March in the chicken coop. Nights are slowly drawing out, and clocks in the northern hemisphere spring forward an hour.
So mornings start to become a little lighter and the weather is beginning to warm a little.
Mardi Gras (or Pancake Tuesday!) is coming up, Easter doesn't seem so far away, bulbs are beginning to push through, hens are coming back into lay and suddenly the world seems a happier place.
Let's take a look at what needs doing for our flock this month to make their world a happier place, too!
1. Feed hens well!
As daylight lengthens, hormones kick in and hens raised as egg-layers start producing again. Our supply of delicious fresh eggs begins to ramp up after the lesser supply of the winter months.
And if you're thinking of using them to hatch, there's a whole body of evidence that hatching is affected by the quality of food laying hens eat.
Either way, it's time to think about making sure the ladies get the very best food - both for their own health and to produce the next generation of chicks.
1. Reduce light. If you've provided extra light in the coop during the winter, now is the time to reduce the hours. Don't do it suddenly. Reduce by a few minutes each day until there's no artificial light needed. Over 17 hours of light is known to be counter-productive to hens(1).
2. Give your hens the best quality food you can afford. Foraging is fine, but you need to be sure they're getting a balanced diet including necessary vitamins and minerals.
Layer feed is a good choice for all adult hens. You don't have to worry about that balance - it's done for you. I prefer this one because it's also organic and non-GMO.
3. Give treats sparingly. By all means give treats to layers at this time but remember - treats are just that - a treat, not to be eaten all the time. Too many can make hens fat, and we know that fat is one of the causes of Sudden Chicken Death Syndrome.
4. Give some high protein foods. My flock go crazy for mealworms, and also love the "protein platter" I make for them.
5. Finally, to lay healthy eggs, hens need calcium. As our hens come out of winter into Spring, make sure they have a good source. Some people feed them back their own shells; I prefer to use oyster shell as a completely separate supply in case their own shells are already lacking in calcium.
Thinking of hatching yourself, whether from your own or someone else's eggs? It's such an exciting time - but it needs careful planning, too.
6. Plan! If you've not hatched before, please, please think carefully before you start. Don't get sucked in (and don't let your children get sucked in!) by those cute little chicks in your local feed store.
Remember - those cute little chicks need special care - and they grow up into big, noisy hens and cockerels (roosters). Who will look after them? What will your neighbours say? And what will you do with those who start crowing in a few weeks' time?
I've devised a quick "quiz" for anyone who's not had chicks - or chickens - before. Take a look now, before you start.
7. Think ahead! If you're a teacher wanting to hatch in the classroom, please think hard before you start. I'm amazed every year at the numbers of well-meaning teachers who write to me asking what they should do with the eggs - and later, the chicks - at the weekend. The answer is, young chicks are vulnerable - hatching chicks is not a part-time hobby!
8. Check you're equipped. Whether you've hatched before or not, now is the time to start getting your incubating equipment out. Check it works, and give it a good clean - even if you cleaned before you put it away last time.
9. Join a group! Want to hatch along with other people? Think about joining my online incubating and hatching course. It will become available on the first day of April.
If you're not thinking about hatching from your own eggs, you may be thinking about buying some chicks.
If so, you need to start thinking now about which breeds you want. Most sources will have chicks available from the end of March or beginning of April, depending on where you live.
And although it may seem a little early, browsing hatchery catalogues or looking for local breeders is all part of the joy of looking forward to new life. Order them now and choose a delivery date that works for you later in the spring.
10. Browse. Hatcheries are a common source of chicks in the US, less so in other parts of the world. They have the largest supply of breeds - but there can be downsides. There are reports of customers receiving males in supposedly all-female clutches, and of chicks having physical problems.
But, lots of people love using hatcheries and, considering the number of chicks they raise, the problems are relatively rare.
The catalogues are a good way of researching different breeds, though. The Meyer hatchery is one of the most popular and well regarded in the US and now guarantees 100% gender accuracy. You can find their online catalogue here.
11. Check out chick sales. Your local feed store is likely to have chicks for sale in the Spring. Be aware, though, that most have "mixed runs" of chicks - in other words, a mix of male and female. With standard chicks sold like this, there's no way of telling which are male.
