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"Chicken Whisperer" separates fact from scratch
Chicken Whisperer WEB
Andy Schneider, known to poultry enthusiasts everywhere as The Chicken Whisperer, discusses raising back yard chickens at a special workshop held Wednesday at the National Steeplechase Museum in Camden. Schneider says his goal is to provide the best science, study, fact based information to people who raise back yard chickens. - photo by Jim Tatum

He doesn’t strut into a chicken coop, cup his hands to comb and beak and convince a hen to jump a fence or lays extra eggs.

But Andy Schneider, known as “The Chicken Whisperer” to poultry enthusiasts of all experience levels and flock sizes, does know his feathered friends very well.

In fact, Schneider comes at the practice of raising chickens, particularly smaller hobby and back yard flocks from several areas of expertise.

He has personaly raised chickens for many years, so he knows the ins and outs of starting and maintaining a healthy, happy, productive flock – so much so that his first book, “The Chicken Whisperer’s Guide to Keeping Chickens,” is a bestseller and he has signed a deal to write a second book.  His weekly web radio broadcasts garner high ratings and “Chicken Whisperer Magazine”, for which he is managing editor, is widely read. He is also the National Spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s APHIS Bio-Security for Birds Program. 

Wednesday night some thirty people attended a workshop on raising backyard chickens Schneider conducted at Camden’s National Steeplechase Museum. The workshop, part of Schneider’s most recent book tour, was hosted and sponsored by Hunter’s Trace Farms Hay and Feed and Kalmbach Feeds.

Schneider’s goal is to provide the public with practical, accurate, science-based, study-based, fact-based information, he said.

“There are many right ways to raise back yard chickens,” he said. “My goal tonight is that you leave here having learned at least one new thing. I provide information; how you choose to use it is up to you. If I suggest something, that doesn’t mean change what you’re doing – if what you’re doing is working for you, then great.”

Keeping back yard chickens is not new – your parents and grandparents may have done it – but in recent times the practice has seen a major resurgence, Schneider said. It is a lifestyle choice rather than a trend. In many ways it is tied to the local food movement, the fact that many people want to know where their food is coming from and what is in it. It also has to do with a desire to educate their children. Others see the organic recycling value of keeping a flock of chickens, he said.

“One of my colleague did a study that concluded that if everyone in a small town of 2,000 people kept just six chickens, that town could save something like 500 tons of organic landfill waste per year,” he said.

The point is, people from all walks of life are getting involved in it for a wide variety of reasons, Schneider said. With all those people raising chickens, a lot of misinformation gets out, he noted. In fact, so much bad information is out there Schneider started a blog – and is writing a book – called “Fact or Chicken Poop?” in which he takes statements presented as fact (ie, ‘pumpkin seeds are a natural de-wormer) and thoroughly vets them as fact or fiction.

“Four words should always come to mind when reading advice on some of these blogs and forums -- ‘show me the proof,” Shneider said. “I have working on my team a lot of people with extensive educations and backgrounds and years of experience in the field.”

One case in point is the idea of free ranging chickens, or allowing them to forage in the backyard at will.  Because chickens are omnivorous and like to forage, the prevailing thought is they will eat what is good for them while at the same time ridding your yard of pests such as insects, snails, even rodents.

The problem, however, is some of those menu items are carrying diseases and parasites.

“You’re not going to monitor your chickens 24/7, and occasionally, one of them is going to eat a mouse, and it will probably be fine – no ill effect,” Schneider said. “But believe me, there is nothing good about rodents around your chicken coop…In fact, some studies show free range birds have a higher chance of carrying parasites.”

 The best practice is to feed your chickens a scientifically prepared nutritionally feed, he said.

“People enjoy feeding their chickens treats,” he said. “That’s fine, but treats need to make up no more than ten percent of their diet.” 

Treats should also be given at random, because chickens that receive treats at the same time all the time will often ignore their feed in favor of the treats. 

Schneider also noted that scratch is not good for their nutrition. That’s because scratch provides high energy but little nutritional value.

“Mixing scratch with formula pellets is about like me sprinkling a bag of Skittles on my child’s broccoli,” he said.  “If they ate nothing but a good quality nutritionally formulated feed, they would be fine.”

Schneider also noted that sanitation is very important not only in keeping your flock healthy but in preventing problems for you, your family and possibly other people. A few simple tips include designating a pair of old shoes or boots for wearing only in the backyard around the coop and keeping hand sanitizer for use before and after handling your birds to ensuring wild bird feeders aren’t anywhere near where you chicken flock will be. 

 “We are currently in the middle of the largest salmonella outbreak traced to back yard chickens in years,” he said. “And while salmonella may not be a major risk in back yard flocks, the fact is, it is the only disease you can get directly from your chickens, so it does become an issue, however remote.”

Schneider also gave tips on raising very young birds (brooding), from types of bedding to feed. He also cautioned against using inexpensive heat lights for brooder boxes.

“You can buy these things for around $12, but we strongly advise against it,” he said. “However, we also understand budgets, so if you do choose to use a cheap heat lamp, then we have suggestions to at least make them safer.”

Schneider also talked about coops.

“Coops are like anything else – some are made from palette wood and spare parts, some cost thousands of dollars and look like your house,” he said. “In fact, a few years ago, Neiman Marcus had one that cost $100,000.”

The single most important factor one needs to consider in a coop, however, is how safe it is from predators, he said. Using poultry mesh instead of chicken wire, burying fencing at least two feet below ground and installing proper latches to gates and doors are key to protecting your flock, he said.

Schneider also noted that chickens handle cold better than heat. Having good air circulation – but no direct draft on the birds – is important. Heaters in the coop are unnecessary, especially in the south.

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