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Starting a Small Flock of Chickens

Table of Contents

1: Basics2: Management3: Questions and Answers

2. Management

Pasturing the Flock

Nothing you can do for your flock will be better for their health and well-being than giving them access to pasture! Chickens allowed to roam freely on pasture enjoy the benefits of direct sunlight, exercise, and natural forage; and are more contented and free from stress.

Please note that term "pasture." We are not talking here about the conventional static "chicken run," which is denuded of every blade of grass early on and then looks like the surface of the moon dotted with chicken poops! Such an area permits the birds no access to green forage and wild seeds, and virtually none to insects. The soil becomes overloaded—virtually poisoned—with the excess nutrients of the manure; and any pathogens present tend to remain and build up in the soil. On pasture, however, the flock eats plenty of grasses, clovers, and weeds—potent sources of enzymes, also of vitamins, minerals, and even proteins—as well as worms and insects. (This additional animal part of their diet is especially beneficial in the production of eggs rich in Omega-3's.) The manure is widely dispersed over the pasture sod and is "digested" by the microorganisms of the soil, boosting the fertility and lushness of the pasture. It is important to rotate the flock over the available pasture, in order to avoid the problems referred to above. A good rule of thumb is to move the flock each week. However, you have a good deal of leeway here, depending especially on stocking density (number of birds per unit of ground) and the season (how rapidly the green cover is growing and regenerating).

Having stated the above—the conventional wisdom on rotation—I must add that last year I started thinking about my old grandmother and how she just let her chickens free-roam entirely. I don't feel that is a valid option here. However, in order to get closer to that more natural model, last year I experimented with making a single enclosure for the birds, as large as I could possibly make it; and kept them all in that one space. The pasture was not degraded as a result. However, last year's growing season was an unusually wet one, so the pasture sod had more moisture to support re-growth than it normally would have. Thus "the jury is still out" on whether such a model will be successful in a drier summer. Also, when confining the entire flock in a single foraging space, keeping the stocking density low becomes more important than ever.

The best tool for managing the flock on pasture is electronet fencing. Electronet is easy to set up and to move. It can be energized with either an AC plug-in charger (likely to maintain a "hotter" spark) or a solar powered model, which includes a battery backup. The electric net fence both keeps the flock confined and protects them from predators. (Keep in mind that your worst potential predator could be your neighbor's dog!) It must be maintained free of weed growth or anything else over the bottom wire that would short it out. If you keep a good hot spark in the fence, however, it will stop anything on the ground with a nervous system.

Note that with electric fencing your flock is still vulnerable to attacks from aerial predators. I have not found attacks by raptorial birds to be a serious problem in most years, although I did lose a number of growing birds to a young Cooper's hawk last fall. If you have repeat attacks from a problem raptor, it would be a good idea to get in touch with local falconers or conservation groups who are licensed to live-trap these hunting birds.

My preferred source for electric net fencing and supplies is Premier Sheep Supplies of Washington, Iowa [(800) 282-6631 or (319) 653-7622]. This is a small company all of whom actually use the products they sell. They offer only items which have worked well for them; personalized, efficient, and friendly service; and expert advice on problems and applications.

Note a couple of limitations when using electronet: Very young birds can get through the mesh without a shock, leaving them vulnerable outside the fence. The solution is either to keep the young ones elsewhere until they are larger, or simply to take your chances. The latter has usually been my choice, and I don't know that it has cost me any losses. Young waterfowl can occasionally get fatally entangled in the fence—I've had a few losses that way. Finally, a chicken can obviously fly over the 42-inch net. Once they are trained to it, however (i.e., get zapped a couple of times), they almost never do. When I release new birds to the pasture, or birds that have been confined to winter housing, I usually clip wings to "ground them" until they are trained to the fence. [Note that wings are clipped on one side only—it is the imbalance between the two sides that discourages flying—and that, if properly done, the clip is not visible when the wing is folded and the bird doesn't look mangled. Note also that guineas are much better fliers than chickens; and I usually do a much more drastic clip in order to "ground" them.]

Unless a fenced pasture area is "anchored" on the poultry house, you will need to provide a mobile pasture shelter of some sort where the flock can find shade (essential on hot summer days) or protection from rain and wind, and where they can sleep at night. If the pastured flock includes layers, the shelter should be equipped with nest boxes.

I find float-operated waterers on long supply hoses especially useful for flocks on pasture.

Please note that in winter there is little or no growth of the pasture cover. Hence you will degrade the sod very quickly if you allow the flock a lot of access to the pasture at that time. In winter, I occasionally release the birds to the pasture for a couple of hours late in the day. The birds enjoy and benefit from these outings. However, it is necessary to limit them pretty strictly, and to monitor the condition of the sod closely.

