Friday, August 31, 2012

Free Range Chicken Gardens: An Interview with Jessi Bloom

Earlier this year, I attended the 2012 San Francisco Garden and Flower Show. While at the show, I had the opportunity to interview Jessi Bloom about her new book, Free Range Chicken Gardens, How to Create A Beautiful Chicken-Friendly YardJessi is a talented garden designer whose work emphasizes ecological systems, sustainability and self-sufficiency. Recognition of her work includes awards from the American Horticultural Society, Washington State Department of Ecology and Sunset Magazine.

Jessi Bloom
ChickenWaterer (CW): Thank you for meeting with me today and for sharing your knowledge with us.

Jessi Bloom (JB): Thank you for inviting me.

CW: You were a landscape designer and gardener before you began keeping chickens.  How and why did you decide to add chickens to your garden?

JB: Actually, I started both together. I had an interest in gardening and was in school studying horticulture at the time.  I had just purchased my first property and I realized that I didn't have great soil. I thought chickens would be a great source of manure for the garden, so I started my gardening with my chickens simultaneously.

CW: So you came to chickens because you wanted the manure and got eggs as bonus, versus wanting the eggs and getting the manure as bonus.

JB: Yes.  I don't look at eggs as the primary benefit of keeping chickens. It's definitely a nice benefit, but it's not the only reason I have them.

CW: Another thing that's different about the way you keep chickens is that you free range your birds versus keeping them isolated in a coop and run. What are the benefits of free ranging?

JB: First and foremost, you can take advantage of the chicken's manure. That's true whether they are in a coop or free ranged.  However, if you have them locked up all the time, they can't help you with pest control in your garden. One of a chicken's favorite activities is to run around looking for insects and grubs to eat.  If your chickens are cooped up, they can't help you with that chore. 

CW: Ok, so those are great benefits to the gardener.  What are the benefits to the chickens?

JB: If you think about how a chicken would live naturally, they're not cooped up.  They live in jungles and forested lands.  We've put them in cages and made them into egg laying machines. One of the reasons that I let my chickens free range is because I believe in giving them their freedom and allowing them to roam around as they would naturally.
Chickens acclimate very well to a gardens if the garden is designed for that purpose. If your garden is just a lawn with a few shrubs here and there, or just a little patch of perennials or veggies, it's not habitat for chickens, so they are going to eat those plants and cause a lot of problems. One of the reasons my book has done so well is that people didn't realize that you could create chicken habitat. 

CW: As a landscape designer, I assume you have some distinct opinions about the placement of structures and plants in a garden.  Can you share some basic principles about how to construct a good landscape garden and chicken habitat?

JB: Many of the same principles of traditional gardening come into play when designing a chicken garden. You should design your garden with a tree layer, a grass layer, a ground cover layer, etc. etc.  Having all that diversity allows the chickens to have many foraging and shelter options.  

Rain Barrel

CW: How do you balance between the aesthetics of the garden and the practical considerations required to keep free range chickens?

JB: I always look at aesthetics, but function comes first. When I design a garden for aesthetics, I always start the plan by thinking about the season that has the least amount of interest. I then make sure the garden design includes elements that add interest during that season and then work backwards through the seasons to create a complete design.  For my garden, it's the Winter season because I have six months of bare branches. My garden designs make use of ornamental plants that are very showy. I also try to add plants that have different attributes that create interest throughout the course of the year.


CW: Are there some plants that you think work particularly well, or less well, in a free range environment?

JB: I have a detailed list of plants in my book, but there are some general principles at work.  Certain plants have textures that chickens don't like, so you should avoid them for that reason.  A plant like juniper falls into this group.  Then there are really delicate herbaceous plants such as bleeding heart (dicentra formosa).  This is a perennial ground cover that comes up early in the season and it can be very damaged by chickens scratching  Other categories of plants that I would not recommend adding to the garden would be any plant that is irreplaceable because of its rarity or perhaps because it's special because it was received as a gift. 


CW: Readers of this web site have a strong interest in vegetable gardening. Some of the more popular crops grown include tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and beans.  Is there any particular advice you would give vegetable gardeners who want to free range their birds?

JB: Gardeners have two options.  They can fence chickens out of food gardens entirely, or they can take protective measures for those types of plants.  Let's take tomatoes as an example... Chickens aren't interested in that plant until it's fruiting, so I wait till they are about to ripen and then wrap the plants in bird netting. It takes a little extra time to do this, but if you are going to have free range chickens, it's worth spending the time to protect your crops.

