Interest grows in raising small urban poultry flocks

An unexpected outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic is the surge in interest in raising chickens.

Growing one’s own food during times of uncertainty is a way to exert control and it seems as though Canadians are eager to plant gardens and tend chickens as a way to achieve this.

Part of the interest in chickens has been a growing movement in cities to allow for small urban flocks. For instance, Edmonton ran an urban hen pilot project with good success for years before opening up applications to all residents. Victoria, Vancouver and Whitehorse also allow city dwellers to have backyard hens.

There are many concerns about urban chickens, of course, including noise, smells, manure management and the attraction of predators and pests.

No matter if they are on a farm or in a designer urban coop, newly hatched chicks peeping and darting around is a joyful sight.

Most small flocks get their start at commercial hatcheries, which ship orders of day-old chicks to clients.

As these little balls of yellow fluff grow, their care needs change. Chicks, tiny beings that they are, need food and water within easy reach. Adult chicken feeders and waterers may be too big. They also require supplemental heat, a task undertaken by the mother hen if she had raised the brood herself.

Basic needs for chickens include food, water and shelter, just like other animals.

Since eggs are the desired outcome of most small flock production, husbandry can focus on maximizing egg production. While laying hens do not require the presence of a rooster, they do have specific dietary requirements. To produce the shell of each egg, usually once per day, hens mobilize a tremendous amount of calcium. It is important to provide feed specifically formulated for laying hens, so they have the right balance of nutrients, vitamins and minerals.

Good, dry litter such as wood shavings, sawdust or straw is important for healthy feet. Hens have a strong urge to lay eggs in the privacy of a nest box, making these an important addition to a small flock hen house. They are also handy for keeping eggs clean and making egg collection easier.

Chickens also seem to enjoy perching off the ground and rolling around in dust baths. Shelters should protect from the elements but also predators and have adequate ventilation.

From a veterinary perspective, non-commercial chickens need to be cared for but there are challenges in finding veterinarians with experience and willingness to work with chickens. Veterinarians can provide advice on disease management, husbandry resources, diagnosing and treating sick chickens, and providing euthanasia.

Disease control can be a challenge with small flocks because they are typically managed without the stringent biosecurity of commercial operations. For example, large chicken barns go to great lengths to limit exposure of their flocks to wild birds and their excrement, which can carry such pathogens as salmonella and avian influenza.

Backyard chicken producers can reduce exposure through limiting food accessibility, providing clean drinking water and designing enclosures that limit contact with wild birds. For instance, mobile chicken houses are a popular choice because they exclude wild birds and also predators and can be moved around the farmyard.

Another key component of disease control is adequate cleaning and disinfection, especially between flocks. Organic matter such as soil, feces and feed inactivate cleaning detergents and common disinfectants, so it is important to remove as much of this debris as possible before starting a deep clean.

Chickens are interesting animals to have around and can be a wonderful source of nutrition in the form of meat and eggs.

Starting a flock can be a rewarding experience. But their health and welfare require careful consideration to meet their needs.

Dr. Jamie Rothenburger, DVM, MVetSc,PhD, DACVP, is a veterinarian who practices pathology and is an assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. Twitter: @JRothenburger

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