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Monday, October 28, 2013

Perks of Pumpkins


Every November, when Halloween has come and gone, our neighbor Jim gives us all the picked-over pumpkins from his patch down the road. We load up the bed of our old Ford pickup and truck tons of free feed to our pasture for the chickens. The hens effortlessly devour the piles of pumpkins, pecking a hole in one side and cleaning them out, seeds, membrane and pulp, leaving only the skin for us to toss in the compost.

These free pumpkins are a huge plus for us and for the hens. Not only do we save a pretty penny on chicken feed, but the chickens absolutely love it! The pumpkins are also a huge plus for our egg customers. The beta-carotene in pumpkins help create an even more beautiful orange supple yolk. So, what other great benefits are hidden in pumpkins?
Blue Andalusian Foraging for Pumpkins in Fall



NUTRIENT PACKED TREATS

Pumpkins are a low calorie fruit packed with protein, dietary fiber, anti-oxidants, and more. Most of the benefits are found concentrated in the seeds, but pumpkin as a whole packs a big ol’ nutrient punch, so let’s see what this chicken super-food is made of:

  • Vitamins A, C, and E: Pumpkin contains lots of anti-oxidants and boasts one of the highest counts of Vitamin A in its family which makes it a great immunity booster as well as a benefit for hear t health. 
  • Protein: About the same time that pumpkins ripen in fall, chickens molt, growing new feathers for winter. Since feathers are 85% protein, a chicken’s need for dietary protein increases tremendously. Pumpkin seeds, like sunflower seeds, are a really good source of protein, and naturally timed for the occasion! 
  • Beta-Carotene: The bright orange color of pumpkins indicates that they’re a storehouse for beta-carotene. Not only is this directly linked to an increase in beautiful orange yolks, but it may also play a role in cancer prevention. (Yes, chickens can get cancer too!) 
  • Plant-based Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Raw seeds, including pumpkin seeds, are one of the best sources for plant-based Omega-3s! 
  • Amino Acid Tryptophan: The same amino acid that made turkey famous is readily found in pumpkins too. Tryptophan is the ultimate mood-booster for happy hens. 
  • Zinc, magnesium, potassium, copper, calcium, and phosphorus: These minerals found abundantly in pumpkin seeds have a wide range of health benefits from immunity to heart health. 
  • Dietary fiber: Although the necessity of fiber is different in chickens than humans, a good source of fiber can help our feathered friends with nutrient digestibility, enzyme production, and organ development. 
  • B-Complex Vitamins: The fruit of pumpkins is a good source of folates, thiamin, niacin, and vitamin B-6. For your chickens, these B-complex vitamins help break down food and nutrients for them to use, and also help them respond to stress. 

THE THEORY OF PUMPKINS AS A NATURAL DEWORMER


Many backyard chicken blogs and forums are filled with excitement over the theory that pumpkins can be used as a natural dewormer. Outspoken chicken keepers tout their success with natural wormers when their healthy hens have a low incidence of worms. But most researchers have significant doubts about the true effectiveness of pumpkins as a wormer. Let’s break it down:

Pumpkins are part of the cucurbitaceae family which also includes other winter squashes, zucchini, and cucumbers. The seeds from these plants boast particularly high levels of cucurbitacin relative to other plant families. In test tubes, large quantities of cucurbitacin have been found to paralyze worms such as tapeworms and roundworms. This is where the excitement is born for using pumpkins as an all-natural wormer for chickens. However, the question is whether chickens can consume an adequate dose of cucurbitacin from pumpkin seeds, given the relatively small amount found in each seed, and the small size of a chicken’s diet, to effectively paralyze worms. So, although some homesteaders may suggest that it has worked for their pigs, cattle or sheep, the same dependable results may not occur in poultry. And the bottom line is that there is actually little to no research on worming chickens and other poultry at all, with formulated wormers, pumpkins, or other traditional homeopathic wormers, such as garlic and nasturtium. Research exists only for using formulated wormers on larger livestock.

