Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Summer Heat and Animal Safety

Always Remember - Animals are Fragile!

The temperatures are rising outdoors and this means the additional danger of high heat comes with it. Our pet's health should be on the forefront of our concerns. I made a fatal mistake this week with my flock and this is something I am going to be upset about for quite some time. I feel the need to share it so that others do not make the same mistake I did. Prevent animal tragedies by studying the environment they will be sheltered in BEFORE you move them into that location.

Do not ever forget HEAT KILLS!

A Backyard Flock

I am already experienced with egg laying hens and this year I thought I should learn all I could about chickens. This included the butchering process. I brought home four birds including two Cornish Rock hens in March. I now know that I do not possess the mind or heart that can do what needs to be done for a fresh chicken dinner. I can catch, clean, and eat a fish, no problem, but chickens are not something I can kill. I'm ok with that. The thought about getting these birds ready for the table was looming over me like a bad dream. What happened yesterday proves I am not capable of dressing a bird unless it is of extreme necessity. It also taught me the value of planning completely to ensure the safety of my animals.

I have a small set of chickens in my backyard and I felt the birds needed a bit more space to run around and be comfortable. They have a good sized hutch on a shady side of the property, but I wanted to give them a play yard. I thought that giving them room to roam in a fenced in area would be doing them some good. Little did I know that it would be a tragic event for two of my birds. 

My backyard flock 2016 - Henry and Henrietta's last picture (The white birds) 

Cornish Rock Hens

The white chickens are a special breed specifically produced for meat. They are Cornish Rock hens. (Well, one is a hen the other is a rooster that crowed for the first time just this very morning.) The birds quickly put on weight. In a short time, they are too big to use their legs and will just sit and eat and drink until they are butchered. They have fragile hearts because of their fast growing bodies and are prone to heart attacks. 

The chickens were getting huge. They are only a few days shy of three months old and they are the size of small turkeys. The feed store told me they would grow fast, but this was crazy fast. At just two weeks old they had already doubled the size of their adopted sibling sisters. 

White and black baby chickens at their water bottle
Henry at two weeks

Free Ranging Chickens

Free ranging chickens are certainly happier birds, but I am told chickens don't really care where they are as long as they are fed, their water is clean and so is their coop. They just go about their chicken business fairly happy where ever they are. I have seen this with all of my flocks. They generally just mutter along through the day. They do get chattery around feeding time and that is all the fuss I have had from my birds. 

I let them out to run as often as possible, but I am very cautious about time outside. A free ranging flock with peck at everything laying in the area they have access to. My small flock last year destroyed my garden beds both flower and vegetable. Funny, they never bothered my herb bed. (Preseasoned chickens anyone?)

An issue arose that had me feeling guilty about keeping my birds hutch bound constantly. I wanted them to free range, but I also needed to protect my garden which had I had invested quite a bit of time and funds to establish. I want them to have a good life with me and I care for each of them as if they were little kids. The idea arose to give them a run so they could stretch their wings and legs and allow them roaming room. I designed a pen area with a small triangular shelter and went to work on the plan. Mind you this is still in beta test mode....

Outdoor Sheltering

As I thought about the new coop I would build I came up with a solution that would be multi-purpose. I built a lovely triangular shelter. The idea was to allow the birds to step up onto a small shelf in the unit and be protected from the sun. It would have hay on it for comfort and be easily accessible for a resting bird. I would add a box underneath to double as a nesting box and add roost bars and an extended roof later. They are not laying eggs yet, so the nesting box can wait. For now it would give the birds a yard to roam in. It would also double as a wintering shelter. The interior would have a small hook to attach a heat lamp. There would be a safe distance between heat source and animals and hay. I could use it as a brooder, too, if I needed. One would only have to set a plastic bin in the space under the lamp and the chicks would be comfortable and safe.

The yard area was about seven feet by seven. I drove in the fence posts last week. The coop was set inside the pen area and I strung up the chicken wire but I had not secured it completely. I still had a lot of work to do here. It was usable as is - fenced with four-foot high chicken wire and secured. I thought they were safe. Or so I believed. I did not account for the effect of the full sun on the shelter's full afternoon temperatures.

New Coop Run  (a work still in progress, but workable) - Day One 

A Tragic Move

I placed their water and their food out in the pen. I set a shade cloth up over the back end of the run so the shade would help protect the birds. I put them out in the chicken yard in the morning on Monday and the last I looked in on them it was around 9:30 am. I went to get my rest for the night and did not check back on them until 2:30 in the afternoon. They were delighted. Pecking grass and ground, they milled around exploring their new home.

