The Joy of Keeping Chickens
Jennifer Megyesi, ...
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As for raising/keeping chickens, I’m no expert, but I’ve never lost one to illness, poor management or poor weather. So I must be doing something right. It doesn’t hurt that, given the bare minimum of food, water and shelter, chickens pretty much take care of the themselves. That’s not to say that they can’t be a bit, or a lot, of work. But I enjoy them and whether they be chickens, dogs, cats, horses or hamsters, all animals require and deserve our care.
There’s the obvious place to start of feed and water. Even though my chickens are out on pasture all day, they still have access to their coop and run which is where I hang their feeders. I offer the girls free choice vegetarian layer crumble all day. I hang one 5lb feeder in the coop and another under the shelter in their run. I offer 2 so that when the lower pecking order chickens get chased off they can go to the other one. I prefer hanging feeders with a “lip” around the inside edge so they can’t “bill” out the feed and waste it. Hanging it at the height of their backs will also help with feed wastage. Even though they are truly fee range pecking and scratching through grass/herbs they do indeed go back to their feeders voluntarily throughout the day for a quick snack.
Clean fresh water is also offered in a couple different places. Two traditional, gravity-fed poultry waterers are offered, but after noticing that they shared water with the dogs I also keep a large bucket of water out in the pasture for them which, if I’m not mistaken, they prefer over their poultry waterer. One thing to make sure is that their coop stays dry to prevent mold/mildew spores from growing and creating a respiratory issue in your flock.
I also leave out free-choice coarse ground oyster shell. This allows the girls to regulate their own calcium intake – they know better than I do. In the winter we supplement them with scratch grains. Other than making you your chickens’ favorite person, it also helps them stay warm at night by boosting their carbs. In the summer I supplement them with rolled oats. Rolled oats have been proven to help keep egg production up in hot weather. Other supplemental that they get are oat straw, Bermuda/orchard grass hay, alfalfa hay. They love scratching through hays. They have a whale of a time looking for the best bit to eat, but eventually they eat most of it.
Another thing chickens need is shade (at least here in southern California.) In the summer the temperatures rise up into the high 90s and low 100s which leaves for panting chickens. So although they can go in their coop it still gets a bit warm, so they sit roosting in bushes or on the A-frame roost we made in their run. A fine mister is also greatly appreciated. An important part of their coop design was to incorporate enough ventilation to keep through breezes on hot days, but being able prevent drafts in the winter.
I find no need for wing clipping. My yard is fully fenced, but only by a 4 foot tall fence. Easily flown over if they wanted to, but if your chickens’ needs are being met they shouldn’t want to. When they do get a hankering for a good wing stretch they run, flap and lift off. . . only about 6 inches off the ground. I must admit if you have rambunctious dogs that think chickens are fun, then you may have issues. They fly up and over when “scattered”/frightened. But we manage to live with 3 dogs and 8 chickens in harmony.
Sanitation and hygiene are of the utmost importance. It may not be in your romantic idea of “farming”, but it really is what separates the humane poultry enthusiast from the crack-pot intensive battery farms. I would never want to buy my eggs from somewhere where they allow the hens to wallow in their own muck. Too many diseases or respiratory issues can be caught by chickens or possibly passed on to the eggs either inside the shell or coating the outside of the shell. Unnecessarily so when just an hour or so a week can keep them happy and healthy. I spend about 20 minutes twice a week keeping my coop/run/yard clean. It’s all about cleaning poo. At the same time I wash and rinse their waterers and fill their feeders. Apart from that I spend about 5 minutes each day picking up or spraying down poo in the yard. I no long become obsessed over it as the fact is chickens poop – and poop a lot! But if you make a bit of effort to pick-up the obvious stuff, you’ll help to keep a healthy balance in your yard. When people come over to see our chickens they are surprised that is doesn’t smell of chickens and that there are few flies.
Don’t forget to spend a few minutes every couple weeks doing a physical inspection of each chicken. Pick them up and really check them over, going through feathers, checking for any skin conditions, mites, lice, wounds, cuts, pecking wounds, scrapes, missing feathers. Check the vents; look closely for tiny critters. Most free roaming, pastured chickens are going to have encounters with wild birds and will pick up various mites or lice from them. Even if I don’t see any mites or lice I still periodically dust the girls with silicate powder (also known as diatomaceous earth) and/or pyrethrum (from the marigold plant); both accepted in organic poultry practices. If you notice one of your chickens bleeding, even if just from an innocent nick on the comb, try to clean it up and stop the bleeding (styptic powder) or isolate them from the rest of the flock till you can remedy the situation. A bit of shiny blood will attract the other chickens to peck at the injured bird, making the situation much worse.