Raising Chickens in the Backyard

Ultimate Guide to Raising and Keeping Backyard Chickens

So, you want to start keeping chickens?  Maybe you hope to produce a ready source of homegrown organic eggs for your pantry.  Or maybe you think it would be a fun learning experience for your children (and yourself!)  Whatever the reason, many people today, who never would have even considered getting chickens a few years ago, are increasingly drawn to the idea.  And with good reason.  Raising your own chickens for eggs can be an incredibly rewarding experience.  What’s more, chickens are fascinating and fun to watch and relatively easy to keep, even in a small home garden or yard.  

However, as with any pet, it is important to do your research before purchasing chickens.  Though they are generally hardy and easy to care for, they do need regular care and maintenance to thrive.  It is also important to consider what your goals are for your chickens.  Do you just want to produce enough eggs for your family or are you interested in selling eggs to neighbors or even at a local farmer’s market?  Do you want to breed your chickens?  Does your neighborhood have any restrictions about chickens?  These questions and more are important to consider before you bring your chicks home.  

This guide is intended to get you started asking the right questions, developing your gameplan for raising your chickens and helping prepare you against the common issues beginning “chicken parents” often face.  Read on for tips on getting started with your first chickens and how to raise them into happy and productive egg-laying hens.

Necessities:

Brooder
Heat lamp, heating pad or brooder plate
Bedding material
Young chicken feed
Chick feeder
Chick waterer
Thermometer
Coop
Run
Sweet PDZ
Chicken feed
Grit
Oyster shell
Chicken waterer
Chicken feeder
Wormer

A few basics on chickens (and some chicken myths that just aren’t true)

  • Chickens have a life expectancy of around 8 to 10 years.  The oldest chicken on record was a hen named “Matilda.”  Matilda lived to the ripe old age of 16!
  • The average hen begins laying eggs at about 18 weeks old and will continue laying eggs for her entire life.  
  • At peak egg laying age, most hens will lay one egg per day.
  • Hens will lay fewer eggs as they age.  In general, two-year-old hens will lay about 80% of the number or eggs they laid the first year of their lives.  By four years old, most hens will be laying about 60% of the number of eggs they laid their first year and that number will continue dropping as your hens get older.
  • Some breeds are known to lay more eggs than other breeds.  Australorps, leghorns and Rhode Island Reds are some of the most prolific egg layers.
  • Egg shell color has nothing to do with chickens being raised more naturally or their diet.  Different breeds lay different colored eggs.  Many supermarket eggs have white shells because many egg production facilities use leghorns, which lay white eggs, as their layers.
  • Hens will lay eggs with or without a rooster.  There are many reasons to keep a rooster, but they are not needed for your hens to lay eggs.
  • Roosters will always crow.  No matter how hard you try, you cannot train a rooster to not crow.

Getting Started with Chicks

Before you adopt your first chicks, it is important you carefully define why you want to raise chickens in the first place.  Being clear with your goals will help you to define what sort of enclosure you should build, how much time you will need to invest in your chickens, your general maintenance budget and more.  

Considering that the average hen of egg-laying age will produce an egg a day, if you only want to produce enough eggs to feed your family, you’ll only need to raise about three or four hens.  If, however, you want to sell eggs, calculate how many chickens you want to raise based on those goals.  It is also important to consider if you want to breed your chickens and what your plans are for older hens.  If you don’t intend on breeding chickens, you won’t need a rooster.  On the other hand, if you do want to breed your chickens, be sure to leave enough room in your flock for future generations.  Additionally, as older hens will produce fewer eggs, do you intend on purchasing more hens in several years to ensure your egg production remains the same?  If so, you’ll want to save room in your flock for these future additions.

One extremely important bit of background research that should not be overlooked is if there are any restrictions against keeping chickens in your area.  Chicken rearing forums are always chocked full of horror stories about HOAs telling chicken parents they have 30 days to rehome their flocks.  Always be sure to check around before purchasing your hens.  If you rent, touch base with your landlord.  If you live in an HOA, contact them.  If you’re unsure about any town wide restrictions in your area, call your town hall just to be on the safe side.  Chickens are charming creatures and it’s hard not to become attached to them and no one wants to rehome hens they’ve raised from chicks.  Be sure you know you’ve got the greenlight to raise chickens before you start. 

