnutrition. A flock of 13 chickens might survive all winter on the grain spilled by a cow and a team of draft horses, plus some hay and whatever else they could find. This winter diet would be nutritionally poor (both vitamin- and protein-deficient) and the hens would lay no eggs, but they’d recover in early spring and the cycle would repeat.

Malnutrition increases with the number of chickens. I’ve heard estimates that you can support just 1-2 hens per acre with no supplemental feeding, though probably not during the winter. As you add chickens to the farm, they first exhaust the supply of high-calorie feeds such as seeds, then the supply of high-protein feeds such as bugs and clover. Finally, they use up the supply of high-vitamin feeds such as green grass. Except for the last stages, when all the green plants disappear, you can’t tell what stage your forage is in.

Also, because of their thick coats of feathers, it’s hard to tell a malnourished chicken from a healthy chicken at a glance, they way you can by noticing whether the ribs are showing on cows, horses, dogs, and people.

In the bad old days, when people didn’t feed their hens at all, much of the hen’s diet was provided as a side effect of bad sanitation. People threw their garbage out into the street or the barnyard. The cows and horses spilled grain. Manure was everywhere and was full of yummy maggots.

But even with all the natural bounty provided by stone-age sanitation, the number of hens that could be supported without supplemental feeding was very limited.

In practice, though, it always pays to provide a complete diet. The increased production always pays for the increased feed bill.

There are a few circumstances where the diet can be adjusted to reflect reliable forage ingredients, such as old-fashioned “range rations” which left out the vitamins that were provided in abundance by green feed. But enough dry days in a row browns off the grass and makes it unpalatable to the chickens, so this method has its risks.

Also, many of the things hens eat are so tiny that we can’t see them—tiny seeds, tiny bugs, tiny worms. If we can’t see them, we can’t estimate how much the hens are finding, and we can’t know how much supplemental feed they need on a day-by-day basis.

Fortunately for the frugal farmer, hens prefer fresh, natural feeds to dry, processed chicken feed, and will eat natural feeds in preference to store-bought feed whenever they have the chance. This leads to a foolproof strategy:

Offer the chickens as much (balanced, high-quality) chicken feed as they want, and settle for whatever amount of foraging they discover on their own.

This will maximize production and profitability. Sure, if you’re an expert and are always very careful, you can get some eggs out of a flock you don’t feed at all, even without actually crippling your chickens through malnutrition, but you won’t get very many. It’s a mug’s game.

See also my blog post on Feeding Scraps to Chickens.

3. What Should I Feed My Chickens?

Feed your chickens chicken feed. Some people like to complicate the feeding problem beyond all reason. Ignore them. Go down to the feed store and buy a sack of feed that’s labeled for the kind of chickens you have (chick starter, broiler starter, layer feed, etc.). This will be a balanced feed, and the chickens will do fine even if you don’t feed them anything else.

You can also set out whole grains in a separate feeder if you like. I do. This can save you a lot of money if you have a source of cheap grain, especially if you use a high-protein chicken feed. For example, a high-protein layer ration with 20% protein will be formulated for use with supplemental grain, with the assumption that the hens will eat about 50% layer ration and 50% grain. Chicks need lots of protein and will pretty much ignore supplemental grain until they’re older and aren’t growing as fast. There’s really little point in offering them grain until they’re 6-8 weeks old.

If you want to try something fancier, I recommend that you get a copy of Feeding Poultry by G. F. Heuser.

See also my blog post on “Why Chicken Feed?”.

4. Won’t Commercial Chicken Feed Poison My Chickens?

Ah, vintage Seventies hippie-dippy fear-mongering! We just don’t get conspiracy theories like that anymore. (“Everyone is a poisoner except me,” said the organic farmer.)

In the real world, of course, feed stores are totally dependent on repeat business, of course. If your chicken raising is unsuccessful, you won’t raise any more chickens, and they can’t sell you any more feed. So, presumably, any feed store that has been in business for more than a few months is selling feed that gets the job done.

An exception, as previously mentioned, is cheapskate feeds. If you’re a cheapskate, you insist on buying the very worst feed available, no matter how bad it is. There are enough cheapskates that most mills have a special line of feeds just for them, loaded with the traditional low-feed-value fillers: wheat bran, middlings, mill run, etc. Not that cheapskate feeds are poisonous. They’re just crummy.

I have never had any trouble with commercial feed. In general, you should ask around and see which feed store is considered to be the most reputable by your neighbors, and buy from them. Local reputation is rarely wrong.

Read the feed tag to see what’s in the chicken feed. I also taste chicken feed sometimes to see if it has any off flavors. It shouldn’t have any kind of burned or rancid taste, which would indicate the use of bad ingredients. But every time I’ve tested, it’s just been incredibly bland, not distateful at all. It’s so bland, you could probably sell it as a health-food cereal.

5. Isn’t Chicken Feed Full of Medications?

Medicated feed says “MEDICATED” in large letters on the feed tag (in the U.S., anyway). The only medication I’ve ever seen in feed-store chicken feed is a coccidiostat in medicated chick and turkey starter feeds, which keeps the chicks from coming down with coccidiosis. You should have no trouble getting non-medicated feeds if that’s what you want.

I recommend that beginners start with medicated chick starter, because an outbreak of coccidiosis is very discouraging. Sick and dying chicks do not make for the kind of farming experience you would care to repeat, so do yourself a favor and use medicated chick starter to begin with, to increase the odds of having a good experience.

6. Aren’t Chicken Feeds Full of Hormones?

That’s ancient history, and was mostly mythical even then. We’re talking about the Truman and Eisenhower years here!

Hormones in poultry feed are illegal these days. Hormones had a brief burst of popularity in the late Forties and early Fifties. By the time the once-popular hormone DES was banned in 1959, it had fallen into disuse.

Anyway, it wasn’t used in the feed, but was in the form of a little time-release pellet that was injected under the skin.

There’s a lot of folklore and superstition in the chicken-raising community. I once did a thorough review of the chicken literature back to 1900, and every single superstition that has been totally debunked since then is still believed. And not just by a handful of cranks, but by lots of people.

7. What do You Feed Your Chickens?

For my hens, I use the three-feeder system. I have one feeder full of 20% protein layer pellets, one feeder full of whatever whole grain is cheapest (usually corn), and one feeder full of oystershell.

The reason I do this is that chickens have a definite calcium appetite (oystershells), energy appetite (grain), and protein appetite (high-protein poultry ration). A hen who lays an egg a day will eat far more calcium than one who lays an egg a week. If the only source of calcium is the chicken feed, she will eat feed just for its calcium, and get fat. With calcium offered on the side in the form of oystershell, she can eat the calcium she wants without unwanted calories. Similarly, a hen who is not laying at the moment wants little calcium or protein, and will eat mostly grain, which is cheaper than the other ingredients.

Furthermore, forage is high in protein. When the pasture plants are bright green and succulent, or when there are lots of slow-moving bugs and worms around, the hens get a lot of protein by foraging, turn up their noses at the pellets, and eat mostly forage and whole grain. When the pasture plants turn brown and the insects move too fast, they fall back on the pellets. Since pellets are more expensive than grain. I win.

Research is inconclusive about the value of this method when all the ingredients are bought at commodity prices. However, most people buy by the sack or by the ton. If you find your local grain wholesaler or a local farmer with a full granary, you can buy grain at wholesale prices and pellets at retail, which will bring you big savings. We buy our grain at Venell Feed in Corvallis Oregon, and broiler/layer feed from Union Point Custom Feeds in Brownsville, Oregon.

For pullet chicks, I feed chick starter for several weeks, then offer grain in a separate feeder. Once the chicks go onto pasture, they get the same ration as the hens.

Broiler chicks start with a 22% broiler starter, graduate to the 20% broiler grower ration from Union Point, which is later supplemented with whole grains.

Turkeys are similar to broilers: start with a 28% turkey starter, graduate to a 20% broiler grower, which is later supplemented with whole grains.

All my poultry also have access to range.

8. What About Animal Byproducts in the Feed?

I don’t use poultry feeds that contain animal poultry byproducts such as beef scrap. I don’t have anything against beef scrap in general, but when I had goats, they would sometimes get into the chicken feed. Since one of the cornerstones of BSE prevention is to prevent ruminants from eating meat byproducts of other ruminants, so I avoid feeds with beef scrap for that reason.

