© 1992 Dunn Farm ~ Life in the Sierra Nevada

Chicken  Care

Hens are gentle creatures by nature. They nurture their young, are usually passive, and forgiving whenever dinner is late. They really are scatter-brained little things, for the slightest upset or unusual noise will send them running in every direction willy-nilly! They may even jam their  heads into the hay to hide, leaving their entire body exposed! Silly silly! And oh my, the hoopla each hen goes through whenever she lays an egg!! You would think it was the first time ever! They announce each egg with loud cackling, which falls and rises in intensity!

 

Roosters, on the other hand, are vain, and competitive by nature.

 There must be a good ratio of chickens to roosters or there will be trouble in the hen house!  They strut around, loudly crowing their many attributes at all hours. They crow at two in the morning, three in the morning, six in the morning and sometimes all throughout the day! One gets up early here at Dunn Farm, being serenaded!!  They make more noise than our resident frogs!

 

We really are fond of our chickens.   They are kept for egg production and as barnyard pets.  Many of them are named while young, while some earn their names, like Crazy and Studley. They love foraging, poking through the flowers and under the shrubs, damaging nothing and yet turning up bugs and worms to their delight. They make soft cooing sounds as comforting as a dove.

 

Chickens drink a lot of water and a shortage of water will mean fewer eggs. Water is very important and must always be made available to them; we use a galvanized watering container with a circular moat for each coop.   Many chickens are able to drink at one time this way.  This is checked daily and replenished with fresh water as needed. 

 

Water containers

The chickens all enjoy free range meals on the weekends (each house takes turns), and as soon as Tim opens the gates, chickens and roosters run gleefully out to the yard, pastures, and forest. Once there they contentedly work the soil, digging up bugs, and other squishy things. Chickens are true scavengers and will eat almost anything! We give them stale bread and crackers, ripe fruits, cooked rice, and vegetable trimmings from the kitchen.

There are two sets of laying boxes each with three nesting places, small, wooden boxes with nests of straw. The chickens lay their eggs here and Tim collects them each morning.   Often we will find eggs that have been laid in the straw in corners of the coop. Sometimes they are laid behind the nesting boxes if a chicken is trying to hatch them. When the little Bantie gets out, she lays her eggs under the hen house or between the bales of hay. 

The chickens lay enough to keep us, our friends and neighbors well supplied during the warmer months.  Egg production stops with the cold winter months.

Straw covers the floor of the coop, not only to keep it warm and dry, but to absorb the urine and feces. They are not particular where they do their business.  Tim cleans out their coops as needed, putting this refuse into the compost piles. Small windows in this coop provide light and air.  

New stock is purchased each spring and sometimes in mid-summer.  Selection is always fun as there are many different breeds.  Some are better egg layers and some make better mothers.  I love the white Silkies!  They are just so darling! 

 

 Finally, nightfall finds chickens and roosters all lined up on the roosting poles, settled in for the night. The door is closed,  keeping critters out. The chickens roost on one inch dowels that span corner to corner at a height of about five feet. There are two roosting areas in the coop.  Towards dusk, the chickens all go into their coop, and squabble and push and shove to get on the roosting perch they want, in the exact spot they want. This is when 'King of the Roost' competitions occur with loud cackling and cock-a-doodle-doos!! 

Each year Tim experiments with different breeds.   He has always toyed with the idea of being a local breeder, as he is very good raising these baby chicks.  They are very healthy and develop into fine stock.

 

Free-range chickens produce rich eggs with deep-orange yolks, just full of vitamins!  You cannot believe how tasty and wonderful this is compared to mass-produced eggs.  Most producers will tell you there is no nutritional difference; however, most of you have eaten vine-ripened tomatoes and realize the taste difference from store bought tomatoes!  It is exactly the same with free-range chicken eggs.  The captive chickens never feel the wind through their feathers or enjoy the sun on their backs.  Or munch on natural things in the grass.  And these eggs are richer and better for you, of course; after all, the hens all ate their vegetables!   Their contribution to a more healthy you makes all the  chickens very happy! 

 

There is something about raising chickens that we really enjoy. For me, it reminds me of the ranch, Van Vleck's, where my grandfather worked and lived for a good part of his life. I remember visiting each summer when I was young, in the early fifties, and have such fun!  I would visit the farm animals, the horses, pigs, cows and the chickens.  

 

The ranch had a large chicken coop, with many, many chickens and large roosters that would chase me! The chickens would chase me also, as I usually got too close to their baby  chicks.  Each morning, my Aunt LuLu would scatter corn across the yard, saying 'here chick, chick, chick, chick' over and over, tossing corn and chanting. 

The little chicks would scurry around, picking up the grain. Then she would put corn in the feeders for the chickens and roosters.  Raising chickens is a pleasant pastime with its own rewards, but especially because each one has its own personality.  They really are quite funny!

 

Feeding is done twice a day, and because of our commuting schedule, the hours are far apart. A suspended feeder which holds cracked corn or lay crumbles (a high protein feed to help produce eggs) on a given day, is filled once at three thirty in the morning, and again at six thirty in the evening. 

A snack of cracked corn is also tossed out into the main area outside on the weekends. It is important that feed is kept fresh as the vitamins will deteriorate with time. Tim keeps all foodstuff in large 33 gallon, plastic bins with tight lids.  Chickens are very adept raiders!   
Chickens cannot digest their food without the aid of tiny rocks. They pick these up when they are feeding outside. These are actually used to crush their food in the gizzard before it goes into the small intestine.  

