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Raising chickens is pretty simple. But we found ways to get it wrong…

By Greg Seaman, Eartheasy.com Posted Jul 9, 2012

chickens

1. Building the henhouse directly on the ground

I built our first chicken coop using recycled lumber and chicken wire (poultry mesh), and set it directly on the ground. This way, I reasoned, the birds could scratch and peck at the ground for bugs and other chicken delights, and their poops would work into the ground beneath the litter of straw. I thought this arrangement would keep them occupied and happy when they were cooped up.

Raccoons and mink persistently tried to burrow under the side of the coop, and finally a mink succeeded, which cost us the flock. It seemed like I was always fiddling with the base of the structure to keep out predators, when a simple raised floor with a ramp would be more effective. Today we have a coop which is raised 4’ off the ground with a drop-down floor for easy cleaning.

Using rough recycled lumber was also a mistake, since it couldn’t be effectively washed down or cleaned. Chicken coops should have smooth surfaces, painted or whitewashed, that are easy to clean and maintain.

2. Not providing outside access to roosting boxes.

Our first chicken coop was roomy and tall enough for a person to walk inside. I built a row of 4 nesting boxes in one part of coop where the hens would lay their eggs, and each day someone walked into the coop to collect the fresh eggs. This worked fine at first, but soon the kids were coming in from collecting the eggs with their gumboots soiled with chicken poop from the litter on the coop floor. And the daily egg collection seemed to be an intrusion on the hens as they milled about the coop waiting for an available laying box.

It was years before we realized the obvious! Put an opening port on the outside of the coop which accessed the row of nesting boxes. This way there’s no need to enter the coop or walk through the litter, and the boxes were built high enough so there was no bending down to see into the boxes. Today, collecting eggs is clean and simple, and the hens are undisturbed.
nesting box door

3. Using a bucket for water

At first we used a standard 9” tall plastic bucket for the chickens water. This size bucket held enough water for several days for our initial flock of hens, and it was too high to be fouled by chicken poop and too heavy, when at least half-full, to be tipped over. Every few days I could go in the coop and change the water. What could go wrong?

chicken watererWhen I checked the coop a day or two later, the bucket was on its side amid a fouled puddle from which the birds were drinking. Instead of standing and drinking, the birds hopped up to sit on the rim of the bucket from where they could tilt their heads downwards to drink. This also enabled them to poop in the water. Once the water level dropped a few inches, the top-heavy bucket tipped and spilled.

Chickens can go a few days without feed but they need water daily. They easily succumb to dehydration. The best solution to providing a steady reliable supply of water is to use a hanging water bucket, also called a waterer or a fount. The narrow circular trough prevents the birds from hopping up since there’s no room to sit. With a hanging bucket, the water stays clean and can be left untended for a week or longer.

4. Too small a rooster to hen ratio

We first started raising chickens with 6 hens. After a few months we decided to add a rooster to the flock, and we were given a big healthy rooster at a local 4H club meet. The rooster was an active mater and before long the hens looked ragged. They each had bald spots on the back of their heads and featherless patches on their backs. The birds became run down and agitated, constantly trying to run from the rooster. Their egg laying became sporadic.

The ideal rooster to hen ratio is around 1:12, depending on the nature of the rooster. Our rooster over-mated the flock and became so aggressive that he even challenged me when I walked into the chicken run. We couldn’t afford to double our flock to accommodate the rooster, and within a short while he was sent to the stew pot and peace was restored in the henhouse.

5. Not counting the birds each night

Each night just before dark the chickens know it’s time to go into the coop. It was a routine evening chore for one of the kids to run out and shut the coop door to protect them from raccoons. Shut the door, fix the latch, what could go wrong?