9. Should I Mix My Own Feed?

If that’s what you want. I don’t. And it’s unlikely to save you any money: you save money by feeding your inexpensive ingredients on the side, as I explain in Save Money on Chicken Feed.

Poultry nutrition is an interesting topic and makes a good hobby, though I find the theory to be more useful than the practice: I’d rather pay a good feed mill to do the formulation and mixing for me, though I’m glad I’ve read several poultry nutrition books, so I understand what it is that I’m delegating.

Feeding Poultry by Heuser. Norton Creek Press.You should read a book on poultry nutrition first. The best one is Feeding Poultry: The Classic Guide to Poultry Nutrition by G.F. Heuser. It’s so good that I brought it back into print myself, under my Norton Creek Press label. It covers all sorts of topics that are neglected in more recent poultry nutrition books, such as the nutritional value of free range. At the same time, it’s recent enough that all the major nutrients and topics get a full treatment. I like this book because it is written for the intelligent layman rather than an audience of professional scientists.

Back to the FAQ Page

FAQ: Deep Litter in Chicken Coops

Deep Litter for Chickens: Another Lost Technique From the Golden Age

Stirring hydrated lime into deep litter.

Many poultry techniques that were once well-understood became shrouded in mystery after the poultry business shifted to factory farming. The old-time diversified farmers passed away, and there are generations of industrialized farmers between us and them, breaking our cultural continuity.

The Deep Litter Method. One of the lost ideas is the deep litter method (deep litter is also called “built-up litter” or “compost litter.” People think they know what the deep-litter system is, but often they don’t. The descriptions floating around these days are more folklore than fact. The article below is the real deal.

Deep litter is weird stuff. It’s different from a big heap of shavings. It’s different from a compost pile with chickens living on the top of it. It’s worth looking at in some detail. Got your spading fork ready?

I’ve found some good material from the very first people to research and promote deep litter, Kennard and Chamberlin at the Ohio Experiment Station. The following is an article of theirs from the Golden Age of deep litter, published in 1949.

Deep Litter Quickstart

For the impatient, here’s a deep-litter quickstart:

  • Deep litter is not about compost. It’s about healthier chickens. Do your serious composting on a compost pile.
  • Deeper is better. It’s not “deep litter” unless it’s at least six inches deep.
  • Don’t let it cake. If the top of the litter gets caked over with manure, skim off the caked part and toss it into a corner. Within a few days, natural composting will cause it to turn back into litter again. It works like magic.
  • Deep litter has anti-coccidiosis properties, but only after it’s been around for a few months, building its own unique biome, so never remove all of it.  When you start bumping your head on the rafters, remove most of it.
  • (Optional) Stir in hydrated lime at about ten pounds per hundred square feet to keep the litter more friable.
  • Use more ventilation. If you can smell ammonia in the chicken house, you don’t have enough ventilation. Open the windows, even if it’s twenty below outside. Ammonia is a poison gas; cold weather is just a nuisance to grown chickens.
  • It’s labor-saving. If you’re spending a significant amount of time messing with the litter, you’re doing it wrong.

Ohio Experiment Station Bulletin: Built-Up Floor Litter Sanitation and Nutrition

by Kennard and Chamberlin, 1949

Sanitation in brooder houses has been largely restricted to the everlasting use of the scoop shovel, fork, broom, and spray pump. What’s new is the discovery of how to let nature’s sanitary processes do a better job using built-up litter.

What happens to the compost heap is familiar to all. Regardless of how obnoxious its contents, nature’s sanitary processes soon convert it into harmless residual material which is comparatively sanitary. Likewise, many of the same chemical and biological activities take place in built-up litter to make it more sanitary than fresh litter contaminated with fresh droppings.

When built-up litter is erroneously referred to as filthy or dirty material, it is because of either prejudice or lack of understanding. Because fresh litter smeared with unabsorbed fresh droppings is obnoxious, it is natural to think of it becoming more and more so the older it becomes. But old built-up litter is drier, more absorbent, and less obnoxious than fresh litter after a few days’ use. Often overlooked is the fact the nature’s chemical and biological processes have converted built-up litter into a more sanitary, less obnoxious, residual compost-like material which is preferable to fresh litter contaminated with a larger proportion of fresh droppings.

Call It “Built-Up Litter”

Built-up litter is sometimes called deep or dry litter These terms are misleading. Deep or dry litter may be far different and without the beneficial properties of built-up litter.

Built-up litter is what the term implies. At the beginning fresh litter material is added from time to time as needed, but none is removed until it becomes 8 to 12 inches deep. Once the litter is built-up, after the first year some of the material will need to be removed occasionally to keep it within bounds.

Control of Coccidiosis

The prevention or control of coccidiosis by starting day-old chicks on old built-up litter could have been prophesied years ago. It has long been recognized that chicks exposed to small dosages of coccidia at an early age developed a resistance which gave protection against heavier dosages to which they are often exposed from 4 to 12 weeks of age. Built-up litter has thus proved the most practical and effective means by which this resistance can be established.

As second reason why built-up litter could have been expected to limit coccidiosis is the fact that nearly all, if not all, living organisms including bacteria, protozoa, etc., have their parasites. Old built-up litter would seem to offer a favorable medium and conditions for the functioning of the parasites and enemies of coccidia and perhaps other diseases, too.

The third reason is that a 10 percent solution of ammonia spray is considered effective for killing coccidia. Being unable to withstand such a spray, they may likewise be unable to withstand the constant ammoniacal atmosphere in built-up litter.

Either of the reasons cited offer a plausible explanation for the surprising results secured during the past three years by the Ohio Station and similar unrecorded results experienced by poultrymen everywhere.

The first experimental evidence with reference to the user of built-up litter as a sanitary procedure was secured by the Ohio Station in 1946 when it was first used in the brooder house. During the three years previous when the floor litter was removed and renewed at frequent intervals, the average mortality of 10 broods, or a total of 18,000 chicks, was 19 percent. During the succeeding three years with the use of built-up litter, the average mortality of 11 broods, or a total of 10,000 chicks, was 7 percent. Seldom did a brood escape an attack of coccidiosis before the use of built-up litter. Afterward there was no noticeable trouble from coccidiosis in 11 consecutive broods started and raised on the same old built-up floor litter. Old built-up litter is floor litter which has been used by two or more previous broods of chicks.

Nutritional Benefit Of Built-Up Litter

As soon as the sanitary effects of old built-up litter became evident, two experiments were set up to explore the nutritional possibilities in the growth of chickens on old built-up litter. The basal all-plant diet used in the first two experiment was simple and extremely deficient for the growth of chickens.

Experiment 1 was started July 27, 1947, with the growth of Leghorn x Rhode Island Red cross-mated pullets after the first 10 weeks to the end of 25 weeks. Previous to the beginning of the experiment, pullets received a complete ration (which included 10 percent meat scrap and 5 percent dried whey) on the old built-up litter. The pullets were equally allotted on the basis of their weight into two groups each of 150 pullets at the beginning of the experiment. On group was changed to the incomplete ration, while the other group was continued on the complete ration. At the end of the experiment after 15 weeks the average weight of the birds was 3.97 vs. 3.95 pounds, respectively. Mortality was 8 vs. 9 percent, respectively. Despite the severity of the incomplete ration, that group of pullets did as well as those that received the complete ration. Obviously, the old built-up litter adequately supplemented the incomplete ration.

Experiment 2 was started August 12, 1947, with eight groups each of 200 Leghorn-R. I. Red cross-mated day-old chicks, At the end of 16 weeks the average weight of the chickens that received the incomplete ration was 3.42 pounds vs. 3.81 pounds of the chickens that received the complete ration. The percentage mortality was 6 and 5 percent, respectively. It was remarkable that the day-old chicks could live and grow as they did on the severely incomplete ration they received. As in the first experiment, it was the old built-up litter that made this possible.

