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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Backyard Chicken Primer

It is that time of year when mail order chicks start to arrive at your local farm supply stores or the 4-H clubs are looking for homes for the chicks they hatch for their educational projects. Few people can resist taking a few moments to peek inside those metal enclosures and check out the source of the peeping which greets them upon entering their local farm store or Agway.

Backyard chickens are becoming more popular as people continue to seek ways to improve their health and lifestyle through "green living". Chickens serve several purposes. You'll have wholesome eggs (bigger and more nutritious than those from mass chicken productions), free manure, a source for your vegetable scraps, and pest and weed control in the areas they are allowed to roam.

Before anything else, check your local zoning ordinances to make sure you are allowed to have livestock, and if so check if they are allowed to roam free or if they have to be fenced in an enclosure.

In terms of what type to get, don't think a chicken is a chicken. Some types are for show and mainly a novelty for the hobbyist, others are for meat, eggs, or both. Aim for what is called "dual-purpose" breeds. These types are best for a backyard flock because they are hardier in handling weather extremes, and produce both meat and eggs. Many of the modern chicken varieties actually have had the foraging instinct bred out of them. You want chickens that will be a help in controlling insects and be able to fend for themselves a bit.

Our favorites have been the Rhode Island Reds and the Plymouth Barred Rocks. Both are friendly birds and easy to handle without the reputation of being mean. The Rhode Island Reds (pictured above) are excellent egg layers. If you want chickens primarily for large eggs, than these hardy, 6 to 8 lb. reddish-brown birds are a good choice. In my experience, the hens are usually reddish and the roosters can either be reddish, white, or a mixture of both.


Barred Plymouth Rocks are an old yet common breed raised for both eggs and meat. These attractive, black and white speckled birds are a bit heavier than the Reds, but also docile and gentle. In this picture, the chicken is giving itself a dust bath. Chickens love to scratch a hole, then roll and ruffle its feathers to clean itself and remove parasites.


Should you decide to purchase chicks, you'll have to be prepared before you bring them home. A brooding area must be waiting and ready for their arrival. Chicks grow fast but initially you can just use a large plastic storage tub or any "fenced-in" area that will give each chick about half a square foot. We use one of those wire dog crates with a blanket wrapped around in case of draft. Because we have cats, we wrapped 1-inch hole size chicken wire around the whole thing and attached it with little cable ties. If you use this idea and have your pen in an outdoor structure this will also help keep little raccoon paws from reaching through the cage. You can spread pine shavings, straw or ground up corn cobs on the floor of the enclosure. We use newspaper because it is easier to clean up. You will soon discover how messy chickens are and this change is done twice a day. The first week, we put paper towels on top of the newspaper so the babies don't slip.

These little birds have to be kept warm. Purchase a heat lamp and initially hang it about 12 inches above your chicks. You'll need to screw a hook into something from which to hang the chain which in turn holds the heat lamp. Get two of those metal S-hooks, one for holding the chain to the hook above you (ours is in a beam in our basement) and the other holds the heat lamp to the chain. Turn this on several hours before you bring your chicks home so the temperature around them is around 95 degrees F. To determine if your chicks are warm enough, just keep an eye on them. If they are content, they'll be quiet and spread themselves out comfortably while resting. Should they be cold they'll huddle in a heap in trying to keep warm. If they are too hot they'll try to get away from the heat source.

You'll need a water source. Don't expect the chickens to just drink out of a bowl. All they'll do is step in it and dump the whole thing. You'll need a screw-on base that fits either a quart size mason jar or a plastic waterer, which once filled and turned right side up, will suffice about a dozen chicks. Once your chicks are old enough to be out in your coop you'll need a waterer with the gallon size capacity. Gently dip your babies' beaks into the water so they'll know where to find water. Access to a continuous supply of water is very important.

For a feeder, you'll need about 1 inch of feed space per chick. Again, don't just put food in a dish. Purchase an actual chicken feeder with the little openings so they don't just step in it and spill everything. At the feed store you'll notice the various types of feed. For new chicks, you'll need what is called Chick Starter which is 20% protein. That is all you need to feed them for now. Keep their food dish filled. Remember, these little birds grow rapidly.

