Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Chickens in the backyard - answers to common questions

As we take the steps to build our own little flock, we often hit roadblocks. Hopefully, I can share some information with you which will allow you to learn first and avoid any problems as you dive into the world of raising chickens. I will attempt to deal with some environmental issues with Backyard chickens – providing them with a clean, safe and engaging place to live. Backyard chickens and cold weather, heat, rain, how much room is ok, how much room is better. I hope to answer these all briefly and succinctly.

This is a simple primer in the many little things one needs to know to be successful raising backyard chickens. First, let me say, me decisions and advice are based on the needs and limits that a small homestead or backyard gardener would meet trying to balance the concept of sustainable living and ethics with the needs to actually produce food. Not to say that I intend to reproduce the horrors of factory farming, but neither am I going to be able to provide a life of lavish, perfect solutions for my chickens, They are living a life of simple care and optimum living conditions – not minimum and not maximum, but the best I can provide on a limited budget and very limited space. Not, that they have not had some splurges like the cedar coop and the lovely vinyl screen door that hey peer out of every morning waiting for me to sing them out into the garden. Yes, they may not meet the ideals that once can imagine with fresh pastures awaiting each morning and their pen and coop could both be a little bigger – but they do receive a steady diet of extravagant love and care. It seems to be enough to make both chickens and I happy.

So here are some quick, practical things to handle, given these conditions. The answers will not be in detail. Basically just a yes/no, this high, this big, this much kind of answer to common questions the backyard farmer would have adding chickens to his projects. Read on for the details.

Do chicken need protection from cold weather, do chickens mind the cold?
The short answer is no. They do need to be able to keep out of the cold wind and avoid drafts in their coops, but other than that chickens are very cold hardy. Not until temperatures reach extremely cold, way below zero, do chickens have issues with the cold. If, your area is commonly and consistently cold in the winter, there are breeds that do better in the cold. If you are in zones 3 or above, perhaps you may want to do more research. However, in fact, basically all the heritage chickens can handle cold well. Common examples of chickens that handle cold weather well are Buff Orpington, Rhode Island Red, Barred Rock, even Cochins do well in cold. Just avoid the ones which have been bred essentially for show – if a chick survived years out in the farms of Nebraska, England and northern Europe odds are it will continue to do so as long as we do over breed them as we are prone to do.

Do chickens need protection from hot weather, do chickens mind the heat?
The short answer is yes. Heat can be a problem for the backyard flock. Most breeds were developed in northern climates and heat is a very relative thing. Now mind you, chickens are still very hardy animals and in my experience and research, heat is rarely more than an inconvenience. As a Floridian, this much I know – the problem is not the heat, it is the humidity. A hot chicken is usually a damp chicken and a damp chicken is asking for health trouble. Mites for one thing love a good moist environment to breed, flea and a host of parasites prosper in the humidity.
The solutions to this problem are limited in effect, but at least they are simple. First, be sure to provide your flock with sufficient shade. If your pen does not have natural shade from trees, etc, then you must provide some. Any simple way to add shade will work. A sheet of vinyl roofing tacked up on posts works in my pen. When adding a covered area for shade, keep this in mind. Keep it low - low roofs keep the shade in one place basically, as opposed to a high cover which will cause shade to travel widely as the sun moves through its circuit. Secondly, a low roof does not provide the chickens with a head start place to jump out of the pen. Next, try to keep the roof material something that can be easily clean as they will try to roost on it and that means chicken poop. I had more ideas on this but I will write them later to keep this as short as possible.

How important is air flow to the backyard chicken pen?
The answer to this is very important. Air circulation is a big factor in beating the heat and humidity. Good air flow is essential to the health of chickens. Good circulation helps to keep the hens dry and clears away any harmful ammonia that their manure may produce. It also helps to limit pests because as stated earlier, humidity helps pest populations to explode. Ways to increase airflow sometimes conflict with other needs. For example, a higher coop has better air flow, but causes other issues with convenience and allowing escape from the pen. Limiting bushes and trees creates better air flow, but limits shade. It is a complicated balancing act, but I would advise that you err on the side of airflow.

Do I need to keep my chickens out of the rain?
The only answer to this is yes. Keeping your hens dry is absolutely essential to keeping them healthy and happy. They didn’t just make up the phrase “angry as a wet hen”. Fortunately for us, the very shelter we just designed to provide them shade can also serve to protect them from the rain. If all your shade comes from trees, then you will still need to build a small shelter just to keep them dry. It does not have to be huge, but if you life in a rainy climate like Florida, an outdoor shelter is better than keeping them in the coop every day it rains.

How much room do I need to give the chickens?

Before we move on to this answer, let us place it in perspective. The American factory farm gives hens around ¾ of a square foot to live. This is the size of a sheet of notebook paper. When settling on space, one would like to give your backyard chickens as much room as possible. But, when balancing that against the realities of limited space, you can draw comfort in the fact that your hens will live a life of luxury by the standard used to get eggs to the local market.
Enough preaching, the question is how much space do chickens need – the answer is: how much do you have? Okay, now enough being clever. The simple standards that are commonly stated in the literature run pretty close to each other. A simple bit of math gives you this average: 2 square feet per chicken, within the coop and 8 square feet in the pen. Using this as a basis if you had a flock of 4 chickens you would need a 4ft X 2ft coop and a pen of 8ft x 4ft. This is obviously pretty common on small farms and it is certainly better than the factory farms, but, it is just a little too cramped for the happy hens I like to keep.
I would advise starting with the minimum set by those numbers and then adding more space up to double that if it is possible to do so and keep things in proportion. The main advantage of backyard chickens is that they are usually allowed some outside time to wander in the yard. As long as they have some release time – I would be ok with even 2in 8 out standard. Remember, more space equals less stress on the birds and more eggs. Also and perhaps most important in a backyard, bigger pens allow the chicken manure to more easily work itself naturally into the environment and reduces health hazards and annoying smells.

I hope this brief guide helps to answer those questions that so often nag us as we move to bring chickens into our world. Whether we are backyard farmers, fans of simple living or just like the sound of hens clucking in our azaleas, these questions arise inevitably and I hope I have been of some help.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you so much for your comments. Feedback is the surest way to drive content towards areas you would like to see more of