If you are raising backyard chickens, you need to consider biosecurity. Not just for your chickens, but for your family as well. Check out this video for Nutrena poultry expert Twain Lockhart’s advice on keeping everyone happy and healthy.
Don’t kiss your chickens!
Wash your hands after you handle chickens
Have a pair of “coop shoes” that you do not wear anywhere else
Do not borrow equipment from friends
If you bring in a chicken from someone, quarantine them for a minimum of three weeks
If you are bringing home baby chicks soon, you’ll need to know what to feed, and how to feed it. Listen in as Nutrena poultry expert Twain Lockhart shares tips on properly feeding chicks for a healthy start and a long life.
Use baby chick starter crumble. Lay crumble calcium content is too high and may damage kidneys of the chicks.
Chicks may pick out larger pieces of crumble if they have a hard time eating them.
Feed chicks as much as they want as they self-regulate.
Medicated chick starter helps to prevent coccidiosis. It is not an antibiotic.
Few foods are as appealing to a hungry chicken as a bunch of young lettuce or spinach sprouts poking through the spring soil. Given the chance, a few hens will quickly devour plants intended for their owner’s kitchen.
Ironically, few soil additives are as appreciated by lettuce, spinach and other vegetables as chicken manure. Plants seem to leap from the ground and produce human food in abundance when stimulated by the droppings that chickens produce every day.
The trick to achieving both healthy chickens and an abundant garden is managing the flock in a way that the hens help the gardener instead of their gobbling down valued veggies.
Here are a few ways to manage a flock for garden abundance:
The Double-Run System
Probably the best and easiest way to manage a flock and garden is to create a double run. The chicken run is simply the fenced in area where the birds enjoy daylight hours lounging, dusting their feathers, and foraging for seeds, insects, tender sprouts, and bits of stone that helps their digestion. Over the course of the day they deposit their droppings randomly.
Most coops have just a single run, but often the owner can convert this into a double-run system. The bigger and sunnier the area the better.
Stretch a wire mesh fence six or eight feet tall to split the run roughly in half. Devise a way to allow the chickens to access only one side of the run at a time. The rest is easy.
In one gardening season let the hens into only one side. Plant the garden in the other. Next year, reverse it. It’s an outstanding way to rotate crops and nutrients.
Many flock owners don’t have enough room to create the double-run system described above. They can still use chickens to help with gardening chores.
For most common garden vegetables, it’s vital to keep the birds excluded during the growing season. Otherwise they’ll harvest the crops. However, usually there are several weeks after the snow melts but before it’s warm enough to plant seeds. Come fall once the season’s last vegetables are harvested, there is often a long cooling window of time until the ground freezes and snow falls. These are prime times for chickens to enjoy gleaning tasty morsels from the garden.
Chickens have superb vision, strong legs and feet, and nimble pointed beaks. They gleefully spend hours scratching up the soil. Humans might call it tilling. Their sharp eyes spot tiny weed seeds and insect eggs and larvae. Their pointed beaks snatch them from the soil and turn them into delicious protein filled food. Chickens remove the seeds and bugs that can pester next year’s vegetable plants and convert them to food.
Turn a flock loose in early spring or late fall and hens will usually head right for the rich garden soil hiding delicious goodies, but there’s a way to encourage them to target the places that need the most chicken foot rototilling. Bait them by scattering a few handfuls of dried mealworms or black oil sunflower seeds – those in the hull – in the garden and rake them gently into the soil. Hens love mealworms and sunflower seeds. In the process of hunting these goodies they’ll loosen and soften the soil and discover hidden insects and weed seeds.
Excluding Chickens from The Garden
Many people can’t let their chickens forage in the garden, but they can still blend vegetable and chicken husbandry. It’s simple. Weeds and vegetable waste mixed with chicken manure and manure-laden litter decay into outstanding compost. Work the compost into the soil before seed planting and watch the vegetables flourish upward.
Much research is being done on the benefits of using chickens to restore degraded grasslands in China and Europe. Essentially scientists are finding how helpful it is to let hens access land. Dr. Carl Rosier works for the Rodale Institute at Etzel’s Sugar Grove Farm near Cedar Rapids, Iowa, studying ways to improve soils in cropland. “Chicken manure stimulates plant growth and increases soil productivity, water holding capacity, and nutrient retention. In a nutshell chickens, when incorporated into the garden correctly, can help bring balance to the soil ecosystem,” he said.
