Raising poultry can be a very rewarding experience. Whether you have a small backyard or a farm, you can find a balance to meet your needs. There are many resources out there to help you decide what is right for your particular situation, from the size of your flock to the size of your birds.
If you are just getting started, take a little time to read up on it, but don’t get bogged down thinking you have to know everything first. It is easier than you may realize and a lot is trial and error. If you are a seasoned poultry veteran, please share some of your knowledge by leaving comments for us here.
CHICKEN KEEPING 101
Keeping backyard chickens has become very popular in the last few years. There are a lot of benefits including fresh eggs, meat, fertilizer, and fun. There are also a lot of negative myths about having chickens in your backyard. It can actually be a very positive experience with very few drawbacks. The following is basic information for those interested in starting their own backyard flock for the first time.
BEFORE GETTING STARTED
If you decide to raise chickens, there are a few decisions to make before getting started. What purpose will your birds serve? This will determine, to some degree, what breeds you will raise. Will they be free range, fully caged, or a combination. This will determine what type of housing/shelter you will need and may also influence your breed choices. How many chickens will you have? This helps you decide how big your coop will be. Do you want to start with a full grown flock, or chicks? Chicks will need a few extras to start out. Things to consider are the size of your property, the proximity of your neighbors, ordinances in your area, and the money you want to invest in getting started.
Weigh the pros and cons of your options:
• Free range chickens will need less feed and be less work because they will forage for food and there would be no run to clean. However, they can (and will) get into your garden and flower beds without fencing and they will scratch wherever they are looking for food. Shelter is still necessary, but nothing as big as caged chickens. You can make nest boxes available, but there is no guarantee they will lay where you can find the eggs. Coops keep chickens safer, while wide open spaces make them most vulnerable to predators.
• Caged chickens need more feed because that will be all they eat and you have to keep the coop and run clean. But it is a more controlled mess and you don’t run the risk of ruined flower beds and a scratched up yard. Eggs are always layed where you can collect them and the birds are safer, but this requires a solid and secure coop and run.Once you know what you want, you will need to have everything ready before bringing your chickens home; a brooder if you are getting chicks, with newspapers, paper towels, small waterer, etc. A coop, nest boxes, and nesting materials if you are getting adult chickens. Waterers, feed and feeder if you choose.
TERMS TO KNOW
Broody – Term to discribe a hen when she is ready to set eggs. During this time, she stops laying eggs and gets grouchy.
Brooder – Area set up to keep chicks for the first few weeks after hatching.
Comb – Fleshy growth on a chicken’s head. Roosters’ combs are larger than hens’.
Gizzard – A chicken’s “food processor” located in their digestive tract. They don’t have teeth and bits of grit and rock they eat stay in this organ and grind the food for digestion.
Imprinting – When chicks are hatched, handled, and socialized with only people.
Pop Hole – Chicken sized door on a coop
Roost – Raised perches where chickens sleep. Also the term for what they are doing while they are on the perches.
Run – Enclosed open air pen for chickens. Usually attached to the coop.
Sex linked – Some breed of chickens are breed so that males and females are different colors when they hatch.
Spurs – Thick, sharp protrusions on the backs of a rooster’s legs.
Vent – The opening under the tail feathers of a chicken. It is the opening for both eggs and fecal material,
Wattles – Fleshy growth hanging from the neck of a chicken. Both hens and roosters have them
KNOW YOUR CHICKENS – All chickens are called chicks during the first few weeks. Once they are a couple of months old, females are called pullets and males are called cockerals. Once they reach about one year, they then become hens and roosters.
KNOW YOUR FEED – Chicks are usually fed starter crumbles. This often comes pre-medicated to keep fragile chicks healthy. This can be feed until they are about 4 months old. You can then start them on a variety of feeds. Laying pellets and laying mash are the the same thing in different forms. They are general feed for hens and which you use is a matter of preference. Supplemental feed options are cracked corn and scratch, which is a mixture of cracked corn and various seeds.
EGG CARE AND HANDLING – Eggs should be gathered every day. They should be washed before using, and if they are soiled, should be washed before storing. It won’t hurt to wash all eggs as you collect them (unless you are planning to incubate them). They do not need to be stored in the refrigerator if they will be used in less than two weeks. They will keep longer in the refrigerator, but once refrigerated, they need to stay refrigerated. I do not put mine in the fridge, unless I keep them for a longer time for boiling. Older eggs boil better than fresh ones. I rotate them so that I use the oldest first
Sometimes you will get a misshapen egg that is long, pointed, squatty, tiny, huge, ribbed, or wrinkled. The egg inside is not hurt, it is just the shell that was formed wrong around it.
