By Patricia Harris Pointing, Canada
Even the most dedicated chicken keeper deserves the occasional vacation. Then there are business trips and medical emergencies, too. Although most poultry is fairly low-maintenance, your flock still needs regular care when you’re away. Finding farm sitters and making sure backyard chickens get care isn’t always as easy as you might expect.
Some folks just top up the feed and water and leave the chickens to their own devices. It’s certainly the simplest tactic. However, if hens are laying and the eggs are left to accumulate, you may return home to a hard-to-break habit of egg eating. Leaving the chickens alone for a weekend also risks missing a knocked-over waterer, a broken fence, or a health emergency. So it’s wise to at least have a farm sitter look in on your flock every day or two.
Find “Farm Sitters”
Many people turn first to family, friends, and neighbors, who may be willing to do the job for free or for a favor in return. This often works well, but be careful–many people do not take a responsibility as seriously if it’s being done only as a favor. “Having helpful family is great,” says Diana, of Everett, Washington, who raises silkies, layers, and broilers. “When I go away for the week, or even a month, my little brother and parents take over and care for the animals. However, you have to know your family members, since some can be absent minded or busy with other things, and you may end up doing a bit of TLC for the chickens when you return!” Julie, in Buffalo, New York, has had mixed experiences with farm sitters: “The most important thing to consider is whether the chicken sitter seems responsible and mature enough for the task. It’s not enough to be close by, it’s more important to be dependable and reliable.”
If necessary, look for people who pet- or farm-sit as a business or sideline. Ask at the local feed store, because people often do this kind of work without advertising. If you can’t find someone with poultry experience who can recognize sick chicken symptoms, you may need to leave more detailed instructions and give your “farm sitters” a crash course in chickens before you go away, but with a dedicated, detail-oriented farm sitter, that should be enough to set things on the right track. “My advice is to get someone you feel comfortable with,” says Dennis, who keeps a variety of breeds in Elkton, Maryland. His farm sitter “does a lot with 4-H and has rabbits, so I know she knows what to do. Her son was in my Boy Scout troop, and when she found I had chickens she wanted to come see them. She came over to see them a couple of times, then offered to watch them any time we needed someone to keep an eye on things. Everything went really well. Except, if you ask her son, she spent too much time watching chickens. He said she had nowhere to go Saturday and just ‘visited with the chickens all morning!'”
Someone with a flock of their own will be more knowledgeable, but along with that knowledge come some extra concerns about transmission of disease or parasites. Even if both flocks seem quite healthy, either may carry something to which the other is not resistant. It is reasonable to provide a poultry-owning farm sitter with hand sanitizer and a pair of rubber boots or disposable plastic bags to cover their shoes, for the safety of both flocks.
Leave Farm Sitter Instructions
“Keep it simple: water, feed, let in/out,” suggests Dennis. “The simpler the instructions, the less to be forgotten.” And don’t just rely on a list. “I showed [the farm sitter] by demonstration,” says Henry, who has a small tractor-based flock in Maryland. “She feeds, waters, moves the tractor, and hopefully soon will be collecting eggs. The chickens have always done well with her; they have escaped several times and she was able to capture them.”
So point out the feed storage and the faucet, and demonstrate how your feeder and waterer work–don’t assume these things are obvious! If grit or oyster shell bins might run low, show the farm sitter where the refill bags are. Make sure the person taking care of your chickens knows what kinds of treats are acceptable and what aren’t. If your coop has electric or water, it’s good to show the sitter where the cutoffs are located.
Also, show the sitter where to look for eggs. Many people encourage the farm sitters to keep any eggs that are laid, as a “perk” of the job, but you will probably want to make it clear that the eggs need to be removed from the coop whether or not the sitter wants them, and that they can occasionally be found in out-of-the-way places.
What cleaning will be required while you’re gone? Put the tools and supplies in an easy to find location, and walk the farm sitters through the process of how to clean a chicken coop, including where to dispose of soiled litter. If any adjustments need to be made to the coop as the weather changes, such as closing the upwind vents on rainy days or putting frozen jugs of water out during a hot spell, explain the system. And if your sitter is relatively new to chickens, take a few minutes during your tour to point out normal behavior, signs of ill health or predator activity, and demonstrate how to catch and handle birds.
There’s a lot you can do to make things more foolproof. “I like clients with a simple, efficient setup,” says Christi Owens, a professional horse- and farm-sitter in Udora, Ontario, Canada. “It always goes more smoothly.” Build a larger capacity feeder; set out an additional waterer; fix that rickety section of fence. If your chickens need to be let out at dawn and locked back up at dusk, it’s a good investment to build a strong predator-proof run attached to the coop (or beef up the run they have), especially if you find yourself paying a sitter not just per day but per visit. You will benefit too, on days you’d rather sleep in!Think Ahead to Prevent Problems
Write down when you expect to return and how you can be contacted. Give the sitter one copy, and tuck another discreetly into the coop. And silly though it may sound, also leave your sitter a list of what chickens you have. If necessary it can be as simple as “3 brown chickens, 10 white chickens, and 2 fluffy-looking tan ones.” That way it’s clear whether they’re all present and accounted for. This is especially important if your chickens free-range or if their run is not 100% secure. Christi adds, “when I meet with the client before they leave, I write a note about any animals with bald spots or injuries, so I don’t notice later and worry that it’s new.”
What other information might help your farm sitters? Are you lucky enough to have a vet who will treat poultry? A buddy from the local poultry club who can field questions? A relative who would be willing to fix a broken fence or troubleshoot a blown fuse? The more of these backups you have, the better your sitter will be able to manage an emergency. You may want to alert your neighbors to your plans, as well, so that nobody gets concerned about the strange person wandering around your yard.
“Some clients like to call and check that everything is ok; others prefer that I only call if something comes up. Either way is fine with me,” says Christi. To stay on good terms with any sitter, though, call when you arrive back home, and pay promptly (or if it’s a friend or relative, find some other way of showing your appreciation).
A little extra effort now will be well-spent if it ensures an experienced and willing caretaker for your flock every time you want—or need—to head out of town.
Have you ever needed farm sitters to care for your flock while you were away? Let us know your experiences.
Originally published in Backyard Poultry June/July 2008 and regularly vetted for accuracy.