Many families that keep chickens also enjoy growing beans, tomatoes, and many other vegetables. It feels good to bring both fresh eggs and crops into the kitchen. Meshing chickens with gardening is a perfect way to maximize food production while improving the soil’s health.
As summer’s heat transitions to fall’s balmy days and cool nights it’s time to think a few months ahead. January is on the way, and for much of the northern hemisphere that means blustery cold wind, ice, snow, and long dark nights.
Winter is a challenging time for both people and chickens. Humans prepare by bringing coats, long johns, mittens and hats out of storage, checking the furnace, and closing the home’s holes and gaps with weather-stripping and caulking. These tasks are important to do! And, remember the chickens, too.
Chickens evolved in the sultry jungles of Southeast Asia. It is amazing that these tropical animals survive icy winter cold and continue laying eggs as snow drifts pile up outside. Many common chicken breeds sport layers of fluffy down under their outer feathers. They keep hens toasty warm, and with proper care, chickens are likely more comfortable during winter than when the temperature and humidity zoom upward in July.
Anyone keeping chickens in an icy area should prioritize sticking with hearty breeds well suited to surviving cold. In general, large brown egg laying, fluffy feathered breeds, like Orpingtons, Brahmas, New Englanders (Rhode Island and New Hampshire Reds and Plymouth Rocks), Wyandottes and several others thrive in cold. Smaller white egg layers often have a large comb and sparse feathers and are less suited to life where winter’s chill takes the breath away.
In summer a chicken’s comb acts like a radiator, giving off body heat and helping keep the hen cool. That’s helpful in July but is a January liability. Combs frostbite. The most winter hearty breeds have a small pea or rose comb that’s less likely to freeze than tall single combs.
Even the most winter hearty breeds need protection from winter’s chill. Pleasant fall days are the perfect time to prepare the coop and chickens for the coming chill. Here are several fall projects to keep the flock health through winter.
Few items are as handy during winter as electricity. Electrically heated founts keep water liquid and eliminate the tedious chore of replacing frozen water buckets with fresh water. Electricity also enables plugging a light into a timer so the birds have the 15 hours of daily light that stimulate laying. Set the timer so lights come on a few hours before the sun peeks over the horizon. Finally, having switch operated lights in the coop makes checking birds after dark easier than using a flashlight.
It may be convenient to stretch an extension cord from the house to the coop, but it’s not a good idea. Extension cords aren’t made for continual use and most aren’t built to withstand severe weather. Hiring an electrical company to run power to the coop may be the best investment a chicken owner ever makes, and it might not be too expensive.
Cords will be safe, and fall is a great time to get this task done.
On sultry evenings chickens love sleeping as cool breezes flow over them. Windows on opposite sides of the coop help create cross ventilation. In winter summer’s breeze transforms into a draft wafting through the coop, threatening to frostbite vulnerable combs. To reduce drafts and let more light through soiled windows clean the glass and close windows as the temperature drops.
Nearly all coops have plenty of cracks between boards, at the edges of windows and doors, and where the roof joins the walls. An inexpensive caulking gun filled with a tube of silicone caulk quickly plugs cracks and holes. Caulking doesn’t usually work on wide cracks but expanding foam does. Caulking supplies are available in every hardware and home store. The chemicals work best when the temperature is above freezing.
Keeping Water Liquid
Chickens can’t drink ice. The biggest challenge flock owners have on arctic days is keeping water liquid. If the coop has electricity investing in a heated waterer solves the problem, but many coops lack power. The time-tested way to let the chickens enjoy a drink is to bring a fresh bucket of warm water to the coop and remove the frozen one every few hours. It works, but it is a labor-intensive chore. These days most people are at work or school and can’t make frequent water switches.
Insulation works. Chicken body heat will keep a well-insulated coop a few degrees warmer than outside temperatures, helping keep chickens comfortable and slowing the water freezing process. Insulating the coop also keeps it cooler in summer. Fall is a great season to insulate a coop’s walls and ceiling.