If you decide to start with chicks, your local feed store is a good place to purchase them or, if you are looking for a breed they don’t have, you can order them through a mail-order company. Murray McMurray and Ideal are two of the most well known. If you order them, they will arrive in the mail and need to be put in the brooder with food and water as soon as possible. You will need to have starter mash on hand which can also be purchased at the feed store. You will also need to purchase a small feeder and waterer. Young chicks should never be given an open pan of water because they will fall over in it an possibly drown. One option is to put pebbles or marbles in a shallow dish.
If you decide to start with older chickens, have the housing you have chosen ready and have water and feed on hand. These are best purchased from the local feed store or from a local breeder.
Getting your hands on a few copies of Backyard Poultry magazine is a good idea to help you learn more about chicken keeping. These magazine have contributor articles that are full of information and ideas. They also have a lot of advertisements for breeders, equipment, and extras. You could subscribe or ask around for some back issues at the feed store or the local facebook page, East Alabama Online Farmers Bulletin.
SETTING UP THE BROODER
A brooder can be anything from a cardboard box to an expensive store bought one. It is up to you how much money and effort you want to put into it. That will probably depend on how often you will be using it and how many chicks you will have at a time.
The only requirements for a brooder are that it provide a safe, clean, enclosed place for chicks to grow. It will need a light or heat source for several weeks, plenty of ventilation, protection from drafts, and food and water supplies. It should be big enough for the chicks to move around and have room to get away from or under the heat source as needed. It should also be kept clean and dry.
A large cardboard box works very well and is free, easy, and disposable. Another option is a large plastic livestock waterer or a large plastic storage bin. One can also be constructed out of wood to be any size you like. The bedding underneath should not be newspaper for the first couple of weeks because it is too slick for young chicks to stand on and will cause them to become spraddle-legged. It is a good idea to put down newspaper as a bottom layer and then put paper towels on top of that to make for easy changing and cleaning. It also works to put a layer of wire down on top to the paper so that droppings fall through and make for especially easy cleanup. If you build a wooden one, you could put it up on legs with a small-holed wire bottom and let the droppings and food spills fall through to paper below. Avoid wood shavings for the first few weeks until chicks learn what is and isn’t food.
A word about solid bottoms versus wire bottoms. Wire bottoms are easier to clean and easier to keep dry. It also gives the chicks’ feet plenty of traction. However, without bedding material and stray food to peck at, chicks may peck at each other out of boredom. A solid bottom insulates the bottom and keeps out drafts for warmth, gives the chicks plenty to do, and exposes them to organisms in the bedding that help them develop immunities.
The top of the brooder should be covered with wire of some kind, like hardware cloth or old window screens. This keeps out predators and keeps the chicks in as they get older and learn to fly up. If the cover isn’t heavy, weight it down with a few bricks or tie it on. If you use a plastic storage bin, the lid can be cut out in the middle and wire attached in the opening(s).
A cheap shop light with an incandescent light bulb is an easy, inexpensive option for heat I have read many articles with people arguing against this because they say it doesn’t keep it warm enough. This is simply not true, and all I have ever used. For the first week, the brooder needs to be about 95 degrees with the temperature reduced 5 degrees each week until it reaches 70 degrees or room temperature. At that point the heat can be discontinued. The temperature can be adjusted by either lowering or raising the source, or reducing the wattage as needed from 100 W to 40 W. Be sure to secure the fixture to keep it from falling in on your chicks.
An infrared heat lamp will also work, but gets hotter that incandescent bulbs, so be very careful that you don’t overheat your chicks. You can tell if they are too hot, because they will spread out around the sides of the brooder and chirp loudly. If they are too cold, they will cluster together under the heat source and chirp loudly. If they are just right, they will wander around happily looking for things to peck.
Another heat source is the Sweeter Heater, which is an infratherm heating panel. It is the safest source and can’t accidentally start a fire. It regulates the heat better than any other method. It does cost more than a shop light or an infrared heat lamp, but uses less electricity. Again, you may consider how often you will raise chicks. Also, a heater doesn’t have a light, so you will need another source of light so the chicks can see to eat and drink. It could be a very low watt lamp in this case, but will need to be left on continuously for the first few days.
The first few days of a chick’s life is spent sleeping. Don’t be surprised if they just literally fall over asleep regularly. As they get older and sleep less, make sure they have plenty of space. If you start off with a small brooder, you may need to step it up in size as the chicks grow.
