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How to Raise Healthy, Happy and Long-Lived Backyard Chickens

Story at-a-glance -

  • By popular request, today we’re talking all things chicken, as in, pet chickens
  • Grover Stock is an organic food farmer-consultant and an expert on raising healthy backyard chickens
  • Grover and his wife keep a small flock of hens in what can best be described as the ideal environment for chicken raising
  • Grover discusses a wide range of topics including the pitfalls of hatching chickens to keep as pets (hint: roosters), the importance of lighting in your chicken coop and the best diet for chickens
  • He also covers such topics as managing predators, and how to deal with the flock bully

By Dr. Becker

Today I’m discussing all things chicken with Grover Stock. Grover is an organic food farmer-consultant, lecturer and program instructor at the Permaculture Skills Center, and he’s speaking with me from Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he’s attending the biennial conference for the Biodynamics Association of North America.

Today, they’re covering the concept of sacred agriculture, and the next few days will be spent “discussing things around the biodynamic movement and the different way to treat agriculture,” according to Grover.

Grover has been involved in healing the earth for decades — it’s his passion, and he’s doing amazing work. And, of course, animals are an integral part of the sustainability of the planet. I invited Grover to talk with us about chickens — not chickens used in food production, but backyard chickens.

Backyard Chickens Need Daily Attention Just Like Any Other Pet

People are realizing how interesting, fun and helpful it can be to raise chickens, and I’ve had a lot of requests from Healthy Pets visitors to publish an article or two on chicken husbandry. That’s why I decided to contact Grover.

“I’ve been keeping chickens on and off for 30 or 35 years,” says Grover. “Chickens are fun. You used a word there that’s a really good word to use when it comes to any kind of a domestic animal — husbandry.

When we take responsibility for little critters like this, it becomes a bit like a marriage.

It’s really important to make sure you’re serious about having the time to pay attention to the little animals, to the chickens especially. They need daily attention.”

That’s a great point. Chickens aren’t widely respected. The perception is that they’re dumb. In my opinion, they’re one of the most exploited animals on earth, and certainly when it comes to factory farming. My first introduction to a chicken was at the humane society in Waterloo, Iowa where I worked many years ago.

The chicken came into the shelter after being rescued during a tornado, and I wound up adopting her and using her for pet therapy. My relationship with her changed my entire perspective on chickens.

raising chickens

Dr. Becker’s therapy pet Gwen, a Rhode Island red hen

Important Things to Know Before You Take the Plunge

I asked Grover to discuss what people can expect if they’re thinking about bringing home a chicken as a pet.

“Let’s start with the egg,” says Grover. “If you’re interested in raising chickens, there are a few ways to go about it. You can start by hatching some eggs if you want. The thing to remember when you’re hatching eggs is you’ll wind up with 50 percent roosters and 50 percent hens.

Roosters are not as socially acceptable in most suburban and urban spheres as hens are, so there’s a bit of a dilemma there.”

Many people discover this fact too late, after their neighbors start complaining about the noise from the roosters! So the roosters often wind up on the dinner table, or abandoned.

“That’s another thing about chickens,” says Grover. “They’re a food source. Even in your backyard, there are times when you end up having to commit yourself to a different course of action than you might have thought. It’s good to be prepared for all that.

Also, baby chicks require quite special care. They need their environment to be kept at 90 to 95 degrees for the first couple of weeks. You have to make a little incubation panel with a heat lamp. Then you can raise the heat over a period of weeks.

We like starting with pullets. Pullet is a medium-sized chicken that’s been sexed already, so we choose hens. The hens seem to do just fine without a rooster in most settings. In a more rural setting, I think roosters are crucial because they help you get more chickens and they protect the flock.

Two chickens are better than one chicken. They’re definitely social creatures. For my little gang of six, I have a small pen and every morning we go out and open two little doors that give them access to the outdoors. They have about a half-acre to run around on every day.

If you want healthy chickens, it’s good if they can range every day and run and eat lots of bugs and dirt and things like that. Otherwise, you have to pay a lot more attention to their diet.”

Click here to find out Dr. Becker's top tips against seasonal pet allergiesClick here to find out Dr. Becker's top tips against seasonal pet allergies

Benefits of Light in Your Chicken Coop

I asked Grover if chickens need a heat source outside once they’re feathered out and more adult. Is an enclosure enough or do they need heat?

“It depends on your climate,” says Grover. “I live in Sebastopol, California, which has a Mediterranean climate. We almost never get a hard frost, and it never snows. The chicken coop’s in a place that gets lots of light, and it doesn’t really require an artificial heat source.

In Chicago, you’re going to need an insulated chicken coop, or at least one that is protected from the wind. I like to leave a lamp in there. A lamp provides heat. Another nice thing about a lamp if it’s an outdoor coop is that the lamp attracts bugs. Chickens don’t sleep a whole lot, but they love eating bugs.”

Having a little light in your coop serves two purposes: attracting bugs and keeping the chickens a bit warmer. Also, chickens like to cuddle. They provide warmth for each other. As far as chicken coops go, bigger is not necessarily better. An 8x8 coop, which is 16 square feet, can house up to 15 chickens.”

Best Chicken Diet: Forage, Supplemented With Certified Organic Soy-Free and Corn-Free Feeds

I asked Grover, whose chickens have lots of room to roam and bugs to eat, if people without such luxury accommodations for their chickens should supplement their diet. I asked him for recommendations on how to properly nourish pet chickens.