Insulation also works with water containers. Some insulated waterers are made for chickens, but a re-purposed bait bucket may be less expensive and works just as well. These are plastic buckets lined with Styrofoam and sold to anglers who want to keep their minnow water from freezing while they ice fish. Cut a small hole in the lid so the chickens can access water, fill the bucket with lukewarm water, and it will resist freezing for several hours longer than an un-insulated bucket. Insulated bait buckets can be purchased at stores that sell fishing gear.
Mice are one of nature’s craftiest animals. They sense that winter’s coming and seek comfortable warm places to overwinter. Spilled feed becomes nutritious mouse meals. Caulking holes and cracks helps exclude rodents, and fall is the perfect time to set up a trapline in and near the coop.
Commonly available snap traps have been successfully catching mice for over a century and work perfectly in the technology age. Be sure to set them in places where children and chickens can’t access them. Mice tend to run next to walls, rather than cutting across open rooms. The most effective way to set snap traps is to place two or more together next to a wall with the trigger side close to the wall. A dab of peanut butter on the trigger is irresistible to a hungry rodent. Often there are plenty of mice in a coop, so keep trapping until no more furry feed thieves are caught.
Avoid mouse poison. Mice sometimes eat a poison meal and die in inaccessible places where their decaying bodies stink. There’s also the scary possibility that chickens or children can access poison. A final reason to avoid poison is the threat it poses to one of the greatest friends of chickens. As long as hens are securely locked in a tight coop each night owls will patrol outside. Few animals are as efficient at catching mice and rats as these beautiful predators. Sometimes a mouse will eat poison, stagger outside and be caught by an owl. The poison transfers and the helpful mouser either sickens or dies.
Chickens are tough birds. As long as they are draft protected and have plenty of food and water they’ll thrive even if the mercury drops to zero. Most parts of the United States rarely experience super cold, so heating the coop isn’t needed. But if the mercury falls to 20 or 30 below zero adding warmth could save chickens. Heating the coop to a balmy temperature isn’t needed but taking the edge off a super cold night will be appreciated by the hens. The same heat lamp used to brood chicks last spring will often raise a coop’s interior temperature from 10 or 20 below to a balmy zero.
Be fire safe. Most coops are flammable, so make sure any heat source is positioned away from combustibles.
Fall is a good season to be outdoors but it’s winter’s harbinger. It is the perfect time to winterize the coop so hens will be comfortable and keep laying even as blizzards rage outside.
Anyone who keeps chickens is likely to occasionally have a hen go broody. She’ll make a dramatic mood change, stop laying, fluff her feathers, change her vocabulary, and spend all day and night in the nest. Her life’s goal is motherhood.
We can consider broody hens either a problem or an opportunity. Since they don’t lay while in the mothering mode, a broody is a problem for someone who needs plenty of eggs. Yet, watching her incubating eggs and raising chicks is a fascinating, especially for children, and an easy way to add replacement layers to the flock.
Broody hens perpetuated chickens for most of the thousands of years they’ve been domesticated. Before artificial incubators, they were the only way to hatch eggs.
In those pre-incubator days chicken keepers needed some hens to go broody and raise a new generation. It worked, but was woefully inefficient. At best a broody can hatch and raise only about a dozen babies, making mass production of chickens and eggs impossible. Because of this inefficiency eggs and chicken meat were scarce, expensive and only served on special occasions.
The ancient Egyptians figured out that eggs could be artificially hatched if kept at just the right temperature and humidity for their 21 day development. For hundreds of years in those pre-modern technology days they used incubators to hatch chicks. In the rest of the world broody continued to do the work.
Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit helped launch today’s chicken industry by inventing the mercury thermometer in 1714. Sealed in a glass column the liquid metal expands when warmed and contracts when cooled. A scale on the mercury column enabled a person to accurately measure temperature for the first time in history.
Eggs must be kept precisely between 99 and 102 degrees to hatch, so accurate thermometers and thermostats were essential technologies needed to make an incubator work. It took a while for them to be perfected. The first successful incubator was produced 167 years after Fahrenheit invented the thermometer. That invention changed chicken culture and the American diet forever.
Today’s modern hatcheries use massive incubators to hatch tens of thousands of chicks every week. Fertile eggs are kept at precisely the right temperature and humidity and nearly all hatch. Most chicks coming off incubators end up at either massive egg production or broiler facilities that house thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of birds. Even smaller hatcheries that sell diverse breeds directly to customers hatch them in incubators.
