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Wednesday
Jun162010

Chicken Stress

Chickens can suffer stress and cause stress - here's the weekend tale of both.

Chickens are kinda like people in that stuff can stress them out - and when stressed out, they do things that aren't normally in their nature.    Well, last Friday the temps spiked upwards - almost 20 degrees warmer than it had been for most of the week.  For chickens a sudden onset of really warm temps is a great stress trigger.  So, what does a stressed chicken do?  Well, sometimes they don't eat, sometimes they get flighty and sometimes...  they peck.

Barred Rock chick and Cornish Cross chick Barred Rock chick and Cornish Cross chick

This year not only did we get almost 200 Cornish Cross broilers in our first batch (yes - there's going to be a second batch too) but we also got about a dozen red broilers (some folks call them Poulet Rouge which in French is "Red Chicken" - but since there's no Poulet Rouge standard in the US it's kinda silly to call them that).  In addition to the meat birds we also have another dozen of the same age laying chicks.  And everyone was living in perfect harmony...  Little did we know at the 2 week point and the weather change we were about to hit an inflection in happiness.  And not in the direction of bliss.

Last Friday when checking in on the birds in late afternoon I noticed the tail feathers of one of the broilers had been picked clean off and he was bleeding.  Taking a second and stepping back - there were LOTS of birds in the same situation in various stages of injury.  Several of the "smart and fast" laying chickens seemed to have gotten bored and stressed in the heat.  Rather than take it easy - they acted out.  By going for the blood engorged newly emerging feathers on the fat and slow broilers.  It was not a pretty sight.

Worse yet - the Red Broilers seem to have a really cool flocking instinct amongst their breed.  They run together...  which WAS cool - until ONE of them learned the feather pecking trick...  which then translated into 2, then 6 - all interested in tails of the big broilers.  We didn't take pictures because it wasn't exactly a Kodak moment.  Most of the damage was superficial - but still not pleasant.  Frankly - pictures were not on our minds - restoring stability to the flock was.

We sprang to action over Friday night and continued to assess and change up the situation over the weekend.  We know that overcrowding was not an issue - but even so - the fewer birds in a given location the happier those left tend to be.  We put another 8x8 brooder up in the barn for all the injured guys and gals.  Each chicken had it's wound treated with iodine (they didn't like that) and then was place in the new brooder.  We move the red broilers to the pasture in their own pen early - because they needed to go somewhere that didn't have cornish cross broilers.  And then we had to deal with the egg layers that like feathers more than food.

Of the 12 egg-ers - only 4 or 5 seemed to have the feather munchies...  but ONLY on broilers...  not each other.  So - the section in the coop that was for storage got emptied out and sectioned off with hardware cloth and chicken wire to make a nice little home for the "pecking inclined".  Then, they got uppity with each other and were separated them again...  two homes for the pecking inclined (latest report - no pecking on each other - a very clear sign that this was really heat stress onset).

All in all not the kind of activities you want chickens engaged in and a rather stressful time when part of the philosophy we have on the farm is letting the animals express their natural "animal-ness".  Still, part of responsible sustainable farming is being a shepherd to these animals that are not wild and need the occasional guidance and nudge in the right direction.  That's what we provided.  And now, the injured are nearly healed (everyone survived).  The sequestered are happy.  The pastured are ecstatic.

What did we learn, because we are all about learning and sharing.  Well chicken pecking can be miserable (duhh).  Definitely more for the pecked but also for the farmer.  I think, in retrospect, a new rule we have is egg laying birds and the red broilers shouldn't be brooded with the Cornish Cross chickens.  They are just smarter and get bored living the life of a Cornish broiler: "where's the food - where's the water...  where's the food, I think I forgot to eat".  Part of the issue is the laziness of the Cornish broilers in comparison to other breeds.  If a egg layer goes after the tail feather of another egg layer - there's a response.  Try it again and it's chicken smackdown (for the most part) - the big broilers just sorta stand there and chirp unhappily with every peck but then forget what made them chirp.  So they become easy targets and obvious victims.

The plan is to get all the broilers out to pasture this weekend as they will hit the 3 week mark then.  They all go nuts when we throw handfuls of clover and grass in there now - so they are more than ready.  At that point we will reintroduce all the layers together in the coop and see what we have.  Hopefully the massive amount of space, no slow witted white chickens and some other goodies we will be giving them will keep them happy and engaged and NOT looking to pluck feathers from each others rumps!  Then, in another couple of weeks they will get access to a run outside their coop and start to enjoy the mental games associated with foraging.

It's important for us to pay attention though as there's is an uneasy precedent set here...  once a pecker, almost always a pecker... so we will have to keep very keen eyes on the egg layers ESPECIALLY as the seasons change and they are spending more time indoors (of course, they don't even know what outdoors is yet!) - 16 weeks until the first average frost date (wow)!

Reader Comments (6)

Oh man, over zealous peckers are never a good thing. Amazed that on top of all the farming you find time to update and maintain this kick ass sight. Really enjoying your humorous style and learning more about farm life, thanks Andy.

June 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Tyson

Whoa - that had to be seriously scary to come across. All your apparently docile chickens were suddenly either hunters (or more like bullies) or prey! Good thing you caught them when you did and got things all sorted out...

June 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJeph

Not so scary - just more like a jarring call to action.
All is happy now and we are just a couple of days away from getting them all out to pasture (well - except the egg layers - and that might be interesting)

June 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAndy

Thanks for the words Brian - that's the mission... share as we learn and learn from those who we share with!

June 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAndy

Fascinating. I love the descriptions of the different types of chickens. I could completely picture the scene. Glad you found a solution.

June 19, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterkat

They have all been very happy - we did have a little heat related pecking of the layers again when it was super hot on Saturday - but we bought a can of pine tar which is a natural astringent AND tastes god awful. The idea is you put a dab on the pecked area - it helps the bird heal and when the pecker comes over and hits it once the taste deters them from doing it again. We applied a drop on a super small pecking target... one came over... pecked... spent the next 30 minutes trying to clean his beak off... I think we fixed that issue once and for all!

June 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAndy

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