Experiments 3, 4, and 5 were conducted on Leghorn-R. I. Red cross-mated, day-old chicks which received the complete and incomplete rations on old built-up litter, new built-up litter (started fresh with each brood), and fresh litter removed and renewed each 2 weeks. The incomplete ration was practically the same as used in the first two experiments except for the inclusion of 5 percent dehydrated alfalfa meal (17 percent protein) in these experiments. The averaged results at the end of 12 weeks of the experiments, which included about 3,000 chicks, follow:

Ration Floor Litter Weight
Per Bird
Complete Old built-up 2.45 lbs. 5
Fresh 2.30 lbs. 7
Incomplete Old built-up 2.34 lbs. 7
New built-up 1.88 lbs. 18
Fresh 1.64 lbs. 23


There was little difference in the rate of mortality of the chicks that received the complete ration regardless of the floor litter procedures used in the three experiments. There was, however, a better rate of growth of the chicks that received the complete ration on the old built-up litter.

It was the incomplete, all-plant diet where a critical dietary deficiency existed that the rule of old built-up litter for growth and livability was made unmistakable. The rate of growth and mortality (largely due to coccidiosis) corresponded directly with the age of the floor litter.

Thus, the sanitary and nutritional phases of old built-up floor litter, where nature’s chemical, biological, and sanitary processes can take place under favorable conditions, continue to yield surprising results as continued experimental evidence becomes available. Moreover, the practical results reported by poultry raisers from all parts of the country are in keeping with the experimental evidence.

[End of Ohio Experiment Station bulletin]

How To Use Deep Litter in Chicken Coops

That’s all very interesting, you say, but how does one go about using deep litter? The Kennard and Chamberlin published this additional advice in 1948:

Built-Up Floor Litter to Date

Until recently, the common practice was to remove and renew the floor litter in brooder and layer houses every week or two. Now, by means of built-up litter practices and the use of hydrated lime, the floor litter may be used in the brooder house for 8 to 16 weeks or longer without removal [Note: later, the authors recommended never removing the old brooder house litter.] In the laying house it need be removed only once a year, or it may be used for longer periods. The usual procedure for built-up floor litter is to start with about 4 inches of fine litter material with additions of 1 to 2 inches later as needed without removal of the old. A depth of 6 to 12 inches is maintained by partial removals from time to time.

Frequent removal and renewal of the floor litter from brooder houses was to avoid dampness and thus supposed to aid in the prevention of coccidiosis. The primary purpose for frequent removal and renewal of the floor litter from laying houses was also to prevent dampness. Later, this object was accomplished better by insulation of the houses and by means of built-up litter which protected the floor against the cold and the dampness that followed from condensation.

After built-up floor litter in laying houses became an accepted practice, came the use of hydrated lime with its additional advantages. Consequently, the use of built-up floor litter and its treatment with hydrated lime has now become the standard practice of many poultrymen throughout the country.

Advantages of Deep LItter

First of all, there is the saving of labor and litter material and the better insulation of the floor during cold weather, which aids in keeping the litter drier and in better condition. The condition of the litter is further improved by the use of hydrated lime which makes the litter more friable, more absorbent, and less inclined to paste or cake over the surface.

Recently, it has been extensively observed by the Ohio Agricultural Experiment Station at Wooster that the use of built-up floor litter in brooder houses may serve as a means for the prevention or control of coccidiosis, when other conditions are favorable. Seven successive broods, each of around 2,000 chicks, have escaped noticeable trouble from coccidiosis as evidenced by the low rate of mortality (2.9 percent) after the first 4 weeks. Before the use of built-up litter, a majority of the broods failed to escape an attack. In some instances the same floor litter was used for six successive broods of chicks.

Chicks or layers on built-up floor litter were found to be less subject to cannibalism.

Latest of all has been the Station’s discovery of the nutritional aspects of built-up floor litter by two experiments with the growth of chickens indoors and four experiments with the production of eggs of good hatchability when the breeders were confined indoors. The rations in each instance were composed chiefly of plant feedstuffs without animal byproducts.

[Note: this article was written just before the discovery of vitamin B12, which is produced in deep litter through bacterial fermentation.]

Kinds of Lime to Use

With the rapidly increasing use of lime in connection with built-up floor litter in brooder and laying houses, many poultrymen face the question of which kind of lime to use.

Hydrated lime in 50-pound bags is mostly used and the different grades may be purchased from building supply or feed, seed, and fertilizer dealers under trade names such as Agricultural hydrated lime, Mason’s hydrated lime, General Purpose hydrated lime, or Finishing hydrated lime. Any one of these products may be used, so the choice may be determined by the cost.

Judging Litter Condition

The condition of the floor is usually judged by its appearance. If it appears dry and in absorbent condition, not pasted or caked over the surface, it is considered in good condition. If the floor litter appears damp or wet and is pasted or caked over the surface, it is considered in poor or bad condition.

Floor litter treated with hydrated lime appears drier than floor litter under similar conditions without lime. Despite the appearance, however, there may be little difference in the actual moisture content. The principal effect of the use of lime was upon the physical condition of the litter. Lime makes the litter more friable and more absorbent. This gives it the appearance of being drier and in better condition.

Stir Lime Into Litter

It has been observed that hydrated lime may have a slight caustic effect upon the feet of chicks under certain conditions Consequently, the hydrated lime needs to be carefully distributed over the floor litter and stirred well into the litter at once.

Hydrated lime can be used with any of the common litter materials such as chopped straw, ground corncobs, cut or shredded corn stover, wood shavings, peat moss, or cane litter. The principal requirement is that the litter be stirred at frequent intervals and additions of hydrated lime and fresh litter be made as indicated by the condition of the litter, all of which will depend on the age, number of the birds and weather conditions.

How to Use Lime

The procedure followed by the Ohio Station at Wooster was to scatter the hydrated lime over the floor at the rate of 10 to 15 pounds per 100 square feet of floor space. In the laying house, the amount may be at the rate of 1 pound per layer. This was done at intervals of 2 to 4 weeks or longer, depending on the compaction and surface condition of the litter. Sometimes a light covering of fresh litter was scattered over the lime and both were stirred into the old litter.

Care should be taken to thoroughly mix the fresh lime into the litter; othewise, the unmixed lime on the surface of the litter may have a mild caustic effect on the chicks’ feet. During the intervals between additions of lime and fresh litter, a redistribution of the floor litter to the other less used parts of the floor should be made when the litter becomes packed or caked on certain floor areas, principally around the watering and feeding equipment. Sometimes it is well to remove the litter which is in the worst condition.

Under certain conditions, it may be necessary to thoroughly stir and redistribute the litter over the brooder house floor every 2 or 3 days, depending on the number and size of the chickens and the weather conditions. After the first 8 weeks, daily stirring is often advisable when weather or other conditions are unfavorable. Lime is seldom used or needed until after the first 4 or 5 weeks.

Insulation of the laying house is also an important aid in the solution of the problem of dampness in the floor litter in addition to the use of built-up floor litter and its treatment with lime.

[Note: Insulation reduces condensation on the walls and ceiling. A cheaper method, which also reduces ammonia levels, is simply to increase ventilation by providing plenty of open window space, eaves, vents, etc. Most non-commercial chicken coops these days are inadequately ventilated and need far more airflow, even in the depths of winder, and even when deep litter is not used.]

Long-Time Use

The same built-up floor litter has been successfully used in brooder houses at the Station’s poultry plant for six succeeding broods of chicks. Likewise, most of the layers are on built-up floor litter that started nearly 3 years ago. Thus far, no disadvantages have been experienced from the long-time use of the litter, either in brooder or laying houses. The older built-up litter is, of course, more effective for the prevention or control of dampness because of its greater depth. It appears the only need for removal is to keep it within convenient bounds.

[End of Article by Kennard and Chamberlin.]

Robert’s Experiences

Well, all this stuff from the Forties is sort of interesting, but how does it work today? Pretty well.

Because we use free range in portable houses without litter, we use deep litter only in our brooder houses. We have three small brooder houses (too small, really), all of which have concrete floors. One brooder house is set up to accommodate 12 inches or so of litter; the others can’t manage more than about 4 inches because deeper litter would rot out the walls.

The house with the deeper litter gives the least trouble, since it seems to be able to handle more moisure and absorb more manure. The other houses are less good.

