Keep your flock healthy this coming fall and winter with helpful tips from Elizabeth Mack.
Keeping backyard poultry can be a fun and rewarding hobby, but it doesn’t come without its challenges. Maintaining a healthy flock requires managing the day-to-day upkeep, as well as monthly and seasonal concerns. Take the guesswork out of chicken husbandry by anticipating and troubleshooting problems before they arise. Preventative maintenance makes managing your flock’s health as easy as chicken pot pie!
Chickens have specific nutritional requirements at every age. Newly hatched chicks require nutrients to build bone, while laying hens need nutrients for egg production. All chickens need water.
The number one most important “nutrient” for poultry is water. Water intake requirements for poultry will vary by season. Hot temps and high humidity in the summer months will increase the need for drinking water. A young chick that is growing rapidly will need more water, as will a hen that is a high egg producer.
In the hot summer months, it’s essential to keep cool, clean water available at all times. According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, water deprivation for 12 hours can have an adverse effect on the growth of young poultry and laying hens; water deprivation for 36 or more hours can result in death of both young and mature poultry. It’s not uncommon for algae to form in plastic watering bowls, so weekly cleanings and sanitation of watering bowls is important during the hot summer months. Keeping the waterers out of direct sunlight will help, as will adding a bit of apple cider vinegar to discourage algae growth.
Poultry adjust their feed intake according to environmental temperatures and physical activity. In the hot summer months, chickens’ feed intake may be lower, as they don’t have to forage as widely and they move less when it’s extremely hot and humid. But the spring and summer bring lots of delicious insects, so chickens will consume more natural “feed.” As the weather cools and we go into winter, their appetite will increase, as they require more energy to keep their bodies warm. My hens go through at least twice as much layer feed in the winter as they do in the summer. Scratch grains in the winter months is okay, but has little nutritional value. Use it an hour or so before they go to roost, as they’ll stay warm by digesting the grains.
Different Feed Needs
Young chicks, pullets, and laying hens have differing nutritional needs. Chicken feed comes in many forms, including chick, starter, grower, or layer. Chicks need a ration of around 18 to 20 percent protein for growing strong bones. For growing chicks up to about 15 weeks, offer your flock grower feed, which is about 16 to 18 percent protein. You can offer your 15-to-18 week-old flock finisher feed, though if you can’t find it, continue them on the grower rations (which is what I do). After about 18 weeks of age, they’ll be starting to lay, depending on the breed, so their protein requirements will go down, and calcium requirements (to build strong shells) will go up.
According to Dr. Jacquie Jacob, Poultry Extension Manager at the University of Kentucky, commercial feed from a reliable feed store will have all the nutrients in the right proportions that a chick or laying hen will need. Supplementing this balanced diet isn’t usually necessary. She adds if you do offer your chickens scratch grains, don’t overdo it. Scratch to chickens is like French fries are to humans—no nutritional value but darn tasty! Give them an amount they can consume in 15 or 20 minutes, and only in the afternoon or evening after they’ve eaten their regular feed. The same goes for table scraps, not too much, and no more than they can consume in 15 to 20 minutes. Be sure to offer grit (insoluble granite or flint) if you’re putting out scratch or if they’re pasture raised, which aids in breaking down grasses.
What to do with Waste
When chickens eat a lot—you guessed it—they poop a lot. A typical laying hen can produce almost 70 pounds of manure a year. If you have 6 backyard hens, that amounts to more than 400 pounds per year!
Urban Garden Gold
If you live on a small urban lot with close neighbors, it’s important to manage your chicken waste. Small flock owners with gardens hope to use the droppings as “liquid gold” fertilizer, but avoid putting poultry manure directly in your garden unless it’s been composted, and never on fruits or vegetables that will be harvested within 90 to 120 days, as poultry manure can carry harmful bacteria, including salmonella.
