Good, Better, Best - Smart Chicken Keeping Decisions


As with many things in life, there is not just one way to raise chickens.  Talk to ten different chicken keepers and you will most likely get ten different answers about one aspect or another of raising your flock.  But while some decisions are personal preference, in other cases making a bad choice could mean life or death for your chickens, or at the very least illness, discomfort or less than optimal health.



So instead of learning by trial and error and thereby putting your chickens at risk or searching Google and trying to sift through all the misinformation, why not learn from someone else's extensive research, successes and mistakes?  No need to reinvent the wheel !

I have been raising chickens for the past several years. My brother and I also raised chickens as kids. Furthermore, I am the granddaughter of chicken keepers, growing up across the street from their chicken farm. While I am still learning and certainly no expert, raising chickens is in my blood.  I tend to do things the traditional way, as naturally as possible, but am open to exploring  new, modern innovations when they seem superior to the old tried-and-true methods (which honestly really isn't very often!)

These suggestions are merely that, my suggestions, based on my research, reading, listening to fans and what works for me. Something might work for you, others might not, but I thought it would be interesting for you to learn what I do and why: 

Brooder Floor Covering

Good: Paper towels 
Better: Puppy weewee pads
Best:  Rubber shelf liner over newspaper
Bad:    Sand, newspaper


Chicks need a surface on the bottom of their brooder that they won't slip on that will absorb moisture.  Paper towels are fine but tend to bunch up as the chicks scramble around the brooder, puppy pads are  expensive and wasteful since they can be only used once.  Newspaper alone is too slippery and can cause spraddle leg. [Read more about spraddle leg HERE].

Sand can harbor e.coli [read HERE for the scientific study on that] and the chicks will be tempted to eat it (since they are programmed to eat whatever is at their feet), which can result in impacted crop since sand gets sodden until regular dirt or chick grit, not to mention the accidental ingestion of bad bacteria.  Heat + fecal matter + moisture + sand = very bad combination = great breeding ground for e coli and other pathogens.  Not only that, but you know how hot sand gets at the beach in the summer on your feet? Under a heat lamp set around 95 degrees, that sand is going to get hot on little chick feet.

Our vote goes to a piece of rubber shelf liner over several layers of newspaper.  The newspaper will absorb any moisture and the shelf liner is washable and reusable. A great way to get one final use out of your discarded newspapers but still provide a surface that chicks can grip easily.  

Brooder Litter

Good: Shredded newsprint or paper
Better: Pine shavings
Best:  Pine Chips and dried herbs
Bad:    Sand, cedar chips, sawdust



Shredded paper works okay but it if gets wet it has a tendency to paper mache the chicks. Pine shavings have good antibacterial properties but can be dusty.  Sand is a no-no (see above), cedar can be toxic and the oils are too aromatic and can cause respiratory issues and sawdust is too dusty and can also irritate lungs and throats.  

Our vote goes to larger pine chips with dried herbs mixed in for even more antibacterial and other benefits. Oregano, lavender and mint are some of our favorite brooder box herbs.

Brooder Light

Good: White heat lamp or lightbulb
Better: Red heat lamb
Bad:   Brooder too cold or too hot, no light


White light on chicks can lead to pecking, so a red heat lamp bulb is recommended, but if you really want to see happy chicks, go with the EcoGlow from Brinsea. Not only does it reduce the chance of an accidental fire from a fallen heat lamp, it uses less electricity and there's no danger of a burnt out bulb.  More closely mimicking the heat under a mother hen, the chicks can scamper around the brooder and then return to the EcoGlow when they need to warm up.  [Purchase the EcoGlow from Brinsea and take 10% off using the coupon code FRESH]

Introducing New Flock Members

Good:  Keep separated for a few weeks, add at night
Better:  Keep separated for a few weeks with fencing in between so the two groups get 'face time'
Best:   Keep separated for a few weeks with fencing in between so the two groups get 'face time', add new members to flock, providing places they can hide under or hop onto to avoid pecking
Bad:     Wipe the new hens with dryer sheets; add new flock members without any quarantine or 'getting to know you' phase-in

Our vote goes to keeping new additions to your flock, whether it be pullets or grown hens, quarantined in a separate pen for at least a week or two to observe and be sure they are healthy. Then separate them for a week or ten days in the run behind fencing for face time so the two groups can get used to each other before mixing the two groups. When you do let them mix for the first time, supervise and be sure to hand out treats to keep their minds off the new flock members.  Since chickens recognize each other by silhouette and body and comb shape and size, wiping the new additions with dryer sheets or spraying them with vinegar or some other substance to disguise their scent is not going to be effective.


