How much room do you need for chickens?
Chickens will need a house, or coop, and an enclosed run. As a general rule the chicken coop, or chicken house, needs to be at least 2 or 3 square foot per chicken. So ideally, six ‘normal-sized’ chickens would need a coop at least 18 square feet.
Don’t be tempted to go too big because the chickens won’t be able to generate enough heat to keep the coop warm in the winter.
The recommended space for a hen in a run is 8-10 square feet per chicken but essentially the more space you have for chickens in the run the better, so they can have their ‘own space’. Chickens will bully each other occasionally and the more space they have the more able they are to avoid being ‘pecked on’.
What kind of shelter do they need?
As well as needing a dry, draft-free house, or coop to sleep in, chickens require a certain amount of outdoor shelter from the rain and the prevailing wind. Birds that get soaked through can be at risk of hypothermia as their body temperature soon drops, especially if there is added wind chill factor involved.
Lifting the hen house off the ground (or buying a bespoke model) to provide room underneath is one way to provide shelter from the sun or rain for your hens. Covering one side in the direction of the prevailing wind will also help protect your birds.
Bushes are a great natural form of shelter if you able to provide a space large enough to incorporate them. If you have a covered run, you can put corrugated plastic sheets on the top, which take the strength out of the sun and shelter your chickens from the rain. Remember to put water containers in shaded positions during the hottest summer months so that water doesn’t over heat.
What things should you put in their coop?
I recommend buying a bespoke hen house, as it will have all the things that your hens need. Adapting a shed, for example, often works out less cost effective in the long run.
However, things to check are:
- Nest boxes are a must inside the chicken coop! Your hens will always have a preferred laying spot but providing nesting boxes will encourage them to lay somewhere safe and also easy for you to collect the eggs from. In general you want your nest boxes to be approximately 12”x12” and you want enough boxes so that there is 1 for every 3 laying hens.
- Roosts are another chicken coop must have. Most chickens like to be up in the air to sleep so you will need to provide a space for them to roost when they go to bed each night.
- Roosts should be at least 12 inches away from the wall so there is space for their head or tail to hang off comfortably.
- Allow at least a couple of feet between the roost and the ceiling so that your birds don’t hit the roof when jumping up to their roosts.
- Roosts can be made out of just about anything, but use common sense. They can’t be slippery (plastic for example), need to be able to take the weight of the birds and the chickens have to be able to wrap their feet around them.
- Ventilation is often overlooked in coop design, but good ventilation is essential for health and wellbeing. Chickens make a lot of dust and between their manure, the bedding, the feathers, and all the scratching they do, fresh air is a necessity to protect their lungs. There is a difference between having a well-ventilated coop and a drafty coop and security mustn’t be compromised either. This is where a good quality bespoke coop will have the advantage.
- Use wood shavings in the coop, and straw in nesting boxes. Avoid cedar shavings as cedar oils and scent can be toxic to chickens, and choose large flake wood shavings, over fine shavings or sawdust, which can be too dusty.
- If you want to take your chook pen to the next level, the ChickenGuard is a must-have. The ChickenGuard opens and closes your chicken coop using a timer or light sensor, which means you don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to let your hens out. The gadget has been a hit with poultry owners across the world because of its ease and convenience. Something to enable you to have a lie-in on the bleak winter mornings and to protect your feathered friends from predators and ‘fowl’ play.
How can you guard against predators?
Ideally your chickens will be closed up at night to guard against predators, although this will depend on your coop and run. The ChickenGuard automatic door opener is by far the absolute best way to guard against predators as, set by a timer, it automatically closes and opens the coop door. This takes the pressure off of owners and provides the maximum security for hens.
However, predators do patrol in the daytime too, especially when hungry or feeding young, so your run will also need to be secure and predator proof.
Make sure all catches are secure too. A good rule of thumb is that if a 3-year-old can open it, so can a predator. So make sure all door latches are “child-proof”.
Do you need to let chickens roam every day?
They will need access to their run every day and if you can let them wander a bit further then they will love it. But do remember they can make a bit of a mess in a garden and may be at risk of predators – or even over-excited dogs.
What should you feed chickens?
