In my last post, I talked about getting started with raising backyard chickens. I left off with the little ladies in the brooder box that I had made out of an old Dell computer box, so I'll pick up from that point.
One of the wonderful things about old boxes is that with the help of a little duct tape and some “outside the box” thinking, you can make just about anything you could need! In this case, as the girls got a little bigger and started needing a little more room, I basically just added an addition to their little home, and what I like to call the "chicken condo" was born. There was enough space with this little setup for the chicks to get old enough that they were nearly all feathered out, and I had enough time to build a better coop. Now I could hang their food and water on one half of the box and their light, which they still needed, on the other. The tower attachment allowed me to control the height and thus the intensity of the lighting that they got.
Caring for Baby Chicks Indoors
You may have noticed that our chicks are still in the house at this point. That's because we ordered them online from IDEAL poultry in early February last year and received them on February 19th. We did this so that while the chicks were young and required additional heat and light anyway, we could keep them in the house and get some growing time on them while the winter was idling by outside. Typical hens won't start laying until sometime around 20 weeks and then will often taper off in egg production through the cold, low, light winter months. We wanted our hens to start "earning their keep" as soon as possible and doing this really helped. By the time the weather was nice, they were ready to go outside and be on their own.
But I digress. My point in explaining their living indoors was to make the greater point that smell and sanitation was very important to us since they were in close proximity. To control odor what I did was make a habit of lightly turning the coarse sawdust bedding every time I fed or watered them. This helped to keep any fresh manure under the bedding and the odors were able to absorb. Every couple of days, I also added a light covering of the sawdust with a layer of new bedding. I could generally go 1.5 to 2 weeks this way before I had to pull out the bedding and replace it. I have no complaints about this method at all.
Remedying Pasting Up in Chicks
As I said in my previous post, raising chickens is not, in my opinion, the hardest thing in the world. There are, however, a few things that need to be watched for and treated immediately if found. One very common problem that young chickens have is called “pasting up”, and can kill them if you’re not careful in watching for it. What it is, is when the vent of the chicken — the technical term for the part of the chicken where the manure and the eggs come out — gets essentially clogged up with dried and hardened manure. Here’s a photo of what it looks like.
What happens with the chicks is that when the vent becomes clogged or blocked, the chicken cannot evacuate as it needs to. Because of this the chicken remains “full” and will stop eating or drinking.
The treatment for pasting up isn’t the most fun thing in the world to do, but I found that a clean paper towel soaked in warm water does the trick wonderfully. All you need to do is clean off the blockage, and make sure the chick has access to fresh water all the time. (Basically she needs her bum wiped.)
The chick will protest loudly against this, but it’s for its own good.
Now then, once the chicks are fully feathered out, and no longer need to be kept under lights and given supplemental heat, they’re ready to be moved outside. The chicken condo won’t do for this however. In fact it’s more than likely that it’s going to be barely holding itself up at this point, which means it’s time to build a chicken coop.
Building a Backyard Coop
Building a coop is a project with so many varied outcomes that it’s hard to pin down just one or two ways to do it. There are certain things though that every coop should have and as long as they’re covered you should be good. For instance, chickens can’t stand having wet feet, at least not for long. Scratching around in the snow or rain puddles for worms is one thing but not having a dry place that’s up off the ground when they need it could mean sickness or death.
Also, even if you decide to free range your hens, they’ll need a safe place where they can roost up at night and rest peacefully when most of the predators in nature are out looking for dinner, even in the suburbs. I have a neighbor who was a bit lackadaisical about this and lost all his birds to a neighbor’s dog.
It’s generally recommended that you allow for at least 4 square feet of space for each bird. This will allow them enough space to spread their wings and will help to keep them from picking at each other. You’ll also need to add a nesting box or two. Generally about one per five hens or so is enough. If you don’t give them proper nesting area, it’s possible that the eggs will get broken or eaten or both. The coop I came up with for my 9 hens allowed for all of this as well as being (relatively) pleasant to look at. That, more than almost any feature of your coop may end up being the biggest part of how well your chickens are received by neighbors if you keep them in a residential area like mine.
Remember, chickens are a great addition to any home. They’re great fun to watch, they’re superb composters and they provide a healthy consistent protein source for your family; all this while providing excellent fertilizing for your garden, too. If you’ve been debating making them an addition to your home, I encourage you to make the leap. Give it careful thought of course, but don’t feel intimidated at all.
Paul Gardener and his family live in suburban Utah, where they raise chickens, cook and bake from scratch, and grow much of their own food on a ¼-acre lot. Now they’re trying to help others see what’s possible by sharing their experiences. Read more about Paul’s journey at A posse ad esse, and read all of Paul’s GRIT posts here.
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