Reading up on cleaning I have discovered that a minimum of once or twice a year the chicken keeper should conduct a deep clean of the chicken coop. This is on top of a more regular routine clean of the chickens environment which should also occur on a daily to weekly occurrence. It sounds like I will be spending a large amount of time with my marigolds on; however my wife (the darling that she is) assures me that as with all housework and cleaning, these chores can be conducted in a relatively short amount of time if cleanliness is kept on top of.
If your aim is to learn how to juggle chickens while bouncing a beach ball on your nose then the word on the street is to try keeping your chickens in the coop while conducting the spring clean. If you have more modest ambitions like me then I would recommend shooing the chickens out of the coop before starting. Just make sure the back gate is shut!
Once the chickens are safely out of the coop, then the spring clean may begin. The following tasks should be part of this routine (This is definitely a dampener to getting my chickens ):
• Sweep the floor and walls of the coop
• Remove all the dirty litter and waste
• Dust out the cobwebs and clean any windows
• Clear all ventilation screens and flaps
• Replace chicken bedding and litter
Cleanliness in the chicken coop is my main concern and my research has shown that some chicken keepers have also used air fresheners (maybe a meadow fresh fragrance!) within the coop. It has been popular for flower baskets and containers to be hung around the chicken coop too, this will keep the wife out of mischief and stop her from telling me I have missed a bit! While I reside closer to the spotless coop crowd, the use of automatic air fresheners appears a step too far even for me. Be careful in your pursuit of the immaculate chicken coop to ensure that the hygiene products that you are using are chicken friendly.
Your chickens should then be ready to return to the coop.
Now that all of the chicken housing essentials have been identified and thoroughly researched I can begin to look at how to maintain a good healthy environment for my chickens. This leads me to the chicken coop housekeeping; when considering this, the behaviour of the chickens needs to be taken in to account. Chickens can be considered as the typical teenager, by this I don’t mean the typical stereotype of a moody teenager, but the teenager that is content to leave empty food containers around the house and scatter clothing from the basement to the attic.
While chickens and teenagers can be content within this environment, these conditions can begin to attract pests and can present health hazards for both myself and the chickens. For chickens to remain healthy, they need clean and dry bedding, clean nesting material, clean and hygienic feeders and drinkers, along with fresh air to breath. Unfortunately I cannot throw the chicken bedding and nesting material into the washing machine (I think the wife might be having words with me) and reused, these need to be replaced as part of a regular routine. This routine requires some tools, and luckily for me these tools are already available around the house (I just need to find them first). These include:
• A brush
• A shovel
• A rake
• A pair of gardening or work gloves
• A bucket or wheelbarrow (this is to carry away the chicken manure and other waste)
There are a few additional items that may assist with improving the speed and reducing the health hazards of the chicken coop housekeeping. These include:
• A housekeeper
• A dust mask
• A hose (where the coop has a solid surface floor – i.e. cement)
• A vacuum cleaner (in dry areas only)
We have an old vacuum cleaner that we previously used cleaning up following various DIY projects that could be used for getting into the corners in the coop much easier. This is perfect for the big spring clean days. I would not recommend using the same vacuum cleaner as you use for your daily chores around the house, as moisture from the coop cleaning can spoil the vacuum filters which then require regular replacement.
I am a fan of buying items in bulk that will be used in quantity and on a regular basis. This bulk buying often offers a discount on the price of buying in smaller quantities and has the added advantage of saving time (at least for a non-shopaholic like myself this would be an advantage). These advantages however, can be a little harder to achieve with perishable goods such as chicken feed. Storing mouldy or insect infested food does not carry the benefits that I would like achieve and can quickly reverse the effects of the desired benefits. Cleaning out spoilt food from containers while swatting away flies and other pests is not a fun way to spend your Saturday afternoon.
Thankfully these unwanted issues can be easily mitigated through fairly simple means. Adequately storing feed can be achieved by simply purchasing a metal bin or container and keeping the lid securely on the container to protect the feed enclosed inside (a simple solution of a brick on top!). The feed can be left in the packaging or bags in order to provide extra protection and the bin should be stored in a dry environment to prevent the feed from spoiling due to moisture in the air.
The choice of a metal bin or container also provides protection against rodents, as plastic and cardboard alternatives can be easily chewed through, and wooden containers can become heavy. Ridding your storage area from rodents that have discovered a vast cylinder of freshly stored food can be an exercise in tail chasing and can make a hefty dent in any savings that you may have amassed from the bulk buying exercise. (or use a secure corner of a utility room).
