Beginner's Guide to Raising Backyard Chickens: Backyard Chickens 101

Complete Guide to Raising Chickens in The Backyard

Over the past two decades, keeping chickens as pets has seen a surge in popularity, both in suburban and urban areas. Historical records trace domestic chickens back to their origins from the red jungle fowl in southern China and Indonesia. Today, a wide array of chicken breeds can be found across the globe.

More recently, the appeal of pet chickens has grown even stronger, driven in part by the rising cost of store-bought eggs, exacerbated by the outbreak of avian influenza (bird flu) among commercial egg-laying chicken populations.

Chickens offer various advantages, including companionship, entertainment, a sustainable source of fresh eggs, and valuable organic fertilizer. However, it's crucial to note that not all locations permit chicken-keeping. Therefore, it's imperative to check your state and local regulations to determine if you're allowed to keep chickens and, if so, to ascertain the maximum number of chickens permitted. Chickens are social creatures and thrive in groups, with a minimum of three hens being ideal. For most backyard setups, a flock size of around five to six chickens is optimal.

Furthermore, diverse chicken breeds not only exhibit distinct physical characteristics but also vary in temperament, disease resistance, and egg-laying capabilities. Depending on the breed, the eggs they produce may be white, brown, blue, green, or even pink!

Before bringing a pet chicken into your life, thoroughly research the characteristics of different breeds to ensure that the one you choose aligns with your specific needs and expectations.

Key Points to Remember

  1. Verify the legality of keeping chickens in your area by checking your state laws.
  2. Adequate sunlight exposure is crucial for the well-being of backyard chickens.
  3. Adjust the diet and nutrition of chickens as they age.
  4. When acquiring chicks, choose reputable sources that adhere to the National Poultry Improvement Program (NPIP) guidelines.

Providing Shelter for Backyard Chickens

When it comes to backyard chickens, having proper shelter is essential. The coop should offer ample space, protection against the elements and potential predators, as well as efficient ventilation. A suitable coop can be fashioned from a converted shed, barn, or stable, complete with an adjoining outdoor run. Alternatively, you can opt for pre-made coops or embark on a DIY project to construct one yourself.

The ideal coop design entails a slight elevation off the ground to prevent flooding, windows on either side for natural light, sufficient nest boxes to accommodate multiple hens concurrently, electrical outlets for lighting, optional fans for ventilation, roof air inlets or ventilation holes, and a concrete floor treated with a pet-safe waterproof coating for hassle-free cleaning and drainage.

Once your chickens commence laying eggs, which typically occurs around 20 weeks of age, it's crucial to provide one nest box per every 3–4 hens. These nest boxes should be placed in the quietest and darkest corner of the coop, elevated above the floor, and filled with suitable bedding.

In addition to nest boxes, it's essential to furnish the coop with several perches. These perches should be raised but not too high above the ground. Each bird requires a 12-inch long perch for roosting, with a 14-inch gap between birds. Perches can be crafted from various materials, including wooden dowels, branches, or boards.

For optimal comfort, position the coop in a shaded area to prevent overheating. Chickens thrive in environmental temperatures ranging between 65–75 degrees Fahrenheit. During extreme weather conditions, such as near-freezing temperatures or heatwaves, it's advisable to house the chickens indoors.

Here are the minimum indoor coop space requirements per bird:

  • Adult chickens (eight weeks old and up): 2.5–3 square feet of indoor space, along with 5–10 square feet of outdoor space.
  • Chicks (up to 2 weeks of age): 10 inches square.
  • Juveniles (2 to 8 weeks of age): 1 foot square.

In addition to the indoor coop space, chickens necessitate an outdoor pen or "run" attached to the coop, providing them with space for exercise and foraging. To ensure their safety, these runs should be entirely enclosed by a ¾” wire mesh fence, standing at least six feet tall and buried at a depth of at least 6 inches in the ground. This prevents predators like raccoons, foxes, dogs, and birds from scaling or digging beneath the fence.

When chickens find themselves in overcrowded conditions, they will naturally establish a "pecking order" or hierarchy within their flock. In such circumstances, dominant birds engage in pecking behavior towards submissive ones, which can escalate to injuries or even fatalities. To address this issue, it becomes imperative to offer more space to the chickens. However, if increasing space doesn't alleviate the problem, it may be necessary to consider segregating the birds.

Coop Lighting for Your Backyard Chickens

Whenever possible, allow your chickens outdoor access to bask in natural sunlight. Not only does this exposure provide chickens with the essential light cycles vital for normal egg-laying behaviors, but it also offers them the benefit of ultraviolet (UV) light exposure. This UV light aids in the production of vitamin D through their skin, facilitating the absorption of dietary calcium, a key element for producing healthy eggs.

However, for those times when inclement weather keeps chickens indoors, it becomes crucial to provide them with full-spectrum artificial UV light. The recommended intensity for indoor lighting is 5 lux. Keep in mind that overly bright lights can lead to aggression among the birds.

