When considering the life expectancy of backyard chickens, several factors come into play. A good amount of these factors are dependent upon their specific breed, parent stock, method of hatch (hatchery vs broody momma) and how they were raise from chickhood. A backyard chicken keeper has control over some of these factors and no control over others.
Some breeds are just more delicate than others. For example, the Polish and Silkie in particular are a bit more susceptible to illness such as Wry Neck which can cause death if not treated quickly and effectively. You also have their sensitivity to winter weather, which can make them less harty in colder climates. However, with proper care and provisions, these breeds can live in colder climates without issue. I have a few members of these breeds, some going into their 5th winter. They do take a bit more care, but for the joy they bring, it’s worth it. To read my posts on care for these breeds, please click these links Polish or Silkies.
However, these factors aside, there are many things a keeper can do to extend the overall life expectancy of their flock. In this post, I will share with you practices I have implemented in caring for my girls. These methods have attributed to my oldest ladies celebrating 10 years of living the good life.
Here on the Kuntry Klucker Farm, my ladies are pets and treated well, even beyond their productive years. Even at 10 years of age, they still lay. They do not lay as dependably or as often as when they were younger. However, my senior ladies lay enough to let me know they are healthy and happy. Not all backyard chicken keepers allow their birds to remain on their farm past the point of productivity. Correspondingly, this blog post is specifically directed towards those who plan to allow their ladies to live out their natural lives long past their productive years. So, without further ado, allow me to share with you methods that I have implemented to ensure a long and happy life for my senior ladies.
I have raised chickens for about 10 years now. My first flock started with 17 Buff Orpington chicks. I had no idea when they arrived what joys were in store for me. I instantly fell in love with them. Thus began the greatest adventure of my life. Out of the original 17 chicks, 5 remain today. These are my oldest ladies, now at the ripe old age of 10. For a backyard chicken to reach 10 years of age, is a feat that defies the odds. Most backyard chickens, even raised as pets, rarely make it past the age of 7. Even at 7, this is still considered a good long pampered life. There are cases here and there of a pet chicken making it to 15 years and beyond. However amazing, these instances are rare, far and few in-between. Most backyard or pet chickens fall somewhere between 5-7 years as a general life expectancy. However, if they are well cared for, this expectancy can be extended by several years and beyond. I will list care taking techniques that have brought my ladies 10 happy years and hopefully many more to come.
Feed and Treats: All physical health begins with diet. For both human and animal, what you put in is what you get out. I have always been a consciouses eater, I do the same for my pets. My ladies are fed a complete poultry feed that accounts for all of their nutritional needs. I am not a poultry scientist, thus I do not rely on my own knowledge to feed them a correct diet.
Laying hens have a lot of specialized nutritional needs that must be met in order to lay well and remain healthy. For this reason, I allow my girls to have treats very rarely. I do not want to dilute their nutritional needs by filling them up on treats. Many treats are not good for them. Many keepers like to feed their girls treats, but in reality this is not in their best nutritional interest. I do however make one exception.
On occasion I will feed my girls dried mealworm. These little goodies contain nutrition that is essential for their health such as protein. During the summer months when they are free ranging, they will eat insects which are good sources of protein. During the winter months this source of protein is not available. Thus, I will supplement this natural part of their diet with dried mealworms. Additionally, I will use mealworms as boredom busters. During harsh winter weather, issues such as pecking can result when the flock is “cooped up” for too long. I make entertainment and games for my girls to distract them from picking at each other during these times. Outside of this, their diet consist of a poultry feed developed to meet all their specialized nutritional needs. As a general rule, I will only feed my girls Purina Premium Poultry Feed. I have tried other brands on occasion, but I find that when I feed them Purina they are much healthier, their egg shells are stronger, and their feather quality is improved.
Fresh water, vitamins, probiotics and electrolytes: Every day my ladies get fresh water. Additionally, especially during hot and humid weather, I will add poultry vitamins and electrolytes to their water. Living in the south we get extremely hot summers with lots of humidity, making outdoor conditions nothing short of miserable. To assist my ladies in combating this weather, I make sure that they remain well hydrated. The vitamins given to them add an extra boost to keep them healthy in the heat. These vitamins also contain electrolytes, which further keep their bodies balanced during the heat. Several times a week I will add poultry probiotics to their water to keep their gut health in check.
The heat of summer is a great stressor on their little bodies. In fact, heat is more dangerous then wet and cold weather combined. If you have large standard size breeds with ample feathering such as the Orpington or Cochin, the heat is further compounded. I have over the years lost several girls to the heat but never to the cold or prolonged wet weather. Just like for us, high heat and humidity can be a swift and fast killer. To make these conditions easier on their bodies, I supplement their nutritional needs in their water.
