1. Shelter. Most people buy or build a coop. ALWAYS build/buy bigger than you think. Seriously. Chickens are addictive. Size depends on the situation, but the rule of thumb is at least 4 square feet per chicken. We have less than that in the bantam coop, but the coop itself is inside a secure covered run, so even on rainy days they have plenty of room to roam. Our coop has a cement floor, but there are all types of coops. We use pine chips on the floor, in the nest box, and on the shelf under the roosts. If there is a hole larger than 1/2 inch or you leave the coop door open to the world, predators can get in (snakes, raccoons, possums, foxes, etc). Your coop will need roosts for the girls (around 10 inches per chicken) and nest boxes. Also - ventilation is very important! Humid coops can cause breathing problems and humidity issues. Ammonia from the poop can cause serious lung injury.
*The following photos show the coop right after repainting it. Chicken believe in redecorating, so your coop will quickly lose it's fresh veneer. But that's ok - you can always repaint again next year :)
(spotless. That pretty much means no chickens have been here.)
(Martha is not sure I've got that spot clean enough)
(just hanging around on a cold day)
(Come on, come on! I need a box!!!)
(yeah, I know. Spotless. Only cause I locked the girls out and repainted. They ran in afterwards and decorated with brown polka dots. Thanks girls!)
2. Run. Rule of thumb here is 10 square feet per chicken. To cover or not to cover? Well, if you just have a small run, cover so it won't get nasty with mud when it rains. Cause it will. Some things that can help with mud - THINK ABOUT LOCATION. Flat low places can flood. A slope can help drain. In fact, a french drain (a ditch with a water pipe and rocks) can really help keep the run dry. Other things that can help - we have found cypress mulch topped with pine chips to be a wonderful thing for the ground in the run. We had sand in a run for the bantams. Both have pros and cons. Sand can easily be scooped with a kitty litter scoop. But it gets nasty when wet, and hard to scoop. Cypress mulch drains well and smells better, but it's harder to get the poop. We've since gotten rid of all sand and moved completely to dirt or cypress/pine chips. Hardwood mulch grows mold, so we don't use that. Our covered run for the pet girls just has dirt - we add bags of topsoil when it gets low, so it's sort of like a large dust bath. We have a large run that the big girls can go out into during the day - it is surrounded by several types of wire, barbed wire, bird netting, electric wire, and holographic tape. DO NOT USE CHICKEN WIRE FOR YOUR RUN. Chicken wire keeps chickens in. It will not keep predators out. Raccoons can easily tear through chicken wire. We use 1/2 inch hardware wire.
(the girls were quite interested in the whole procedure)
3. Food. Those girls gotta eat. They will eat less if they free range, but they can all be killed in one day with the right predators. We do about 2 hours of supervised free ranging every day while doing chores. They love it! Some people mix their own chicken food - I do not find that cost effective. Some just feed corn - that is not balanced and you will get fewer eggs and more health problems. Chick starter is great for chicks - medicated or unmedicated. We don't use medicated, since that can be hard on bantams. We use Kalmbach non-medicated chick starter (18%). Most people feed their hens layer feed, which is supplemented with extra calcium. We have chosen to keep all our hens on chick starter with added vitamins (we presently use Fertrell Nutri-Balancer and Fertrell Show and Breeder Supplement. The extra calcium in the layer feed is not great for chicks or roosters, so it is just easier for us to use chick starter. Sometimes people switch to a feather fixer food during the molting time. We just keep their vitamins going and they do just fine on chick starter - I don't like to switch foods, since it upsets their tummies and adds stress.
I will add extra Probios probiotics during times of stress (big weather changes, coops changes, etcetera), but their food has probiotics in it also. I also add high quality scratch in a 1:9 ratio in the winter when their protein needs are lower.
(I kind of adore the fact that there is a baby on one of the mom's backs)
4. Water. Clean water helps keep your birds healthy. We add vitamins (Avian SuperPack from jefferspet) once a week. Then just fresh water on the other six days.
5. Grit. Chickens have gizzards to grind food rather than teeth. So, they need bits of rock to help that grinding. You can buy grit, but if your flock free ranges, they will probably pick up plenty in the yard. I buy a bag of grit once a year and toss it into the run or put out small containers, depending on the coop. Of course, sometimes babies think a grit or oyster shell bucket makes a fun bed!
6. Calcium. Layers need calcium to build those shells. Always keep a bit out in a separate bowl - don't add it to their food. They will take what they need! Ours eat a ton, since we feed chick starter rather than layer feed. We use chipped oyster shell. Sometimes we toast egg shells and add them in too. But I'm often busy, so that doesn't usually happen :)
7. Interesting things. What does this mean? Your birds will get bored and peck at each other if your run is just an empty box. Think outside the box for what you put in the box! Cement blocks to climb, Christmas trees, logs (secured so they don't roll), crates for shelter, etc.