And truth to tell, some stores will advertise "female only" chicks when it's impossible to tell. Be careful. You don't want to end up with a run full of roosters.
12. Find a breeder. If you do your research and decide you want a particular breed, look for a local breeder. Poultry magazines usually have a list, and the internet is always a good source.
And if you can, go to a poultry show. People who show chickens are always passionate about their breed and will be more than happy to talk to you about the pros and cons (mostly pros!). Some breeders will send by post; others insist on pick-up so as not to put the chicks in any danger.
13. Prepare for chicks sent by mail. If you do get chicks by post, remember to prepare well for their arrival. Ask for tracked delivery, and keep an eye open for when your flock is at a collection centre near you.
Don't leave them sitting there! There have been instances of chicks dying through being left in too cold (or too hot!) depots. Pick them up as soon as they arrive.
Then, take them home, put them in their brooder and give them water and chick crumbs. If they seem distressed - you'll hear loud chirping - feed some hard-boiled egg and add electrolytes to their water. You can easily make it at home from items in your store cupboard.
This is the time of year when predators are starting to look for food for their young. And let's face it, chickens are on everyone's lunch menu - baby chicks perhaps even more so.
So, this is the time to check that your chicken run and coop are as predator-proof as they can be.
14. Check your security. If you have weasel-type predators who kill for fun, take a look at my article about pine martens which are Italy's commonest weasel family predator. The information there refers to all weasel family predators.
15. Check your fencing for holes and make sure it's buried deep into the ground. I also have an "L" shaped piece of wire attached to the fence at ground level to prevent predators burrowing their way into the run.
And check your locks - lots of animals, including foxes, are well able to open latch closures. Attach a padlock to be sure to keep them out.
16. Get rid of rodents. At this time of year, rats and mice are also looking for food. Be sure to protect your chickens - and your family - against them.
I have a whole series of articles about rats, here. Don't miss it!
So you have your existing flock or you're planning some additions, you've got a handle on how to feed them good food and occasional treats, and you want to plan ahead to the summer months just around the corner.
There's nothing nicer than browsing through some seed catalogues, planning your chicken-friendly veggie and fruit garden.
17. Use Pinterest as a source of information. I have a Pinterest board with hundreds of pins drawn from reliable websites, all about how to grow a chicken friendly garden. You'll find it here. If you're new to gardening, I have a board for that, too! - and one for herbs.
If you click over, please do "follow" me - all my boards are related in one way or another to keeping backyard chickens.
18. March is a good time to grow under cover from seed. Outside (it may be different for your part of the world) the ground is still too cold to plant. But, looking forward to the summer ahead, we start rotovating our land and adding organic fertiliser now, with a view to planting in a month or so's time.
Chickens are helpful here. Allow them to follow as you dig. They'll find all kinds of delicious bugs in the ground, and help turning it over for you at the same time.
19. Grow some early veg: At this time of year most seedlings can be started indoors. Chickens have different tastes (mine are very picky!) but the veggies I find easiest to grow at this time of year which they almost always love are...
Lettuces: hardy varieties will grow virtually all year. And despite the name, "summer crisp" lettuces do well in the early spring. Plant seeds now and keep them going right through spring, summer and autumn (fall), replacing those you pick with some more seed.
Spinach: another early starter which does better when planted this early. I plant into large containers, as the roots from spinach are long and transplant into soil better when grown that way.
Kale: packed with nutrients, kale actually tastes better when it's transplanted in the early Spring.
Tomatoes: I live in Italy - tomatoes are a daily necessity! I start some seedlings in early March in my outdoor greenhouse, and different varieties next month.
Have you heard that tomatoes are bad for chickens? Not true! Yes, green, unripened tomatoes are, as are the vines. Solution? Grow your tomatoes away from your chickens and feed them the very ripest, squishy tomatoes.
They'll love you for it!
Here in Italy, of course, they're plentiful - we have a huge field of them opposite our house every summer!
But they're also very easy to grow in your garden, or in pots on your terrace. There are all kinds of varieties, from the dwarf varieties right up to the massive 6-footers!
Healthy for your flock, fun for your kids.
1. Ostrander, C and Turner, C.N.: Effect of various intensities of light on egg production of single comb white Leghorn pullets. Pub. Journal of Poultry Science, 1962.