During the hot summer months, they will drink more than eat from their feed. They will spend most their time grazing on the grass and eating other delectables they find, such as insects and worms. Since I have supplemented their water, I have not lost any more of my girls to the heat. This has no doubt aided my senior girls in their long and happy life. During the winter, I still add vitamins and probiotics to their water. I suppliment their water as maintenance rather than essential survival of harsh summer weather conditions.
Poultry vitamins and electrolytes can be found at most farm/feed stores. At a MSRP of $7 to $10, they are an easy way to increase the health of your flock.
Clean and Dry Digs: Just like us, your girls also need a clean and dry place to call home. To underestimate the importance of a clean coop would be a detrimental condition for your girls. Although it is true that chickens are messy creatures, that does not mean that they can live in filthy unsanitatry conditions. If allowed, disease and other illness will run rampant in a coop that is not cleaned and maintained.
A chicken coop needs to be cleaned on a daily basis. Everyday, the poop from the overnight shift needs to be removed and disposed of. All my coops are cleaned daily, removing poop from the poop boards accumulated by the previous night. During the summer in order to keep the fly population down, I spray off the boards. In the pen, I remove poop and other debris, be it feathers, leaves or other objects from the previous day of activity.
Another reason to clean their coops daily, is their droppings say a lot about their health. As with all animal, fecal matter tells a story of what is happening inside the body. If you find blood or worms on the poop boards, a closer inspection may be warranted. Keeping a close eye on your ladies poo can help you catch health conditions before they become severe or grave.
In addition to maintaining the coop, you want to make sure that their digs remian dry. The coop should not leak, if it does some calking could go a long way. If you have a covered run, repair any leaks that may have developed over the past few months. You want your girls to have a clean dry place to call home. These regiments will go a long way for a healthy and happy flock. If you girls have a clean place to live, disease and other illness will have little opportunity to infect your flock. If you want your ladies to have a happy and long life it starts with a clean coop and pen. As they say, happy hens lay better eggs.
Protection from Predators: On the heels of a clean and dry coop, comes a secure coop. It is no surprise that chicken tastes good. Many predators feel the same way. It is the main objective for backyard chicken keepers to make sure that your girls are off the menu for predators. After all, this is the main reasons that we provide coops for our backyard ladies. These coops and pens need to be constructed with their safely in mind. Predation is easily the most significant factor affecting the life expectancy of backyard chickens. Even when the best is done to insure their safely, things can still happen. No only is this a disastrous event for a keeper, it’s a very stressful situation for the flock. If a keeper elects to free range their flock, protection and safety becomes ever more important.
Although these dangers exist, I still chose to free range my flock during the day, weather permitting. One way I have insured their safely is a fenced in free ranging area. My backyard is enclosed with a 6ft privacy fence. Additionally, running the perimeter of the fence on the outside, is an electric fence to discourage any climbing or digging predators. This has reduced predators to the flying (hawks) and crawling (snakes) varieties. In the 10 years that I have kept chickens, I have never lost a member to predator attacks. I live in the country, so I have several roosters out with the girls, providing additional protection. My gents have detoured hawks and other arial predators. I have such an event documented. You can read the harrowing story of my Rooster Roy here and his tangle with a hawk which saved the life of my girls.
To insure a long natural life for your ladies, it is imperative that measures be taken to insure their safety and protection from predators. The only predators that are virtually impossible to protect your flock against is that of a bear or mountain lion. Although extremely rare, some cases of bear attacks have been recorded. Bears are the extreme and probably something that most keepers will not encounter. Living in the foothills of the Smoky Mountians, reprots of bears raiding chicken coops are not uncommon. I have to take extra measures to protect my ladies, such as building a secure fence around my property. Become familiar with the predators in your area, do your best to ensure the safety of your flock. Discourage predators from taking an active interest in your flock.
Routine Care for Internal and External Parasites: The final point that I will make is pervention of parasites (mites, lice and worms). Just like your dog or cat needs routine flea/tick treatment, so do your girls. Treatment for external and internal parasites is a very simple and a straightforward operation. Unlike your dog or cat, the assistance of a vet is not needed.
At some point in your adventure with keeping backyard chickens, they will get a case of mites or lice. Don’t worry though, you cannot become infected with poultry mites/lice, they are species specific (none zoonotic) and only affect birds. Your girls can however get mites and lice from wild birds. You don’t need to keep your girls locked up in solitary, they can be out in the yard and enjoy their normal activies. Treating for mites and lice is very simple.
If you look on the internet there will be millions of methods presented to treat mite or lice infestations. I will say this though, the natural methods do not work well. DE or diatomaceous Earth is not effective on mites or lice. Not only it is one of the least effective treatments, it is very dangerous for you as well as your flocks lungs.
