A few basic principles of good chicken management have a significant impact on their health and longevity. Here are a number of small steps that can be taken to promote the health of backyard chickens.1. Provide the correct feed: As basic as it sounds, chickens must be fed properly to perform optimally and to be healthy. Even though our great grandparents may have fed their flocks cracked corn or scratch, advances in science and the work of poultry nutritionists reveals that backyard chickens require much more nutritionally to live long, healthy lives, while producing nutritious eggs. Chickens at different stages of development require different feed formulations.
While layer feed contains added calcium, an additional source of calcium, such as oyster shells or oyster shells mixed with crushed eggshells, should be made available to laying hens.
2. Ferment the Chicken Feed
Fermenting chicken feed improves the digestibility and nutritional value of feed, making various components more usable (aka: bioavailable) to the chicken and increasing the protein content while supporting digestive health and immunity with probiotics. Learn more about the benefits of fermenting chicken feed and how easy it is to do, HERE.
3. LIMIT Treats!
The ingredients in commercially prepared chicken feed are carefully calculated by poultry nutritionists to ensure that a chicken’s daily vitamin, mineral and protein requirements are met. Supplemental foods (treats/snacks) replace a portion of those essential dietary elements to some degree. Excessive treats, even healthy ones, can cause any of the following: obesity, reduced egg production, malformed eggs, habitual laying of multiple-yolked eggs, vent prolapse, protein deficiencies, feather-picking, fatty liver syndrome, egg binding, reduced egg production, increased risk of heat stroke and heart problems. Ideally, no more than 5% of a flock’s daily dietary intake should consist of treats.
Common sense should be the guide in treat selection. The types of foods we require to maximize our own health are the foods we should consider when spoiling our chickens: high protein, whole grains, low salt, low sugar, fruits and vegetables. Dairy products are an exception to this general rule because birds are not equipped with the enzymes necessary to properly digest milk sugars. Some yogurt on occasion is fine and does contain beneficial bacterial cultures, but too much dairy can cause digestive upset and diarrhea. Opt for probiotics specially formulated for poultry in lieu of yogurt for good gut health.
Healthy Treats for Chickens
Scrambled Eggs– it may seem ironic to feed eggs to chickens, but eggs are an outstanding source of protein, vitamin A, vitamin E and beta carotene.2 Chickens will not develop a raw, egg-eating habit as a result of eating scrambled eggs. During a molt, eggs are one of the best sources of protein to feed a chicken.
Meal worms are a good source of protein, reportedly containing 49% to 51%. They can be purchased live or dried and can also be farmed very easily at home. During a molt, meal worms are an especially smart snack choice.
Homemade Flock Block Substitute– Flock Block is a commercially available treat for chickens that is intended to entertain chickens and fulfill their natural pecking instincts.They can be purchased at feed stores for approximately $13. I have purchased the product once or twice, but have always thought I could make a similar treat myself. I made my own treat block recently and am much happier knowing that my homemade Flock Block Substitute is a healthy, fresh, nutritious treat for my flock. The recipe includes an Omega3 feed supplement which increases Omega-3 levels in eggs, improves laying rates and chickens’ health and lends naturally occurring amino acids to the recipe, which serve as important building blocks of the protein in feathers and eggs.
Sprouted Grains–Sprouts are whole grains or seeds that are grown with water before being fed to the chickens. Sprouting grains is an easy way to provide chickens with fresh, nutritious greens any time of year with very little effort. DIY instructions HERE.
A note about scratch: Scratch is affectionately referred to as ‘chicken crack.’ Chickens love it, but it’s not the best treat choice for them. Scratch typically consists of cracked corn and a mixture of grains, which lacks an appreciable amount of protein, vitamins and minerals. Scratch should be thought of as chicken candy and only given in small amounts occasionally. *Scratch should not be mixed into the flock’s feed.*
4. Clean Water:
Provide clean, fresh water to chickens at all times. Again, this sounds like common sense, but most backyard chickens drink from waterers harboring fecal matter, bacteria and other organisms that can make them sick. The solution to dirty water is employing poultry nipple waterers. “Nobody who is raising chickens professionally has used cups, bell drinkers or troughs in the past 25 years. … Nipples have been used successfully on literally billions of chickens. The professional farmers across North America have made nipple drinkers the standard for all chickens. … The disease reduction is so striking that there is no doubt which [system] is better.”
