An Introduction To Caring For Chickens

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Choosing A Chicken Coop

Chicken coops (or chicken palaces) come in many sizes and styles. You can choose from the simplest of chicken tractors, to a virtual Kensington Palace for poultry. What sort of coop is right for your flock? Let’s evaluate the factors involved in the decision process.

introduction-to-caring-for-chickens

Factors affecting coop style choice

Weather

Weather is an important factor in the coop design. The climate in your area may be warm most of the year. Your temperatures may never fall below freezing. A coop in a warm climate will look different than a coop that shelters chickens through a long, snowy, sub zero winter.

Predators

Will your coop be in a suburban or city backyard. Will the yard be securely fenced, to keep roaming dogs out? Even in the city, raccoons, opossums, and rats can devastate a flock. In a suburban setting you probably won’t be dealing with foxes, bears and bob cats, but predators will still be trying to enjoy a chicken dinner. On the farm, or in the city, you will still need to keep your chickens safe at night by giving them a place to roost in safety.

Number of Chickens in the Flock

How many chickens can you keep or do you want to care for? In a country setting, this answer is wide open. In a neighborhood you may be limited to only a few. In this case you can design and build a coop that is right for the number of chickens you are allowed to have. Usually, an adequate coop will provide 3 to 4 square feet of floor space per bird. If the chickens will need to stay in the coop for the entire day while you go to work, then the recommendation is 7 to 8 square foot per bird. In many cases, the chicken coop will have an enclosed wire run attached to the coop. This will allow the coop to be smaller because the chickens can make use of the run as part of their living space during the day.

Neighborhood Specifications

When in a neighborhood, you may have covenant (homeowners) restrictions on what you can put in your yard. Fencing may need to be of a specific style. Outbuildings, such as sheds and coops, may need to be of a certain type. A chicken coop made of used wooden pallets may not fit the rules. In the country, or on a farm. the styles are more varied. Different types of structures are common, such as a re-purposed garden shed. A dog house, a children’s play house or a stall in the barn can all be adapted for chicken housing. Extravagant pre-built chicken coops can be purchased too, with some of these being quite fancy, wired for electricity, double hung windows, and warming panels built into the walls.

In any coop, there are a few items that must be part of the design.

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Nest Box

Nest boxes are the areas where your hens will go to lay eggs. The usual recommendation is to have a nest box for every three hens. While this is a good formula to adhere to, don’t be alarmed if all the hens wish to lay in the same nest box! I do still provide plenty of nest boxes for my flock of 27 layer hens. But the eggs are usually clustered in one or two nests.

Roost Bar or Roosting Area

The roost bar is very important because this is where the chickens go to sleep at night. Using a 2 x 4 piece of finished lumber is a common way to provide a roost. A thick sturdy tree limb can be used if you are seeking a more natural look. The one thing to avoid is having your chickens roost on wire or the top of a wire fence. This practice can damage the feet of your chickens. A natural roost position for the feet cannot be obtained if the chicken has to curl its toes so much to grip the wire. In addition, a wide roost bar allows the chickens to keep their feet covered while roosting in the winter, cutting back on frostbite dangers.

Secure Doors

Secure doors including the small pop door leading to the chicken run, are necessary also. I use secure metal latches on our coops and secure the latches with a carabiner clip or snap hook.
While good ventilation is very important, keeping predators out of the coop is, too. Cover all windows and roof vents with hardware cloth and not chicken wire. Chicken wire will not keep predators out of your coop. Most wild animals can rip chicken wire apart and then gain access to the chickens. Keep in mind that if you want to keep chickens in, chicken wire will do that. If you want to keep predators out, use hardware cloth.

Ventilation

Good ventilation keeps the air from stagnating, removes potentially toxic ammonia fume buildup, and cuts down on dust.
Incorporating all of these items into your purchased or home built coop will be one of the most important things you do towards successful chicken keeping. Whether you end up with an open screened coop, a movable chicken tractor, a small garden coop or a large chicken building, the essentials remain the same. Some additional extras that are nice to have include electricity for lights, a fan, a heated water fount in winter and self opening and closing coop doors that run on a timer.

introduction-to-caring-for-chickens

Feeding And Caring For Chickens

Now that we have covered the basic housing needs of your flock, let’s move on to discussing nutrition and feed.

There are many commercial brands of chicken food available. How do you choose the best feed for your flock? Organic, corn free, soy free, all natural, non-GMO, medicated, non-medicated,are some of the terms you will encounter. Here are my thoughts on chicken feed. In many cases it is just a matter of preference which type of feed you choose.

