For those of you who don’t yet raise chickens, the life of a backyard chicken keeper can seem like a strange and confusing world.
It doesn’t need to be though!
In this article we talk you through exactly what hens need to be healthy and good egg layers.
Many folks spoil their chickens in many ways– I’m guilty too, but hens need very few things to lead a happy and healthy life.
The basics can be summed up in four words: food, water, shelter and safety.
So we will take each one and concentrate on the minimum of necessities for each.
Rule #1: Food
The first step to raising heathy hens is making sure their food and nutrition is correct.
If not, you will have problems with their egg laying.
Which type of feed you need will depend upon how old your chicken is. Feed usually comes as crumbles or pellets. Crumbles are basically ground up pellets, they are nutritionally the same.
Crumbles are easier for the chicks to eat, but I change them to pellets at around ten to twelve weeks.
The starter feed can be medicated or un- medicated, it really is your choice. The medicated feed will help chicks develop immunity to coccidia.
If they should develop coccidiosis you run a very real risk of losing many chicks to this disease. If the area you plan to use for your chicks has never had chickens on it, you shouldn’t need medicated feed.
After eight weeks, you can change them over to grower or grower/finisher feed. This contains sixteen to eighteen per cent protein. Their growth rate is slowing now although they are still growing quickly.
When eighteen weeks rolls around you can change them to sixteen percent feed. The ladies should be laying any time now. Initially you can expect a few ‘odd’ eggs until the hen has her machinery running smoothly. Some breeds don’t start laying until twenty eight weeks, so don’t panic!
Something else you need to provide them with is calcium in the form of oyster shell.
Rule #2: Water
Water is essential to all living beings, chickens are no different. They take frequent small sips throughout the day, which adds up to about a cupful per day. In very hot, humid weather their water intake can be around three cups a day!
Quick math: one US gallon has sixteen cups, so if you have ten hens you will need a two gallon drinker.
I prefer the hanging drinkers just because those that are stationed on or low to the ground get all sorts of muck scratched up into them. It seems like you are changing them every hour or so!
Water should be clean and cool- nobody likes drinking warm water.
Make sure you place your drinkers in cool, shaded areas. Of course, no-one told the hen she should not drink from filthy puddles though…
When the weather is unbearably hot, you can add ice cubes to the drinkers to keep the water cool for longer.
If your ladies are looking a bit peaked, you can add electrolyte solution to the water for a ‘pick me up’– once weekly should be enough.
Water that is low to the ground is a magnet for dirt and droppings. If no one mentioned this to you before, you’ll learn pretty quickly that chickens are quite messy.
One of their favorite things to do is scratch for feed, bugs, and grubs…and unfortunately, it all ends up in feeders and waterers.
Dirty water turns into a bacteria cesspool in no time, especially in hot, humid weather. So keeping your waterer off the ground is a great way to prevent the yuck from contaminating your chickens’ drinking water.
Rule #3: Shelter
A coop is basically a wooden box in which the hen sleeps, eats and lays eggs. A hen should never be confined to just a coop, there should be an attached run she can use or allow her to free range.
The coop needs to be well built and able to withstand the weather and predators. It should have good air circulation for efficient ventilation. Ideally a vent close to the bottom to allow cool fresh air in and a vent near the top to allow stale, moist, warm air out.
There should be no drafts on the hens themselves.
It is important that the air currents don’t make a draft directly on the hen. In winter time the breeze may chill her below her optimum temperature or cause frostbite to her comb and wattles.
There should be one nest box for every three hens and a perch for them to roost on at night.
The nest boxes can be free standing, but are usually part of the integral design of the coop. Ideally they will be situated lower than the roost, otherwise you may have hens sleeping in the nest boxes – where they will poop all night and you will be cleaning in the morning!
Nest box material should be changed frequently to minimize the occurrence of lice or mites.
The perch/roost can be a wooden dowel or a two by four laid fat side horizontal. The reason behind this is simple, when the winter arrives they will be snuggling their feet up against their body to keep themselves warm. A flat surface enables them to do this better.
In theory each hen needs about one foot of perch space, but in practice, they all cram together at one end usually!
There are many different designs of coop out there. If you are somewhat ‘DIY’ you could easily make your own. If you do decide to make your own, be realistic about dimensions. Large hens such as Rhode Island Reds or Orpingtons require four square feet of floor space each. Bantams require two square feet each.
As encouragement I will tell you I have built all of my coops- they are sturdy and have everything a coop could need.
If you decide to buy a coop, be aware that most coop manufacturers are optimistic about how many hens will fit into the box! If you read that it can fit six hens, check the dimensions before you buy. While it’s true you probably can stuff a few more in, you will be ‘rewarded’ with some anti-social behaviors from your flock.
Behaviors such as vent picking, pecking and feather pulling will manifest themselves when hens are crammed together. It will be the more timid flock members that will suffer and have to be removed from the coop until their wounds have healed.
This type of nasty behavior is very much apparent in the winter months when hens can’t get out and about. The more room they have, the less likely you will have problems.
Rule #4: Safety
Everybody loves chicken– foxes, raccoons, coyote, owls, hawks, weasels and fishers.
Rats and occasionally possum will eat baby chicks and eggs. Vermin such as rats, mice and voles will eat any feed they can find, so you need to know what you can do to minimize the risks for your flock.
Note: chicken wire will keep chickens in; it will not keep determined predators out. Hardware cloth will keep chickens in and predators out.
Your coop should be ‘tight’.
No access to predators through vents, windows or doors. Vents and windows should have a covering grille of half inch hardware cloth secured to the wood. Ideally the door will open into a covered secure run which cannot be easily accessed. You should be able to securely lock the door at night.
Raccoons have an amazing ability to work things out, they have the intelligence of a three year old child. They can open simple locks, so use something more robust and difficult to open.
In an ideal world the coop will be off the ground by at least six inches. This prevents burrowing creatures from chewing through the bottom of the coop to get in. If your coop has to be on the ground, consider attaching hardware cloth to the underside of the coop.
Tip: As hardware cloth is quite expensive, if you cannot cover your entire run area in it, consider using hardware cloth up to a three foot height, and use chicken wire for the upper areas of the run.
To deter aerial predators such as hawks and owls, you can either cover the top with chicken wire or run some twine or similar in a haphazard, random pattern from side to side. This will deter them because you have made the target more difficult to access by reducing the space they can fly through.
All done with predators? No, not quite. If you live in the city or urban areas there is another threat to your flock- stealing. Several folks have had their birds stolen at night.
If you think this may be a concern in your area, add a padlock to the coop.
#5: Dust Bath
All chickens deserve a spa day, and providing a simple dust bath of silty soil is all you need to give your chooks the pampering they deserve. Chickens take dust baths to rid themselves of mites, prevent mites, and keep their oil glands under control.
If your chickens are confined, try to set aside a small area in their coop for them to bathe. Some use Diatomaceous Earth to assist their chickens in ridding themselves of mites. But be careful, too much of a good thing can also cause problems, like respiratory issues. Just a little will do.
This has been a ‘crash course’ into the most basic of needs for your hens’ wellbeing- it’s always good to revisit the essentials once in a while.
As always, it’s better to plan in advance than play catch up after. If you can get all this into place before the flock arrives, it will leave you more time to watch and study them.
Watching them is very relaxing and it’s also a great way to learn the different little personalities they all have. This in turn will alert you to any pending problems as you learn to ‘read’ your hens.
Do you have any tips or advice to add? Let us know in the comments section below.