Preparing the brooder house. We have used built-up litter for many years, and never remove all the litter. We rarely remove much litter at all. When a new batch of chicks is coming in, we’ll remove the caked litter altogether, rather than throwing it into a corner, but that’s about it. Then we put a thin layer of fresh litter on top of the old litter (thicker right under the brooder), and we’re ready for a new batch of chicks.

Daily litter management. When the surface of the litter cakes over (as it always does with broilers, less so with other breeds), we skim off the caked layer with a shovel or garden fork and toss it into a corner, creating an impromptu compost heap. In a few days, it will have composted to the point where it becomes just like all the other litter. It’s amazing how well this works!

After flooding. If the house floods (say, when an automatic waterer goes berserk), the litter doesn’t seem to care. It will act just the same as before once it dries out. Heaping it up in the middle of the house speeds this process up. I’ve also had reasonably good results from just putting a thick layer of shavings on top of the horrible soggy mess and finishing a brooding cycle that way, and heaping it all up in the middle of the brooder house once the chicks have been moved out.

The lime trick also works very well. But wear a mask.

Coccidiosis control. In our brooder houses, the deep litter isn’t 100% reliable as a preventative for coccidiosis. It probably helps a great deal, but our houses are small and they get super crowded if we don’t move the broilers out promptly at 14 days. We have so little maneuvering room in the house that we can’t always do a good job of decaking the floor. If we did this every single day, maybe we’d be coccidiosis-proof. I don’t know.

Other deep litter notes. If you want to use this technique, arranging your brooder area to give you plenty of elbow room will help. It’s important to decake the floor every day, which takes less than a minute if you’re set up right. Ideally you’ll use hanging feeders and waterers that can be raised out of the way, and being able to get the brooder out of the way easily is important, too.

Skim and toss the caked litter into the corner, along with any wet litter, and rake dry litter into any low spots you just created, and you’re done. This hardly takes any time at all.

Nutritional benefit. As for the nutritional benefit, it’s real but I wouldn’t rely on it. Don’t create unbalanced rations and trust to the litter to make up for the deficiencies: it doesn’t save enough money to be worthwhile. Using balanced rations always costs less in the long run. The nutritional benefit gives you a safety margin, and that’s enough.

You Need a Well-Ventilated House

While coccidia don’t like ammonia, neither do chickens. Your chicken house should allow quite a bit of airflow. Deep litter must be combined with a fresh-air poultry house. Closed housing will build up ammonia levels that are far too high. Even in the brooder house, ventilation is essential. Just keep the wind-chill factor down by limiting drafts at floor level, to prevent chilling the chicks.

For More Information

I publish poultry books full of this kind of old-timey yet rock-solid information under my Norton Creek Press label. I recommend:

FAQ: Simple Electric Fences for Chickens

To a lot of critters—raccoons, coyotes, bobcats, dogs—your free-range flock is a 24-hour all-you-can-eat chicken buffet. Maybe, must maybe,  the local predators are afraid to run off with your chickens today. But it won’t last.

Trust me on this. I have been almost put out of business by predation several times. If it weren’t for the techniques described here, I wouldn’t have any chickens today.

What worked for me? Simple electric fences. Really simple electric fences.

One-Wire and Two-Wire Electric Fences

Two-wire electric fence for chickensThis kind of electric fence, with just one or two wires, we developed over 60 years ago. It is commonly used to keep raccoons out of gardens and all kinds of predators out of chicken yards.

In it’s one-wire incarnation, the single wire is about 5″ off the ground. If you use a second wire, put it about 10″ off the ground.

You wouldn’t think such a low wire would work, but it does. Predators keep low to the ground when they’re sneaking around, and many aren’t really all that big to begin with: foxes, bobcats, and raccoons, for instance. But dogs and coyotes are also deterred by even the one-wire fence.

In the picture, you can see one of my two-wire fences. It’s just two strands of inexpensive aluminum fence wire held up with step-in fence posts. This is about the cheapest and easiest to set up fence you can imagine.

It surprises people that such an electric fence will keep chickens in and predators out, but it works! It helps that predators generally sniff at anything new they find, so they will get their noses zapped by a fence wire they could easily step over. That’s generally all it takes.

One thing I love about these fences is that you can simply step over them. No gates! When driving a tractor or pickup past them, it’s best to uproot a couple of step-in fence posts so the wires lie on the ground, so they won’t be snagged by the vehicle. This takes less than a minute.

The key to success here is to use plenty of step-in fence posts, especially if your ground isn’t perfectly level. If the wire is too high or too low, both predators and chickens will have no trouble getting past it. Fortunately, a step-in fence post only costs a couple of bucks, and aluminum fence wire is a real bargain, too. A quarter-mile spool (enough to fence 40 acres) cost around $30 the last time I checked.

A Fence That Leaks, But in a Good Way

If you’ve ever had a predator get into a chicken yard fenced in with chicken wire, you know that the the predator can kill every single chicken: they can’t escape. Worse, when panicked, chickens forget that their chicken-wire fence even exists and will try to rush right through it. Their heads and necks will make it through okay, but their bodies are too big, and they’ll be stuck in the fence like darts in a dartboard, waiting for the predator to pick them off at its leisure.

If a fox or other predator makes it into a yard protected by a one-wire or two-fire electric fence, the drama starts out the same way, but the chickens pass beyond the fence without a pause and rush off squawking into the distance. Because the flock scatters to the four winds, the predator is left with an empty yard, and is once more on the opposite side of an electric fence from its prey. Instead of killing your entire flock killed, it gets only one or two.

Not only that, but the chickens who left the yard will return around dusk and cross the fence a second time to get home. They won’t like it, but they’ll do it.

But, yes, sometimes a few of your chickens will learn to get past the fence on purpose, and free-range somewhere else for a few hours until returning home. In short, these one-wire and two-wire fences aren’t 100% effective. They’re more like 98% effective—or maybe only 95% effective if you make it easy and attractive for the chickens to escape.

Minimizing escapees:

  • If you fence a large area, fewer chickens will escape.
  • If the chickens never run out of feed, fewer will escape.
  • If you keep your coops away from the edge of the fenced area, fewer will escape.
  • If the voltage on the fence remains high, fewer will escape.
  • If there aren’t any places where the chickens can duck under the wire or step over it, fewer will escape.

So this isn’t a magical anti-chicken barrier the way a chicken run walled and roofed with chicken wire can be. On my farm, it usually contains well over 95% of the chickens. We can reach 100% for a while if we get rid of the few habitual escapees.

What to Expect at First

At first, the chickens won’t respect the fence, since it just looks like a random obstacle to them. Also, their feathers are good insulators, so they get zapped mostly when they touch the fence with their feet or combs. This means they won’t get zapped every time. More like one time in four.

This lengthens the learning process. It’ll be several days before all the chickens are on the right side of the fence. But after a while they act as if it’s a glass wall. If I carry a bucket of feed to a hungry flock, they’ll come running as soon as they see me, but stop just short of the fence. They’ll wait impatiently for me to join them on their side of the fence.

Predators learn more quickly, since they investigate anything new with their noses.

In my experience, dogs and coyotes are terrified of electric fences. I once watched a coyote chase a hen that had strayed outside the fence. The frightened hen ran back to the flock, passing through the two-fire fence as if it didn’t exist. But the coyote went from running all-out to a sudden dead stop when it got close to the fence. It had learned its lesson well!

Raccoons seem to be without fear, and are willing to prowl the perimeter of a fence, looking for high spots or low spots that will let it in.

I’m not sure about bobcats. I think some of them learn to leap fences, but I’ve never seen this. Usually the fences keep them out.

History of One-Wire Poultry Fences

I first learned about this type of fence in a 1960 article describing Arbor Acres’ use of a single-wire fence to protect pullets raised on free range. Before the single-wire fence, they had employees spending hours every day opening doors on range houses in the morning and closing them at night. The simplicity of the fence was important to them because their pullet flocks occupied many acres, making permanent fencing prohibitive.

I later came across references to the same technique from the 1950’s, where similar fences were used as an anti-fox measure for British free-range breeding flocks.

Like many excellent techniques, these fences was forgotten after the industry shifted to confinement.

Electric Poultry Net Fencing

Electric fence using electrified polywire netting (electronet)
Premier poultry netting.

Electrified net fencing is sometimes necessary to stop stubborn predators or to keep chicken inside when they must be fenced tightly.

