There's not much about holistic poultry care out there and what there is is hidden deep among many old books, articles, etc. and most is taken from what is good for other livestock and even humans, then applying it to chickens to see if it works there too. It can take years upon years to slowly amass an idea of what constitutes holistic care for animals, especially when you have to sort through all the misinformation in order to get at the kernels of truth buried here and there.
Some of the information is just common sense stuff that has been passed down through generations of farmers, back before the USDA got its bony fingers onto agriculture here in the US and advised all the farmers to rely more heavily on chemicals to keep crops and animals "healthy" and producing.
The truths I've found to be consistently dependable down through the years is that chickens need a few things on a consistent basis in order to remain healthy living in a flock.
Clean soil on which to live. Think about any creature, pooping over and over again on the same ground underneath their feet and how unsanitary that becomes over the years. But, invariably, folks will insist that keeping chickens in a coop and run situation is healthy for them because "I clean my coop and run all the time". It's impossible to remove all fecal matter left behind, no matter how one tries, so years of build up in the soil of highly nitrogenous manure on soils that are so compacted by the feet of the chickens, leaves a soil that is ripe for growing and harboring harmful bacteria.
Low stocking rates for free range situations is key....if there are barren areas in the range caused by the chickens, the stocking rate is far too high for the birds it has to support. For those who just have to keep a chicken in a coop and run situation, one can only resort to a system that will help loosen the soil, will digest the nitrogen by combining it with enough carbonaceous materials, and is sustainable over time. The only system I know of that can do that is a composting deep litter in the coop and run....if the coop is too small, then the run will have to suffice. While not optimal...free range on clean soils is optimal, it's better than the typical soil found in chicken runs.
Fresh air in all seasons. Too small of coops that cannot be properly aired in the winter months are a perfect place for disease transmission and they also contribute to the birds becoming chilled due to high humidity caused by high stocking rates and small ventilation solutions, so the combination can mean that a flock is under constant attack both winter and summer from the lack of good airflow where they sleep and spend a lot of their time. Cold is not what causes illness, be it in beast or man, it's the transmission of pathogens when the body is already under stress from the weather. Fresh air cuts down on the transmission of pathogens.
Sunlight and plenty of it. Dark coops, covered runs, no chance at full sunlight in either place throughout the seasons. The sun creates health in many ways~Vit. D production, which is essential for good immune system health, sunlight can prevent the overgrowth of harmful bacteria and molds, the ultraviolet rays can kill bacteria on the skin and feathers of the chicken...one reason they don't just lie down in the sun but they also spread their wings and stretch out one leg, it also helps to rid them of external parasites.
Good dusting areas. Essential to have these areas in all seasons, they need them for cleansing their feathers and skin, protect their skin from biting bugs, and also to desiccate parasites and their eggs. They also seem to peck at and eat things in the dust while dusting....I'm not sure what or why, but it seems to be part of the ritual, so must be important. What seems to work best for dusting is pure old dust...not sand, not wood ashes, not compost, or any combination of these things, just dust..a very fine material of mostly clay particles, very fine sand particles, etc.....whatever it is, it needs to be ultra fine so as to penetrate the feathers and cling to the skin well. (For your current problem with external parasites, pyrethrin powder can be found at most garden centers and is safe to use on animals...it's all natural and very effective. Dust the birds thoroughly, then dust the roosts and nest boxes, but not the bedding or run...you'll want to keep some of the more helpful bugs there. )
A nutritious and varied diet. The best diet is, of course, what they can forage and find for themselves out on pasture and in the woods. If this cannot be offered, then attempts to mimic that in their environment is worth the effort~grow frames, bug harbors, fresh feed with a few whole grains mixed in, vegetables and fruits, etc. A person can do the foraging for the birds by advertising for free apples in the fall, asking at roadside stands for their blemished vegetables, gathering up pumpkins and squash that people use for decorating in the fall(not only nutritious but also the seeds are an anthelmintic), providing good alfalfa hay free choice(just leave the bale where they can pick at it on their own), providing clumps of soil with saw grass intact so they can pick their own vermifuge, etc. It's worth the effort made to give the chickens as varied a diet as they can get.
Quality grit. Usually a free range flock can find their own grit but you can also provide some free choice as well every now and again, especially if your range doesn't have a good selection of the right type of material. I've never been impressed with the grit mixes sold for poultry...it just doesn't look anything like what I find in their gizzards when they can choose for themselves. The most prevalent type of rock I see them choose for themselves is quartz. Lowe's has a small bag of this, cleaned and ready for fish tanks and the like, for less money than the grit sold at TSC and it will go farther due to being all quartz.
