I just got 6 cute little chicks that will eventually graduate to be our back-yard chickens! Have not built the coop yet, but am super excited about them joining us! We got 4 red pullets and 2 unsexed bantams (although, we won't be able to keep a rooster here in the city, so I am hoping they are both pullets.) I have been trying to get DH on board with this for 3+ years, and finally he is!!!!
Who else has them??? Any tips for me as a newby? I want a nice sized coop and run, and will also allow them to run in the yard for a few hours a day. We do have dogs, so I am trying to figure out how to keep the chickens safe once they are moved out. Right now they are in a tub in the bath.
I would introduce your dogs to the chicks as soon as possible. The better relationship they have, the more likely they will take on a protective role instead of predatory.
I'd get your coop built as soon as possible. Chicks get really messy, really fast. If they are in your house, they are dusty and stinky. If they are in a garage or shed, the warming temperatures make those places really difficult to keep at a good ambient temperature.
Get them on grass and dirt as soon as possible. They can get an overgrowth of normal intestinal bacteria that cause an often fatal condition called coccidiosis. The younger their exposure to the soil that contains bacteria, the better their chances of not developing it. Regular chick starter is medicated to help prevent this, but many argue about what is better-- expose them early and often vs. kill good intestinal bacteria. Organic starter is by definition un-medicated. It can be fun to set up a little pen for them in the grass on a warm day (set up a wind block on one side) and watch them go bonkers! Make sure to introduce chick grit at this time to help digest what they are foraging.
When you build your coop, choose a site that will impact the neighbors the least. Hens might not crow, but that doesn't mean they aren't loud! And stinky at times. Woo them with some gorgeous eggs! You will not mind having the coop in your view window. Chickens are fun to watch. Also, it's a good idea to keep your fenced run away from trees that overhang that can be used as a ladder by raccoons. And extra shade is better than too sunny a site.
When designing your coop, go for ventilation over insulation. If you are in a cold climate, you can batten down your coop some (with some straw perhaps, minding the breathability of the coop) when the weather will be getting colder. But ventilation is the top priority, as well as protection from wind and rain and too much sun. Outside the coop where the hens roost, have your run covered not just from the top, but also from on or two sides. Rain and sun hardly ever come straight down. Most of those cute coop designs you see are pointless where I live.
Do not skimp on predator proofing. It is easy to set it up as you build, difficult to retrofit. Use hardware cloth instead of chicken wire in the "night pen". You might want to cover the top of the run with netting as well if you hear that hawks are a problems where you live (it will also keep motivated birds from flying out when you don't want them to.)
Inside the run, give them things to hop up on, a straw bale to hide behind. Some weeds from the garden to dig in. A bone-dry patch of dirt to bathe in. Give them something to do so they will be less likely to pick on each other.
If you plan on letting them run in the afternoon, keep some wire pieces handy to keep them from molesting the plants you want. Keep a rake handy for all the dirt they will throw up onto the grass. They will find a sunny place to dig a pit for dust bathing. DO NOT feed them treats on your porch or near your doors. You will regret it. Ranging the chickens is not so great in practice, but they enjoy themselves so much that you won't be able to help yourself. Don't forget to shut them in at night. The raccoons and possums will quickly learn, especially if the already have a taste for chicken.
Welcome to the world of chickens! There are great resources online, especially Backyard Chickens.com, to enable... I mean "support"--support-- yeah, that's it... your new habit... I mean hobby.
I would echo everything that SweetSilver said - what an awesome summary, and just stress to you that you do not want chickens getting access to your vegetable garden, so you should make sure you have a ranging plan, if you are going to be letting them out. Plus, it's amazing how quickly predators will find your yard. And chickens are noisy at times, so make sure you keep them as far away from neighbours as possible, and befriend your neighbours so they feel comfortable letting you know if the chicken squawks are bugging them. One thing we found effective was a pretty dark coop, so they don't start making a racket too early in the morning. But I am also in a cooler location, so it's easier to have a dark and less ventilated coop. If you can, pour a concrete pad for the coop, as this will help with pests (we could not believe the mice we ended up with in our coop, even with a concrete pad). Or, built the coop in such a way that rodents can't gain access to the chicken feed (if that is possible). I agree though that you need to get going on the coop asap!
We also never made the chickens our pets. We were fond of them, but didn't really get into handling them a whole lot. Every breed and every bird is different, and families keep chickens for various purposes, but we preferred that they were a part of our life but not pets. They are really great to have in your yard, for children to learn about (yours and others) and you can't beat the eggs! Good luck!
With so few chickens, we built a hutch for their nighttime coop and nesting boxes. It was raised off the ground and had hardware cloth for the bottom, which we covered in hay (you could use shavings). The nice thing about this was that it could be insulated and ventilated at the same time. The top was actually hardware cloth over the roost end, while the roofing of the night pen was clear roofing for maximum light. In winter, we covered that opening with hay and opened it up in the spring. But they preferred to roost outside in the night pen anyway.
Forgot to mention something incredibly important, especially for those with limited space-- make sure your roost is the highest thing in the coop or pen. Do not make the highest place a nesting box or they will roost on top if they can.
And now I've mentioned hay-- some folks will say absolutely No Hay. But since organic hay is my local bedding resource I say Be Mindful When You Use Hay. Hay (vs. straw or shavings or sand) is better at promoting mold growth, which can lead to respiratory disease (did we mention Ventilation Ventilation Ventilation?) I do use hay, but my coop is extremely well ventilated, I keep a close eye on mold formation and I clean out the coop as much as possible. We do not have a concrete slab, our floor is dirt, which can indeed be a problem if parasites show up but otherwise I prefer it. Just be mindful. Do not use hardwood shavings in the coop (run, probably OK) or cedar. Pine and fir is best, and most likely what you will find in bales at the feed store. Many chicken owners swear by sand in those areas that will remain dry, and rake it daily.
In any case, keep up on the cleaning, or add bedding, especially underneath a roost. Huge mats of shit are difficult to move, and under no circumstances will you want to be scraping! Large quantities of bedding make for a nice beginning to a good compost (you might even add some straight to the perennial beds because the carbon keeps the manure from "burning" the plants with a toxic dose of nitrogen).
ETA: Last important tip: make the entrances to your run/coop large enough for a wheelbarrow or whatever you will use to remove bedding and manure. Make maintenance as easy as possible. Like predator-proofing, it is easy enough to build it that way, difficult to retrofit.
Metal cans for feed
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