Setting up a brooder

Adult chickens are very hardy birds than can withstand winter temperatures without issue.  However, chicks under six weeks old are not fully feathered and so they cannot regulate their body temperature.  That is why, if you ever visit a farm, you see young chicks clamoring for access to their mother’s fluffy, warm feathers.  Without their mother’s warmth, chicks raised indoors need a cozy, warm brooder to ensure they remain happy and healthy, so it is imperative you prep your brooder before bringing your chicks home.

When selecting a brooder, there are many different options.  You can construct a wooden box for your babies, or you can purchase a premade brooder from hatcheries or garden centers.  Some popular options are DIY brooders made of cardboard, wire puppy playpens, galvanized stock tanks or steel tubs.  You will want to select a brooder that is large enough to comfortably fit all your chicks, that’s roughly ½ to 1 square foot of space per chick.  Because you will be using a heating element, you will want to steer clear of plastic brooders, which can release vapors when heated that will be harmful to your birds.  Large cardboard boxes can also provide a suitable home for young chicks but be sure all heating elements are properly secured to prevent fire risks.  Because young chicks tend to be messy, cardboard boxes will need to be regularly replaced as their bottoms accumulate moisture.  Ideally, the sides of your brooder should be at least 2’ tall as chicks can jump surprisingly high.  If your brooder is shorter or you have other pets in your house, place a screen on top of your brooder to ensure your chicks’ safety.

Once you’ve selected your brooder, next you will need to choose a heating element.  Heat lamps tend to be the most popular choice, mostly because they are relatively inexpensive and easy to find.  The issue with heat lamps is that they can pose a fire risk, so if you are using one, be sure it is properly secured with a clamp and not touching anything flammable (like bedding or a cardboard brooder).  Chick brooder lamps most often use 120V 250W red heat bulbs, as the red color does not affect chicks’ sleep cycles and discourages chicks from pecking each other.

Beyond heat lamps, there are two other great heating options, though they tend to cost a bit more.  Heating pads are available but be sure you purchase one specifically designed for chicks to prevent the possibility of dangerous hot spots that can be hazardous to your babies.  Brooder plates are also fabulous options that mimic a mother hen’s warmth by providing a warm plate under which chicks can rest.  Brooder plates tend to be the priciest option but they are also the safest in terms of fire hazards so many consider them well worth the investment.

Next you will need to select a bedding material for your brooder.  Though in the past newspaper was frequently used, it is no longer recommended as its slippery surface can cause issues with young chicks’ delicate legs and feet.  Similarly, fabrics tend to get caught on chicks’ tiny claws, so they are best avoided.  Four good options are paper towels, pine shavings, shredded paper bedding and medium- to coarse-grained sand.  If you choose to use pine shavings, be sure you purchase natural pine shavings and not cedar shavings, which have volatile oils that can harm chicks’ respiratory tracts.  Straw, though often recommended, is less than ideal as it can house mites and other parasites.

The final elements of a successful brooder are safe and hygienic chick feeders and waterers.  Because young chicks are so small and delicate, bowls are not recommended as they can present a drowning hazard.  Chicks will often stand in bowls when eating as well, resulting in them soiling their food and water which is unhygienic and can promote the spread of the disease.  The best option for feeders and waterers are ones with shallow dishes and enclosed reservoirs which don’t allow chicks to stand in their food and water.

Selecting your chicks

Once you’ve set up your brooder, the fun part begins.  It’s time to get your chicks!  Do a bit of research on different breeds to see what you like.  You can choose between standard chickens and bantam chickens, which are smaller sized.  If you’re interested in bantams, consider choosing only bantam breeds as standard sized chickens often pick on bantams, especially if they aren’t raised together in the same brooder.

Beyond bantams and standard chicks, you’ll want to look for chicks that have characteristics that work well for you and your environment.  If you are raising chickens for amusement, quirky breeds like naked necks, Polish and silkies offer lots of charm.  If you want prolific egg layers, consider leghorns or Australorps.  For a friendly, family pet, barred rocks and Brahmas are particularly prized.  If you live in a particularly cold area, New Hampshire reds, Wyandottes and Delawares tend to be very winter hardy.  Also to be considered is comb size and shape, which vary from breed to breed.  Straight combs tend to be more prone to frost bite in cold climates, so if you live in a very cold area, opt for chickens with smaller pea combs, like Brahmas and Cornish.  Most breeds get along well together so feel free to go with a mixed flock of different varieties if you want.