Layers pellets or layers mash will have all the minerals and nutrients that your hens need. Mix a small amount of grit in with your pellets/mash as it is designed to help the chickens' digestive system function well and break down the food.
Your hens will also appreciate ‘treats’ such as corn and vegetable scraps. Like children, make sure they have eaten their layers pellets before giving them treats!
Fresh water should always be available during the day.
Anything you should avoid?
- Never, ever allow your chickens to eat dried or raw beans. Dried beans are known to create very serious illness and even death in adult humans, and for chickens, they are always fatal. Kidney beans are the worst culprit but any bean, which has not been properly cooked, is potentially lethal for your chickens.
- Chickens should not eat anything mouldy – if you wouldn’t eat it then don’t give it to your hens.
- Chickens are particularly susceptible to the toxin carried by the avocado, which is called persin. The actual risk is controversial but personally, I don’t feed avocados to my hens. Why take the risk?
- Green potatoes are also toxic – again, if you wouldn’t eat them, don’t feed them to your hens.
- Chocolate is not good either and in large quantities could prove fatal. They wouldn’t eat it naturally, so keep it for yourself!
- As always common sense should prevail – avoid things containing caffeine or alcohol anything salty or sugary, citrus fruit, uncooked rice or pasta, or rotten food. Whilst chickens will enjoy scraps please don’t treat them like a waste disposal.
How much water do they need?
Although there is no hard and fast rule about how much water each chicken will drink in a day, chickens need an ample supply of fresh, clean water available at all times. A very general guide is half a litre a day as an absolute minimum.
Their water must be clean of dirt and algae build-up, and the water must be reasonably fresh. Most chicken owners empty and refill their waterers at least every other day, to keep the water from going stale or getting fouled with dust and algae.
Eggs are at least 85 per cent water, which is drawn from the hen’s body. Obviously she needs to replenish that amount of water, on top of her daily normal water requirements.
The chicken’s diet affects the amount of water they require, as well. A free range chicken which is consuming a lot of juicy bugs and plants will not need as much water as a chicken which eats only a dry pellet food. The weather and climate will play a part, as well. In hot weather, a chicken will obviously drink more water.
What are the best ways to supply food?
Chickens just love scratching around in the dirt so if you are feeding your birds layers pellets, or mixed corn, consider scattering a few handfuls around so they have to find it rather than fill up feed bowls. It is much better to encourage your hens to forage for their food with the added advantage being that dominant birds don't get the chance to chase less dominant chickens away from the food.
If you use poultry feeders, you need to make sure no old, mouldy or stale food is left in them before topping them up. Any mouldy or damp grain should be thrown away because if your birds ingest the mould, it could make them very sick.
Should you take your chickens to a vet?
Yes, if necessary. They don’t need regular check-ups like your cat or dog, but if they break a leg for example, they will need treatment. Always check the vet is familiar with chickens, if they are not they may recommend one who is.
Should you clip their wings?
No, I think chickens should be as nature intended! Chickens will seldom fly and if they have the area and space to do so it’s nice to let them! However, if your chicken is always getting out of somewhere, or into somewhere, it shouldn’t then clipping one wing to put them off balance and prevent flying is a way of keeping them where they should be, and won’t hurt the chicken.
Do you need to clip their nails?
I have kept chickens for thirty years and never had to clip their nails, although I know people who have. It is just the same as clipping a dog’s nails – you can use a dog nail clipper and you have to be careful not to cut the quick inside the nail. Personally, if you are not confident I would ask someone who is!
Any other expert tips?
Chickens love being ‘entertained’ and are very intelligent and curious. Hanging cabbage, squash, lettuce, kale, spinach etc. from a string or bungee cord will keep them occupied and provide a nutritional boost. Some chickens love a swing and all chickens love boiled spaghetti.
My overall advice is that if you are new to keeping chickens, before you purchase your hens, find someone who is familiar with hen husbandry as a ‘go to’. You will inevitably have lots of questions and it is reassuring for you, and safer for your hens, to have a reliable source of advice.
THINKING OF GETTING CHOOKS? WATCH DR HARRY'S HOUSECALL TO THESE HAPPY HENS:
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