Essentially, there is just no proof that pumpkins act as a successful wormer for chickens, but given how much our chickens love to eat them, and their excellent health benefits, there’s no reason not to feed them as a treat with a tiny hope that it could be helping to reduce the population of intestinal worms. Find your local pumpkin patch and see if you can work out a deal for the picked over pumpkins, or ask your neighbors for their carved pumpkins before they throw them out on November 1st.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Helping your Hens Molt Gracefully

Every year at about this time, panic sets in for our new clients as they notice concerning changes in their hens between feather loss and egg production loss. It’s excellent to hear that chicken moms and dads are aware of the changes taking place in their flock. And when they happen, it’s a good idea to give a quick health check up to the girls. But if its late summer or fall, and you see a combo of egg production changes and feather loss, you can rest assured that it’s just their yearly molt. Here are a few things you should know to help them molt gracefully.

DESCRIPTION

Molting is usually an annual occurrence in which both roosters and hens lose all their old, worn-out feathers and regrow new ones to prepare for colder winter weather. During a molt, hens require more nutrients and energy to regrow feathers, and in order to reserve these resources, they will either slow, or stop laying eggs. If hens do happen to continue laying eggs while molting, you can expect to see soft-shelled eggs because of the strain on their resources, so don’t be alarmed. 

Molting and Pin Feathers
Molting takes a period of weeks or months as it progresses through different parts of the body. When nearing a molt, feathers lose their sheen and become very dull looking. The progressive design of a molt helps to prevent a chicken from being barren of feathers as the weather begins to cool, although sometimes it is occasionally unsuccessful. The process of molting then begins with the feathers on the head, followed in order by the neck, back, breast, stern, thighs, wings, and finally the tail. Good layers begin to molt later in the year and finish more quickly, taking only 2-3 months. Poor layers start molting earlier, usually before September, and take much longer (up to 6 months) to finish.

FOCUS ON A HIGH PROTEIN DIET

Feathers are made up of 85% protein, so during a molt, a chicken’s need for dietary protein increases. Make sure to feed molting chickens a higher protein layer feed (16-18% protein). It’s also a good idea to limit treating hens with scratch; and instead, supplement with high protein treats such as:

  • Seeds (especially Black Oil Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds) 
  • Sprouted grains, such as alfalfa 
  • Mealworms and Earthworms 
  • Raw meat or fish (not chicken) 

Although you may read that feeding your chickens scrambled or hard-boiled eggs will help with protein, we don’t recommend it as it’s possible to instigate egg eating, a nightmare behavior in which chickens lay eggs and turn around to eat them because of their flavor and their high protein and calcium content. As always, Apple Cider Vinegar is a great health supplement when added to their water. It is packed with vitamins and minerals and acts as a natural health booster that can help chickens keep their energy up to get through a molt much easier.

PIN FEATHERS AND FEATHER PECKING

The new feathers that begin to grow in are called pin feathers. The blood seen in pin feathers is normal, and is used to nourish growth. However the blood in pin feathers can incite feather picking in a flock, especially because they’re all in high need of protein which is found in feathers. Keep stress levels particularly low this time of year, and keep an eye out for cannibalism. Tips for keeping stress levels low in a molting flock:

Move slowly around your hens.
Don’t introduce too much change at once. (Adding new birds, coop construction, introducing light, or locking them in the coop for longer periods than normal can incite bad behavior.)
Leave out treats for them to scratch and peck through for entertainment (pumpkins are readily available at this time of year and are a great low calorie, vitamin packed treat).

A GOOD TIME FOR DEWORMING

If you like to deworm your flock once a year, this is a great time to deworm your flock. While using a dewormer, eggs can’t be eaten, so it makes sense to deworm when there are fewer eggs to throw away. Additionally, this ensures they’re getting 100% of the nutrients they need for the molt from their diet, rather than being robbed by a mess of roundworms.

EFFECTS OF MOLTING

After molting, at the beginning of the next laying cycle, feed efficiency is improved, eggs are larger, and egg quality is better than it was at the end of the last laying cycle. Each passing year, though, production decreases overall so hens naturally won’t produce as well as they once did, and egg quality declines faster.

MOLTING CONTESTS FOR COMIC RELIEF

For pictures of really terrible molts, for assurance or entertainment, you can browse through the Backyard Chickens Molt Competition. Here are the links for this year’s competition as well as a couple years before: 2013, 2012, and 2011. We all need someone who smiles at us when we’re having a bad hair day.