Chicken Keeping 101
Caring For Chickens
When I announced to the family that I wanted to get a dozen or so to keep, my wife nearly went through the roof. “We don’t have time to care for animals!” she said. There were several other reasons she didn’t want me to get them, but after that box of chirping chicks showed up, all arguments were off. Then after handling them and caring for them a few days, the entire family and extended family was hooked on chickens. I never imagined that our family would ever consider keeping chickens.
All of our family members bring us their food scraps and egg cartons. Our girls are now the talk of our church and community of friends. “How are the chickens doing?” This is often how many conversations start with our friends & family. Several of our friends often bring their small children over just to see “chickens”. I have become known as the “chicken guy”.
Personally I think the chickens are hilarious. I work from home and am at my desk most of the day. A walk back to the coop usually ends up with me laughing at some antic one of the girls just pulled. Once you begin realizing their individual personalities, it gets even more interesting. Whether they are chasing each other over a bug or taking a dust bath in the shade, our girls have brought a bit of solace to our home. I suspect they will be around for a long time. That of course is up to my family in more ways than one.
Chickens are dependent on you
One of the first things to remember when keeping chickens is that they are totally dependent on you for their food, water, safety and space. These animals have no way of creating any of these 4 things without your involvement. While chickens are great animals to have as food providing pets, it is also important to realize that any responsibility for their food, water, safety and space rest entirely on the shoulders of those who keep them.
Without your help every day, they will go hungry and will become unhealthy. Without your providing a sanitary and large enough area for them to live in, they will not get the exercise they need to be healthy and happy.
Do chickens get happy?
Sure they do. I love watching mine when I let them out to free range a bit in the morning. Big Red starts his crowing and strutting like he’s the king of the neighborhood. The girls run around trying to see who can be the first to find a worm or bug. When they do, it’s like watching kids in the playground chasing the one who has the ball. They flap their wings and jump in the air like they might just go somewhere if only they could get a little more lift.
How much room do chickens need?
Many of the resources out there will tell you that you can keep chickens in as little as 1 bird per 1.5-3 sq ft. Now this is true. You can also stack humans nearly on top of each other and they will still live as well. But how many of us would like living like that? I don’t know about you, but I enjoy a bit of space. I don’t like crowded rooms or small places where I feel trapped. Frankly, everybody needs exercise. It’s good for the body and it’s also good for the mind and spirit.
I’ve watched my girls when the weather has kept them in their house and they haven’t had a chance to go out in the yard for a bit of free ranging. They start picking on each other. They fight. They peck. They yell, squawk and kick. It’s plain ugly. Why? Because they need their space and they need exercise.
A few days in the same space with the same people will wear on anyone. Even chickens. You need room to kick around a bit and so do they. Even if you only have a very small yard, let your chickens out for a bit every day to explore it. They will love eating the grass and scratching around for things to eat. You will enjoy watching them. While they find things to eat, they will fertilize your yard and garden. Um, if you don’t know what I mean, you will.
Chickens like many other animals needto feel safe. They are nearly blind in the dark and feel very vulnerable when they are not able to roost in a place where they feel safe from predators. This is why it’s important to lock up the chicken coop after dark. They truly don’t need much room for sleeping. You may actually find they clump together on the perch to enjoy one another company. A small coop will work just fine for providing the basic space for sleeping, eating and laying eggs. But, don’t forget their need for exercise during the day.
I would say that aside from food and water, the number one need my own birds have is the ability to get out of their pen once in a while to get exercise and a chance to chase some insect. Make whatever provision you can to see that yours gets that chance too. They will be happier and you will enjoy them much more.
What do chickens eat?
First you should know that since chickens are food producing animals (eggs), they have a very nutrient dense diet need. They need lots of nutrients to grow and lay eggs, even if they are kept as pets. Chickens have high protein requirements. Laying hens also need a lot of calcium, which in turn she uses for the shells of her eggs, which she produces. If your chicken is a non-layer, she/he will need much less calcium. As well, if you give high amounts of calcium to growing chicks, you can cause them to have kidney damage.
Laying eggs is not easy. Nutritionally it is similar to a woman giving birth to a full term baby once a week! It’s important for you to consider all that your chickens need, especially their food intake. Yes, they would love to eat your food scraps every day, but it’s important that you being the caregiver to be concerned for the nutritional value of what they eat. As much as I allow our girls a helping of food scraps every day, we first make sure that they are eating the feed that we placed for them which we are sure has the correct nutritional values that they need to be healthy.