When you purchase these chicks, be aware they are only a day or so old when they arrive at the farm store. Upon arrival they may be very stressed, hungry and thirsty. If you get yours from the farm store they'll be settled in by the time you purchase them. But if you get them by mail order and you receive a phone call from the post office that they have arrived, don't delay in getting them picked up and taken care of.

Female chickens are called pullets up until they are of laying age which is around 18 - 20 weeks. At the hatchery, the sexes are sorted before shipping. Those at the farm store are usually females since most people want them for egg laying. Be aware that this sorting is only about 85% accurate and there is always the chance you'll end up with a baby rooster.

What you decide to do with your rooster is up to you. Some people don't want any roosters because they can be nasty, noisy for the neighbors, or just something else to feed. You don't need a rooster for hens to lay eggs. The eggs just won't be fertilized. Your hens may be calmer without a rooster around but in my experience, as long as the birds have enough room to get away from each other, the stress level is low. Also, roosters are very handy in protecting their little harem from predators. Because I cannot kill anything and even the occasional rooster becomes my "pet", we've acquired up to five at a time. It is fascinating to watch their behavior. The only reason I get away with so many is because we have a fairly large enclosure and enough birds that the roosters are not on top of each other and once they establish their pecking order, their scuffles are few. There are dominance matches, but the birds seem to work it out with little bloodshed. I've only had one rooster who was nasty. He occasionally turned on me, but since I knew the "look" I could deal with him before he actually did any harm. It seems the trick is to not show him you are intimidated. Act like another rooster would. Stand your guard, take a few steps towards him and if necessary, pin him down for a few minutes until he learns submission. If you run, he'll be in pursuit and treat you like the lowest chicken on his totem pole. Roosters I've had since then were born here and just seem to accept me as part of their lives and of course they know I am the source of their food and water. Here is an excellent post all about roosters.

By week 2, you won't need the paper towels any longer. Remember to change the newspaper and check food and water levels twice a day. Each week you'll be raising the heat lamp a inch or so to lower the temperature about 5 degrees a week. By the time the heat lamp is raised to the point the temperature below it is 70 degrees and your chicks are five weeks old the heat lamp is no longer necessary.

If you have an electric source and can keep your chicks safe and warm, you may keep them in the chicken coop or barn from the start. We don't have electric in our pole barn so I keep the chicks in our basement till they have outgrown my pen and are just too messy. This goes on till around week four or five. By this time I take them outside on nice days but bring them back in at night and back under the heat lamp. Once night time temperatures stay above 50 degrees the chicks no longer need the heat light and are moved out to the barn to stay. Here in Pennsylvania, by the time that happens it is usually May into June.

If you already have older chickens, don't mix them without gradual exposure. The older chickens should be able to see the chicks but not be actually mixed with them until they are nine to ten weeks old. Once they can mingle the young chickens will keep to themselves and avoid the larger birds, but as the pecking order is established eventually they'll work things out on their own. They'll be pecking and chasing but chickens soon learn their place and accept it.

By eight weeks, switch the feed to Chick Grower which is 18% protein. By now the chicks will be pecking at grit, oyster shells and kitchen scraps. Chickens appreciate your vegetable scraps and love pasta and rice but not too frequently as to unbalance their diet. You don't want your birds overweight or it'll effect their egg production.

By the time your chicks are 18 to 20 weeks you'll start to see tiny pullet eggs. These little things are so cute and gradually increase in size and frequency. By this time you'll be switching their food to Chick Layer which is 16% protein and this will be their mainstay diet. I mix cracked corn and sunflower seed in with my layer crumbles. I think the addition of corn helps them lay better throughout the winter. The sunflower seed is very nutritious and also helps add additional calcium to their diets, as does oyster shells. You have to make sure your birds get additional calcium to help prevent the eggs from developing soft shells. Soft shells have the risk of breaking inside the hen which can easily cause infection. Such is usually fatal to your hen.

The frequency and number of eggs your birds lay goes with the seasons, amount of light available and temperature. We don't offer additional light in our coop, so egg production for us is strictly seasonal. In March, egg production starts to increase, peaks by late Spring, slows down during the heat of the summer and by the severe cold of winter may drop to one or two eggs a day or stop completely for a while. Chickens need adequate water or you'll soon see a drop in egg production. Water runs out in the summer heat and freezes in the winter cold, so keep it available.