One morning when going out to open the coop, a chicken was already outside enjoying the early morning sun. Apparently this hen decided to camp out under the bushes the night before. As it turns out, this is a common practice with chickens. When a hen gets broody, she may want to be undisturbed by egg gatherers and will look for a hiding spot to roost. The hen will stay with her new nest and won’t go into the coop at night. But camping outside at night leaves the hen vulnerable to predators, and we lost a few birds before making it a standard practice to count the birds each night when shutting the coop. If a bird is absent, we could usually find it quickly under a nearby bush and return her to the coop.count your chickens

6. Not enforcing an “on-leash” policy for visitors with dogs

We live in a beautiful forested area and don’t want to post signs or establish rules for friends and visitors passing through. It is assumed that people with dogs will either leash their dog when near someone’s homesite, or have a dog who obeys commands. This was naïve thinking on our part because dog owners always think their dog will obey their command. But on more than one occasion we’ve seen dogs break from their owners to chase a deer and ignore the owner’s commands shouted out in vain.

And so one of our free-ranging hens was chased and killed by a friend’s dog right before our eyes. The friend leashed his dog and went home. Unfortunately, the dog returned the next day, without the owner, and chased down and killed the entire flock. We learned two lessons from this experience: establish an “on-leash” rule for dogs if your chickens range freely, and keep the flock cooped for a few days after a predator attack.

These mistakes were somewhat painful to learn, and hopefully this article will spare you the learning curve. Raising chickens is very rewarding and a perfect complement to an organic vegetable garden. Once you have a secure coop and have learned the basics, raising chickens should require relatively little thought or attention.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
GregAbout Greg
Originally from Long Island, NY, Greg Seaman founded Eartheasy in 2000 out of concern for the environment and a desire to help others live more sustainably. As Editor, Greg combines his upbringing in the cities of New York, Boston and San Francisco with the contrast of 31 years of living ‘off-grid’ to give us a balanced perspective on sustainable living. Greg spends his free time gardening, working on his home and building a wooden sailboat with hand tools.

 

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  • Mary

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Shannon E. Peters

    excellent article; thank you

  • Carrie B

    Did the friend pay the cost of re-establishing your flock?
    Great article. :)

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      See comment above. In a small community, good relations are especially important. We have to give each other slack for our shortcomings. It has worked well this way.

      • Forrealz

        Should of just shot the unleashed dog if you had the opportunity. Holding the hands of morons only hurts their ability to survive.

        • Nick Hoeksema

          ey, new to the ways of nature and impact of huamns are you?
          When a dog never learned a certain animal is ‘okay’ they will see it as a prey and will act like so.
          Because the dogs nature is to hunt you have to put it down? Nice guy are you, your friends must love having you around when their dogs are close.

  • Alice

    Great tips. Thank you.

  • Gordon

    It’s been my experience that once a dog kills a chicken they seem to lose all restraint and always come back for more. A handy shotgun stops most dogs.

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      I agree, and wish I had your awareness at the time. btw, we keep a shotgun for pests but shooting a neighbor’s dog is not an option for me. If it were a wild dog, well that’s different.

      • Marianne Cowan

        Paintball guns are useful in those situations.

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    The dog owner denied it happened in spite of how obvious it was. I took it as a personality flaw in an otherwise good man. I decided the best thing was to let it go, and I still have his valued friendship.

  • bluedawg

    Valuable lessons in the comments as well :) Thank You!

  • sandy

    We are just getting a spot ready for our first flock of chickens and this article is just what I needed, Thanks!
    But I don’t think you should let the neighbor off the hook so easy, he needs to learn to mind his dog or he may lose it the next time.

  • Debbie Johnson

    I enjoyed your blog. I write one myself, about our new journey homesteading. We’ve made similar mistakes with our chickens. I’ll keep reading and learning. Thanks
    deb
    http://www.thefiveacrewoods.com

  • http://www.techpuffs.com/ Ashish Chandra

    The picture shows too much open space. In India, usually in a small closet hundreds of chickens are kept, but gives too much foul smell.

