Raising Chickens for Health and Happiness | The Doctor Weighs In
By: Chris Lesley
Medically reviewed by Patricia Salber MD, MBA (@docweighsin)
Hard to believe that some chickens are bred to be pets that love to cuddle and also have side benefits including fresh eggs, garden fertilizer, and sources of human exercise — and more!.
Chicken-keeping has become increasingly popular in recent years, even in suburban and urban areas. People are drawn to the activity for many different reasons, including the most obvious one — a desire to have fresh eggs from your own backyard. Read on, though, I hope to convince you that there are many reasons beyond the eggs why you should consider raising chickens for your health and happiness.
Chickens can be wonderful companion animals
Chickens are perhaps unusual in the world of domestic animals, in that people usually adopt them in order to improve their diet and not necessarily to gain companionship. Of course, this is a false dichotomy, as chickens can make wonderful pets or companion animals.
Some breeds, like the silkie chicken, were bred expressly for that purpose. They might even be described as cuddly. But even production breeds can be acclimated to humans. If raised from a chick, they will often become quite friendly. In fact, many chicken owners feel like the flock is part of their family.
Only on the farm?
Another common misconception about chickens is that, as livestock, they can only be raised on farms or in rural areas. Chickens have actually become increasingly common in suburban and even urban areas in recent years. Anyone with even a small yard or other outdoor space can successfully raise a flock.
Of course, any prospective chicken owner should check their local ordinances on where and how they can keep chickens. Many urban or suburban ordinances ban roosters, for instance, because the crowing can violate local noise ordinances. Another misconception is that roosters only crow in the morning — they will make noise all day if they want to, and hens can also be quite noisy.
Local ordinances and regulations will probably also have a say in how many chickens someone can keep in the first place. How big a flock an owner will need to keep their family in eggs depends on a number of things, including
- the breed of the birds
- the size of the chicken keeper’s family
- their egg consumption.
A few words about egg production
Some chicken breeds are better layers producing eggs more frequently or more consistently than others. But egg production is not the only consideration when picking a breed. You will also want to consider the following:
- meat quality
Rhode Island Reds and Leghorn hens will both produce 5–6 eggs per week, on average. That makes them among the most productive chickens out there. The laying of two to three eggs per week is more common.
Hybrid crosses, bred specifically for egg production, will also be high-yield birds. The caveat with hybrid crosses is that they likely won’t live as long. As a general rule, chickens live longer the fewer eggs they lay.
5 essential steps to raising healthy chickens
It is important that chicken keepers become knowledgeable about the necessary requirements to raising healthy chickens. This means understanding how to optimize their diets, environment, and shelter to help ensure that they live long, happy lives.
Unlike dogs and cats, chickens cannot be fed simply with a pre-mixed feed out of a bag once or twice a day. They are foragers and, as such, they need to have continuous access to their food because this aligns better with their natural eating habits and energy needs. It also helps prevent crowding and fighting at the feeder. Both of these activities can limit access to food for smaller or more timid birds. It is also imperative that chickens have a feeder as eating off the ground can lead to disease or food contamination in the same way as in humans.
Chickens will need supplements to meet their full nutritional requirements. This is especially true if they aren’t allowed to forage for any of their food.
The most common of these supplements are calcium or calcium carbonate and insoluble grit. Calcium carbonate helps chickens maintain strong bones — again just like humans. It is also critical for them to produce strong, healthy eggs and eggshells.
The easiest way to introduce calcium carbonate into a flock’s diet is to feed them ground-up oyster shells. It is important to do this separately from their feed to prevent overdosing. Too much calcium carbonate can cause just as many problems as too little.
Insoluble grit helps chickens, who don’t chew, grind up and digest their food. It can be bought at feed stores and mixed into the feed. Free-ranging chickens will pick up dirt and pebbles from the ground while foraging so they won’t need supplemental grit.
Most other supplements can be introduced into a chicken or flock’s diet on a case-by-case basis.
Unless they plan on keeping a flock of chickens in their spare bedroom, most chicken owners are going to want a coop and a run in which to keep their birds.
The coop is a small building where the chickens will sleep, lay, and nest. The run is an enclosed outdoor space where they can exercise, eat, and interact. For urban or otherwise space-restricted owners, they can save room by eliminating the run.
But chickens without any outdoor room to run will need a correspondingly larger coop to allow them to get at least some exercise.
Owners will need to check their local ordinances to see how much space they have to give each bird in the coop. A good rule of thumb is that a coop will need four square feet of space for each bird if there is an attached run. They need 10 square feet of space per bird if there isn’t a run.
How warm or cool the coop needs to be will depend both on the climate as well as the breed of the chickens living there. Unsurprisingly, breeds produced from northern European or New England stock, like Rhode Island Reds, will be better able to endure the cold than their southern European or Asian brethren. The latter, on the other hand, will not need to be as assiduously guarded against the heat as the former. Here, as in most things when keeping chickens, research is key.
4. Chicken health
Chickens can be especially prone to respiratory diseases. Keeping their coop clean and well-ventilated is essential to raising healthy birds. This is also why having a run is ideal. It allows them to get out and breathe fresh air and not just the recirculated, dusty air of their enclosed coop.
Remember that chickens also poop in their coops (a lot). Therefore, proper ventilation and frequent cleaning is necessary to help disperse smells and keep the coop a bearable space to be in, for both chicken owners and their birds.
Owners should make sure when building or buying their coops, that they have the proper ventilation to both meet regulations and protect their chickens — more is almost always better.
5. Coop duties
How and how frequently an owner needs to clean the coop depends on their chickens and their coop. The general rule is at least once a week.