 Many chicken parents order their chicks from hatcheries; however, be sure your shipping service is reliable and you will be home to receive your chick delivery as shipping delays, particularly in summer and winter, can have disastrous results.  A safer option is to pick up your chicks from local breeders or farm supply shops, which often have a good variety of chicks to choose from.  Locally bred chicks do not have to endure the hardships of shipment and are often healthier.  

Most of the time, you will be offered the choice of “straight run” versus “sexed” chicks.  Straight run chicks are cheaper and are not sexed, meaning they have a 50% chance of being male or female.  Sexed chicks are generally guaranteed to be pullets (young hens), with an accuracy of 90% or higher.  Unless you intend on breeding your chickens or you have a large outdoor space and are planning on free ranging, it is best to purchase sexed chicks as multiple roosters in a confined space are likely to fight and may even get aggressive with you.  If you do opt for straight run chicks, be sure you have an exit strategy for any unwanted roosters you may end up with.

One final consideration you will likely face when getting your chicks is whether or not your chicks will be vaccinated.  Many hatcheries, farm supply shops and some breeders will vaccinate their chicks, specifically against a particularly devastating viral disease called Marek’s, which can spread rapidly and kill entire flocks.  To be safe, it is wisest to only purchase vaccinated chicks and don’t be afraid to ask local breeders if they vaccinate their flock.  If a store or a breeder doesn’t know whether their chicks are vaccinated, they likely are not.  Marek’s disease can spread miles and can be transmitted on human clothing and will affect adult chickens as well as babies.  It is well worth the peace of mind to pay a bit more for vaccinated chicks and know you’ll never have to deal with the dreaded Marek’s.  Local breeders are less likely to vaccinate their chicks, but some breeders will so ask around.

Caring for your chicks

Bringing your chicks home is an exciting, and often long awaited, day that your family will remember for years to come.  When your chicks first arrive, try to get them settled in their brooder as soon as possible to prevent them from getting a chill.  It can help to give them a probiotic and electrolyte boost in their water during the first couple days after they arrive home, particularly if they were recently shipped from a hatchery.  For bonding purposes, it is important to handle your chicks regularly to ensure they are comfortable being held; however, when they are very young, only handle chicks briefly and remind young children that they are babies that need to sleep lots to grow up to be strong and healthy hens!

Regularly clean your chicks bedding and change out soiled food and water daily to prevent disease.  Provide your chicks with chick feed, which is specially formulated for the needs of growing chicks.  Medicated and non-medicated versions are available; however, medicated feed can be too much for some young chicks to handle so it is often safest to use the non-medicated variety.  If you happen to be raising your chicks with ducklings, be sure to only use non-medicated feed as ducklings cannot tolerate medicated feed.

At least once a day, inspect the rumps of all your chicks for signs of “pasty butt,” which occurs when droppings stick to a chick’s vent preventing them from eliminating waste.  Pasty butt is particularly common in stressed chicks that are just recovering from shipment.  If your chick has pasty butt, carefully soak the area with a paper towel moistened with warm water until the waste comes off gently.  Do not pick at the area or forcefully remove any waste as it can harm your chick.

When chicks are very young, you will want to carefully monitor the temperature in your brooder, so investing in a quality thermometer is important.  You will want to provide a cooler and a warmer spot in your brooder so chicks can adjust their own body temperature as needed.  For the first week of life, keep the warm area of your brooder at 95°F.  Every subsequent week, reduce the warm area of your brooder by 5°F until your chicks are at room temperature.  This should be around week five or week six, when your chicks are nearly fully feathered.  If you are using a heat lamp, brooder temperature adjustments can be made by moving the lamp slightly further away from the brooder.  After six weeks, chicks can regulate their body temperature and you can begin transitioning them to outdoor living.

Chick starter kit

Everything you need to keep baby chicks healthy and growing. With heat lamp, feeders, waterer, and guide book for backyard outdoor chick farmers.

Growing Up: Adult Hen (and Rooster) Care

When your chicks are six weeks old, they are ready to begin transitioning to outside life.  But first you’ll need to consider what that outdoor life is going to look like for them.  Will they free-range?  Will you provide them with an enclosed run?  What sort of coop do you need to house your chickens?  What about predators?   Be sure to have an answer to these questions before your chickens are ready to go outside to make the transition go as smoothly as possible.

Housing

Depending on the number of chickens you have, you don’t necessarily need a large yard.  In fact, if you have a small enough flock and you’re committed to frequent coop cleaning, you could even house your chickens on a small patio or balcony!  The standard rule for most chicken keepers is that an adult hen needs at least 3 square feet of indoor living space, known as a coop, and 8 to 10 square feet of outdoor space, known as a run.  If you are free ranging your chickens, that is, allowing them to roam freely about your yard during the daytime, you do not need to worry about providing an enclosed run.

