So you think you want to raise a few chickens in the backyard. Chickens make good outside pets, it can be a rewarding hobby, provides food for the table and also provides a good source of compost for the garden. However, before setting off it might be a good thing to do a little research. Animal husbandry doesn’t come easily to everyone but with a good plan you can successfully raise a few chickens; if after reviewing the available literature and understanding the responsibilities involved you decide to proceed, great. If you decide to pass that is also great, great that you took the time to research the project first and don’t have to figure out how to dispose of a coop, fencing and a few chickens when the project goes south.
This Post is not intended to detail all of the available information but to provide you with an overview of those items to considered before you buy your chicks. First a few definitions:
Rooster – Male, one year old or older
Cockerel – Male, less than one year old
Capon – A castrated male
Hen – Female, one year or older
Pullet – Female, less than one year old
Sexed Chickens – Day-old chicks separated by sex
Straight-run chickens – Day-old chicks not separated by sex
One of the first things that everyone recommends is to check your local Town Ordinances. You might be surprised to find that many communities ban any form of animal husbandry in urban and even suburban areas. Some Towns have also implemented noise ordinances as a way to prevent backyard avian flocks. You should also visit with your neighbors to determine if they have any issues that can readily be addressed during your design stage instead of at a complaint hearing.
Items to consider after verifying that you can raise chickens in your neighborhood include:
Equipment and Litter
Feed and Water
Disease and Parasites
How much space do you need? Multiple State Extension Services provide the following table; there are other sources that suggest smaller space is acceptable. The American Society for the Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) recently negotiated with one of the Country’s largest egg producers to double the space allotted to their laying hens from 1 to 2 square feet. Chickens are flocking animals so they might not fully appreciate your efforts in granting them more coop space than the table suggests.
Minimum Space Requirements
[ahm-wp-tabular id=673 template=Web2]A mixed flock, you didn’t purchase sexed day-old chicks or you wanted both eggs and meat, for a dozen chickens will need 25 square feet of coop space and 120 square feet of outside run. For reference most modern office cubes are 8 by 8 (64 sq ft) or 8 by 10 (80 sq ft).
The coop should be well ventilated to help keep it dry. Laying hens will produce better with 14 to 16 hours of light per day if the amount of light decreases they will lay less frequently so add lights on timers.
Install roosting space about 2 feet above the floor and allow a minimum of 6 linear inches per chicken. Nests should also be placed about 2 feet above the floor but kept away from the roosts, there should be 4 nests and then average 1 for every 4 birds. The hens should be able to nest comfortably but installing a top to the nests that prevents the hens from standing will help to keep the nests free of fecal matter. Make sure to keep the nesting material clean and dry. Harvesting eggs twice a day will minimize egg breakage, broodiness and the potential for egg eating by the flock.
Although it may not be mandatory, letting your chickens out to soak up some sun and stretch their legs is a good idea. Agway sells fixed and portable style coops with pens attached. Portable is a good way to go unless you want your lawn turned to dirt. Although having a little dirt for the girls’ dust bath isn’t a bad addition either. It is worth the time to consider how to protect the flock from predators like foxes, coyotes, neighborhood dogs, weasels, hawks, and owls. Some fly in, some dig in, and some can jump in.
Equipment and Litter
Waters should be adjustable to the size of the birds and designed to avoid roosting, wading, and spillage. Ideally the watering device should be near a heat source for winter usage. It should be cleaned daily and filled as necessary.
Apply 3 to 4 inches of litter to the coop floor. Use an absorbent material then creates minimal dust; wood shavings will help to offset any odors from the nitrogen in the manure. Straw, not hay, is also useable. Remove the wet litter as needed. To avoid disease and parasites it is better to wear a mask when cleaning the coop. A quick misting of tap water will also help keep the dust down while you clean.
A single 40 watt bulb on an automatic timer in the center of the coop should be sufficient for most residential backyard flocks assuming you want to maximize egg production. However, hens will continue to lay during the winter months at a reduced frequency with no artificial lighting.
Feed and Water
According to Penn State Cooperative Extension:
“Feed a completely balanced ration. Feeding table scraps or whole grains can decrease production, make the birds fat, and cause prolapse. For laying hens over 18 weeks of age, feed a 16-18 percent protein layer ration with grit and a calcium source, like oyster shells free choice in a separate feeder.”
According to West Virginia University Extension Service:
“Diets have to be formulated to make sure all essential minerals are provided. Otherwise, deficiencies may lead to stunted growth, lack of coordination, rickets, anemia, perosis, reduced egg production, poor hatchability, etc.
