raising chickens

What No One Tells You About Keeping Chickens

You've got the coop, the nest boxes, the birds, the feed, all the essentials. You've bought the "Keeping Chickens" books, scoured countless articles for the right breed, learned about eggs, their anatomy, and how to treat some basic ailments. You've got the basics down pat. 

In the last year, keeping chickens has become so popular, even those who have no family background in livestock are getting a flock of their own. With so many people getting chickens, without family or friends to seek guidance from, they go to the vast world of the interwebs to find their answers. It's almost like googling your own ailments. We all know how that goes.

keeping chickens

Generational Knowledge

What first generation chicken keepers don't have access to is generational knowledge. The stuff that you'd learn from your parents and grandparents. The stuff you can't Google. Generational knowledge is those little tips and tricks that can make life a whole lot easier. That's what I'm going to share with you. I've been keeping chickens for almost 10 years and Dylan's grandparents, MeeMee and PopPop, who live right next door, have been raising and showing all types of poultry, on the national level, for decades. They are a goldmine of information. 

The honest truth: This information is going to be true farm life. I wouldn't give y'all anything less. You won't find any fluff here. It may be seen as harsh, but if you're going to be responsible for the livelihoods of animals, you ought to be prepared for the good, the bad, and the ugly. There's poop, animals die, but it's also one of the most rewarding experiences. So, here we go! 

You Will Thank Yourself for Investing in a Good Set Up

All you need is a coop right? Well, sure. But, what if a bird gets sick? What if you want to hatch out chicks with a broody hen? What if you hatch out chicks from an incubator and now they are too big for the brooder, but too small to be with everyone else?

We have four separate areas for our chickens: Juvie, Lock up, Halfway House, and Gen Pop. We have a little fun around here sometimes! Juvie is the brooder. We've done the whole tub/stock tank brooder, but it's a mess. Finally, we invested in a double stacked brooder. Worth every penny. Keep in mind, we also hatch out over 100 chicks a year, so this type of set up is necessary for us and may not be for you. The tub/stock tank brooder will work just fine if you get a few chicks every year. We will do another article where we talk about the generational knowledge with hatching eggs and raising chicks. 

Lock up is our broody hen/sick pen. Big dog crates work perfect. This is so you can separate a bird and keep them comfortable while they are on the mend or setting on eggs. Just make sure you have everything you need in there, food, water, bedding, and a roost for a sick bird - not being able to roost causes stress, which will prolong sickness. 

The halfway house is our outdoor hoop coop, or chicken tractor. This is a 7'x4' homemade moveable "coop". There are a million building plans online. This is so our birds can be outside, with cover, roosts, and access to the grass. We move it every couple of days. This is perfect for any young birds, or new birds, that just aren't quite ready to go to Gen Pop. Best part is, our entire flock can see these birds. So, when it comes time for them to be introduced, it's not a shock to everyone. This is also a great place to keep mamas and chicks if you are worried about them being in Gen Pop. 

Gen Pop, if you haven't gathered, is our entire regular flock. They go in and out of the big coop, they free range all day, they are happy chickens. 

I know it's a pain to think about building, or buying, multiple structures for your chickens, but if you are going to do this for the long haul, you'll be glad you made designated spaces. We aren't saying these need to be the Taj Mahal of chicken buildings, it can be a makeshift space when needed, whatever will work for you, works. Having the knowledge of how these things typically go will help you make the best decisions for your flock. 

We will talk about introducing new birds into the flock later! 

raising chickens

Cock-a-doodle-doo

To rooster, or not to rooster? If your local area restrictions keep you from having a rooster, feel free to keep on scrolling. If you can have roosters, I would ask you to consider it. I'll give you the bad news first. One negative about roosters is that *some* can be aggressive. Currently, we have three roosters in a flock of about 60 hens. Never have I ever had a rooster buck up to me, a customer, a customer's kid, a dog, a cat, nobody. One rooster we raised from a chick, while the two others we got as adults. Whether you get a cockerel out of an egg or an adult from someone else, follow these guidelines from day one. 

The rooster is not your friend. He is not your pet. It would be wise to treat him accordingly.

Walk up on him fast and make him move out of your way, push him to the side with your foot, get a broom and push him around a little bit and, whatever you do, do not feed him from your hand. Have your kids do the same. If he is going to take a chance on anyone, it's going to be them. You need to show him that you're the boss, otherwise, guess who's next in line? He is. And if he thinks he can outrank you or any tiny humans, he will try to establish his dominance with his spurs and beak. And then he'll make a very good soup stock. Our roosters start with two strikes. They get no chances and neither should yours. 

Spread the love with a good ratio. 

