Chicken Husbandry: Five Welfare Needs
What Do I Need to Know about Raising Chickens for Happy, Healthy Birds?
Reading Time: 7 minutes
What do chickens need? And how can we know, when birds are so different from human beings? What do I need to know about raising chickens in my backyard that will ensure their health and welfare? Fortunately, quite a bit of scientific research has gone into investigating chicken husbandry questions in order to improve the health, well-being, and productivity of commercial hens. Backyard keepers can also follow the principles discovered when building a chicken coop and caring for chickens.
Although chickens have changed through their domestic history in form, metabolism, and fertility, their ancestral behavior and behavioral needs are remarkably intact. This fact affects their sensitivity to chicken husbandry systems, and influences their motivations and sense of well-being. Their emotional health has an impact on their immune system, which in turn affects physical health and productivity. Happy chickens have the ability to cope with changes and challenges, whereas distressed birds may easily go downhill due to a suppressed immune system. A holistic chicken husbandry approach addresses both physical and mental health, and can be summarized within the concept of five welfare needs.
Chickens are naturally foragers who have to keep on the lookout for predators. Wild Junglefowl and feral chickens spend about half their time foraging and the rest resting, preening, dust-bathing, sunbathing, and perching. Good enclosures provide facilities for chickens to meet their own needs, by providing an environment that emulates their habitat. This means not only providing shelter, food, and water, but also space for different activities.
You will want to protect your poultry from predators, but also the chickens themselves need to realize that they are safe. Even if they are fenced and hot-wired, they need cover under which to hide from potential air and land predators. This could be man-made shelters or vegetation, such as trees, bushes, or willow screens.
Chickens are naturally impelled to fly up into branches to sleep overnight. Perches enable them to satisfy this desire and feel safe and comfortable at night. However, chicks need early access to low perches if they are to learn to jump up onto roosting perches and nest boxes. Sufficient nesting places and bedding are necessary for hens to feel comfortable laying. The inability to find a suitable nesting site can lead to frustration and stress. A long row of nest boxes can be confusing, with hens often favoring one or two end boxes. They also change their preferences frequently. I offer a choice of several, separate locations, and change the bedding frequently.
Hygiene is an important consideration. Land that is over-scratched and dunged offers the birds no more than boredom and a high risk of parasite infection. Penned chickens need to be frequently moved to fresh ground.
Suitable Chicken Nutrition
Chickens need the correct feed for their stage of life, as well as their production and activity levels. Free-ranging chickens can often meet most of their needs themselves, but it is wise ensure that productive layers get enough calcium and vitamin-D for shell production, while chicks and pullets have high protein diets, but without the calcium supplement that layers need. Too much calcium is detrimental to their bone growth. A complete ration for the appropriate type of bird and stage of life ensures nutritional needs are met, while variety alleviates boredom. Meat birds have been bred to put on weight quickly, so they may need encouragement to work for their food to stay active and healthy.
When birds eat grain, they require tiny stones or grit to grind it down in their crops. At range, chickens normally find these themselves, but penned birds need grit supplements if fed grain. A constant supply of water is important during daytime: chickens need water for digestion, nutrition, and heat dissipation. Although they readily drink dirty water, a fresh, clean supply is important for their health.
Opportunities to Express Normal Behavior
Certain natural behaviors are rewarding in themselves, as well as providing a health benefit to the chicken. In some cases, the inability to perform such tasks may actually cause a bird frustration and distress. This remains true even if the health benefit is already taken care of by the chicken husbandry system. For example, say your coop and run are predator-proof, but the chickens have nowhere to hide on seeing a hawk or dog: they will still get scared and distressed. Providing hiding places will help them feel secure.
Essential behavior routines for chickens have been found to be dust-bathing, nesting, foraging, preening, stretching, wing-flapping, perching, and sleeping. Most of these have a direct impact on physical health, but all benefit chicken psychology. Enclosures that provide areas for chickens to perform these routines have a positive impact on the flocks’ well-being. Conversely, those that are restricted in height, space, or the means to carry out each task can lead to abnormal, and sometimes harmful, behavior.
Essentials are nesting materials, like straw, dry dust for bathing in, and fresh land to scratch up and find food. If penned, a naturalistic flooring, such as straw or leaves, with a scattering of grain will encourage natural foraging behavior. However, it must be kept clean and dung-free. Indeed, most chickens much prefer to forage for food than feed directly from a trough. They enjoy the work of foraging. You may even notice a hen scratching the ground in front of a trough, although the action serves no purpose.
Hens with insufficient space or opportunity to forage for their own feed may resort to pecking the feathers of their flock mates. This is not an aggressive behavior, but a redirection of the desire to forage. Feathers are damaged or even removed. As chickens are attracted to blood, any skin damage may result in cannibalism. Over-stocked or barren coops may lead to such issues.
Chickens need to flock to feel safe. Some tasks they only feel comfortable doing together, such as preening, foraging, and dust-bathing. This is because they were dangerous occupations in the wild. However, they are not keen on unfamiliar birds and aggression will break out until they establish a new pecking order. Take care when introducing new chickens to established flocks.
As much as we are able, we need to protect our poultry from pain, injury, suffering, and disease. Allowing a healthy lifestyle by providing for their needs will go a long way to promoting immunity and resilience. Regular health checks and preventive healthcare help us spot and eradicate issues early.
In addition, keeping backyard or heritage chicken breeds, rather than highly-productive ones, will help you enjoy a naturally hardy, resilient, and long-living flock. Broilers’ metabolism has been substantially altered due to selective breeding for fast growth. They need a lot more rest and have a larger appetite. They are prone to overheating. Fast-growing broilers also suffer structural problems from bones that cannot support their weight. Slow-growing heritage meat breeds are a better choice as they are stronger and more active. Commercial layers are prone to developing egg peritonitis due to high productivity, and osteoporosis due to the high calcium demands of egg production. They are prone to fractures when jumping down from perches.
Chickens are small, cheap, and relatively short-lived, but they feel pain and suffering as much as any other animal, despite public misconceptions. At the end of life, we can bear their welfare in mind by providing the least stressful or painful experience we can. If culling is involved, neck dislocation is recommended as the quickest method. It is important that the bird is not strangled or merely has its throat cut, as these kinds of death are slower and more traumatic.
It is important to consider the birds’ perception of their experience in all chicken husbandry situations, including handling and transport. Their welfare can be considerably upset by simple procedures in more ways than we realize. Naturally, mankind is a fearsome predator: our own behavior can cause considerable distress. A chicken becomes immobile when hung upside down or on her back: this is a fear reaction. It may be easier for us to handle birds in this way, but it is extremely stressful for the bird. Gentle training to reduce fear and allowing them to be the birds that they are will help them to live happier, healthier lives.
Originally published in the December 2019/January 2020 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.
Are you still thinking, “What do I need to know about raising chickens with good welfare?” Why not try this free online chicken husbandry course offered through the University of Edinburgh: Chicken Behavior and Welfare MOOC.