by Paul Burdziakowski
Ashfield, MA farmer Matt Martin has always had that special knack for raising quality chickens. It began at the age of 11 when he purchased a trio of White Plymouth Rocks from a respected breeder. Martin’s childhood hobby eventually turned into a 40-year career raising commercial egg laying chickens.
Martin has raised several different types of chickens during his time in the business but his breed of choice has always been the White Plymouth Rocks.
“The gentleman that sold me the trio told me that he had the best White Rocks,” Martin said. “They are not only an exhibit bird they are also a commercial bird, known for meat and egg laying. I still have that bloodline to this day.”
At his peak Martin said he had as many as 500 chickens which were producing up to 20 dozen eggs a day. Martin is now retired and has scaled his flock down to 40 chickens. But, no matter the size of his flock, Martin has always followed simple guidelines to ensure success. His guidelines center around the fact that healthy chickens are happy chickens and happy chickens are the key to getting good production.
Martin said farmers starting out with hatchlings will find that the biggest initial health challenge are various poultry diseases. Martin started his flock with chicks and remembered having to contend with a poultry virus called Marek’s disease, which is spread through infective feather follicle dander and causes crippling leg or wing paralysis.
“Back then you had to buy 25 chicks or more,” Martin said. “The main thing I had to worry about was Marek’s disease. When they are three months old they start dying from this virus. I didn’t lose too many of them because I always made sure that they were vaccinated.”
In addition to vaccines all of Martin’s chickens receive annual blood tests in order to detect and prevent the spread of bacterial poultry diseases like Pullorum disease and fowl typhoid which can devastate entire flocks at a time.
Another way that Martin maintains healthy chickens is by keeping a clean chicken coop.
Martin said, “Chicken manure has a high content of ammonium nitrate in it. As soon as it starts to smell like ammonia you should get it cleaned because the smell is as bad for birds as it is for people. You also have to keep your litter from getting moist. You don’t want moist sawdust under your birds. It’s a dead ringer for disease.”
Martin said the size of the chicken coop is important as well because overcrowded chickens tend to peck at each other. According to Martin the rule of thumb is two to three square feet per chicken inside the chicken coop and eight to 10 square feet per chicken in an outside run. To help with the necessary space requirement Martin said he uses two separate areas to house his chickens, a 16 x 20-foot breeder pen and 30 x 30-foot barn. He also has several other smaller pens.
Martin recommends installing roosts because chickens that sleep on the floor of a coop are more susceptible to pathogens, bacteria and external parasites such as mites and lice.
“It’s a natural instinct for chickens to be up high like that,” Martin said. “It’s less stressful for them. The bigger the bird the lower you should build a roost because they can end up with leg problems. I like to taper my roosts so that they are two feet back and a little higher from the next one. It’s more sanitary than having double rows.”
Providing chickens with a constant supply of fresh food and clean water is probably the most obvious way to get good production, Martin said.
“I keep constant feed in front of them so they can feed at will,” Martin said. “Above all you want to keep clean water. It’s more important than anything. Chickens need a lot of moisture because it takes a lot of energy to make an egg. I hang my feeders and waterers high enough to where the chickens do not scratch things into them. In the winter, I put a heater right in front of the waterer to keep the water from freezing.”
Martin likes to point out that moisture also plays a big part in egg quality. The longer that an egg is allowed to sit around the lower the quality which is why Martin always likes to sell his eggs shortly after they are laid.
Martin is against caging chickens. Instead he lets his birds roam freely outdoors on a pasture where they can forage for their natural diet.
“Caging birds one on top of the other is unsanitary,” Martin said. “Free ranging makes for a better quality bird.”
While free ranging is beneficial it also presents a prime opportunity for animals that prey on chickens. Martin said he has encountered his fair share of predators over the years.
“You really have to worry about predators when it comes to chickens,” Martin said. “I’ve had a lot of coyotes…I had a goshawk that took four of my birds without me even knowing it. If you live near a brook you will have raccoon problems…I’ve even had minks and weasels.”
During the day, Martin said he relies on his roosters. At night, he keeps his chickens safe by locking them in a coop. Martin recommends a chicken coop with a concrete base to deter digging predators. He also urges farmers to block any gaps or port holes that may be present around the coop.
Martin said he has followed these guidelines for the past four decades and it has gone a long way in helping to make him be a consistent and successful chicken farmer. A lot of them are common sense but others have to be learned through experience. For now, Martin said he is happy to pass along his experience to the next generation of farmers.