Urban Chicken Keeping 101, Part 3 – Coops and Chickens

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I’m still learning something new everyday when it comes to my backyard chickens.  Thank goodness for farming and homesteading friends including my local WAPF group who continually share their wisdom and experiences.  Please know that I’m not an expert and am only sharing what has helped and encouraged me on my journey to raising urban chickens.

By now you have researched your laws, ordered chicks and are raising them in a brooder.  On part 3 of our urban chicken keeping 101 series, it’s time to talk coops and chickens.

Your baby chicks grow quickly and before you know it, they’re ready for new living quarters outdoors.

Urban Chicken Coops

There are many books to buy and websites to research on building your coop.   A couple important things to keep in mind when deciding on a coop plan is climate control and safety from predators.

Climate Control

Whether living in extreme hot or cold weather we need to make sure our chickens living quarters are built for the climate in which we live.

I live in the Midwest where we get a lot of snow in the winter and our temperatures drop below -30 degrees.  You would think that the coop needs to be completely enclosed and insulated, however, the opposite is almost true.

This is my coop.

Made from repurposed and recycled materials we were able to build a coop with an outdoor run and a nesting/roosting box above.

The top of their nesting/roosting box is actually open.  It’s not completely sealed.

This actually allows condensation to escape preventing my birds from getting frostbite. To keep them a little bit warmer and their egg production going, I keep a heat lamp running on a timer with a red light.

Gabe built me the hatch to allow me easy access to clean their coop.

During the winter time, the hatch remains closed.

However, since my chickens are winter hardy breeds and larger, they do get hotter in the summer time.  From the Spring to Fall, I leave the hatch open allowing my girls more air circulation.

One of the main reasons to buy winter hardy breeds is that they will spend much of their time outdoors regardless of the temperatures.

I remember my first winter with my chickens I was so worried that they would get frostbite.  It was freezing outdoors and I felt the birds were too dumb to know what’s best for them.

I ended up placing them all back in their roosting area and closed the door on them.

That was a mistake! Chickens do not like to be crowded and ended up pecking at one of my Barred Rocks out of boredom.

I immediately called one of my farming friends and she laughed at me.  “You silly urban farmer, the chickens will do just fine outdoors.”

From then on, I just make sure to clear any snow from their run and they have been happy, healthy and frost-bite free.

Predators

Living in an urban city, we do have the security of an enclosed fenced area and neighboring houses to keep large predators away.  However, city chickens still need to keep safe from racoons, cats, dogs even hawks and owls.

To keep even the sneakiest of critters away, including raccoons, many people use hardware cloth, which is much stronger than chicken wire, and place that up to 2 feet below the ground around their coop.

If your chickens are free ranging in your backyard be aware that hawks and owls may prey on your fowl.  Children’s playsets, backyard picnic tables make a great covering for your chickens.

For me, my best protection for my chickens happen to be my German Shepard Dogs.

This did take some training so be aware that even a family or neighboring dog can be a predator to your chickens.

However, now that my dogs are trained, they have protected my chickens from hawks and owls and because of them my backyard is also raccoon and squirrel free allowing my chickens to free range 24/7.

Once you have decided on the perfect coop for your backyard flock, from here it’s really about maintaining a healthy flock which in turn is going to provide you with nourishing eggs. There are a few bumps along the road which can include sickness and possible disease.

Keeping a Healthy Flock

Food

Since the eggs your chickens will lay are only as good as the food that they are eating it’s important to feed them a well balanced diet.

Feed

For a layer, you need to make sure to buy a layer feed.  Generally, any farm supply store or feed store will have brand mixes ready for your layers.  Many people buy organic feed, however, this can be very expensive and generally contains a lot of soy.

I personally buy a gmo/soy free feed mixed by a local feed store.  It’s not 100% organic but it’s the best I can do for my family.  I do pay a bit more but you’ll find that in the Spring-Fall the chickens eat less feed if they are free ranging which can save you quite a bit of money.

I encourage you to find a local feed store and talk to the owner.  You’ll be surprised at how they can work with you to find the right feed for your livestock and your budget.

Additional Food

On top of their feed I also feed my chicken weeds from my gardens, vegetable table scraps, homemade yogurt, clabbered raw milk and they always have oyster shell to munch on.  With this well rounded diet, they are getting just enough calcium, protein and additional nutrients.

Water

It’s very important to make sure your chickens have fresh water every day.  They need water to develop healthy strong eggs and will turn their beaks at stale water leading to dehydration.

Disease Prevention

You may be the best chicken keeper in the world and still encounter problems.  This is the name of the game and something you need to keep in mind before starting with chickens.  Just as our own children get sick, scraped up and hurt along their journey in life our livestock will as well.

Don’t get down on yourself and know that there is help, forums and experienced people to guide you during these difficult times.

Chickens are prone to different kinds of mites, lice and internal worms which can stop their egg production and even kill them if completely overridden. The easiest cure for any of this is prevention.

Food grade, diatamacious earth.