“Certified organic soy- and corn-free feeds that have somewhere in the neighborhood of 17 percent protein,” he replied. Luckily, these feeds are easy to find. Grover doesn’t free feed his flock. “We give our chickens a very limited amount of produced food,” he explains, because they have so much to forage on.

But if you don’t have the space to range your chickens or enough diversity in your yard, he recommends leaving the produced feed available for them so they can eat as much as they want.

“Chickens make a big old mess in your yard, too,” Grover continues. “If I didn’t have as much space as I do, I would fence them into the smallest area I could, because they are wonderful at enhancing fertility in the soil by scratching up everything inside.”

“They’ll eat vegetables,” he also warns. “They’re not really good companions for a vegetable garden setting. You can turn them loose in the fall when the ground starts to freeze. They’ll help clean up and fertilize. But during the growing season, chickens like to eat vegetables. They’re not insectivores.”

Managing Predators, Diseases and Pecking Order Problems

Grover’s chickens aren’t fenced on his half-acre, which means they’re not really protected from predators in the area, but fortunately, he rarely sees wild predators during daylight hours. “At night we have skunks, foxes, and coyotes,” he explains. “We have to close the coop up pretty well.”

There are also chicken coop set-ups that have solar-powered devices that open the door in the morning and close it at sundown. “It’s possible to actually leave your chickens alone for a day or two, if you have to, in some settings,” says Grover. “We set up situations like that for clients.”

Chickens are predisposed to certain diseases. Back when I had my chicken, I asked my avian veterinarian how long chickens live, and she said “No one really knows because we eat them before we’ve ever had time to judge their life span.”

“The life span of most chickens is [6] to [8] years,” says Grover. “One of our chickens lived to be [8]. I would say that if you holistically manage your chickens, if you’re giving them enough light and warmth, if they’re watered properly, if they’re not sitting in the mud, basically you won’t have much of an issue with any diseases.

When you get too many chickens together at once, I’ve seen some problems with mites. I’ve also seen some problems due to pecking order issues. The chickens start to abuse each other. My wife’s cooked up a solution for that. First she separates the abuser and the victim from the rest of the flock.

If you hold a chicken upside down by the feet, it kind of goes slack. So we hold the pecking chicken upside down and present her to the second-class chicken, allowing her to peck on her abuser. We set it up so the bully gets bullied. We do this several times, and it helps to readjust the pecking order.”

I asked Grover if internal parasites are a problem.

“Not so much,” he replied. “Not in my experience. Once again, I think that it’s because we’ve always raised the chickens like chickens. We haven’t treated them like prisoners.

I think that has everything to do with it. Those problems can and will occur if you have situations where they’re suffering from being too cold, too warm, not enough light. Those are the most common causes of all the problems that we have with chickens.”

Chickens Do Best With About 16 Hours of Light a Day

The factors that influence the health of Grover’s chickens such as pure, clean drinking water, a low stress environment and the ability to move around as nature intended are true for all animal species. But one thing he mentioned that we often don’t talk about is sunlight.

When I develop recipes for pet food companies, I have to factor in the source of the chicken, because free-range chickens contain a lot of vitamin D, but factory-farmed chickens are vitamin D-deficient because they don't go outside. It affects their health and well-being.

“Statistics say that chickens like about 16 hours of light a day,” explains Grover. “That’s the optimum amount for laying hens. That’s another thing about chickens. A common question we get is ‘How long do chickens lay and how often?’ The answer is, we have no idea.

There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the cycles that chickens go through. Some lay eggs year-round; others have off-seasons. There’s no rhyme or reason to it.”

Additional Resources for Backyard Chicken Husbandry

If you’re watching or reading here today and are thinking about getting chickens, I encourage you to visit your local animal shelters and rescue groups first. There is often an abundance of pet chickens waiting for homes.

It’s also great to know there’s organic chicken scratch (feed) you can buy. Looking back on my pet chicken, she died at 5, and I think there may have been some nutritional issues. She was not on organic feed. I was giving her chlorinated and fluoridated water. She wasn’t outside long hours every day.

She was a house chicken. I look back and realize I would have made some different decisions if I’d known then what I know now. So this is great information for people thinking about adding a chicken to their life.

I asked Grover if he has any favorite chicken husbandry-related resources, like a book or website he can recommend. He suggests a book by Harvey Ussery, “The Small-Scale Poultry Flock: An All-Natural Approach to Raising Chickens and Other Fowl for Home and Market Growers.”

“That’s kind of like a bible,” says Grover. “It’s really holistically done. Then there’s a little website that I’ve been reading called BackYard Chickens. It has great information on breeds of chickens — breeds that are good for eggs, breeds that are good for meat, breeds that are mixed, and the whole world of chickens. I enjoy their website.”

Grover also suggests trying to find locally grown grains. Also, if you happen to belong to a food co-op or you know people who do organic farming, often they can offer good advice on what breeds are best suited for your local climate. “Some chickens do heat or cold better than others,” he explains.

This has been a fascinating and enlightening conversation about all things chickens, and it’s a first here at Mercola Healthy Pets! I very much appreciate Grover’s insight into keeping backyard chickens, and I’m thinking we should do a part two in the future as chicken husbandry becomes even more of a thing.

But this is definitely a great start for anyone looking for excellent info about the best way to raise and maintain healthy backyard chickens. Many thanks to Grover Stock for his time today!