Flu season is in full swing throughout the country, with strep throat, bronchitis and other viral infections clobbering people across ages and occupations, from schoolkids to CEOs. For chicken keepers, getting sick not only makes us feel miserable, it upends how we handle our farming responsibilities. Our birds don’t care whether we are fevered, nauseated or hacking up a lung. We do, however, and occasionally there comes a point where our health has to come first and we need to let a chicken sitter take care of our birds and other routines.
I discovered this in early January, when I returned from Florida with pneumonia and dysentery. My husband, Jae, drove me from the airport straight to the hospital. The following four weeks passed without my leaving the bedroom, and I spent most days sleeping. During that time, I didn’t worry about our flocks at all; I knew that my husband and sons had everything in hand.
Was I ever wrong. I had a few surprises in store when I was well enough to venture outside: soiled litter, filthy waterers, empty feed bins, undumped droppings trays. Ugh. The state of our farm reminded me that having a caregiver for your birds is simply not enough. Whether you’re leaving for vacation or business, or you’re sick in bed, you can’t assume your chicken sitter will clearly comprehend your to-do list. Take action before the need for a substitute arises. Arrange for your helper to meet you for an in-depth walk-through. Here are important points to cover.
Be Familiar With Food
Show your caregiver exactly where you store your chicken feed. If you use more than one kind—for example, grower for your juveniles and layer rations for your hens—explain which feed goes to which flock and why. A base understanding will prevent your sitter from accidentally giving your birds the wrong (and, for chicks and juveniles, potentially dangerous) food.
Never assume that your setup is self-explanatory. Take a moment to explain what you use to scoop food, how often you wash your feed scoops, and how to open and close your feed-storage bins. The latter is important if field mice and other rodents might help themselves to a loosely lidded bin of chicken feed.
Water’s the Matter
Fresh water is a daily necessity for your birds, and it is crucial that your substitute know where your flock’s water source is located. Bring your assistant to that source—whether it’s a garden hose, an outdoor pump, your mud-room faucet or something else—and show the person how to open and fill the water font. Explain about algal build-up and contamination from droppings. Show your sitter what you use to scrub and sanitize your waterers and where you store these supplies. Then dump the water out and have your helper demonstrate these steps while you watch. If you use a watering system that feeds off a central tank, show your flock sitter how to fill that tank, with what, from where and how to keep it clean.
Does your watering system feature nipples or drink cups? Explain how these dispense drinking water to your chickens. Better yet, see whether one of your birds is thirsty enough to demonstrate. It’s important that your caregiver understands how your watering system works. This way, he or she will recognize when a part malfunctions.
If you add supplements such as apple cider vinegar or liquid vitamins to your flock’s water, specify how much goes into each font or gallon. Explain how these supplements benefit your birds.
Explain Egg Gathering
Many people mistakenly believe that hens lay their eggs bright and early in the morning. As poultry farmers, we know that our girls lay their eggs whenever they darn well please: at dawn, as dusk approaches and any time in between. Tell your flock sitter that while you don’t expect her or him to check for eggs on the hour, your coop nestboxes should be checked at least twice daily: in the morning when the birds are released and in the evening when they’re locked up. Have your helper accompany you as you gather eggs and, if possible, have the sitter take a few eggs out of the nests. Show your helper where you keep your collection basket and where to put the gathered eggs. Note: It’s standard courtesy to let your caregiver keep any eggs laid during their chicken-sitting time.
Accidents happen, so let your sitter know what to do if he or she encounters a broken egg in a nestbox. Clarify how to clean the mess so no residue remains. Show where to dispose of the soiled nesting material; show where you store spare shavings, straw or nestpads; and spell out the aggravations caused by egg-eating birds.
The Flock’s Schedule Is Crucial
Every flock owner has a specific schedule for taking care of business. Your schedule trains your chickens to expect release at a certain time each morning and lockup by a certain time each evening. Your sitter needs to keep to your timetable as closely as possible. Describe your flock’s timetable in detail. Explain that disruption can cause stress for your flock, which can affect their rate of lay. If you live in an area inhabited by nocturnal predators, emphasize that it’s crucial to close down the coops before sunset, when raccoons, opossums and other carnivores begin to prowl. Have your helper open and close your coop’s pop door as well as its human-access entry. Never assume the sitter understands how to operate the locks and latches on your coop and run.
Be Prepared for an Emergency
While everything might run smoothly while your chicken sitter is in charge, unexpected situations can arise. Make sure your assistant knows how to handle these potential crises, and confirm that the person is confident to navigate unexpected issues. Leave your sitter with a set amount of cash to cover unforeseen expenses such as purchasing more feed, replacing a water font or buying additional egg cartons. Leave the name, address and phone number of the feed or farm-supply store you use, including the hours of operation.
Also leave the contact information for your flock’s veterinarian. While your birds probably won’t all catch avian influenza while you’re in bed with the flu, it’s best to be safe just in case. In addition, your caregiver will feel much more at ease knowing that there is an animal expert nearby in case one of your chickens becomes injured.
Finally, if you’re leaving town rather than sick in bed, give your chicken sitter your cell phone number as well as the name and number of the place where you’ll stay. Specify that you are always reachable, not just for emergency response but also to answer any questions about your instructions. Remember, these are your chickens. Do everything possible to ensure that your flock sitter is confident that he or she can provide the best care for your birds.
On a recent weekend, I was finally strong enough to take my 14-year-old, Jaeson, around our farm, coops and barn to show him exactly what needs to be done and how, what to watch for and what to avoid. He took copious notes and demonstrated what I had explained to him. The next day, I followed along during the morning and evening chicken shifts, observing and, when needed, coaching him on whatever he missed or had overlooked. The next day, he was on his own. I went out when he was done to check his work, and I’m satisfied our birds will be well cared for in his capable hands should I fall sick again or when I have to leave my brood, human as well as bird.