With the coming of incubators broody hens became obsolete and a problem for commercial egg farms. They wanted high egg production, and since a broody stops laying, she’s not adding to the bottom line. Poultry scientists used their understanding of genetics to develop breeds and hybrids that rarely go broody. So huge incubators combined with non-broody hens enabled mass production of chickens and eggs, and broilers for consumers. Today these are the most inexpensive protein for sale at the grocery store.
Broody hens aren’t needed anymore to perpetuate chickens. So, have incubators given them the pink slip? Maybe not.
Scan a hatchery catalog or website and breeds will be described as “broody” or “non broody.” If customers want maximum eggs, they can buy non broody types, but many people keeping just a few hens in the backyard can choose broody breeds to help them enjoy one of the most enjoyable aspects of chicken rearing. Broody hens are as fascinating as they are educational as they hatch, protect, and educate their babies. Broodies are just plain fun.
Hens can become broody at any time of the year and once in awhile one is downright silly and tries to bring babies into a frigid January world, but it’s more likely in spring and summer. Older hens are somewhat more likely to be broody than young pullets and generally classic brown egg laying breeds are more prone to have the mothering instinct than small agile white egg laying breeds. But there are always exceptions. Sometimes a non-broody hybrid, like a California White Leghorn, decides she wants to be a mother and becomes broody. It’s rare but happens and sometimes breeds described as being broody decide they want nothing to do with mothering and refuse to incubate eggs.
Breeds famous for broodiness are Silkies, Orpingtons, and Brahmas. Most of the larger bodied brown egg breeds have a tendency to hatch eggs and raise young. Brown egg laying hybrids, like ISA Browns and many white egg laying breeds and hybrids tend to not go broody, but the important word is “tend.” Exceptions rule.
Preparing for a Broody
Managing a broody is a fascinating experience for anyone raising a small flock in the backyard. Nothing’s quite so endearing as seeing a peeping baby chick poking it’s head out of its mother’s fluffy feathers or watching mom teach her babies how to find food and stay out of trouble. It’s a great process for children to be part of.
To enjoy the brooding experience, choose some chicks of breeds that tend to be broody. Usually a young hen will lay for several months before the mothering instinct kicks in. Be prepared to help her successfully hatch eggs and raise babies by doing these things:
Have a nest box ready and a place where it, with the broody hen inside, is separated from the rest of the flock. A large hen, like a Plymouth Rock should be able to incubate about a dozen fertile eggs.
Put a small feeder and waterer near the nest. The broody won’t eat or drink much but needs a snack and water once in a while.
Have chick starter mash and a chick feeder and waterer ready for when the babies hatch.
If all goes well, eggs will hatch 21 days after mom started incubating. Chicks will soon scamper all over the coop. Continue to keep them separate from other chickens, and let the mother hen care for her babies. She’ll keep them toasty warm, even on cold nights, and give them a better lesson in survival than any human can.
What If I Don’t Have a Rooster?
Infertile eggs won’t hatch but a broody doesn’t know that and will sit on them anyway. Fortunately, she can’t count so doesn’t know how many days elapse. This gives a helping person time to do one of two things:
Get fertile eggs from a friend or neighbor or order them immediately. Many hatcheries sell fertile eggs, which are also available on eBay. While waiting for the fertile eggs to arrive put golf balls under the hen. She won’t know they aren’t eggs! Or, let her sit on infertile eggs until the fertile ones arrive.
Keep the broody on golf balls and in two to three weeks buy chicks at a farm store. Or, as soon as she goes broody place an order at a hatchery for delivery in two to three weeks. When the baby chicks arrive bring them to the broody after dark. Gently remove the golf balls or infertile eggs under her and replace them with live chicks. She’ll immediately adopt them as her own.
Incubators have given broody hens the pink slip for commercial chicken production. They just aren’t needed anymore, but a good old fashioned broody is ready to both raise chicks and give the flock owner a fun and educational experience watching her bring babies into the world and raising her chicks. No pink slip for her.
Many parents build a backyard coop and stock it with a few hens as an interesting way to help their children learn responsibility by caring for animals and where food really comes from.
These are important lessons, but chickens offer children much more. A small flock can spark curiosity and imagination that gels into a rewarding career or lifelong hobby.
