About five years ago, we decided to get our first chickens, three chicks that we ordered through the mail. Having read a few books about keeping backyard chickens,but never actually having had chickens before, we were nervous. Could we keep them healthy, happy and safe from predators?
Our flock has grown since then and we have learned a lot, sometimes through more reading, sometimes by trial and error.
Owning chickens isn’t for everyone. Even with the small amount of chickens that we have, keeping them clean and fed and safe and getting them exercise is a lot of never ending work. And some of your neighbors might not love you for it. But, for people who love it, like us, we get never-ending smiles from our flocks.
So, hoping to make it easier for others, we wanted to share some of what we have learned along the way about how to keep your chickens happy and healthy:
- You will end up with a rooster. You just will.
We started out 100 percent certain we would only have hens, but then we visited a man who had such beautiful roosters, we ended up bringing one home. And then, a hen went broody and sat on some eggs that our new rooster helped fertilize. When they hatched, we had yet another rooster.
And, then there was that time we went to Tractor Supply and bought chicks that were supposed to be sexed so that they would all be hens. Out of six, two of those were roosters.
Roosters are beautiful and they do protect their flocks well. But, they are loud. Really LOUD! It doesn’t matter what kind of rooster you have, be it a small Silkie or a Jersey Giant, they were born to crow. And that crowing isn’t usually just in the morning like many people think. It’s often all day long.
So, make good friends with someone who has a lovely farm with space for new roosters or otherwise have a backup plan that involves a good new home if you can’t keep your rooster or if you accumulate more roosters than your neighbors can handle. We had to give away the two of our roosters that were from Tractor Supply, which was sad because they were the friendliest roosters you ever saw and would follow us all over the yard. They were particularly fond of watching us when gardening. Fortunately, we were able to find them good homes. Otherwise, we would have kept them. The “putting the rooster in the pot,” method is not for us, nor is dumping them off somewhere. However, the latter seems to be happening more and more, leading to the need for more and more rooster rescues, such as: https://www.roosterredemption.org/ and http://roostersanctuary.org/
- Go slow when changing from medicated to non medicated feed.
The medication added to chick feed is not antibiotics. It is actually amprolium, which is used to prevent coccidiosis—a parasitic infection of the intestinal tract that is easily spread from one bird to another.
If your chicks have been vaccinated for coccidiosis, medicated feed is not necessary. But, if they haven’t been vaccinated and you do feed your chicks medicated feed, do so for the first 6 to 8 weeks of life. Then, transition over a 7-to-10-day period to all non medicated feed, according to “Mick” Fulton, DVM in “Most Common Mistakes Made by Small Poultry Flock Growers and How to Prevent Them.”
The weaning-off-of-the-medicated-feed process is preferable to a sudden change to non medicated because young poultry are at risk for coccidiosis once they are off the feed until they develop immunity.
- Check on older hens’ calcium and protein needs:
Dr. Fulton notes that 2 grams of calcium are required for each egg shell and that a hen will lay seven eggs a day, then skip a day.
If you notice a hen is picking at their feathers or missing feathers, and/or if hens are eating their eggs, these might be signs that they need more calcium than they are getting.
Crushed oyster shells can help provide the calcium a hen needs for all those eggs.
- Provide dry, safe, absorbent bedding.
Fulton notes that bedding should help keep moisture away from chickens, and recommends pine shavings, as do many who keep chickens.
We use them ourselves and recommend the large flake wood shavings because the fine shavings can get pretty dusty when you spread it around, making it unpleasant to breathe and leading to worries about whether the chickens’ respiratory systems will be affected.
Walnut or cedar shavings should be avoided. According to wideopenpets.com, cedar oils and scents can be toxic to chickens. Walnut dust is hazardous to horses (something to definitely take into account if you have a horse nearby the chickens). Additionally, some people aren’t comfortable using the shavings for their chickens given that walnut dust or chips can be used as a herbicide.
Wherever you purchase your chickens, find out if they have been vaccinated for Marek’s. If they haven’t, we strongly recommend getting this done.
Vaccination can help prevent this highly contagious viral disease, but, as Fulton notes, most small hatcheries don’t automatically vaccinate chicks, nor do most farm supply stores that sell chicks.
Marek’s disease can be spread in a number of ways, including from other birds, as well as in dirty hen carriers, on clothing and boots, wild birds, and by darkling beetles in the henhouse.
The disease is complicated, but can manifest in extremely unpleasant ways for the bird, including respiratory problems, diarrhea, weight loss, and, probably the hardest for owners to watch, paralysis.
As one pet owner put it when writing in the comments section of poultryprofessor.com:
When you only have a dozen birds and you raise them from babies, it is horrible to watch this disease decimate them. Only one of our losses was quick and unexpected…the rest were slow and painful with varying degrees of paralysis and lethargy. I recently had someone offer to give me free chicks (a photographer that had gotten them for Easter shoots); my only condition on taking them was I had to know they were vaccinated for Marek’s!
Unfortunately, because there are different strains of Marek’s, the vaccination isn’t an absolute guarantee against the disease. A vaccinated chicken can still Marek’s, although be less affected by it, and some vaccinated chickens still die anyway.
But, vaccination can help your chickens build up immunity to Marek’s so that they have a better chance of surviving in the event of exposure, making it a seemingly worthwhile preventative measure to take.
For more on Marek’s, check out the Happy Chicken Coop, which is the best site we have found for explaining what the disease is and its affects, as well as answering other related frequently asked questions by chicken owners.
For information on how to vaccinate your chicks for Marek’s, as well as a rundown of other types of vaccinations, visit https://www.wikihow.com/Vaccinate-Chickens