CW: What is your favorite tip for those that keep chickens?

JB: Don't be a chicken hoarder. You don't need thirty chickens in your small backyard. It's critical to balance the number of animals you have versus the space you have. 

CW: You just published a book called Free Range Chicken Gardens. Can you tell us a little about that book?

JB: The heart of the book is about creating chicken habitat. When writing the book, I asked myself what a gardener would want to know about chickens and garden design and focused on that rather than on medical information or information on butchering that can appear in many chicken books.  My book is about plants, design, and ensuring that the garden is created in a way that chickens don't destroy it.

Screen Shot 2012-03-28 at 7.40.50 AM

CW: How do you see your book being different than other chicken books on the market?

JB: As far as I know, there aren't many landscape design books out there that cover chickens and most of the chicken books on the market tell readers that chickens and gardens don't mix. My book is just the opposite. I try to encourage and inspire my readers by showing them free range chicken habitats that are also very beautiful gardens. 

CW: If folks would like to purchase your book, where can they buy it?

JB: It's widely available at on-line bookstores like Amazon and people can buy it directly from me at my blog,  I'll even sign it for them.

CW: Jessi, thanks for joining us today.

JB: Thanks for having me. It's been fun.
Jessi with Chicken
Photos shown above are by Kate Baldwin.
Free-Range Chicken Gardens is published by Timber Press.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Four Steps To Cleaner Water For Your Backyard Chickens

To maintain a healthy and productive flock, poultry owners should take care to provide a constant source of fresh, clean water.  Clean water allows hens to properly digest their food and regulate their body temperature.  For laying hens, water takes on a third important dimension because eggs themselves are 74% water by weight.

Water that is contaminated by dirt and debris can have serious consequences for egg production and the health of chickens.  Chickens whose natural behavior is to scratch the soil looking for seeds and bugs frequently soil pan-style watering devices that expose the water to the open air.  In the process, they kick dirt and droppings into these open water pans.  Soiled water can negatively impact a flock because chickens tend to consume less water if it is dirty than if the water were clean, odorless and tasteless.    The specific consequences of dirty water can be reduced egg production.  In more extreme cases, lower water consumption can result in birds that suffer heat stress and these will stop laying eggs altogether.

Traditional chicken waterers are easily contaminated

Causes of Contamination
Dirty water can be an indicator of contamination by harmful bacteria, viruses and fungi. In chicken watering devices, the contamination is likely to come from three sources:
  • An infected bird passes the disease on to other chickens by way of their dropping either on the soil or in water.
  • Contact with wild birds or other animals in the chicken’s environment.
  • Buildup of biofilm within the watering device that then provides an environment where harmful bacteria can flourish.
The last form of contamination is the least intuitive and most likely the least known by backyard poultry keepers.  Biofilm is a buildup of sticky nutrients created by bacteria that can form on the inside a watering device. 
All water, including municipal tap water, contains some free-floating bacteria.  These bacteria can attach themselves to the walls of watering device.  Once attached they, form an anchor point for other strains of bacteria that could not adhere to the wall of the waterer on their own.  Over time, more and more types of bacteria attach themselves to the wall and create a layer of slime or biofilm. This biofilm can then harbor a variety of bacteria, fungi and viruses that are both harmful to chickens and people including E. coli and Campylobacter Jejuni that cause food poisoning and diarrhea.

Photo: Polymicrobic biofilm courtesy of the 
U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC)

Four Steps You Can Take To Ensure A Healthy Flock
Here are some steps you can take to keep your water supply clean and your chickens healthy and laying:

  • Keep Poultry Isolated from Wild Birds- Other animals, particularly wild birds, can be a source of infection.  The recent appearance of Avian Flu and concern about wild birds as a carrier of the disease underscores the importance of proper safety precautions.  It’s best to prevent all contact by keeping your birds in a closed coop and run.  If owners let their birds range freely in the garden during the day, then at least minimize the risk of contamination by placing your poultry feeder and waterer in the coop/run to minimize the risk of water and food contamination by wild birds
  • Use A Closed System Watering Device – consider moving from a pan-style watering device that exposes water to the open air to a poultry waterer that is closed to the external environment and uses poultry nipples, also called chicken nipples.  These closed systems are much less likely to be contaminated by dirt, litter or chicken droppings.  These closed-systems are used by commercial poultry producers and have numerous advantages over open, pan-style waterers.  The closed system work by delivering water to the flock via closed pipes or water conduits. The water is dispensed to the birds using poultry nipples, one-way valves that deliver a small quantity of water to a bird when it pecks at the stem of the nipple.
BriteTap Chicken Waterer
  • Clean & Sanitize Your Watering Device Regularly - Clean watering devices on a regular basis to maintain the freshness of the water and to prevent the buildup of biofilm.  This includes general cleaning of the device as well as sanitization using hydrogen peroxide, Star-San or other agent to kill any bacteria, viruses and fungi.  Traditional pan-style watering devices should be cleaned and sanitized daily because they are highly susceptible to contaminants from the environment.  Closed-system watering devices should be cleaned when the flock is turned and periodically as needed. Once per month would be a reasonable general guideline.
BriteTap chicken waterer cleaning video

  • Always Provide Clean Water –Municipal tap water will almost certainly be safe for chickens. However, well water may require filtration to remove sediment and heavy concentrations of minerals.  A good rule of thumb is that the water should be of sufficient quality that a person would be willing to drink it and as odorless and tasteless as possible.  Provide chickens with fresh water every day.
Posting sponsored by, makers of the BriteTap automatic poultry waterer. The BriteTap waterer shields water from dirt and poop. The water stays clean and there are no messy pans for you to wash out.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Importance of Clean Chicken Water and 6 Tips for Providing It

Chickens need three basic requirements to remain healthy - adequate shelter, nutritious food and clean water.  Most chicken owners instinctively understand the importance of the first two and take care to provide a good coop and quality feed.  However, clean water can sometimes be overlooked; this is unfortunate because water plays an important role in both a chicken’s health and in their ability to lay eggs.

Why Water Matters
Chickens are particular dependent on water because of the types of foods they consume and their digestive processes.  Poultry foods such as crumbles, pellets and scratch contain relatively little moisture as compared to those foods consumed by humans.  To properly digest this food, a chicken needs water to soften first soften their food and then to help them break it down into usable nutrients that can be absorbed in the chicken’s digestive tract.

In addition, water plays a critical role in regulating a chicken’s body temperature.  Unlike humans who sweat when hot, chickens lower their body temperature by panting.  The process works by driving off body heat in the form of water vapor.  When panting, the chicken inhales cool air into its respiratory system. Heat that would otherwise be making the chicken’s body warm is instead used to convert water into water vapor that the chicken then exhales in its breath.  This drives off excess body heat and helps keep the chicken cool.  During the summer, it is particularly important to provide ample water so that chicken’s can properly regulate their temperature in this way.  If chickens don’t get enough water they can become stressed and stop laying eggs. Under more extreme conditions, chickens can get heat stroke and die.

Finally, and most importantly to backyard poultry keepers, hens need plentiful water to lay eggs.  Water constitutes 74% of the weight of an egg. That means that a chicken laying a 2-ounce egg needs 1.5 ounces of water just for that one egg.

Total Chicken Water Requirements
Given a hens and unique digestive and respiratory requirement and that they lay eggs that are mostly water, it should come as no surprise that chickens need lots of water to remain healthy and laying.  In fact, chickens needs to consume two to three more water as a humans on a relative basis.
The general guideline is that a laying hen should be given 8 ounces (.5 pounds) of water per day.  That represents approximately 8% of bodyweight for a typical 6.5-pound bird.  For perspective, humans are advised to drink between two and three quarts of water every day (4-6 pounds), or just 4% of a typical adult’s body weight.

Tips For Providing Water
  1. Change the water every day.
  2. If using well water, test the water quality to make sure that it meets the standard for acceptable drinking water for humans.
  3. Provide the sufficient quantity –your chickens will drink more or less depending on their age and the outside temperature.  However, the rule of thumb is 8 ounces of water per day per bird, or about 1/2 gallon for every 8 birds in your flock.
  4. Make sure that your watering device is free from dirt, debris and droppings as these can discourage your birds from drinking, or even make them sick.
  5. During the summer, provide cool tap water or add some ice cubes to lower the temperature.  Research indicates that chickens given water that is below their body temperature produce greater quantities of eggs.
  6. Clean and sanitize your watering device regularly to prevent bacteria from building up in the waterer. 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

How To Increase Your Chickens Egg Production With Cool Water

A fresh supply of clean water is critical to maintaining a flock’s health and their ability to lay eggs.  This is particularly true during the summer months when chickens require additional water to regulate their body temperature and ward off heat stress.

