Working Chickens, Part 6: Grit, Dust Baths, and Other Necessities
Here on Haven Homestead, we keep a number of different animals. We have meat rabbits, ducks, a goat, a cat, a dog, and of course, chickens. The one thing that surprised me about the poultry was the differences in anatomy between them and me. There is not much different between rabbit and a human on the inside, but chickens and other poultry … They are different!
Before we raised chickens, I had heard of gizzards, but I never really knew what they were; and I could only guess at how eggs were made. This article is all about caring for your chickens and the specific needs they have that are different from the other animals on the farm.
Water and Feed
It goes without saying that your chickens need to be fed and watered. But what do you feed them, how much, and how often? That is where things get more complicated.
As far as feed goes, chickens need three things: grain, greens, and proteins. For some really great information on chicken feed, visit this website: http://www.lionsgrip.com/intro.html. I really like what they have there.
As far as amounts go, we tend to feed our chickens as much as they can eat. That means we toss out an amount of feed and check back later in the day. If there is still a lot feed left on the ground, then we feed less the next day. If there is nothing left and it’s only been a few hours, that is a sign that they need more feed, so we feed them again. If we visit the chickens a few hours after feeding them and there is only a little bit left, we keep feeding them that amount.
Another sign for proper feeding amounts is the number of eggs that are being laid. If your hens aren’t laying, try feeding them more. As long as they aren’t broody or molting, that should up your egg production.
And for water, we always make sure there is easy access to as much water as they can drink. Your hens will thank you for doing the same! There are a lot of different styles of waterers on the market, but the important thing to remember is that chickens will poop in anything they can roost on — even the edge of a waterer. Keep that in mind when you are deciding on the style you use or design for your flock.
Grit in the Gizzard
As we’ve already discussed, chickens need food and water to survive. But did you know they don’t have teeth? In order to masticate (if you can call it that) their food, chickens have to have grit in their gizzard. A gizzard is a special muscle that moves the grit and food all around to digest it, and that is why chickens don’t have teeth!
What does a chicken need for grit? Well, rocks, pebbles, sand, and oyster shells are all good. The oyster shell also has the added benefit of being a great source of calcium (which I’ll talk about later). You can add it to your feed. Sometimes commercial chicken feeds have grit in it. Birds of different sizes and ages need different things, so become friends with the guy at your local feed store and he can usually help you figure out what your flock needs for grit.
I find that if I give my chickens access to our gravel drive on an occasional basis and oyster shell regularly in their feed, they chickens are happy and healthy.
Eggs Need Shells, Shells need Calcium
Everyone needs calcium for strong bones, but chickens need calcium for eggs as well. Actually, the shell of an egg is primarily made up of calcium carbonate crystals.
I mentioned earlier that oyster shell is a great source of calcium. You can find oyster shells at most feed stores, and it isn’t usually expensive. Egg shells are also a great and easy source of calcium, plus they have the added benefit of being mostly free. Some folks even use kelp meal as a calcium and an all-around mineral/vitamin additive, but I don’t have access to that for cheap so we don’t bother.
All you have to do is mix your choice of calcium with their feed and viola! You’ll always have nice, strong, egg shells.
Some folks say you have to crush, rinse, bake, or otherwise treat your eggs to keep your hens from eating their own fresh eggs. My husband was talking with an old chicken farmer, and he said he always fed his chickens back their shells whole and untreated and he never had a problem with thin shells or egg-eating chickens. We find if we keep the hens well fed and well calcium-ed, we can throw our egg shells in with the other kitchen scraps and they do just fine.
Chickens get mites. It is a fact of raising chickens. The best way to treat for mites is by having a dust bath available to your chickens. You can up the ante by adding diatomaceous earth, but regular old dust and dirt is okay, too.
Now, we have a problem living here in the pacific northwest: It rains a lot. That means no dry dirt in winter. No dust. We haven’t quite solved this problem on our farm yet, but I imagine that we will one day build some sort of chicken gazebo with a dust bath underneath that we can change out if it gets too wet. Until then, we use a special mite dust that we buy at the feed store and dust them at night while they are roosting. We dust about twice a year. We don’t like it, it’s not natural, but it’s what we have to do to keep our hens healthy for now. Of course, I’m open to suggestions if you have any!
Vent and Crop Health
One of the main anatomical differences that chickens and other poultry have when compared with mammals is that they have a vent. They poop/pee/lay eggs out of one hole. As such, this vent is susceptible to some problems such as vent gleet or prolapse. If you keep dust baths, a clean coop, and plenty of water for drinking and preening, your birds should be healthy enough. In case of problems, I find a Google search on the issue usually turns up plenty of treatment options.
Chickens also have something called a crop. This is where they store all of the food eat during the day. It’s where digestion begins. At night when they roost, the food moves from the crop to the gizzard. If your chickens don’t have enough water, their crops can become impacted, so don’t forget to water them well!
To keep the entire digestive (and reproductive) tracks healthy, many chicken keepers say that putting apple cider vinegar in their water helps the treatment and prevention of a lot of ailments. I haven’t yet had the opportunity, or a large enough supply of it to try this, but if you have a glut of ACV then I wouldn’t hesitate to add it to your flock’s water supply. It’s like Johnny Appleseed said, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away!”
That’s it for today. Just remember to take care of your birds. Observe and interact. Your chickens will thank you for it.
Stay tuned for more on the following:
Using Chickens to Till and Fertilize
Raising Your Replacement Flock(I added one more!)
By Lindsay Hodge
Read this editor’s letter about her new chickens and their lively personalities.
Backyard Chicken Tools
What tools do you need to raise and process meat chickens? Killing cones are humane, and promote a complete bleed, scalding tanks, plucking machines facilitate easy feather removal.
Integrating Chickens, Dogs and Cats
Introducing the pets to the chickens has been a little more challenging than originally anticipated.