The second we got our farm, natural chicken keeping became a priority.
The egg itself is said to be the perfect source of protein, and chickens are so easy to keep that they make sense for any farm.
Natural chicken keeping also has the added benefit of saving you money, as long as you do it right (and there certainly are times when it’s best to not cut financial corners.)
We’ve saved by using fermented feed, herbs to keep our chickens healthy, and using food we could easily grow on our farm.
We also made mistakes.
At one point, we went 6 months with no eggs. That’s a huge bummer, believe me!
We’ve also had chickens stop laying in nesting boxes—and had to figure our way out of that one! (hint: placing eggs where you want them to lay helps!)
But we improved and got better.
Trust me, as a chicken owner, you will make mistakes (which you’ll learn from and get better from!)
As I’ve gained more experience in natural chicken keeping, and become a resource for new hen owners, there are certain mistakes I see time and again.
Here’s the top 7 natural chicken keeping mistakes that you can avoid—and the chickens you have hunting and pecking in your backyard will thank you!
1. Worrying too much about the GMO/Non-GMO debate
I frequently get emails from new owners who want to know whether they should provide non-GMO feed, or who don’t know what to do because they can’t afford organic non-GMO layer mash.
The bottom line is the quality of your hen’s diet is the most important thing. If you can’t afford organic, non-GMO feed, then just opt for what you can afford.
While people will tell you that natural chicken keeping begins with feeding non-GMO, organic feed, it’s also about using naturally-found herbs, fermented grain and vegetables, or even crafting your own feed to raise healthy hens.
It’s more important that you enjoy your “pets with benefits” and feel good about them—and if you’re stressing about not being able to afford organic feed, or if you’re putting yourself in financial distress over it, then keeping a backyard chicken flock won’t be any fun.
Do your best, and enjoy the parts of natural chicken keeping that are within your budget and time constraints.
2. Getting a rooster so your hens lay eggs
Every so often I encounter new owners who believe they need a rooster to get eggs from their hens, and that roosters are a part of natural chicken keeping.
One of the nice things about owning hens is they’ll lay eggs whether a rooster is present or not—you only need a rooster if you want eggs to hatch.
(If you’re wondering how chickens mate, it’s pretty wild.)
Getting a rooster isn’t a bad idea, and it helps your hens feel safer and completes their social hierarchy, but you definitely don’t need a rooster to start all natural chicken keeping.
Which is good news if your town doesn’t allow them!
3. Underestimating chicken predators
Every time I hear about a new owner who loses their flock to a formidable predator, I feel terrible for them.
There’s nothing more heartbreaking than working hard to raise a natural, healthy chicken flock only to have it ripped apart in one night by a raccoon.
I’ve found that a lot of new chicken owners don’t realize just how crafty predators can be, and how much energy they’ll exert to get a free dinner.
Part of natural chicken keeping is making sure your flock stays safe.
Sometimes new owners think chickens will be fine left to their own devices, but hens are pretty much defenseless against chicken predators.
Usually, they either run away or fly up away from predators. Other than that, they don’t have many natural defenses.
You might not realize that predators aren’t just wild animals—domestic cats and dogs can cast an eye at your flock.
We made the same mistake, until we started losing them to our dog! I’ll never forget the day we learned that our dog, who was so great with people, was a chicken killer.
So, even if you don’t have wild predators, remember that a secure coop and run will help prevent your flock from becoming a chicken chew toy.
4. Assuming chickens will fend for themselves and stay healthy
Probably one of the biggest mistakes I see is when new owners assume that natural chicken keeping means letting the hens forage for their own sustenance.
Natural chicken keeping doesn’t mean allowing your hens to fend for themselves, and if you go this route, you run the risk of unhealthy hens, no eggs.
You won’t believe how many emails I get from owners who aren’t getting eggs and have no idea that diet is the issue.
You might also lose chickens to predators as they stray further and further from their home.
Sometimes I read advice that it’s natural to allow a chicken flock to feed itself because our ancestors did it, but it’s simply not true.
For example, what happened in the winter with snow on the ground and nothing growing? Were the hens foraging then?
Natural chicken keeping doesn’t necessarily mean throwing chickens in your backyard and forgetting about them until you want eggs, but it’s a common mistake I see new owners making.
5. Thinking oyster shells and grit are the same thing
When I read Facebook posts from people trying to explain natural chicken keeping, they frequently say something like “give your hens oyster shells or grit to help them digest.”
While you should offer both to your chicken flock, oyster shells and grit serve two different purposes.
Oyster shells are used as a calcium supplement so your hens can form healthy, hard egg shells.
Without some sort of calcium supplement, your hen might become deficient in the mineral.
She then might start to lay soft shell or other abnormal eggs, or she might start drawing calcium from her own bones to lay natural normal-looking eggs.
Grit, on the other hand, helps your hen digest food, and without it, she might develop an impacted crop or even sour crop.
Your hen will swallow the grit, and it will make it’s way into her gizzard, where the stones will sit and help “chew” whatever food she’s eaten.
So, each serves a very different purpose, and shouldn’t be confused (but both are equally important for your chicken.)
6. Using vinegar to clean wounds
While vinegar works well in natural cleaning solutions, it’s not a good idea to use it in wounds.
I do see this advice from time to time, and it’s a common issue in my area.
Even my vet asked me whether I use vinegar to clean wounds when I brought a rabbit to see her, and was relieved to hear that I don’t use it.
Vinegar doesn’t have the same bacteria-killing qualities as alcohol or hydrogen peroxide, for example, and it simply won’t be as effective in preventing an infection.
You’ll be doing your chicken a disservice by using it.
Failing to learn about common illnesses and how to treat them
Although many of my readers DO try to learn about common chicken illnesses before getting a flock (and a hearty high-five to them!), many owners out there DON’T—and then use Facebook groups as a way to diagnose their chickens.
Similarly, about once a week I get a message over Facebook from an owner who asks me to diagnose their sick chicken—something that’s virtually impossible to do over social media.
While I feel for every flock owner out there with a sick hen, and it’s natural to want answers, don’t wait until you’re in trouble to learn about chicken illnesses.
There’s many natural remedies out there for common illnesses, but the time to learn about them is not when you have a sick chicken.
Learn about common ailments and how to treat them (natural remedies or conventional) before or as soon as you get your flock—life will get a lot simpler, and you’ll be better prepared to help your hen when she’s in trouble.
While as a new flock owner, you will likely make mistakes, natural chicken keeping is full of rewards—just give it your best shot!
I’d like to hear from you!
Is there anything on this list of natural chicken keeping mistakes you would add? Leave a comment below!
Maat van Uitert is a backyard chicken and sustainable living expert. She is also the author of Chickens: Naturally Raising A Sustainable Flock, which was a best seller in it’s Amazon category. Maat has been featured on NBC, CBS, AOL Finance, Community Chickens, the Huffington Post, Chickens magazine, Backyard Poultry, and Countryside Magazine. She lives on her farm in Southeast Missouri with her husband, two children, and about a million chickens and ducks. You can follow Maat on Facebook here and Instagram here.