Caring for Chickens as they Mature into Adults
Once your chickens have feathered out and you put them in the coop, you need to think about how to keep your chickens happy and healthy as they mature into adults and start laying eggs. This section will discuss basic considerations like food, the day-to-day life of your chickens, and healthcare.
As your chickens mature, you’ll stop feeding them chick starter (or another product that is specifically formulated for chicks) and start feeding them food formulated for adults. Your purpose for raising your chickens can have an impact on what you feed them. For example, there are commercial feeds that are specifically formulated for raising chickens for meat or raising chickens to lay eggs. Since most people raising backyard chickens do it for eggs, we’ll focus most of our attention here on the best diet for raising layers.
Some people like to mix their own chicken feed, but it’s probably best and easiest to buy a commercial chicken feed specifically formulated for egg-laying hens, especially if you’re new to raising chickens. This will ensure that your chickens are getting a balanced, nutritious diet with everything they need to be good egg producers. Protein is a key component of a layer’s diet, and a good layer blend of feed should have a protein content of 15% to 18%. Expect each chicken to eat about two pounds of food per week.
In addition to commercial feed, it’s fine to give chickens kitchen scraps. Your chickens will enjoy the variety, and giving them kitchen scraps can improve the flavor of eggs. Many chicken farmers comment that chickens will eat almost anything, but remember that whatever you feed your chickens, you are ultimately eating yourself (as you consume eggs). Avoid things like spoiled and rotten food. Chickens also sometimes enjoy grass clippings, but make sure that the grass hasn’t been treated with pesticides. The pesticides can be bad for the chickens and bad for you (if any of the residual pesticide ends up in the eggs).
In addition to commercial chicken feed and kitchen scraps, many people also like to let their chickens spend some time free ranging. Free range chickens are given time to wander around your backyard and forage for food. They’ll eat things like insects, slugs, snails, and seeds. Allowing your chickens to free range is a good way for them to get some of their nutrition, but they won’t be able to find all the food they need, so it will still be important for you to provide chicken feed.
It’s a good idea to supplement your chickens’ diet with oyster shells, and these can usually be purchased at a farm supply store. The shells are high in calcium and will allow your chickens to lay eggs with healthy, sturdy shells. Some chicken farmers will also feed their chickens egg shells after the eggs have been used. These shells are another good source of calcium, but be careful if you decide to adopt this practice. Feeding chickens empty egg shells can often lead to chickens eating the shells of eggs they’ve just laid before you have a chance to collect them. Watch to see if this will be an issue for your chickens.
In addition to food, chickens also need constant access to water. If chickens don’t have water, they might stop eating. Also, allowing chickens to become dehydrated can impact their egg production for days. To ensure that chickens have constant access to food and water, use a feeder and waterer. Commercial feeders and waterers are readily available, and you can spend as much or as little as you’d like purchasing them.
Chickens are relatively low-maintenance. However, in addition to providing food and water, there are a few other day-to-day things you’ll need to do for your flock. First, you’ll want to secure your chickens in their coop each night so that they’re safe from predators and have a comfortable place to sleep. In the morning, you’ll need to let the chickens out of the coop so that they can spend time in the sunshine and wander around. If chickens are left in the coop all day, they’ll get bored, start pecking at each other, and stop laying eggs.
When you let chickens out during the day, you still need to make sure that they’re safe from predators—everything from hawks and raccoons to neighborhood dogs. As discussed in the section on coops, your chickens need an enclosed run where they can spend time outside but still be safe. As mentioned above, chickens can also benefit from free ranging, but make sure if you turn them loose in your backyard, they’ll be safe. You have to be more mindful of predators if you’re going to let your chickens spend time in unenclosed spaces.
Additionally, your chickens will enjoy spending a little bit of time interacting with you. Chickens by no means need a lot of human interaction, but some is good. Your chickens don’t need to be a major demand on your time, but you also shouldn’t completely forget that you have them. They need a little bit of tender loving care.
The other thing you’ll need to do on a daily basis is collect eggs, preferably a few times throughout the day. Ideally most of your hens will be laying eggs every day, and you’ll need to gather those eggs.
Your chickens will hopefully remain healthy over the course of their lives and require little medical care. The most important thing you can do to help keep your chickens healthy is make sure they’re living in sanitary conditions. You need to clean up poop and replace shavings in the coop on an ongoing basis, and you should give things a thorough cleaning periodically. Cleaning will stop the spread of bacteria and disease. Also, make sure that your coop is well-ventilated so that noxious ammonia fumes don’t build up inside.
In addition to keeping your chickens in a sanitary environment, it can be a good idea to have your chickens vaccinated for some of the most common diseases that can plague a flock. Vaccinating chickens is a somewhat controversial topic. Some think that vaccinations are unnecessary or potentially harmful, but in general the benefits outweigh the risks. Two common and contagious conditions that you should probably get your chickens vaccinated for are Marek’s disease and coccidiosis. Most hatcheries will perform these vaccinations on new chicks, and it’s probably your best and most cost-effective option to simply have the hatcheries administer the vaccines. Then you don’t have to track down the vaccines, which often can only be purchased in large batches.
There might be some specific diseases and infections in your local area that you’ll also want to vaccinate against. Diseases are regional, so there’s no one-size-fits all vaccination plan. Consult your local and state agricultural departments to learn about specific diseases that might be a cause for concern in your area. Agricultural departments will usually provide recommendations as far as a vaccination plan.
If you do suspect that one of your chickens has become sick, separate that chicken from the rest of your flock so that the infection doesn’t spread. Unfortunately, a sick chicken can be hard to help. Many conditions have the same symptoms, so it can be difficult to figure out exactly what is wrong. Also, most veterinarians don’t specialize in birds and hence often have little to offer as far as help. The best resource is often other chicken farmers.
You’ll get to know your chickens and their personalities, so be observant about their behavior. Watch each individual hen to make sure that she is eating, drinking, laying, and acting like herself. You’ll know your chickens better than anyone else, and you can watch them to make sure that they are happy and healthy.