Backyard Chickens - Beginner's Guide

Backyard Chickens - Beginner's Guide

Have you ever thought about raising chickens in your backyard? Most don't realize that having chickens will provide them with several benefits. Fresh eggs, manure and eggshells for composting, and if you are up to the task, they provide fresh meat. They also make great companions and keep pests under control in the yard.

 

 

Should You Raise Chickens in Your Backyard

Before running out to grab chickens and bring them home, there are a few things to consider. From local ordinances to space and the time needed to care for them, continue reading below to learn more about raising chickens in your backyard and if it's the right choice for you.

Things to Consider

1. If you live in town, you will need to check with local town ordinances first to be sure that you can keep chickens on your property. Should keeping chickens be allowed, it will be important to check if there is a restriction on the number you can keep. The very last thing that you want is to invest time and money only to find out that you can't have them.

2. Space is the next thing to review when considering bringing chickens home. You will need space for a henhouse or a full-size chicken coop. The area will need to hold a feeder and waterer, a place for the chickens to roost, and a nesting box for every three hens. A coop should be large enough for you to stand in and gather eggs as well as shovel manure and cleanout. A simple henhouse can be smaller, and we will discuss that further in this guide.

3. Chickens will need to be fed and watered daily. The cost of feed will need to be researched. Caring for chickens is quite a task, so if you go out of town often, you will need to plan for someone to care for them.

4. Expect to collect eggs daily because they can pile up if you are not using them fast enough. Hens will lay eggs through spring, summer, and into the fall. Generally, they need 12 to 14 hours of daylight to lay eggs. Sometimes they may even lay twice a day.

Eggs in Nest

For the sake of this beginner's guide, let's assume you are good with all that we have mentioned above and are ready to go out and get chickens. At this point, you may have several questions about what kind of chickens to get and if they should be younger or older. Below we have that information and more for you.

Purchasing Chickens

Age

Chickens are most productive in their first two years. And before we go any further, let's clear up a misconception. Roosters are not needed for hens to lay eggs that will be for eating. Roosters are only needed for producing baby chicks. You can purchase baby chicks, but it will be about 18 weeks before they begin to lay eggs.

Baby Chicks

Flock Size

As for the number of chickens you should keep, plan on three to six to start with. Adult hens will lay about two eggs every three days. With this many birds, you will be provided a continuous supply of eggs.

Breed

Choosing the right chicken breeds can be overwhelming due to how many there. From fancy to friendly, chickens come in all types. Depending on their breed, your eggs can even be different colors.

Considerations of climate, egg production, and temperament will be the most important things to look at before purchasing your hens. If you live in a warmer area, a heat-tolerant breed will be best. For colder climates, smaller combed and larger-bodied chickens will be better. Once climate has helped to determine breeds, then you can look into temperament and egg production.

Now before you cross the road with your chickens, you need to have space set up for them. In the next section, we will discuss the space required and what type of housing will make your hens happy.

Chicken Coops

The breed of chicken you choose will determine the space you need. On average, a medium-sized bird will need at least three square feet in a coop and about eight to ten square feet outside. Generally, the more space a hen has, the happier they are. Overcrowding a coop will lead to the chickens picking at their feathers as well as increase their risk for disease.

Size

Whether pre-built or building your own, chicken coops are meant to keep chickens in and predators out. Hen houses do not need to break your budget unless you want them to, and they can be built out of just about anything. Old sheds, used coops, and pallets can be used to build houses for your hens. If wanting something brand new, setups can be purchased online or from farm supply stores. These chicken coops can run from several hundred to thousands of dollars; it just depends on what your end goal is.

Ultimately, the chicken coop you choose needs to be large enough for your flock, capable of keeping the hens in, and most importantly, keeping predators out. We will go into further detail about predators later on in the guide. A chicken coop will need nesting boxes inside the covered area and an elevated place to roost. They will also need a way to access the outside fenced area from the coop. It is best to have the coop sit at least a foot off the ground to prevent wood rotting and predators.

