Your chicken stories can all be good ones if you, unlike myself, do a little research to provide safe and secure living arrangements for your flock. Here are some aspects of chicken raising that we overlooked and you can hopefully avoid in getting your new flock off to a good start.
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.
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?
When 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.
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.