Because chickens are targeted by a wide variety of predators, it is important to provide your chickens with a safe, enclosed coop at night.  This coop can be homemade, following various designs available online, or you can purchase a premade coop from many farm and garden suppliers.  Coops may or may not have attached runs, that is up to you; however, enclosed runs can be particularly helpful if you live in an area frequented by daytime predators, such as hawks and neighborhood dogs.  If you have a larger property, sheds and barns make great chicken coops too.  While some people find using old dog houses to be sufficient for their chickens, they tend to provide little protection against predators and winter chill and so aren’t ideal.

When selecting a coop, it’s also important to think about ease of access for cleaning and maintenance and how the coop will hold up in the extremes of winter and summer.  Locate your coop in a shady area to prevent it from becoming swelteringly hot in the summer.  Chickens are generally very cold hardy, so as long as the coop is relatively draft proof, it should be sufficient.  You will want to ensure your coop is well ventilated because unventilated coops have lower air quality and high humidity levels in winter can increase the risk of frostbite.  Avoid metal coops or be prepared to insulate them with wood, cardboard or another sort of insulation as metal walls can sap your chickens’ body heat on very cold nights. 

To free range or not to free range

Whether you decide to free range your chickens or not depends on several key factors.  If you are close to your neighbors, if you live in an area that might frown on free-roaming chickens, if you live near a busy road or you have lots of daytime predators in your yard, free ranging might not be for you.  

On the other hand, if you have a larger property, there are a lot of benefits to free ranging your chickens, so definitely consider giving it a try if you can.  Free range chickens will scavenge bugs from your yard, helping to get rid of unwanted garden pests in a natural and organic way.  Not only that but your chickens will also eat grass and other vegetable material, thereby reducing your feed bill.  Because they aren’t confined, free range hens are less prone to many diseases, such as mites, and are also less likely to resort to aggression, which can be caused by boredom.  Ultimately, however, the decision is up to you and whatever is right for you and your chickens.

Dealing with predators

Before settling on a coop, be sure you know what sort of predators are likely to be in your area.  Foxes, coyotes, hawks, weasels, rats, dogs, racoons and opossums can decimate your chicken flock, so be sure you predator proof your coop accordingly.  If daytime predators like dogs and hawks are in your yard, consider keeping your chickens in an enclosed run or build or purchase a premade mobile chicken tractor which can be moved around your yard to encourage them to safely graze in different areas.  If you want to completely free range your chickens but are still worried about predators, livestock guardian dogs, geese and roosters offer some protection for roaming hens.  Another option is to hang CDs or scare tape around your yard and ensure there are some dense trees or other areas chickens can retreat to in case a threat is spotted.

Chicken wire is generally considered to be a barrier to keep chickens in, not to keep predators out, as racoons and rats can quickly chew the thin wire and larger predators, like dogs, can push right through.  A better option if you’re constructing your own coop or run is to use hardware cloth, which is sturdier.  Some premade coops are rather flimsily made, so if you opt for a premade coop, consider bulking up the security by adding hardware cloth as well.  Notoriously, rats and weasels can squeeze into very small spaces, so inspect your coop carefully for any small holes.  A common saying is that weasels can fit through a space the size of quarter, so ½” hardware cloth will provide ideal protection.

Most predators are active only at night, so it’s most important to provide a secure nighttime retreat for your chickens.  Happily, chickens are creatures of habit and, as they can’t see in the dark, they are usually very good at putting themselves away in their coops at night once they get use to their enclosure.  All that is left for you to do is lock up the coop at night after your chickens have tucked themselves away. 

Moving your chickens outside

When your chickens are fully feathered and over six weeks old, it’s time to start moving them out of doors.  And, honestly, you’re probably ready for it because, at this age, they start getting really messy!  Unless it’s winter, you should not need to provide any supplemental heat sources in your coop when moving your babies outside.  Instead, simply make sure the transition is done carefully and with intention by placing your babies outdoors in their run or coop for a few hours in the middle of a warm day and then bring them indoors at night.  Gradually increase the amount of time they are outdoors until they can stay out overnight.  If you encounter a very cold spell, bring them indoors until the cold snap passes.  If you are free ranging your chickens, keep new birds shut in their coop for a few days so they get used to their home before letting them run free.  This will ensure they know where to come home to at night.

