Managing Small Poultry Flocks

Poultry Husbandry Chapter I: Managing Small Poultry Flocks

1. Care Of Poultry To Increase Productivity

A little increase in the care provided to a small poultry flock will improve livability, growth rate and egg production. The goal is to improve productivity with only a small increase in the cost for feed or the time spent to care for the flock. Protecting young birds from rain and predators and giving feed supplement for 2 to 4 weeks will often double or triple the number of chicks that survive from a hatch, compared to allowing them to scavenge with the hen as soon as they are hatched. Vaccination against Newcastle disease and other infections will also improve the health of the flock. Hens prefer to lay in a hidden nest. If nests are provided in a darkened area raised from the ground, more eggs are recovered.

Poultry are kept under a variety of husbandry systems.

a) Scavenging. The flock is made up of chickens of various ages of both sexes. The flock is allowed to forage freely in the village, forest or fields and along roadsides.

I. The lowest level of husbandry is when no care is given and when chickens obtain feed and water from the area where they live. They roost in trees at night. Hens usually lay only one or two clutches of eggs each year in hidden nests.

II. Night shelters provided. Small houses, coops or cages on stilts or raised off the ground are provided for night-time protection from predators and the weather. These pens should be well ventilated but openings should be small enough to exclude predators and vermin. Wire mesh may be used for this purpose. The shelter should be at least 60 cm high and roosts should be provided in the shelter.

III. Enclosed yard and night shelter. The night shelter would be as in No. (II). Kitchen and garden waste and water could be provided in the yard which would be designed to exclude goats, pigs and other animals but would allow the poultry to roam freely.

b) Backyard flocks with night shelter. Yarded or backyard flocks are confined to a large or small fenced area where they receive more care and shelter. These may be flocks of mixed age and sex but might also be groups of chickens raised for meat (broilers) or hens kept for egg production. The owner may allow other birds to scavenge outside the yard.

I. Partial scavenging. The fenced area may enclose fruit or vegetable gardens or a field where the confined birds scavenge for some of their feed. Water is supplied. Fresh feed in the form of garden or kitchen waste, cultivated or wild plants, seeds, industrial feed waste etc. may be given free choice, with the residue removed each day to be fed to pigs, goats etc. Grain or other dried feed with or without concentrate or commercial feed may also be provided.

For laying hens a darkened, raised nesting area with nests containing clean nesting material should be available. Nests can be in the fenced area or in the shelter. The entrance to the nests should be through a covered passageway or tunnel in front of the nests. If the nests are in the shelter the back of the nests should be covered but may be made to open from the outside of the shelter for egg collection. Hens will lay many more eggs if artificial light is available in the morning and evening to give 15 to 16 hours of light each day. If most of the extra light is given in morning (starting at 0300 hr.) many of the chickens will lay before noon. Extra light should also be given in the evening when days start to shorten so that total hours of light do not become less.

II. All feed provided. Flocks may be confined to a large or small yard with shade trees and a shelter. No feed is available other than that provided as fresh or dry feed.

c) Pens or cages. Chickens may be confined to pens or cages for their entire life, or in the case of layers when they approach laying age. Owners may hatch and raise their own replacements or buy eggs from their neighbors to hatch under hens or in an incubator. They can buy chicks from a hatchery or chicks or older birds from their neighbors.

I. Cages. Satisfactory cages can be hand made from small sticks or sticks split in half or quarter, or from split bamboo strips 1 cm wide. There should be a 1 to 2 cm space between floor slats and floor slats should be outside (round side) up. The floor slats are supported on large (5 to 8 cm dia) straight poles spaced 10 to 20 cm apart carried by a wooden frame or posts set in the ground. Spaces between slats may be wider on the sides and top. The sides, top and door can be tied or fastened to form a grid or lattice or woven. Water and feed troughs can be made from boards, or if available 5 to 12 cm diameter bamboo poles. Spillage is reduced if only the top 1/3 of the bamboo is cut out (rather than having it split in half). The feeder and waterer is usually placed outside the cage. The opening to the feed and water must be large enough for birds to put their heads through easily and should be horizontal bars. Fresh forage and other fresh feed can be placed on a tray inside or outside the cage (residue removed daily). Housed chickens receiving roughage or fibrous material require insoluble grit (small hard stones) to grind the fibre. For layers the floor of the cage can be sloped in the direction of the floor slats to allow eggs to roll out of the cage to a holding area at the front or back of the cage (as with commercial wire cages). Since hens prefer a flat floor only a slight slope is necessary for eggs to roll out.

