Taking Care of Chickens
Getting chickens is easier than ever, if you live in the right place in Maryland! Taking care of chickens is easy to do, lots of fun, and rewards you with eggs as well as compost.
Industrial chickens live in poor conditions, but we have the ability to give our chickens much better lives, giving us much healthier eggs and possibly meat.
Taking care of chickens means giving them shelter at night, areas to roam during the day, food, water, and companionship. They will reward you with entertainment, yard maintenance, manure, and eggs.
Determining how much space your chickens need is the first step in taking care of chickens the right way. You can build or buy a coop, but make sure it is comfortable for your new animals.
There are lots of opinions out there as to how much room a chicken needs, as well as what to feed them. Take care of chickens and take advantage of their natural behaviors to have them take care of you too.
You can choose if you want your chickens to free range (if your local laws allow it). Look for chicken breeds that forage well so you can encourage them to hunt their own insects, turn garden beds, and save money on feed.
A great book on the care of chickens is The Small Scale Poultry Flock, by Harvey Ussery. In it, the author talks a lot about coops, areas to roam, and what to feed chickens. He also includes mating, raising chicks, and butchering if that is something that you have the interest in.
I plan to get chickens this summer, and will be building a permanent coop in the shadier part of my yard. I plan to fence in a very large run, potentially two of them. I want to take care of chickens so they can not just provide eggs, but pest control and compost turning.
Best Chicken Coop Sizing
A chicken coop is a shelter for your chickens. They sleep there at night, lay eggs in nesting boxes, and can use it for shade in summer or warmth in winter. Coops need to be big enough to take care of chickens properly, but don’t have to be too large.
A coop is nothing more than a shelter, so it doesn’t need to be fancy. Your coop needs a way to secure it at night to stop predators. It needs a roosting area, a nesting box or two, and a place for food and water.
The floor of your coop should have bedding materials on it, and ideally a dirt floor underneath. A taller coop makes it easier for your to clean the bedding out. Ventilation is important for the health of the birds, so smells don’t accumulate.
There are many opinions on coop sizes out there, but most agree that giving 2 to 4 square feet of space per chicken is ideal. Some say to keep it smaller so the hens stay warmer, but others insist that a lot of ventilation, even in the winter, is ideal for chicken health.
Chickens are meant to live outdoors, after all. A tight coop can lead to humidity issues, breeding mold and diseases.
For Maryland winters, you might choose a coop that is on the larger size. That way your chickens can be happy inside it during storms.
Though chickens will sleep without a roost, they will be much happier with one. Offer roosts that are wooden, not plastic (too slippery) or metal (too cold). Eight to ten inches of space per adult bird and a foot between roosts in a ladder set up works well.
Nesting boxes are meant to be dark, secure spaces for hens to lay eggs. They should be 12-14 inches in each dimension, have soft bedding to protect eggs, and have a four inch or so strip in front so bedding stays in place. One nest per four to six birds should work.
Some chicken keepers use 5 gallon buckets mounted on the wall, or old milk crates for nesting boxes. You can also buy nesting boxes ready made.
Dust is important when taking care of chickens, as they provide a way for your chickens to take dust baths. Dust allows them to remove parasites. They may find dusty spots in the yard, but providing a dusting box might be better.
Deep dust boxes help keep dust in place. Sphagnum peat moss works great but is non renewable. Dried and sifted clay soil works too. Adding diatomaceous earth helps in removing parasites.
Alternatively, provide a bare soil area with a roof in the yard so they can dust bathe there even in rain.
Deep litter (8 to 12 inches) in the coop is recommended for both chicken health and ease for you. Maintaining deeper litter means less cleaning, and more time to have it decompose for your garden later.
Using deep litter means filling the coop with a thick layer of carbonaceous material, as nitrogen will be added through chicken manure. The more carbon, the more manure the layer can absorb and decompose before smelling of ammonia.
Using free sources of dried leaves or wood chips is great for deep litter. Ideally you can find cheap sources of coarse woody material so the chickens can have fun scratching it up for you and help with making compost. Look for dried materials, not green woody options that might promote mold.
Some say straw is not a good idea because of mold, but others have no problem with it. Experiment to see what works best for your coop conditions. Offering a lot of ventilation in your coop might help keep mold at bay.
The author of The Small Scale Poultry Flock lives in zone 6b and raises chickens in an uninsulated, unheated coop in winter. He adds plenty of ventilation to keep dampness out, and thus mold and disease down.