The best way to manage poultry waste (and its odor) is through composting. Depending on the space available, you can use an open bin, a closed bin that requires turning, or simply a pile. You’ll need to turn and aerate the pile on a regular basis, which introduces oxygen, helping to break down the bacteria. Be aware that unmaintained poultry waste piles can smell, so city dwellers on small urban lots might consider enclosed bins. If you bag your lawn clippings or fallen leaves, you can layer the clippings and leaves with the poultry waste like layers of lasagna. Before you create any kind of compost area, check with our local ordinances, as unfortunately, some municipalities or neighborhood covenants consider compost bins or piles a nuisance and prohibit them.
Rodents and Other Vermin
The first year I kept hens in my backyard pen, I went out one morning to find one of my hens running around with the tail of a field mouse dangling from its beak! Luckily, the mouse was dead and I quickly disposed of it (okay, my husband did). Mice, rats, and voles will be attracted to your chicken pen if they smell or see food, but backyard chickens won’t necessarily attract rodents if the pen is kept clean and food spills picked up. While it’s not uncommon to find a mouse in your chicken pen, mice and other varmints can carry disease, so it’s important to try to keep them at bay.
Clean up any spilled grain, and keep their feed inside the garage or in a covered, rodent-proof bin. Birds, especially sparrows, will fly into runs searching for food, and wild birds are one of the most dangerous vermin to chickens, as they will carry numerous deadly diseases, as well as mites and internal parasites. Avoid putting out any poisons or traps that your chickens can get into. Walk around your pen regularly and look for signs of small holes or loosened soil that would indicate voles or ground squirrels. Some chicken owners opt to remove their flock’s feeders each night and replace them each morning to keep out small rodents.
If your neighbors are worried that your chickens will attract rodents or other pests, remind them that chickens are actually a great control for things such as ticks, mosquitoes, grasshoppers, and even small snakes, mice, and moles.
Chickens have many predators, and cats and dogs are actually the most common predators of chickens. I live a few miles outside the city limits, so I routinely deal with fox, coyotes, and even occasional bobcats. Overhead predators can drop from the sky anywhere, and in a matter of seconds, be eating your pet chicken for dinner. Red-tailed hawk are common chicken predators, as are bald eagles. If you have overhead raptors gunning for your chickens, never hunt or trap them for control. This is illegal, as raptors are protected under state and federal law.
Predator proofing your coop and run is the single most important thing you can do to keep chicken-loving predators out. One proven method, and the one I use, is digging down several inches around the perimeter of the coop and pen, and placing 1/2-inch hardware cloth fencing approximately 12 inches deep and fan or apron out a minimum of 12 to 18 inches. This will prevent predators such as raccoons or fox from digging under the fencing.
To deter overhead predators, consider either a covered run, or a partially covered area where chickens can seek shelter fast. I have a large, enclosed, covered pen, and when I let them out, they are in a fenced but uncovered area. Here, I’ve hung lightweight aviary netting over part of the area they like to dust bathe in, as well as propped up pallets for emergency cover. At night, when the hens go to roost, I lock the outside run door, keeping them securely in their coop. The coop also has a secure door; I keep it open in the hot summer months for air, but I have a secured trap door that shuts the front pen off from the larger open area. Many mornings I’ve come out to find raccoon tracks and claw marks around their door, but I’m confident they are secure as they can be. It’s a fortress.
The Rooster Conundrum
Most municipalities won’t allow roosters, but if yours does, consider keeping a rooster. Their job is to protect their hens, and they even have a specific cry to alert hens to danger. If danger approaches, a rooster will protect his flock to the death.
Good hen health management is a matter of understanding your flock’s needs, familiarizing yourself with the best management practices, and closely monitoring your flock and their environment. Keeping backyard poultry is a constant learning experience, but always a fun one!
Freelance writer Elizabeth Mack keeps a small flock of chickens on a 2-plus-acre hobby farm outside of Omaha, Nebraska. Her work has appeared in Capper’s Farmer, Out Here, First for Women, Nebraskaland, and numerous other print and online publications. Her first book, Healing Springs & Other Stories, includes her introduction—and subsequent love affair—with chicken keeping. Visit her website Chickensinthegarden