Saturday, April 14, 2012

Happy Chickens

God created chickens with instincts to do certain things... scratch in the dirt, peck at various objects that attract their attention, forage for food, crow or announce an egg has been laid, roost at night, and so on. Obviously they were designed to do most of this outdoors as opposed to being strictly confined to quarters inside a coop or barn, never to see the light of day. Most of us already know this and it's one of the reasons that we keep chickens in the first place.

However, an outdoor space that keeps chickens safe from predators is also necessary and yet it can limit some of these same natural instincts. Each person's homestead situation will determine how much "free ranging" can go on based on whether it's an urban quarter-acre lot with an enclosed run (no free ranging, but access to outdoors), a suburban acre with a chicken yard (limited free ranging area that is usually fenced), or a rural spread with a moveable tractor or paddocks (sectioned off pasture) that allows chickens a much larger space to roam (greatest free ranging).

Typically, the more space the birds have to range, the happier they are. And happy chickens have less problems. Pecking at one another, fighting, obnoxious behavior, breaking eggs, excessive broodiness, and overall general health can be an issue for homesteaders, but a few simple preventative measures can go a long way to reducing these issues before they get out of hand. For those of us with something less than a total free range situation, there are things you can do that will help keep your chickens happy so they can express their "chickeness".

Keeping Chickens Busy Happy!

Provide outdoor access! Okay, I already stated that. But I can't stress it enough! Chickens were designed by God to work in the dirt. PLEASE, provide them some out door time every single day, weather permitting.  An enclosed run is the minimum we can offer them, and as long as you have enough space in the run and coop combined, they're actually pretty content with that. Each chicken needs at least 3-5 square feet, but you can always provide more.

Provide plenty of nesting space. The old saying three's a crowd is way under rated... for hen's, two is a crowd! And you can be sure they will always seem to like the same nesting box! So be sure there are plenty of nests to go around.

Throw them some scraps! That compost pail you keep on the kitchen counter? Your "girls" would love to have at it. Just throw it out in their run or yard and they'll work it over, taking what they like and leaving the rest. What they don't eat... just rake it into a pile or let it compost where it is. When exposed to weather it doesn't take long to break down, but if you have predators that like treats such as left over - leftovers, take it out when you put the chickens to bed.

Scatter some seed. I buy my chicken feed through Azure Standard, but I try to keep some extra wheat and barley as well (also purchased through Azure - it's animal grade grain and not as clean, but perfect for chickens that may need a bit of grit). Each morning I take a scoop and throw some in their yard where I want them to scratch that day.

Pull a few weeds. I got this idea from Marjory Wildcraft... it's a lot more fun to pull weeds to give to the chickens than to just pull them to throw them out! WAY more fun! When I pull weeds just to get them out of the vegetable garden, I feel like it's an unending battle. But when I pull them to give to the "girls", I'm actually thankful that I have a few ("few" being an understatement!). My garden is right next to their yard - they share a fence, so I just pull and toss and the chickens get their daily greens. Just be sure you know what they can and can't eat (no nightshades, etc.)

Lay down the straw. This is a great idea... especially during the rain and snow season because although the chickens really don't mind the wet, they just don't want to walk in it! Putting down clean, seed-free straw keeps their feet dry (until the next rain/snow) and gives them something to scratch in. It also keeps the ground somewhat moist underneath (a plus in my dry climate) and encourages earth worm activity and other little critters that chickens like. They'll spend the entire day working the straw!

Photo Credit: BackyardChickens.com
Tie something up! Perhaps chickens aren't as curious as your barn cat, but they do like shiny things or anything that catches their eye! So take advantage of that and tie up a bundle of greens to the side of the run or fence and let them entertain themselves as they take turns pecking. I've even read one person who hangs up old CD's that glisten in the sun as entertainment! (For treat ideas, visit Backyard Chickens).

Give them a bath. Not with water, but dirt! Chickens need to have a place to make a little hole kind of like a bowl where they can lay in the dirt and fluff it inside their feathers. They L.O.V.E . it. Besides, it helps keep down mites and other creepy crawlies that could bother them. Think of it as Hen Spa Time.

Let them roam. If you're going to be out in the garden or yard to work, why not let the "girls" join you? As long as you're around, you can keep an eye for predators, but don't forget to watch the chickens, too! They don't know the difference between a weed and your favorite rose bush. If you have some extra wire fencing material, just put it around any special item to keep the chickens from eating too much of it.

Photo Credit: Craft Log

Move them around. Building a small, portable cage without a bottom allows you to move a couple of chickens to a specific area for a few hours so they can work it by scratching, eating bugs, and leave their droppings as fertilizer but keeps them from eating your plants at the same time (Jessi Bloom has some great examples of this in her book Free Range Chicken Gardens). Moving them around inside your garden benefits the chicken and your garden! Now that's sustainable!

Watch their ratio. Keeping too many roosters can be an issue for your hens. It's fine the first few months when the males are young, but once they start trying to mate on a regular basis, if your ratio of roosters to hens is out of whack, your "girls" will start to look a little worse for the wear! Most people keep 1 rooster for every 10-20 hens, but there's no EXACT number that is correct. Just watch your flock and if you notice that the hens are looking like they're getting too much action (missing large amounts of feathers on their back), reduce the rooster population by one or increase the number of hens.

Of course, a little love and admiration helps, too! Just make sure that occasionally you give them something to keep busy. Healthy birds mean less work in the long run and a lot more EGGS!

What do you do to keep your chickens happy?

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