Care of Chickens in Small Farms and Backyards
Here’s some general pointers on how to raise chickens successfully.
Whether you are raising backyard chickens or rasing chickens on a small farm, there are a few fundamental principles to the proper care of chickens that you need to know.
In the Permaculture facts about chickens section below, we’ll also look at how to raise chickens for optimum yield, by considering the many services and products the humble “chook” has to offer, and how best to integrate them into your self-sufficiency system.
How to Raise Chickens
Accommodation for chickens raising generally consists of a chicken house where the birds lay their eggs, roost at night, and seek shelter from the weather, plus adjoining run(s) or yard(s) where they can exercise, scratch around, dust bathe, eat and drink.
And here’s how to raise chickens in healthy accommodation: Consider providing additional runs to prevent the buildup of parasitic worms and other disease that can easily occur with time if only one run is used.
To safeguard the health of your birds you should also choose a site that is well drained.
An adjacent clean, dry facility for storing feed is also needed. The best storage container is a large, galvanized iron rubbish bin with a tight fitting lid to exclude rats and mice. Beware: rats can make quick work of chewing their way into plastic bins!
Any feed that gets damp or mouldy should be discarded as it can be toxic to your birds, so store feed in a dry place to avoid losses.
Shelter Info for How to Raise Chickens
Chickens are remarkably resilient critters, able to thrive in a wide range of environments. However, much of this resilience is breed-dependant, so it is often best to select from breeds that do well in your climate.
It is also age-dependant. Young chicks have little ability to moderate their body temperature until they grow their adult feathers.
In any case, care of chickens requires shelter from the elements. So correct housing for how to raise chickens must offer protection from intense heat, cold and rain.
So, if you live in a hot climate, site your hen house in an area that is shaded in summer from hot morning and, particularly, afternoon sun, and insulate the east and west facing walls if necessary. (Also beware of transporting chickens in a hot vehicle!)
During very hot weather, we also pour water on the ground in the morning, in the afternoon’s shady parts of the yard. This provides a form of “evaporative air conditioning” during the heat of the day that keeps them more comfortable. Making sure their drinking water is cool is also beneficial.
Adult chickens can thrive in cold climates, provided their housing has some insulation built in. For best results choose a well-feathered breed with small comb and wattles on their face. Breeds with large combs/wattles, such as the Leghorn, are more susceptible to frostbite.
With its small comb and adequate plumage, the Light Sussex is one breed well suited to cold conditions.
Providing Adequate Space for Rasing Chickens
As a general rule of thumb for how to raise chickens, your chicken run should provide a minimum of a meter square (about a square yard) per regular sized chicken housed within. More, of course, is better. Also allow at least 30 cm (1 foot) of perch space per bird in your hen house.
And a flock size of about 6 hens is the most a family could comfortably feed if raising backyard chickens supplementary fed from your own household and garden scraps.
Social Facts about Chickens
There’s an important social consideration on how to raise chickens. Even if you have a small farm and access to lots of food material, your flock size should not exceed 20 birds.
Well chickens are social, class conscious animals. It’s from chickens that we get the term “pecking order”.
Once everyone knows their place, the pecking order works fine in groups of up to 20 chickens. Add more, however, and your poor chooks’ little brains can’t keep track of who belongs where. The result is constant fighting and stressed chooks.
So if you’re going to keep more, separate them into different flocks.
How to Raise Chickens Safe from Predators
Chicken is delicious, isn’t it? Unfortunately, lots of predators agree! And the smaller your chickens, the greater the range of predators that will consider them dinner.
Depending on where you live, you may have to contend with foxes, cats, hawks, eagles, pythons and more… even in the suburbs. Consider what predators you have around and shelter your chooks accordingly.
As an example, for foxes, perimeter fencing of chicken mesh buried 6 inches in the ground, and cemented into place is normally sufficient to stop them digging underneath. However, they can also climb over even 6 foot fencing, so either roof the run, or run an electric fence “hot wire” along the top.
Roofing the run is good insurance against cats and birds of prey, as well as protect your eggs from crows.
If your breed of chicken is a good flyer (most bantams and Leghorns are) you could also consider building them a house on stilts. Stilts made of slippery metal poles, or fitted with large metal collars, can also serve to exclude snakes and rats.
How to raise chickens depends a lot on their behavior which in turn is heavily influenced by their breed.
Some breeds of chickens, such as the Leghorn for example, are rarely able to be handled sufficiently to quiet them enough to tolerate close human contact.
Others, like the Australorp, are naturally quiet and docile.
However, the temperament of even the most serene birds can be ruined by rough handling.
All breeds will benefit from close handling when young which is most effectively accomplished by hand rearing them from day old chicks.
In day to day management of your chooks, movement that is sure and steady rather than sudden and unpredictable, will build their confidence.
Call them when you feed them. Stand in the pen and sprinkle some grain around you every day until they grow accustomed to your presence and learn to trust you. Set up your chook house so that it is easy to catch your birds, rather than having to frighten them by chasing them around.
Once caught, hold your chicken’s body gently against your own, supported on your arm, and keep the wings held closed.
High Quality “Chicken Treat” Time
Reinforce your friendship with your chickens by sharing a relaxed chat and a special high protein “chook treat” with them a few times a week. We have a seat in our chook run for Meg to sit and talk to the girls.
Here’s a recipe – enough to treat about 7 hens:
To half a cup of instant oats moistened with milk, add a sprinkle of sunflower seeds and a small tin of fish (cat food) or leftover meat scraps chopped finely. You could also add a vitamin and mineral supplement.
Permaculture Facts about Chickens
In the tough times we are undoubtedly entering, the humble chicken will be an invaluable element to have in any system geared to supporting family health and survival.
They’re very useful critters and can do a lot of work for you if your system is designed right – i.e. using Permaculture principles. This gives families who raise chickens a distinct sustainability advantage.
In Permaculture we raise chickens most productively after first analyzing its inputs (needs) and outputs (products).
Like any element we’re considering adding to our farming system, this will help us to understand its relationships to other parts of the system, and site it where and how it can capitalize most on these. Such an approach maximizes yield and minimizes work.
Outputs of the Chicken
The yields (outputs) of the chicken, including its products and behaviors, make it indispensable to sustainable living.
- Eggs and… More Chickens!
Eggs and meat are the products of chickens that most people can easily name.
However, a Permaculture view of chickens takes account of many others:
Chicken manure is a great source of nitrogen, a nutrient required in large amounts by growing pastures and crops.
Chicken manure can be used as a fuel for methane digesters, thus generating natural gas for cooking and other uses.
Like all animals, chickens breathe in oxygen and breath out carbon dioxide. This carbon dioxide (along with body heat) can be harnessed using clever Permaculture design of chicken houses to boost the growth of greenhouse plants.
Aside from their potential use to stuff pillows and the like, feathers are valuable food for earthworms and compost.
To raise chickens ethically they must have something to scratch in, and mulch is their favorite! This scratching can be harnessed to weed and till the soil, while simultaneously fertilizing it.
Here’s one system that makes it easy to make good use of all the work that the chicken can do for you in the garden.
Chickens are omnivores. They thrive on weeds, rotten fruit, and insect pests, effectively replacing the need for herbicides and pesticides, as well as much of the work of collecting and destroying fallen fruit in your orchard.
Harnessing all these needs, behaviors and “outputs” of chickens to your advantage is how to raise chickens for maximum welfare and yield.