Chicks can live for about 2 days without food or water. This is how they are able to be shipped from the hatchery. They live off the last of the yolk for these first couple of days. It is absorbed into their bodies before they hatch. After that, they will need a constant source of food and water. They tend to waste food, so you will have to figure out a method that works for you. You can try putting it on paper towels, lids, feeders, or paper egg cartons.
The water supply should be low enough for them to reach it, but raised as they grow to keep them from soiling it. They WILL walk all in it, turn it over, and even drown in a very shallow amount. Again, it is a good idea to place pebbles or marbles around the edge of the waterer, so they can’t get their faces down in it. Keep it clean!
Chicks can be moved out of the brooder when they no longer need the heat source, if you have a cage with small enough openings for them. My pullets are bigger than my pigeons and still manage to squeeze out of the dog wire openings.
There is no such thing as the perfect coop. There are many designs, and each fits certain needs. They can be big, little, portable, on the ground, raised, etc. To decide what kind of coop you need, look at what your specific needs are. Some questions to ask are:
• How many chickens will I have now or in the future?
• Will the chickens have access to an outdoor run, or be in the coop most of the time?
• Do I want the ability to move the coop around?
• Do I want to be able to walk in… access nests from the outside… feed and water from the outside?
• Do I want the coop and/or outdoor access raised for ease of cleaning, or on the ground?
• Do I live in an especially cold or hot region and will shade be available for the coop?
• How much money do I want to spend, and do I want to buy or build my coop?
Once you know what you want, it is easier to decide, but still many different options that will just come down to preference. However, there are a few guidelines to follow to make sure it is a good environment for your flock.
Of course the bigger the chicken breed and bigger the flock, the bigger the coop needs to be. Adequate room is important to keeping a healthy flock and will prevent behavior problems such as pecking each other. Chickens that free range and come in mainly at night to roost, do very well with less space.
Coop Space per Chicken
Size No outdoor access With outdoor access
Heavy Breed 10 sq ft 4 sq ft
Light Breed 7.5 sq ft 3 sq ft
Bantam 5 sq ft 2 sq ft
Coops can be purchased for a wide range of prices. They can also be constructed from scratch or something else can be “re-purposed”. Plans can be purchased or you can get creative with what you have on hand. Many people take old sheds, dog houses, and children’s playhouses and turn them into great coops. We have built several coops and tractors without plans and they have all worked well.
A larger coop will need a “people door” that opens to the coop, the run, or both. Generally, coops need a pop hole for the chickens to come and go, unless the people door is low to the ground or has a ramp. Chickens commonly sit in this pop hole and just look around. When one does this, the others can’t get in or out. One option is to make the doorway bigger so more than one can pass through at a time. A good single-sized hole is 10 inches by 13 inches for average sized breeds.
Air flow is important for proper ventilation. Chickens tend towards respiratory disease, in part because they have a high respiration rate and use up oxygen quickly, and at the same time release large amounts of carbon dioxide, moisture and heat. This, along with the build up of ammonia from droppings, feathers, skin dandruff, and litter dust can make them even more susceptible. Good air flow allows this heat, moisture, carbon dioxide, ammonia, dust particles and disease causing organisms to be exchanged for fresh air. Ventilation near the ceiling is the best, but doors or windows that open (especially on opposite sides of the coop) work well, too.
It is a good idea to have a way to cover windows in cold or bad weather. This is easily accomplished with drop-down or prop-open coverings that are hinged to the coop. It is a good idea to open all windows and doors in the heat of summer. If able, leave the people door open, too.
Nest boxes need to be provided for your hens to lay their eggs in. This will keep the eggs from getting broken and dirty, and make it easy to collect them. Generally, there should be one nest box for every four or five hens. Like the coop, they can be homemade or purchased. Professional metal boxes are available anywhere other chicken supplies are sold. If you only have a few chickens, you can use things like a covered cat litter box or a plastic storage tub turned on its side. Wooden boxes are easy to make and customize to fit different needs. Milk crates work well for a larger flock, too. 12 inches by 12 inches is a good size nest box for an average size breed. Boxes generally have raised sides and need a lip on the front to keep eggs from rolling out and nesting material in. If using something like milk crates, you can nail a board across the front for a lip.
