Admit it… you’re chicken. Well, in all the right ways you’re scared you’ll kill your chickens.
And, deep down, you just want everyone to be happy.
Good for you.
Well, you’ve come to the right place. In this article, I’ll explain the Seven Essentials you need to know to be a great “mama” to your chickens (aka dino posse).
At the end of the article I’ll offer my, “Good Mama Checklist” to help you apply what you’ve learned.
Let’s dive right in…
Essential #1: Water
Out of all of your chicken’s needs, water stands out as the most important nutrient.
Just a few hours without access to water can critically affect egg production and 24 hours without water can cause a loss of eggs for 24 days.
It’s no wonder, as eggs are 75% water. Or at least that’s what “they” say. It seems unbelievable that eggs, and us human beans for that matter, are made up of so much water.
How in the world are we so solid?
Anyway, we’ll go with the little “fun” fact cuz it helps me emphasize my point.
Keep your posse in clean water or you might see a revolt of the worst kind (drop in egg production).
Tips for Keeping Your Chickens Watered:
Keep the waterers clean. Chickens will drink more if it’s clean (no duh, right?). But, it is A LOT easier said than done. But, still… here’re some tips:
- Scrub the waterer daily or as needed.
- Keep the waterer up on a platform or block so the chickens don’t scratch debris (or poop) into it.
- If you’re lucky (and feeling “saucy”) and you have a water source above the birds, then life would be so much better if you rigged up an “everflow” watering system (Chick mine out in this vlog).
- And, if you must, use hanging nipple waterers. It’s not a naturally drinking position, but I imagine that it’s better than nasty water.
Platforms or hanging waterers are a great idea to keep the water clear of debris that the chickens scratch around. Platforms are especially important when the chickens are on deep mulch.
Four adult chickens will drink about one quart of water a day.
Vacuum sealed waterers are my favorite, but there are a number of options available including automatic watering systems, hangers, and even pans or troughs.
In order for vacuum sealed waterers to function properly they need to be on level ground.
If level ground isn’t available, make sure the hole at the base points downhill. You’ll need to make sure the lid is on tight, and the o-ring seal is working well. If there’s any air getting in above the water level, it defeats the purpose of the “vacuum” effect, and the water will completely drain out.
When it’s hot, chickens may drink up to twice the amount of water in the heat.
Winter adds a danger of freezing water and needs some special attention. You can see my winter water recommendations here.
Essential #2: Food
To understand how we can meet our chicken’s food needs, let’s look at how they would meet their need for feed if they were free. In a completely free-ranging model, a chicken will naturally eat whatever she needs.
In a completely free-ranging model, a chicken will naturally eat whatever she needs.
I once grew a batch of 25 Black Australorps for meat consumption by free ranging them. I provided a ration of starter feed until they were eight weeks old, and then they were completely on their own. I was shocked when I went to the butchering table. They weighed more and had a higher fat content than an identical grain-fed batch!
My experiment confirmed my notion that a chicken knows what she wants, and is very capable of getting it herself, if given the choice.
However, we can’t always give them a choice, so we’re responsible for bringing the food to them.
So, what did she choose?
Her food consumption could be broken down into three kinds of food: plants, seeds, and animal proteins (bugs, worms, small rodents). Notice in all cases, all three food categories are live unprocessed feeds.
Given the success of the free range model, it’s safe to say that we can start replacing commercial feed for more live feeds.
It’s arguable that manufactured feeds are scientifically balanced, but I imagine those balances have been set up for the vast majority of chickens that are in confined situations.
Keep in mind that pre-mixes lack significant (if any) live feeds. Often, the feed has been heated and the grains are crushed. Once a grain is crushed, it begins to spoil and can have very little nutritional value by the time it’s three months old. It can even start to mold. In addition, you’ll get more of what I call, “feed dust.” This is the fine grinds that the chickens don’t eat. The only way I’ve gotten them to eat this is to mix it with some milk or other liquid. Whole grains, on the other hand, are both alive and highly storable.
How to Transition to More Live Feeds:
Use your current feed program as a base, and make sure you’re using the right feed for the individual bird.