Don’t let the deep litter get too dry, and don’t clean it out completely. Add moisture when needed, and use leftover bedding to inoculate fresh bedding with good microbes.
Best Chicken Run Sizing
Space to roam is important for your chickens. Free ranging is easiest, but can be troublesome. Chickens will dig up garden beds, are at risk from predators, and can escape your yard.
While free ranging might be most fun for your chickens, you might prefer giving them a large confined space instead.
You can confine your chickens to a permanent run area, offer multiple paddocks that they rotate through, or have them in a small moveable pen that moves every few days. Taking care of chickens means offering them adequate space to live, no matter how you provide it.
There are even more opinions on chicken runs than there are on coop sizes. In general, the bigger the better. The smaller the run, the more likely there will be no vegetation in it at all. A bare patch of ground is not fun for your chickens.
If you are limited on space, Chickens and More claims 8 square feet per chicken can work. They recommend offering places to hide, fun foods, and compost or leaf piles to keep them busy and entertained.
The larger the area the chickens have, the less poop you need to clean. There will be more vegetation available for chickens to enjoy, as well as insects to chase.
Ideally, you’ll give your chickens at least 15 square feet per chicken, though 25 square feet is better. Obviously, more room is better! You know your yard – is it easier to fence in your garden, or your chickens?
Paddocks are another idea that you might try. Fencing off separate paddocks (permanently or with moveable fencing) means chickens have the chance to enjoy new areas, allowing older areas to regrow vegetation.
You don’t need permanent areas. Depending on your yard, you might have areas you allow seasonally to your birds – allowing them to clean up garden waste or clean out problematic insects.
Larger yards and small farms might like the chicken tractor idea. You can set chickens up in small moveable pens, and have them clear areas while fertilizing them for later plants. The chickens get new areas regularly, and they work for you, not against you.
I have two potential areas for the chickens to roam in, and can switch them depending on how quickly the chickens eat vegetation. I want to grow some plants that feed the chickens as well, so ideally I’ll switch the areas no more than twice a year.
I also plan to throw compost and leaf piles in the run area. That way my chickens can have the fun of picking through scraps and look for bugs that are hidden underneath. Getting chickens to turn compost for you means less work for you, more fun for them, and great compost for your garden!
Taking Care of Chickens
Chicken food is expensive. The eggs you grow will cost more than eggs at the store, even the expensive ones. Yet chickens help you out with turning compost and adding fertility, they entertain you, and they have environmentally sustainable healthy eggs to offer.
Anyone can buy chicken feed for their chickens. Smart people find ways to reduce reliance on purchased feed. That starts with choosing chicken breeds that are known to be better foragers.
Foraging birds are more interested in picking through compost and only eat purchased feed when they have to. Chicken breeds with feathered legs may make it hard for those birds to scratch and forage. Look to chicken descriptions to find good foraging birds.
When choosing your chickens, buying locally is better than buying through the mail. The stores (or farms) will have already absorbed the loss of unhealthy chicks. Of course, you may limit your breed choices by buying at a store.
Growing compost worms as well means you can throw worms to the chickens from time to time. Some dedicated chicken enthusiasts grow insects for their chickens as well. Black soldier flies and mealworms are options to try if you are interested in doing something similar.
Let your chickens visit your garden or orchard area near dusk, so they can eat bugs and then go home before eating the plants themselves.
If you move your chickens to different paddocks, create a cover crop plan for the paddock that is empty.
Moving chickens regularly or offering enough space so vegetation can grow will mean there are more natural sources of food for the chickens to forage. You can grow mulberry trees that drop delicious mulberries into your chicken run.
You can throw chicken friendly compost scraps to your chickens. They will eat their favorite scraps and insects will eat the rest, thus feeding the chickens again.
Throw whole corn into coop bedding so the chickens can have fun trying to find it and turn their bedding at the same time.
Creating a healthy environment for your chickens with deep bedding, plenty of space, and delicious vegetation and insects will go a long way to keeping you and your chickens happy.
The more food you can find at home, whether scraps, plants that are chicken friendly, or insects, the less you have to pay for chicken food. The more balanced your system is, the less cleaning you have to do, and the more high quality compost you get for more food growing.
Happy chickens are healthy, and give healthy eggs. Grow that superior nutrition in your own yard, and enjoy watching your chickens as well as having them work for you!