(I scavenge Christmas trees. I make a big house with walls of trees for warmth in the winter. And the chickens love to climb on them for some reason. Then in spring the skeletons make great hiding places for chicks. It is August right now and my trees - or the remains anyway - are still in use!)
8. Dust Bath. Almost forgot! This is sooooo important - ironically chickens clean themselves by bathing in dirt! It knocks off any parasites, loosens old feathers, and breaks up any bigger pieces of dirt (ie poop). Do not use peat moss. We used that for a while, but ended up almost losing a chick - it is just too fine and fluffy so she breathed it in. We use dirt. Plain old topsoil from a home improvement store. I do add in a bit of diatomaceous earth if the bath is in a well ventilated outside area. Wood ash is fabulous too, as long as it is not from treated lumber.
Now.... extras. Chickens don't <need> these, but we like them. Plus, we have noticed a huge increase in health using these extras - glossy feathers, bright eyes, good weight.
1. Vitamins. Do chickens need vitamins? Well, all I can say, is we notice a difference in the gloss of their feathers and their overall health. We put kelp in the food for minerals (1 cup/50lbs food). We also add 1/4 -1/2 bag Omega Egg Maker supplement per 50 lbs of food. And once a week they get vitamins in their water (Avian SuperPack). We use 1/2 tsp per 3 gallons of water.
2. Probiotics. Great for gut health! Ours get probiotics in 3 ways - Probios in their food under times of stress (1 cup/50lbs), probiotics that are an ingredient in their non-meducated Kalmbach chick starter, and in fermented food. Sometimes they are so enthusiastic that they knock over their fermented food!
3. Speaking of which... Fermented Food. Our hens have access to both dry and fermented food. I saw articles about fermented food all over, but it seemed like a hassle to me. Then I had a hen who was unthrifty and quit laying. We couldn't find anything particular wrong with her, but her feathers were dull, she was not active, and of course, no eggs. We tried several things for about six months. Nothing. So out of desperation I tried fermented food. A week later she became more active. Two weeks later she started growing more shiny feathers. Three weeks later we got an egg and she never looked back. Now I'm a believer. I do a continuous ferment, but that's just one way you can do it - I prefer this method because of the simplicity. I start it with double what I would need (for 25-30 hens I use about 5-10 cups per day, depending on the weather - they eat more in cold weather). So to start, I add about 20 cups of dry food and 2 cups of scratch to a 5 gallon bucket (my scratch varies since I make my own - often has wheat, cracked corn, black sunflower seeds). Then I add enough water to make a very thick porridge consistency, like oatmeal. Wait three days (stir it several times each day), serve the girls (needs to be in a warm place - above 60. I keep it in the barn in spring/summer/fall and in my pottery studio in winter). After serving the girls, add a big scoop of dry food (one day's worth, about 8-10 cups), 1 cup scratch, and add enough water to make a thick porridge, stirring the new in with the old very well. Next day scoop out half for the girls and add in new.... repeat repeat repeat. White on the food is fine - it's just beneficial yeast from what I understand, and never hurt my girls. Black mold - toss and start over. I've never had that problem, but about once a year it smells off so I start over. Although come to think of it, I think at this point I haven't had to start a new ferment in about 3 years!
4. Diatomaceous Earth. A touchy subject. Word on the web is that this can cause respiratory issues and is not good for bugs, so don't use. However, I used to put some in their dust baths in the run, and I used to add 1 cup/50lbs food (for their dry food, not the fermented). Never had an issue. We did stop for about 6 months as a trial - the girls lost weight and didn't seem as active. Put them back on and they gained weight and gloss. That's enough for me. Here is a link to the only actual study I have found for DE, and it actually goes right along with what we saw. Click here for the study.
5. Treats. So, not a good idea for the main diet, but we give scratch to our big girl flock of about 30 birds when we call them in from free ranging (morning and night). They get 1-2 cups each time. I usually make our scratch out of equal parts cracked corn, whole oats, and black oil sunflower seeds. They also get a cabbage each day, and veggie scraps. Sometimes meat scraps. That's their fav.
6. Deworming. Some people deworm, some don't. Some only deworm when they see worms or have unthrifty birds. Our birds live on land where goats once lived, so we deworm spring and fall. I use Valbazen, a broad spectrum dewormer.
7. Automatic coop door opener. LOVE. My girls have a secure run, so they can get out there in the morning. But during the day, the door opens and they can get out into a big run with the goats. And I don't have to get up early and let them out. And at night, if I'm out and about, it closes for me. LOVE. I have the Chickenguard Extreme with a metal door. LOVE that it can sense the light or I can set the time. So expensive, but so worth it. I also have an Ador automatic chicken door - so so so simple to put in, and since it's on the outside of the building the light sensor works great.
Take care of your girls and they will take care of you! Here are some photos of the wonderful rewards!
The tiny egg is a wind or fart egg - just a little misfire, often without a yolk.
Pretty colored eggs from our Easter Egger crew.
And no, I have no idea why this chicken chose to lay her egg in the water.