When raising newly hatched chicks, ensure they receive 8 hours of artificial UV light exposure daily, gradually increasing this by 30 minutes each week until they reach 27 weeks of age. This artificial UV light supports proper bone growth by helping the growing chicks synthesize enough vitamin D through their skin.

Around the 27-week mark, chickens should be exposed to a full 14–16 hours of artificial UV light daily to promote egg production. Be sure to replace UV light bulbs every six months, as their effectiveness diminishes over time, despite their continued brightness.

Flooring and Bedding for Your Backyard Chickens' Coop

A well-designed coop should have a nonslip floor, such as concrete, for ease of cleaning and to prevent slippage, which can lead to foot and leg deformities. Appropriate bedding, suitable for the birds' age, should cover the coop floor. Young chicks should have indoor/outdoor carpeting with small amounts of pine or aspen wood shavings on top, while adults require at least 8 inches of pine or aspen shavings or hemp bedding.

It's important to avoid cedar-based products, as cedar contains aromatic oils that may irritate chickens' respiratory systems and make them more susceptible to infection. While hay, sand, and straw can be used as bedding for nest boxes, they are non-absorbent and prone to mold growth when wet, so they should not be used as floor bedding.

Maintaining the Right Temperature in Your Backyard Chickens' Coop

For young chicks unable to regulate their body temperatures, heat lamps are essential. These lamps should be positioned 20 inches above the bedding and placed in the center of the chick housing area. The temperature for chicks under 2 weeks of age should be maintained at 95°F. For chicks aged 4-8 weeks, the temperature should be kept at 80°F. As chicks grow, lower the environmental temperature by 5 degrees each week by raising the heat lamp 3 inches higher from the floor.

Adult chickens, on the other hand, should ideally be kept at temperatures between 70-75°F. Excessive heat can result in decreased egg production, appetite, and overall well-being, and can even lead to stress and mortality. To cater to their needs, ensure the coop is insulated during winter and well-ventilated with fans during summer.

Keeping Your Backyard Chickens' Coop Clean

Routine maintenance is essential to keep coops clean and healthy for your chickens. Daily spot cleaning should include removing droppings, soiled bedding, and uneaten food. Chickens should be temporarily relocated outside while cleaning, and the coop's electrical supply should be switched off for safety.

Monthly or more often, it's necessary to completely remove and replace soiled bedding. To clean the coop effectively, mix 1 teaspoon of bleach with 0.5 gallons of hot water and use a wire brush to scrub away dried debris. Commercially manufactured coop cleaners are also available options. After cleaning, thoroughly rinse out any bleach or cleaner residue, and ensure the coop is fully dry before allowing the chickens back in.

Ensuring Proper Nutrition for Your Backyard Chickens

Your chickens require clean, fresh water and food on a daily basis. To maintain their health, it's crucial to wash feeders and waterers daily with hot soapy water to keep them sanitary. Ideally, use feeders and waterers designed for chickens, or opt for non-tippable bowls. Position these dishes a few inches above the ground to prevent contamination from droppings and to avoid accidental drownings.

Elevated feeders and waterers also serve as barriers to insects and other pests. Waterers should be refilled at least twice a day to ensure a continuous supply of fresh water and to prevent dehydration. For feeders, allocate 3 inches in length per adult chicken, while waterers should provide 0.75 inches of space per adult chicken. These measurements help reduce aggression and ensure each bird receives adequate nutrition.

Homemade Diets vs. Commercial Feed for Your Backyard Chickens

Homemade diets often lack essential nutrients, making them unsuitable for chickens. In contrast, commercially available high-quality feed, available in pellets and crumbles, offers balanced nutrition tailored to age and life stage. This commercial feed serves as the foundation of a healthy diet and is critical for successful egg production.

Chicks under six weeks of age should be fed with "starter" feed, while chicks between 6-16 weeks of age require "grower" feed. Once they reach 16 weeks, egg-laying hens should be switched to "layer" feed.

It is essential for pet owners to adjust their chickens' diets as the birds mature and their dietary needs evolve, especially as they enter the egg-laying phase.

Variety in Backyard Chickens' Diet

Apart from commercially available feeds, chickens relish small portions of vegetables, fruits, "scratch" (a blend of grains like barley, oats, wheat, seeds, and legumes), and occasional treats. Chickens that have access to the outdoors particularly enjoy foraging for untreated, pesticide-free grasses, plants, and insects.

Balanced Diet for Backyard Chickens

Although scratch, table scraps, and fresh greens (like tomatoes, corn, spinach, and kale) can be included to enrich chickens' diets and offer foraging opportunities, they should constitute less than 10% of their overall diet to prevent nutritional deficiencies. Treats should only be provided in the afternoon, after the chickens have consumed their main diet, and should not exceed what they can finish in 15-20 minutes.

Cautions in Feeding Backyard Chickens

While chickens can enjoy limited amounts of greens, it's important to avoid feeding them fatty, sugary, spoiled, or toxic foods such as raw green potato peels, nightshade plants, raw beans, avocado skin and pits, alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco. Any fresh greens left uneaten after 10 hours should be promptly removed. Additionally, to prevent spoilage, only store up to two months' worth of pellets or crumbles at a time, and use pest-proof containers.