Roosts

Good:  Round wooden dowel 
Better:  2x4 board with the 2" side facing up
Best:   2x4 board with the 4" side facing up, with slightly rounded corners on the top or a branch 
Bad:     Metal pipes or roosts with rough edges/splinters


Our vote goes to using 2x4s for roosts that you have sanded to remove any rough edges and partially rounded the top edges. The wider roost will allow the chickens to completely cover their feet with their bodies to prevent frostbite in the winter.   Branches also make nice natural roosts, as long as they are about 3-4" in diameter.  Be sure the roosts aren't too high and that there is plenty of soft bedding below to prevent bumblefoot. Splinters, roosts that are too high and sharp objects on the ground can all lead to bumblefoot, which is an infection that needs to be treated.


Coop Size

Good:  3 square feet of floor space per hen
Better:  5 square feet of floor space per hen
Best:   the most space you can manage for the final number of hens you ever plan on raising
Bad:     Less than 3 square feet per hen

Our vote goes to building or buying the largest coop you can! No matter how many chickens you start with, you are going to want to expand your flock and it's far easier to add more chickens to fill a large coop than build a new coop or add on to your existing coop.

Coop Litter


Good: Shredded newsprint or paper
Better: Pine shavings, needles or chips
Best:  Straw 
Bad:    Sand, cedar chips, sawdust, hay



For many of the same reasons we don't recommend using sand, cedar chips or sawdust in the brooder (above), we don't recommend it for your coop either. Hay should not be used either as it is too 'green' and can easily mold or harbor bacteria and mildew.  We use straw exclusively in the coop and nesting boxes after trying pine shavings. [Read HERE to find out why we decided to stick with straw]


Run Size

Good:  10 square feet per hen
Better:  the most space you can manage for your current flock
Best:   the most space you can manage for the final number of hens you ever plan on raising
Bad:     Less than 10 square feet per hen


Our vote goes to building the largest run you can. As with coop space above, the more room you give them, the happier and healthier they will be, although it is easier to expand a run to accommodate more chickens than it is to build a new coop.


Run Fencing

Good: 2" welded wire or chain link
Better: 2" welded wire or chain link wrapped in chicken wire
Best: Welded wire or chain link sunk into the ground, wrapped in chicken wire and covered
Bad:   None, chicken wire

While 2" welded wire or fencing will keep out most predators, rodents, snakes and weasels can still squeeze through.  Free ranging offers no protection from predators.  A dog, fox or raccoon can rip through chicken wire with no problem, although it is a wonderful secondary fencing that will keep out weasels and other smaller predators.

Our vote goes to chain link which is even more durable than welded wire, with the bottom 1-2 feet wrapped in chicken wire and sunk 8-12 inches into the ground, with the top of the run also covered.


Dust Bath Area

Good:  Dry, loose dirt in a corner of the run
Better:  Dry, loose dirt with Diatomaceous Earth added
Best:   Dry, loose dirt with DE, wood ash and dried herbs added
Bad:     No area to bathe in



Our vote goes to a nice area filled with loose sand or dirt with DE, wood ash and some dried herbs mixed in for the ultimate bathing experience to help the chickens stay parasite-free. [Read more about dust baths HERE]


Worm Preventatives


Good:   Regular fecal samples and treating worms commercially if needed
Better:  Food-grade DE (diatomaceous earth) and garlic added to feed on a regular basis
Best:  Year-round feeding of natural worm deterrents such as garlic, DE as well as a twice yearly portion of pumpkin 'soup'
Bad:     Twice yearly 'pre-emptive' worming with commercial medication when no evidence of worms is seen