Red chicken coop

As noted above, chickens need at least three to even five square feet of space in a coop. If they do not have any outdoor space, the inside area will need to be increased. For every three hens, there should be one nest box that is about one square foot and placed lower than the roosts so they won't perch on them. Other considerations for coop design should include:

  • Electricity to prolong the day to increase egg production in winter
  • Ventilation is important and should be one-fifth of your total wall space (cover with wire to keep out predators)
  • Roosting bars should be one and a half inches around and placed in the upper part of the coop
  • When elevating the coop, install a ramp for the hens to access the outside
  • Include a door with a secure latch that is big enough for your access

Remember, overcrowding will cause fighting amongst the chickens and disease. It also causes a quick buildup of manure. This leads us to our next subject: cleaning.

Cleaning

Cleaning a chicken coop will need to be done regularly to keep your hens healthy. You will need to clean your coop and nesting boxes sometimes daily, but mostly weekly and monthly. Seasonally it is best to clear out the coop completely to clean and disinfect it. Regular cleaning a coop involves:

- Shoveling and removing all manure and old nesting material
- Hosing it down with water
- Laying down new nesting material

Be sure to let the area dry before putting the nesting material back inside. Considering that chicken manure is 85% water, you will want a nesting material that will be absorbent. When performing seasonal cleaning, be sure to use natural disinfectants like vinegar to scrub down surfaces and nesting boxes. Rinse everything thoroughly with water and let dry before putting nesting material, chickens, and feeding supplies back in.

Different ideas for chicken coop flooring are listed in this article.

Feeding and Watering

Unlike other pets, chickens need more than bowls of water and food. Your chickens will need access to clean food and water every day. Below we are going to discuss food and water separately, as they each have their own specifics.

Water

There are several types of waterers available on the market. From plastic to galvanized, you can use just about anything as long as the following things are considered.

- The average chicken can go through a pint of water a day depending on its size and the temperature (on hot days, one hen can go through a quart of water). If raising birds for meat, they will require even more water.

- Chickens do not like dirty water. If the water gets dirty, they will stop drinking. Also, they prefer cool water, so during the summer months, it will need to be topped off more.

- Clean the water vessel regularly to prevent algae or rust buildup. Cleaning can be done with water, dish soap, and a brush.

- If choosing to add supplements like vinegar to the water, a galvanized waterer will not be suitable, as it will rust. Plastic will be a better choice for supplemented water.

- Waterers can be automatic and are preferable but do require regular upkeep and must be set up properly to supply water continuously.

- In the winter months, keep the water from freezing with warm water or add a red heat lamp to the coop area where the water sits. There are also waterers with heated bases but will require an extension cord and do cost more.

Food

What and how to feed your chickens are the first questions often asked when someone starts out raising chickens. Poultry likes to eat grasses and broadleaf weeds. They will also eat earthworms, insects, and grit. Sand or coarse dirt helps their gizzards digest the foods they forage on. Backyard chickens will eat the above along with food scraps such as leafy greens, beans, garlic, onions, and even citrus.

Feeding Chickens

If your chickens can't pasture, then a commercial feed will be needed. Follow the instructions of your feed based on your flock size. Supplements can be added to your feed, such as grit or oyster shells. For fun and to keep the hens busy, throw in a cabbage head for them to peck and peel at. If you are inclined, you could even make and mix your own chicken feed. Main feed for chickens include:

  • Alfalfa meal
  • Field peas
  • Wheat
  • Oats or Barley
  • Corn

Corn is a mainstay for chickens and should be stored whole. Alfalfa is great for the winter months as it has a high protein content. As for field peas, they are good for protein too. To note, soybeans are not a favorable choice for chickens.