That may sound far-fetched but ask successful people what sparked their interest and led toward a career or meaningful hobbies and often they’ll say: “When I was only four or five years old Dad and I made a birdhouse and ever since I’ve been fascinated with building things…..so I became an engineer.” Or, “When I was only a few years old I spotted a brilliant red bird out our kitchen window. Mom and I looked in her bird book and identified a Scarlet Tanager. Birding’s been my passion ever since.”
Parents never know what might ignite a child’s interest, so even brief exposure to a diversity of positive experiences can spark a lifelong passion. Master teachers recognize that curiosity is a powerful precursor to learning. Rather than doling out facts, gifted teachers create an environment that stimulates curiosity. Students eagerly take it from there.
Jane Goodall, famous for observing and documenting chimpanzee behavior in Africa, began her naturalist career as a young child carefully watching how chickens lay eggs in her grandmother’s chicken coop.
Chickens are fascinating creatures, and a small flock can begin a child’s adventure in science. A few hen’s ability to teach out values the eggs they might contribute to the family. Children who joyfully interact with their chickens are poised for a satisfying career in animal care and agriculture.
According to Dr. Susan Lamont, Distinguished Professor of Agriculture at Iowa State University, many career opportunities are open in poultry and other areas of agriculture. More will be available when today’s youth hit the job market in 10 – 15 years. “Even children growing up in urban or suburban neighborhoods can find a rewarding career in agriculture. Lessons learned caring for a chicken flock can nudge a youngster in that direction,” Lamont says.
“There are many careers of various types open for students at all levels of education. Some have PhD degrees but others work as research associates or lab technicians with lesser degrees. Some openings require a high school diploma and further technical training in robotics, electronics, and other areas if they are doing maintenance or facility services on larger farms. Some farms hire engineering graduates. It depends on the situation. Then there are jobs in food safety that may require a certification. There certainly are jobs open in poultry and salaries are competitive,” says Lesa Vold, Communications Specialist at the Egg Industry Center.
Do some experimenting
Parents can help pique kids’ curiosity by encouraging simple chicken experiments. These help kids learn the scientific method while letting the hens be teachers. Here are a few simple examples:
Do chickens prefer sleeping with certain flock mates?
It helps to have five or six hens that are easy to identify as individuals. Perhaps they have different feather colors, patterns or physiques. Each evening take the child to the coop and photograph roosting birds. This is data collection. After taking photos for a week analyze them. Is there a pattern? Does the Rhode Island Red always or usually sleep next to the Black Australorp? This is data analysis. If a clear pattern emerges then the child has learned that hens like sleeping by a certain flock mate……or not. This is drawing conclusions based on observation and analysis.
Do chickens have food preferences?
Put a cup or two of chicken scratch or wild bird seed mix in a bowl. Take a picture of the contents. Let the chickens access it. They’ll usually crowd right in and start pecking. Observe carefully. Do hens prefer certain seeds over others? If yes, which ones? Do they shun some seeds? What does this mean? Can chickens distinguish one type of seed from another? How do they do this?
These are basic and simple experiments that can be done with very young children. They sharpen observation skill, spark curiosity, and introduce kids to the scientific method used by researchers in dozens of areas to advance human knowledge.
A fulfilling career just might be hatched in the backyard coop.
magazine articles, and Internet blogs often offer tips on how to involve
children in chicken keeping. It is an outstanding way for youngsters to learn
where food really comes from, gain responsibility by caring for animals, and
pique their curiosity about living things. Some kids will be “bitten by the
chicken bug” and find that keeping a flock develops into a lifelong joy
There’s one unfortunate thing about kids. They grow up and leave the nest! Then the years pass and parents’ aging joints begin to creak and muscles start to ache. The common chores of lifting heavy feed bags, scooping manure out of coops, and hauling drinking water to the flock often cause older people to give up their chicken hobby.
are ways to make keeping chickens easy on the back and muscles. These simple
tips could encourage older people to keep enjoying their Australorps, Brahmas,
Rhode Islands or any of many other fascinating breeds as they age.
