Here at Backyard Chicken Project we get a lot of questions about illnesses and how to keep healthy chickens. Caring for a sick or injured hen is a chicken-keeper’s worst nightmare. It’s expensive, nerve wracking, stressful, and confusing. Where do you even start? How do you know what’s wrong and how do you fix it?
Here’s the big secret to having healthy chickens… are you ready?
Keeping chickens healthy is easy, healing chickens is hard. It’s so much easier to focus on the health of your flock before something goes wrong. If you take the time to prevent illness and injury right from the start, you’ll be golden. Once an illness or injury takes hold, there’s usually not much you can do.
Prevention is key, and prevention is easy with these top tips.
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Tip 1: Feed them well
Have you ever heard that you are what you eat? Well, your chickens are what they eat too. Of course chickens can survive on low quality food, but if you want them to really thrive, you need to up the ante.
High quality chicken feed includes all the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals your flock needs to perform their absolute best. Well-fed chickens will lay more eggs, and those eggs will be higher quality with nice thick shells, firm yolks, and exceptional taste. Well-fed chickens usually also live longer, molt faster, and have stronger immune systems.
We know that not everyone can afford the top shelf organic, GMO free, locally sourced chicken feed. That might be in the budget for some folks, but it’s cost prohibitive to most.
If you must buy the low quality chicken feed, consider fermenting it to add more nutritional quality and make it easier to digest. You can also supplement your flock’s feed with healthy treats like fruits and vegetables, mealworms, and weeds.
Supplement their feed:
In addition to chicken feed, there are a number of supplements available to help keep your flock healthy. These are not all strictly necessary. If you let your flock free range and feed a high quality layer feed, they won’t need all of these. These supplements do have their uses and do help with keeping up flock health and preventing illness.
Chickens swallow tiny stone and sand particles called grit to store in their gizzard. These particles aid the gizzard in grinding down food. Chickens who are allowed to free range find their own grit outdoors. Many chicken keepers can’t free range their flocks, or have free range limitations.
For instance, we can free range our flock for three seasons out of the year, but in the winter, the ground is covered in snow and the birds don’t have much interest in free ranging. During the winter we supplement their diet with a free choice bowl of grit.
Why it’s important: A lack of grit in a chicken’s diet could lead to a number of problems including sour crop and impacted crop.
Many chicken keepers give their flock free choice of ground oyster shell. This helps to boost the chickens calcium levels to keep them healthy and make for harder egg shells. We have found that our hens aren’t the biggest fans of eating ground oyster shells, and we’ve found a better alternative, and it’s free!
We save all egg shells after cooking, dry them out, crunch them up into small pieces, and feed them back to the hens free choice. They actually enjoy eating the egg shells and it gives them a nice natural calcium boost in their diet. If you don’t have the inclination to feed egg shells back to your flock, you can purchase Crushed Oyster Shell at most feed stores or online.
Why it’s important: Hens who don’t get enough calcium in their diet are at risk of having a myriad of issues with laying eggs. They may lay soft shelled eggs, or could have eggs break inside of them before being laid, a life threatening condition.
Scratch is a treat for chickens. It is not meant to replace their layer feed as it’s too high in calories and too low in vital vitamins and minerals to sustain your flock long-term. We love to give scratch to the chickens for many reasons.
In the winter, the birds are cooped up almost every day. We do offer for them to go outside to free range, but they rarely want to. They get quite bored being stuck in the coop all day, so we toss handfuls of scratch onto the coop floor. The hens are occupied all day long searching for the scratch, and their searching helps to turn over the deep litter in the coop as well.
Why it’s important: Keeping the hens occupied keeps them from fighting and bullying each other, which cuts down on chicken-induced injuries. Scratch can also help a chicken pack on a little extra insulating fat to help them survive winter.
Tip 2: Go Deep litter
Using the deep litter system in our chicken coop is our favorite way of keeping our flock healthy and cutting down on chicken chores.
Why should you implement the deep litter system in your coop?
It’s cheap. It’s easy. It takes practically no time. It produces compost. It keeps the chickens warmer in the winter, and it saves us energy as we don’t need to do a full clean-out of the coop nearly as often.
Here’s how to do deep litter:
1. Lay down litter about 6 inches deep onto the bare floor of the coop. The best litter to use for the deep litter method is pine shavings, but shredded leaves also work great, and straw can do the trick as well.
Reminder: Never use cedar shavings in the chicken coop, it can cause respiratory problems in chickens.
2. When the first layer becomes soiled, stir it up and turn it over so the waste is buried. Depending on how big your flock is and how much time they spend in the coop, they may have already done this step for you.
3. Add another few inches of litter on top of the first layer.
4. When that layer becomes soiled, turn it again and add another layer. Always maintain a depth of 6-10 inches of litter in the coop.
5. Continue in this fashion until it’s time to clean out. Some deep litter users only clean out their coop once a year, some clean it as many as four times. We clean our coop in the fall and the spring and deep litter in between.
6. When it’s time to clear out, you’ll remove most of the litter, leaving a 1-2 inch layer on the bottom of the coop. This thin layer holds microbes and nematodes that will help the next layer of litter get started composting. If you’re doing it right, your coop should not smell like ammonia. If it does, you need to increase ventilation and use more litter or turn it more frequently.
Read our full post on deep litter to learn more about the reasons this system rocks!
Tip 3: Keep a clean coop
Many health issues that arise with chickens come from living in an unclean environment. While deep litter has proven to make for a healthier flock, it must be implemented correctly and kept in check in order to work.
Deep litter is not an excuse to never clean your coop or keep up with basic living standards. Be sure to follow the instructions correctly and if your coop ever smells bad, either add more clean litter or clean all the litter out and start over.
Your chickens deserve the best, and that means a nice clean home. Either implement deep litter the correct way, or clean the coop often to get rid of soiled litter.
At least twice a year the coop should be cleaned from top to bottom. When cleaning remove all litter, scrub the walls, floors, nesting boxes, and roosts with a mixture of half water and half white vinegar.
Diatomaceous Earth is an optional addition to your chicken coop cleaning routine. DE can be helpful for preventing and killing off parasites like mites and lice that love to attack chickens. Some chicken keepers sprinkle the roosts, nesting boxes, and litter with DE.
It’s important when using DE in the chicken coop to only use food grade and to only lay it down when the hens are not in the coop. While DE is known to be non-toxic, it can be dangerous while it’s floating in the air, so be sure to take precautions and wear a dust mask and goggles while applying. Do your research on the pros and cons to find out if it’s right for you.
We hope this guide will help you to keep your flock healthy!