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Our Top 6 Chicken Raising Mistakes

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Raising chickens is pretty simple. But we found ways to get it wrong…

By Greg Seaman, Eartheasy.com Posted Jul 9, 2012

chickens

1. Building the henhouse directly on the ground

I built our first chicken coop using recycled lumber and chicken wire (poultry mesh), and set it directly on the ground. This way, I reasoned, the birds could scratch and peck at the ground for bugs and other chicken delights, and their poops would work into the ground beneath the litter of straw. I thought this arrangement would keep them occupied and happy when they were cooped up.

Raccoons and mink persistently tried to burrow under the side of the coop, and finally a mink succeeded, which cost us the flock. It seemed like I was always fiddling with the base of the structure to keep out predators, when a simple raised floor with a ramp would be more effective. Today we have a coop which is raised 4’ off the ground with a drop-down floor for easy cleaning.

Using rough recycled lumber was also a mistake, since it couldn’t be effectively washed down or cleaned. Chicken coops should have smooth surfaces, painted or whitewashed, that are easy to clean and maintain.

2. Not providing outside access to roosting boxes.

Our first chicken coop was roomy and tall enough for a person to walk inside. I built a row of 4 nesting boxes in one part of coop where the hens would lay their eggs, and each day someone walked into the coop to collect the fresh eggs. This worked fine at first, but soon the kids were coming in from collecting the eggs with their gumboots soiled with chicken poop from the litter on the coop floor. And the daily egg collection seemed to be an intrusion on the hens as they milled about the coop waiting for an available laying box.

It was years before we realized the obvious! Put an opening port on the outside of the coop which accessed the row of nesting boxes. This way there’s no need to enter the coop or walk through the litter, and the boxes were built high enough so there was no bending down to see into the boxes. Today, collecting eggs is clean and simple, and the hens are undisturbed.
nesting box door

3. Using a bucket for water

At first we used a standard 9” tall plastic bucket for the chickens water. This size bucket held enough water for several days for our initial flock of hens, and it was too high to be fouled by chicken poop and too heavy, when at least half-full, to be tipped over. Every few days I could go in the coop and change the water. What could go wrong?

chicken watererWhen I checked the coop a day or two later, the bucket was on its side amid a fouled puddle from which the birds were drinking. Instead of standing and drinking, the birds hopped up to sit on the rim of the bucket from where they could tilt their heads downwards to drink. This also enabled them to poop in the water. Once the water level dropped a few inches, the top-heavy bucket tipped and spilled.

Chickens can go a few days without feed but they need water daily. They easily succumb to dehydration. The best solution to providing a steady reliable supply of water is to use a hanging water bucket, also called a waterer or a fount. The narrow circular trough prevents the birds from hopping up since there’s no room to sit. With a hanging bucket, the water stays clean and can be left untended for a week or longer.

4. Too small a rooster to hen ratio

We first started raising chickens with 6 hens. After a few months we decided to add a rooster to the flock, and we were given a big healthy rooster at a local 4H club meet. The rooster was an active mater and before long the hens looked ragged. They each had bald spots on the back of their heads and featherless patches on their backs. The birds became run down and agitated, constantly trying to run from the rooster. Their egg laying became sporadic.

The ideal rooster to hen ratio is around 1:12, depending on the nature of the rooster. Our rooster over-mated the flock and became so aggressive that he even challenged me when I walked into the chicken run. We couldn’t afford to double our flock to accommodate the rooster, and within a short while he was sent to the stew pot and peace was restored in the henhouse.

5. Not counting the birds each night

Each night just before dark the chickens know it’s time to go into the coop. It was a routine evening chore for one of the kids to run out and shut the coop door to protect them from raccoons. Shut the door, fix the latch, what could go wrong?

One morning when going out to open the coop, a chicken was already outside enjoying the early morning sun. Apparently this hen decided to camp out under the bushes the night before. As it turns out, this is a common practice with chickens. When a hen gets broody, she may want to be undisturbed by egg gatherers and will look for a hiding spot to roost. The hen will stay with her new nest and won’t go into the coop at night. But camping outside at night leaves the hen vulnerable to predators, and we lost a few birds before making it a standard practice to count the birds each night when shutting the coop. If a bird is absent, we could usually find it quickly under a nearby bush and return her to the coop.count your chickens

6. Not enforcing an “on-leash” policy for visitors with dogs

We live in a beautiful forested area and don’t want to post signs or establish rules for friends and visitors passing through. It is assumed that people with dogs will either leash their dog when near someone’s homesite, or have a dog who obeys commands. This was naïve thinking on our part because dog owners always think their dog will obey their command. But on more than one occasion we’ve seen dogs break from their owners to chase a deer and ignore the owner’s commands shouted out in vain.

And so one of our free-ranging hens was chased and killed by a friend’s dog right before our eyes. The friend leashed his dog and went home. Unfortunately, the dog returned the next day, without the owner, and chased down and killed the entire flock. We learned two lessons from this experience: establish an “on-leash” rule for dogs if your chickens range freely, and keep the flock cooped for a few days after a predator attack.