Lifting heavy weights sometimes pulls muscles and can be tiring. Most bags of feed and bundles of wood chips weigh upwards to 50 pounds. Slinging them around is no problem for a strapping 30-year old but as the years add up, that same size bag seems to grow ever heavier. Some ways to avoid lifting include:
Ask the feed store if an employee will carry bags out and lift them into the trunk. Often, they are happy to help.
After arriving home, slide the bag from the trunk into a wheelbarrow or wagon and roll it to the storage bin, usually a metal garbage can, in or near the coop.
Instead of trying to dump the feed from the bag to the bin, after opening the bag use a scoop to bail the feed in a few pounds at a time. It takes a little longer but is easier and safer than hoisting that heavy bag.
Use a scoop that holds two or three pounds of feed to transfer it from the storage bin to the feeder.
Put Everything Within Easy Reach
the feed storage bin as close to feeders as possible to make transferring feed
simple and easy. Also, keep scratch grain and grit within reach of the coop to
minimize walking. It saves time and energy to make everything needed to care
for chickens convenient.
Enlist Hen Help
Often nests are placed against a side or back coop wall, and sometimes they’re mounted low. Gathering eggs requires entering the coop and bending, often several times a day. It’s far easier to enlist the hen’s help to make egg collection easier. Most people have common tools. With basic carpentry skill a person can make a nest about waist high that protrudes from the coop into an easily accessed space. Nest openings face the coop and allow the birds to easily enter them to deposit their daily gift of a fresh egg. Hinges enable the top of the nest to be opened simplifying collection. The hens eliminate the need to bend over to gather their eggs.
Hinges, Clasps, and Grips
Hardware stores sell inexpensive springs made to close screen doors. It only takes two screws and a few minutes to create an automatic coop door closer. One end of the spring is screwed to the door frame and the other to the door itself. The spring closes the door automatically and holds it closed, making it easy for a person to enter or leave the coop with hands full, while making it hard for hens to escape. It’s helpful to have a clasp hold the door closed to make entry challenging for a hungry nocturnal raccoon. Many clasp designs automatically secure the door once the spring pulls it closed. A simple loop made of heavy duty wire (see photo) enables easy opening of the clasp by a person on the door’s opposite side while eliminating the chance that he or she will get locked inside the coop with the birds.
Lighten the Water Load
gallon of water weighs 8.34 pounds and most waterers hold two to five
gallons. Lugging water gets heavy fast,
but there are ways to make the refilling chore easy. Most backyard coops lack a hose tap near
them, so water has to be carried a distance from the house. A plumber can be
hired to run an underground water line to the coop, but that’s expensive. An
easier and less costly way to have a handy water supply is to add a section of
gutter to the coop roof and channel downspout water into a rain barrel. Rain barrels hold and store 30 to 50 gallons
of water of clean precipitation. Even a light shower on a smallish roof fills
common buckets hold 2 ½ gallons of water, and weigh around 20 pounds when full.
Rather than lugging a filled 50-pound five-gallon chicken waterer from the hose
tap or rain barrel to the coop, simply keep a couple of buckets handy. Fill
them from the rain barrel and transfer water to the waterer. It may take two or
three trips, but that’s easier than lugging the filled container.
Create a Visible Pop Hole Door
Anyone who has had a raccoon feast on their prized chickens knows how important it is to close the pop hole door each evening to exclude the furry predators. Door closing is easy to forget, so automatic door closers might make the chore more certain. Some closers operate on timers, while others have a photo sensor and close the door at twilight. Usually they operate on electricity. Having power in the coop to operate the door, lights and water heaters during cold weather is a major labor saver. Some door closers may be powered by batteries but hiring an electrician to run power to a coop is a major labor-saving investment.
Most people manually close the pop hole door in the evening and open it the next morning. Sometimes they forget. While watching an evening television show or reading, a nagging question can enter the mind. “Did I close the door?” There are two ways to find out – walk out and see if it’s closed or check it from a distance with a flashlight. Positioning the pop hole so it can be seen from the house saves steps, and a flashlight with a focused light beam enables checking it from a distance. That saves steps in the darkness.
Making chicken keeping easy saves anyone time and effort and could prevent a lifting or bending injury. Human bodies age, while interest in keeping chickens lingers. Structuring the coop and managing chores to reduce lifting and make chicken care easier, saves time, reduces the chance of an injury, and makes it possible to maintain a flock even by older folks.