 The below table shows the impact of increasing environmental temperatures on chickens.

Temperature (°F)
52 - 79
Normal production.
79 - 82
Reduced feeding.
82 - 90
Lower food and water intake. Reduced eggs/thinner shells.
90 - 95
Onset of panting.
95 - 104
Birds experience heat stress.
Temperature can cause death.

Water Temperature & Egg Production

The importance of a plentiful supply of water is well understood by most backyard chicken owners.  What is less well known is that the temperature of the water supply can also have an impact on a chicken’s water consumption and, importantly, on the quantity of eggs it lays.

Research done on White Leghorn hens2 compared the performance of chickens given water at 95º Fahrenheit (33º C) and those provided with water that had been cooled to water 36º Fahrenheit (2º C).  The chickens given cool water produced 15% more eggs than those given warmer water. 
A similar study3 conducted on Hy-line Brown hens, showed that the cool water positively impacted egg production, even when the differences in temperature were less extreme.  In this second study, one group of birds was given water at 73º F (23º C) and the second at 61º F (16º C).  The study showed that the group receiving cool water produced 8% more eggs than those given warmer water.

Advice for Backyard Flock Owners

Hens that are given ample supplies of cool water produce more eggs.  This suggests that backyard flock owners can improve their egg yields during the summer by taking a few steps to ensure that their birds have a plentiful supply of cool water.  Here are some simple strategies for providing birds with cool water:
  • Fill your chicken waterer with cold water in the morning.  If you have the option, re-fill with fresh clean water in the afternoon.
  • Place your waterer in a shaded area to prevent sunlight from increasing the water temperature.
  • Consider adding a few ice cubes to the water on days when the temperature is especially hot.
  • If using poultry nipples to dispense water to your flock, use an insulated water vessel such as a commercial cooler as a reservoir.

Posting sponsored by, makers of the BriteTap automatic poultry waterer. The BriteTap waterer shields water from dirt and poop. The water stays clean and there are no messy pans for you to wash out.

1Kekeocha (1985) Poultry production handbook as cited in in the Corporate Document Repository of the Food & Agricultural Organization of The United Nations.
Leeson & Summers (1975) as cited in Commercial Meat & Egg Production by D. Bell, W. D. Veaver and M. O. North.
Gutierrez, Min & Chang, Effects of Chilled Drinking Water on Performance of Laying Hens during Constant High Ambient Temperature from the Asian-Australasian Journal of Animal Science (May 2009). 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Poultry Nipples And Why They Are Superior Chicken Watering Devices

Poultry nipples, sometimes referred to as chicken nipples, are special valves that are designed to automatically dispense water to an individual chicken whenever a bird would like to take a drink.  They are similar in function to watering devices sold in pet stores to provide water to guinea pigs, rabbits and other small animals.

How They Work
The poultry nipple is activated whenever a chicken pecks at the stem on the base of the nipple. The pecking action causes the stem to rise and this opens the valve inside the nipple, allowing the water to flow. When the bird removes its beak from the nipple, the stem drops down under the weight of gravity, sealing the valve and stopping the flow of water.

Poultry Nipples Make Great Water Dispensers
Poultry nipple are used in conjunction with other components to form a closed watering system; the flock’s water is drawn from a main water line, or covered water tank, through a series of closed pipes and then dispensed through the poultry nipples. The water is never exposed to the open air.  As a result, nipple-type watering systems are much more sanitary than the open pan or trough systems used by most backyard chicken keepers.

Chickens Drinking From The BriteTap Chicken Waterer

Positive Impact on Flocks and Owners
Nipple-type watering systems are a win for both chickens and their owners.  Nipple systems provide cleaner water to chickens and this directly impacts their health and productivity. Chickens tend to drink more water when its clean and proper hydration is required for chickens to lay eggs.  Increased water consumption also helps chickens properly regulate their body temperature and lowers the chance of heat stress during the summer.  Flock owners also benefit;  they get more eggs from well hydrated chickens and the nipple-type watering systems are easier and more pleasant to clean.

Posting sponsored by, makers of the BriteTap automatic poultry waterer. The BriteTap waterer shields water from dirt and poop. The water stays clean and there are no messy pans for you to wash out.