Tim built a ramp for the main chicken house so the chickens and roosters may go in and out of their little door at will during the day to snack on these rocks. It is a little larger than a doggie door and leads directly into their main yard, surrounded on all sides by chicken wire which is stapled to overhead beams and side posts. This protects them from critters and varmints who hunt at night, like foxes, roaming dogs, possums, raccoons, and skunks.   Prevention is critical as one can lose a whole flock in a single night.  Care must also be taken during coop construction to bury the chicken wire well below ground level.  This will prevent the burrowing animals from entering the chicken coops.

Chicken Coop

There are about forty hens and roosters living at Dunn Farm in three different and separate chicken coops. There are many ways to build chicken coops, however, the most important things to consider are the security of the coop against critters, the minimum space needed for the fowl, weatherproofing the coop, and cleanliness.  Chickens need space, about five square feet of space each, less for smaller ones. They will thrive if they have fresh air, plenty of sunshine and room to wander and find morsels like bugs, and worms!

It is also important for them to have dirt in which to bathe. This helps ease the bothersome mites on their bodies.  You should see all of them on a clear day, burrowing into the fine dust of the barnyard where the dirt is dark and cool, fluffing the dust up and over themselves! Dust flies everywhere! Little backsides swish vigorously into the hollows, pushing even more dirt out of the way. And there they sit, content, dusty, and warm. What a different way to bathe! 

 

The original chicken coop is actually an old tack barn outfitted with roosting beams, laying boxes, a  suspended feeder and a water source. There are small windows for light and air.  The coop is dry and windproof through the winter, and cool and dark in the summer months.  We keep a fan going during the hotter months as heat often stresses and could kill adult birds. The floor is made of wood covered with straw and is easily accessible to muck out when necessary. But usually on good days and during the summer, we let them free range all over the property. They love the bugs and eat weeds and grasses, and they are very happy ladies!

 

 The second  chicken coop is one Tim built for the Araucanas, called the Easter Egg chicken because they lay the blue and light green eggs (you know, the Martha Stewart eggs!), the Bantams, and the lone Polish Top Hat rooster, who is very aggressive!  This coop has its own separate entry, but has a common chicken-wire wall out in the yard. Both of these coops have immediate access to an outside area and are protected by chicken wire which totally surrounds the coops, and covers the top. With the dry, pine needles falling through the chicken wire and hanging through, it looks like war-time camouflage!  This wire keeps the critters out.

The third chicken coop is located behind the garage and is surrounded on three sides by chicken wire, the garage wall makes up the fourth wall, and the roof is green, corrugated plastic.  It is tucked away next to the wood bin behind a wooden fence which encloses the area.  The Barred Rock chickens, mixed Bantams, and Araucanas live here. Lancelot (our peacock) that adopted us also lives here since his run-in with a stray dog.  He  was almost dinner!  As he has  recovered from his wounds, and his wing feathers have grown back, he is free to roam the property. He can fly very well now which helps him to escape any predators. Nigh time finds him high up in the  pine tree by the chicken coops.  

How to prepare your chickens for winter isn’t especially intuitive. Choosing cold hardy breeds (if you live in an area of cold winters) is certainly an important first step! Good cold weather chickens can be allowed to decide when they want to stay in or come out. Some of your chickens will hate it, and will stay inside most of the day, but others won’t mind it at all. Yes, they are just like people... some like the cold, some don't!

Tightly insulated coops can cause more harm than good. If your coop is tightly insulated, not only will it retain heat, it will also retain moisture… and retaining moisture in the coop is very, very bad. Chickens create a lot of moisture from their respiration. A lot of moisture also evaporates from their droppings. And in winter, they’ll be spending more time inside, even if just because of the longer winter nights! 


The extra humidity this causes also increases the risk of unhealthy conditions in the coop leading to respiratory ailments and mold-related illnesses. Plus, poor ventilation can also cause ammonia gas to build up inside your coop, which is damaging to your chickens’ lungs.It is also very unhealthy for the one going in to muck out the coops. 

 

Chickens adapt to lower temperatures over time. If the coop is heated, they’ll never become real cold weather chickens; they’ll never get used to the cold winter temperatures outside. Then, if you lose power and their heat goes out, the sudden sharp drop in temperatures with no time to acclimate means you could lose your whole flock in one terrible, fell swoop.

Heating the coop is often a fire hazard, too. Remember, chicken coops are generally pretty dusty places, and we hear stories every year from people who have lost their coops—and their flock—to chicken coop fires. Let them be natural, in any season, they can adapt quite well and don't need to be coddled. They are tough enough and have survived centuries without little jackets, diapers or heated condos! Let them Be chickens!

Chickens, generally, will not hang out in the coop. They go into the coop to lay eggs, drink and eat, and to roost at night. The outside run is an important feature to the coop. If you have a garden, you'll want a chicken run so the chickens don't eat your garden produce and plants. We never had to worry about that as for the most part, they stayed in their outside, fenced  runs.

 

The ones we did let free range had so much outside grass to enjoy, our gardens on two acres were never in jeopardy. The one that loved my flowers the most was Lancelot, our adopted peacock! His favorite were my white flowers... not sure why, but yep, those were always the first to be eaten!

Most laying chickens like to roost. A good rule of thumb is 6-10 inches of roosting space per bird. Roosts should be at least 2 feet off the ground. Roosts can be as simple as a ladder fastened to the wall at an angle, or twigs attached to the walls of the coop. Once Tim even drug an entire felled tree branch and propped it between two walls of the coop, and boy were those happy chickens! Once free ranging, you will find the chickens will try to roost anywhere there is a limb, standing flat board like the deck walls, or even on top of the rabbit cages! Roost and poop, they are made for it. 

An important part of the chicken house during the hot summer months... a fan!