My preference is for a metal container that is airtight and seal-able. Keeping the container airtight helps to prevent spoiling from moisture, while the seal-ability of the container can prevent other animals from discovering how to remove the container lid and feasting to their hearts content.
Researching into the appropriate levels of chicken feed storage suggested that the optimum quantity should be around one month’s worth of chicken feed. This prevented the requirement for regular shopping trips while minimising the risks of feed spoiling.
It is popular for recycled containers to be used for storing chicken feed, but the choice of recycled container should be evaluated to ensure that the container has not previously held any pesticides or toxic substances. When storing the feed care should also be taken to avoid storing the feed near to pesticides or other chemicals as the feed could absorb the toxins.
Now that the chicken feeders have been chosen, I need to decide the method of keeping my chickens well watered. My search for chicken drinkers or chicken watering containers followed a similar process to my search for the chicken feeders. I found a range of prices within the chicken drinkers market, ranging from diamond encrusted bowls (that’s the expensive end for anyone that couldn’t work that out) to the budget bowls that can be re-purposed from a variety of sources. This spread of prices comes with a variety of types of drinker which can be classified into a simple dish that is filled on a daily basis to an automatic dispenser.
Being a person that likes his gadgets, the automatic dispenser was the option that appealed to me. Now the automatic dispenser is not like something that you or I would buy a can of coke from within a canteen, nor is it a place where a chicken deposits a egg for a sip of water. My research showed that these egg deposit drink dispensers have not been as successful as hoped within early trials with no chicken surviving the rigorous training program.
The automatic dispensers allow for less maintenance as they require filling less often and are opened by the chicken through a nibble device that the chickens must push to dispense a drop of water. This is a similar principal to what I have seen in a hamster water bottle, though the design is adapted to be more suitable for chickens.
I looked at the popular options for re-purposed items that I could use for a chicken drinker. I found that anything that could crack is a no go. This is not from a point of the chickens kicking it around the pen, but a glass, porcelain or a plastic plate or bowl could crack and break if they were to become iced up. I found that a stainless steel dogs bowl could work well for this purpose as long as the rim was narrow enough to discourage the chickens from perching on it. And where the chickens perch shall not remain fresh drinking water for long.
A good tip that I found for iced up chicken drinkers like the stainless steel bowls was to turn them upside down and run some warm water over the bowl. The ice would gently release from the pan and could be filled up with fresh water.
The automatic watering systems were my preference for chicken drinker type, particularly as the chickens can easily share drinkers. The automatic dispensers help to reduce the daily chores and keep the water fresh, but these do however have a few drawbacks.
• Some require plumbing into the household water system increasing expenses.
• They may clog either in an open or a closed state, each with fairly severe consequences.
• They need a routine flush of the system with disinfectant to remove algae.
• The chickens may not know how to use the system
I preferred an option for a reservoir to hold a bucket of water and release it into a dish as the chickens drink. The reservoir does need checking on a daily basis, but I was happy with this as I would be doing my other chores anyway. I found it best to change the water on a daily basis to ensure it was always fresh for them.
My attention has now turned to my chickens dining requirements and more particularly chicken feeders. Thankfully, fine bone china plates and crystal glasses are not required for chickens. Though I quickly found out that expensive feeders can certainly be found, though more affordable alternatives are also available for a fraction of the price. I found a huge range of feeders in all types of shapes and sizes, ranging from small plastic dishes (these were disproportionately red in colour) with clear tops to large metal dispensers.
I then saw an interesting option which involved building my own chicken feeder. This sounded like a terrible idea and a fast track method for mass chicken carnage. Not to be discouraged, I continued reading…
The DIY chicken feeders seemed to come in two distinct varieties. The first is essentially a big bucket with a series of holes in the side of the bucket towards the base. Then to stop the feed reaching the floor, a plate or baking tray with raised edges. Simple, but this would not be making the front cover of Vogue any time soon. Though the costs associated with these were attractively placed at below $1. The second option seemed to come from a plumbers work bag, and involves butchering the kitchen sink. Well the pipe work beneath! This option involves a short length of pipe and a ‘U’ bend section. By this I am referring to the thicker plastic pipes and not the thin copper pipes which would be putting our poor chickens on a rather strict diet. Push fit the two pieces together and its ready to go. You fill up the longer section of pipe or the bucket and the ‘U’ bend or plate fills with the food.
