Stocking density: lower must be better, right?
Most of the certifying bodies that address “humane” livestock production, in this specific case the Humane Farm Animal Care, seem to coalesce around a stocking density of 1.5 ft2 per bird. That’s just about exactly where our stocking density ended up this winter.
We’ve always stocked at a much lower density, last year stocking the same coop with only 140 birds for a stocking density of around 4.25 ft2 per bird. More than doubling the stocking density made me a bit nervous. We were expecting that the stress of the increased stocking density would lead to problems with the hens picking on each-other. Ever heard of the term “henpecked”? It’s a real thing and it can turn ugly, leading to hens that are lower on the “pecking order” to being bullied to death by their peers. Sure we had lots of barley to feed them, which is supposed to counteract feather-picking and cannibalism, but the stocking density made us nervous.
And now here we are, in the cold heart of a Minnesota winter and the increased stocking density might be one of the best things we’ve ever done for the chickens. Much to my surprise the chickens are dryer and warmer than they’ve ever been in the winter and we’ve yet to see any of our fears of cannibalism materialize. I’ve read that a chicken puts out about 10 watts of body heat. Multiply that by 400 chickens and you’ve got quite a heat source. In practice, this means that our chicken coop stays around 30°F warmer than the outdoors at night. In the daytime it can get as much as 40°F above ambient. It has to get quite cold outside to make it drop below freezing inside the chicken coop.
In addition to the free heat, the few hundred extra warm bodies come with another benefit. Once we got our waterer situation ironed out the litter in the chicken coop is a much better consistency with all the extra scratching that it’s being subjected to. Friable. That’s the technical term for the litter consistency that we’re after. The tradeoff for this lovely litter is that we have to add more straw to counteract the increased manure content. More straw and more manure means more frequent cleanout. The real bummer is that our chicken coop has fairly low ceilings (7′ tops) that impose a fairly hard limit on the litter depth. We can build up to about 12″ of litter before it starts to interfere with doors and cause me to hit my head on the ceiling.