Friday, April 26, 2013

Why Putting Sod in Your Brooder Will Help Your Chicks

By Leigh -

Young chicks need to be both protected from the world an exposed to it at the same time. If hatched under a broody hen, the mother hen will usually take her chicks outside by the third day after hatch. Right from the start, the chicks are exposed to the pathogens and soils of their home. This early exposure helps develop and boost their immature immune systems.

But if chicks are raised in a brooder, how can they be safely exposed to the grasses and soils on your property? How will they develop healthy immunity to the pathogens that might be present outside of the brooder box?

The answer is as simple as a plug of sod from your own chicken yard.

By bringing a little of the outdoors in, your chicks will have the benefits of scratching a bit of real dirt, they’ll get the taste of grass, possibly find a small bug or two and gain exposure to the local bacteria and nematodes they will encounter once they leave the brooder.

(Photo courtesy of S. Strantz)

Do make sure the plug of sod you take from your yard has not been treated with any insecticide, herbicide or any other chemicals. Also, it goes without saying that it should not contain any poisonous plants like nightshade or poison ivy. 

 (Photo courtesy of J. Lewis)
Aside from the obvious safety matters, any grass or weeds will do. Dandelions are actually packed with good vitamins and minerals, so if you pull them up by the roots while gardening, save them for your chicks!

(Photos courtesy of "Melabella & S. Strantz)

Some chicks may appear fearful of this odd new object in their midst. When a mother hen wants to call her brood over to enjoy a treat, she will peck at the treat and make a quick “Buk, buk, buk” sound. Interestingly, chicks will respond the same way if you poke a finger at a treat (in this case, the piece of sod) and make the same kind of sound. You may feel a bit goofy doing it, but it works like a charm. (You can use the same trick to teach your young chicks to try any kind of new food, treat or show them where the water is.)

 (Photo courtesy of S. Strantz)

So if you happen to be raising chicks this spring, or plan to raise some chicks in the future, be sure to try giving them some sod! Their immune systems will thank you!

- Leigh

Monday, April 22, 2013

Roost Potatoes or Health Nuts? Facts on Free Ranging Your Flock

By Leigh -

* All chicken keeping situations are unique, so the information presented here must be tailored to best meet your own needs. 

Free ranging is one of the most natural and healthy ways for a flock to spend its days. Just a few of the benefits of free ranging are;

  • Exposure to plenty of sunlight – a natural source of natural vitamin D
  • Exercise - the ability to move and run to stay physically fit
  • The nutritional benefits of a wide array of bugs and vegetation
  • Chickens will pick up pieces of sand and gravel to help their gizzards work properly
  • Scratching and pecking in the dirt help keep beaks and toe nails from becoming over-grown
  • Free ranged flocks tend to exhibit fewer negative social behaviors like feather picking, bullying and cannibalism

Unfortunately not everybody has the perfect setup for a free ranged flock, but here are a few things that can make free ranging safer for your birds and less stressful for you.

Know Your Predators
Each area has its own kinds of predators. Talk to your local wildlife experts to find out what predators are the most common in your area. Some predators like owls, raccoons, skunks and opossums primarily hunt from dusk to dawn, and simply making sure your flock is secured in its coop during those times can mean fewer losses.

 (Coyote Photo courtesy of "Mellabella")

Fox, coyotes, weasels, hawks, bobcats, mountain lions/cougars, eagles and others are primarily daytime predators. Weasels are generally found around areas with lakes, streams and other sources of water. Weasels can fit in through spaces barely over an inch in diameter, and surprisingly, pose a higher risk to cooped birds than to those that are free ranging. If you do not have any bodies of water, weasels may not be a concern for you. 

 (Weasel Photo courtesy of "Stonykill")

Plan your set-up around your local predators. The methods that work for chicken owners in the Rockies will be totally different than those successfully employed by those in the coastal regions and so-on.

The Livestock Guardian Dog (LGD)
Nothing deters predators both in the air and on the ground like the presence of a dog! It goes without saying that most dogs need a bit of training before being set loose with your flock, but any time you spend training your dog for this job will be well worth the effort!

 (Photo courtesy of Kate Saunders - my sis!)

Certain breeds have been bred up just for the purpose of watching over flocks. The Great Pyrenees, Burmese Mountain Dog, Komondor, Maremma Sheep Dog and German Shepherd Dog are just a few of those breeds. These dogs often need surprisingly little training to become wonderful LGDs quite quickly. 

(Photo Courtesy of Aoxa of Les Farms)

Notoriously high-strung dog breeds (like terriers) and those that love to truly herd animals (like the Australian Shepherd and Border Collie) may need more training than other dogs to teach them to ignore their desire to chase, hunt or herd your chickens.