We never advocate administering any medications without just cause. Although many sources recommend a twice yearly worming as a preventative with a commercial wormer, I have never done that. Instead, I rely on the natural worming properties of a natural substance found in pumpkins and other squash and melons.  Safe, natural and effective, it has also been studied and is a proven worm deterrent.  [Read more HERE about natural worming using garlic, DE and nasturtium as well as pumpkin seeds]


Feed

Good:   Layer feed
Better:  Organic layer feed
Best:   Organic layer feed with added supplements, free-choice oyster shell or eggshell and grit
Bad:     Old, moldy, rodent-infested or wet feed 



Any good-quality layer feed will provide your chickens with the necessary nutrients, but our vote goes to  feeding organic feed and adding a few supplements to improve their diet. [Read my Breakfast of Champion Layers recipe HERE]


Feeders

Good:  Galvanized steel traditional feeder
Better:  Tub or deep dish
Best:   Vintage Stoneware feeder
Bad:      Leaving feed out in the run overnight to attract rodents 


Our vote goes for our 'new' discovery - a  shallow terracotta dish covered with a sort of vintage stoneware cloche that old-timers used to use as feeders.  Terracotta is a wonderful feeder material because it will wick any moisture away from the feed.  The cloche prevents the chickens from standing in the dish and kicking feed out. I find near zero waste using this type of feeder. You could make your own by knocking a few indents in the lip of a terracotta planter and turning it upside down on the base.


Water

Good:  Cool, clean water
Better:  Water with 1T of apple cider vinegar added several times a week
Best:   Water with ACV and a clove of garlic added several times a week
Bad:     Dirty, stagnant water that is allowed to become too warm, frozen water


Our vote goes to plain clean, fresh water enhanced with apple cider vinegar and garlic to provide added health benefits. [Read more about the benefits of both additives HERE]


Waterers

Good:  Galvanized waterer
Better:  Plastic waterer
Best:  Large deep rubber tub, or in the winter an electric dog water bowl
Bad:    Rusted or leaky waterers

Chickens need access to water at all times. Galvanized steel waterers rust, especially if you add vinegar to your water, and freeze quickly in the winter.  Traditional plastic waterers  are hard to clean, tend to collect algae and crack in the winter.

We are not going to weigh in on nipple waterers right now. Not advocates in the past, the owner of The Chicken Fountain has invited us to test his product for ourselves and see how we like it. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for our review of their product.

So for now our vote goes to a deep rubber tub. A black one will help keep water unfrozen in the winter if placed in the sun with a few ping pong balls floating on the surface.  We also use an electric dog water bowl in the winter.


Coop Cleaner


Good:  Bleach
Better:  White Vinegar
Bad:    No regular cleaning 


Twice a year our coop gets a thorough scrubbing down with in-between mini cleanings as needed.  Although bleach does kill germs, it also can react with the ammonia created by the chicken manure and result in toxic fumes, so we only use white vinegar to clean our coop, nesting boxes and feeders and waterers. Non-toxic, it is effective and inexpensive. Or even better try some homemade Orange Peel/White Vinegar cleaner next time you clean! [Recipe HERE]


Treats

Good:  Occasional kitchen scraps
Better:  Healthy garden cuttings and overripe or wilted greens and vegetables
Best:  Grow the chickens their own garden filled with leave greens, melons, squash, cucumbers and other vegetables and edible flowers; chopped grass and edible weeds
Bad:    Unhealthy kitchen scraps, anything that could potentially be toxic 


Our vote goes to planting a garden for your chickens full of  nutritious vegetables.  Even healthy treats should be limited to afternoons and less than 10% of your flocks' diet.  HERE are some examples of good treat choices. Weeds and cut grass make excellent treats that can be fed unlimited, since they replicate what a free-range flock would be foraging all day long.  I plant a garden just for the chickens that they enjoy all summer long and then are allowed to eat the remaining plants in the fall.  There are some things that can potentially be toxic and should be avoided. HERE is more information on that.