Cages can be small for 1 to 3 hens or large for up to 8 to 10 hens. Large cages can have roosts and hide-away nests like small shelters. Cages should be 0.5 to 1.5 m off the ground. The cages do not have to be in a building. They can be outside. Outside cages must be covered to provide shelter from rain and sun. If the cover is metal there should be a wood or cardboard ceiling under the metal, with air space between, to stop radiant heat reaching the chickens. Cages may be in a single row or back to back under one roof. Shelter from wind may also be necessary. Water must always be available. Homemade cages are good for as few as 3 to 5 hens or for several hundred birds.

II. Traditional buildings. Round or rectangular clay, or clay and straw, brick walled houses with pole and wood, metal or thatched roof are suitable for small poultry flocks in many hot climates. There should be a ventilation and light opening of 0.5 to 1 m between the walls and roof and an opening at the centre or peak for ventilation. These openings should be screened to prevent the entry of wild birds and predators. The floor should be raised to prevent flooding. Dried grass, straw or other material can be used to cover the floor. This type of building can be used to house laying hens or broilers and can also be used as a night shelter for chickens that forage or are confined to a yard.

III. Commercial or modified commercial poultry sheds. Commercial poultry sheds should have a concrete floor for chickens raised on the floor or a raised wire or slat floor where the droppings fall through to the ground. The pen should be located in a well-drained area to prevent flooding. Depending on the climate the sides may be wire or the lower part may be wood, plastic, concrete or other material if protection from cold or wind is important. Adequate ventilation is important. If the roof is metal there should be a ceiling to prevent radiant heat from striking the chickens. The roof may slope in one direction or have a peak in the centre. The centre peak may be left open for ventilation and protected from rain by a raised cover over the opening or one side of the roof raised above and protruding over the other side.

Commercial broiler sheds have all plastic or partial plastic sides that can be lowered on hot days or raised for brooding young chicks to provide extra heat from the brooders and at night. The sides can also be raised in windy or wet weather.

Laying hens may be kept in commercial wire cages in open sheds, or in sheds with wire sides to exclude wild birds and predators.

2. Selection Of Breeders To Improve Poultry Production.

Many government agriculture agencies have breeding programs for local breeds of chickens to improve the meat and egg production of village and small-holder poultry flocks. They use selection of the larger, rapidly growing and higher egg producing hens and their male offspring to provide breeding stock or replacements to people who want to keep small flocks of poultry on a scavenging, semi-confinement or total confinement (in pens or cages) system. Poultry owners can use similar methods to improve their own backyard flocks. Remove inferior males. Select the better hens for special care so that more eggs are produced, and protect their chicks to ensure a higher survival rate. This could also be done at a village or cooperative level so that better breeding stock is available in the village.

The model farm concept. With community, district, country or international assistance a local person is selected as a model for better production skills. Several people could be selected for different crops or types of livestock production, or a variety of models could be on one farm in the village. Better methods of food crop production and harvest would be practiced on this farm. Information on better, different, or disease resistant seeds and trees would be available. Breeding stocks of poultry, pigs and sheep would be on display and available for loan or purchase. Refrigeration for keeping poultry and animal vaccines, medicine and equipment would be located here or close by. Someone would be trained to use the equipment and vaccines.

3. Minimizing The Effect Of Hot Climates.

Birds do not have sweat glands. They cannot cool themselves by water evaporation from the skin as people can. When they are hot they pant and cool themselves by evaporation from the throat and respiratory tract. Poultry that are growing rapidly or laying eggs have a high metabolic rate and produce heat that they must lose. Chickens die from hyperthermia when their body temperature gets too high. High humidity increases the danger. Broilers and broiler breeders are most at risk, but layers and other poultry also may die because they become too hot. Egg production and growth rate are reduced when chickens are too hot. There are many ways to reduce the effect of heat on poultry.

a) Building location and construction.

I. Trees. With small buildings or cages natural shade from large trees protects the chickens from the sun. The shade is most important in the afternoon and evening. Trees also have a cooling effect because of evaporation from their leaves.