  • www.GreatProofreading.com

    Love these tips! We live in downtown Indianapolis and our neighbor is semi-successfully raising chickens. I’m hoping we can improve on his techniques. I agree with Sandy re: your neighbor.

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      Thank you!

  • Tn Tree Farm

    You really are a blessing ! We growed chickens for the largest poultry producer for years and you wouldnt believe what they put in these chicks. we are eating at the supermarket ! So many steriods was injected in their feed (trucks would come at the wee hours of the morning and men would dress in what looked like space suits to handle these chemicals to put in feed for edible chickens). It would make a 4 oz chicken grow to 8 lbs in 6 weeks. that’s a growout season.
    Tammy

  • Chris

    I’m raising two chicken, a hen and a roster, in a small coop that I made in my backyard. Currently my hen laid 16 eggs but she couldn’t sit on that much so we took six of the older egg out. A few days ago my hen went broody and I was wondering if I should still keep the roster inside the coop with the hen? When the chicks hatched, would the roster be a problem to the chicks?

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      The rooster will probably ignore the chicks, however having a rooster for a single hen is hard on the hen. Also it’s best to collect the eggs as they are produced rather than have them sit in the coop. When a hen goes broody, mark one egg with an X and take the rest, unless you want a flock of chicks.

  • Georgi

    I live in outback Australia and have 30 lovely hens Rhode island reds AND astrlorpes , well fed and watered, I put a light on for two hours at the beginning of the day and at the end but they still don’t lay eggs….they are 9 months old so should be laying ..they are the best looking chooks I have seen .. they are not moulting and the weater is starting to cool downbut my free range egg business is suffering as only my 14 Plymoth rocks are laying .. any ideas..they all came from a day old chicken farm. ………….

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      Hmmm. Sounds like you are providing for all their needs. Sometimes a flock will go off laying if they are disturbed by a predator. But if half your flock is laying that theory is weak. Call the breeder and ask when that set of birds is expected to start laying. They could be just off to a late start.

  • Angela

    Greg please help , I have only 3 chickens which is all I’m allowed. When I got them I was told they were 9 weeks and to give them a few weeks to adjust and soon they would be laying . I’ve had them for 3months and still nothing. I feel like I’ve tired everything , what can I do

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      Be patient, the average pullet is 6 months before laying. Continue to provide for your birds as you have, they will come on soon now that the weather is breaking.

  • http://twitter.com/laughing_lisa Lisa Anthony

    thank you for sharing these tips.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kelly.scott.509 Kelly Scott

    My neighbor has a beautiful flock a few of their hens, a young rooster along with their cat come to our house to be fed daily….I enjoy them and our neighbor is pleased that we do :-) (two of the hens walk right inside the house if I’ve left the door open…… What is the best way to start and establish a flock that will know the difference between our home, the neighbors and not want to roost in their coops?

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      Chickens are opportunists and will make themselves at home wherever they wander. To keep them on your range, spread some ground feed corn from time to time near their coop.

  • MazieMae Hethcoat

    I understand the values in a small community. I don’t like you saying that this man with the dog was a valued or good man. Good men would have reimbursed for the mistake they caused, otherwise the community does not value that person until they learn their lesson. Animals are our responsibility to take care of especially on a farm. For you to not insist on better behavior from this neighbor tells me that you might not value the lives of the animals which are providing so much for you and your family. IE, if someone kills or hurts my animals I would not value them unless they offered to make restitution and apologize even if it was accidental or unintentional. Good men would not act the way this man did nor his dog. We in the small communities have to act responsibly for our actions or those of our animals, family or friends.

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      Thank you for your comment. I understand how you feel and agree with your sentiments.
      I feel that part of community is accepting people in spite of their flaws. Things seem to work out better this way.

      • Jim Boss

        Agree completely … One question, would he have looked at it the same way if you had been out there with 12ga dog repellent when he was mid-massacre?

        • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

          I would never hear the end of it.

