Poul­try Pen

The prob­lem and some so­lu­tions

Country Smallholding - - Inside This Month -

‘Chicken sick’ ground, egg se­lec­tion, and more, with Andy Cawthray

Like me, there are a num­ber of peo­ple who have ar­eas of land that a flock of chick­ens get con­trolled ac­cess to. This might be an or­chard or open pad­dock, or per­haps a shrub­bery or soft fruit patch. The rest of the time they live in a large en­closed run. One such per­son ap­proached me the other week. They have 18 lay­ers who have con­trolled ac­cess to or­chard land but live in a large run the rest of the time. The run had no grass and, in their words, ‘looked chicken sick’.

This can be a prob­lem when con­fin­ing chick­ens to a small space, par­tic­u­larly those that fall into the layer cat­e­gory. Layer breeds and hy­brids, by their very na­ture, are not only fre­quent egg lay­ers but also ex­tremely fru­gal in terms of man­u­fac­tured feed con­sump­tion if given the op­por­tu­nity to free range. Over the years, I’ve found them to be amongst the best for­agers of any fowl, hunt­ing out morsels and strip­ping through fo­liage in pref­er­ence to eat­ing their com­pound feeds. As a con­se­quence, they will de­nude an area of any ‘life’ if it is too small. Those of us who had to con­fine our birds to a cov­ered out­door space dur­ing the bird flu preven­tion pe­riod will have wit­nessed not only how quickly chick­ens can clear an area, but also how quickly it can start to look ‘chicken sick’.

In th­ese sit­u­a­tions you can buy a ground sani­tis­ing prod­uct. There are a few avail­able on the mar­ket; how­ever, be mind­ful to fol­low the in­struc­tions as, in some in­stances, it is not a sim­ple case of spread­ing it willy-nilly across the chicken run.

Ground cov­er­ing

Al­ter­na­tively, you can use some form of ground cov­er­ing or top­ping. My ad­vice in the case of where land has al­ready be­come sick, is to re­move the top cou­ple of inches of earth. This will be heav­ily con­tam­i­nated with fae­cal mat­ter and most likely be har­bour­ing par­a­sitic worm eggs and other pos­si­ble pests or dis­ease. Com­post this soil and use it on a flower bed next year - that way noth­ing is lost in terms of biomass from your plot.

Some peo­ple will then put down a semi-per­me­able mem­brane such as weed sup­pres­sant mat­ting or Mypex. This can help when it comes to the point of re­fresh­ing the ground cov­er­ing as it acts like a cloth that can be lifted. How­ever, I’ve found this only re­ally works in very small runs. It does, how­ever, help de­lin­eate the top dress­ing from the soil be­neath, so in this re­spect serves a use­ful pur­pose.

Next you need to se­lect the type of ground cov­er­ing. There are quite a few sup­pli­ers and dif­fer­ent op­tions such as rub­ber chip­pings made from old tyres, or chopped rub­ber made to look like wood bark, many of which are used for safe cov­er­ings in chil­dren’s play ar­eas, and so make a safe op­tion for the flock. Al­ter­na­tively, you could use sand or gravel – much will de­pend on the bud­get you have avail­able.

If you de­cide to go with wood chip, then make sure it is hard­wood. Soft­wood chip­pings rot very quickly and will need re­plac­ing much more fre­quently. Do not use or­na­men­tal bark chip­pings. It might seem like a good idea, es­pe­cially as they are rel­a­tively cheap and read­ily avail­able as a path cov­er­ing from gar­den cen­tres, but don’t do it. They de­com­pose quickly and, as they rot down, fungi and mould grow on them. The re­sult­ing spores can cause res­pi­ra­tory prob­lems for chick­ens. The clas­sic ex­am­ple is as­pergillus which thrives on bark; if in­gested by poul­try it can cause as­pergillo­sis, which is dif­fi­cult to treat suc­cess­fully and will cause the slow death of the in­fected bird.

One fi­nal piece of ad­vice is to do it in stages if the run is large. Break the area down into sec­tions and start with the sec­tion near­est the pop hole. Work out how much you can clear and top dress in a morn­ing, keep the birds in the house, clear and top dress the area then put up a tem­po­rary fence and re­lease the birds, re­strict­ing them to this area only. Clear an ad­join­ing area, move the fence, al­low­ing the flock ac­cess to that area also, and then move on­wards a sec­tion at a time un­til you have cleared the whole area.

It can be quite a bit of work but by the end you will have a rather tidy look­ing per­ma­nent run area that can be more eas­ily main­tained than bare soil. You will still need to main­tain the area with reg­u­lar poo pick­ing and rak­ing over to bring the lower lay­ers to the sur­face (this is done to ex­pose any par­a­site eggs to the sun­light which tends to kill them off) but, with care, it can last a num­ber of years be­fore need­ing re­plac­ing.

A chicken on ‘sick’ ground

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