Keeping a good ratio is also very important. I would say one rooster for every 15-20 hens. Roosters do their duty, if you know what I mean, all day, every day. And if he has his favorites and your ratio is off, you'll see it in the form of stressed hens, featherless backs, and bloody combs. You want enough roosters to get strong fertilization in your eggs (we'll hit on that in another article), but not so many that your hens are getting worn out. If you have under 15 hens, one rooster will do just fine.

Free Predator Watch

To me, a good rooster is worth his weight in gold. We free range, meaning there is nothing but thin air between our sweet chunky hens out in the field and the predators who also have occupancy in the woods. There are opossums, raccoons, hawks, eagles, fox, coyotes, snakes, and even stray dogs. The rooster is on constant watch and he will call if danger is near and warn his ladies to hide. I've even seen roosters team up and tango with a hawk. Running toward the threat, spurs flying, while the hens head for cover. He may not be able to keep away a determined predator, but better than leaving your flock out to be a bunch of sitting ducks. He will also call hens over if he finds a particularly tasty treat, picking it up and dropping it down for them. So sweet. 

Chicks 

All that loving the rooster is giving can be turned into sweet little chicks in just 21 days. If you'd like to hatch out your own chicks - a super fun project with kids - you can do that with a rooster. There is nothing different about a fertilized egg when it comes to eating. Only when the egg is incubated at about 100 degrees for a couple days does it start to develop into a chick. Keep this in mind when you are collecting eggs in the summertime. 

Rooster's Place in the Pecking Order

You'll learn after just a few weeks of keeping chickens that hens can be brutal to each other. Without a rooster, one hen will establish her dominance as the "boss hen". I've even seen some boss hens develop spurs and crow like roosters. Nature is wild. The rooster automatically assumes the role as top dog. He will break up any fights among hens.

If you have multiple roosters, introduce them properly (we'll talk about that next!), and be ready for some tussles. Typically, roosters figure it out pretty quickly. They fight, one backs down, and the rooster sub-pecking order is established. If your roosters fight to the point of serious blood, pecked eyes, and violence well beyond regular scuffles. You may want to consider removing one of them. My choice would be to remove the dominant rooster, if he's going to get that violent. Even when established, roosters will continue to harass each other over who is loving up on certain hens. Non-dominant roosters will sneak around the corner and find a hen to get a little quiet action, while the dominant rooster is distracted. 

Purchasing New Chickens

From commercial hatcheries, to local poultry auctions, to Facebook groups, to Tractor Supply, to poultry shows, to your friend down the road, there are many ways to get new birds. A few things to keep in mind. Number one, you are going to get what you pay for. Number two, no one is selling their best bird.

Auction birds are notorious for bringing a variety of diseases to flocks and you never have enough time to really look at them. Local feed stores often misidentify birds or buy pullets from commercial hen houses where the birds can develop illnesses. We've done this before and ended up culling about half the birds we got in that batch, due to a chronic respiratory disease that we couldn't get them to kick. 

Selecting a healthy bird

If you are going to buy a bird from someone off Facebook or a friend, take a very close look at it and ask yourself some questions - does it look sick? Is it sneezing or wheezing? A healthy bird has bright eyes, looks alert, and has good color in it's face. It's feathers are smooth and shiny (take molting into consideration). Look under it's feathers, does it have mites or eggs on it's skin or feather shafts? Does it have fluffy butt feathers or are they matted and poopy? A healthy bird has a fluffly butt. What color is it's poop? Is it foamy and yellow? An indicator of an illness, or is it brown and solid? 

It's not worth bringing a sick bird into your flock. Trust me.

If you aren't going to hatch your own, my suggestion would be to buy from a reputable breeder or a poultry show. It's more money up front, but you'll be so glad you did. You can also find a local farm, like us!, who sells their laying hens, raises started pullets, or hatches chicks. Ask to go by and check them out first. At Hayfield Farm, we point out who is for sale and let customers choose. We sell our hens after their first full year of laying, usually around 18 months old. We need hens to lay a lot of eggs for our business. Once they get older, they don't lay as often, so we sell them to make room.

My third suggestion would be to buy directly from a commercial hatchery - like Hoover's or Murray McMurray. We've never bought started pullets from a commercial hatchery, but we have had chicks shipped in, and you can get the chicks vaccinated against diseases for next to nothing. Definitely a perk. 

raising hens

Introducing New Chickens

It never fails. You get started, you get a couple birds, then next Spring rolls around and someone has a gorgeous hen for sale or you see your favorite hatchery has started pullets, or you just can't resist the Tractor Supply cuteness. You get them home and you're ready. But wait! There's a technique to making sure your new ones don't get picked on too bad. Any new birds should be kept separate for a few days to ensure there are no chronic illnesses or infections that they could spread to your flock. 