These devices provide an automated feeder for the chickens, as the chickens eat the plate refills from the bucket and likewise for the ‘U’ bend. Commercially available feeders often work in similar manner. I wasn’t comfortable with the DIY option as the buckets that I had lying around the house at the right size had all come with hazardous materials and the smaller devices I had did not seem large enough. So I opted for a commercially available unit.
I found that the self feeding system could save time and effort, but needed to be checked on a daily basis to ensure that they had enough feed in them and the feed had not got stuck. The feeders can clog and if your chickens are not cared for daily then this can be fatal. I found a good checklist of things for selecting my chicken feeder:
• They should be able to hold at least one days supply of chicken feed
• They should allow all chickens to eat at the same time
• They should prevent the chickens from scratching out the feed and wasting it
• They should be easy to clean
Things are starting to come together for my entry into chicken keeping, and the next item on my list is nesting. I thought that the perfect way to ensure that my chickens are comfortable within their nest would be to research into how chickens nested in the wild. I learnt that in the wild, chickens do not build nests like other birds, they scratch out a hollow in loose vegetation or soil and sit in it. This was immediately sounding like a bad idea to me. I pictured myself hunting around in the garden to find the freshly laid eggs, while tripping over the newly formed ‘pot holes’, spraining my ankle, then dropping and breaking all of my newly collected eggs.
My fellow chicken keeping friends all used nest boxes where the eggs are layed in exactly the same place every day. This appeared to be much more sensible, compared to a daily Easter egg hunt. Not to be deterred from expanding my chicken knowledge I continued reading my ‘How to twist an ankle in 80 ways’ chicken keepers book.
I started to come across some more practical advice and found that chickens like to have the nest deep enough so that when they sit in the nest, the tops of their backs are at the same height as the nest wall. This sounded much more sensible and more fitting with my medical insurance.
I finally came to a section on nest boxes and the first thing for me to decide is the number of nest boxes that I would like. Nest boxes appeared to come as either a single nest box or some multiple of two nest boxes fixed together in a horizontal bunk bed type arrangement. The ‘all in one chicken coop’ that I was looking at also came with built in nest boxes. Noting the newly acquired information on wild chicken nesting preferences I wanted to ensure that my chosen nest boxes were deep enough and wide enough to allow the chickens enough room to scratch around and create their perfect nest.
For nesting material there appears to be quite a wide choice of materials suitable for this. I found that some materials can also be dangerous for chickens so things like cat litter and whole leaves should be avoided. A low maintenance choice of a rubber matting had appealed, as this would be very easy to clean, but I decided to go for a more natural approach for my chickens and chose chopped straw. This would allow my chickens to feel closer to their natural habitat and hopefully happier.
The plan is now in place for the chicken coop, and my attention has switched to the furnishing of the coop. The first port of call for the furnishing is bedding and the first thing to know about bedding for chicken coops, is that bedding is not actually bedding (or at least not what I had become to know as bedding). In fact there are several types of chicken coop bedding and none of them are actually bedding. Not one! Chicken bedding is essentially floor covering and not something chickens use for sleeping.
Chicken bedding (also known as chicken litter) makes the coop easier to clean. It soaks up moisture and absorbs smells, making it a more pleasant environment for your chickens and you. The bedding material however does have a saturation point where the moisture and smells will stop being soaked up and must be replaced on a regular basis. There are several types of bedding to suit all requirements and these include:
• Straw or hay
• Wood chips (no not you old wall paper)
• Wood pellets
• Wood shavings
I found that there are also a few types of bedding materials to avoid, such as cat litter, pine needles, treated mulch and whole leaves. Apparently these can cause a variety of problems such as slippery surfaces (after all we don’t want the chickens whizzing around the coop having too much fun!) and toxins that are dangerous for your chickens.
I decided to go with sawdust for my choice of bedding material as I was able to source this relatively cheaply. Sawdust does have one negative of being quite dusty which can cause irritation for humans, but chickens seem to love the dusty environments. I was happy to proceed with the sawdust as I considered this to be low risk but would be happy to re-evaluate that decision if I started to experience any unpleasantness.