So what will they eat aside from the feed you get from your local feed store? Almost anything. First, don’t be alarmed the first time you find one eating a grasshopper or worm. It weirded me out the first time I found our girls out picking up night crawlers after a big rain. However, worms are a very high source of protein and chickens love them. Now, when I find a worm or bug in the garden or yard, I go out of my way to give it to one of my hens. Seldom does the girl I gave it to get to eat it as the chase is on quickly and it usually gets handed off to several others before someone actually eats it.
Your wisest choice when deciding what to feed your chickens is to buy a quality feed that is formulated for laying hens from your local feed or livestock outlet. This will include the right balance of vitamins, minerals, and grit. Stick to well-known name brand feeds.I personally feed my chickens Purina (premium poultry feed) Layena Pellets. It runs $10-15 per bag and last them awhile. Its good for our eggs layers also.
You can also supplement grains that are readily available to you as well. If you live in a rural area as my family does, stock up on corn and other grains when you see your local farmer harvesting his crops. When my neighbor begins harvesting his wheat, bean or corn, I always show up with my buckets and a few dollars to buy some of his grain. He is always gracious and I always give him a few dollars for allowing me to take some of his grain. I found an old hand grain grinder that someone was selling in my neighborhood which I use to grind the grains for my girls. If the chickens are adults you only need to crack the grain for them. You don’t have to grind it into a powder or pellet it for them.
You can also give your chickens fresh or sour milk, breads (even stale bread), table scraps, and wastes from the garden or pasture among other things. Like many other animals, chickens instinctively know what they can and can’t eat. However, some concern should always be taken to be sure something you feed your birds doesn’t get them sick or even kill them.
Finally, don’t forget the grit. If your birds are allowed to roam around a bit, they will probably find their own grit, but if your yard or space doesn’t allow them any, be sure to get a supply from your local feed supplier and scatter it about where they will find it. Without grit they will not be able to break down their food properly.
Water – Fresh Water
Did I mention fresh water? At the time of this article I have 58 birds and a dog water dish that’s self-filling. The water line is buried form inside the barn to the coop so the line never freezes. Before I used to have 2 five-gallon waterers. The kind that will last all week if I need it to. But I generally don’t let it. Why? If you don’t already have chickens you will find out the water in the trough gets pretty dirty. Now I know that the birds will drink it anyway, but that is only because they have to (you would drink it too if you were locked up with no other options). I always ask myself when looking at their water container, “Would I drink it?” For that reason, I often empty our chicken’s water container, clean it and fill it long before it is empty.
Your chickens will get sick and die very quickly if they don’t have a clean water source. Be sure your chickens always have fresh water available to them any time of day and every day. I highly recommend finding a self-watering water dish or system so you do not have to refill it every day but I still recommend cleaning the dish out for them every week.
(Very Important) Safety
Finally the last thing I wanted to talk to you about is the safety of your chickens. Depending on where you live, there is a mirage of predators who would love very much to eat your chickens. Some will even kill them for sport like the neighborhood cat.
Nonetheless, it is your responsibility to make sure your birds are kept safe. Quite frankly, I have a lot of money invested in my chickens. Between buying the chicks, the starter feed, the bedding, the grit, building them a coop and run, not to mention we have learned to really like them. I have found after it’s all said and done I’ve spent around $200 per chicken with house and feed etc included. My forgetting to put them up at night will get them killed and cost me a lot of money. I know that my forgetting to lock their coop door up after they go in at night will result in some local predator (coon, fox, mink, dog, cat, coyote, hawk, owl, you name it…) killing them.
My family and I live pretty busy lives and as much as we desire to remember to lock the girls up at night, occasionally it either gets forgotten or is impossible to do because of other obligations.
For that reason we have installed an Automatic Chicken Coop Door Opener. I sincerely encourage you to do the same. Yes, it will cost you a bit of change, but it will protect your investment of time, money, energy, and will save your chickens lives for sure, not to mention your sanity. After the first time our chicken door got left opened and we lost our first chickens I would get constant phone calls from the wife while rushing home from work to remember to lock the chickens up before something eats them. Consider visiting www.automaticchickencoopdoor.com today and purchasing your own Automatic Coop Door Opener. This is the same coop door opener that I have. It has worked flawlessly for us and has protected our girls during those times when we could not get home in time to put them up. As well, it will let them out every morning, and safely lock them up after dark.
Well, enjoy your chickens. They really are beautiful animals and one of the very few that return your care for them with food that you can feed your family.
By Jeremy Smith