Backyard Chicken Care 101: Raising Happy, Healthy Chickens
In addition to providing incredibly rich, healthy eggs, chickens also happen to be kind, loving pets. That being said, these fine feathered friends do come with their fair share of maintenance. From cleaning their coops to feeding them a balanced diet, there is a lot to consider when raising chickens.
Whether you're just about living a more organic lifestyle or you’re a seasoned homesteader, this piece can serve as both an overview for newbies and a friendly reminder for fowl-raising veterans. For the latter group, feel free to skip the “Considering Chickens” section and move right on to the tips.
If you’re a greenhorn when it comes to raising chickens, you need to check your local zoning ordinances to confirm that you’re legally allowed to raise farm animals on your property, particularly fowl. So before purchasing supplies, see what your local laws and regulations have to say about it.
Once you know you can legally raise chickens on your property, you want to consider your space carefully. To ensure your birds have some room to roam, we recommend four to six square feet per chicken inside the coop, not including the run. Typically, the more space the chickens have to move, the happier they’ll be. Consider the space you have in conjunction with your local laws, as some municipalities require your coop to be kept a certain distance away from your property line.
Finally, consider how tight your schedule is. Although chickens aren’t exactly high-maintenance birds, you’ll have to check on them every day. From providing fresh food and water to locking up the coop, you should plan on spending about 30 to 60 minutes a day on your chickens.
1. Provide Room to Roam
Chickens are active creatures that like to roam and forage. While they can manage in a coop that allows two to three square feet per bird, we recommend an enclosure that’s closer to four to six square feet. Additionally, we recommend at least 10 square feet per chicken in the run.
We must note that cutting corners on the size of your coop does increase the risk of cannibalism, pecking and scratching, and stress. This cramped lifestyle also reduces the number of eggs you’ll receive, as happy hens lay more eggs.
If space is limited, Bantam breeds are your best bet. Conversely, if you have a lot of room and your municipality allows free-range chickens, then the more square footage the merrier. Just know that predators do become more of a threat to a free-range flock. For this reason, we recommend building a fence to protect them. Further, it can be challenging to find hens’ eggs when they’re fully free-range.
2. Put Your Hens Where You Can See ‘Em
Humans aren’t the only animals that enjoy the taste of chicken. Foxes, coyotes, raccoons, and hawks pose a serious threat to your birds. You can proactively prevent predation by placing the coop or free-range area in a place where you can easily monitor it from inside your home—directly outside of a kitchen or living room window can be ideal.
Because hawks are still an issue, it’s helpful to have trees in the yard to provide overhead coverage. Additionally, you’ll want to ensure the best foraging areas are away from the fence. Reducing predation also means keeping the grass and weeds around your fence short so you can easily spot hiding predators.
3. Remove the Mess
Even at their cleanest, coops are somewhat dirty, as chicken litter is always part of the equation. Whether you’re using straw, lawn clippings, or pine needles, their habitat is hard to keep clean. There are three main strategies to keep the coop in tip-top shape:
Deep Litter Method: For those of you up north, the deep litter method is an excellent choice for you. With this approach, you allow your litter to build up and decompose for up to a whole season. As the litter and manure break down, it provides warmth for your flock. Begin by sprinkling barn lime (not hydrated lime!) in the coop to help minimize odor and pesky bugs. Then, top with about five inches of litter. Every other week, stir in new litter and barn lime. Also, try adding wood ash to create a dust bath for your chickens. It’s a natural way to prevent fleas, lice, and mites and keep the coop smelling fresh.
Removable Method: If you’re building your coop, consider a few ways to make removable dropping boards, perches boards, and roosts. Removable components are far easier and faster to clean than traditional built-ins. Again, we recommend vinegar or an essential oil formula that still works to kill harmful bacteria and fungi.
Tarp Method: Lay a tarp on the coop floor and top with litter. Straw seems to work best. When it comes time to clean the coop, simply fold the tarp, drag it out, and dump the contents into the compost. Be sure to disinfect the tarp before adding it back into the coop. We recommend using a vinegar solution to do so.
To keep the coop chemical-free, create your own cleaning formula! We recommend:
One cup of water
1/2 cup vinegar
15 drops lemon oil (optional)
4. Create a Routine
A consistent routine will ensure work doesn’t build up and your chickens stay safe. Consider creating a chicken-care checklist that outlines everything from feeding to cleaning.
Start off your day by feeding your birds, refilling their water, and collecting eggs. Do a quick checkup on each chicken to make sure they’re not sick or hurt. Signs of illness include sluggishness, bald spots, and decreased appetite. Any chickens that are hurt, especially if they’re bleeding, should be removed from the coop and isolated until returned back to health.
At dusk, be sure all of your chickens are back in the coop. Secure locks and check for any holes in or around your fencing. While it’s nearly impossible to 100% avoid predation, you can minimize the possibility by checking out the coop and run daily. Many experienced homesteaders train their chickens to return to the coop with a specific call. You can do this by associating a certain noise or call with a treat.
5. Careful with Your Scraps
Feeding your birds food scraps is a great way to reduce waste, and they love it, but certain human foods don't jive well with our egg-laying friends. So while table scraps can provide a balanced diet, you'll want to avoid foods that are high in salt or fat. Additionally, you should avoid:
Keep Your Chickens Happy and Healthy
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