The most important part of cleaning out a coop is scraping out all of the chicken poop. You can use a garden hoe or a similar tool works for the crusted-on or high-up pieces of poop. Owners should also make sure to sweep the coop. This will help keep the air quality high.
While cleaning, be sure to take the opportunity to survey both the birds and the coop for any damage or injury that needs to be addressed.
Benefits of a backyard flock
While all this may feel intimidating, remember that keeping chickens in the backyard has many benefits for their owners. And this goes way beyond the obvious access to eggs and, if you are so inclined, meat.
1. Farm fresh eggs
At the risk of stating the obvious, one of the biggest benefits of keeping chickens in the backyard is the regular access to farm-fresh eggs. Furthermore, chicken owners know exactly where and when their eggs were produced.
They also know exactly what their chickens were fed and exposed to. This is comforting to many with concerns about the effects of artificial and potentially toxic chemicals, hormones, and antibiotics on their food supply.
Additionally, backyard chicken eggs are often higher in key nutrients, like vitamin E and beta carotene. They are also lower in cholesterol than their industrial counterparts.
Of course, chicken owners should take care that they examine, collect, and clean their eggs properly to avoid salmonella and other dangerous bacteria the eggs might carry.
2. Healthier meat
Healthier chickens produce healthier meat. And backyard chickens, who, when well cared for, tend to be healthier than their factory-farmed peers.
They usually produce meat that is both healthier and tastier than the kind on grocery store shelves. For one thing, backyard chicken meat is guaranteed to be fresh.
Backyard chickens that are allowed to free-range and forage, have a diverse diet and get plenty of exercise. Both of these things lead to healthier, more flavorful meat.
Additionally, as with eggs, people worried about the chemicals and preservatives in their diets can know exactly what their chickens were exposed to and how the meat was prepared at every step of the process.
3. Good for the garden
Keeping chickens is also great for the garden. This is because chicken manure is a great natural fertilizer. It is high in all the right nutrients to help a garden thrive, especially nitrogen.
Chickens fully digest the weed seeds that can be a problem in other animal fertilizers, like cow and horse manure. Chickens are also pest-killing machines. They eat many of the insects that prey on gardens, like beetles, grasshoppers, and slugs. They do this without disturbing the deeper haunts of worms and other burrowers who benefit the soil or the bees and butterflies that help pollinate the plants
4. Less exposure to chemicals, pesticides, preservatives, and other toxins
Families using chickens raised in their backyard as a food source have likely significantly reduced their exposure to potentially toxic chemicals in fertilizers, pesticides, and preservatives.
People raising their own chickens can of course guarantee that those chickens haven’t been exposed to anything they don’t want in their food supply. They can guarantee the chickens whose eggs they’re eating aren’t diseased or unhealthy.
If well-managed, a flock of chickens can also eliminate the need for pesticides and chemical fertilizers in a vegetable garden. Since chickens, as discussed above, can perform both of those tasks better than any chemical mixes can anyway.
While these fears about chemical exposure aren’t universal, for those who are concerned, taking control of their food supply by raising their own chickens can be a huge relief. And even for those who aren’t, having fewer chemical fertilizers and pesticides in their diets can’t hurt.
5. Get some exercise
A coop of backyard chickens can also be a great source of exercise, especially for those with mobility restrictions or other barriers to high-impact or more intense forms of exercise.
Even the seemingly minimal physical requirements of keeping chickens, such as,
- rounding the chickens up every night,
- cleaning the chicken coop,
- gathering eggs, or
- moving bags of feed
can be enough for chicken owners to realize some of the many benefits of regular physical activity. Some of those benefits include lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, improved mental health, and reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes and a host of other diseases.
Keeping chickens also guarantees chicken owners will get outside several times a day to care for and interact with their birds. As discussed above, even this walking around can help people achieve the benefits of regular exercise. In addition, there are also concrete health benefits related to simply being outside, even if that’s just standing in the sun to watch the chickens.
More time outside will increase a person’s levels of vitamin D (It’s actually the only way for someone to get vitamin D, unless they take supplements.). Further, scientific studies have suggested improvements in mood, mental health, concentration, and even surgery recovery related to spending additional time outdoors.
7. Health benefits
Interacting with friendly animals has a number of benefits for people’s mental health. While chickens aren’t typically considered pets or companion animals, keeping them has many of the same benefits as cuddling a dog or petting a cat. (Of course, those wishing to cuddle their chickens can find a pet breed who would be more than happy to participate.)
Regular interaction with an animal can lead to lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, better mood, and improved mental health. This is especially true for people struggling with depression and other illnesses that can be exacerbated by loneliness and isolation.
Related Content: Scientific Reasons Why Keeping Fish Helps Prevent Loneliness
The bottom line on raising chickens
Overall, anyone looking at keeping chickens should balance the physical and emotional benefits to themselves along with the needs of the chickens and the logistical barriers to entry before launching into the exciting adventure of being a chicken owner. I hope that this article has helped you understand the work involved and the many benefits of becoming a chicken keeper.
Chris Lesley, Managing Editor at Chickens & More has been raising chickens for over 20 years and is a fourth-generation chicken keeper. She remembers being a young child when her grandad first taught her how to hold and care for chickens.
She also holds a certificate in Animal Behavior and Welfare and is interested in backyard chicken health and care.
Her work has been shared on HuffPost, Mother Nature Network, Community Chickens, Mother Earth News, and many more outlets. Today Chris keeps 11 chickens including 4 Buff Orpingtons, 4 Rhode Island Reds, and 3 Silkies.
She is the backyard chicken expert at Chickens And More and shares her knowledge on raising healthy, happy chickens with the site readers. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Originally published at https://thedoctorweighsin.com on June 11, 2020.