Chickens and ducks are one of the best ways for families to begin practicing sustainability. Chickens are curious by nature and are very social creatures. They do best in groups where a pecking order can be established and maintained, and they should have access to roam and stretch their legs while still being kept safe from predators at night. Natural sunlight is not only good for their health, but also encourages egg production. Out here in Arizona our chickens receive plenty of warm sunshine, and ample shade and water during the summer months. We hand mix our feed to reflect the season and each breed's dietary needs.
Our Care Recommendations:
There are many ways to raise healthy and happy chickens, but the following is what we do to maintain our birds health and give them the best environment possible.
Chickens are omnivores and require both plant and animal (insect) protein. They also require a large amount of calcium when laying eggs to prevent calcium deficiencies. Most commercial "layer" feeds provide all of the necessary nutrients that chickens require to live a long and healthy life, including added calcium. We use an egg layer crumble for all of our birds as a base for our feed mixture and mix black oil sunflower seeds, oats, and barley into the feed to provide additional nutrients. Larger birds tend to have a higher protein requirement, especially dual purpose breeds. Oats and barley help to provide plant protein and they seem to enjoy pecking through the crumble to find their favorite oat pieces. Black Oil Sunflower Seeds are rich in healthy fats/oils which help to boost the immune system and produce soft and glossy feathers. Our birds are allowed to roam throughout the day to eat any insects and weeds they may find. They especially love to go in to the goat pens and scratch through any alfalfa that has fallen to the ground, and we feel this is not only necessary for physical exercise but also provides a great variety in their diet.
Our chickens have access to fresh clean water at all times.
**A note on "scratch" as a feed: We do not recommend scratch as it is a very high carbohydrate diet with almost no protein or minerals. Chickens that are fed scratch should have access to run outside every day and have plenty of insects and fresh plant material, and even in this situation they may become deficient in certain nutrients as the Arizona desert has limited options on nutritious and readily available plants. For almost the same price, a bag of layer crumble can be purchased and it provides all of the nutrients necessary for chickens that are used for egg and meat production.
We sprinkle every pen with a layer of diatomaceous earth to prevent internal and external parasites. When chickens scratch on the ground and take dust baths, the diatomaceous earth scratches the chitin layer (shell) of external parasites which causes them to die. Additionally, any diatomaceous earth that is consumed helps to kill internal worms. Chickens are constantly picking up internal worms from wild birds and our diatomaceous earth practices have kept worm gut load to a minimum. Use caution when sprinkling diatomaceous earth as the fine dust can cause respiratory irritations when inhaled in large quantities.
Coops and Runs:
Arizona is filled with many wildlife predators, and to keep our chickens safe we house them in large dog runs. These pens are eight feet long by four feet wide and a maximum of 4 birds are kept in each pen to prevent overcrowding. We allow our birds to roam the farm during the day time to exercise and forage on plants and insects, but we lock them in their pens at night to protect them from predators. Large chickens need a minimum of an eight foot cage unless they are permanently confined to their coop, in which case we recommend a larger area for plenty of movement and excersise.
Every pen has a large pile of loose dirt and grass hay for our birds to scratch and bathe in. We also provide at least one nesting box in each pen filled with clean bedding. A 1x2 wood beam is elevated three feet off the ground to act as a roost and is long enough for each bird to have a place on it at night. Chickens that sleep on the ground are at a much higher risk of developing a respiratory infection or freezing to death in the winter.
Many of the coops that are sold in feed stores are not large enough for 3-5 standard sized chickens, but they may be suitable for some bantam breeds (miniature chickens). We recommend building your own coop or purchasing a large dog run, as these are twice as big as the chicken coops often seen in the stores.