 (My LGD, Brandy Ann - an Olde Victorian Bulldogge)

That said, almost any breed of dog can be trained for the task. Dogs  – especially those that have a calm nature and a desire to please - will enjoy having this job and the feeling of importance they will get from keeping your birds safe. 

As a side note, donkeys and llamas are also known for deterring ground predators. 

Encourage the Crows
That’s right, the crows! Crows are wonderful at chasing away aerial predators like hawks. Encouraging crows to make nests nearby and hang out at your place may not be great for your vegetable garden, but it is wonderful for enhancing the safety of your flock! They don’t call it a “murder” of crows for nothing!

Electric Poultry Netting
For daytime ground predators, electric poultry netting is a great way to go. Manufacturers of this kind of poultry netting will tell you that a properly installed fence will deter a small bear. Coyotes, foxes and other ground-dwellers tend to stay well away after getting zapped a time or two.

Don’t worry – it won’t hurt your birds. Yes – they’ll get zapped, but unless they somehow manage to become entrapped in the netting, it will not do anything more than give them a bit of a shock.

Most poultry netting is very easy to install and very easy to move about to change the areas you allow your flock to range. While it may not seem like true free ranging if there is a perimeter around your flock, this fencing is surprisingly affordable and multiple sections may be put together to fence off large areas.

A little maintenance is required – tall grass or fallen branches can short out the electrical current, so regular mowing and upkeep is necessary.

See Google results for Electric Poultry Netting here.

Keep a Rooster
Roosters are the most natural form of flock protection there is. While the hens go about their business searching for bugs and tending their chicks, roosters keep their eyes open for potential danger. If danger is present, a rooster will often make a vocal call that the rest of the flock recognizes as a warning. This will send the rest of the birds running for cover. 

(Gunnar - my Swedish Flower Hen rooster)

Roosters have been known to race right into the face of danger when a hen is under attack by a predator, sacrificing himself to save his flock members.

Not everyone can keep a rooster – check with your local ordinances to see if they are allowed where you live.

Provide Hiding Places
Something as simple as a piece of plywood leaning up against a solid fence or an old dog house can provide your flock with good hiding places from aerial predators. Some even make small, makeshift tents for their birds to hide under – these also provide a good source of shade on those hot summer days. 

 (Photo courtesy of "armorfirelady")

Just having areas that allow your flock to “vanish” at the first sight of a distant hawk can reduce the number of fly-bys these predators make.

Fly a Flag… Or 10…
Some have found that placing a few flapping flags around the perimeter of the free ranging area can deter eagles, hawks and owls. Be sure to move them about the yard every so often so predators don’t become used to them.

 (Photo courtesy of Sstrantz /

Set Live Traps
If you have persistent predators like raccoons, consider investing in a “Have-A-Hart” live trap or two. Just don’t make these critters another farm’s problem. If you choose to release them, be sure it is far, far, faaaaaarrr away from other poultry farms!

Don’t Keep Food Out
Leaving food about only attracts vermin. Find a good place away from your flock to lock up uneaten feed until morning.

Domestic Dangers
Some of the most deadly predators to your flock are stray domesticated dogs. Know what animals your neighbors have and make sure there is no way for their loose dogs to come on to your property.

And Lastly –
Many old timers will tell you they have suffered the worst losses to their flocks when those birds were locked up – either in the coop at night or in a run where they could not escape a predator that found its way in. In a confined setting, your birds can not escape.

While it is true that a coyote or fox may kill a few birds from a free ranged flock, usually the rest of the flock will get into trees or hide in the mayhem. If a fox digs into your run, your losses could be much greater as the rest of the flock can not escape. 

If you must keep your birds locked up all day, make absolutely certain both your coop and run are constructed like Ft. Knox. Digging predators will try to dig under your fences. Coyotes can chew through chicken wire and raccoons can sometimes bend it just enough to reach in and grab the head or leg of an unsuspecting chicken. Weasels can get through holes barely over an inch in diameter and can devastate a flock in no time flat.

Know what predators pose the biggest dangers and design your coop and run to keep them out.


You will find that different chicken keepers will have very different views on free ranging. Having read many different views on free ranging prior to setting my flock loose, I had a lot of concerns.

Even after almost a year since my flock started free ranging, I still worry about the day I will experience losses from predators. I am sure it will happen – it is only a matter of time.

Yet – over this past year I have lost a number of birds… to injury and one to an intestinal obstruction. None have been lost to predators (knocking on wood like crazy right now).

