I have learned a thing or two during my time keeping chickens and have accumulated some know-how that I just know someone out there will find useful too! It’s easy enough to have a standard coop and run, and chickens will do just fine with that. I have discovered some ways to maximize the benefit of keeping chickens, especially if you’re a gardener, but also to encourage more people to consider becoming gardeners too!
Some of The Basic Needs of Chickens
The Chicken Run
A good chicken run will have both shady and sunny spots, some gravel or sandy areas for pecking at pebbles, and some soft soil for dust bathing to keep the mites out of their feathers. Chickens love anything green and will completely clear a large area of grass if allowed to freely forage every day. For this reason, a chicken run designed with two separate free-ranging areas that can be alternated between seasons provides added benefit to both the chickens and the garden- and to you as well!
Try designing a vegetable garden bed next to a chicken run and switch which occupants reside in either one over each consecutive season. A coop built near access to both, perhaps one that doubles as a garden tool shed, is a brilliant system that I have been designing plans to build when we move to our foreverstead. Many of the principles in this design I already use in my current small backyard system, but I have optimised them for when we get to start anew with more space and wisdom. I will share more about that below.
- sunny and shady spots
- gravel or sand to nibble at for digestion
- soil or ash for bathing feathers and preventing mites and lice
- green space for foraging
The Chicken Coop
Chickens need a place to roost, a place to lay eggs, and a place for food and water in their coop. A good coop will have a window for natural light to get in, and some ventilation to keep the air inside from stagnating. In colder climates, a coop designed with some thermal mass to capture sun heat will take the edge off of those extreme winter nights when the temperatures dip well below freezing.
I do not supplement my chickens with artificial heat or light as I feel that they are naturally adapted to withstand rigid temperatures and winter seasons, provided they have access to sufficient shelter and protein. I have seen many chickens lost to moisture in the coop originating from condensation or from fire due to heat lamps.
I prefer to use the deep litter method in the chicken coop to increase the potential for winter heat and provide the chickens with some room to dig while they’re cooped up. I’ll mention more of that in the next section.
- nests (at least one per 4 chickens)
- roosts (2 inches wide so they can keep their toes near their bodies when it’s cold)
- food and water
Food for Chickens
Most chicken keepers feed their chooks a 17% layer feed as their primary food. Of course, in the summer, they eat bugs, plants, and sometimes even small animals like mice and frogs. In the winter, they need to be given extra protein to keep their metabolism up and their body temperatures warmer. My chooks get a handful of cracked corn before bedtime when the weather is cold, to increase their body temperature over night.
Because of the lack of foraging opportunities in the winter, many people will grow indoor crops to bring to their chickens. While I have done this on occasion, it is a lot of work. I do however, compost directly in the coop as part of the deep litter bed system. The girls will eat what kitchen scraps they desire as it arrives and then leave the rest to wilt and dry up on the coop floor. As the floor accumulates a layer of composting ‘greens’, I add a layer of ‘browns’ by spreading out more straw over the coop floor. When the chooks get their nightly cracked corn, I toss it to the floor and they dig and turn the bedding while foraging for their treats. The coop doesn’t get cleaned all winter (except for scraping clean the roosts, replacing nesting straw, and managing the food and water supply). By spring, the dense layers of bedding with the straw, compost, and chicken poops get shovelled out into the season’s garden bed and mixed into the soil as amendments.
- Standard feed (17% layer feed is the norm)
- forage- compost, plants and grasses, bugs, etc
- protein for cold weather- cracked corn is our preferred treat
For fun, here’s some poorly executed mock-ups I did of my chicken and garden keeping design that you may be interested to take a look at. I didn’t add this to the drawings, but a tin roof and rain barrel for catchment would add another component of ease to this multifaceted system. During each season of the year, the spaces serve a different function. Rotation of those functions create a system that reduces your workload, increases production, and makes your chickens happier. All you have to do is keep the chicken door closed on the garden side each season. You can use the shaded area on the garden side as storage for your wheel barrow, rototiller, lawn mower, or anything else needing protection from the elements.
Chicken Health Care
I have never had to take any extreme measures to care for my chooks. We have had a couple of them die unexpectedly but they were isolated events that I suspect were natural causes. This is not to say that you shouldn’t be prepared for the unexpected or that chickens never get sick or injured. There are several groups on Facebook for Chicken people to share photos and videos concerning chicken ailments where tons of good advice is freely offered. Whether you suspect your chicken has wryneck or bumble-foot, fleas or mites, or an internal injury or psychological illness; the folks in those groups can advise exactly the treatment best suited for your chickens needs from vitamins to Gatorade to diatomaceous earth and everything in between. I recommend joining them if you are new to keeping chickens.
Like I stated in the beginning, basic chicken keeping is super simple and worthwhile. But Chicken keeping as a gardener can be incredibly beneficial and fulfilling if a few basic principles and plans are utilized. I hope you find some useful information and inspiration here. I can’t wait until we finally find our foreverstead and I can document the process of executing these plans myself!
Happy Homesteading Xx