There are several options for where to locate your boxes. Some coop designs allow access to the boxes from the exterior, which makes cleaning and collecting easy. Other advantages are that chickens can’t roost over them and it gives more floor space inside. This is a good idea for smaller coops that you can’t walk into. If your nest boxes are inside the coop, it is a good idea to raise them off the floor 18-20 inches to discourage chickens from scratching in them and breaking eggs. It also helps to have a sloped roof on them. This will discourage these activities as well as keep them from roosting in or over them. Boxes can be attached to the sides of the coop in a row, and even stacked in rows on top of each other. Make sure your hens can access their boxes. A rail placed just below the level of the entrance will give them a place to land. Rails should be no closer than about 8 inches from the edge of nest, so roosting birds don’t leave droppings in it. If they are higher off the ground than they can reach, a ramp can be added. If you Google images for nest boxes, you will get plenty of ideas to help you decide.
Nesting material needs to be good and thick and can be straw, hay, grass, etc.
Both hens and roosters roost at night. They like to roost up off the ground. A roost can be made from anything that will hold the weight of the chickens, but needs to have a rough enough surface that they can grip it. Wood is best and tree branches work well. Metal and plastic don’t work well because they are too slick. If you use lumber, smooth the edges to prevent foot damage. If you have a large flock, you can ladder the roost poles on top of each other like stair steps, so they can get to the top one by climbing up and they don’t leave droppings on top of each other (chickens leave a lot of droppings during the night).
24 inches is a good height, but not essential. They should be placed at least 18 inches from the wall and each other. Roosts are placed inside the coop, so the chickens can sleep safely. They instinctively go in or under something by dusk. If left out, they will get under a building or tree, or on top of a short building… anywhere they feel tucked away and safe from predators. If you leave the coop open for them, they will be on their roosts by sundown. They will put themselves to bed so to speak.
Roost bars should be large enough for chickens to wrap their feet around… 2 inches thick at least. Average sized breeds need about 8 inches of roosting space. They often sleep scrunched up together as close as they can get.
It is a good idea to make roosts moveable so you can easily clean the droppings
In smaller coops, like tractors, they don’t have to have poles or bars, because the covered area is usually raised off the ground and small enough to make them comfortable when they sleep.
Chickens have personalities and also have a social order. This is where the term “pecking order” comes from. There will always be the top rooster and the top hen. The order works down through the flock and there will be one at the bottom.
Chickens like to dust bathe and will scratch up an area of dry dirt and wallow in it while kicking dust up on their backs. This helps keep mites at bay. It is a good idea to sprinkle diatomaceous earth in their “dust bowl” and this will keep them mite free.
Chickens drink more in hot weather, when they are laying, and as they age.
Chickens need fresh water available at all times. This is especially true in hot weather, when they drink considerably more. They drink the most first thing in the morning and in the early evening before they go in to roost.
Store bought waterers are recommended, but if you only have adult chickens, you can use short buckets or pots. (Chicks would fall in and drown).
Store bought feeders are also available in a variety of styles, but if you don’t want to spend the money, you can get creative. Rabbit feeders work well, too, especially with supplements. You might try several different types until you find one you like.
There is a lot of trial and error with where to place the food and water. You may have to rearrange as you see what works best. A few pointers…
• Don’t put food and water too close to the roosts.
• Raise them up off the ground to about the height of the chickens’ back. This can be done with hanging feeders/waterers, setting them up on something, or attaching them to the wall.
• Make it easy for you to fill and clean.
• Provide more than one waterer, especially if they aren’t “nailed down”, so that water is available even if one gets turned over.
• Arrange things so that chickens aren’t getting their food and water dirty by stepping in it or leaving droppings in it.
• Make sure feed is covered so that it doesn’t get wet in the rain.
• You can opt to not have feeders and just feed them the old fashioned way on the ground, but the feeders make it easy to keep the food clean and dry, make sure feed is always available, and go longer periods without having to check on them… if you are gone overnight, for instance. It is recommended by most to have food available at all times for your chickens, however, it is not absolutely necessary, as long as they get enough each day. One advantage to having it always available, is that they don’t get bored and hungry and begin to pick at each other.
In addition to the commercial feeds available, chickens thrive on kitchen scraps as well. There is no “right” way to do this. Some choose to only/mostly use commercial feed, while others only supplement with it. The list of things chickens can eat is too long to list, but it is basically anything we eat (exceptions being things like chocolate). They do tend to have favorites, though, and even this can vary from chicken to chicken. They also get used to what you feed them most often and may take some “warming up” to a change.
All fruits and vegetables are usually well received, as well as seeds, worms, grains, cheese, and other dairy products. Many people don’t realize it, but chickens are omnivores and can also eat fish and meat. Until a few decades ago, all chicken rations contained meat, and free-ranging chickens eat bugs, worms, and even small mice if they can catch them. When looking for things to feed your chickens, don’t forget food prep waste such as peels, seeds, cores, and shavings. When you clean out your fridge think chickens, too. Anything but meat can be raw or cooked, so leftovers are great… mine especially love to see me coming with spaghetti. It is like a big pile of worms to them. Some scraps spoil quickly, so be sure to only feed what they will eat each time.
