In the interest of keeping your backyard chickens healthy and happy, making minor adjustments to various aspects of their care can have a significant impact on their health, egg production, and longevity. Below are tips for improving the well-being of any flock.
1. Provide Healthy Nutrition.
As basic as it sounds, chickens must be fed properly to be healthy and to perform optimally. A quality chicken layer feed will provide the most nutritious diet for your backyard chickens, allowing them to live long, healthy lives while producing maximally nutritious eggs.
Chickens at different stages of development require different feed formulations. While the feed manufacturer’s recommendations for their products should always be followed, generally speaking, day-old chicks through eight weeks old should be provided with starter feed. Adolescent chickens up to 18 weeks of age should be fed a grower or a flock-raiser type ration and laying hens should be fed layer ration no earlier than 18 weeks of age or the appearance of their first egg. Layer feed contains calcium that laying hens need for eggshell production, but excess calcium can be detrimental to younger birds.
Limit treats and feed healthy treats. Commercially prepared chicken feeds are formulated by poultry nutritionists, to ensure that a chicken’s daily vitamin, mineral and protein requirements are met. Supplemental foods (treats, snacks, kitchen scraps) replace a portion of those essential dietary elements to some degree. No more than ten percent of daily dietary intake should be treat foods. The regular and excessive ingestion of treats, even healthy ones, can cause any of the following: obesity, mal-formed eggs, vent prolapse, feather picking, “fatty” liver, egg binding, etc.
Common sense should be the guide in treat selection. The types of foods we require to maximize our health are the foods we should consider when “spoiling our chickens.” These include those high in protein, contain whole grains, are low salt and sugar and should consist of a variety of fruits and vegetables.
Examples of Healthy Snack Foods for Backyard Chickens:
- Scrambled eggs make a great treat; it may seem ironic to feed n chickens eggs, but eggs are an excellent source of protein, vitamin A, vitamin E, and beta carotene. During a molt, eggs are one of the best sources of protein to feed a chicken. Crush the eggshells and add to the cooked eggs.
- Pumpkin is packed with anti-oxidants, Vitamins A, C and E, minerals including copper, calcium, potassium and phosphorus, dietary fiber, and the seed are packed with healthy proteins. Cut a fresh pumpkin into quarters and let them go to town!
- Mealworms are also a good source of protein. They can be purchased live or dried and can also be farmed very easily at home. During a molt, mealworms are a brilliant snack choice.
- Hanging a head of cabbage or romaine from a string makes a good toy and nutritious snack.
Dairy products, in general, should not be fed to chickens, as these birds are not equipped with the enzymes necessary to properly digest milk sugars
2. Provide Clean Water.
Again, this sounds like common sense, but chickens should have access to clean, fresh water at all times. In the winter, make sure the water source does not freeze.
The addition of organic apple cider vinegar to the drinking water of backyard chickens can improve their gut health by changing the pH of the water, making it inhospitable to many organisms. It is known that acidifying the water of chickens alters their GI bacteria, slowing the growth of undesirable bacteria, and giving a boost to good bacteria. An acid environment also helps control coccidiosis and Clostridium bacteria; both can be fatal. One to two tablespoons per gallon of water is the suggested amount of vinegar to add.
3. Provide Clean Living Quarters.
A clean coop is a healthier coop. Chickens have sensitive respiratory systems which are easily irritated by the presence of ammonia and mold spores found in accumulated droppings. Clean coops are less likely to house external parasites such as mites and poultry lice.
You should always provide 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.
Ways to ensure the driest environment possible are:
- Use a “droppings board” and remove droppings from the droppings board daily. Dropping boards are essentially a shelf designed to be placed underneath where chickens roost at night that collect the accumulated droppings
- Use of sand as coop litter/bedding and as ground cover in enclosed run areas
4. Observe Behavior and Droppings
The first sign of a potential health problem often will be found in a chicken’s droppings. Knowing what is an appropriate amount of droppings, knowing which droppings are normal and which are abnormal is extremely useful in assessing chickens’ health. Use of a “droppings board” underneath the roost provides a regular opportunity to observe abnormalities unobscured by shavings or other bedding material.
Feeding time is the best time to look over your flick since they tend to stand still. Signs of an ill bird to watch for include:
- Birds that stand off to the side away from the flock.
- Birds having little or interest in food. This can indicate illness of many kinds but can also indicate stress, esp. heat related.
- Birds having dull, damaged or missing feathers. A happy healthy chicken should have shiny, thick feathers. Hen pecking, external parasites, seasonal molting or illness can cause changes.
- Birds having a dull/brittle comb or wattle. A healthy chicken will have a bright red comb/wattle. Illness, poor diet, overcrowding can result in abnormal comb/wattle appearances.
- Birds with a cough or raspy breathing. This should always warrant investigation. Acting fast when you identify a bird can help save an individual bird often or possibly save the rest of the flock, if contagious.
- Birds with a “dirty” backend. Soft/Runny stools can be normal for chickens but could indicate parasites or disease as well. Any change in the stool should be noted especially those that are different from normal or foul in odor, show evidence of blood, etc.
- Birds that are hunched up, limping, etc. A hunched bird indicates something is wrong; either the bird is in pain or is ill.
5. Provide dust baths.
A dust bath is the chicken equivalent of a daily shower. Chickens dig shallow spots in the 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.
Here are some excellent web sites to learn more about your backyard chickens:
Keeping Backyard Chickens and Other Poultry at https://www.cdc.gov/features/salmonellapoultry/index.html
National Poultry Improvement Plan at http://www.poultryimprovement.org/default.cfm
Backyard Chickens 101: A quick guide to urban poultry https://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/Reference/Pages/Backyard-Chickens-101.aspx
DATCP division of Animal Health Animal Diseases at https://datcp.wi.gov/Pages/Programs_Services/AnimalDiseases.aspx
Brook-Falls Veterinary Hospital & Exotic Care, Inc. is Southeastern Wisconsin’s Expert Veterinarians specializing in small mammal and exotics. For more information, contact Brook-falls!