  • Rebecca Hundley

    Thanks so much for your tips- I found your article very helpful. We gave up on chickens a few years ago when my pitt mix discovered the joy of eating them- apparently pitt bulls are one of very few dog breeds that will consume live chickens! Since I dearly loved my dog despite his character flaws, it was decided that we could wait on a new flock. My dog died at 15 years old this past black friday- and though i miss him every day it is thrilling to have a new flock of chicks. I too have made many mistakes in the past- and yours reminded me of those i forgot! Thanks again, i plan to further explore your site.

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      Thanks Rebecca, and good luck with your new flock!

  • Mary Schneider

    So sad to read about the dog attack. That owner should be made aware that his dog might pose a hazard to small children, depending on the history and the breed.

    After a pair of our neighbor’s huskies attacked our flock, killing our chickens and ducks, a baby pygmy goat and attacking our billy, the dog warden told us that a dog that has attacked and killed small animals is showing a predatory instinct, which can emerge at the sight of a toddler or small child running across a yard.

    Not saying that the dog’s a menace, but the neighbor should be warned that his dog’s aggressive behavior can escalate. People are a bit stupid about their dogs. I get that- I have five. But it’s our responsibility as pet owners to understand their behavior. They’re not little four-legged people with fur. They’re animals and if we really love and respect them, we’ll take the time to understand their instincts, drives, and needs.

    I miss my chickens, but they’re too much work now that I’m a single mom raising teens… Maybe someday, we’ll start another flock. Good luck with yours! :)

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      Good advice Mary, thanks!
      The dog in question has since passed on so is no longer a concern. The owners seem very responsible with their new dog.

      • Mary Schneider

        Good. :) Raising dogs is a lot like raising kids… you have to bring them up right and teach them how to act, but you also have to be aware of each one’s individual traits and personalities.

  • Heidosaur

    My RR got sniffed out by a Rhodesian Ridgeback and it was fight or flight for her, she took a huge poop and flew straight to my feet, she got lucky.
    * I have a question about Chicken poop: sometimes my poops are normal green brown and white balls, other times they are smelly runny syrupy Hershey’s like splats. I feed them mash diet. Is this normal? Do other chickens do this? I have to wait for the sun to dry them to crackers before I can pick them up, its like Chicken diarrhea. They show no signs of Coccidiosis etc. Any ideas?

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      This is not uncommon. Watery droppings can be produced by hens which are too hot. It can be a way for them to cool down by drinking a lot and losing some of their heat in frequent wet droppings. A change in diet or stress can also cause watery droppings.

  • SC

    I can’t do anything but shout yes, yes, yes, to all your suggestions. Some of the things I hadn’t thought about, while other suggestions really hit home. I’m sharing your post everywhere I can right this minute. Great post!

  • Alixandria

    I’m sorry to hear that you lost your whole flock a few times. At least you figured out how to solve the problems and can share your experiences with others. :)

  • Billie

    Hello Greg, We bought a place with a big wired on all 4 walls building. I have had my chickens in there for about3 months now with a big cardboard box that they sleep in at night. My question is, Do I need a “Chicken house” in my building for my chickens to lay eggs? and if the big box will do then where do I put my laying boxes?? Thank you very much and greetings from Oregon!

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      Ordinarily your big box would have a roost inside. You can make a roost using a broomstick poked through the walls about 12″ off the ground.
      For laying eggs, chickens will want smaller (12″ x 12″ x 12′ approx.) nesting boxes. We use one nesting box per 4 birds. These nesting boxes are placed inside the coop, also off the groud about 12″. Ideally, you can cut a flap on the coop wall that lets you access the eggs in the nesting boxes without having to go inside the coop.

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    Your dog will probably learn quickly to let the chickens be. Ideally the dog can be encouraged to deter predators.
    The birds will take to the bushes if they fear overhead predators or if conditions in the coop are not ideal. You are right about adding a roost. Also be sure to have two or more nesting boxes in the coop. Without these, the birds may take to the bushes to nest there. You may even find eggs in the bushes until the nesting boxes are in place.