Putting the Flock to Work

There are a number of ways you can utilize chickens to help with various homestead projects. For example, normally you want to move the flock frequently enough to avoid damage to the pasture sod. However, you might choose to "park" the flock on a given plot long enough to completely destroy an existing pasture sod. When the birds have removed the previous cover, you can re-seed the area to a new pasture mix, sow a cover crop, or work up the soil into new garden beds. The chickens can also be used to "till in" a cover crop or heavy weed growth in garden beds. If you run the flock in the orchard in the early spring and late fall, they will help significantly with insect control. (I have noticed a major difference in insect damage in orchard fruit since beginning this practice. It is a real thrill, I assure you, to watch guineas jump up and take coddling moths right out of the air!) Finally, chickens are great shredders and tillers of organic additions to the soil. Often, instead of assembling and repeatedly turning a compost pile, I simply dump the materials I would have used in the compost heap into an area where I have a flock "parked" for awhile. Their tireless scratching shreds the material and incorporates it into the soil. The manure worked in with this material boosts the biological activity in the top few inches of soil, resulting in faster, more efficient breakdown of the material and an increase in soil tilth and fertility.

Because of their constant scratching, chickens cannot be used for insect control while actually growing the crop. However, you can run chickens on a garden area before planting to depress population levels of crop competitors such as slugs; or after cropping in order to catch problem insects which overwinter in the soil as they are going to ground. Please note that guineas scratch very little. I have used them quite successfully (confining them to the winter squash plot with electronet fencing) to achieve 100% control of squash bug!

If you do plant an area worked by chickens, allow a period of at least 60 days before harvesting crops in close contact with the soil such as radishes or lettuce. There should be no problem with trellised crops, or tall crops such as corn.

Health Issues

A standard book on chickens will usually have an introduction to diseases and other health problems. Truly, prevention, not cure, is the key when it comes to the health of your flock. If you follow the recommendations above, you will rarely have a problem with the health of your birds. Occasionally, of course, you may encounter a sick chicken or even an inexplicable spontaneous death. Frankly, my own experience is that once a chicken is noticeably ill, it is unlikely to recover. If you want to try to save it, by all means isolate it from the rest of the flock in case the condition is contagious. I usually simply cull a bird that has definitely become ill. (The natural condition of chickens is active, vigorous, bright-eyed, and with a full crop. If you find a bird who is excessively listless, dull-eyed, and with an empty crop when there is feed around, you have a sick bird.) I do not ever eat a bird that seems ill.

There are two health conditions worth particular attention:

Check your birds for external parasites (lice and mites) occasionally. Pick up a bird at random and check the skin at the base of the feathers around the vent. If you see little crawly things of any sort, they are either lice or mites. Sometimes a bird with a severe infestation will seem rather dull or listless and will pick at her plumage a great deal. If the birds have a place they can scratch out a dusting place, they will usually take care of the problem themselves-the dust which they instinctively fluff up under their feathers coats the lice or mites and smothers them. (Insects breathe through their skin.) If they seem not to have sufficient dusting opportunities, you can provide them a dusting box. I put a mix of peat moss and wood ash (sifted through ¼ inch hardware cloth) into the box and add diatomaceous earth and maybe a little rotenone powder. If these measures are not sufficient, it may be necessary occasionally to dust the birds by hand, using the d.e. and maybe a little of the rotenone powder. (Always use a dust mask when dusting by hand! It is also a good idea to wear such a mask for any extended periods of work in the poultry house. I use the Respro Sportsta Mask a great deal when doing any sort of dusty work around the homestead. One source is Allergy Control Products 800-422-3878.)

If you have a situation where a cock is mounting an individual hen excessively (for example, in a breeding pen where there is only a single hen, or two or three—or simply when the cock has picked that hen as a "favorite") the sharp spurs of the cock can tear the skin of the hen's sides. In the worst cases a gaping hole can be opened into the body cavity itself. This is a very serious condition and can lead to the death of the hen. Such a hen must be immediately isolated, and some healing salve applied to the wound. If you catch the problem early on, she is very likely to recover. At the same time, you need to trim the spurs on the cock to prevent a repeat of the injury. Actually, I now routinely trim cocks with sharp spurs, especially if they will be working in the breeding pens. Use a pruning shears to cut off the spur about halfway to the end, not too close to the shank. There will be bleeding, and you can use a styptic if you like. I usually don't; the bleeding is not serious if you don't cut close to the shank.