If you look at DE under a microscope, you will see very sharp and jaged edges. This serrated characteristic makes DE a respitorary irritant for both you and your flock alike. DE is only effective if the insects have constant contact with it. In order to use this treatment, your girls also need constant contact with it as well. This sets the stage for disastrous health complications for your flock.
Contrary to popular opinion, a keeper only needs to treat for mites and lice when the circumstance arrises. This is because chickens are well adapted to manage mite/lice on their bodies through dustbathing. A good way to assist your flock in this instinctive practice is by providing a dust bathing medium (sand, peat moss, and regular dirt). The act of dust bathing smothers the little beasties and cleans their feathers all at the same time. However, if the condition arises and you notice little bugs crowing on your ladies, its time to bring out the big guns.
A heavy mite/lice load on a chicken can and will kill them. The little beasties suck blood to the point where they become anemic and weak. If not treated properly, death can result. To treat mites and lice I use a very simple yet effective product. Its called Eprinex, developed for cattle, at low doses its very effective in treating mites and lice on chickens. Eprinex can be found at Tractor Supply and other feed stores in your area and carries a MSRP of about $50. However, since you use so little, it will last years.
To administer Eprinex, obtain a syringe (remove the needle) and apply the liquid directly to the skin at the base of the neck. In the same manner that an owner or vet would adminiser flea/tick treatment for a cat or dog. For a large or standard bird, apply 1/2 cc or ml and for a bantam bird, apply 1/4cc or ml. If you have birds with head crests, such as the Polish or Silkie, apply a drop or two on top of thier head. These breeds are susceptible to mites/lice on the head due inability to preen this area. Reapply in 10 days. NOTE: an egg withdraw will be mandatory during treatment. This means that from start to finish, a 28-30 day egg withdrawal will need to be observed.
Its that simple!
Now for the internal parasites. At some point, you will run into a situation where your flock will need wormed. Chickens naturally have a worm load inside them. Usually they manage well but at times such as times of stress, they can become overwhelmed. Typical signs of worms are weakness, weightloss, fatigue and in a worst case scenario finding worms in their poop. Don’t freak out though, treating worms in your flock is very simple. As with the mites and lice there are many treatments out there. Again I will reinforce the fact that natural methods of worming are not very effective. If your flock or several members have worms you need to acquire an affective treatment and get rid of the little nasties. Worm left untreated will kill your birds.
Worms can kill a chicken very fast, faster than you would expect. Additionally, if they have a heavy worm load, you may even find worms in your eggs. My product of choice is SafeGuard. Originally developed for goats, it is very effective at small doses for worming. I like this product because it is a broad spectrum wormer. It will not only take care of round worms but it will also take care of tape, flat, gape, lung and other worms that chickens can get. Some other wormers are only effective on round worms. Although round worms are most common in chickens, they can pick up other worms in their environment. You can find SafeGuard at Tractor Supply and other feed stores. It usually runs anywhere between $30-50 depending on location.
To use SafeGuard to worm your girls you need to give this to them orally. The easiest way I have found to worm them it to put the wormer on a small piece of bread and feed a piece to every member of your flock. Once again, use a syringe with the needle removed. For a standard size bird, measure 1/2cc or ml on a piece of bread and feed to the bird. For a bantam size bird, measure 1/4cc or ml and feed to bird. Repeat this process in 10 days. The first dose kills all the live worms in their body, the second kills all the worms that hatched. After two worming sessions, you are done and your girls are free of worms.
Like treatments for mites/lice, a mandatory egg withdrawl is necessary. When undergoing treatment, residue from the wormer and/or worms may pass into the eggs. A egg withdraw for 28-30 days will need to be observed. SafeGuard is a very safe and effective treatment for worms in your flock. Just like the mites and lice, only worm when need. A Chicken’s body is able to handle a normal worm load. Once it crosses a threshold, worming will be needed. You will know when you need to worm your flock. Worms in droppings, weak, and sick hens are all signs that you need to take action.
Taking routine care of internal and external parasites will go a long way to extending the life of your ladies. If they are free from pests, their bodies are in a much healthier state. Over the course of 10 years, I have only needed to worm a handful of times. I usually have more of an issue with the mites and lice during the colder months of the year. Even in those situations, outbreaks are very easy to address and eradicate. Just like you extend the life of your cat or dog by keeping them flea and worm free, the same applies to your chickens. In doing so, you have much more time to love and enjoy their company.
I hope that you have found this post informative or helpful. If you have any questions feel free to post them in the comments. You can also drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
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As Always, thanks for reading. Till next time, keep on crowing!
~ The Kuntry Klucker Crew ~