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When chickens come home to roost

10 tips for healthy hen housing

By HEATHER WALKER

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A well-designed and constructed coop is key to maintaining a healthy, productive flock of layer hens. If your housing isn’t up to snuff, you risk bullying and cannibalism, disease and pests, injury or death due to predators and a host of other challenges that farmers really don’t have the time for. Prevention is the best cure. Here are 10 tips to providing top-notch housing for your hens:

1: Location, location, location
If building a permanent or somewhat-permanent coop (rather than a chicken tractor), location is key. The coop should allow your chickens easy access to their run, and ideally permit rotation among two or more runs. Choose a site close to a water source, electricity (if using lighting or heat), your feed storage area and wherever you wash and package the eggs. The coop and run area should be on a high, well-drained spot, to avoid puddles.

2: Size matters
The traditional rule of thumb is to allow 1.5 (45.72 cm) to 2 (60.96 cm) square feet of floor space per hen, but allow for more if possible. If it snows and your birds are cooped up for longer than usual, will they have enough room to move around and be comfortable? Or will they get cranky, which can impact egg production and lead to bullying or cannibalism?

3: The structure
Your coop will need to withstand snow, rain, extreme temperatures, wind or whatever climatic conditions are possible in your region. In extreme cold coops may need to be insulated. The roof (and ideally walls as well) should be waterproof, and provide shade for your chickens on sunny, hot days. If possible, slope the roof to prevent rain from running off directly over the chicken’s entrance to the coop.
When choosing your floor, think ahead to when you’ll have to clean it. Manure, bedding, spilled feed, etc. can be easily shovelled off a concrete floor, which can be hosed off and sanitized. Sloping the floor towards the door will make it easier to wash and dry out the building.
Doors, opening windows and vents are best placed on the lee side, away from wind, usually the south or east side. Windows provide ventilation in the summer and sunlight and warmth in the winter.
Remember that you will need to be able to enter the coop too, to clean, refill the water/feed and collect eggs. Include a human-sized door and aim for a ceiling height that allows you to stand comfortably.
One more note: if you build with screws instead of nails you will be able to tweek the design more easily.

4: Ventilation & temperature
In small-scale chicken houses, ventilation and temperature control don’t need to be complicated. Windows and vents allow stale, warm air to escape in the summer, and fresh air to enter in the winter. Keep the air temperature steady, and avoid draughts from outside.
If your coop is too large, the hens may not be able to keep warm if it gets cold or draughty in the winter, and you may need to add a heat source.
Plan for good air exchange both in the summer and winter. If your coop design doesn’t allow for clean air from outside to enter, the inside air may become dusty, or ammonia levels may rise and affect your hens’ health.

5: Food & water
Feeders and waterers should be easily accessible by both you and your chickens. The top lip of a feed trough should be at a height that allows the hens to eat but not climb into them; generally, at the birds’ shoulder height.
Depending on bird size and breed, allow for roughly 12 inches (30.48 cm) of water trough space for every six chickens. If using a nipple drinker, allow for up to 15 birds per nipple (maximum). Nipples should be positioned above so that a hen can easily access them with her neck extended, without standing on her tiptoes.
Bell-style waterers or troughs should be positioned at bird-shoulder height. Note that these drinkers should be cleaned daily, as they easily become contaminated with bedding or feed. Nipple drinkers and other closed watering systems are cleaner options, although they should be checked regularly to ensure they aren’t clogged.

6: Perches
When chickens come home to roost, they like to have a nice sturdy perch to rest on. Perches can be made from various materials: cedar posts, tree branches . . . any strong 2” (5.08 cm) by 2”(5.08 cm) material with a rounded top will do.
Since most of the manure in the coop will accumulate under the perches, strategic positioning lets you control where you want this manure build-up to occur; ideally, in a part of the coop that’s comfortable for you to access and clean. If possible, build removable or hinged perches to allow for easy cleaning.
To prevent injury to your chickens, install the perches between one (30.48 cm) and three feet (91.44 cm) from the floor. Allow for at least six inches (15.24 cm) of perch space per chicken, and ensure that the perch is strong enough to support the weight of your birds. Space the perches 14 inches (35.56 cm) apart.

7: Nesting boxes
Nesting boxes provide a clean, dark refuge for hens to lay, and a convenient single place for you to gather the eggs. Nesting boxes are typically 12 inches (30.48 cm) high by 15 inches (38.1 cm) wide by at least 12 inches (30.48 cm) deep, and roofed, with at least one box for each four to five hens. The boxes should be a minimum of 18 inches (45.72 cm) off the floor: a perch can be attached 6”(15.24 cm) to 8”(20.32 cm) away from the door, running parallel to the box, to make it easier for the hens to enter.
A sloped roof will prevent the chickens from roosting and leaving their manure on it. Alternatively, nesting boxes can be attached to the outside wall of the coop, with door openings cut into the wall for the hens to enter from inside. A hinged roof allows for convenient egg collection and nest cleaning from the outside.

8: Lighting
If your hens live full-time in the coop you will need to incorporate a lighting system, even if it’s simply a window; egg production is stimulated by daylight. Poultry experts generally advise that daylight (natural or artificial) should be kept at about 16 hours each day to maximize egg production. When designing and constructing your coop, aim for even lighting with minimal shadows or bright spots. Shadowed areas may become unintentional nesting areas, leading to dirty and hard-to-reach eggs.

9: Security
Dogs, mink, cats, raccoons . . . a secure coop will protect your chickens from predators, and reduce stress for both you and your hens. Install heavy-gauge wire mesh beneath the coop floor to reduce ground-level access. Windows and vent openings should be screened in with poultry wire (sliding glass windows provide ventilation and control temperatures, yet seal securely). Seal cracks to protect against rodents, some of which can squeeze through a nickel-sized hole.
Keep your compost pile well away from the coop and don’t let uneaten kitchen scraps accumulate in the chicken area. Keep the surrounding area mowed and clear of clutter.
Additional fencing or netting around the coop perimeter will help deter dogs, cats and racoons. A latch on the coop door lets you lock the coop when necessary. Higher-tech options include motion-activated lights around the coop or even burglar alarms.

10: Storage space
If possible, you may want to incorporate a storage area into your coop design, for your cleaning equipment, feed, new bedding, egg-collecting bins, etc. Feed should, of course, be stored in a way that protects it from rodents (e.g. metal bin with a tight lid), so consider the size of containers when planning your storage space needs.