Raising Chickens

Many people are discovering that raising chickens offers benefits that go beyond eggs.  They can be safe low maintenance pets and an organic solution to your bug problems.  Their care is pretty straightforward.  They need simple equipment and facilities so cost to start up is lower than most other livestock. 

This section is designed to guide you step by step through raising chickens including how many to purchase, care of newly purchased chicks, nutrition, disease, breeds and behavior.   This is meant to be a handy reference where you can find the information you need, fast.  Links to these and other chicken subject pages are in the right column.

Page Index

How to Care for Chickens

Food

  • Free access scratch feed (mix of cracked corn, oats, buckwheat etc.  Cracked corn is particularly important for providing energy to keep them warm in the winter.
        Chickens don't overeat like horses or dogs.  They self regulate their intake of scratch feed and stop when they have had enough.   I only had one hen out of 50, that would eat too much.  They prefer natural food if available and come to eat the scratch if they can't find enough natural food.
         There are a couple indicators if they aren't getting enough food:
            - Egg laying drops off dramatically or stops
            - They start following you everywhere.
            - Body weight drops.

Hanging feeders help keep bedding from being kicked into the feed

  • Free access oyster shell: Needed for strong egg shells.
  • Free access poultry grit: Needed for efficient digestion.
  • Unlimited fresh water.
  • Pellets or Crumbles: For egg layers you can include some balanced egg layer "crumbles" or pellets.  We don't offer this any more since they didn't like it much.  They are free range and so get plenty of wild food that is very high in nutrition, especially insects.  If you don't free range your chickens, you may have to provide pellets or crumbles to ensure complete nutrition.

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Nest Boxes

Most ready made coops have them built into the structure.  If you are setting up your own coop, then here are some things to keep in mind

  • Hens prefer them to be high off the floor (3 - 5ft)
  • Provide a front lip (3 - 6") that allows the hens to shape the bedding into a nest without the bedding falling out.  Otherwise they will scratch and fuss until all the bedding is gone and they will still not have their preferred cup shaped bed.
  • Don't feel like you have to provide commercial type nest boxes.  They don't prefer them.

We have the commercial type plus homemade wooden "trays".  Basically the trays are a shelf 2 - 3 ft long with walls at either end and a front board 4-6" high.  This forms a long shallow box with no roof.  Our hens lay in these almost exclusively.  I like the convenience of the commercial boxes but once I made the trays they just wouldn't use the boxes any more.  I also used to have more problems with the hens laying all over the barn but the trays have solved that problem too.  I should probably convert the shelves that the boxes are located on to open trays.

Maintenance

Easy cleaning:  Many pre-made coops have wooden floors.  Since these trap moisture and provide a home for chicken mites, we recommend placing a sheet of plastic or vinyl on the floor or sealing the floor with an epoxy floor paint.  This allows the floor to be completely disinfected with bleach. 
    Vinyl Tips:  Cut the vinyl so it is a couple inches too big on all sides.  Cut a 90 degree notch in the corners of the vinyl.  This allows the edges to fold up the sides of the coop wall creating a cove floor.  The notch edges meet each other and you can caulk the little crack to completely water proof the floor of the coop.

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Shelter

A hamburg, dominique, and dorking enjoying a branch perch

Any structure that provides..

  • Roosts inside the coop and positioned above the floor.  Boards or poles about 2 inches wide work well.  Even a large branch (see above) will work.  It should be either easily removable or out of the way so the coop is easy to clean.  If it gets cold were you live, don't use metal.
          Chickens are compelled to roost since the ground is a dangerous place for a prey species.  Raising chickens without roosts will increase their stress.  They will roost outside on whatever suits them rather than come into a roostless coop.  This makes way more work for you as you try to round up your unwilling flock.  Some birds may be satisfied if the coop is elevated but roosts are better.
  • Protection from rain and snow.  The coop should stay dry in bad weather. An outdoor space that's sheltered from rain is also a favorite hangout but isn't necessary.  They prefer open shelters during the day to being holed up in the coop.  These also provide dry ground for dust baths no matter what the weather or season.
  • Protection from wind while providing good ventilation.  Manure odor will make your birds ill. 
         In colder regions orient the coop openings perpendicular to the prevailing winds.  Windows and doors should be closeable to keep the birds warm during bad weather.
        In hotter climates, orient the coop openings parallel to the prevailing wind.  Install fine screens to keep bugs out when the windows are open.  When raising chickens in hot climates select breeds that were developed in subtropical or desert countries.  They handle it better.  Overheated chickens will pant.
  • Protection from predators and pests:  Obviously this varies according to the predator.  Chickens or chicks are killed by dogs, fox, weasels, hawks, owls, cats, coyotes, opossums, and racoons.  Their eggs are eaten by many of these same animals.  There is more to this subject than I can fit on this page.  See the predator page to learn more.
  • Lighting control:  Need 12 - 16 hours of light for hens in winter.  Need low light for Roosters (see Chicken Fighting page).
  • Six inches of bedding:  You can use wood shavings, sawdust, rice hulls, sand, or straw.  I prefer the biodegradable forms that can be composted and then put into the garden.  If you have heavy clay  garden soil, addition of sand also will improve it.  If the coop has a wooden floor that isn't sealed, use enough bedding to keep the floor dry.

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Advantages & Disadvantages of Raising Chickens

Advantages

  • You get much better tasting eggs than store bought.
  • The meat is better too.
  • Insect pest control:  We no longer have an earwig or Japanese beetle problem
  • They are undemanding pets.  If you can't spend time with them for a couple days, they don't have a melt down.
  • They provide excellent garden fertilizer.
  • You can take family vacations without the "pets" as long as sufficient food and water is provided.
  • Your neighbors will love you and your extra eggs (as long as the birds stay out of their gardens).
  • They are beautiful and entertaining to watch.

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Disadvantages

  • Cleaning a coop once a week isn't everyone's cup of tea.  Is it worse than picking up dog poo?
  • They molt once a year which means disposing of lots and lots of feathers.
  • If allowed to free range, your gardens will need to be chicken proofed.  They will uproot flowers and bulbs to eliminate all your ant nests.  They will kick mulch onto the grass and trample delicate plants.  Chicken proofing gardens is possible.  We'll be covering this in an upcoming page!
  • Roosters crow very loudly, and not just in the morning.
  • Roosters can be dangerous.

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Other chicken topics:

     Picking a Breed     

   Buying Birds/ Getting Started    

 How to Raise Chickens

         Nutrition          

         Diseases          

         Predators        

   Coops/Equipment   

   Stopping Fighting