As I first began this chicken venture, I read everything I could get my hands on about incubation. When I first ordered hatching eggs, I read everything I could about chick health, and as my chicks get older, my interest moves on to the next stage of their lives. Chicks aged three weeks to six weeks are at the greatest risk for contracting coccidosis which is caused by protozoa in the intestines of chickens. All chickens have this protozoa, but their exposure must be gradual or it will overwhelm their small systems. Because older chickens have greater exposure and tolerance, you do not want to mix chicks of various ages; the younger will be overexposed. This is the main reason behind medicated feed for chicks, but this is not necessary in good brooding conditions. To help prevent coccidosis, make sure that bedding is dry, water is clean, and try to brood in the less humid months of the year, avoiding the summer months.
In reading about the prevention of coccidosis, I learned that many chicken fanciers put apple cider vinegar, or ACV, in their chickens’ water. This is not your regular cider vinegar, but the organic type with a living mother, such as Bragg’s. The vinegar raises the acidity of the water which makes the waterer a less hospitable environment for protozoans and bacteria and helps prevent algae growth. Additionally, ACV contains enzymes, proteins, and nutrients that support health, in poultry and humans. For further reading, check out this article on poultrykeeper.com (which I am loving and will have to add to my list of resources). I have been putting ACV in the chicks’ (both big and small) since the Easter chicks were about 1 week old. I have been using about 1 teaspoon per gallon in all water, although recommendations vary.
As my chicks grew up and readied to move outside, I began to read more about litter management. Many fanciers use food grade diatomaceous earth, or DE, in their chickens’ bedding for many of the same reasons that it is used as an organic pest control in gardening. There are other forms of DE which are chemically treated for pool filters and the like; I purchased my food grade DE while picking up feed. The diatoms, long-dead algae, have sharp little bodies which pierce and desiccate insects, including mites and fleas which bother chickens. DE is also added to dust baths and used directly on the birds to dust for pests. DE can also be used internally to discourage parasites and has nutritive value. To learn more, here is another excellent article on poultrykeeper. DE can dry your skin and irritate membranes in your mouth and throat; you may want to wear gloves and/or a mask.
While I have not yet had an issue with parasites, I have read about some natural wormers of interest. Many use a chemical wormer once or twice a year (fall, going into winter; and spring, coming out), but there are some natural alternatives. Of course, consistent use of both ACV and DE in food and water should help. Some put mashed garlic in food or garlic cloves in water; this is apparently not a good wormer, but is an excellent immune system booster. Others feed pumpkin seeds, sometimes mixed into feed, which is supposed to be somewhat effective. A great recipe was made available in Backyard Poultry magazine (to which I have recently subscribed despite a bit of a steep price tag, and I am glad I did!). This recipe is a wormer and immune booster which combines garlic and pumpkin with carrot and dandelion greens if available.
This recipe is from Gina Douglas’ reply to an inquiry about a wormer recipe she referenced in this article originally written in Backyard Poultry by herbalist Susan Burek (website, another article in BP). This combination of foods is given to chickens daily in fall and spring for about two weeks. Gina Douglas found it easiest to give it mixed into warm oatmeal:
Susan Burek’s worming recipe (with [Gina Douglas’] alterations:
Fresh whole garlic (can possibly be mixed into warmed oatmeal to disguise)
Whole vine-ripe pumpkins (split open in halves)
Un-salted pumpkin seeds (offer enough seeds so that each of your birds can ingest up to 1 tablespoon of seeds daily)
Large whole raw carrots (beneficial but optional) [Scratch Cradle’s note: perhaps grated into the oatmeal?]
– Douglas, G. (2011) Natural Wormer Recipe. Backyard Poultry, 6(3), 13-14.
Also, check out Laura Haggerty’s article “An Herbal Mash for Sick Chickens” on Backyard Poultry and Fresh Eggs Daily’s “Pumpkin Soup, Garlic & Nasturtium – Natural Wormers?“