I read that more and more of us are starting backyard chicken pens. If you've ever had a fresh egg you can understand why. We read a lot about raising chickens, specifically layers, before we actually took the leap. As I've lamented before mortality bothers us and was one of the main reasons it took us so long to incorporate hens into our farm model.
But I have to tell you it has been an experience that I wouldn't change. We've had some sad times but the hens have brought us more joy than sorrow. We've picked up veterinary tips and tricks and have become quite adept at handling situations as they arise. One on the most important things to know when raising hens in your backyard is what to look for in terms of health and how to detect unhealthy situations as quickly as you can before the problem spreads to the entire flock..
We had never thought of chickens as being happy but I guess like most things you are either stressed or not stressed. If not stressed then I guess you could consider the bird to be what we would call happy. You can tell signs of stress and negative stress affects taste if a bird has been stressed for extended periods. Anything subjected to long periods of stress is going to have problems. That's why cows, pigs, chickens or any animal raised on these confinment farms are pumped up with anti-biotics, hormones and other synthetic substances. They were not meant to live that way. Evolution has prepared them to be grazers, hence the term ruminant. Not in confinment yards where they stand and sleep in their own excrement laden pens with no hope of getting on grass.
First and foremost you must know what signs to look for in chickens and you must be able to compare it to what a healthy chicken looks like. The first signs of any problem with a layer is that they will not be themselves. We have learned that if we see any anomally whatsoever we need to act upon it. Meaning if there is the slightest change in the bird, isolate her from the rest of the flock and give it a health check. You should always have a hospital pen available. This is usually an enclosed area that has food, water, a nest and a roost. I've seen a little 2 chicken box setup for this purpose. The last thing you need to worry about if you have a sick chicken is where are you going to put it when isolated from the flock. Even if you do not have a special place at least know what you will do if isolation is needed.
We've lost a chicken or two because when we saw a problem it didn't look like a problem to us. Like counting 11 chickens when there should be 12. Then the next day counting ten hens when there should be 12. Then coming outside on day three in the morning and seeing the neighbors dog in the pen. Or you see a hen in the nesting box that doesn't sound right. They normally are vocal when laying but this is an agitated kind of squawking. I guess the rule of thumb should be if in your mind you question ANYTHING then do something about it. Isolate the bird and examine it. This action also protects the rest of the flock.
A healthy chicken will be active, pecking and scratching and chasing anything that flies within its eyesight. However, they are not constantly active and you will sometimes find them taking a dirt bath. They will scratch up the soil making a nice indentation in the earth which has all of this fluffy dirt they just created. They'll sit in it and roll and flap there wings and just have a grand old time. When they get up watch out, much like a wet dog they will shake and a mini dust shower come's extruding from their body.
Healthy birds have clear eyes, beak and nostrils. There should be no discharges dried or otherwise. Their combs and wattles should be red. There should be no limp or what's known as bumblefoot in their gate. Their vent should be pink and the feathers around the vent clean. If the feathers around the vent are dirty then she could have diarreha. Food intake varies by stage of development, weather and species. I've found the following site to be very helpful; http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/poulsci/tech_manuals/small_flock_resources.html
During the winter chickens eat more because eating helps them to stay warm. It seems water intake is constant but in warmer times it does go up. It is important to note that they should always have plenty of water and food. The last thing you want to do is promote competition in the flock.
There should be plenty of roosting, nesting and roaming space. If any of these things are lacking you will promote competiion within the flock and only the strongest will survive. If there is plenty of room( a good rule of thumb is at least four square feet per bird inside (at night) and eight outside), water and food, your entire flock will be happy and even the runts will get enough to eat and drink. Productivity, in turn, will be higher if the bird is happy. You'll get more eggs and tastier meat.
If you are raising meat birds there is a strong belief that a bird rasied in a stressful environement will not taste as good as a bird in a stress-free environment. If you don't believe me do a taste test yourself. buy a store bought chicken and a free range chicken. Prepare them identically and give your family and friends a blind test taste. You will pay more for a free range chicken but know that it cost us more to raise them. But a free range chicken will be free of hormones, steriods, anti-biotics and other synthetic substances that do come with chickens from the industrial food complex.
See what your family and friends say. Let them vote and then send us the results. We'll compile and post what we get.
Buy Local - from a farmer not a chain hard selling the fact.