Starter feed – 20% protein mix for chicks up to 6 weeks old
Grower feed – 16% protein mix for chickens six weeks old to 1st egg (about five – ten months)
Layer feed – 15% protein mix for adult chickens.
Provide calcium (egg shells or oyster shells) for their mineral needs. Regardless of your feeding program, you should always offer grit to help them break down their food.
Begin introducing more live feeds. For an exhaustive list of creative feed sources, see my article here.
Ration your feed to one-third pound of dry chicken feed. Simple rationing can prevent overeating and loss of material, and it’s best to feed first thing in the morning.
Avoid free choice for several reasons:
- It raises costs as the chickens eat more than they need.
- Overweight chickens will have less egg production and could even loose their life. Look, I learned the hard way. Look, I created a vlog about it, “Putting this Fat Hen Out of Her Misery”.
- Chickens will waste more grain in spills and rodents will begin eating the feed.
Start offering less commercial feed, so your chickens will work harder to source their feeds. In any given situation, I’ll slowly cut my commercial feed ration by about 10% a week until egg production is affected, and then come back up to the previous level and maintain that amount.
Years ago, when we transitioned from GMO feed to organic, my feed costs quadrupled. In response, I started moving my chickens every day on pasture in a chickshaw and mobile electric netting. I had been offering the GMO feed, free choice (it only cost 28 cents a pound versus 64 cents a pound for organic). I started rationing the organic feed from a base of one-third pound of feed per chicken. Then I cut back every day until I got down to about one-tenth of a pound of feed per chicken before it affected egg production! I ended up cutting my feed costs by 33% after the switch to organic (nine cents a day per chicken to only six cents).
Make sure your chickens are getting enough to eat by tracking egg production and feel their crops after they’re in the coop at night. If their crops are full at the end of the day, they are getting enough to eat.
Avoid medicated feeds, as they are are designed to prevent Coccidiosis. Coccidiosis occurs in high-stress situations caused by poor living conditions. If you practice many of the management techniques I describe, you won’t have to worry about this.
Prevent chicks from getting into adult pre-mixes. If you’re raising adult chickens and chicks together, don’t allow chicks to eat adult pre-mixes. These have extra calcium and phosphorous that could be harmful and unnecessary for young birds.
However, it will be near impossible to keep chicks away from the adult feed. I’d go with a grower mix for the entire flock while making sure to offer free choice egg shells and oyster shells for the calcium needs of the adults.
Then I’d offer fish meal, raw meats, sunflower seeds etc.. to help the adults get the phosphorous boost they need. I don’t think the chicks will overindulge on these foods and the adults naturally know how much they need.
Essential #3: Shelter
Left in the wild, chickens would seek shelter in brushy “hideaways” or by roosting in aerial tree limbs.
Providing housing is our ultimate tool for domestication and will confine and increase production making the chickens easily accessible.
It’s your job to provide adequate and properly equipped shelter that keeps your flock comfortable and protected from the harsh elements like wind, sun, snow and rain.
There are numerous styles of housing available, but some of my favorites include the garden sized chicken tractor, the pastured poultry pen, chickshaw, coop and run with deep bedding, and the winter greenhouse.
Tips for Providing Great Shelter:
Shelter from the major elements of wind, rain, sun and snow.
Allow enough sunlight to sanitize and light your house, but not so much that there’s no shade. I shoot for about 25% open areas for the sun and air.
Build in proper ventilation, even in cold areas. Vents above the perches and open areas towards the sunny side should suffice.
Essential #4: Family Relations
As the caretaker of your chickens, it’s your responsibility to ensure a happy family. No doubt, you’ve heard the phrase, “pecking order”. This phrase came from the observation of the chickens pecking activity to establish a social dominance order. For the most part, pecking orders are established quickly and easily without injury.
I can think of two categories where tensions are more of a potential: Working with Roosters and Mixing the Flock.
Tips for Working With Roosters:
Roosters aren’t necessary for eggs, but they better complete the social structure, offer protection, help the hens find food, and they’re certainly necessary for reproduction. For more on the benefits of roosters click here.
Plus they look so much better. What’s up with that? Have you ever noticed how in every other species, other than the human bean, the males looks so much better than females?