Proper Introductions

If you are introducing new chickens, whether the same age or younger, keep them in your Halfway House for at least a week. This will give you plenty of time to monitor their health and give Gen Pop enough time to get used to them. We've also let younger chickens free range from our outdoor Halfway House and roost there at night until we feel like they are fully integrated and can go with Gen Pop full time. Or they just start to roost with Gen Pop on their own. Whatever works for you based on what you need for your flock. 

Either way, when you are ready to fully integrate them and close the Halfway House doors, do not skip this step. If you do nothing else when you introduce new chickens to your flock, be sure that you do this. At night, when everyone is asleep on the roost, grab your new tenants and quietly sneak them onto the roosts of your Gen Pop coop at night. Your chickens will wake up and be like, "Wait a minute...were you here before?...." and go about their day. 

Any new birds will require a reorganization of the pecking order. 

No matter how well you execute integration, there still may be a little bullying at first, but it won't be as severe as just throwing them into the flames in the middle of the day. If someone is getting picked on too bad, I'm talking like hens are relentlessly pinning your new chickens down and pecking them, pull the new ones out for a few days and try to reintegrate them again. You could also try this with the bully. Worst case, get rid of the bully. Roosters help with bully hens! 

The Chicken Coop

You have your coop ready to go. You have roosts, you have nesting boxes, you have bedding in the bottom. Boom, done. What else could you need? You have all the basics. Here's some things to keep in mind. 

Drafts versus Ventilation

Your coop will need somewhere to exhaust the hot moisture from all that chicken breath and dust. Even in winter and especially in the summer. Drafty coops can cause chickens to get sick. A tip is to keep any open areas for ventilation, whether that be a window or an open peak on your coop, above where the chickens roost. This will allow the humidity to rise and escape without chilling the chickens. Unwanted drafts come from open areas below or at the same level that the chickens roost. 

Going Broody

If you notice a hen is sunk down into a nest box 24/7 and resembles a velociraptor when you get near, she's broody. If you remove her from the nest box and she walks around way more puffed up than normal and makes a weird, pissed off clucking you've never heard before, she's broody.

You can do a few things. If you want chicks, you can put some eggs under her and let her do her thing, and in 21 days, you will have some chicks! If you want chicks, but your nest box area isn't the best for chicks, you can move her to Lock Up. But be warned, moving her may break her broodiness. So, if you move her and in a few hours, she's up and walking around, her broodiness has been broken and you can let her out.

We've had some break and some continue to be broody when we've moved them. Use this Lock Up trick if you want her to break her broodiness. Another option is to go in the coop multiple times a day and take her out of the nest box. Look out! She'll be going for blood! 

Run versus Free Range

A run attached to the coop is very helpful if you are going away on vacation or need to keep everyone contained for a few days, but keep in mind that chickens will take any grass in the run down to dirt in just a few weeks. Free ranging is 100% worth it for the health of your birds and the nutrition of you eggs. Just know that you can lose a few birds predators and that chickens will destroy your landscape and/or garden, if you don't fence them off. There will also be poop. Everywhere. You'll get used to it.  

Cleanliness and Preventing the Spread of Disease 

Take care of your chicks first, then your flock, then any sick birds. 

Chicks are extremely vulnerable. Even if you don't recognize any illnesses in your flock, it's wise to take care of your chicks first, always.  Do this before you take care of your main flock and especially before any sick birds. If you have to go back, wash your hands very well. Always deal with sick birds last, to prevent any spread. 

Bleach feeders and waterers when changing occupants. 

Whether you are introducing a new round of chicks or you are putting a broody hen into Lock Up, where you just had a sick bird, take the time to disinfect. Rinse out all your feeders and waterers, take a bucket, put all your feeders and waterers in it, fill it with water, and dump in a few bloops of bleach. Yes, bloops. Give it a few hours, scrub everything with a brush, give it a few more hours. Be sure to remove all the bedding from your Lock Up area, spray it down with bleach and wipe it until it's clean. It's also a good idea to scrub out your feeders and waterers for Gen Pop a few times a season. 

Other Tips

If you are going to treat birds or pull them to separate, it's much easier to do it at night.

To store hatching eggs or eating eggs before use, store them pointed side down. Unwashed eggs can be stored on the counter and washed eggs are to be stored in the fridge. 

Wrapping the bottom of your feeder in chicken wire will keep the chickens from flicking the feed out on the floor. Be sure to get crumble feed, though. 

Keep your feeders and waterers outside the coop. Chickens tend to congregate around the feeder and waterer throughout the day. This will do wonders for keeping your coop clean. 

 VetRx will help out with any congestion or colds. Put a few drops on a paper towel and rub it around their beak and eyes. It's like Vic's Vapor Rub for chickens.