Keeping free range chicken coop in your backyard can be a lot of fun. You will get a constant supply of fresh, tasty eggs. If you want to keep the birds as pets (and many people do) you will not want to think about having the occasional Sunday roast dinner courtesy of your feathered flock, but it is an attractive option for some poultry keepers.
None of this can be done without looking after your hens properly. Here, briefly, are the ten most important steps you must take to keep your free range hens healthy, safe and content.
Keeping Free Range Chicken Coop
1. Select The Right Breed
It is vital to choose the right breed for your area and requirements. Tolerance to hot or cold climates, good layers or for the pot, good pets or backyard scratchers – there are many aspects you need to consider carefully at the outset. Your local chicken supplier can advise, as can other neighbors with hens of their own. My own favorite, having been brought up on an Irish farm, is the Rhode Island Red – sturdy, reasonably intelligent (not the case with all breeds), tolerant of bad weather and a good layer. I’m told that Silkies make great pets, but I have no personal experience to back this up.
2. Choose The Right Number Of Birds
Chickens need space in which to forage, exercise and nest comfortably. Plan on about 10 square feet or one square meter per bird as a minimum. Measure out the area in which you intend to keep the hens, to determine the maximum number you can keep comfortably. For social reasons (the chickens, not you!) three is considered the minimum number of hens for a flock.
Your hens will need you to allocate some time every day for feeding, watering, coop cleaning and general maintenance of their living area such as inspection of perimeter fencing. Allow 10 or 15 minutes for a small flock, and expect them to follow you closely as you walk around their pen. They like to see you every day!
4. Shelter And Housing
Hens need somewhere to roost safely at night, with perches and nesting boxes. They also must have a place to shelter from too much sun and they need a supply of fresh water. A good chicken coop will have easy access for cleaning and a way to collect eggs without disturbing the hens too much.
Safety from predators is paramount and there is a wide range of these including rats, dogs, raccoons, weasels, birds of prey such as eagles and hawks, foxes, perhaps snakes. Many of these are highly intelligent and very good at gaining access, especially over a period of time.
You need a secure hen house, at least, and should also consider providing a fenced run or pen with chicken wire sides buried to at least 12 inches. This will need a top as well, if there are birds of prey around or the run is close to trees (to prevent your chickens taking flight!).
There are quite a few diseases that can affect hens, and you need to check out those that are common in your locality. Speak to the vet, other chicken keepers and online forums – you will find the hen-keeping community very supportive.
Hens also tend to feel distress quite easily, so keep dogs at a safe distance and remember to speak kindly to your chickens during your daily walkabouts! Watch out for hens pecking at other hens as well – for some reason they tend to do this if they feel neglected, and can do a lot of damage to each other if not stopped in time.
You must comply with all national and local regulations concerned with raising or keeping poultry, although often these are not too oppressive. There might be a distinction between a commercial flock (perhaps, say, more than 50 birds) and a private one. There might be rules about the minimum site area. Go to your local town hall, government offices or planning department for guidance.
Chickens need protein, water, grains and greens. A good protein diet is important, and your local feed store will be able to advise on this. Protein supplements and grit are sometimes needed, but usually free range hens will get enough from their own foraging. There must be a constant supply of fresh, clean water.
If you are away during the day or on vacation, you should investigate automatic water dispensers for your hens. Grains and greens are usually provided by foraging. If you employ a portable hen coop or chicken tractor to move your hens around your yard, they will get all the food they need and you will get your yard weeded and fertilized for free!
Most chicken varieties are fairly tolerant of harsh climactic conditions, provided that you give them access to shade when the sun is overhead. They can take a surprising amount of cold but they need to keep their feet dry.
Consider the local environment. Usually keeping chickens is viewed as a good thing, so you should not encounter significant problems here. It is sensible to involve your neighbors, who may be concerned about noise (hens are quiet, cocks or roosters are not!) and mess (hens in small quantities are very clean). They might like the thought of a supply of free range eggs on their doorstep.
Actually most of these vital steps are common sense and are not difficult. Follow them and you will enjoy happy, healthy chickens for years to come. Oh, I almost forgot – a happy hen should lay 6 eggs a week during the spring and summer months!
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