Don't expect your hens to lay every single day. Chickens are good layers for about two years and by then they slow down. At the end of their first year of producing eggs at about 18 months old, the hens will molt. They will lose their feathers and stop laying for two to four months. Don't think your funny looking bird has been plucked by the other chickens. This is normal and will grow back. Once egg production slows down, you have to decide why you have these birds in the first place. Some people want their chickens for other purposes besides eggs, such as insect control and manure. Others prefer to have them butchered as a meat source and start fresh. For a continuous supply of eggs you'll have to raise chicks every spring or every other year. I have discovered that nature takes care of things herself and I'll lose a chicken here and there due to the physical stress of egg bearing. Once a chicken shows signs of going downhill I've had little luck in saving them. My hens live on average 2 to 5 years, but I still have a rooster who will be 9 this year.

Be aware that chickens are totally helpless against a number of predators. If you do let them roam during the day, make sure they have a secure shelter to come in for the night or before long you'll be counting one less daily chicken once discovered by fox in the area. During the day, they are at risk for hawks, so at least try to have them roam around under some type of tree cover which makes it difficult for the swoop of these large birds.

If you do want their help with bug and weed control, be sure to fence off areas you don't want destroyed by their natural scratching behavior. Any growing vegetables will be eaten right down to the ground. As far as the garden and flower beds go, it is best to let them into those areas either before you plant or after you harvest. That way they'll clean up for you without creating havoc.

Unless you provide a sheltered hen house, chickens will seek shelter for the night in trees or under bushes. Once it is dark, they cannot see very well so will settle in somewhere at dusk and remain very quiet till dawn. Though birds survive in the wild, domestic chickens fall prey very easily to fox, dogs, coyotes, hawks and owls.

Responsible chicken owners provide their birds with a safe coop to return to each evening. Provide each chicken with at least 4 ft. of space in the coop and access to an outside enclosure, preferably fenced in for protection. In addition to places to roost, your hens will need bedding boxes in which to lay their eggs. Provide one nest per 4 or 5 birds. They will share. Position the nest boxes up off the floor and add straw or wood shavings.

Chicken manure builds up ammonia very quickly so it is imperative to prevent respiratory disease that your coup has good ventilation and a source for light to come in. Good sanitation is very important. Clean the manure out of the coop when necessary. As soon as the ground is workable in early spring, spread the manure pile. Take advantage of its high nitrogen by spreading and working it under several weeks before you plant your garden. Fresh manure is very acidic and will burn your plants.

Tips on how to build a coop can be found on the internet. We used a great old book called "Grow It!" by Richard W. Langer. It was copywritten in 1972 but it a great source of information for someone who wants to live closer to the land and less dependent on the system.

Our coop is a converted horse stable in our pole barn and opens up through the back to an enclosed part of our back yard. I used 6 ft. high chicken wire cable tied to 7 ft. bamboo poles as my fencing system. I like it because it was easy enough for me as a woman to do myself and not as expensive as typical fencing. An added plus is that because chicken wire "gives" and is so tall, raccoons don't like to climb it. As long as the wire is tight to the ground and I let the grass grow it sort of anchors itself and I've had only a few incidents of signs of something trying to dig under. Of course, it helps to have the smell of dogs around to deter roaming foxes. Chickens aren't built to fly a distance but they can get off the ground for short spurts. The height of your fence should be at least 4 feet.

The drawback to using this type of fence is that you must maintain it. Should a winter storm give a wet snow which could accumulate on the chicken wire it may be heavy enough to snap the poles. A downed fence leaves opportunity for predators or dogs to get to your chickens. After a snow, just take a walk around your fence and check for any problems before opening up the coop for the day. I have found that the chicken wire lasts about five years before showing signs of rust and weakness in the wire. The cable ties used to attach the wire to the poles are made of plastic which over time gets brittle from exposure to the sun. Periodically check the condition of the wire, ties and poles and replace if necessary.