Probiotics are live, nonpathogenic bacteria that contribute to the health and balance of the intestinal tract. These good bacteria can strengthen the immune system and help chickens digest food more efficiently, helping them stay healthy and grow better. Read much more about the benefits of probiotics HERE.
6. Clean Coop
A cleaner coop is a healthier coop. Chickens have sensitive respiratory systems that are easily irritated by mold and ammonia from accumulated droppings. Clean coops are less likely to house external parasites such as mites and poultry lice. For five ways to keep a cleaner coop with less effort, click here.
7. Dry Bedding:
A wet environment created by accumulated droppings or spilled water, provides a breeding ground for coccidia and other harmful organisms to flourish. Coccidiosis is an intestinal disease that can rapidly kill chickens if it goes undetected or untreated. Three ways to ensure the driest environment possible are:
- by employing a droppings board and removing droppings from it daily
- by using sand as coop litter/bedding and as ground cover in the run
- by keeping waterfowl and chickens in different yards (Less moisture results in fewer opportunities for organisms to grow that can make chickens sick.)
Many diseases and illnesses are easily kept at bay by keeping living conditions dry.
8. Observe Droppings:
The first sign of a potential health problem often will be found in a chicken’s droppings. Knowing which droppings are normal and which are abnormal is an extremely useful tool in assessing chickens’ health. Installing a droppings board underneath the roost provides a regular opportunity to observe abnormalities unobscured by shavings or other bedding material. Keeping a well-stocked first aid kit handy to treat some of the more common illness and disease early is highly recommended.
9. Break up Broody Hens:
A broody hen is one that is inspired to sit on a collection of eggs until she hatches chicks. Whether she is sitting on a clutch of fertile eggs or an empty nest, she will sit and wait for chicks to hatch indefinitely. In the 21 days normally required to hatch eggs, a broody leaves her nest briefly once or twice daily to eat, drink and relieve herself, neglecting her own health for the good of her anticipated chicks. Her comb will lose color, feathers lose sheen and she will lose a noticeable amount of weight. She can tolerate this drastic change in 21 day stints, but protracted periods of broodiness are unhealthy for her. She becomes vulnerable to external parasites, malnourished and emaciated. Broody hens that will not be permitted to hatch chicks, either due to the unavailability of fertile eggs or the preference of the chicken-keeper, she should be broken/broken-up as soon as possible to return them to their regular routines.
10. No Supplemental Light for Youngsters:
Providing supplemental lighting when natural daylight hours decrease to 13 hours or less is a safe and common practice undertaken to keep hens producing eggs in the autumn and winter months. However, adolescent chickens should not be exposed to supplemental lighting as it can cause them to reach sexual maturity too soon, resulting in egg-laying before their bodies are properly equipped. Egg-binding and prolapsed uterus are two of the possible consequences of premature egg-laying.
11. Provide Dust Bathing Areas:
A dust bath is the chicken equivalent of a daily shower. Chickens dig shallow spots in dirt, sand, or even flower pots to work into their skin and feathers to aid in skin and feather maintenance and parasite control. A dust bath can be as simple as a dry patch of dirt in the backyard or a shallow bucket filled with sand. No additives or supplements are necessary to accomplish the objective. According to Gail Damerow in The Chicken Encyclopedia, adding diatomaceous earth (DE), wood ashes or lime-and-sulfur garden powder to their dust bath is hazardous to their respiratory health and should be avoided unless they are “seriously infested” with parasites. Even in that case, she writes, “the benefit may outweigh the danger of TEMPORARILY adding such materials” (p. 93, emphasis added).
“It is considered a serious human health risk if inhaled, and exposure to it occupationally has been the subject of much controversy with OSHA and NIOSH. It is believed to cause diseases such as lung cancer (silicosis), and carries some of the same risks as exposure to asbestos. You should never breath the dust created by DE if you work with it around your birds – wear a respirator if you do.”
Sources & further reading:
http://www.merckvetmanual.com/mvm/index.jsp?cfile=htm/bc/213200.htm (salty foods are acceptable in moderation, occasionally as long as there is plenty of fresh water available, but never salt alone)
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