  • Susan

    We just lost 4 of our hens to a coupla dogs that we had in our shed for a friend…they broke through right into our chicken pen and they had at it…we feel blessed that they didn’t get our Silkie Bantams but sure are sad about our layers…even though one was from the oldest group and had stopped laying. Was getting 28 to 30 eggs a day and now down to 18 to 25…

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    You are not doing anything wrong. Chickens are opportunists, and they are curious, so they are likely seeking a handout. Buy a sack of corn feed and sprinkle some in the direction you would like them to forage. After doing this for a few days, they will be in the habit of foraging in this area. From time to time you may need to repeat this.

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    If you dig the wall into the ground you may have rot problems unless the wall is cement. For our coop we dug a 12″ trench and set in 1/4″ galvanized mesh, then set rocks against it and backfilled with dirt. The top of the mesh is stapled to the coop. This has kept out the predators such as raccoons and mink.

  • Doyle Dawson

    We have had chickens before but this time we have an existing two story play house we would like to convert into a two story chicken house, the floor is approx. five feet high. With a ramp with rails will the chickens to up into the house this tall. Also we have in the past put a wire top over our chicken pen, do you find this necessary ? Thank You, Great Article.

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      We recently built a coop with a narrow run so it was easy to wire the top, which does add another level of security. However, in the past we had bigger runs and ony once had an issue with a red-tailed hawk.

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    You would have to make every inch of the shed critterproof. If it is built tight then this is possible.
    But there’s a lot to be said for a new coop. designed for the purpose. It’s nice to have a coop built several feet off the ground, with nesting boxes that are accessible from outdoors. A compact coop also works well in winter, as chickens like close quarters to keep warm. And you can build it to ensure no critters can get in. A raised coop can have a hinged floor which drops one end to the ground for easy cleaning. Some people use 1/4″ galvanized mesh for the floor. I suggest you built a new coop.

  • Mike S

    Great article, I found it when searching ideas for a coop I am going to build. I want to build it off the ground. My house is in the woods on about 40 acres and another large parcel (100’s of acres) of wooded state land is adjoining, I have seen coyotes trot by my house in the morning out the back deck windows about 100′ away along the fence line, which is where I also want to have my coop. The reason is that I do not want to have the smell, noise, and poop anywhere close to my house, and to hopefully have the chickens free-range in the woods and just provide food and water and a place to roost in the coop. I also have some of the wild turkey breed available to me, and am interested in raising quail too. My plan now is to – build a coop, and enclose it with a small run/pen. I want them to be able to fly out when they get bigger and be able to free-range, not sure how that is going to play out.. any insight or ideas you have would be appreciated.

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      I suggest you fence the run high enough so the hens can’t fly out. If the run is narrow enough, you might evey wire over the top to further protect them. There are days you don’t want them out ranging (if a predator is around, if you’re going to be away ….) but they can still have access to the run.

  • Willie Gee

    Thanks Greg. Lots of good information. Things we may not think about until after the fact.

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    Pullets are old enough to free range. If you leave the coop door open they will go out when they want. Most likely they’ll go out within a few minutes. Of course, you have to protect them by providing a fenced run, or other method of keeping them from dogs, predators or other hazards.

  • Giles

    I am pretty new to chickens, I raised five beautiful Barred Plymouth Rocks last year and installed them in a great coop and animal proof 12 x 14′ run. We have had a tough winter and in early January I noticed that my chickens were getting board and were pecking each others bums! I went to a feed store an got some peck stop and I painted the pecked areas, but they seemed to let it wear off and then resumed a couple of days later!

