Happy chickens equal healthy eggs
Keeping a few chickens in your back yard is a great way to have access to healthy eggs all year round. There are many other benefits of keeping chickens as well, which I wrote about here, so if you are debating whether you should have chickens or not, have a read.
Making sure your chickens are healthy and happy is the key to keeping them productive! They don’t demand much, but there are some specific needs that they have which you should try to accommodate.
Feed them high quality organic grain mix
Whatever you feed your chickens will go into the making of fresh eggs, so choose high quality organic grain. Personally I prefer grain over pellets as it is closer to nature – less processing means less environmental impact. Additionally chickens eating grain is much closer to how it would be in their natural environment.
Give them some time on the lawn
Allowing your chickens to free range on your lawn gives them great foraging time – they will find all the grubs and bugs they need to supplement their diet and keep the garden pest numbers down for you. You will need to make sure you have a hardy lawn and enough space for them to roam – if your lawn is too small, or they spend too much time on it, they will dig and scratch until you don’t have much lawn left. If you don’t have much lawn, then simply limit them to a few hours a day out on the grass.
Protect the garden you don’t want the chickens to scratch over
Chickens are great scratchers – which is why you want them on your lawn digging up the grubs and bugs. However, you don’t necessarily want them in amongst your prized roses or your vegetable plot, so you will need to set up some type of exclusion barrier to keep them out. I use simple chicken wire held in place with garden stakes to keep them out of my vegetable plot so that when I want access to the garden, I can simply move the barrier aside, go into the garden and put it back in place when I leave that area.
Keeping your chickens out is just as important as keeping them in! If they end up destroying your garden where you didn’t want them to be, you might start thinking about chicken soup, or roast chicken and while this might be delicious, it’s not conducive with you continuing to receive healthy eggs on a daily basis!
Protect your chickens from predators
In my part of the world, foxes hunting in the dark hours are the biggest threat to chickens, so I shut them in their fox-proof house just before dusk and let them out after then sun has risen in the morning. Some people say chickens attract snakes and that snakes may become their predators. Having lived in the Australian bush for many years and keeping chickens at the same time, I have never had a problem with a snake taking a chicken. In your part of the world it may be different so it is worth talking to other chicken owners to find out what they think are the real predators you need to protect your girls from. Then quiz them about how they protect their chickens and implement some or all of their strategies to protect them.
Let them dust-bath
Chickens like to settle down into a nice dry dust bath that they make in the soil for a number of reasons. Firstly it helps to keep their feathers clean and this helps prevent pests and disease. Secondly, on a hot day, a small bunker in the soil under the shade of a tree can be a lovely cool place to spend an afternoon until the heat passes. Make sure you have an area where they can happily do that without disturbing the rest of your garden.
Make sure they have access to clean water at all times
It doesn't take long for a chicken to dehydrate so make sure they have access to clean drinking water at all times. By leaving bowls of water in areas of the garden you want them to visit, they will naturally gravitate to those areas – but this won’t keep them out of your vegetable garden if it is not protected. Encourage them where you want them to go, but keep protecting the areas where you don’t want them. About once a week I put a few drops of apple cider vinegar in their water – this simply helps to support their general health and well-being.
Provide protection from the elements
You will need to provide your chickens with some protection from the elements.
You need to provide them with some protection from the sun. A nice big tree, if you have it, makes great shade in their yard.
If you decide to plant a tree for them in the future, you will need to place a guard around it, some distance from the trunk as the chickens will scratch the ground around it and scratch up the roots which will dehydrate the tree and it may not survive the attack as a young tree. Once the tree is well established and above head height it should survive the attention of your chickens. In the meantime, or if you don’t have any suitable trees, that you can give them access to then you could erect shade cloth that will provide them with shade as well.
Many people let their chickens roam through their orchard which provides them with shade. Additionally they clean up any unwanted bugs and eat fallen fruit, which slows the spread of disease from one tree to another. All of this free fodder gets turned into amazing fertiliser which the chickens kindly leave around the place for you and the trees will benefit greatly from this too! You will need to make sure your orchard trees are well established before you let the chickens loose on them.
When setting up your chicken yard you will also need to consider how you might protect them from the wind. Think about where the prevailing winds come from. You can certainly plant low shrubs as wind breaks, but these take time to grow and once again, will need to be protected from the scratching of the chickens until they are well established. In the meantime you can put up small structures which will provide wind protection for them. You can use vertically hung shade cloth, or locate them near a wall or two to give them protection.
Give them a home
They will need some kind of housing to sleep in at night with a quiet spot for laying their eggs. Housing should be robust and predator proof. You should be able to close it up so they can’t get out and nothing can get in. A small box with straw in it set off to one side will provide them with a laying box – make sure you put it where it will be easy for you to collect the eggs. They also like a perch or branch to roost on at night as they don’t like to be on the ground when they sleep. It doesn’t need to be very high off the ground – my current chickens have a roost which is only about 15cm off the ground, but they are happy to hop up on it and sleep at night. In the past I used an old aviary as a chicken house and the roost was around 150cm above the ground – they still happily flew up to it and roosted each night.
I don’t recommend putting the nesting box directly under the roost. You don’t really want freshly delivered fertiliser with your freshly delivered back yard eggs!
A house for them can be as simple or as elaborate as you like so go with the skills and resources you have available.
With all these tips, I hope you enjoy keeping your chickens and eating their eggs as much as they will enjoy their home when you provide them with everything they could desire. Bon Apetite!