II. Wind and sun. Large commercial style buildings should be placed where they take advantage of wind. If possible the pens should be built sideways to the prevailing wind so wind blows through the pen from side to side. It is best if the pen is placed so the sun rises and sets over the ends of the buildings (or there is a wide roof overhang) so morning and afternoon sun does not shine on the chickens. This is very important for hens in cages that cannot move away from the sun’s rays. The roof slope should be low or slope in only one direction to improve air movement. A reverse slope (lowest in the centre) also provides better air movement. This style of roof must slope to one end to discharge rainwater. Birds must be protected from the radiant heat from a metal roof by a ceiling of anything that is a barrier to heat rays (anything that would provide shade from the sun such as cardboard, cloth, dried leaves, etc.). Trees close to buildings may be a disadvantage for large pens because they interfere with air movement.

III. Floor. A wire or wooden slat floor for broilers, or cages raised 1 to 3 m above the ground improves air movement.

IV. Thick clay walls of traditional buildings usually remain cool on the inside and provide conduction and convection cooling for the chickens.

V. Fans can be used on commercial farms to increase air movement. Tunnel ventilation is most effective.

b) Evaporative cooling. Evaporating water removes heat from the air. This technique can be used to help keep chickens cool.

I. Sprays or misters can be used inside a pen. These are best with open floor (no litter) pens.

II. Water can be dripped over the roof or from the sides of the pen. Water soaked pads or screens will increase evaporative cooling. Air should move through the pads to the chickens. Fans can be used to draw air through wet screens or other material.

c) Feeding and management

I. Feed consumption increases heat production by the body. To prevent heat stroke, feed may be withdrawn 2 to 3 hours after daylight and provided again in the evening.

II. Increased water consumption helps cool the birds. Cool water is best. Water must be freely available in the parts of the pen where chicks gather to try to keep cool. These areas are usually toward the direction of the air movement (wind or fan), or over open floor areas, or away from places that are hotter because of radiant, conductive or convection heat.

d) Genetics. Some strains and breeds of chicken are less affected by heat. Fat chickens are most at risk. Chickens with fewer feathers (naked neck) and large combs are less at risk.

4. Waterfowl

Waterfowl, particularly ducks, are very popular in many Asian countries. They are good foragers and can scavenge better than chickens. Drinking water and shade must always be available. Ducks prefer to forage around ponds and rivers and can get much of their nutrition from water, animals, plants and insects.

Ducks. Ducks can be kept for meat or egg production. White Pekin, Rowen and Muscovy are best for meat. Kharki Campbell and Indian Runner are egg laying breeds. Muscovy ducks are different from other breeds. They can fly a short distance; egg incubation is longer (35 days instead of 28) than other breeds; the male is larger than the female and has unfeathered wattles and carucles on the head; there are white as well as colored varieties. Muscovy ducks are also useful for fly and other insect control. Some local breeds of ducks are also kept and wild ducks may be domesticated.

Ducks may be allowed to scavenge for their food or may be confined. Flocks of ducks that are confined would be fed similarly to confined chickens. Ducks prefer to have a pond in the yard. The pond could also be used for fish. Free ranging ducks will grow and produce better if they have access to a pond, lake or river. Free ranging ducks can be herded the way sheep and cattle are herded. The herding can be done by a person or person with a dog. Duck flocks can be herded slowly for several kilometers to scavenge on fields that have been harvested or in orchards and some fields of vegetables. Survival rates are improved by providing feed and protection to young ducks for 2 to 3 weeks.

Males are hard to distinguish from females in some breeds. One male (drake) is usually mated with 5 to 8 females if breeding ducks are kept in confinement. Ducks may be allowed to incubate their own eggs, eggs may be collected and hatched under a hen, or eggs may be incubated artificially.

Nest boxes for egg laying strains or breeders should be in a protected area and raised 10 to 15 cm from the ground or floor.

Geese. Geese are kept for meat and feathers. In some places geese are also used as alarm systems to make a noise when strangers or predators approach.

There are several breeds of domestic geese and some wild geese can be domesticated easily and used as food. Geese are excellent foragers and survive well on young legume and grass pastures and on many other young weeds and plants. On a pasture the plants should be kept clipped or pastured every two weeks by cattle for several days to remove the older plants. Geese can be used to remove weeds from orchards, gardens and field crops such as cotton, sugar beets and strawberries. They will also control grass and weeds on rivers, marsh and swamp land.

Geese can be aggressive and can defend themselves and their goslings against small predators.

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