Egg Handling

Good:  Washing eggs as soon as they are collected in warm water and refrigerate
Better:  Don't wash eggs until just before eating and store on the counter
Best:  Don't wash eggs until just before eating and refrigerate
Bad:    Washing eggs in cold water and leaving them out at room temperature 


Our vote goes to storing eggs in the refrigerator, pointed end down to further preserve freshness, and not washing them until just before you use them.  Keeping your nesting box bedding fresh and clean should ensure clean eggs for the most part.  Eggs are laid with a natural 'bloom' on them and that bloom helps prevent both air and bacteria from entering the egg through the pores in the eggshell. As long as the egg isn't washed, it will stay fresh on the counter for at least two weeks, but for better longevity, store unwashed eggs in the refrigerator where they should be perfectly fine to eat for 2-3 months. [Read more about handling and storing  eggs HERE]

All opinions are my own, formed through my first-hand experience of what works for me.  Please try out various methods to see what works best for you, your budget and your flock.  I would love to hear what you decide.


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36 comments:

  1. Lisa,
    Do you crush the garlic clove before adding to their water?

    Great post by the way! :)

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    1. I sort of just smush it up a bit with my fingernail before I drop it in.

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    2. Thanks Lisa, I'll add some tomorrow :) x

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    3. How much water do you put a clove in?

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  2. Thanks for such an interesting post!

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  3. I'm a 2 year backyard chicken keeper. Plus, I was raised in and around a farming atmosphere. Far from an expert but, (knock on wood) haven't had any issues or illnesses with my birds or rabbits.

    I'm pretty close to most of your 'best'. I see you've chosen some of your sponsor's items as a 'best' choice, though. I'm not criticizing, just an observation.

    I enjoy following you on Fb, Twitter and this Blog.
    I've gotten a lot of information from you and others from the chicken community.

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    1. Good observation on that Mike. And you are correct, but in a roundabout way. I actually have hand chosen each and every sponsor- I reach out to those whose products I actually use and love. I won't take money from a company that I can't stand behind. I agree, I do recommend our sponsors' products, but that's why they are sponsors, not the other way around :0)

      And thank you, no expert here either, just sharing what I've learned.

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  4. Lisa,
    Excellent, informative article. Thank you so much for sharing your passion or raising chickens. It is so easy to see your love for your girls in everything you post. We have been implementing many of the things you suggest and are happy with the results. Keep these excellent articles coming!

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  5. Great information and timely for us as we are getting our first chicks next week! We are going to change a few plans based on this info. Thanks!

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  6. Hi Lisa,
    Just starting out and was curious if you had ever tried sand in your coop. In your straw vs. shavings post you mentioned in the comment section you might try it but in this post you are absolutely opposed to it. Also, for food you mention that wet food is bad. What about fermenting your food.....doesn't that make it wet?
    Thanks for all your great information!!

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    Replies
    1. No I believe maybe another commenter mentioned sand in the straw vs shavings post but I just checked and I have it clearly under the NO section. I have been opposed to it since I first read the scientific studies about how it harbors e.coli.

      Wet feed is different than fermentation. I have never fed fermented feed but as far as I know its on par with yogurt, apple cider vinegar, etc. there are substances that preserve it to some extent (ie yeast, cultures) so its not just dry feed gotten wet and growing bacteria and mold.

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  7. I will be a first time chicken owner and my babies will arrive in May. I have preordered your book and I was wondering if all of this information is included in it. If so I will quit printing out all of this great information and just wait for the book :) Thanks!

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    Replies
    1. Most of the information will be in my book - at least touched upon. I still still some of my blog posts will continue to be more in-depth 'articles' on a particular subject, but yes, you can probably stop printing out everything ;0)

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  8. Lisa, I was wondering about the sand too. I use it in the bottom of my coops. I pooper scoop them every single day so it's clean in there. I also change out the sand twice a year. They basically only go in there at night and roost and not much else. I love my chickens and don't want to unintentionally harm them and you are a chicken saavy lady ☺ So how could the sand hurt them?

