Much like human beings, chickens need food, water, shelter from the elements, protection from enemies, and company.
In a backyard setting, what this means is that you don’t keep a chicken by itself unless you are willing to be its flock and spend most of your time in its vicinity. It also usually means a chicken shed, hut or coop and a wired-in run of some kind.
Many animals like to eat or harass chickens, including foxes, dogs, large hawks, coyotes, bears and cougars, among others. Consider what predators are present in your area before you buy or build a chicken coop. Foxes in particular are likely to dig underneath the coop, so you’ll need a fox-proof base if foxes are present in your area.
A really determined bear can get into almost anything you can build, but a well-built chicken shed will often discourage them from bothering. In more suburban areas, your biggest predator problem may well be dogs. Some normally well-behaved dogs will attack and kill chickens. A decently fenced run will usually keep them out, but free-ranging chickens beware!
A chicken coop should keep the chickens dry and have enough ventilation to prevent the air going stale. In most climates the chicken’s body heat will keep them warm enough without additional heating, but keep an eye on varieties with large bare combs during freezing weather. This area can get frostbite. You may want to add a light during winter to artificially increase day length and encourage winter egg laying.
In the chicken run, the chickens need to have access to shade at all times. Chickens are better able to tolerate cold than heat.
Commercial chicken feed is easily available at any farm or livestock supply store. You may be able to find organic feed there, but it is likely to be expensive. Also, if your goal in keeping chickens is to become more self-sufficient, do you really want to be completely dependent on outside sources for their food?
A good source of supplemental chicken feed is household food scraps. You must make sure you don’t feed the chickens anything moldy because that can make them sick, but most food scraps will be happily accepted. You can also feed chickens garden waste from vegetable gardening, or you can allow them access to your garden at times when it isn’t full of delicate seedlings that the chickens would kill. The chickens will not only enjoy weed seedlings, they will have great fun chasing and eating insect pests.
For laying hens, it is a good idea to offer some oyster shell, or dried, baked eggshells, to provide extra calcium and prevent egg binding.
Water for Chickens
Water for chickens should be changed every day to keep it fresh. There are a variety of different water containers to choose from. Water should be kept in the shade to keep it cool as chickens handle cold better than heat and drinking is one way they can cool down. In cold climates you’ll need to make sure that the water doesn’t freeze: water heaters are available to help with this.
Chickens must have access to insoluble grit for grinding food up in their gizzard. This is part of a bird’s natural digestive system, and without it they cannot get all the nutrition from their food that they should – so you’d be paying more than necessary for feed. If they have plenty of outdoor space to range in, they may be able to get this naturally from the soil, but most chicken keepers supply grit along with food, water and a calcium source to make sure that their birds are not short of anything they need.