When I woke back up, I went to see how the chickens were doing. To my horror, both the white birds were laying on the shelter shelf. Both of these beautiful birds had died. The other birds were sitting up around them unharmed. I am not sure if it was the heat or their hearts, but. I was crushed. What started off as an idea to help them cost these two sweet-faced birds their lives. I couldn't have done any worse if I had thrown these birds in my car and shut the door on them. I will carry this tragic accident with me for a lifetime. The Memorial Day weekend will always stick in my mind as this day, this sad moment. 

Prevent Animal Tragedies

Examine the area you want to shelter your animals. What is the high temperature during the hottest day of the year where you live? This day was still somewhat cool where I live and it still killed these birds. Put a lot of time and research into what you will be providing for your animals. Please, do what you can to explore every option before you put an animals life in danger unknowingly. Mistakes like this do not have to happen if you plan ahead and you plan well.

This situation may have been avoided if I had set a thermometer up in the shelter and observed it. It would have also been prevented if I had just brought the chickens back to their shady area before I went in for my day's sleep. This accident has left me grieving birds I was going to butcher. It just goes to show me how I would have felt had I wielded a hatchet on them. 

Be Prepared for Pets and Summer Heat

Prepare always to prevent harm to any animal you have. Keep an eye on your dog when you are opening the car doors. People I know in Florida has a puppy get in their car and they did not notice it there until it was too late. My dog constantly tries to get in my car when I return with groceries. His want for a ride may cost him his life. I double check my car before I lock it up. I make sure he is never in there with the windows up. I take him with me if I am going to be away from the car for any length of time or I leave him safely home.

During hot months, bring your animals inside or somewhere cool. Give them lots of water. Keep them safe and comfortable. Preparedness for your animals is as important as prep for your family. They are family whether they have fur or feathers...

Rest in peace Henry and Henrietta.

Chickens in the Backyard

The Cost Of Fresh Eggs

Please, check with your local ordinances before purchasing your chicks. The neighborhood I live in allows up to three in the yard without a rooster.

free range brown egg prices
Free Range Egg Prices
I talked about raising chickens a couple of years ago in an article and last season I bought and raised three fine hens. Unfortunately, they slipped through my fence and disappeared on me. I never did track them down. My current set of birds is under lock and key and an ever watchful eye. There are things you need to really understand about raising chickens and I will try to list the most important ideas here.

Raising these birds were challenging, but rewarding. They needed me to feed them twice a day, provide fresh water, and clean cage droppings on a regular basis. You must be ready to spend a few minutes several times a day to keep your flock healthy.

The times I check the prices on a dozen eggs at the store tells me I am doing the right thing. Free range, brown eggs are up to $4.62 a dozen. That is pricey protein and ridiculous when you realize you have space and dedication for raising your own egg laying birds.

When you figure the cost of eggs, it becomes clear that homegrown eggs are cost effective if you account for the cost of the eggs, the cost of storing them, the time it takes to shop, and the unknown factor of how these birds were raised.

The initial price of the chicks is under $3 for a basic laying hen. The feed runs around $17 and will last about a month. They take a twice a day routine to feed, water, and maintain. I feed mine when I wake and when I get home from work. Generally, 5 pm and 5 am are good times to tend the coop.

Build Your Own Coop

The birds are going to need a safe, comfortable environment. The floor needs to be secure and so do the walls and roof. The unit I built has a top that secures with a hook and eye catch so that my cats cannot lift it easily. They are up off the ground so that creepy things cannot easily enter the coop area. This chicken coop hutch cost me around $60 in materials to build. It took one afternoon and bit of cursing and elbow grease to build it.

Not that it makes a difference, but I should point out that I am a small female with no knowledge of wood working skills and I was able to build this easily. Moving it was the biggest issue I faced. Determination says a lot about getting things done. A screw gun, skill saw, and a few ideas on paper made this idea a reality. This is light enough that two people may move it easily for clean up under the coop occasionally. I will eventually share the plans for this coop. See my author site for occasional updates: www.mariaburgess.com

 Chickens Produce: Eggs, Fertilizer, Calcium 

The bird's droppings are high in nitrogen and can be used to feed your garden plants a necessary nutrient. I would let the waste compost for a week before adding to the garden bed. I do dump the water dish in different areas of the yard as I clean the feeding area for the birds. What is the cost of fertilizer and soil amendment? I pay $9.99 at the local nursery for a bag of dirt that contains 15% chicken manure. Chemical fertilizers can be cheap or very expensive depending on the brand and purpose.

Back to the real cost of eggs. Three hens yield an egg a day early in their laying career. That's a dozen eggs every four days. Tag that with the current cost of eggs and this is a $4.62 return on your investment. The feed is minimal and a bag lasts about a month with three birds.

I love animals so the idea of having these birds in my critter family made sense. The notion of fresh eggs also hit home for me. It is a deliberate plan of action for my preparedness lifestyle. Having necessary protein at ready access is worth all the effort. The sweet faces on the birds sealed the deal.