Healthy chickens are those who get to live in their natural environment. When a chicken is free to roam in the pasture, there’s a natural give and take going on. The chicken gets a great variety of foods consisting of grasses and their seeds, the insects and worms that live on them, and all those little creepy crawlies in the ground.
Free to follow their natural instincts, chickens scratch and peck, occasionally indulging in dust baths which help get rid of parasites from their feathers. Their instinct for normal chicken behavior is so strong that chickens cooped up in crowded cages with no access to natural environment become highly stressed. Stress, as we all know, triggers metabolic changes in the body, and makes one more susceptible to ivllnesses. Do you know that they become such neurotic wrecks that the keepers cut off their beaks to keep them from constantly pecking each other and themselves to death?
How free-range chickens serve you and your garden
If you keep backyard chickens, you get good quality eggs and meat. But if you keep free-range backyard chickens, you get a lot more! What the earthworm does to deep soil, chickens do it for the top soil. They turn it over and over again. Give them a pile of compost; they’ll spread it around for you. Sprinkle manure on the grass; they’ll dig it in and add a bit more to it with their droppings. They keep the root pests, worms and grubs under control. Their constant scratching will cut into the sod and prevent rainwater runoff due to thickening thatch. All you have to do is move them from place to place so that their services are equally distributed.
Their capacity to keep the place clean is amazing! They help clear up most of the refuse from your kitchen and your table. Unlike cats and dogs, they wouldn’t mind the bits of onions and garlic in your leftover food. They are so frugal that they turn up their noses — or beaks – at almost nothing. If you have other animals in the backyard, they would even polish off unfinished food in their feed trays, too.
Plant for the chickens
Chickens may be happy enough to get plain earth underfoot and enough space to move about and do their normal activities. But they would definitely be happier to get some extra treats to snack on.
It’s a great idea to have some of their favorite plants around. They help to add variety and value to their main meals.
Here are some plants to pamper your feathered helpers.
- Leafy vegetables – Cabbage, kale, lettuce or collard greens; they are as good for the chickens as they are for you.
- Root vegetables – Carrots, beets, radishes all have edible leaves that are nutritious, as well. You can harvest the roots and the birds can have the heads.
- Plants with medicinal value – Rosemary, sage, comfrey, feverfew and other herbs may help keep the lice and insects off the birds, besides helping with internal parasites.
- Allium family members like onions, garlic, leek and chives keep the chickens in excellent health. Chop the leaves and the bulbs and add to chicken feed.
Climbers with edible parts:
- Nasturtium – Chickens are interested in both flowers and leaves.
- Sweet potato – The tender leaves are cooked as a vegetable. But chickens don’t mind older ones also.
- Runner beans – They have edible flowers but the chickens may be more interested in the insects that love this plant.
- Cucumber family – Cucumbers, gourds or small melons, all of them can be trained to climb on fences. Chickens love the edible flowers, but the insect population that flocks to the cucumbers offers the best feast.
Some vigorous growers like nasturtiums and sturdy bushes like rosemary can well be left to the chickens all the time. But others need some amount of protection, or the constant attention may finish them off before they get a chance to establish. If you’re having them in situ, make sure that you have plenty. Or grow them elsewhere in pots and bring them in to the chickens by rotation. You may have to keep the chickens off your vegetable patch most of the time, but an hour of supervised stroll towards the evening, will help keep your pest problem in check.
Here are three ways to have chickens in your backyard:
1. Have a chicken-run along the periphery
A three-feet wide continuous enclosure running along the three edges of your backyard is an option if you have children who need the backyard as much as the chickens do. The advantage of this over a large area segregated for the chickens is that they run a round a lot more while having a lot more privacy. You can plant your vegetables and herbs along the edges of the enclosure on the outside. They will form a line of defense against insect pests while they enjoy limited access to the plants.
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2. Use chicken tractors for easy movement
Another compromise between full free-ranging and chicken coops is a bottomless movable enclosure. In areas where predators have access to the backyard, this is the only viable option. The structure can be physically carried from place to place if it’s light enough, or with wheels attached, it can be pulled into a different location every 3-4 days. Chicken droppings can burn the grass if too much of it accumulates in one place. So both your backyard and the chickens will benefit from this rotational system.
3. Try full free-ranging
If you have a backyard large enough and safe from predators, chickens can run around freely from morning to evening. But the day-long scavenging may not provide them with enough nutrition, so it is imperative that you devise a system — some kind of verbal call — to bring them in for a good feeding in the evening. You may have to protect your flowering plants and fruit trees, especially when they are young. Mulching deeply around them will dissuade the chickens from digging up the plants.
A well-ventilated chicken house is essential
Whether you are allowing full free-ranging or partial freedom within a peripheral chicken run or a movable enclosure, chickens need a safe and comfortable housing for them providing rest and protection from the elements, especially during the night and inclement weather. Let’s chuck the name “chicken coop” because it has so many negative connotations. Instead, let it be a shelter they feel at home in. Ensure cross ventilation, enough perches to accommodate each bird, and plenty of water at all times. A raised floor with mesh bottom will facilitate periodical removal of droppings from underneath.
Install chicken baths
They will make their own dust baths by clearing up all the grass from some area of your garden, but if you provide a few depressions in the ground filled with loose soil, they may condescend to use them instead. You can have portable wooden sandboxes to move along with chicken tractors. They are easier to clean. Add some diatomaceous earth to the soil if the birds have a lice problem.
Enjoy healthy, stress-free chickens. Watching chickens calmly going about their business is a stress-buster for us, too.