Rooster can have favorites among the “ladies” and be too hard on them. In many cases, they wear off the feathers on their back or in worse cases injure them with their spurs. In this case, it’s a good idea to provide adequate competition (up to one rooster per eight hens). If balancing the flock with roosters doesn’t work, you can separate the roosters from the flock, or as a final resort cull the culprit. But, I wouldn’t worry too much about this. It just means they’re getting it on. It’s spring and they’re begin productive. This is a good thing for the sustainable farm (and it won’t hurt the hens).
Remove the spur’s sharp point with pruning shears as a last resort. (I’VE NEVER DONE THIS)
Rooster attacks on humans are totally possible if they see you as a threat. Don’t take it personally, just show him that you can be trusted. My first reaction is to kick the rooster off when he flares up ready to fight.
However, I’ve been able to control myself. I quickly find some food and offer it to him. As a result, the flare-ups have come fewer and farther between.
If you want to see how to catch an attacking rooster, I happened to catch this video of me pulling one of my best chicken ninja stunts.
Prevent children from taunting the rooster, even from outside the fence. I caught a visiting child poking the rooster through the fence with a stick and since then the rooster hasn’t liked children (and for good reason).
One of my neighbor’s roosters flogged their daughter, lodging the shell of his spur in her scalp. There was no severe injury, but they did have to do a minor surgery. I believe a rooster with that much aggression should be culled.
Use quiet and gentle movements around your roosters and give them plenty of space.
Be careful if you have to catch a hen in the presence of a rooster. If needed, catch the rooster first and confine him, so you can safely work with the rest of the flock.
Roosters will fight each other when introduced if they are equally matched. One way to prevent that is to keep roosters of varying ages.
Introducing same sized roosters can be a challenge. Try introducing them for a few days in cages or barriers. Then mix them. If it’s clear they’re going to hurt each other, separate them again.
Know that rooster have to establish an order of dominance and if there very similarly matched the fighting may continue until death.
If it’s clear that your roosters are going to fight to the end, it’s better to cull the one you don’t want to keep.
Roosters will continue fighting until dominance is established. Even if you separate them, they will finish their quarrel when back with each other.
Provide plenty of room for roosters and hideouts to make it easy for the subordinate rooster to retreat. Hideouts could be something as simple as pallet A-frame or compost bin.
Tips for Mixing Age Groups:
Exposing young chicks to adults could help build their immune systems.
Give plenty of space for newly introduced chickens.
Hens will establish a pecking order but will be much less violent than roosters.
Have extra waterers and feeders, so they aren’t forced to fight over access.
When introducing younger chickens to the flock do so by placing them in the coop at night while everyone is way more sedated. In the morning, it will almost be as if they were always there.
To keep the BIG chickens out of the younger chickens feed you could build a chicken crib. In this video, I created a crib in just one day:
When getting new chickens in a free-range setting, you’ll need to confine them inside their coop for about a week to teach them where home is.
I can remember the first chickens I ever got. It was a small flock of four. I put them in a horse stall and began working on the inside. In my naivety, I left the top stall door open. Before I knew it, two of the birds were perched on the bottom door and flew out. I was never able to recover them.
Clip the wings of newcomers so they don’t fly the fence (or stall door). They have no sense of home and won’t find their way back.
Essential #5: Health
If you follow the guidelines above you’ve taken major steps for preventing any health related issues from occurring in the first place. Prevention is the best “medicine.”
Here are some basic preventative measures.
Basic Preventative Measures:
- Provide a wide variety of live feeds
- Provide calcium and grit supplements at all times
- Provide a dry dust box at all times
- Have clean water available at all times
- Give your chickens plenty of space inside and outside (at least three square feet)
- Make sure your coop is well ventilated and offers protection from the elements, yet is opened as much as possible towards the sun
- Make sure you have at least 9” of roosting space per chicken so they can get off of the wet, manured ground at night
- Use deep bedding in non-mobile coops of at least 8” and add more carbon material regularly
- Implement the “Holistic Trinity” of Garlic, Apple Cider Vinegar, and Diatomaceous Earth. Lisa Steel of Fresh Eggs posted an excellent article about the use of the supplements. You can find that here.
- Use a natural water boost for day old chicks. Click here for a recipe.
