Keeping chooks in good nick is a matter of pride don’t you think. A vibrant comb, bright eyed + alert, productive + a bit cheeky – this is how we want our chooks to roll. The thing is chooks are really vulnerable to parasites – internal and external when in captivity, so today I want to help you create an awesome chicken setup. Nearly all common chook ailments can be prevented this way. Here are my top ten healthy chook essentials.
1. A dustbath in a dry spot
A dust bath is a chooks version of a shower and is super important for keeping them mite and lice free and their feathers clean. They wriggle down into the dust, flick it all over themselves, duck (or should that be chook?) ‘n dive, fluff up, peck and preen … fun viewing
Being a good chook mum means providing a dry, sunny space for this to happen. We’ve put a roof over top of the food + drink bit and fill it with sawdust once a year. You can go the extra mile and throw in wood ash, diatomaceous earth or herbs. My friends Emily and Gary sometimes make a small fire in the chook run and their chooks fluff about in the warm ash – a treat on a cold day.
2. Summer shade
Chooks don’t sweat. They rely on shade to regulate temperature. Come summer they need to get under trees to be at their best – overheated chooks will lay less and be of poor heart. Planting up some of your chook run is the way to go.
- Make the most of the fertility in the chicken run and plant a lemon and/ or passionfruit for summer shade.
- Utilise their bug hunting skills and grow your apples here for codling moth control.
- Add some deciduous shrubs/ trees for summer shade, leaf litter and winter sun.
Consider too your chook house. If corrugated iron is the roof, create a ceiling with a bit of ply or building paper to cool things in summer.
Be sure the eggbox is in the shade in summer, if it’s too hot they wont lay in there.
3. Fresh ground + plenty of space
Where chickens are fenced onto the same ground year round worms gather, the soil becomes tired and chook health takes a dive. Forage areas need to be living and well in order for them to be well.
Bare dirt is no bueno. Mud even worse. If this is your situation and your chooks are the feathered version of a goldfish in a bowl – take a wander and think creatively. Where else can you forage your chooks?
Chickens are originally forest roamers, so you do well by your feathered friends to emulate this in whatever way you can. Let them spread their wings and forage + roam on fresh ground.
They’re especially useful at cleaning up incoming weeds along boundary fences and old crops in the vegie patch. They do a great job weeding and fertilising your greenhouse, berry patch or fruit trees over winter. They also do really well under established trees, which handily takes care of the shade thing. Perhaps your good neighbour has some space?
On small plots of land you can get around this issue by using the chicken yard as your compost making zone and toss in weeds and garden waste regularly to keep the soil covered and well.
4. Clean water
This is super important. You need to be happy to drink that water yourself. True story.
My preferred chook drinker is a bucket with a sealed lid and a screw in nipple in the bottom. Chooks train to it easy as pie. No wild birds can access it and the chooks can’t poop in it either (they will insist on perching on every edge). Hang it in the shade (or build a rustic stand a la my style).
Put a dose of cider vinegar or garlic in their water once a month as part of your worm prevention plan.
5. A well ventilated house
Ventilation is super important. That big window in the back of our house is chicken wire – it lets out all that ammonia, moisture and CO2 and keeps everything healthy and fresh.
6. Sawdust love
I’m a big fan of sawdust in the chookyard. I spread it thickly on the floor under the perches and in the eggboxes too. Its easy to shovel in and out, and it soaks up the smell and poop.
Keep a pile handy so you can easily toss a shovel of fresh stuff on top as required, to keep things healthy. After 6 months you’ve got a lovely pile of poopy sawdust to harvest for using in the garden.
I also spread it in the high traffic food/ water/ dustbath zone outside the house to stop this area getting dusty and muddy.
7. Keep it clean
Clean your chook house out once a season. Empty all the sawdust, sweep it out, then spray it. I like Poultry Shield, but you can use any number of brews to clean it up – Neem, tea tree …. The goal here is to break down debris build up (habitat for external parasites) and nail any mites in residence.
You don’t want red mites. Trust me here. They are the hardest to get rid of, most unpleasant parasite ever! They come out at night and suck on your chooks blood. Left un treated your girls can get pretty crook.
Red mites live in the house, tucked away in every nook and cranny. Unless you know what you are looking for, you can be forgiven for not realising they are there until one day you come away covered in wee red/ black critters.
So every 3 months the chooks are dusted and the house cleaned. And every 6months moved to a clean house. The previous house is cleaned and sprayed and left empty for 6 months for little chance of red mite survival.
8. The importance of perches
In my humble opinion, chickens should be perching at night. Perches mimic being in trees, exactly as nature intended.
In order to get up on the perch the chooks need a bit of head room for the flap, leap and settle. If there isn’t enough room the chooks cannot and wont. If they dont perch in the house they’ll either go bush (which often means the eggs go bush), or they’ll head for the eggbox.
Though snuggling up in the eggbox for the night might sound cute and lovely, it’s not the greatest. Where they roost they poop. Poopy eggboxes make for poopy eggs and as eggs are porous when they first arrive it’s pretty ewww having your eggs laid in poop. Spending the night roosting in their doings is also ewwww and not particularly healthy.
So yeah, I like my chooks to perch. Even old girls will roost until the day they fall off because yip, that saying is a chookyard truth.
9. Herbs + Weeds
Herbs add another layer in parasite control + tonic support for our chickens. And so easy! Apart from the initial planting/ sowing there’s nothing for you to do here. Position them so the chooks brush past them daily or plant them for self serve forage.
Forage herbs: Because my chooks have a variety of forage areas, each area gets a good rest and replenish. This means that each time they arrive in a new area its bursting with herbs + weeds. Because they are moved about they don’t nail everything beyond the point of no return.
Be aware of poisonous plants in a calm, researched way. Use a reliable NZ source for this. The internet is jam packed full of people posing as experts so pick carefully who you lay your trust in. Bonafide NZ sources are Sue Clarke from NZ lifestyle block and Chook Manor.
The main forage herbs I have on the go (by no means definitive) are comfrey, garlic, nasturtium, mint, dill and mustard greens – easy care herbs that help keep internal parasites at bay. Mineral rich weeds for tonic support are chickweed, dandelion, puha, purslane and fathen (the name says it all!).
Self serve is the way to go – fresh and vital, not droppy and poopy on the floor of your yard. Chickens will gobble a particular herb at certain times and ignore it at others – they know what they need better than we do.
If your chooks are on the same ground year round you will need to pick herbs and greens for them. Best to hang them in bunches in the run or they’ll trample them in a flash. For self serve forage you could plant around the outside of the fence so leaves poke through or cover plants in the run before they get too annihilated or use pots that you can remove for rest and repair every now and then. Probably easier/ better just to create another run 🙂
Strewing Herbs: Herbs that chooks brush through or past regularly or walk on are perfect as part of your external parasite control. Strong herbs like wormwood, rosemary, rue, southerwood, tansy, oregano and pennyroyal are all options. You can pick them and toss them on the house floor if you like in the old fashioned style of strewing.
My chooks tunnel through this wormwood hedge to get from sawdust yard out into their forage areas.
10. Manage wild birds and rats
Sparrows and rats are carriers of mites and disease. It makes sense to manage them. While its impossible to keep wild birds away, you can minimise their numbers and impact by having a chook feeder with a lid and a sealed drinker.
As for rats – ideally we are all on the trapping buzz for our native birds and trees. If you have chickens, you have rats – no two ways about it. Keep bulk food supplies in lidded rubbish bins and as rats love a good egg feed, ensure chickens are laying in their houses and eggs are gathered daily. Like bees to honey – eggs to rats.