Flock Talk: How Much Space Do My Chickens Need?

In this chicken Q-and-A, we learn how to keep birds "spaced out," how to encourage a hen to go broody and what vegetables go in a "chicken garden."

by Lisa Steele
PHOTO: Shutterstock

Q: I would like to add some more chickens to my flock in the spring, but I’m not sure I have enough room for more with my current setup. How much space do I need?

A: It’s great that you’re considering your current situation before you add to your flock. Overcrowding can lead to pecking or aggression issues, not to mention create an unhealthy environment for your chickens. A general guideline is that you need 3 to 5 square feet of coop floor space for each chicken, but even more important is that you allow for at least 8 inches of roosting bar per bird for sleeping at night.

You should also have one nesting box for every three to four hens. As for pen or run space, if you don’t plan to free-range your flock, a minimum of 10 square feet of open space for each chicken is recommended, but, of course, the more space you can give them, the better.

Never add chicks into a flock of adult chickens. Wait until they are 10 to 12 weeks old, fully feathered and don’t need heat any longer, and about the same size as the older hens. Then, keep them behind fencing for a week or two so everyone can acclimate to each other before you let all the birds mingle.

When adding adult hens to your flock, quarantine them in a separate area for a minimum of 30 days before you add them to your flock to be sure they aren’t carrying any infectious diseases. It’s also a good idea to keep them behind fencing for an additional two weeks, as you would chicks.

broody hen chicks

Q: I want to hatch some chicks this spring. How do I make one of my hens go broody?

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A: You can’t “make” a chicken go broody (that is, want to sit on eggs for the three weeks it takes for them to hatch). However, you can do a few things to encourage that behavior in a bird that is prone to do so.

Choosing a breed that tends to be more inclined to sit on eggs is a good start. Most modern breeds have had the broodiness bred out of them, but Silkies, Buff Orpingtons, Brahmas, Cochins and many bantam hens are more apt to go broody.

Also, make sure the nesting boxes are free of mice, snakes and parasites such as mites. Chickens can sense the presence of these pests in a box and will be reluctant to lay eggs there, much less sit on them. Fill the boxes with a nice thick layer of bedding; chopped straw or pine shavings are good choices.

Leaving fake eggs in the nesting boxes can help encourage a hen to be broody. Golf balls, ceramic eggs or even round, smooth stones will work.

Hanging some drape-style curtains can encourage a broody hen as well. They don’t need to be fancy; they just need to block the front of the boxes. A hen needs to feel that the box is a nice, private, safe place for her to sit on eggs. Sprinkle some calming herbs, such as lavender, catmint or chamomile, to help create a relaxing environment.

Once you’ve made the nesting area as welcoming as possible, just wait. If you don’t have any luck encouraging a hen to go broody, you can always use an incubator to hatch some eggs.

Q: I’m considering planting a garden this spring specifically for my chickens. What kinds of vegetables should I plant?

A: That’s a wonderful idea! Planting extra seeds with your chickens in mind will give them nutritious, inexpensive treats through the growing season. Leafy greens, melons, squash, peas, beans, broccoli and brussels sprouts are bound to be flock favorites. Root veggies, such as radishes, turnips, beets and parsnips, are also great choices.

Fully ripe vegetables are fine for your chickens in moderation, but the unripe crops, stems, stalks and leaves can be toxic in large enough amounts. Stay away from the nightshade family, too, which includes tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and white potatoes — all of which can be toxic to chickens. (Sweet potatoes, however, are in the morning glory family, and the entire plant is perfectly safe for chickens
to eat.) Also, onions can cause anemia in poultry if eaten in large quantities, so I skip them
in my chicken garden, along with avocados and rhubarb, which are also toxic to chickens.

Planting culinary herbs, such as parsley, cilantro, basil and dill, is a great idea for your chicken garden, as is adding some edible flowers, such as nasturtiums, marigolds, echinaceas, violets and bee balm, which add some color as well as great health benefits for your flock.

Email your poultry-related questions to Lisa at chickens@luminamedia.com, subject: “Flock Talk.”

This story originally appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of Chickens magazine.

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