Safety

No matter where you might live, raising chickens will always bring out nearby predators, even in suburban areas. Raising chickens in your backyard is an open invitation for an array of animals to come and kill or take them. From above and below there are predators that will go after the chickens as well as the eggs they lay. Common predators of chickens include:

  • Snakes
  • Hawks
  • Foxes
  • Coyotes
  • Raccoons
  • Dogs

Raccoons and dogs are generally the ones that will go after chickens in neighborhoods and homes within city limits. As for chickens in rural settings, snakes, hawks, coyotes, and possums will be your biggest threat.

When building your chicken coop, make sure that you have chicken wire buried into the ground and that the holes are smaller than a snake's body. As for the top part of your coop and run, use netting to keep hawks and other predators from flying or crawling down into it.

Always be sure to check nesting boxes before reaching inside to collect eggs. Snakes like to slither in and eat eggs and then lay there. Here are a few tips to help keep your coop sturdy and tight.

- Predators like to hunt at night, so be sure to lock the chickens up securely in the evening inside their coop.

- Cover all windows and ventilation with wire mesh. Raccoons are known for tearing through chicken wire, so something stronger will be needed.

- Any holes or cracks need to be filled with concrete, caulk, expanding foam, or wire.

- Always keep an eye out for digging or tunnels around the perimeter of the coop and run.

- Keep the area around the chicken coop perimeter cleared out and pest-free. This includes firewood piles, debris, or dead brush.

- Consider a light that will activate when motion is present.

- From overhead, consider the wire mesh but also planting shrubs that the chickens can hide under from hawks. This will also give them shade on sunny days.

Other than predators, the disease will be your next concern. Knowledge of common health problems with chickens will help you keep your flock free of disease and death.

Chicken Health

As with any pet, backyard chickens can fall victim to sickness and disease. Although seeing our pets sick can be scary, most hen health issues can easily be remedied. Several things can cause chicken health issues, and they are:

  • Issues with laying eggs
  • Peck marks or cuts
  • Injuries to their feet
  • Diseases from parasites, viruses, bacteria, or fungus

 

Issues with Egg Laying

Egg-laying issues arise from either vitamin deficiencies, parasites, or infections. The symptoms to watch for will include loss of appetite, weakness, abnormal droppings, lethargy, and breathing issues. If you notice the eggs getting bound (stuck) or the eggshells are soft, consider vitamin supplements or adding extra protein or calcium to their diet. If the egg does get stuck, it will generally work its way out, but you may need a vet. Continuous issues with egg-laying will also require a trip to the vet.

Cuts, Peck Marks, and Foot Injurys

Cuts and peck marks are easily seen and are treatable by isolating the aggressive birds. It is imperative to use colored wound spray to heal and conceal the wounds; otherwise, the chickens will peck at it.

Another less serious health problem in chickens includes foot injuries. Common symptoms include lethargy and sitting more. Bumblefoot is essentially caused by a staph infection and is noticed when pus-filled abscesses appear on the bottom of the chicken's foot. Most foot injuries can be treated with wound wash, antiseptic cream, and wrapping the foot with gauze. If the abscess is too bad, it will need to be drained by the vet.

Diseases

There are several categories of chicken diseases. From parasites to viral, bacterial, and fungal, symptoms can include some of the following:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Feather loss
  • Skin irritation
  • Decline in egg production
  • Coughing and sneezing
  • Discharge from eyes or nose

It is encouraged that if you are going to raise chickens that you know the signs and symptoms of the various diseases that affect chickens so you can treat them immediately. A list of common diseases in chickens are:

Parasitic Diseases: These diseases come from worms, ticks, lice, and mites

Viral Diseases: Infectious bronchitis, avian flu, fowl pox, Newcastle disease, and Marek's disease

Bacterial Diseases: Colibacillosis (caused by E.coli), Salmonellosis (caused by Salmonella), and various chronic respiratory diseases

Fungal Diseases: Brooder pneumonia and ringworm

All of the above can be prevented when the coop and the waterer are cleaned properly and regularly. The health and safety of your chickens should always be a priority to prevent sickness, disease, and death. With enough space, a quality diet, and a clean habitat, you can successfully raise chickens in your backyard.