One of the basic requirements for all backyards flocks is good housing. If you want plenty of eggs and meat from your poultry, you must make sure they are safe and comfortable. Here are some tips for the lifestyle farmer.
Housing for farmyard poultry
You need to provide your backyard flock with a house or shed where they can be kept at night and in bad weather, and from which they can access outdoor areas. Ideally the house should contain nest boxes and perches, and the birds should be able to free-range around it without coming to any harm.
For practical reasons though, it’s often necessary to provide a house with an enclosed or a fenced run attached, preferably a movable house. The house and run can be moved from one area to another so that fresh grassland is always available. In drier climates, straw can be put down in the run to provide a good base for the birds to scratch in for seeds, shoots and insects.
Too often, hens are confined to one small area that becomes a bare patch of dust or mud.
- The house can be fixed or movable (i.e. an ark).
- It should be wind- and water-proof
- It should be free of projections or sharp edges that could injure birds.
- It should have netted windows facing the sun and away from the prevailing wind.
- One large window may be sufficient but in colder areas it is best to put shutters over the window(s) to retain warmth during the night.
There should be a number of small openings or pop-holes so that the birds can enter and exit easily.
- They should be positioned to prevent wind and rain coming into the shelter
- The pop-holes should be fitted with slides or doors that can be closed when necessary to keep the birds in (or out).
- The exit tracks can be graveled so that they don’t become muddy.
- The floor can be of wood, concrete or dirt and it should be free-draining.
- You can put a layer of litter on the floor so that frequent cleaning is not necessary.
- Untreated (non-tanalised) wood shavings, straw, sawdust or pine needles can be used.
- Hay does not make good litter because it remains damp and gets mouldy.
- The litter should be raked every week or so to keep the surface level, especially under perches where droppings accumulate.
- Caked litter should be removed and fresh litter added through the winter months.
- During cold winter weather, good composted litter will give off heat, providing warmth for the birds.
- Perches must be securely fitted but they should be removable for ease of cleaning.
- They should be 15-20" above the ground, and about 1-2" wide, with no sharp edges.
- They must be readily accessible without the risk of injury to the birds.
- To be inviting, nest boxes should be sited in a quiet, darkened area.
- They should be about 16 - 20" square and the same in height.
- All hens should have easy access to the boxes and there should be least one nesting box for every five hens.
- The boxes should be filled with fresh wood shavings or fresh straw.
- Nest box litter should be changed at least twice a month
- Young hens can be accustomed to nest boxes during the rearing period.
- Some of the first eggs to be laid will be small, and some will be laid on the floor, and these should be picked up and placed in the nest boxes to encourage the hens to use them.
- There should be sufficient ventilation in the houses to provide fresh air without cold draughts.
- The amount of ammonia in the air shouldn’t reach a level at which humans can smell it. If it causes irritation to human eyes and noses it will irritate the birds too.
- The house should provide a comfortable temperature for the birds at all times of year.
- In some areas this might mean providing heating when it is very cold.
- Signs of overheating include open-mouthed breathing (panting) and lethargy.
- Where birds show persistent panting, you should increase ventilation to reduce the air temperature.
Remember that young chicks must be kept warm. If newly hatched chickens are not with their mothers they must be kept at a temperature of about 30° C. The ambient temperature should be reduced slowly by 2 or 3° a week until it reaches 17 to 23° C.
- In general, birds should be in good light for 8 to 16 hours a day.
- They should not be kept in darkened conditions.
- The houses should be kept as clean and dry as possible.
- Clean the houses in summer when the hens are moulting and the house will dry quickly.
- All litter should be removed from the nest boxes and the floors.
- The nest boxes and all surfaces and floors should be scrubbed or water- blasted and treated with insecticidal disinfectant.
- It’s a hassle, but it’s good insurance against many infectious diseases.
- There should always be sufficient space for all birds to be able to move around comfortably at all times.
- Over-crowding causes stress, and one of the main signs is feather-pecking that can lead to cannibalism.
- As a rough guide, a house 6’ by 4’ house is suitable for three to four hens, or a rooster and two hens (a rooster needs more space than a hen).
- If you have about 12 hens you will need a house about 8’ x 8’..
- The fences around runs should be at least 6’ high.
- If fences are lower than this, some light breeds will jump them, even if their wings are clipped.
- Poultry seem to enjoy fluffing up their feathers in dust.
- Dust baths seem to help prevent external parasites.
- If the birds have plenty of space they will make their own dust-baths.
- Alternatively a sand dust-bath can be provided near the house, but it must be kept dry.
- Beware of poisonous plants and poisons such as antifreeze (in puddles under vehicles), waste oil and rat poison.
- Keep poultry out of rubbish dumps. These can contain all sorts of hazards.
- In some areas, there are few potential predators, in others there are many - from snakes to rats, from foxes to hawks.
- The degree of predator-proofing required depends on the risk, so take a common sense approach to protecting your birds.
- This might mean putting netting around the runs and shutting birds into secure houses at night.
- If you use rat poison, make sure the birds and other domestic animals can’t get access to it.