The three key things you need to raise healthy chickens are appropriate environment so understanding how the birds should live, freedom from disease and good nutrition. Read about healthy feed for chickens here
Which is the most important?
It’s hard to pick one of those three above the others as the most important, keeping chickens healthy is a package but you cannot underestimate the importance of the environment. No amount of good food will make up for a poor living area and inadequate housing and space to roam.
Observation is key
Knowing your birds and understanding your flock is a huge part of hen welfare. Observation whether conscious or not will alert you to something that is not quite right, a chicken that is a bit off colour.
Chickens have different personalities just like cats and dogs so get to know your girls. Familiarity with your chicken’s behaviour and antics will let you know immediately that something is not right.
What are the general signs of good health?
Apart from normal chicken behaviour, preening, foraging, pecking, engaging with the other birds, there are a number of visual signs which can indicate whether a bird is in good health. These include:-
- Combs and wattles should be a vivid red colour and not pale unless the birds are young or in moult
- Eyes should be clear and the chicken should have an alert demeanour
- Skin should be healthy and free of parasites – you will need to pick each bird up and part the feathers to make this assessment
- Feet should be clear of abrasions and cuts which can lead to infection
A good hen house is a clean hen house and you can go a long way to promote the health of your flock with good housekeeping.
Clear up droppings and discarded feathers on a daily basis – this is a great opportunity to spend time with your birds and observe their natural behaviour. Remove soiled and wet bedding which can harbour disease and compromise respiratory health. Change the bedding in its entirety approximately once a month.
Periodically, you will need to clean the coop thoroughly so choosing a design which you can dismantle to access different areas which will make your life much easier. There are proprietary cleaners produced just for this purpose which are strong enough to shift chicken muck and red mite but will not be harmful to your chicken’s delicate airways or skin.
What are the essential elements of a good chicken coop?
Chicken houses or coops generally come in either wood or plastic. Plastic is easy to clean and the moulded form present fewer cracks and crevices for red mite to lodge in. Plastic hen houses can be more secure and sturdy than wooden alternatives. Some makes come with their own detachable runs which are handy because they can be moved around. If you buy a wooden coop, make sure it is robust. Thinner planks may not withstand a determined fox attack.
Be generous when planning the accommodation for your number of resident chickens. If the birds do not get on, then they will require more space so that they all get the opportunity to roost in peace. You will never regret having a bigger hen house than your resident flock might appear to need but you will regret buying a coop that is just a bit too small. As a rule of thumb, the floor space should be 30cm x 30cm per bird. This is for an average size of chicken; bigger breeds such as the Orpingtons or Wyandottes will need a more generous allocation per individual bird.
Chickens like to sit down when they sleep so make sure the perches are wide enough for the size of your residents. Chickens can huddle together when they sleep but not always so make sure there is enough room for those that need more space. Nest boxes should sit below the perches and be bedded down with straw, not hay. Work on the basis of one nest box for every four birds and always have a minimum of two nest boxes.
Adequate ventilation is very important for chicken health. Don’t mistake ventilation for letting the birds become too cold as chickens tolerate low temperatures very well. They cannot, however, cope well with drafts so look carefully at the ventilation sources in your coop. A vent at the bottom and a vent at the top should allow air to be drawn in and then expelled through the top of the house taking with it any ammonia which is created by the bird’s droppings. Chickens are particularly prone to respiratory infections so the fresher the air, the better. Ventilation windows are ideal as these give you the option to open or close them in windy weather.
Chickens naturally like to have the freedom to roam and forage. Chicken are curious and will explore in an area that is large enough and sufficiently varied to satisfy their natural curiosity. If you only have a small space, keep fewer birds so that you can maximise the room available to your flock.
A netted run can be moved around onto different areas of ground or lawn which can help to preserve the grass. But if your garden or area is secure then the chickens can go free-range.
Given the choice, chickens will spend a good proportion of each day outside depending on the weather feeding, drinking, having a good dust bath and generally socialising with the flock. Provide a dust bath area. This will encourage them to preen and clean themselves, removing parasites and other debris.
A good chicken run must be secure to protect your chickens from predators, principally foxes who are very cunning and will always find a week area of fencing or an unsecured barrier.
Feeding chickens has never been easier with specially formulated layers pellets produced to cater to their specific dietary needs. Chickens require a lot of protein whilst they are growing and also for egg production. Commerical feeds usually contain in the region of 16% protein as well as calcium for eggshell production. In contrast, wheat contains only 10% protein and is not suitable as the main feed. Because eggs contain around 80% protein, if your chickens are lacking this in their diet, then the first thing that will suffer is the egg production. Wheat grain also lacks the vitamin and mineral ingredients which a specially formulated poultry feed will contain for optimal nutrition and to support good bird health.
Chicken feeds come as either a pellet or as a mash.
Browse our range of chicken feed here
What is mixed corn?
This is a grain feed containing mostly wheat, usually around 80%-90% with the rest being made up of maize. Mixed corn is great as what is called a scratch feed but should be fed as a treat, not a staple diet. The protein levels are too low and this mix will only make the birds fat from the maize (corn).