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    Replies
    1. I started researching using sand after reading about it on some other blogs/fb pages. There are studies done about sand harboring e.coli, which obviously you dont' want in your coop. Even if you scoop out the poop each morning, there are liquids that could be missed. The poop also gets 'breaded' and there's a risk the chickens will eat it. They also will naturally eat some of the sand since they eat dirt, etc. for the grit they need to digest, but sand will get sodden and waterlogged and not pass through the crop and can result in impacted crops. I spoke with a chicken expert and also a vet and have read scientific studies on it - I just can't advocate using sand in a coop. Possibly in a tray under the roosts, if you have one of those removable trays, but that's about it.

      In a brooder its even worse, since the exceedingly high temps help the e.coli and other bacteria multiply very quickly AND chicks often haven't learned what is food and what isn't and will eat the 'breaded' poop. Also, you know what beach sand feels like in the hot sun on your feet ...just imagine what it feels like if the heat lamp is a bit too close on the chicks tiny feet.

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    2. Thanks for the info. I used sand in the brooder once and it was horribly messy and unhealthy for the birds and me, won't do that again! How do you keep your coop floor clean with just the straw? Do you change it out often? It doesn't compost very quickly and with as much poo as I have around here I can usually use my compost twice a year unless there is alot of straw :/ I might put down some linoleum (sp?) and then put straw on top. I don't want sick birdies!

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    3. I have a wooden floor with straw on top of that. Really only under the roosts needs to be cleaned out daily or every other day. The rest of the coop straw says pretty clean and its a great insulator when its cold outside. In the winter I use the deep litter method which is wonderful for composting. In the summer, I pull the dirty straw out and let the girls spread it around the run where its great to get them out of the mud.

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    4. Hi Lisa,
      Do you already have a post on deep litter? I just saw something on that for the first time yesterday and I'm very interested but I'm not clear on the process and exact materials to include. Do you use corn silage? Should there be concern about that containing gmo's and where can it be obtained, generally? I live in northeast GA for I'm assuming not near you.
      Thanks!

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    5. I do and I use that method with great success during the winter. http://www.fresh-eggs-daily.com/2012/02/deep-litter-methodcoop-cleaning.html

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  9. Thanks for the suggestions. I found a couple areas I can make even better for my birds. : )

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  10. I love these kinds of posts. It's so good to know I am doing things right and that I will be changing up our water routine for the spring/summer

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    Replies
    1. That a girl! Obviously in the summer, the most important thing is access to fresh cool water - and they do love to stand in shallow pans of cool water.

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  11. Wonderful information as I hope to be getting chicks very soon....as soon as my dad is able to build the coop! I especially appreciate the tips on ACV and garlic.
    Thanks,
    Marcia

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  12. Great tips! Thanks for such an information-packed post.

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  13. Lisa I am very thankful for this post. I am new to chickens but clearly have much to learn and some new habits to change. Thanks for stopping by my blog to invite me over. I have ordered some veterycin from the US to treat Washington s bumble foot. Just waiting on it to arrive. Postage was ridiculous though.

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    Replies
    1. The shipping should have been free through our amazon store. Where did you order from? http://astore.amazon.com/24laven-20/detail/B00337KW8M

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  14. I have both an Eco Glow and a Sweeterheater and I found I preferred the Sweeterheater as I can easily use it for chicks, ducks and it is curreny brooding my quartet of Sebastapol goslings.

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    1. I've seen the Sweeterheaters but you have to suspend them from something. That's hard to do in our bathtub! Easier to use the EcoGlow which is adjustable to three heights and stands on its own.

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  16. ever since finding your Facebook page and now reading this article, I feel more confident in pursuing the idea of a backyard chicken (1 to start and still nervous about it) but THANK YOU! :) I feel much more better about starting ... soon!

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    1. Oh good! You'll do just fine. Please ask questions and keep following along on Facebook. It's amazing how much I even learn each week there!

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  17. I JUST noticed the tiny little treat piñatas in that first brooder picture - what in the world are they made out of or where did you find them? TOOOO cute!

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    1. Oh, they are doll house hanging planters I found on ebay. The chicks LOVE them!

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  18. How long should I keep my 7 peeps in a 18 x 30 brooder? I've had them for 4 days and they seem to be a little crowded.

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