How to Protect your Chickens

If you have made the committment to keep backyard chickens, you have to provide certain things to your hens.  Your chickens are relying on you to keep them safe.  Safe from heat, cold, predators and disease. 

I’ve already discussed, in general terms, how to feed chickens, and providing a well-balanced, complete ration will protect your hens from most nutritional diseases. 

Other diseases are a different story though.  Bacteria and viruses are always around.  E. coli, Salmonella, Coccidia and Campylobacter infections are real concerns for

Salmonella bacteria magnified 10000 times

anyone caring for live chickens.  Regardless of the size of your flock, you will have exposure.  To protect hens from disease, professional farmers adhere to strict biosecurity guidelines.  What is biosecurity you ask?  It comes from the latin “Bio” which means “keep things” and “securitas“, which means “out of your flock”……at least I think it was latin…..or maybe romanian….whatever. 

Seriously….biosecurity is a huge concern for professional farmers, and it revolves on two tenets….1: keep any bugs that live on a premises ON that premises (this is often referred to as biocontainment), and 2: keep any bugs that are not on a premises OFF that premises.  The problem is that you can’t see bacteria or viruses, so you have to assume you ALWAYS could be carrying them.

Overkill for everyday biosecurity, but I've worn this in times of high risk - truly uncomfortable

  That means that every time you enter the place where your flock lives, you are crossing an imaginary line from “Clean” to “Dirty”, or vice-versa.  This is the point at which you have a chance to control disease transfer. 

To get an idea of a biosecurity protocol for backyard flocks, the following link will give you the basics. It is a program designed by a Masters of Science student at the University of Maryland.  You need to sign up, and then click on “Agricultural Disaster Preparedness”, then choose the backyard flock module.  It is based on Avian Influenza, but the ideas will help control any disease you might have in mind.

Protecting your hens also means building a coop that protects the hens from environmental extremes.  This includes temperature extremes and extremely sharp teeth and talons.  Temperature is high on my list of risks today, since the temperature in Ontario is at record highs.  Protecting your birds from the heat is not something we Canadians are as prepared for as our colleagues in places like Georgia and New Mexico.  Your 3 biggest allies are shade, wind and water.  Shade is self-explanatory, wind can be provided by fans of various sizes, and water needs to be cool and abundant.  Don’t have water puddles though…..have tons of cool water for the birds to drink, but don’t provide a bath.

The sad thing is....she's sitting on top of the coop.

Hard as it is to believe on a day like today, protecting your hens from cold is an issue for many backyarders as well.  Knowing you live in a cold climate should impact your choice of breed, and should be considered in your coop design.  Chickens are little furnaces, and a well-insulated coop that has an appropriate volume for the number of hens it houses can be quite well heated by body heat.  Another simple solution is a heat lamp.  A single heat lamp can heat a surprising amount of a coop, and gives the benefit of a temperature gradient, which

Remember threats from above also.....

will allow the hens to self-regulate their temperature….if they are too cool, they can move closer to the hotter part of the lamp.  If they are too hot, they can move away from the “hot spot” until they are comfortable.

Finally, you need to keep your feathery charges from becoming prey.  Modern chickens

have had a lot of the wily, wild bird instincts they started with.  They are now nature’s

Not only did he not control the rat population.....

version of a twinkie.  Not especially hard to hunt down, and DELICIOUS!!  The only way chickens survive an interaction with a predator is if that interaction is through a fence.

Raccoons, foxes, rats, weasels, owls, falcons, hawks, dogs, cats, ferrets and skunks are all risks to your flocks….it is astounding the “wildlife” that exists, even well within the city

I'll admit it, this is probably a worst case scenario....this was NOT in Charlotte's Web....eeewwwww

limits.  A coop needs to have tightly woven wire enclosure (think smaller than a rat’s head), or solid sides, it should be dug at least 6 inches below ground level (imagine your inattentive neighbour’s terrier, out on a tour), have a roof (swooping birds of prey), and complicated gate mechanism (raccoons are more dexterous than most 5 year olds).  It sounds simple, to outwit some animals, but (and maybe it’s just me) when there are a bunch of predator types, it takes some complicated planning to keep your hens safe.  Surfing the net on backyard flock discussions makes it obvious that a LOT of “henners” get their chickens stolen, and that predation is a huge issue.  Plan for it…think about it from a rats point of view…and a hawks…maybe not from a spider’s though….its kinda creepy.

Mike the Chicken Vet

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