Seasoned chicken farmers know the feeling of waking up to a ruckus in the chicken coop. Your heart drops as predators from either the air or the ground attempt to wipe out your flock. Add to that the threat of a mite infestation, and it’s a wonder people raise backyard chickens at all!
Here in the Tetons, we share our rural setting with weasels, owls, raccoons, and even bears. Still, protecting your hens from the predators of the night isn’t really a chore. All it takes is some thoughtful battening-down-of-the-hatches and a few weekly procedures to keep your flock safe and healthy year-round. Here’s how:
Get a rooster. Roosters get a bad rap, as not all roosters are aggressive. In fact, some make loveable pets while also serving their purpose in nature—protecting their flock. Roosters are your first defense against predators with an alarm that sounds at the initial sign of trouble. A good rooster will stand his ground, which sometimes proves fatal, but your flock of egg-producers will remain safely intact.
Bury your fencing. When fencing in your run, make a 4-inch trench, and then bury your chicken wire or fencing in it. A buried fence will deter foxes, coyotes, weasels, and even dogs from digging their way inside. This one upfront precautionary tactic can save you the stress of knowing your hens will rest easy inside their coop and run.
Add roof protection. A chicken run that is open on the top invites in birds of prey. And don’t be fooled by those who tell you that hanging CDs and other flashy objects will deter predatorial birds. Believe us; they won’t. Instead, build a roof on your run to prevent air attacks, or simply extend the wire fencing overhead to deter flying pests.
Lock ‘em up. While it’s tempting to leave your coop’s hatch door open all the time in the summer—to let in the breeze—this leaves hens vulnerable to ground predators who may find their way in. Make sure to close and lock all of the coop’s doors at night. Locking carabiners work best to deter smarty-pants creatures.
Limit scraps. Leftover kitchen scraps can be a huge attractant to mammals large and small. For this reason, many chicken farmers pair back the tasty treats in the summer when the animal population is active, and instead give them only in the winter when most mammals are hunkered down. Even still, scraps left on the coop of the floor, no matter the season, gives an open invitation to a meal.
Trim surrounding bushes. A coop surrounded by overhanging trees is a welcome site for sneaky pests, but a coop that’s out in the open gives predators no place to hide. Overgrown trees and bushes can also act as stairs for small mammals to access your girls from the roof. Keep it groomed, so no one will get in.
Free-range with a dog. A well-trained dog will protect her flock while they are ranging about your backyard in chicken heaven. While the chickens are foraging for worms, bugs, and grasses, a good ‘ole guard dog will have their backs and warn you of intruders.
Clean the coop. Some chicken farmers prefer the deep litter method of waste management for chickens. However, in the Tetons, composting takes a LONG TIME, so this isn’t our recommended go-to. Instead, we prefer to remove chicken waste from the coop weekly, with a big cleaning bi-monthly or quarterly. Lingering chicken poop invites in harmful bacteria, mold, and bugs.
Use natural products. Chemical cleaners and pesticides can compromise the immune system of your flock. Instead, opt for treatments made of essential oils and diatomaceous earth to keep bugs or mites at bay. We have successfully treated an unfortunate mite infestation with a mixture of water, peppermint oil, and lavender oil (for cleaning the coop) and diatomaceous earth spread throughout. While it takes slightly longer to rid mites with natural solutions (as opposed to chemical pesticides), you can continue eating eggs throughout the process because you’re not treating with harsh chemicals.
Don’t ignore decreased production. Broody hens go on a laying strike often. However, a non-laying chicken in her prime could also be showing signs of stress. Hens that sense danger by recurring predators or hens that have a mite or bug infection may stop laying altogether. Make sure to rule out signs of undue stress before chalking it up to a natural cycle.