These mistakes were somewhat painful to learn, and hopefully this article will spare you the learning curve. Raising chickens is very rewarding and a perfect complement to an organic vegetable garden. Once you have a secure coop and have learned the basics, raising chickens should require relatively little thought or attention.
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GregAbout Greg
Originally from Long Island, NY, Greg Seaman founded Eartheasy in 2000 out of concern for the environment and a desire to help others live more sustainably. As Editor, Greg combines his upbringing in the cities of New York, Boston and San Francisco with the contrast of 31 years of living ‘off-grid’ to give us a balanced perspective on sustainable living. Greg spends his free time gardening, working on his home and building a wooden sailboat with hand tools.

 

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  • mona lisa

    I would of shot that dog. Got to LOVE Florida law about livestock :)

  • disqus_STyJ7htJYp

    we just built a turkey tractor with 2×4’s and poultry wire around the whole outside. It has no bottom to it so that the turkeys can have free range to grass. Do you have any suggestions to keep racoons and foxes out of the turkey tractor? should we make a skirt around the turkey tractor with 2 ft of poultry wire?

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      Predators usually hunt at night and the turkeys should be shut in by then.
      If you’re placing the tractor in open areas nearby to human activity, then you’ll probably be OK with the current setup.

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    It has been an interesting discussion, thank you for your input. (My suggestion is that you not use swear words as they weaken your delivery of otherwise good points.)
    I have had many years to mull over this incident and am still glad for not over-reacting. You are right – the dog is long gone (natural causes) and the friend is still a most valued friend and community member. He made a mistake, so what. I’ve made few myself. Forgive, and carry on…..
    Thanks for your comment!

  • michael

    Dogs are very territorial, we have 4 rescue dogs that provide natural protection for the flock. Seems like the typical American attitude, if something is not to your liking then break out the guns…

  • xaldx

    I have conquered deadly infestations of mites (which lead to maggots) but it was a long haul. I had to bathe each hen with Dawn and Epsom Salts, and apply sulfur/petroleum jelly, bomb the coop, and put small dog “advantage” on the rooster in very small doses. Also used Pyrethrin on the roosting bars.
    Also helps to have two coops: a summer coop which is more open air and less friendly to mites, but still enclosed to stop predators.
    The winter coop needs to be bombed in spring with no chickens around.
    I want to give my girls a little ACV in their water, but I need to get the nipple-style gravity feeder so I can put the ACV into the 5 gallon water container.
    Any other ideas on great additives to the water to keep down internal parasites and maintain good digestion? ANd dont say antibiotics!

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      Never heard of putting ACV in their water. Interesting idea.
      For mites, we would whitewash the coop in lime, then hold each bird and dip their legs in an oil bath.
      For digestion, you might try adding some diatomaceous earth (DE) to their feed. We haven’t tried this but DE is used by some pet owners as an addition to the pet food. Just be sure to use food grade DE not pool grade), and experiment with small amounts as you would with any new supplement. Here is a link to our DE page:
      http://eartheasy.com/non-toxic-pest-control/indoor/insect-dust-diatomaceous-earth-4-4-lb

      • xaldx

        Thanks Greg, ACV is partly needed here for pH adjustment since we have fairly alkaline city water. Plus we hear that a little acidity is good for digestion and may control some internal parasites. Maybe electrolytes or some B vitamins would be good too?
        Like you, when we first got chickens we thought how easy it was.
        Nutrition (supplementing laying food) and appropriate lighting for egg layers (16hrs a day), plus the hen to rooster ratio (12) and the personal hen space for minimal stress.
        Then you find out about predators and external parasites. Still not sure about inoculations. Internal parasites? That is the next challenge.
        DE, we have tried it only as an additive to nests and dirt baths–for mite control.
        We use the gallon jugs with bait for fly control.
        A lot of work for good eggs! And their peak laying is over before age 2. We just cannot kill the old girls, so the whole operation is uneconomic.

        • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

          I hear you…..but peak laying before age 2, you must have those high producing but for short duration hybrids. Our birds would produce for about 5 years…
          The ideal is to provide a good coop and well-fenced run so predators are not an issue.
          We have had most of the common problems with keeping chickens, but also have had many good years with productive hens and no pest issues. But you are so right – raising chickens is more involved than it first appears.

          • xaldx

            oh and let me share the secret of getting hens to lay in winter: halogen lights. plus halogens keep the coop warmer. and helps dry things out so they can dirt bath in there.
            The amount of laying is through the roof. Instead of 3-4 eggs from 12 hens we are getting 8 or 9 a day. And these are free-rangers as opposed to dedicated egg-laying breeds. Reds Americaunus and Rocks. One Red rooster named Huey and he is such a sweetie.
            I am going to turn off the halogens for a few days and give them a well deserved rest.

          • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

            Makes sense. I’m jealous of those of you with ready electricity.

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