The alternative to using bamboo poles is to invest in strong, metal fence posts. Should you use another type of wire fencing just be aware of the size of the openings when it comes time to introduce your baby chickens to the flock. You don't want them slipping out.

Don't have time for all the work of raising your own chicks?
If you have a rooster than your eggs will be fertilized. This gives you the option to take advantage of the opportunity should one of your hens go broody. This is when the hen's mother instinct kicks in and she'll remain on her nest. Late spring, early summer is the time of year to watch for these signs. You can tell by her body language for she'll fan out her body and cluck in protest should you or other hens bother her. Let her alone until she has about 10 - 12 eggs under her and then prepare a nesting site away from the other hens. You could leave her where she is but what happens is at the times she does get off the nest to eat and drink, other hens may continue to add eggs to her nest. Too many eggs result in the inability to keep all of them warm enough and then the ones on the edges get cold and won't hatch. Too many eggs on top of each other also result in getting broken and making a mess of the nest. Within 2 - 3 days of hatching out, the hen will ignore any unhatched eggs to care for her brood, therefore, if there were varied incubation ages among the eggs there will be half formed chicks doomed to die.

It is best to wait until night to move the hen and her nest of eggs. There is a much better chance she'll settle back down in her new surroundings. A large dog crate works well as an isolated, protected area for the mother hen. Put newspaper on the floor of the crate. Add pine shavings to a card board box and carefully place the eggs in this new nest. Put the waterer and food far enough away that it won't spill and get the area all wet. You will have to change the newspaper daily. Wet and waste invites disease which is one thing you don't want near your new chicks.

Chicks need a 21 day incubation period. Once they hatch leave them alone to dry off. The mama hen will show them how to drink so there isn't the need to dip their beaks into the water source. With all the fussing with heat lights when we raise the chicks ourselves, it is amazing how a mama chicken can keep all her babies warm enough. The clutch is ok in the dog crate for about a week until you see signs of crowding. I keep this crate in plain view of the other chickens so they get used to the chicks from the start. Mama chicken will protect and care for her brood but for their safety if you have a larger enclosure to move them into until they develop feathers that is ideal. Plus, if the chicks are separate from the older chickens you have more control over keeping the starter feed separate from the layer feed eaten by the others . Once the chicks are mixed with the other chickens there will be some chasing around as the chickens establish their order with these newcomers but they do work it out.

Mama makes the best teacher


Last, a note about rodent pests. We have a pole barn with a dirt floor so we always have a problem with rats tunneling under the ground. We make sure to store the chicken food in our basement, not in the barn and we don't leave the dishes in with the chickens overnight. Should you choose to use rat poison be aware that rats tend to drag things around, which leaves the chance the chickens or family pets may get into it.
Safer methods include having natural predators, such as a rat terrier dog, cats, or put up a Barn Owl nesting box to encourage owls to take up residence. You would think Barn Owls would be too small to be a threat to a grown chicken, but opinions differ. Some say only the Great Horned Owl is a threat, others don't trust the Barn Owls either.  Definitely the younger, smaller birds would be at risk. Just be sure your chickens have a safe coop to return to at dusk, which is the time of day owls are out to hunt.
Mice and rats hate the smell of peppermint. Have a small patch of this mint (this perennial does spread so plant it in a big deep tub or plant somewhere you don't care if it spreads) and keep cuttings spread around suspicious points of entry.  You can also add peppermint essential oil to a sprayer bottle and spray around the perimeter of your coop. Use about 5 drops per oz. of water and add to a sprayer bottle.

Chickens are work but once you have them and compare home range eggs to store bought it is hard to give it up. There is no comparison between the nutritional value of a pale yellow commercial egg to the deep yellow, almost orange color of the egg from a happy chicken. Watching a chicken's behavior in a healthy environment can be very rewarding. These birds can peck, scratch, take a dirt bath, stretch their wings, all without the stress from overcrowded, disease prone conditions found in factory farming. I worry very little about salmonella breakouts and since hormones and antibiotics are not used on my birds to push for more egg production, they have a chance for normal, healthy lifespans. An added bonus is that I don't worry about the risks of using raw eggs in such foods as homemade smoothies or egg nog.