    Two were particularly bad so I dashed to the workshop and built a mini coop that I installed in my greenhouse. I then extracted the two with the hope that they would grow back their feathers and be ready to join the others in a month or so. Unfortunately this did not happen as the two continued to peck each other! Frustrated I integrated them back to the other three in the yard, where upon WW3 started as they sorted out who is the boss. More feathers were lost and all now have bare bums and the worst two peckers have bald heads too! I then thought that they must still be bored so I added toys, took away the food hopper and fed them on the ground, made a better dusting area and hung a cabbage to peck at. Still more pecking so I went to the next level. I have a large fenced back garden and I live in the country so I let them go more free range. All was good, no pecking and happy chickens. On the second day I was told by my neighbour that a Raccoon was in my yard and was eyeying up the chickens during the later afternoon. I put the chickens back in, but the pecking is still an issue.

    I also have five more chicks on the way that are now two weeks old and I want to stamp out this pecking before I introduce them to the flock.

    It seems I have some options,

    1. get rid of the peckers

    2. let them all out and hope they don’t get eaten by the raccoon

    3. build a bigger run

    4. let the peckers out during the day and see if they get eaten

    5. catch the raccoon and hope that more don’t turn up

    6. let them continue pecking each other and see how they fair.

    What do I do?

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      If you have one or two persistent pecking birds then you might want to introduce them to the stewpot.

      Let the birds free range if possible, they will not bother each other as much. The raccoon shouldn’t be a problem since you shut the birds in each evening, and raccoons are nocturnal. A raccoon hanging around during the daytime is a problem, and you will probably want to trap it if you can.
      A rooster will help bring order to the hens and will help alert them to the raccoon. If you don’t mind the early morning crowing, then you might consider adding a rooster to your flock.

  • Sandra

    It’s disturbing how quickly your nose tunes that wretched smell out though. When we picked up our 4 hens the car smelled -putrid- on the way home – but within a couple of hours I swore I couldn’t really smell it anymore unless I really thought about it.

    Right now our two little 6 and 8 week old RIR X NH chicks are hanging out in a pen in our lounge room at night until the adult hens have been exposed to them a bit more and there’s less chance of them being pecked to death – and they don’t smell -nearly- as bad as long as I muck their pen out every couple of days. Hens though – dear lord.

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    The second coop would confuse the chickens, they would eventually choose one or the other and stick with it. Having a coop in a wooded area can be OK, we had problems with mink, but a better skirt fence around the base of the coop fixed that. Some hens may choose to roost in the woods at might rather than return to the coop – you may have some problems with this until the hens settle in.
    It’s worth making the effort to provide free range, and your hens have a deluxe setup. You’re right, free range will reduce your pellet feed costs.

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    You can replace your old fence with 1″ poultry mesh, it is inexpensive. If you have persistent predators, such as raccoons, you can run a strip of galvanized mesh (1/2″) on the lower part of the fence. This mesh comes in 2′ high rolls. Ideally, you would dig a trench around the fence perimeter and set the mesh down 6″ – 12″ and bend it on the bottom to set rocks on, then fill the trench back in. This will prevent burrowing pests.
    Depending on the size of your run, you may want to run some 2″ poultry net over the top, especially if there are posts a raccoon can climb.
    If you use a hanging waterer you should have no problems. This will free you from having to replace water daily.
    The birds can survive a cold winter, but a warming light is a good idea if you have access to power. The warming light can be placed near the waterer to keep it from freezing.

  • Jan Briggs

    Hi, My name is Jan and I just started my little hobby, family chicken farm with 5 hen’s. I read up on how to house my bird’s, and spent a lot of money building their 8 ft. x 10ft. house with heat lamp’s etc. They are 4 month’s old and beautiful. Problem…Pen is attached 20ft. x 20ft. x 8 ft. tall with 4 inches of clean river gravel floor. What has mined under this whole yard? We laid concrete block’s all the way around outside base, yet you sink 3 to 4 inches every where you walk in there. No signs of holes where anything comes up. What???Thank;s Jan

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    Letting things go is a valuable life skill. Try it you’ll like it!

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