It’s more expensive than using simple wire fences, and if left in the same place for too long, grass will grow through the bottom wires, making it almost impossible to remove. Still, it has its uses.

My wife Karen likes electronetting more than I do. For one thing, I trip over it. For another, I hate moving fences, and electronet has to be moved more frequently. It also shorts out more easily than wire fences. But it’s a more serious, more physical barrier, which makes a difference. (One difference is that it’s a barrier to farmers as well. I sometimes trip over netting fences.)

Karen uses electric net fences to protect her broiler areas, while I prefer use one- and two-wire fences for our hens. This works well because broilers won’t use a lot of space anyway, and we use daily-move pens and have to shift the electronetting frequently, preventing the grass from entangling the fence. Our hens get much more elbow room and the fences are shifted more rarely.

My personal favorite it the kind they call “garden fencing.” This comes in rolls about sixteen inches high, and can easily be stepped over. The usual electronetting, designed to keep sheep in, is about four feet high and is a real barrier to the farmer.

The best electric fencing comes from Premier.

Combination Fencing

Chickens can be fenced by adding an electric wire to an existing fence.
Photo from Patriot Electric Fencing.

The other option is to add electric fence wire to existing permanent fences on the farm. This works very well. The most important wire is the one closest to the ground, which should be 4-6 inches off the ground, as with single-wire fences. Another wire at the top can provide an unpleasant surprise to climbing predators. I use plastic nail-on insulators on wooden fenceposts and clip-on insulators for T-posts.

I prefer aluminum wire for most jobs, but not here. Why? Because you’ll need to keep the fenceline weed-free with a weed-whacker, which will dish out more abuse than aluminum fence wire cant take. Use heavy-duty galvanized fence wire instead.

In my experience, it doesn’t seem to matter which electric fence insulators you use, or which brand of aluminum fence wire, but I think Red Brand makes a superior grade of galvanized wire.

Electric Fence Chargers: Bigger is Better

The ultra-powerful Parmak Super Energizer 5 fence charger.
The ultra-powerful Parmak Super Energizer 5 fence charger.

To energize the electric fence you need a fence charger. I prefer very powerful AC-powered energizers. The bottom wires of these chicken fences are close to the ground. They’re quickly shorted out by grass, weeds, or molehills. It takes a powerful fence charger to keep adequate voltage on the fence in the face of these everyday challenges. My favorite fence charger is the Parmak Super Energizer 5.

I think it’s better to string thousands of feet of wire along the farm than to use battery-powered chargers, which just aren’t powerful enough. I’ve used 2×4’s up on end to get the wire ten or twelve feet up in the air when it crosses gates, or insulated wire buried a few inches underground across the gateway. Otherwise, I just run the wires along the top of the posts of my farm’s perimeter fence.

I prefer energizers with built-in voltmeters, so I can see at a glance if the voltage has fallen into the red zone. In general, this means I buy Parmak units, because most of the others don’t have meters. My favorite model is their “Super Energizer,” which is very powerful indeed. That’s what I use on the front pasture to protect the laying hens. The “Maxi-Power” line is also good, though less powerful.

If you insist on buying a battery-powered or solar charger, get a 12V unit. The 6V units have minimum zap, which means they can be shorted out by a few blades of grass. I was pretty happy with Parmak’s most powerful 12V charger. This “weatherpoof” unit only lasted about five years when exposed to the elements, so putting a a roof or a five-gallon bucket over it might be a good idea.

Premier also makes excellent chargers. Karen likes them better than Parmak, and that’s what she’s using on the back forty to protect the broilers (my super-long wire from the barn to the back forty has been mothballed). She uses a Premier Intellishock 50, which is a 12V battery-powered unit.

I doubt that solar chargers are worth the extra cost, but then I’m in Western Oregon, which has a lot of cloud cover. The convenience of not having to monitor and lug around batteries is worth paying money for, but you get even more convenience by putting an AC-powered charger in the barn and stringing a wire all the way to the back forty.

The hardest part of installation is getting a good ground connection. I prefer pounding in ground rods along the drip line of my barn’s roof.

It really helps to have the units placed so you can see the meters easily when you wander in and out of the barn.

When Fences Fail

When a clever predator learns how to get past my fences (of whatever kind), I turn to trapping. I find snares effective and relatively simple. I found Hal Sullivan’s book, Snaring 2000, to be very useful.

I find that predators are OCD, especially bobcats, following exactly the same path night after night, and by the time you’ve lost a few chickens they’ve created an obvious game trail. This means that you can set snares to target an individual, chicken-eating predator, without declaring war on the entire animal kingdom.

I’ve shot predators from time to time, but only for coyotes that are dumb enough to present themselves during the day. At night, I want my beauty sleep.

I’ve found live traps to be far less effective than snares, and I’m baffled by leg-hold traps.

Final tip: if you can use snares inside your perimeter fence, your results will be less random.

FAQ: Egg Washing

If you raise chickens, you get some dirty eggs. Is egg washing okay, and, if so, how? And how can you minimize the number of dirty eggs? Read on! I’ll cover the basic egg cleaning concepts, how to wash eggs by hand, and what you need to know about both homemade and commercial egg washing machines.

1. Is it okay to wash eggs?

little_girl_washing_eggsIt’s okay by me! Some jurisdictions have laws forbidding you to wash any eggs that you’re going to sell. Some have laws requiring that you wash any eggs you’re going to sell. I’ll go into that further on.

But face it, some eggs you collect from your flock will be too dirty to use unless you wash them first. You can always throw them away (and with the very worst ones, that’s often your best bet), but you’ll have plenty of eggs that are too dirty to use but not dirty enough to throw away.

2. Wait, aren’t eggs protected by a mystical-magical “bloom” that is removed by washing?

The “bloom” (or “cuticle”) is a mucous film on the outside of the eggshell. It’s nothing to get excited about, even if you’re into mucous.

But yes, it’s true that washing removes this slime layer. But the only real-world significance of the bloom is that washed eggs lose moisture a little faster than unwashed eggs. Producers used to put a very light spray of mineral oil on the eggs to reduce evaporation. As far as I can tell, no one can tell the difference if they keep their eggs in the refrigerator, and maybe not if they keep their eggs on the shelf.

Once, as an experiment, I kept some washed and unwashed eggs in my basement, unrefrigerated, for six weeks. I couldn’t tell the two groups apart. Both had declined to Grade B quality (runny whites, fragile yolks) but were still edible.

3. How do I wash dirty eggs?

There are only a few points you need to remember when cleaning eggs:

  • The “dirt” on dirty eggs is usually manure. Thus, a dirty egg is likely to drop flakes of manure into your frying pan. I like my food natural, but not that natural. The outside of such an egg is obviously swarming with bacteria. A dirty egg will thus go bad faster than an egg that was never dirty.
  • If the washing process draws live bacteria into the interior of the eggs, the eggs go bad as quickly as unwashed dirty eggs, and maybe faster.
  • If the washing process keeps the bacteria on the surface, or kills them, or both, the washed eggs go bad as slowly as eggs that were never dirty, or even slower.
  • When using cold water as part of the process, the cold water chills the egg and the egg’s contents contract. To fill this space, air, water, or dirt are sucked into the egg through the pores in the shell.
  • But if the water is warmer than the egg, it causes the contents of the egg to expand, and air, water, or dirt are pushed out of the pores of the egg and into the wash water.

The take-aways are:

  • Always wash eggs in water that’s significantly warmer than the eggs.
  • Sanitize the eggshells to kill any bacteria on the shell. I rinse with diluted bleach. Some people prefer quaternary ammonia or even very hot water.

4. How should I wash eggs by hand?

Plastic watering cans are good for egg washing.
Plastic watering cans are good for egg washing.

Buying a commercial egg washer isn’t to everyone’s taste (or budget), so here’s an egg-washing technique that ought to be acceptable everywhere in the US, even by the strict USDA standards:


  1. Clean your work area before starting, and have a trash container for paper towels and broken eggs, and make sure you have a sink nearby that’s not full of eggs, so you can wash your hands when they get dirty, which they will.

