Chicken husbandry is defined as the science of keeping and raising chickens. I’m not sure I’d call it a science: many of us bumble along and learn by our own experience, and that of others. I’m thankful for the internet, but sometimes it’s a bit of mixed blessing in that you can get a wide array of opinions, some useful and some that send you off in the wrong direction. I thought I’d provide you with a easy-to-understand model on the basics of keeping chickens and ensuring they stay healthy.
Flaw: a fault, mistake, weakness, imperfection or defect
In this case, flaw is a bit of an oxymoron. Rather than meaning something to be avoided, it is actually the thing we strive for as good chicken keepers. FLAWS is an acronym for Feed, Light, Litter, Air, Water, Sanitation, Security and Space – all requirements for good husbandry. I’ve written about biosecurity before, but I don’t think I can overstate its importance in keeping our birds healthy, so here is a related piece.
I’ve kept chickens for a decade; over the last four or five years I’ve done a lot of online reading and consider myself fairly knowledgeable as a layperson. Since I started blogging just over a year ago, I’ve done more in-depth research into topics that I haven’t experienced firsthand and learned a whole lot more.
I also took a day long workshop offered by two avian veterinarians/pathologists on Small Flock Health Management. We spent some time learning about biosecurity which made me realize that most of us are rather inconsistent when practicing it. I’ve come to believe that many small flock keepers underestimate the role that stress plays in the health of our birds.
I think that lots of folks new to chickens think that birds are a low maintenance pet. And they are, until things go wrong. You can do a lot to prevent potential issues if you’re prepared and understand the complexities of flock dynamics, pathogens and good husbandry practices.
I’ve touched on stress as a factor in illness before, but here’s a little more information that might help you understand its role in the health of your flock.
Stress is defined as the biological and psychological responses experienced on encountering a threat or very demanding circumstance. We can all relate to times in our lives when we’ve been under stress and how that may have affected our mental or physical health. And just like with us, when it comes to chickens, stress is often the catalyst for illness.
Stress creates a physiological response:
- Increased heart rate
- Breathing increases and muscles tighten
- Decreased glucose levels in the blood, which supply energy to make disease fighting antibodies, put birds at increased risk for illness
- Decreased appetite
- Viruses multiply in sick, or immuno-compromised, birds
- The flight or fight response releases hormones that, if they remain at high levels, impair their immune system
This handy guide for the FLAWS acronym might help you to understand stressors for your birds and ways to mitigate them.
- Feeders that are out of reach result in not enough food intake.
- Birds won’t eat dusty food or pellets that are too big.
- Mouldy feed can contain mycotoxins, like aspergillus, that lower immune response.
- Supply age-appropriate feed: young birds fed layer pellets are not able to process the excess amounts of calcium and can develop kidney damage, like gout.
- This is my addition to the acronym in recognition that anything that disrupts flock dynamics is a stressor. One of the most stressful times for birds is the integration of new additions into the flock. Chickens are social animals and each change in membership means the pecking order gets re-established. Lots of folks throw their birds together, having a ‘sink or swim attitude’, which may come back to bite them.
- If your rooster to hen ratio is less than 1:10 you may have increased competition between the males and over-mating of the hens.
- Inconsistent lighting within your building can lead to overcrowding in better lit areas. Smaller birds might be deprived of food.
- The ideal requirement for egg laying is a minimum of 14 hours of daylight/day. Some folks use light to force their hens to lay throughout the darker months. Birds require some time to recuperate from molting and laying throughout the spring and summer. I don’t use artificial light and accept my girls need a rest.
- It is important for coops to include natural daylight, preferably via opening windows.
- Wet litter (the combination of bedding and poop) can harbour E.coli, Salmonella and Coccidiosis.
- Make sure your coop bedding doesn’t accumulate poop resulting in ammonia build-up, which is damaging to their respiratory systems. If you think your coop smells imagine what it would be like to live in there. You either need to have a bigger space, fewer birds or clean more often.
- Wet litter can create health issues with their feet.
- Bedding like sawdust can be too dry and dusty, which can irritate respiratory systems.
- Hay, when wet, can become mouldy and hollow straw can harbour parasites like mites.
- Birds that eat long grasses or hay can develop sour crop.
- Improper ventilation (too little or too much) can create conditions with high amounts of ammonia or dust, damaging tissue in respiratory tracts and air sacs.
- Over-ventilation can lead to low coop temperatures, condensation in bedding materials, high ammonia levels and respiratory issues.
- Low air flow at night can create cold spots and result in chickens huddling away from intake areas, increasing a build up of poop in one area.
- Water is the single most important aspect of a bird’s intake; it’s also the least expensive and often the most overlooked.
- Water deprivation (empty or frozen waterers, or during long transport) can dehydrate the respiratory tract and allow disease organisms to penetrate the lining.
- Dirty waterers can harbour bacteria that make birds more vulnerable to disease.
- Nipple or cup water systems are less likely to spread pathogens viable in water.
- Disinfect your waterers often.
- Dead birds improperly disposed of, rotting compost and build-up of poop can encourage flies, which carry viruses and bacteria. They are also an issue with fly strike.
- Spilled feed, inside or outside the coop, can attract wild birds and rodents, which can carry a variety of viruses, bacteria and parasites (e.g. coccidiosis, mites, lice).
- Clean your coop and all chicken-related equipment regularly, employing wet and dry cleaning as well as the use of disinfectants (antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal), which is a means of breaking the chain of infection.
- Practice biosecurity to avoid tracking pathogens, like coccidia, on footwear from coop to coop, or farm to farm.
- Try to observe a reasonable quarantine period and a managed integration when adding new birds (or existing members that have been removed for some period) into your flock.
- Protect your birds from predators. There are a number of strategies to minimize your losses: contain them in wired pens; install overhead netting to deter hawks and ravens; and install automatic doors.
- Overcrowding in the coop, on the roost bars and in the nest boxes can lead to competition, stress, bullying and pecking.
- Cold spots and drafts can mean overcrowding in certain areas at night.
- If water and feed are inaccessible to smaller, or younger, birds they can be deprived of nutrients and not grow properly making them more susceptible to pathogens.
No need to panic. You may never encounter some of these issues, but it’s always better to be prepared then unknowingly contribute to a situation that compromises your birds’ health. Read lots, ask questions, but most importantly spend time with your birds and get to know what is normal, or not. If you suspect there’s an issue deal with it before it gets worse. Good luck. Chickens can be lots of fun, and more so, if you know what to expect.