Diatomaceous Earth is the finely ground fossils of prehistoric fresh water diatoms.  It has razor sharp edges and will kill any bugs when they come in contact with it.  Sprinkled into any animal or even human food will kill any internal parasites as well.

Whenever I clean out my chicken coop, I sprinkle diatamacious earth below their bedding and a bit on top.

I especially make sure to do this in their nesting boxes since mites like warm places where your chickens will sit for quite awhile.  This usually prevents any mites or lice from taking over your nesting/roosting area.  Make sure that the DE you use is food grade. Anything else is poisonous to your livestock.

Dust Bath

I never really understood the importance of a dust bath until this year.  I knew my chickens were always flapping around in dirt areas in my backyard and knew it was good for them, however, I didn’t know why.

This is how a chicken naturally rids themselves of parasites on their bodies.  Taking a dust bath kills mites and lice and is therefore very necessary that you have a place for them to dust themselves.

This becomes especially important during the winter time when they are confined to their coop.  As mites and lice can take over very quickly, make sure you make a dusting area for them during the colder months.

A recipe that I found online and use is…

In a large plastic tub add 2 bags (50# each bag) of sand into the mixing tub, 2 quarts of wood ashes, 2 quarts of diatomacious earth, one cup of powdered lime and 1/2 cup of
elemental sulfur. Mix this well. Throw some scratch feed or treats on top of the mix and the chickens will find out what to do with this sand. Expect to find sand mix on the floor of the coop. This sand can be put back into the tub when you clean out the coop.

Internal Parasites

As a preventative to internal parasites including worms, I always sprinkle a bit of DE onto their feed and mix it in.  I also add a tablespoon of raw apple cider vinegar to their fresh water every day.

Natural Occurences

As long as your chickens are eating well and you are taking preventative measures to keep disease and parasites away, there are a few other things that are completely normal but can scare you.

Molting

Each year chickens molt, or lose the older feathers, and grow new ones. Most hens stop producing eggs until after the molt is completed.  Each breed of chicken molts differently.  Some molt sooner than others and some take longer to get over the molt than others.  Some lose all of their feathers very quickly while other breeds lose them slowly over an extended period of time.

Broody Hens

Chickens all have a natural instinct to sit on eggs to hatch them out.  Most urban chicken farmers are not allowed roosters, so this makes it pretty inconvenient for a chicken to sit on unfertilized eggs all day long.  They can begin to lose feathers on their underside and slow down in production.

If you have signs of a broody hen, make sure to remove all eggs from the nesting box and to nudge her off the eggs.  However, if you have a friend with fertilized eggs ask for some.  You can actually place fertilized eggs underneath a broody hen and she will hatch them out and tend to baby chicks by herself.  I think that’s awesome.  No need for a brooder!

Pecking

Chickens are well… chickens.  There is a pecking order and usually the one at the end of the line will get pecked at some point or another.  You may even see some blood.  If your chickens have adequate space, they should be able to fend for themselves.  However, if you have many chickens confined together, you may have to separate the chicken getting pecked or the others may eventually kill her.

All in all, chickens are just that… livestock.  As an urban farmer we city people sometimes have a hard time distinguishing livestock from pets.

We get emotionally attached, give them names, build them city coop apartments, and even buy them chicken diapers.

We tend to freak out when we see some missing feathers and their egg production starts to slow.  Could it be disease, mites, worms??!!  Trust me, I know because I tend to do this all the time.

They’ll lose feathers, they’ll molt, peck at each other, slow down on egg production but as long as I know that I’m taking care of them to the best of my ability, they are eating, sleeping and pooping, they’re okay.

Try to remember, chickens are livestock, although meant to be taken care of, will eventually end up in the stewpot.

I hope this series has helped you along the way and can be a resource for any future urban chicken keepers.  It’s definitely not a definitive guide, so if you have further questions please shoot me an email or leave me a comment.  Also make sure to check out the www.backyardchickens.com forum for tons of helpful advice!

Urban Chicken Keeping 101

 

5 Responses to "Urban Chicken Keeping 101, Part 3 – Coops and Chickens"
  1. You are amazing – thank you for your generosity in sharing these lessons. WOW – your dog!!

  2. Pamela says:

    Great series Diana. Sent your blog link and info on your series to a friend this evening. Her sister is starting an urban farm. I guess she’s got the chicks already, coop is next. And plans are to teach their little boy the care and sell eggs.

  3. I am bookmarking your blog, shoot I am adding it to my blog list! Love your tips on chickens. We have 20 chicks that are 6 weeks old now. Our food co-op sells the diatomacious earth. So I assume since they eat rocks that the sharp diatomacious earth is okay for them to eat? Also is there a brand name to the nonGMO feed you get?
    Thanks! Angela
    http://www.homemadenaturalsoaps.blogspot.com/

  4. Amber says:

    Thank you for the information about food grade DE and raw ACV. We have 6 chickens in our backyard but are relatively new to raising them and this information was very helpful.

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