    Egg wash powder can be purchased online.
    Egg wash powder can be purchased online.
  2. Get one or more large plastic watering cans.
  3. Fill a watering can with water at about 100 °F (35 C), a little unscented detergent (you can buy “egg wash powder” or use unscented commercial dishwasher detergent), and enough bleach to bring the free chlorine to 100-200 ppm.  Chlorine test strips can be bought at any wholesale grocery or restaurant supply store.

    Chlorine test strips tell you whether your sanitizer mix is in the right range.
    Chlorine test strips tell you whether your sanitizer mix is in the right range.
  4. With your dirty eggs in wire egg baskets or plastic washer flats, water them generously with the watering can. Allow the water to go down the drain. Letting the eggs stand in water violates USDA rules (though this may not apply to you), and tends to give rise to the same problems seen in immersion washers, as discussed later on.
  5. Let them sit for a couple of minutes. If the eggs are particularly disgusting, you might want to wet them again after a couple of minutes.
  6. Take the eggs one at a time and wipe them with a paper towel. If the eggs are too dry to wipe clean, pour some of your unused wash water onto a clean paper towel. You can dip a brand-new towel in the water, but once the towel has touched and egg, don’t dip it again; we want to keep the water clean. Discard the towels as they become dirty. Cloth towels are against everyone’s rules because people keep using them after they’re dirty. Put the cleaned eggs into another wire basket or washer flat. You may want to have a separate area for stubborn eggs that need to be sprayed and rubbed again.
  7. Next comes a sanitizing spray. A watering can with 100 ºF water and bleach at 100-200 ppm is good.  Don’t stint; use plenty of water. This gets them cleaner, and the bleach helps make the stains go away.
  8. Dry the eggs in some responsible manner. They’ll stick to the cartons if you box them while wet. Some people dry them on racks, using ½ in. hardware cloth on a wooden frame, or lay them out on a clean towel. Putting the eggs directly in the refrigerator, still in their baskets or washer flats, is the simplest method.  The refrigerator will cool and dry them at the same time. Don’t be alarmed if some parts of the egg seem darker than others; the parts of the egg that are in contact with a flat or another egg will dry more slowly than the the exposed portions, and will look darker. This will vanish when the egg is completely dry.
  9. Once the eggs are dry, pack them into egg cartons or flats.

5. Can I avoid using a chemical sanitizer?

The simplest method of egg washing is as follows, and it’s also sanitizer-free:

  • Fill a metal bucket with 160 °F (70 C) water and the detergent of your choice (it should be food-grade, non-sudsing, and unscented. I like commercial dishwasher detergent.) This water is hot enough to badly scald you, so be careful.
  • Slowly pour the water over a basket full of eggs, allowing the water to go down the drain.
  • Don’t let the eggs stand in the water or they’ll cook (not to mention that allowing eggs to stand in water violates the rules of the USDA and many states).

That’s it. The water is hot enough to sanitize the eggshells without added chemicals. This method doesn’t work as well as one where the eggs are wiped, such as in the Aquamagic (using rotating brushes) or the watering-can technique (wiping by hand with paper towels), but it ought to be okay on eggs that are only lightly soiled. It’s certainly simple, provided you have an adequate supply of very hot water.

CAUTION: 160 °F water is hot enough to scald you, and splashing yourself is not an experience you’ll forget in a hurry.

6. What kinds of egg washers exist?

There are all kinds of commercial egg-cleaning machines, some quite enormous, washing eggs on an industrial scale. Other egg washers are quite small. And you can build your own small egg washer without much difficulty.

For wet-process egg cleaning, we can divide the field into immersion washers and spray washers. Immersion washers are cheap. Spray washers are better, but more expensive: they handle a lot more eggs per hour and get the eggs  cleaner. There’s also  dry egg cleaning, using something like sandpaper, which I’ll discuss later on.

I use an 1960s-era Aquamagic egg washer, shown below. Versions of this machine are still being manufactured, now called Sani-Touch. See my Aquamagic page for videos and more information.

I recommend that you start small in the egg business, which probably means that you should start with an immersion washer, or hand washing, or dry washing. Don’t go investing your retirement savings in a fancy washer yet.

Egg washing is a mature technology. The issues have been understood since the Thirties. However, early egg-washing machinery ran afoul of human nature. The old immersion-style washers worked superbly when run according to the instructions, especially if the water was dumped and replaced between each basket of eggs. But human nature is such that people can’t resist running “just one more basket” through the washer. Sanitizers are ineffective when used in dirty water, and eggs sanitized in dirty water spoil quickly.

This sort of thing has given egg-washing a bad reputation, even though egg washers that have none of these problems have been available for over fifty years, and proper egg-washing techniques have been well-known for over eighty years.

In the US, USDA-inspected eggs must be washed. In the EU, washing commercial eggs is forbidden. Go figure.

7. What should I know about immersion-type egg washers?

five gallon bucket for egg washing
A full-sized wire egg basket holds up to 15 dozen eggs.

What’s an immersion egg washer? In its simplest form, an immersion washer is pretty much a bucket of warm soapy water that you lower a basket of eggs into, plus some means of agitating the water, such as by twirling the basket or sloshing it gently up and down by hand.

five gallon bucket for egg washing
A five-gallon galvanized buicket is slightly larger than a full-sized egg basket.

A standard five-gallon galvanized bucket is slightly larger than a standard egg basket, so you can give this a try at almost no expense.

This actually works pretty well, and you should think twice before doing anything much more expensive and elaborate.

The next step in terms of fanciness is to add some kind of agitation to replace the hand-sloshing step. This often takes the form of a perforated tube at the bottom of the bucket, hooked up to an air compressor. The bubbles keep everything moving, as shown in this video:

kuhl_immersion_egg_washer.Fancier immersion washers don’t really work any better than this, but they can cost over $1,500. I once owned a Kuhl immersion washer like the one pictured here. I didn’t like it. I found it much harder to use than the “bucket and bubbler” method, and it was about 50 times more expensive.

Some immersion washers have water heating elements, but I think this is a problem, not a feature. If you have more than a few dozen eggs to wash, you can’t wait for the water to heat up in the bucket: you need to dump the dirty water and replace it with water that’s already hot. Time is money. And an ordinary household water heater is perfect for this job, so where’s the problem? But without plenty of hot water, you’ll be reluctant to dump the bucket as soon as you should, and your eggs will go bad in your customers’ refrigerators.

The USDA does not allow immersion washers for eggs under their inspection. Last time I checked, different states had different rules for non-USDA-inspected producers. My State, Oregon, does not allow the use of immersion washers under any circumstances.

Where immersion washing is allowed, do yourself a favor and add a final sanitizing step, where you spray a sanitizing solution over the eggs after you pull the egg basket out of the wash water. A large plastic watering can with hot water and chlorine at 100-200 ppm works fine for this. Sprinkle liberal amounts over the eggs in the basket.

Of course, immersion washers leave the eggs wet. Don’t pack them into cartons until they’re dry, or they’ll stick. But immersion washing leaves the eggs quite warm, and they’ll dry pretty quickly, even in the basket, but with small damp patches where the eggs touch each other. My favorite method is to simply put the wet basket in the refrigerator and pack the eggs into cartons later, when they’re dry.

In any event, you don’t have to use immersion washers. The method I give later on for hand-washing eggs works better than immersion washers, and doesn’t violate any USDA rules. It’s suitable for kitchen-sink egg-washing.

8. What should I know about spray-type egg washers?

aquamagic_sani-touch_egg_cleanerThe spray-type egg washers don’t immerse the eggs. Instead, they use a water spray that runs down the drain. This “total-loss” system prevents the bacteria from a contaminated egg from contaminating other eggs. The water spray is generally warm water with detergent and a sanitizer.

Spray-type washers almost always use rotating brushes as well, making them a lot like a car wash for eggs. The eggs come out dry, ready to be packet onto egg flats or into egg cartons immediately. This simplifies the whole process.

The best way of washing eggs is with an Sani-Touch/AquaMagic candler-washer-dryer-grader machine. Everyone I know with a farm flock bigger than 200 hens either considers these machines indispensable, or lusts after one. These are expensive, with simple washer/dryer models starting at around $6,000 new, but they have been in continuous production for around 50 years, so old ones can sometimes be found for between $1,000 and $2,000 by putting an ad in you regional farm newspaper. Beware, though, that such units are often decrepit. The machines are complex and are hard to figure out if more than one thing is broken.