- Fermented feed for the first few weeks of their lives, if not throughout their entire lives. To learn how to ferment their feed click here.
It’s still probable that eventually someone will get sick, infected with mites or injured. I addressed some of the more common health problems and how to treat them here.
Essential #6: Protection
If you’ve ever seen another chicken mess with a mama hen’s chicks, then you’ve seen how she can go from a peaceful yard “ornament” to a puffed up ball of madness. You just don’t mess with a mother’s precious babies.
Now that you’re the mama you’ve got to adopt that same passion!
Just about everything will eat a chicken and/or its eggs: Hawks, Eagles, Owls, Possums, Skunks, Domestic and Wild Cats, Dogs, Raccoons, Bears, Pigs, Rats, Coyotes, Foxes, Weasels, Bobcats, Wolves, Snakes and in some cases, thieving people.
In all cases, predators can be broken down into three categories: Aerial, land or egg eaters. I’ve had run-ins with all three.
Tips for Protecting the Flock:
Close their door at night. The vast majority of predator problems will be eliminated by simply closing them securely at night and not letting them out until daylight.
Keep small chicks in chicken tractors or under similar protection as they are the primary target of aerial predators. I’ve had young free-ranging chicks picked off rapidly despite the mama hen’s presence.
Keep housing secure and keep your openings no large than one inch.
In the event of aerial predator attacks on adult chickens, consider housing them for a few days to encourage the birds of prey to move on.
You might even encourage crows. We had an epic hawk problem a couple of years ago and finally found our relief with crows. Believe it or not, the smaller birds don’t like hawks in their territory and will drive them out of the area! Crow problems have been so minimal I welcome their presence for keeping the hawks at bay. I have no idea how to encourage crows, but thought it would be worth the consideration.
Use electric net fencing, as this will keep out all land-based predators besides humans.
Guard dogs can protect the flock from all predators, including some human thieves. Thieves might not be a consideration for many, but for my friend in Africa a guard dog or a human guard is an absolute must.
Guns or traps can be used. If you’re shooting a domestic dog, I suggest shooting it with a BB gun as laws vary from county to county and these days I’m afraid of getting sued.
Kill wild predators very sparingly as you’re messing with the natural ecosystem. A sure-fire rule of nature is that if you eliminate one predator from the area, something else is likely to move in. Without foxes, raccoons, wild rabbits and other rodent populations drastically increase.
Check eggs regularly or move your coop often, if you have a snake getting them.
Implement a guard goose. It’s critical to raise a gosling with chicks so it will learn to bond with chicks. Just get one goose. Otherwise, they’ll be distracted with other geese and won’t bond with the chicks or pay attention to guarding them. Your goose can be kept in a fence with the chickens or allowed to free range. They can free range for all of their feed needs.
Prevent snakes by eliminating rodents, keeping the area clean and reducing hideouts.
Remember roosters can be great natural guardians of the rest of the flock.
Watch your cats as they will eat young chickens. We once got some working cats from the pound and then started noticing missing pullets. At the time, we had no idea a cat would be doing this, but I caught them in the act one day and had to take them back to the pound. One day we hope to get a Russell Terrier dog for small rodent control.
Provide retreats for cover from aerial predators
Hang shiny objects in the wind like tinfoil and cd’s to scare away aerial predators.
If you have a permanent fence for your chickens bury 6” or so in the ground to prevent digging predators.
Clip wings to keep your chickens in the fence and away from predators.
Guard animals like dogs or even geese. Use only one goose per flock and raise them as goslings with chicks so they’ll develop a strong bond.
[VIDEO] Four Stunts to Keeping Predators Away:
Essential #7: Take Care of Yourself
You’ve heard the saying, “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” and you know it’s true.
Whether you’re a man or a woman, you’re a mama to your chickens. You’ve got to take care of yourself before you can take care of others.
See to it that you eat well, get plenty of rest, exercise, enjoy your job and have fun with friends and family. This self-care will go a long way for keeping you on top of a good management program.
You can start right now with a good laugh: Check out what this reporter does when that rooster starts to flap.
Ready to be a better mama to your chickens?
Download the “Good Mama Checklist“!