Three Pillars of Silkie Success

Three Pillars of Silkie Success

 

If you know our story, you know that I kind of fell into breeding Silkies. Once upon a time, I wouldn’t dream of having a Silkie in my flock of backyard free-rangers…and yet, here we are! When the Silkie bug bites, there’s just no fighting it. 

I have learned so many things the hard way with chickens in general, but especially with my Silkies. Sometimes I think putting information out there about care and management is a double-edged sword. First hand experience is the ultimate teacher. However, if I can save my fellow Silkie lovers a bit of the trouble, and heartache, that I’ve experienced along the way, I am happy to do that. 

Which brings me to the three pillars of Silkie success: genetics, nutrition, and management.

Genetics

Knowing your breeder, and knowing that your breeder knows their breeders, is key. The detriment of poorly bred birds is an unfortunate reality. I used to think breeding chickens was as simple as having a rooster and a hen. Boy was I wrong! There are many breeding strategies that can be employed for responsible management of the gene pool, which I won’t describe in detail here. As a customer looking to buy a Silkie, it’s important to know your goals. I find that most of my customers are shopping for a certain “look”…the huge crest, ultra-feathered feet, and unique colors. Many hatchery grade Silkies are hybridized to increase their vitality from a health standpoint and make them a little more “hands off” to manage. As a result, you have a loss of that true Silkie look. 

By no means am I saying that a true, well-fluffed Silkie is only achieved at the sacrifice of health and vigor. This is where responsible breeding practices come in. Silkies are prone to….well, everything. A responsible breeder only perpetuates the healthiest birds and keeps careful watch of inbreeding through identification and record keeping. Every breeder will have their own methods, and should be happy to share those with their customers. 

Nutrition

Nutrition is a huge topic and one in which everyone seems to have their own opinion. I like to keep things as simple as I can by providing a reputable complete feed from a well known retail brand. Silkies tend towards vitamin deficiency, so supplementing with a variety of treats and snacks can be beneficial. Lately I have been feeding Kalmbach’s Henhouse Reserve, which is a complete feed that also contains all kinds of goodies for extra vitamins and minerals. It is a whole grain feed, which is an excellent choice if you are looking to ferment your chicken feed. Silkies thrive on fermented feed, as the fermentation process unlocks new vitamins and amino acids that they are otherwise unable to access. I will write up a post about fermenting whole grain feed soon!

Protein content is always a hot topic with Silkies. Many claim a Silkie’s protein requirements are higher, even significantly higher than that of regular fowl. I have not seen a massive difference in feeding extra high protein feeds, except the difference in my pocketbook. I also caution folks looking into feeding their Silkies high protein starter feeds long term to ensure they are unmedicated. Many times gamebird or meatbird starter feeds are medicated, and long term use of medicated feeds is extremely detrimental to Silkies, causing vitamin deficiency. This is something I have learned the hard way.

Management

Proper management is of tantamount importance when it comes to owning Silkies. These is where things can really go wrong for new Silkie owners, as they do vary significantly from traditionally feathered birds. Many of us are used to “set and forget” chicken keeping…at least I was, for many years. Once their large fowl counterparts are to maturity and off heat, for many of us, the majority of the work is behind us. Not so in the Silkie world. There are certainly things that many Silkie owners find themselves occupied with that are entirely “necessary”, however Silkies are far from a hands off breed.

A primary issue to discuss is those stubborn mites. Silkies are absolutely mite prone. If ever I find a bird acting funny, even with preventative measures and care, I will always check for mites first and foremost and rule that out as a factor. Often mites will sense a weak bird and take full advantage. They are incredibly opportunistic. Nearly any time a Silkie is facing a health crisis of any degree, mites will be close at hand, if not already doing their dirty work. I prefer liquid pour-on style Ivermectin, which can be found at your local farm store. Preventatively, use the liquid similarly to flea medication in cats and dogs, dabbing a drop or two directly on the skin at the neck and the vent area. Liquid Ivermectin can also be used as treatment, I will apply liberally to an affected area (usually crest/neck and vent) and follow up with another application in 10 days. 

The most fool-proof method for mite prevention is providing a dry dust bath area for your bird to access. There are many different ways to set up a dust bath and a variety of ingredients that are beneficial for the birds to bathe in. I have used lime, Sevin dust (during an outbreak), sand, wood ash, dry soil, sawdust, or some combination of all of the above. Consider accessibility for Silkies as they often can’t or don’t want to jump over a large lip of any kind into the bath area. Baby pools may work, but may also require some training to jumping up and over the edge. More often than not, I will simply sprinkle some bathing ingredients on the coop floor right after the weekly cleaning and allow them to stir up a bath area in the clean shavings.

A regular cleaning routine is critical to Silkie health. As with any bird, their respiratory system is incredibly fragile and susceptible to distress. Cleanliness in the coop is a great preventative for a myriad of problems, not to mention helps to keep those beautiful feet feathers clean and full. Silkies enjoy having a run area, but are also perfectly content to stay in a clean coop throughout the day and enjoy some free time in fresh grass on nice weather days. Many folks incorporate their Silkies with their large fowl flock, only to become distressed by issues of mud and muck which turn a Silkie into a walking mud ball in no time flat. Over time, we have come to prefer keeping our Silkies indoors (or, “in coop” if you will), in well ventilated and clean, dry pens, to be let out in fresh and dry areas on occasion for fresh air. They are perfectly happy with this arrangement.

Oxine is a wonderful and useful product in a Silkie endeavor. We add a tiny splash to our Silkies’ waterers daily to purify from disease and bugs. Oxine can also be activated and used for sanitization efforts, on waterers, feeders, and pens, when a nice deep clean is necessary. When in doubt, clean and sanitize the Silkie environment. They will thrive in clean, dry housing. 

Ensure your Silkies can SEE! As we breed for those nice big crests which photograph so well, you may notice a hen acting poorly and uninterested in food and water. It may be time to trim her crest feathers to make sure she has a line of sight on the food bowl. The crest also makes Silkies significantly less predator aware. They simply can’t see aerial predators, or even on the ground predators either. I highly suggest only supervised free ranging for Silkies for this reason.

In the winter, Silkies are to be kept dry whenever possible. They do quite well typically with cold temperatures, but will struggle and freeze if wet. I find the hardest days are those that we can here in Ohio when the temperatures hover above freezing during the day (rain) and dip to a freeze at night. It’s a recipe for disaster if your Silkies have been out in the weather and wet that day. We have mitigated these issues by keeping our Silkies penned up primarily, in dry deep shavings during the winter. Summer can be hard on Silkies as their fluff lends them to cooler weather over heat. Keep a close eye for heat stress. Offer iced electrolyte water on those 90 degree+ days. Cool treats like watermelon and cucumber keep hydration up. 

There are many, many more aspects to Silkie management that I could (and will!) write more blog posts about. This is a bird’s eye view of what to expect and how to set yourself up for success with your Silkies!