Supplements for Laying Chickens

In addition to their regular diet, laying chickens should receive small quantities of crushed oyster shell grit (soluble/digestible calcium grit) to meet their calcium needs for healthy eggshells.

Insufficient dietary calcium often results in chickens laying shell-less or soft-shelled, broken eggs. Oyster shell can be provided in a shallow dish for chickens to access as needed, but it should not exceed 10% of their daily diet. Offer it in the afternoon, after they have consumed their primary diet of pellets or crumbles, and remove any excess after 15-20 minutes.

Egg-Laying Habits in Backyard Chickens

The majority of hens commence daily egg laying between 18-24 weeks of age, with peak egg production occurring between 1-2 years. Prompt egg collection encourages continued laying. As winter approaches and daylight hours decrease, chickens tend to lay fewer eggs. At 18 months of age, chickens undergo a gradual molt lasting 2-4 months, during which egg production diminishes. Subsequently, an annual molt takes place.

Caring for Backyard Chickens

Acquiring Chickens: What You Need to Know

Prospective chicken owners should strive to purchase chicks exclusively from organizations adhering to the National Poultry Improvement Program (NPIP). Companies following NPIP guidelines typically offer healthier birds, making it imperative for pet owners to seek out NPIP-compliant sources when acquiring chicks or chickens.

Annual Checkups and Vaccinations for Backyard Chickens

To mitigate health issues, poultry flocks should undergo yearly checkups, including blood and stool tests, and receive parasite control administered by a licensed veterinarian with expertise in poultry. Furthermore, all chickens should be vaccinated against Marek's disease, a highly contagious and deadly virus for chickens. Marek's vaccinations are usually administered to chicks either before hatching or within the first day after hatching.

Pet owners should introduce exclusively those chickens to their groups that have received vaccinations for Marek's disease.

Vaccinations in Backyard Chickens

Typically, vaccines other than Marek's are not frequently administered to backyard flocks, as they are more commonly used in large-scale poultry production facilities. However, if your flock is diagnosed with diseases such as fowl cholera, fowlpox, or coccidiosis, licensed veterinarians can provide vaccinations for these conditions.

Highly Virulent Avian Influenza in Commercial Poultry

Currently, highly virulent avian influenza (HPAI) is spreading among commercial poultry flocks worldwide, primarily transmitted by asymptomatic wild birds during migration. Infected poultry exhibit sudden death, reduced energy, loss of appetite, incoordination, purple discoloration and/or swelling of body parts, diarrhea, nasal discharge, coughing, sneezing, decreased egg production, and abnormal eggs. If pet owners notice these symptoms, they should promptly consult a veterinarian. Additionally, backyard chickens should be isolated from wild birds, including ducks, geese, hawks, and other raptors, to prevent disease spread.

Biosecurity Measures for Poultry Owners

To minimize the spread of HPAI and other contagious diseases, poultry owners must adhere to rigorous biosecurity practices.

Illness Signs in Backyard Chickens

Common signs of illness in a chicken flock include reduced energy, ruffled feathers, delayed molting, abdominal swelling, changes in eggshell quality, decreased egg production, difficulty breathing, wounds, distended crop, foot lesions, limping, diarrhea, and sudden unexplained death. If a bird displays any of these symptoms, it should be isolated from the flock and seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible.

Zoonotic Diseases and Chicken Interaction

Chickens can carry zoonotic diseases that can be transmitted to humans, and vice versa. Infections like salmonella, listeria, E. coli, and HPAI may spread between people and poultry. To prevent infection transmission, individuals should wash their hands after handling chickens or their supplies, and those who are unwell should avoid interacting with chickens until they recover.

Safe Handling of Backyard Chickens

To establish a connection with chicks and new chickens, pet owners should handle them gently for a few minutes each day. When picking up adult chickens, avoid chasing them; instead, entice them with food to approach you. When handling, ensure their wings are secure and support their lower body. Never pick up a chicken by its feet or neck, as it can cause distress and physical harm. After handling, always wash hands due to the potential for salmonella contamination.

Enrichment for Backyard Chickens

Apart from shelter, food, and water, chickens require psychological enrichment for their well-being. They enjoy various substrates to explore, including grass turf, peat moss, log tops, stone, and mulch.

Dust Baths for Backyard Chickens

Chickens don't bathe in water but adore dust baths to remove dirt, oil, and insects from their feathers. Provide a shallow container or coop floor with clean sand, peat moss, or diatomaceous earth for dust bathing. Clean these containers daily to maintain freshness.

Toys for Backyard Chickens

Chickens can benefit from perches, platforms, and toys like balls, mirrors, and objects to peck at (e.g., pinwheels). DIY options include hanging heads of lettuce or broccoli or offering whole pumpkins for pecking.

Entertainment for Backyard Chickens

Some chickens enjoy music and watching television, while others can be trained for various activities like identifying colors, walking on a leash, picking cards, playing tiny instruments, or navigating agility courses, providing mental stimulation and bonding opportunities with their owners.

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