Mixed corn is good in the winter months when the birds are not laying and after they have moulted. Their requirement for protein dips at this point and the additional fat in the diet can help to keep them warm over the winter.
Chickens should always have access to green food. You may be lucky enough to have a large lawn to accommodate them but that can quickly become pecked away and spoiled. There are lots of ways to provide additional greenery for your chickens:-
- Grass cuttings
- Any offcuts from greens from the kitchen such as cauliflower, cabbage and broccoli
- Weeds or unwanted plants from the garden
Grit is used by chickens to break down food material as they are not equipped with teeth to perform this task. Chickens ingest grit which passes into the gizzard which has a strong muscular wall enabling the bird to grind down food matter into a paste from which the chicken can absorb nutrients. Lack of grit means the chicken cannot obtain the necessary nutrition from the food source and may even encounter a blockage from undigested food.
Chickens should always have access to grit even if they are roaming and free-range during the day as they may simply not encounter enough grit on their travels for their individual needs. Grit is easy to provide in a feeder. Let the chickens self-regulate, do not add it to their feed. Chickens know how much grit they need and will help themselves as required. Grit has no nutritional value and so the normal feed rations should remain unaltered. Buy grit here
Continual access to a fresh supply of clean drinking water is essential for the health and wellbeing of your chickens.
Water left in plastic containers until it turns green can be more harmful to chickens than muddy rainwater. Change their water daily or every other day and keep the containers clean by simply scrubbing with a stiff brush. Do not use any cleaning agents.
Water provision is critical in very hot weather as chickens do not tolerate excessive heat very well and will need to drink frequently. Try and put the water container in the shade to minimise the time they spend in direct sunlight taking a drink. Water placed in the shade will remain at a lower temperature and will help to keep the birds cool. Chickens cannot regulate their core temperature very well, they cannot sweat, so will need to pant to cool down. Access to cool water will help them reduce their heat levels. Check regularly that they have sufficient water to drink as their consumption will increase if it is very hot so you may need to check several times throughout the day and replenish the supply.
Day to day health
Chickens, like many other species, hide health issues very well; weakness equals vulnerability in the flock. By the time they exhibit signs of sickness, matters can be quite far advanced which is why daily observation is so important. Get to know your birds well and then you will easily spot subtle differences on your daily visits to the hen house.
- Investigate anything obvious such as limping or a bird which is dragging a wing
- Always remove a chicken with an obvious injury and which is bleeding as the fresh blood will attract the other birds
- The comb should be a vivid red, look more closely at any bird with a comb that is purple in colour and not firm to the touch. Growing birds and birds in moult will always have paler combs
- A difference in droppings, if you are able to identify the bird responsible
- Any respiratory compromise such as runny eyes, snuffling or noisy breathing
- Take notice of the crop which is the area at the base of the neck where the bird stores food. This should be empty before the bird eats. If the crop is bulging then this could indicate a blockage
- Pick up the hens regularly; feathers can disguise unexplained weight loss and skin issues such as lice or mites. Red mite tends to live in the hen house rather than on the birds themselves. You will be close enough to smell the breath of the chicken. Sour breath can indicate a blocked crop or a fungal infection
Most of these indicators are visual and can be quickly observed on a daily basis when you are feeding your chickens or cleaning out the coop. Sick birds do not exhibit normal behaviour and are pretty easy to spot.
Keeping your chickens free from disease and parasites
Red mite is probably the biggest parasite you will have to deal with in your flock of chickens. Mites live in the hen house and tend to feed on the birds at night, that plus the fact they are only 1mm in length make them difficult to spot. They are busy during the warmer months and lie dormant in the winter. When they are feeding and breeding however, they can multiply at an alarming rate.
Red mite needs to be treated and is often not discovered until there is a real infestation so you should routinely check the coop when you clean it by lifting the perches and the nest boxes. Red mite can be hard to see in the day.
Top Tip: run a piece of kitchen towel along the underside of the perches at night which is when the mites come out to feed. Tiny red streaks indicate squashed red mites which are engorged with blood
Red mite can affect the birds sufficiently so they do not thrive and it can cause anaemia and a clue for this is a pale comb.
When creosote was still available to purchase, treating a timber hen house eliminated all the red mite which would lodge in the wood. Now creosote has been banned by the European Union since 2003 as potentially harmful to human health, the creosote substitute has not been nearly as effective at getting rid of red mite.
There are products available which you can use to clean the house and eliminate the red mite. It is something of a war of attrition as it is hard to eradicate them completely. It is far better to be vigilant and not allow them to get a foothold in the first place. There is also a red mite powder which you can use to treat the birds. The presence of red mite will require repetitive cleaning as their egg-laying cycle is so swift, it is easy for numbers to build back up again.
Making the time to keep chickens
Chickens may not be as demanding as some other animals as part of your domestic life but they are still a commitment and require regular care and attention whatever the weather and other demands you may have on your time.
So often, animal welfare is compromised because the whole process and what it really means has not been thought through properly. Understand what you are taking on and what it will mean in your life on a daily basis. Keeping chickens is not rocket science but good husbandry is essential to ensuring your flock of birds are