It takes a village to go on vacation. Especially if you have a garden, livestock or chickens. Automatic waterers and over-sized feeders prevent problems but they can’t solve everything. How do you ensure your backyard chickens get adequate care if you have to leave home?
Though it wasn’t the first time we had left our little farm, I had a feeling something would go wrong. You know, that uneasy but unfounded sensation that all is not going to go as planned. But since we had no evidence that anything would go wrong, we trusted our friends.
The last time we left town, we conscripted six people into caring for our homesteading land. One friend had horses that we fed when she left town. Our next-door neighbor only had to let the backyard chickens out in the morning and fill food and water. The friend who locked them up at night also had chickens that we watched when she went away. And to water the garden I asked another gardener. She received all produce which ripened that week. During the trip, issues were immediately solved between friends.
I guess that’s where I went wrong. Feeling guilty that some friends had driven more than six miles to check on our chickens, I asked friends who lived a block away for the next round. The wife was unemployed and had no children. They had a dog, which we cared for when they left town. But they had no backyard chickens.
Before we left, we walked them through the property and gave instructions. Don’t let the animals’ food and water get low. Extra feed bags are in the carport. Purchase more at Green’s Feed if you run out. Let the chickens out by 7 a.m. or they will be starving. Lock them up promptly at 9 p.m. or raccoons will kill them. The yellow dog is affectionate but if you give her the chance she will run away. We showed them how to lock the dog door at night.
We told them to call if they had problems. We assumed they would.
When two days passed and we heard nothing, we figured all had gone well. Backyard chickens aren’t difficult to care for, and they had a dog of their own. But on the third day they reported that they couldn’t find the yellow dog anywhere. They claimed they hadn’t left doors open, but our fence is six feet tall and the dog can’t jump that high. Thankfully, Animal Control found the dog within a few hours and they got her back.
Two days later, my next door neighbor messaged me on Facebook, asking me to please lock the dogs up at night. They hadn’t slept all week. My husband messaged our friends, and the friends replied that they tried to close the dog door but each morning they found the dogs locked outside. Both dogs had howled as temperatures dropped to single digits. I was upset that the friends hadn’t contacted us the first night they realized the dogs were trapped in the cold.
We arrived home a week after we left, pulling the truck in at 10:30 p.m. The chickens hadn’t been locked up so we latched the coop doors and went to bed.
The next morning, I let them out and found the completely clean feeder. Not a crumb. If chickens have enough food, they leave crumbs. The metal fount, which only works if the top is on, sat open with the top lying five feet away. It was filled with solid ice. The chickens had no water.
Inside the coop, I found seven dozen frozen eggs. At least five days’ worth. Since I didn’t know if these eggs had been compromised, I donated them to my friends’ pigs. That was $35 worth of eggs that would have gone to happy customers. At least the pigs were happy.
That day I only found two new eggs. Before I went on vacation, the hens averaged 18 eggs a day. Within a week, my backyard chickens had stopped laying from neglect.
It only makes sense that chickens need both food and water to lay eggs. The next time I leave my little farm, I’ll ask for caretakers who know how to care for backyard chickens.
Time it Correctly
I have a friend who is addicted to hatching. Her incubator runs several times a year. When she had to leave town for a few days, she asked a caretaker to water the plants and care for her backyard chickens. At the same time, her incubator ran mid-cycle. When she came back she saw that the caretaker had unplugged the incubator to save power. The caretaker couldn’t understand why my friend was so devastated.
A trip can be tragic if you don’t plan well. If baby chicks sit within a brooder, wait a few more weeks if your caretaker doesn’t know how to treat pasting up or you’re worried about an unattended heat lamp. Just as the time when seeds sprout isn’t the best moment to ask a novice gardener to watch your greenhouse, hatching day is a bad moment to be away. Delaying the trip until meat chickens are in the freezer can reduce work for your caretaker. It also reduces the number of factors that can go wrong.
Match Your Priorities
It was a friend’s first time raising rabbits for meat and he had done his research. He wrote down all the details: what food to buy for the recently weaned kits and where to purchase it. When his caretaker promised all would be fine, he trusted her. Rabbits are easy to care for.
He came back to hungry rabbits and feed pellets that were the wrong color. His caretaker had purchased laying pellets instead. The bag even featured a picture of a chicken. My friend was livid. He piled Timothy hay into the hutches and called me about what kind of damage laying pellets can do to a rabbit’s kidneys. Luckily, it appeared that the rabbits hadn’t eaten any of the chicken food. But they quickly devoured that hay.
If you ask someone to tend backyard chickens or other livestock, be sure the animals’ welfare is important to your caretakers. People who don’t share the same priorities may forget to feed your cat for several days. Or they may walk into your garden, water for two minutes, and leave. Don’t assume that friends will put your animals at the top of their schedules just because they live nearby and are unemployed.
Write Down a Plan
I used to dog-sit for a client who enjoyed travel. And she traveled enough that she ensured her caretakers had all the right information: what medication the older dog received, what made the younger dog aggressive. Most importantly, she gave me her daughter’s name and phone number. This was a critical piece of information because the dog got sick and the client had traveled to Egypt. I couldn’t just call her up. But I called her daughter and the problem was easily solved.
What does a chicken coop need if temperatures plummet while you are gone or get too hot? Do you have fire evacuation procedures for all your livestock? Write down what you expect your caretakers to do, even if they have animals of their own.
Include times you want your animals to be fed and amounts of food they should receive. Detail any special needs. Include contact names, numbers, and backup contacts in case your caretaker has an emergency and can’t reach the first people on the list.
Choose Like-Minded Caretakers
If you have backyard chickens, the best caretakers are people who also have backyard chickens. And if other chicken owners aren’t available, search for people who have poultry or at least other livestock. They understand how important it is to feed on time, how animals cry when they’re hungry, and how disaster strikes if the animals aren’t fed or sheltered when they need to be.
Other chicken owners may recognize sick chicken symptoms that horse owners may not. People who don’t have animals may not even recognize that your backyard chickens are sick.
Solve Problems Before They Start
Food issues may be prevented by purchasing over-sized feeders which hold a week’s supply. Shelter those feeders from the weather. Purchase more food so your caretakers don’t have to. Provide over-sized waterers. In the winter, consider heated founts or wrap heat tape around the waterers.
If your backyard chickens’ run is large and secure, lock them inside while you are away, even if you normally let them range free. Let horses wander on a pasture where they can forage for food if caretakers fail to throw hay out in time. Have friends you can call if you feel your caretakers aren’t doing their job as well as you need them to.
We all like incentives. If we feel we’ve been taken advantage of, we don’t perform as well. Be sure you reward your caretakers. If they have backyard chickens or other livestock, offer to care for their animals they next time they are away. And fulfill your promises. For caretakers with no livestock, bring a souvenir back from your vacation. Or reward with good, old-fashioned cash. If the caretaker knows he will be rewarded at the end, he will work harder and be more diligent. And if he doesn’t, conscript someone else to receive the reward next time.
Sometimes, even if we prepare the best we can, tragedies happen. When they do, we fix what we can and move on. But if we follow a few guidelines to find the best care for our backyard chickens, we can prevent a lot of problems.
How often do you do on vacation and leave your homestead in someone else’s care?