Always use high quality grains or feed, free of mold, dust, and insects. The grain should have a fresh smell to it. Commercial brands have dates on the bag indicating where and when it was bagged. When buying the feed at a feed store, the bags should be rotated to keep the stock moving and not end up with an older bag of feed.

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Non-GMO, corn free, soy free, and organic choices are largely your preference. In some areas of the country, you will have little choice in feeds for your flock. The choices may be limited to mash or pellets for layers, and mash for chicks. There may or may not be a separate formulation for meat birds. In a more upscale or urban area, the choices will be much greater. Multiple brands may be carried by the same store. While I have not done a true scientific study of the different feeds, I have fed both organic and all natural chicken feed to my flock. I have not noticed any difference in the health or egg laying rate in the flock when using one feed or the other.

When feeding chicks from hatch to 16 to 20 weeks of age you will be using a chick starter ration. This will be offered in medicated or non-medicated versions. Again, here, I have used both to start day old chicks. The medication is a coccidiostat and it is not an antibiotic. I do think there is value to having the coccidiostat in the feed and will usually feed at least one bag of medicated feed to my chicks before switching to a non-medicated starter feed for the rest of their development.

Continue to feed a starter ration until 16 to 20 weeks of age, and then gradually switch over to the regular layer feed. If you have a rooster, it is ok for him to eat whatever the flock is being fed.

How much to feed is another question. The flock seems to eat the majority right out of the gate in the morning. I still like to have some feed available for them during the day. Then I feed a small meal before sending them in to roost for the night. The amount is something that you will need to gauge for yourself. If you are throwing away large quantities of spoiled food at the end of the day, then cut back a bit. Chicks should have feed available, free choice at all times. For the full grown chickens there is no need to put feed in the coop at night. It will only attract rodents and the chickens will be going to sleep anyway.

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Chicken feed brands will vary for different areas of the country. Most commercial feed websites will have more information on their website concerning their own formulations.

Of course, there is the choice to make your own feed at home, too. If you aren’t familiar with formulating feed rations, I suggest that you follow a recipe. Just mixing random amounts of grains together may not meet the chicken’s requirements for protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. Most chicken rations are in the 16% protein range. The chick starter rations have more protein at 18% for the growing bodies.

Unless it is an occasional necessity, I don’t feed a meat bird formula to my layer hens. Their nutritional needs are very different and overloading my layer hens diet with excess protein can do more harm than good. Meat bird rations are formulated to create a meatier bird in a shorter amount of time.

In addition to housing and feeding your chickens, you will need to provide care in a few other ways. Of course, have fresh water available at all times. The water containers, bowls or founts will need to be cleaned about once a week too. I suggest adding a few teaspoons of lemon juice to the water and scrubbing the bowls, then rinse completely.

Coop Cleaning

I do a daily sprucing up in the coop while collecting eggs. Any buildup of droppings is removed, along with any wet areas of bedding. Wet and soiled bedding along with spilled feed attracts flies.

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Health Checks

Observe your flock on a daily basis. Understanding normal behavior for your chickens will alert you to the presence of illness or injury in one of your flock. Occasionally, pick up each chicken and assess their health. Are they scrawny and losing weight, are the feet and legs a healthy skin color for the breed? Check for raised scales on the legs and feet which can be caused by mites. Are the feathers glossy and lying smoothly against the body. The eyes should be clear. Catching any potential health problems at the beginning can make a difference in whether the chicken lives or dies.

Seasonal Coop Cleaning

Unless there is a big mess created, a few times each calendar quarter I will completely strip out the bedding in the coop and replace the bedding. I use kiln dried pine shavings for the coop floor, along with straw for the nesting areas. Coop bedding is another area that is open for debate. Some people use corn cob bedding, sawdust, sand or just straw.

I hope that this information breaks down the three big topics of housing, feeding and care for you. Enjoy your chickens!

Caring for chickens - information from choosing a coop to care and feeding.
  • Anthony Woodward USN/RET says:

    I will start with eight chicks next Spring in Brigham City, Utah in my fenced back yard.

  • Mike the Gardener says:

    Another great article Janet! I am not in my 2nd year of raising chickens. I started with 6, we lost one just this past winter, and then added 2 more, so we now have a total of 7.

    It’s actually cheaper to care for 7 chickens than 1 dog … lol … we have one of those as well ๐Ÿ™‚

    I built my own coop from some plans I bought online. Some of the coops available for purchase around here seemed flimsy to me for what they were charging, and adding another shed as a coop to my yard didn’t seem like a good logistical choice.

    I have learned a great deal about chickens. They have such wonderful personality and have added a great deal of joy to the family. The kids absolutely love them, and enjoy feeding them. Now if I can only convince the kids that cleaning out the coop is fun as well.

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