Chickens sitting on a nest is a sure sign that fair weather is near...and wouldn't you know it, in just a few days the first of the spring chicks will be hatching. And that got me thinking, maybe it's time to talk about how we keep chickens.
We have attempted to keep the living conditions as close to natural as possible. As a result we have never had to deal with illness, disease, parasites, or even mites, the most common of all the chicken pests (mites are as common in chickens as lice is for a kindergartener).
Our girls have access to five nesting boxes that are mounted off of the ground, at about 3 ft high. Despite the fact that our chickens are kept in a secure pen at night, their instincts are still quite strong, and the threat of a predator is the dominant instinct. By mounting individual nests directly on the wall, the hens have to fly up and go down into the nest box, letting them feel safe while they lay their egg. Despite the obvious vacancy of nests, some hens insist on fighting for a specific one. In the photo you can see a Buff Orpington and a Dark Cornish hen fighting over a nesting box....with four empty ones around them! They can be very silly, and quite entertaining.
Dust bathing is not only a treat to the chicken, but a necessary step in preventing mites. In the summer chickens can spend upwards of 4 hours a day taking a dust bath. You can spot them lying on their sides, wings open, and kicking dirt under their wings. If you aren't careful they will catch you off guard and you will think something horrible has happened to them. They ruffle each individual feather open and make sure dry dirt covers each one. Once satisfied with the effort, they proudly stand, so dirty you sometimes can't see their true color, and shake vigorously. A little dust cloud rises every time, and a sparkling clean chicken emerges.
At the end of the day a chicken flies into a tree, safe from most predators, and roosts for the night. Granted, most chickens are kept in cages, and eat, sleep, defecate, and lay eggs all in the same spot. We aren't able to leave our chickens outdoors to roost in trees at night, as owls and hawks would eat our flock. So, after some creative thinking, we decided to simply put a tree in the coop. At night they fly from branch to branch as they pick out their spot for the evening. Here is a short video of their sleeping quarters:
We have adopted only one technique from CAFO (confined animal feeding operations) farmers, and that is how we water our chickens. Making sure chickens and ducks have constant access to water is more important than anything else that you must do for the animals. In the summer, if a chicken goes without water for just a couple of hours, it will die from dehydration. Not only does the water hydrate the birds, but it also makes it easier for them to swallow, and the ducks must have it to clean their eyes as well.
CAFO farmers use a long piece of pipe with "nipples" drilled into it, placed in front of each chickens cage. When they want water they peck the nipple and it lets a drop of water out which the bird will suck up and swallow. Since we do not keep chickens in the same fashion as these farmers we went with a low tech solution, and that is a couple of buckets with the same nipples drilled into the bottom. With the lids on the buckets the chickens are unable to foul it up, so they always have access to fresh, clean water. With normal chicken waterers, that sit on the ground, the chickens will defecate into the water so it must be changed several times a day. With the buckets and conventional nipple waterers we only have to fill them up every 4 or 5 days in the summer. In the winter they stay full for weeks as the birds tend to drink more from the puddles formed from the melting snow.
To round out the pen, we keep the ground covered with clean hay. As the hay becomes increasingly dirty, we add a new layer down. Every 6 months or so, we clean out all of the accumulated hay, and expose the bare ground. We add the manure rich hay to the compost pile to later be used as fertilizer for our berry bushes and fruit trees. After the ground has had a few warm days to air out and thoroughly dry, we add more hay back into the pen, and the cycle repeats itself. We usually clean the pens out in May before it gets too hot, and then again on a pretty day in December or January.
That about covers all the topics I can think of with keeping our chickens. If you have questions about chicken keeping or how we keep our chickens, feel free to ask in the comments.
The seedlings are really popping up in the greenhouse, more on that next week!