10. How can I clean eggs without making them wet?

Sanding sponges, used dry, are a simple way to clean eggs.

Dry cleaning. Washing eggs in water is a lot more complicated than dry cleaning with abrasives. You can clean up lightly soiled eggs with various abrasives. Sanding sponges from 3M and others are good, and can be found in any hardware store. Loofas are also good. Some people use sandpaper or steel wool, but these aren’t as good as the first two.

Loofahs are also good for dry cleaning eggs.

Basically, you rub the egg until it’s clean, or you give up, or it breaks in your hand. This happens more often than you’d think, because dirty eggs are often cracked as well.

Dry cleaning doesn’t work very well to clean up eggs that have been smeared with the white or yolk of broken eggs in the nest.

Whatever tools you use to clean the eggs, wash and sanitize them from time to time.  Clean loofas or sanding sponges in soap and water, sanitize them in water with a little bit of bleach, then allow to dry.

These methods of cleaning are slow and tedious. They are suitable for small flocks, but when you have significant numbers of eggs to sell, the labor involved in cleaning the dirty ones can become a big barrier to success and satisfaction. If you want to have a small commercial flock on your farm, you will almost certainly want to look into wet cleaning.

11. What about mechanical dry-process egg washing machines?

Various dry-process egg-cleaning machines have been made, using sandpaper to scour the eggs. These have a tendency to turn the manure adhering to the eggs into a cloud of fine powder, which I wouldn’t breathe if I were you! I’ve never used one of these machines.

12. How do I prevent dirty eggs?

It’s typical for about 30% of your eggs to be dirty when collected. Washing eggs is tedious, so it helps if you prevent as many dirty eggs as possible.  Ways to reduce dirty eggs include:

  • Prevent hens from sleeping in the nest boxes. Chickens want to sleep at the highest point available, so you can save yourself trouble by installing roosts that are quite a bit higher than your nest boxes. Once you’ve dealt with that, hens who stay in the nest box at night are probably broody.  They should be kept in a broody coop (a cage with a wire floor) for three or four days.  A broody coop is so unlike a nest that it tends to cure them of broodiness in three or four days. Give them food and water or they’ll go into a molt.
  • Prevent hens from entering the nests with muddy feet. This is especially troublesome for hens with outdoor access.  If there’s a broad stretch of litter (straw or wood shavings) on the floor between the henhouse door and the nest boxes, their feet will be less muddy. Also, if you arrange it so they have to walk across a shallow tray filled with powdered gypsum, powdered limestone (not hydrated lime or quicklime — those are caustic!) or diatomaceous earth before entering the nest boxes, their feet will get coated with powder and won’t leave marks on the eggs. Replacing the perches on the nest boxes with trays about four inches wide will work.
  • Prevent broken Eggs. Nests with insufficient nest litter or with too many hens jammed in at once will have broken eggs. These eggs are not only a total loss in themselves, but add a messy, hard-to-clean coating on other eggs.  I think that nests that are unusually wide and have unusually deep litter work very well.  I removed half of the partitions from a pair of 8′ nest boxes, leaving them with holes two feet wide instead of one foot wide, and this worked very well.  If the front boards on nest boxes are 6-8″ high instead of the traditional 4″ high, you can pile in a lot more litter.  If you use relatively heavy litter such as straw or wood chips, the hens don’t scratch it all out of the box as quickly as wood shavings.
  • Reduce traffic. Every time a hen enters the nest box or moves around while inside, there’s a chance of an egg breaking.  Darkening the nests makes the hens less active. Turning the nest boxes around to face the wall or darkening the front with flaps of plastic tarp work well. Using community nests or tunnel nests also works. Finally, roll-out nests allow the eggs to roll into a collection area away from the hens.

More Resources

FAQ: Baby Chick Care

Getting started with baby chicks? Robert Plamondon, author of Success With Baby Chicks, tells you what you need to know.

1. How should I brood day-old chicks?

For a complete list of steps, see my baby chick checklist.

Baby chicks in their mailing boxBaby chicks need an external source of heat. Naturally brooded chicks are warmed by nestling against their mothers. Groups of chicks can maintain body heat by huddling together, which is why day-old chicks can be shipped by mail.

People brooding fewer than 1,000 chicks at once generally use electric brooders.

Large commerical poultry operations generally use big propane brooders with a central brooder and a metal canopy, or hover, that retains the heat. Each brooder handles up 1,000 or more chicks.

I wrote the book on baby chicks!
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It is possible to brood chicks without supplemental heat in an insulated box with feathers or flaps of cloth hanging from the ceiling, retaining their body heat allowing huddling to work more effectively. But such brooders are tricky to use and less effective than ones that supply external heat.

Brooding needs to be performed in an area where floor drafts, predators, unsupervised children, and cats can be excluded. Some people brood their chicks in their homes, but after trying this myself, I can’t recommend it. The smell isn’t too bad for the first week, but it becomes really repulsive after that! And the entire room containing the chicks becomes coated with a dust composed largely of dried chick manure.

Brooders always present a certain amount of fire hazard, so there’s a lot to be said for brooding the chicks in isolated, cheaply constructed brooder houses with metal roofs.

Brooder houses generally have litter on the floor, preferably with a layer of softwood shavings at least four inches thick. Wire-floored “battery brooders” can also be used.  These use wire floors with a droppings pan underneath. They are very easy to use, and the chicks do well in them, but they smell worse than the other kinds of brooders.

2. What kind of brooder should I use?

Many of the suggested brooder arrangements and even some commercial brooders assume that the chicks are in a heated room. This includes the classic “60-watt lamp in a coffee can” brooder, battery brooders, and even the electric hover brooder sold by GQF. If you have a heated room to put these brooder in, fine. If not, you need something more powerful.

A 250-watt heat lamp suspended 18-24 inches over the brooding area that is completely surrounded by a draft guard 12-18 inches high will brood 75 chicks at 50 °F minimum room temperature. (If the minimum temperature is higher, you can add one chick for each degree. If the minimum temperature is lower, subtract one chick per degree.) This method works very well, but is absolutely dependent on the presence of an effective draft guard, which you can make out of cardboard, plywood, roofing paper, or whatever.

The heat lamp must be high enough that all the chicks can sprawl out in its warmth. If it’s too low, they’ll push and shove to get into the beam. If it’s too high, they’ll let you know because of the ear-splitting peeps the emit when they’re cold.

Set your heat lamp up correctly, following my brooder-lamp safety tips. Make sure the bulb can’t fall to the ground.  It can set litter on fire if it comes within a few inches of it. Hang it with a chain, and arrange it so the cord acts as a safety line in case it falls off the chain somehow.  You can buy commecial brooder lamp holders that have a couple of  curved wires in front of the bulb so it won’t touch the litter even if it falls to the floor. Don’t use the crummy clamp lights you find at the hardware store: they fall down (or fall apart) if you look at them sideways.

Correct use of brooder lamp (Picture from mailorderpoultry.com
Correct use of brooder lamp (Picture from mailorderpoultry.com

A better brooder uses heat lamps mounted horizontally in a plywood brooder box insulated with shavings heaped on top. Read how to build an insulated brooder in a couple of hours. It uses only a third the electricity per chick as a heat lamp, is less dependent on the brooder guard, and is excellent for cold-weather brooding. This type of brooder is very easy and cheap to build and has quite a track record (it was introduced in 1940).

Insulated baby chick brooder
The insulated heat-lamp brooder is a simple plywood box on four short legs, with two heat lamps. Insulation is provided by piling wood shavings on top.

3. How do I set up my brooder area for baby chicks?

Prepare your brooder area before the chicks arrive and fire up the brooder 24 hours in advance. The litter under the brooder must be warm and dry to the touch before the chicks arrive. The entire brooder house doesn’t have to be heated; in fact, you can brood successfully if the brooder house is well below freezing so long as the brooder is powerful enough to keep the area under the hover warm. In a very cold house,  you need to put the waterers so they’re right next to the hover so the escaping heat will keep the water from freezing.

