The Gut Doctor: Backyard Poultry
Not just great company, they help to reduce food miles, offer up a sustainable and organic supply of delicious eggs, coax children away from their screens and provide a pop-up classroom in your back garden.
There are many benefits to keeping chickens, explains holistic vet Nick Thompson MRCVS. So, if you're adding to your flock, don't forget the basics of chicken care, starting with good gut health.
The anatomy of digestion in a chicken
Understanding the basics of a chicken's anatomy is a good start to understanding how to keep your hen happy. Their digestive tract is substantially different. They don't have teeth, after all, so extract the nutrients from their food in a very different way to you or I.
Gobbled up food is stored in their crop, the bulging area at the base of a chicken's neck. It acts as a lunchbox or store cupboard for food. Digestion happens further down the line, in the gizzard - a tough muscly like stomach that holds small stones to grind food down and pre-digests any rough or coarse material before it enters the stomach. It's a grinding process similar to how we use our teeth to chew.
Common health problems with chickens include E. coli infections, coccidiosis (a parasitic disease of the intestinal tract), parasitic worms and 'sour crop.' Sour crop is a yeast infection of the organism Candida albicans, which stops the normal flow of food through a chicken, creating a sour reservoir of foul liquid. It's often considered to be incurable, but I've had great success with the following technique:
Gently hold the chicken (upside down) by the legs. Gently agitate it a little bit, and you'll induce vomiting (they can't vomit on their own, like horses). Feed them with apple cider vinegar and yoghurt to rebalance the bacteria within the crop three times a day for a few days. Repeat inversion technique if she refills. If in doubt, take her to the vet.
A chicken's environnent is crucial for its health and ultimate happiness, so to keep the bugs at bay, it's important to keep the following in check:
The best hen house is one that is big enough for all your birds (approximately one well bedded box per three hens) with adequate perch space (allow 25cm per bird, unless bantams) for all. If you cut corners here, you can induce stress disease e.g. feather pecking, egg eating and cannibalism.
A hen house that's easy to clean is a godsend to the busy chicken owner, but will also reduce the chance of mites living in the cracks in wooden houses. Plastic hen houses, although potentially expensive initially have the major advantage of being easy to clean thoroughly, reducing the chance of mites infesting the building or persistent bacteria contaminating hard-to-get-at corners. It's worth looking around for something that suits you and your wallet. Beware, second-hand houses may come with unwanted guests such as mites or coccidia infection.
Housing should be cleaned out regularly, including feeders and drinkers to reduce the prevalence of bacteria, coccidiosis, viruses and moulds. They should periodically be disinfected and sprayed for red mites, especially all the nooks and crannies between slats in wooden houses.
Rations for hens should be the best you can afford. If you economise here, you run the risk of inviting nutritional disease later, not to mention reducing the chance of lots of lovely eggs. Personally, I would always opt for organic food, but the important thing is that it is well formulated by a reputable company, not just corn. Verm-X do a lovely layers pellet with their intestinal hygiene herbs added, killing two birds at once (so to speak!) Once you find a food that works for you and the hens, stick with it, don't shop for the bargain of the month as change in diet can upset digestion.
All feeds must be stored away from vermin. Watch out for spilled feed as this, too, will encourage mice and rats. Ensure stores are used up and replenished frequently to avoid mould and rot. Don’t feed in the same place for weeks on end, this will encourage coccidiosis, bacterial infections and worm transmission.
Your hen's ration should suit their age and purpose. Your supplier can usually help you here, if not your vet will be a useful contact. Grit is essential for good crop function and good digestion. Oyster shell should be part of the grit blend you use for calcium.
Also, remember that chickens are foragers, so you can broaden their diet and reduce stress by allowing them to roam, safely, as much as possible. Clean, fresh drinking water, from clean drinkers and/or water sources is obviously essential, especially in hot weather. Feeding and the act of foraging and pecking around is incredibly important to hens. If you have housed birds, then supplementing with greens is important, as it is with birds with good access to grass and soil. All hens like treats, so give these to relieve boredom, although do not feed kitchen scraps.
Hens in lay need more nutrients and calories than those not, so bear this in mind; the more eggs they're producing, the more feed they'll need, but by the same token, as they go off, you must reduce feeding levels to avoid obesity (all too common in backyard hens, I'm afraid) which can stop hens laying and render males infertile.
Herbs for good gut health
Good health starts in the gut and incorporating the appropriate blend of herbs in their diet can help with this.
You'll need to ensure that you keep on top of any worms that all birds pick up. Whichever regime you use, it is wise to do faecal egg counts periodically (every 3-6 months) to assess how 'wormy' your birds actually are. It is usually impossible to tell from the outside what's happening in this department, so use a laboratory like Wormcount or Westgate Laboratories to help you simply and cheaply manage this side of things.
By connecting with where your food is coming from, it’s an opportunity to cut out any unnecessary chemicals. One of the benefits of using a natural supplement, like Verm-X, is that you can still eat the eggs from hens fed on a diet of it . No drugs means nothing to worry about or egg withdrawal after pharmaceutical worming. The Verm-X blend of herbs includes: cinnamon, garlic, thyme, peppermint, fennel, nettles, slippery elm, quassia and cayenne – a selection chosen specifically to help improve digestion and good gut health.
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