Done right, chickens can be at once the easiest animals to raise and provide many hours of entertainment, beauty, and an unending supply of delicious eggs. If you’re new to chickens, fear not! With a little planning and preparation you can make chicken ownership a painless proposition. If fact, other than collecting eggs a well-designed and built home for your chickens should require only infrequent attention. You should be able to go on vacation for days or even weeks at a time secure in the knowledge your birds will be fine.
This is a very basic guide to chicken husbandry, and of course it may need to be adapted to your specific circumstances. Do your research, and pursue a strategy that is most comfortable for you. The tips below reflect our experience raising chickens and give you a general idea of methods that have been proven to keep chickens safe, healthy, and happy on our farm.
We ship day-old chicks to our customers. When chicks hatch they absorb their yolk for about 72 hours and usually need no additional nutrition during that period. We usually ship them with Gro-gel (it’s sort of like jellified Gatorade for chicks) to keep them hydrated during shipment. By the time they arrive at your home they should be ready to eat and drink.
When the chicks arrive they’re ready to be placed in a brooder where the warmest spot is about 95° F. A large plastic bin or cardboard box can work well as a brooder. The floor should have a material that provides traction like paper towels that can be readily replaced when they get dirty. (Newspaper, pine shavings, and magazines do not work as well.) A heat source is usually necessary to establish the correct temperature, and an incandescent light bulb suspended in the middle of the box can be used for this purpose if it is securely mounted so it can’t fall into the box. By using a thermometer placed at floor level you can experiment with the height of the light that will give you the correct temperature. The chicks will move in and out of the heat zone to regulate their temperature. If you don’t want to DIY a heater element you can also buy small infrared brooder heater panels from companies like Brinsea. They’re very easy to use and clean. The brooder should be set up and brought to a steady temperature about 24 hours before the chicks arrive.
The chicks should always have access to food and clean water. The easiest and best options are to purchase feed called ‘chick starter crumbles’ and a plastic jar chick waterer from a farm store or online. The chick starter can be medicated or unmedicated, but medicated chick starter provided for the first eight weeks of life does reduce chick mortality from common bacterial infections. The chick starter can be placed in a plastic chick feeder to reduce waste, but simply placing a small mound of feed on the floor of the brooder is sufficient to keep the chicks happy. The waterer should be frequently washed and fresh water added to keep the water supply clean because chicks inevitably treat a waterer as both a water fountain and a toilet.
Each week reduce the temperature in the brooder by about 5°. This can usually be achieved by raising the light bulb suspended over the brooder box. At about two weeks chicks begin developing oil glands in their skin that aid in regulating their body temperature, and after four weeks heat is generally unnecessary for the chicks unless you’re moving the chicks outdoors and into a cold climate.
Between four weeks to five months the chicks will rapidly grow and go through a number of stages including a look best described as ‘the awkward teenage years.’ You can feed the chicks starter crumbles during this period or gradually switch them to grower crumbles. At some point in this period you’ll want to move the chicks outdoors once it’s clear they can withstand the weather.
The most hassle-free set-up for the backyard chicken hobbyist is to build a coop that is enclosed by a fenced run. The general idea is that the chickens will go in the coop several times a day to feed, get water, and lay eggs. Then, at night the chickens will retreat to the coop to sleep in a secure area. During the day the chickens will spend most of their time in the run scratching on ground, socializing, and taking dust baths.
There are hundreds of coop designs and finished coops available on the web. As a rule of thumb about two square feet of floor space in the coop will easily accommodate a full-grown chicken if the chickens also have access to a run. So, a coop that has a floor area of 4’x4’ will accommodate about eight chickens.
One design that seems to work well is to have a coop that is elevated high enough for you to easily use a rake under the coop. Ideally the coop has a wire bottom with about 1”x1” vinyl coated hardware cloth, and waste feed and manure can fall through the wire mesh to the ground below. On the ground you should place some compostable medium –hay works very well—and occasionally rake out the medium and place it on a remote compost pile. (This hay/manure mix will over the course of time turn into some of the best compost you can find, and it has no odor other than a pleasant and mild earthy aroma once it is fully composted.) The frequency of raking is dictated by the number of chickens you keep and the weather. But, if you have just a few hens you can often go many weeks between rakings.
Since it’s elevated, the coop should have a cleated plank the chickens can climb to access the coop door, and it’s nice to have egg boxes that you can access from the outside to collect eggs without having to walk into the run each day. Chickens also like wooden perches in the coop where they will roost at night. The perches should be made of untreated wood.
A hanging feeder and a nipple waterer should be placed in the coop. This will keep the feed dry, and the nipple watering system is a hassle-free device that will give your birds clean water at all times. If you really want to reduce your workload, connect the nipple waterer to a dedicated water line, and you’ll never have to refill a waterer. (You’ll need to use a pressure reduction valve to step down the water pressure for the nipple watering system to properly function.) A full grown chicken eats about four ounces of feed per day, so a hanging feeder that holds 20 lb. of feed can keep a group of four hens fed for about three weeks. Hanging feeders and nipple watering systems are available from any number of sources online including eBay.
The fenced run that surrounds the coop should allow the adult birds to scratch around and exercise during the day but not escape. Depending on the breed a 6’ fence is usually adequate to restrain large chickens. Build the run so it provides at least ten square feet per chicken, although larger is always better. You can count on the chickens eventually eating any plants that grow in the run.
The run should be built so it is secure from predators, and most commonly predators will try to dig under the wire walls at the ground level. Therefore, it is important to bury wire or some other barrier to keep out predators, and it helps if you run an electrified hot wire a few inches of the ground around the perimeter of the run. If you have airborne predators like owls and hawks it also helps to put nylon netting over the top of the run.
Here’s a picture of our chicken coop and run that we use to raise Bresse chickens. This is larger and more elaborate that a backyard hobbyist needs (we raise 20 or so birds in this set-up), but the picture may help you visualize the general principles of putting a coop within a protected run and keeping the waterer, nestbox, and feeder inside the coop. This is a very low maintenance, secure environment for chickens that has been in operation for years with no problems.
As a general rule hens will begin laying between five and six months of age although this varies quite a bit between individuals and breeds. Hens of most heritage breeds will lay about 150-200 eggs their first year and then egg production will drop about 20% each year thereafter. Hens quit laying in the autumn when they molt (they shed their old feathers and grow new ones). Under natural light conditions hens will reach their peak laying in about April each year.
Roosters will be sexually mature at about six months also and will begin crowing and mating with the hens. You’ll only need one rooster to cover as many as 20 hens if you want fertile eggs, and hens will lay eggs just as readily if no rooster is present at all. (If you don’t have a rooster in your flock you’ll miss some of the beauty associated with chickens, but you’ll also avoid any rooster drama.) As a general rule you cannot introduce an adult rooster to another adult rooster and expect them to peacefully work out their differences. Roosters are strongly territorial animals and in a confined space will sometimes fight to the death with an interloper rooster.
When chickens become adults they can be fed a diet of laying pellets. Feed given in this format tends to reduce waste. You can also supplement their diet with any kitchen scraps consisting of grains, nuts, or vegetables. (Avoid fatty foods, meat, or dairy-based products.) Chickens are clever opportunists and will become extremely tame if fed by hand.
We hope this brief overview of chicken husbandry proves helpful. If you’re new to raising chickens, start small and slowly grow your flock. Few things are as beautiful or rewarding as a well-kept flock of exotic chickens, and with a little planning and preparation you can have the flock of your dreams.