Grit is needed in poultry diets if only whole grains are fed. It helps to break down fibrous material so that birds can more easily absorb the nutrients. Grit may be provided as hard or soft grit. Oyster shells and limestone as well as gravel and pebbles are used as grit. Birds raised free range or in backyards tend to pick up a variety of grit on their own, and there is no harm in that. Such raised birds occasionally will pick at plants and grasses. Owners should avoid supplementing the birds’ diet with household food or waste because it actually dilutes the nutrients they should be getting from their feed. Grass clippings should not be fed to backyard flocks. Grass in sufficient quantities can lead to impaction of the crop, and eventual death from starvation.”
According to www.NewEnglandGrown.com
“Chickens have simple feeding requirements. Chickens are omnivores. They can eat inexpensive chicken feed that’s been formulated for the nutritional needs. They also really enjoy food leftovers, fruit and vegetable peels, stale bread, weeds, grass and bugs. There’s no need to guilty about throwing out the milk that your kids leave in their cereal bowls or most anything else left on their plates. Your chickens will be more than happy to eat it. They will even eat eggshells and recycle the calcium that they used in producing the shell initially into producing another egg.
Chickens can speed up composting. If you compost your food waste, then you will have compost much faster than in the past. This is because by feeding your food scraps to your chickens, you are in effect running them through the chickens before they go into your compost pile. It will be compost faster.”
I have asked for the source of these claims but an email to NewEnglandGrown was returned undeliverable, I used the contact us on their website, and an email to the author has remained unanswered. So I can only advise that you consider the source and act accordingly.
Feed can be medicated against a number of diseases but they are not certified for organic use. Nutritional requirements vary based on the age of your chickens so check with your feed store on the appropriate mix.
Feeders should be cleaned out to remove old, caked and contaminated feed to discourage the growth of pathogens. Ideally birds cannot jump up onto the feeders and contaminate them with fecal material.
Disease and Parasites
University of Georgia Cooperative Extension says that:
“Disease occurs when there has been some disruption in an animal’s normal function and usually results from several factors affecting the bird at the same time. Overcrowding, injury, poor nutrition, poisons, lack of fresh air, and a dirty environment all impair a bird’s immunity, or ability to fight disease.”
They also suggest that you can unknowingly transmit disease by wearing the same boots and clothing in your coop after visiting a diseased coop somewhere else. Rats and mice carry diseases around so practice rodent control to minimize the spread of disease throughout the neighborhood. Your flock may also pick up an infection from wild bird droppings by feeding at a wild bird feeder.
University of Florida IFAS Extension published PS23, Avian Diseases Transmissible to Humans, very easy 5 page read. They open with:
“Bird-keepers (pet bird owners and poultry producers) should be aware that some avian diseases can be transmitted to humans. It is important to note, however, that such diseases are uncommon enough that they should not discourage bird-keeping. For most people avian diseases do not pose a serious threat, but bird-keepers should be aware of them and seek medical assistance if necessary.”
And end with:
“Bird-keepers should be aware that they can contract certain illnesses from their birds. The frequency of disease transmission from birds to humans is low, but the very young, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems should be cautious.
Many of these diseases are transmitted by ingestion of food contaminated by fecal matter. Prevention of most of these diseases, therefore, simply involves proper hygiene and sanitation. Wearing a face mask to avoid inhaling bird dust is also recommended.
If you have persistent flu-like symptoms when no one else you know is affected, see a doctor and mention that you raise birds. Such symptoms may be indicative of a disease spread from birds to humans.”
The infectious agents can be protozoal, fungal, bacterial, chlamydial or viral. The article discusses the following:
Arizona Infection (salmonella Arizona)
Eastern Equine Encephalitis
There is a wide array of chicken breeds tailored for egg, meat, or eggs & meat production depending on your purpose. Most commercial chicks are vaccinated for Marek’s disease when they are a day old; this and other vaccinations should be confirmed with your supplier. Speak with the feed store employees or County Extension agents to see what is popular in your area and available. It is also possible to obtain some laying hens from an area farmer or neighbor who bought too many or has otherwise decided to reduce their flock.
Backyard Poultry Naturally – A complete guide to raising chickens and ducks naturally. by Alanna Moore, Acres USA.
Storey’s Guide to Raising Poultry by Leonard S. Mercia, Storey Books, Pownal, Vermont
A Guide to Rasing Chickens by Gail Damerow, Storey Books, Pownal, Vermont