When you keep chickens, you will have losses to disease and predators. This is especially true with chicks. With care, you can minimize those losses, but it is best to remember it will happen and it doesn’t necessarily mean you are doing something wrong.
Most losses will occur with chickens under 4 months old. One common problem to watch for in young chicks is “pasty butt”. Chicks can develop a build up of “poop” on their bottoms and it prevents them from eliminating anymore waste. It will kill them in a short while, but is easy to fix if you are looking for it. Warm water and a towel will remove all the dried “poop”. You may have to wet it and wait a few minutes before you can remove it.
Respiratory problems are the most common and is usually the culprit if a chicken begins to wheeze, have runny eyes, or have a nasal discharge. These are usually treated with antibiotics. There are a variety of antibiotics available, including tetracyline and terramycin, both available at many feed stores. They can be ordered if not carried in stock. They are usually mixed in with the chickens water for the prescribed number of days. There are many different types of respiratory diseases in chickens, with a variety of symptoms, and a variety of treatments. It is a good idea to do some research and get familiar with the most common and how to handle them.
Coccidiosis is a disease that causes diarrhea and listless chickens that look “rough”. It can be treated with Amprolium, which is given in the water. Medicated feeds have low doses of this which act as a preventative.
It is best to immediately isolate any chicken that appears sick. They may stand off by themselves, act weak, not eat or drink, or just look “off”. Isolating them may keep the rest of your flock from getting ill, because many of these diseases are highly contagious. Some cause death in a relatively short time, while others can be treated and the birds recover quickly. Again, do some research. The internet is a great resource for this.
The following is an excerpt from an article by a chicken keeper about how she handles her sick chickens….
“If the antibiotics don’t work quickly, and/or if there’s no respiratory symptoms, there are other things to do. Many ailments are cured by what I call the “spa cure.” I’ll give her a warm water soak in epsom salts, then dose her with olive oil and epsom salts (more about that in the next paragraph), keep her comfortable in a quiet area and keep an eye on her symptoms. I dose with olive oil using a syringe that comes with infant’s cough medicine (or you can buy a similar tool at the pharmacy.)
“Secure the hen under one arm, and with the other hand, open her beak and squirt the oil down, only a little bit at a time, taking care not to squirt it down the wind pipe and into the lungs. Don’t wear nice clothes. Have paper towels handy. If the hen is ailing because of a blockage, the olive oil will help. The olive oil helps to get things moving. This works for impacted crops, ingestion of toxic plants, and bound eggs (it doesn’t actually reach the eggs in the reproductive tract, but it helps move the manure, which alleviates blockage). I’m also a big believer in dosing with epsom salts. Dilute 1 teaspoon in a cup of warm water, and dose like you do with the olive oil. The salts act to detoxify the gut and get things moving in the digestive tract. I’ve saved hens with epsom salts.”
She touches on a couple of other chicken problems, like bound eggs. This isn’t especially common, but happens. It is absolutely necessary to remove the bound (stuck) egg. A warm soak in addition to putting vaseline in the hen’s vent with a gloved finger are the most common treatments for this.
Mites are common and can cause young chicks to die. Check often, especially if you notice feathers looking bad or “rough”. Dust with diatomaceous earth.
There is more to cover about chicken diseases than time allows here. The best thing to do is take precautions by feeding medicated feed, especially starter, keeping plenty of clean water at all times, keep feed fresh and mold-free, keep coops, bedding, and runs clean, and separate out any chicken that appears sick. If you do run into problems, do some reading and ask questions.
Do hens lay eggs without a rooster? Yes, chickens lay eggs on a regular cycle. A rooster makes them fertile.
Does the rooster fertilize the egg after it’s layed? No, the eggs are fertilized the “regular” way while they are forming in the hen.
How many eggs does a chicken lay each day? Commonly chickens lay an egg every 26 hours. Heavy laying breeds lay 5 eggs a week, but there are some breeds that only lay 2 eggs a week.
How long do chickens live? Some sturdy chickens live to be 8-12 years old, but most only live 5-7. The record is 20 years! They only lay regularly for 2 or 3 years and have quit completely by the time they are 4-6.
Can chickens fly? Yes, to some degree. In the wild, chickens roost in trees, but most of our modern breeds are far too heavy to fly that high.