Caring for Chickens: A Basic Overview
Chickens are a wonderful backyard animal to start out with on your homestead. They are low maintenance, produce food for you, and, bonus, add soothing clucking sounds to your yard. Seriously, I love the noises they make. Every so often they squawk when their pecking order is challenged, but other than that they are not noisy animals.
Fun fact: in the city I live in, roosters are not allowed. Too noisy.
Chickens need the basics, just like any other animal. These basics are:
Let’s look at each one in more detail.
Chickens are omnivores. They eat bugs, worms, small rodents, cooked meat, most fruits and vegetables, and chicken feed. We use an an organic feed (similar to this one) and we supplement with fruit and veggie scraps.
Chickens should not eat avocado, eggplant, rhubarb, fatty or fried foods, fruit seeds and pits, uncooked potato, uncooked rice, or uncooked beans.
Some people feed meal worms as a treat and extra protein source to their chickens. I’m interested in soon learning how to breed my own meal worms for this purpose.
Every so often, I like to turn over a stone or move the bricks that their new watering dispenser sits on in order to unearth some tasty bugs and worms. The chickens go crazy over them.
Chickens need a continual source of clean water. If they don’t get enough water, their egg laying can dry up for a while. Just like water is essential in humans for basic internal functions, chickens need water in order to make eggs.
We use a plastic waterer, like the one pictured, and we just recently ordered a large metal waterer so they don’t run out. Because, let’s face it, nobody feels like interrupting their day to go water the chickens.
Justin built a run and a coop. The run is where they are let out during the day to forage. Their large waterer is in the run. The coop is where they sleep at night, lay eggs, eat their feed, and drink from their other waterer.
We have eight hens now, but plan to eventually have ten. According to this helpful article, ten chickens need a 30 square foot coop with access to a run. The coop size needs to go up to 100 square feet if there is no run. We easily have that much space in the coop so that the ladies can be comfortable.
The coop is moveable. Eventually we will get a portable enclosure and move the coop to different areas of the yard, then let the chickens out to forage. The coop also has flaps that lift up along the side so we can reach in directly to the nest boxes to gather eggs.
You can buy a coop/run set up, or look at many plans online and build your own. Justin designed this plan, and so far it seems to be working out really well.
The run and coop windows have chicken wire to keep out predators such as foxes, raccoons, birds of prey, and stray dogs. The most vulnerable time for chickens is dawn and dusk. When we do let them out to forage (outside of their enclosed run, that is) we will be sure to only do it during daylight hours.
The coop is lined with hay, and chicken poop is removed every day. Fresh hay is laid down as needed.
As straightforward as it is to take care of chickens, there are sometimes challenges that arise. These challenges are:
- Broody chickens
- Flying the coop
Sometimes chickens turn broody. They sit in the nest all day (on top of their eggs or others’) thinking that they are going to hatch a fertilized egg even though there has been no rooster to fertilize it. When a hen gets broody, she stops laying. That’s kind of a problem.
Before a hen goes broody, here are some tips to prevent it from happening:
- Remove the eggs soon after they are laid
- Try not to allow the hens to sit in their nest box
It’s not always easy to do this, since most of us feed and water the chickens in the morning, gather the eggs, and go on with our day. Should you find yourself with a broody hen, here is what you can do to try to snap her out of it:
- Pick her up out of the nest box and plop her down with the other ladies. Broody hens can be aggressive, so wear gloves and be prepared for a fight
- Block over her nest box
- Place frozen vegetables underneath her. This is a new one to me. It changes her body temperature and sends the signal that it’s not time to brood.
Flying the Coop
In our old setup (in our previous yard) we had a fence across the back of our narrow yard, with a coop in that area. We let the hens out during the day with 6 foot tall fence around them. Well. They soon discovered how to hop onto the coop and fly over the fence. Imagine an inner city neighborhood with brick row homes, trash littered alleys, and some overgrown lots. Then imagine a bunch of hens foraging, crossing the road, or what have you. I cannot tell you how many times our doorbell rang — “Your chickens are out again.” I perfected the art of rounding them up by getting behind them, squatting down, and holding out my arms wide. I swayed back and forth as I slowly herded them back to their run.
After all this, do you know what I learned later on? You can clip their wings! By clipping just one of their wings, it throws them off balance and they cannot fly as high. This is good news. It means they can’t escape and are less likely to become dinner for a predator. It also means the neighbors are happy.
I have never clipped a chicken’s wings before, but I found this tutorial on how to do it yourself.
Like any animal, chickens can pick up respiratory illness and other viruses that can spread through the flock. I am far from an expert in poultry illness. The reality is that we have had chickens in our previous yard that have become sick and died, one after another.
For large scale chicken keepers, there are some vaccines available to help prevent illness. However, for the small scale homesteader, the best way to prevent illness is by keeping things clean.
Every day, scoop out poop into the compost. The bacteria in chicken poop can spread illness. (I don’t plan to use composted chicken manure in my vegetable garden just in case it doesn’t fully break down, but I will use it in perennial beds).
Once a week, provide fresh bedding for the hens. Clean out waterers and feeders with equal parts water and vinegar. Dust out cobwebs that may form in the upper part of the coop.
Once a month, scrape nest boxes and roosts with a garden hoe and disinfect them with a vinegar/water solution.
Once a year, give the whole coop a thorough cleanout. Remove all the bedding, roosts, and nest boxes and hose them down. Then, disinfect it with the vinegar/water solution.
Do not feed moldy or rotten food to the chickens, and see above for guidelines on what to avoid feeding the chickens to prevent illness.
For more information on poultry illness, this is an informative resource.
The Breed We Chose
We chose a breed called Golden Comet. We bought eight hens of this breed with the hope of soon adding two more “Easter Egger” chickens (a breed that lays pale green eggs).
Golden Comets are a cross between the New Hampshire Rooster and the White Rock Hen. They are a popular hybrid breed that is characterized by their friendly and curious personality. They are rather docile and very good with kids (go figure! We didn’t realize this when we chose the breed). Some breeds may become aggressive when handled, but my kids can pick up our hens (when they can catch them) without fear.
This breed also dislikes fighting. Heritage breeds are normally particular about their pecking order, and may even peck hens at the bottom of the pecking order to death.
Golden Comets typically start laying eggs at 16 weeks, which is between 4-14 weeks sooner than some other breeds. They lay about six eggs each per week. They will lay consistently for around two years, and then egg production will start to lessen. A huge benefit to this breed is that they rarely turn broody.
How About You?
What do you think? Will you get chickens? Do you have chickens already? Leave me a comment below and let me know about your plans.
Coming Up At City Homestead Project
I will be working on some fall vegetable gardening very soon, with plans of extending the season into winter by using hoops and plastic covers. Stay tuned!
See you next time,