Once your baby chicks are fully feathered, it's time for them to be transferred out of their 'nursery' and into their outside coop. There are a lot of things to take into consideration on how you plan to house them and what type of coop is suitable for yours and their needs. Chickens must be kept dry and have well-ventilated shelter from the elements when necessary.
If you only plan to have 3-4 backyard hens, a small coop with a built-in layer box, roosting pole, and run is sufficient. Hens will take turns laying their eggs in one spot, so it's really not necessary to have a big coop with multiple layer boxes for only a few birds. These smaller coops can be found at most farm supply stores. They are sold boxed and come ready to assemble. Assembly takes very little time and is easy.
For larger flocks, a bigger coop and run is obviously a must. The amount of space required per bird varies depending on the source, but I've found that 3 square feet or more per bird works well. The larger the coop, the more expensive it is. We saved a lot by building our own from the ground up rather than purchase pre-built models. TIP: The prettier you decorate the outside of your coop, the less the neighbors will complain about you having chickens. :)
To Straw or Not To Straw!
Coop floors require some sort of litter or bedding that is at least an inch deep. Wood chips or shavings work well and are relatively inexpensive. They can be purchased in very large bags at farm stores. If you use straw or hay, you run a greater risk of introducing mites into the coop. Mites hitch a ride on hay and straw. I've heard of some people who use raked leaves and other organic materials as litter. Whatever works for you, just keep in mind that whatever you use should be something that won't add bug problems into your system.
We Need Ventilation!
Chickens need a dry, well ventilated coop that keeps them sheltered from the wind. Without it, the excessive amounts of dander that chickens produce can build up inside the coop and cause respiratory problems in your birds (and you when you go to clean it!). Also, without proper ventilation moisture can accumulate inside the coop which, during cold weather, can cause frostbite on their combs, wattles, and feet. Frostbite can also occur in the winter if there is no protection from the wind. TIP: Cover any wall vents with small mesh chicken wire to prevent unwanted bugs and critters from entering the coop.
We Wanna Roost!
Coops should have a place for your chickens to roost and sleep at night. This can easily be done by securing a roosting pole (or more) across the inside of the coop. Just make sure it's not above any food or water dispensers so their poop won't land in it.
We Wanna Go Outside!
A run attached to the coop is a must. Made out of various types of chicken wire, it provides them room to roam, scratch, get some fresh air and sun, and stretch their legs. TIP: For backyard coops, have a latchable door on the run for easy entry to and from the yard.
TIP: An ideal run will have some sort of full or partial roofing on it to offer them protection from prying hawks flying overhead. It also offers some shade from a blaring sun.
Hey, We Need A Bath!
Chickens love taking dirt baths. It helps kill any bugs they might have on them and cleans off excess oils from their feathers. Provide an area either inside their run or in the backyard where they can take a dirt bath by either removing some grass, exposing the dirt and raking to loosen it, or, by creating an above ground 'bathtub' using some scrap boards to form a contained shape, and dirt and sand to fill the shape.
Brr! It's Cold In Here!
During exceptionally cold winters where temperatures can dip below freezing, a heat lamp inside their coop kept at a beneficial level can aide in keeping them warm. It will also keep their water from freezing solid when placed near it. TIP: Heat rises, so if the heat lamp is positioned too high from the floor it won't do much good. TIP: Make sure any extension cord you use is made for indoor/outdoor use.
It's Roasting In Here!
During the summer, temperatures can soar into the 90s or even higher in some places. Chickens will pant to try and stay cool, but doing so for prolonged periods can lead to dehydration. They need access to plenty of water. They can also suffer heat stroke and die. To keep your birds cool, provide as much shade as possible when they are outside. 'California misters' attached to a garden hose and placed over their run can also help provide relief from the heat, as can a fan placed inside their coop if their coop is big enough to hold one. Frequent exposure to high temps can also cause them to lose feathers.
TIP: If it's severely hot (temps higher than 110) keep a close eye on your birds. If any of them appear exceptionally distressed from the heat, get them into a cooler area asap until after sunset when temps dip.
Chickens love to run around outdoors, eat weeds, peck and scratch. Backyards are great places for them to do this. If you throw some scratch feed on the ground, they'll happily go about snacking on it. TIP: Total amount of scratch feed given should not be more than 10% of their daily feed or you risk having fat birds, which can lead to problems in egg laying. Fat birds can become fatally 'egg-bound', meaning they cannot get the egg out of their body. When the egg gets stuck inside, there is very little, if anything, you can do about it at that point and your bird will die.
Whoa! There Are Hawks Wanting To Eat Me!
Chicken coops attract hawks and other birds of prey. Keep an eye on the sky while outdoors and give your chickens someplace to run for cover if a hawk happens to fly overhead. Leave the door open to their run and coop when they are outside of it so they can easily go in when they need to. Providing other covered areas, out of a hawk's access, in the backyard also helps in case the chickens have wandered far from their coop. We gave our chickens an access to under our porch. TIP: Make a scarecrow and place it in a lawnchair in the middle of your backyard. Try make it look as human as possible. Hawks won't come close if they think a human is present. TIP: Keep a garden hose with a sprayer attachment nearby if a hawk does happen to brave coming closer. Spray the hawk with the hose while it's flying by, it'll scare it off.
It's Dangerous At Night Too!
Close up your chickens at night while they are in the coop. Predators come out at night and will try to gain access to it so make sure it's secure. Possums, skunks, and raccoons love chicken feed and eggs. Dogs, foxes, wolves, and other critters do too but they also love fresh chicken meat. Make sure their run is secure during the day also if you are not around to keep an eye on it. Dogs will try dig under chicken wire so make sure the chicken wire continues a few feet underground.
Until next time...Happy Homesteading!
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