In cold weather, it’s doubly important to prevent floor drafts through the use of draft guards about 12-18 inches high that encircle the brooder. This keeps drafts away and keeps the baby chicks from wandering too far from the hover. The colder the weather, the closer the draft guard should be to the heat, extending no more than two feet from the brooder. In hot weather, where overheating is a possibility, the draft guard can be larger, or it can be made of wire mesh instead of cardboard, so it keeps the chicks near the brooder without stopping drafts.

chicks-under-brooderBaby chicks should have water available right way. It should be warm; day-old chicks are easily chilled. I use one-quart chick waterers placed on 3/4″ or 1.5″ thick lumber scraps about 4 inches square. This keeps the waterers from sinking too far into the litter. You want the waterers pretty close to the floor, though, because chicks have no instinct to search for water much above ground level. The quart waterers are just bases that screw onto one-quart mason jars. You can buy plastic jars, but they should not be used because thirsty chicks are attracted to the glass, which looks like water. Use 4-6 quart waterers per 100 chicks.

The chicks have a tendency to get soaked in waterers with wide bowls for the first day or two, and will die of chilling when this happens. It’s better to use little waterers at first. After a few days, you can put in regular waterers without risk. Remove the little waterers at a rate of one per day, so the chicks have plenty of time to learn about the new fixtures.

Ideally, the chicks should be fed about three hours after they’ve been placed in the brooder. This gives them time to drink first. Chicks tend to be dehydrated, and it helps a little if they drink before they eat. If you can’t absolutely positively be around three hours later, though, feed them at once. Their first feed should be given on flattish surfaces at ground level, since their instinct is to stand over (or in) their food and pick it up from ground level. The box lids from chick shipping boxes are the traditional first feeders, but egg flats are also good. Use one egg flat per fifty chicks.  Some people just use a single thickness of newspaper to put the feed on. In any event, you want about one square foot per fifty chicks, and you want to put a thick layer of feed on it. The chicks will waste a lot of it, but this will only go on for a few days.

I like to have the regular feeders set up and filled from the very beginning. Other people add them at three days or so. Starting after three days, you gradually taper off the amount of feed put into the first feeders, and quit using them altogether at a week or so.

4. How do I avoid sick chicks?

The main threat to growing chicks is coccidiosis. Coccidiosis is an intestinal parasite that exists just about everywhere. It can take a heavy toll on chicks, starting from about three weeks of age. The parasite multiplies greatly in the gut of the chick, and vast numbers of “oocycsts” (think of them as eggs) come out in the manure. Chicks raised on litter floors scratch and peck at the litter, looking for food, and become infected. The explosive multiplication of the coccidia can lead to dead, stunted, and sick chicks.

Chicks that are exposed to only low levels of coccidia become immune without becoming sick.

Control is achieved by breaking the coccidiosis reproductive cycle. Chicks raised on wire floors don’t get coccidiosis becuase they don’t have enough contact with manure. Chicks raised on free range from a very early age tend not to get it because they also don’t have enough exposure. Chicks raised on old litter (used for at least six months) tend not to get it because the litter eventually harbors miscroscopic creatures that eat coccidia. Medicated chick starter contains drugs that suppress coccidia directly.

Wet litter, crowding, intermittent feeding, and any type of stress tend to increase coccidiosis. (If the feeders are empty, the chicks will spend more time nosing around in the litter.)

Like most diseases, coccidiosis outbreaks are hit-or-miss, with some flocks seemingly hit for no good reason, while others escape unscathed even when conditions are ripe for an outbreak.

If you have an outbreak of coccidiosis, switch to medicated chick starter immediately. (A lot of people don’t like the idea of using medicated feed, and are narcissistic enough to  let their chickens suffer and die instead of doing anything about it. Don’t be like them! Once coccidiosis symptoms appear, you’ve already lost your chance to raise a drug-free flock. Do the right thing and end the suffering by treating the disease.

And no, non-drug interventions like the “milk-flush” method don’t work. Next time, try brooding only half as many chicks. The less you crowd ’em, the less trouble you’ll have.

Birds in pasture pens, on free range, and in cages rarely develop coccidiosis, but confined and yarded birds are at risk. While coccidiosis generally affects chicks, it can affect hens who have not been exposed early in life, and thus have no immunity.

Treating Coccidiosis.

Anti-coccidial drugs are very effective. At the very least, a flock of chicks that is looking poorly and are in the coccidiosis danger zone (3-7 weeks) ought to be switched to medicated chick starter immediately. This will be most effective if you do it right away, because medicated chick starter has low doses that are designed to prevent coccidiosis, not cure it. With a serious outbreak, you need to put a coccidiostat in the water, since sick chicks that will not eat will still drink.

A little sermon. A lot of people believe that drug substitutes such as garlic and herbs and spices are as effective as drugs, but they are not. They may have some value as a preventative, just as exercise may have value in preventing heart attacks in humans, but only a few of us would make someone having a heart attack out to run around the block.

It’s not the salad mixin’s in the feed or the geraniums in the window boxes that keep baby chicks healthy, it’s basic maintenance. If they get sick, head into the coop and fix everything that’s not right: wipe the waterers clean, remove wet litter, keep manure out of the feeders, and make sure the chicks have easy access to plenty of actual chick feed that’s actually nutritionally balanced.

And no matter how many ground-up unicorns and rainbows went into the feed you’re using, replace it with Purina medicated chick starter, or some other standard brand.

5. What should I feed baby chicks?

For the first two days (only), it’s a good idea to feed baby chicks nothing but chick scratch or cracked corn. If brooder or shipping temperatures are too low or too variable (or if there is a draft that chills the chicks), chicks tend to “paste up” and have dried feces (or “poop,” as it is technically known)  attached to their rears, which can plug up the works and even kill them. A whole-grain diet for the first couple of days reduces the volume of poop and reduces the problem. After two days, chick starter should gradually replace the grain. This can be done by feeding grain in the first feeders and chick starter in the regular feeders.

In general, chicks need to be fed a balanced diet, which means one that’s been formulated by a poultry nutritionist, not one of the harebrained recipes that you’ll find floating around the Web.

Chicks, like older poultry, can balance their own diets pretty accurately if offered a variety of foodstuffs, but all of the ingredients have to be available in palatable form. This is mostly a game that’s played with older chickens. In the brooder house, it’s best to rely on a nutritionally balanced chick starter.

If you are raising broilers, use a broiler feed such as Purina’s Flock Raiser or Nutrena’s Meatbird. We’ve had excellent results with both. Birds raised in confinement beyond three weeks should be fed medicated feed from the start. Birds moved to free range early in life will do fine on non-medicated feed.

If you want to mix your own feed—don’t. If you insist, you will need a vitamin/mineral premix to supply all the nutrients that are hard to find an an affordable, palatable form. Most small producers who custom-mix their own feed use a recipe from Fertrell Corp. along with Fertrell’s Nutri-Balancer premix.

6. How much brooder space should I use? How much floor space?

black baby chicks with waterersI recommend 10-14 chicks per square foot of brooder canopy. Manufacturers often exaggerate the capacity of a brooder, giving the number of chicks it can handle at one day of age, and not mentioning that they will need much more brooder space in a week or two. If you crowd the brooder, all will be well for the first two or three weeks. After that, the chicks will outgrow the brooder and there may be deaths due to crowding as they stuggle and fight to get into the heat. If this happens, reduce the number of chicks per brooder next time, and, for the current batch, increase the heated area — for example, by using a heat lamp and raising it high enough that the warmed area is large enough to hold all the chicks comfortably. This will work even though the higher bulb will provide a lower floor temperature. With box brooders, raise them up on blocks to increase the transition area between the warm inside and the cold outside.

It’s best to use at least half a square foot of floor space per chick for the first two weeks and one square foot after that. You can get away with less—most of the time, sort of—but crowding is a trouble magnet. It causes problems to appear that simply wouldn’t happen with more space, and they get out of control fast. With crowding, you’re more likely to see cannibalism, coccidiosis, piling (where frightened chicks crowd into corners and suffocate each other), wet litter, ammonia smells, runts, dirtiness, and death.

Try one square foot of floor space with your first batch of baby chicks to avert disaster while you’re still learning the ropes.

7. I have more questions!

Great—I have more answers. It’s all in my book, Success With Baby Chicks.

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