The right stock. Choose breeds and sources that are known for hardiness. Doing anything otherwise is just shooting yourself in the foot. Start with something good and work to make it better instead of starting with sick, genetically poor breeds or birds and then trying to fix them. Sick roosters alongside the road? Shouldn't even cross your mind to bring them home...if you feel sorry for them, kill them right there and put them out of their misery. No amount of quarantine will fix that situation...you are starting out with birds that are prone to contracting disease, so they will continue to be prone to that very thing. Just like there are people in this world who catch everything coming and going, there are chickens in this world that do the same....avoid keeping such as these. If they look healthy when you buy them but show signs of any illness within a few weeks of your having them, just kill them and get it over with. You don't need that on your soils, in your housing nor in your flocks. Oh, you could give them medicine and "fix" them right up....until the next time a pathogen needs a place to land and they get sick again. Not worth it.
A determined attitude towards health. A chicken's health is not just what you can see...most of their health lies beneath what you can see, on a cellular level. A good immune system, with a good store of varied antibodies, one that is quick to react to environmental threats to the bird's system, is essential. Some of this is genetic but equal parts are from good gut health, a good start in life, a healthy environment as described in the list above, and exposure to the various pathogens in their environment early and often.
If you build their health like one would build a good house, you need never fear exposure to a new chicken in the flock, wild birds, extreme weather, etc. If you plan for good health, you're more likely to get it. If you plan for various illnesses, you are more likely to get those too. Think of those people who raise their children in a bubble, germophobic women who rush the kid to the doctor with each sniffle and bathe them in alcohol hand sanitizer every other second of the day. They usually have the sickliest kids. They are usually the sickliest people too. Medicines and sanitizing all surfaces is not the way to build a healthy immune system, rather it's the way to break one down and make it defenseless.
Toss out all the meds and chemical dewormers and plan for good health in your flock. Resist the urge to medicate...that's a crutch, a bandaid, not a cure or a fix. For steady, sure and consistent health in your flocks, you'll have to build from the bottom up and depend on good flock management methods to see you through...and they will if you just stick with them.
The consistent and judicious cull. Set your mind to the fact that chickens will die. Your chickens will all die. Each and every single chicken will eventually die and there's no getting around that fact. Now that you know that, you need to know that you have the power to choose the manner of their dying in most cases. Being able to choose when they die and which birds will die, is one of the most invaluable tools in your box for a healthy flock.
Out in the wild the various herds and flocks are kept healthier by the predators that choose the old, the sick, the deformed, crippled, injured animals. This is a good system and has worked since time began and it will work for you too. You get to be the predator that will insure the health of your flock down through the years.
Deliberately culling once or twice per year will help you eliminate the animals most likely to carry heavy parasite loads and disease. In chickens it's fairly easy, as you can automatically cull those hens no longer laying a regular cycle...this is one group of potential parasite and disease carriers. Killing them while they are still healthy and before they suffer from an aged reproductive system failure, cancer, fatty liver disease, etc. will remove all chances they will suffer before dying. Kill any birds that don't have good conditioning and fail to thrive on the same regimen as the other birds.....if all the other birds are healthy on it and this one bird is not, it's a bird problem, not a flock management problem. Take it out of the flock.
Breed your own replacement layers from your healthy stock as much as possible. Cull each year for the best of the best, in spring and also in the fall, taking only the healthiest birds through the winter.
These are just some very basic ways of making great gains in flock health....there are many more~ from starting out chicks properly, developing the proper ventilation and coop environment, developing pasture, providing natural anthelmintics, to fermenting the feed~ that can vastly improve the health potential of your flocks down through the years.
One very basic rule...if you want to learn how to keep a flock healthy, don't ask those who will advise you on what medicines to use. These are not people with healthy flocks, these are people who are very experienced in various methods of trying to FIX the ill health of a flock, which apparently doesn't work if they've done it so often. Better to ask those who have never had an illness in their flocks. Hope this helps!!!
Recent User Reviews
"Great advice, but not practicable for many."
- 5/5, 5 out of 5, reviewed Aug 9, 2019
I really like this article mainly because it aligns with my view of chicken keeping. However, for a great many chicken keepers who do not have favorable conditions for free ranging a lot of this advice is not going to be practicable.
For example, I think having natural ground under the chickens feet is really important. It allows for natural pecking behaviour with reward (natural ground will contain some bugs) and is good for their feet when scratching. In a run, it can be a nightmare if you add a few inches of rain or snow.
While the idea of culling sick chickens is sensible, once again, many people are just not capable of killing their much loved pet and it is very difficult to reason that keeping them alive through administering drugs and intensive care may put the chicken through more suffering.
Here, where I live, lots of people keep chickens and have for many generations. The knowledge regarding chickens is staggering and varied and none comes from reading Internet sites.