I am lucky to have a wonderful dog who enjoys playing “Mamma” to my flock. The farm we are renting is on primarily cleared land, so predators like coyotes and foxes tend not to stray so far out of the tree line. None of the neighbors (other than our landlords) have dogs that roam, and the landlord’s dog seems to be fine with the chickens. We have seen opossum, but have made every effort to deter night predators by building our coops to keep them out. Last year we had a visit from a hawk when my first batch of chicks were young. Since that time, a large murder of crows has taken up residence in the area and I have not seen hawks near the house since.

My flock thrives with all the freedom they have, and I love watching happy chickens exploring the acreage around the farm. When the day comes that I do lose a bird to a predator, I know it will be hard… but I also know that the bird spent its days enjoying freedom, exercise and all the bugs and plants it wanted. And in my own attempt to find the most natural approach to keeping my flock, the ability to allow my flock to free range makes me happy. 

I know not everybody is able to free range their flock all day for one reason or another and that is fine too. We all have different situations and we must do what we truly believe is best for our birds.

Happy Chickening!

- Leigh

Thursday, April 18, 2013

How Much Coop and Run Space Do I Need?

By Leigh -

Quick answer:

  • 4 square feet (sq ft) of floor space per Large Fowl (LF) chicken
  • 3 square feet of floor space per Bantam chicken
  • 1 square foot of ventilation per 10 sq ft of floor space

Perch Space:

  • 12 inches of perch space per LF chicken
  • 9 inches of perch space per Bantam chicken

Perch Type:

  • Perches should be positioned at least 12” to 18” away from the wall for head/tail space.
  • Chickens need a minimum of 18" to 24" of head space above the perch. Remember - they have to fly up there and you don't want them banging their heads each time they jump for the roost!
  • 2”x2” boards with the edges rounded off may be used for bantam breeds
  • LF do best roosting on the 4” side of a 2”x4” with rounded edges.
  • Natural branch roosts may also be used (minimum diameter of 3”-4” (but not all types of wood are healthy for chickens, so check prior to using.)

Nest Boxes:

  • 12”x12” is the standard size for nest boxes, but your chickens won’t mind slightly smaller or larger boxes (provided they fit comfortably).
  • Minimum of 1 nest box for every 3 laying hens


  • 10 Sq Ft of ground space per LF chicken
  • 7.5 Sq Ft of ground space per Bantam chicken

It can be confusing for those new to chickens to wade through the variety of information on proper coop and run square footage for their flock. Manufacturers selling small “doll house” coops often tout their structure as being able to house up to “X” amount of birds… and often those numbers are misleading or not appropriate for the birds or the buyer’s needs.

In general, you should have a minimum of 3-4 square feet of floor space for each large fowl (LF) bird in your flock and 2-3 square feet for bantam breeds.

Note I specify “floor space.” What this means is that it doesn’t really matter how tall your coop is – just how wide and how deep. Thus, a 4’x4’ coop that is 3’ high can house just as many birds as a coop that is 4’x4’ and 7’ high. 

During the day, chickens spend most of their time on the ground. In the event of bad weather when the chickens don’t want to leave the safety of their coop, crowded floor space may cause tension and bullying.

Imagine two scenarios. In the first, you are stuck in a standard-size elevator with 10 people… and one of those people a bully who has decided he simply does not like you. The more bored or stressed he gets, the more that bully picks on you. Yikes, right?

Now imagine you are with those same 10 people in a diner. It is still a limited space, but if you stay in one corner of the diner eating your food, reading your book and minding your own business, the bully is less likely to move from his seat to pick on you. You can also move away if he comes near. More space means it will be harder for him to corner you.

Yes – you can put more birds into a smaller space, but the more crowded your birds are, the more problems can occur, such as feather picking, over-breeding of one hen (if you have a rooster) and even cannibalism.

As for run space, 10 sq ft of ground space per LF chicken and 7.5 sq ft per bantam is generally sufficient. This also depends on your ability to allow your flock to free range. If your flock is able to free range all day, every day, then you may not need much of a run at all. Yet even for those who free range almost all the time, there still may be times your birds need to be confined on a pretty day. Perhaps there is a hawk that has decided to make a nest in a nearby tree and feast upon your flock, or perhaps a stray dog has been frequenting your property. It’s a wise thing to have a “safe place” for your birds to be outside when they can’t free range.

On the other hand, of your flock is rarely able to free range or only free range for a couple hours a day, you will want a bigger run. They need room to stretch their legs, scratch, find bugs and avoid other flock members when necessary. While the coop is like a chicken dormitory for sleeping, the run is the place they will be in for the majority of their active waking hours. 

Providing plenty of perches, stumps, a dust bath and other “chicken furniture” can go a long way to alleviate boredom and stress-related flock issues.

The last thing to consider when building your coop and run is just how addictive chickens are. If you can, build a larger coop than you think you will need… coops have a funny way of filling themselves up rather quickly!

Happy chickening!

- Leigh