When I was choosing my type of bedding material, I found it was a good idea to consider how I was going to dispose of the manure and old bedding. Chicken manure mixed with bedding can make a good fertiliser for your plants and crops. Although I noted that it is best to let the mixture age for a minimum of four to six weeks (longer in winter) so that it composts well. Applying the compost too early can burn the plants and undo all of the goodness that you are trying to achieve. This would lose me some serious browny points by killing the wifes vegetables!
Having made the decision that the ‘All-in one unit’ type of chicken coop was best for me, I then needed to make the decision on whether to build or buy the chicken coop. Unsure of the level of complexity to building a chicken coop I took myself off to YouTube to view some ‘build your own chicken coop’ videos. This was a dangerous game, some of them made it look ultra easy and left you with that ‘I can take on the world’ feeling you get after watching the film ‘Rocky’, while others…. well let’s say they made the approach look time consuming and frankly dangerous.
The word on the web however is that if you are even remotely handy with a hammer and nails, then you are probably more than capable of building a chicken coop from the ground up. Unsure if I had the correct skill set, I considered a more mid range ability with the option to buy sections of the coop and to build the rest. If the hammer and nails approach really is not for you then maybe consider buying the full unit. Note however that many of the chicken coops that I have researched require some level of assembly once delivered, so if you think you find yourself firmly in the buy section and don’t want to be picking up that hammer, then try posting a few requests and asking if they are able to assemble on delivery.
The online tutorials left me with a dilemma, my heart is telling me that I should build my own coop (surely it would be fun to give it a go, I feel like Rocky and that guy made it look soooooo easy) and my head is telling me to buy one (after all do you really want another busted finger). I conducted a short assessment of my abilities and felt happy enough with my abilities for building the structure, but before I headed into the garden not to be heard from for another month (other than the occasional expletives when things don’t go exactly to plan), I decide to put pen to paper and work out the most practical and economical way of doing things.
I had some materials lying around from past adventures (yes, I’m not a complete beginner), but priced up the costs for the remaining sections of wood that I required. Based on this analysis I decided to go for the mixed ability skill set challenge, buy some of the sections for the ‘All-in-one unit’ and build the remainder.
The next step to take on the road to becoming a chicken keeper was to select a chicken coop and it turns out that there is quite an array of different types of housing suitable for chickens, such as:
• Cages and cage free
• All in one units and tractor style
• Ark and hoop
• Shelter with free range enclosure or with total free range access
• Pastured poultry with mobile housing
Enter state of confusion…
I once again took myself off to my pile of books (this is starting to become a trend) and discussed with my friends who had already started the journey, and I can now tell you what a chicken tractor is. A chicken tractor is a roofed coop with an open bottom that can be moved from one place to another. Still none the wiser? Basically it’s a mesh cage with a couple of small pram style wheels on one side with an area for nest boxes built in (we will come back to nest boxes later). You lift one side and roll the wheels like a wheel barrow to another place in the garden. The chicken tractors do come in a variety of sizes from the small pram size wheeled unit I mentioned to much larger ones that literally require a tractor to move them. These types of chicken coop are brilliant for moving the chicken coop around for the chickens to turn over the soil and fertilise it.
I was not planning on hoofing a large chicken coop around the garden on a regular basis so decided that this style of coop probably wasn’t for me. I narrowed down the fields and the coop that appeared to suit my life style budget and garden was a “Super Deluxe Chicken Coop Lazy-boy 5000″… But the wife said ‘No’! I plumped for the ‘All-in-one unit’, which is considered to be good for urban gardens , has a variety of sizes and can accommodate for the cold weather.
Once the decision was made to become a chicken keeper some research and investigations were required, my chicken knowledge was basic to say the least. I took myself off to Amazon (figuratively speaking) and a whole pile of books later, I quickly started to find out what I didn’t know about chickens.
My prior knowledge of chickens from watching films like Chicken Run (one for the kids) and City of God (one for the adults) came down to some simple mathematics:
Chicken + Corn = Eggs
Apparently this is not the entire story!
As I read actual questions about what I needed to know about keeping chickens started to materialise like:
What do my chickens need?
This question quickly split into several more questions:
1. What do my chickens need for housing?
2. Where will my chickens eat and drink?
3. Will my chickens need nest boxes?
4. Do my chickens need perches
5. What bedding should my chickens use?
I had a lot of questions and a pile of books to answer them. For each of these questions I started to write down some answers, paying close attention to matching the questions with the correct answer (nest boxes cannot be used for eating and drinking) and cross referencing between each of my books.