Coop maintenance

Runs and coops will need to be regularly cleaned to ensure the optimal health of your chickens.  Your cleaning schedule depends on several factors, most notably, the size of your coop, whether or not your chickens free range during the day and how many chickens you have.  If you have a large coop and free range a small number of chickens, you won’t need to clean your coop as often as a smaller coop with chickens that don’t free range.  Time and experience will teach you how often your particular coop needs cleaned, but as a general rule of thumb, bedding should be freshened at least once a week and deeper cleanings should be performed regularly.  When freshening your coop, add some handfuls of fresh bedding and a bit of Sweet PDZ, which is an all-natural product made from minerals that helps reduce ammonia and other coop odors.  Pine shavings and sand make great substrates for coops and runs.  Unless you really trust your source, avoid buying straw as it can contain difficult to eradicate mites.

Beyond regular cleanings, keep an eye out for any signs of digging or chewing in or around your coop or run that may signify that you have a rodent or predator problem.  If signs are spotted, address them accordingly by bolstering up your coop security as needed.  If you suspect you have a rodent problem, never use poisons near your coop as chickens can and will eat rodents and may accidently ingest poisons in the process.

Food, water and supplements

The staple of your chicken’s diet should consist of a nutritionally balanced chicken feed, which comes in both pelleted or crumbled form, as well as organic options.  Younger chicks and some bantams can have difficulty eating larger pellets so crumbles for young chickens or bantam feed might be the best option for smaller birds.  Conversely, many chicken parents find that chickens waste more of the crumbled variety, so if you have a larger flock, pelleted food might be preferred.  Whether pelleted or crumbled, laying hens should be provided with chicken feed that is about 16% protein.  If your hens are molting, 20% protein feed is recommended to provide them with the nutrients they need to grow new feathers.

In addition to feed, hens should be provided with separate containers of grit and oyster shell to forage at as needed.  Grit helps chickens digest seeds and other foods, while oyster shell can give an added boost of calcium that laying hens need.  Electrolytes, probiotics and supplemental vitamins can also make great additions to your chicken care routine.  In the winter, cracked corn and chicken scratch give chickens a much-needed calorie boost and some entertainment as they scratch around for scattered food.  Mealworms make an excellent, protein-rich addition to chickens’ diets as well, and can be provided either live or dried.  If you’re up for it, mealworms are very easy to breed at home and can be given as a regular treat to hungry hens.

Chickens are messy babies and they are also messy adults.  Given the chance, chickens will stand in and soil open food and water bowls so hanging feeders and waterers with shallow dishes and enclosed reservoirs are recommended.  The most sanitary chicken waterers on the market integrate either nipples or drinking cups in their design to prevent water from being contaminated and they are well worth the investment.  If food or water becomes soiled, throw it out to prevent the spread of disease.  As chicken feed tends to attract rodents, it is best to securely store feeders at night or build yourself a DIY rodent-proof feeder with PVC.  

If someone tells you their chickens are 100% vegan fed, they are either not telling the truth or their chickens’ diet is lacking.  Chickens are omnivores and, as such, they need a significant amount of protein in their diet and will happily munch on just about any leftovers from your kitchen that you want to provide them.  Feel free to give them vegetable scraps, leftover pasta and yesterday’s rotisserie chicken, as taboo as that might sound.  If you do give your chickens table scraps, limit junk food and don’t give them any alcohol, caffeine, chocolate, avocadoes, citrus, green potatoes, dry beans or moldy or rotten food.

Oops, I’ve got a roo

Maybe you purchased straight run chicks or maybe you got a surprise rooster in with your sexed “pullets.”  However it happened, there is no mistaking the sound of a young rooster uttering his first crow.  Depending on your circumstances, this may be a welcome or unwelcome sound.  Roosters have many benefits, chief among them, they are ideal protectors of hens and will alert hens to the presence of predators and even fight off and, at times, sacrifice themselves to a predator to ensure that their ladies remain unscathed.  

That said, there are reasons why you might not want a rooster.  Perhaps hens are allowed in your neighborhood, but roosters aren’t.  Or maybe you are okay with having one rooster, but you have two and they are being aggressive, either with each other or with you.  Whatever the reason, before getting chickens, you want to consider how you will handle a rooster should you end up with one.  Sometimes farm stores or local breeders will take back roosters and rehome them for free.  Other options are to place up flyers or online ads, but be advised, unless you have a rare breed, you will likely be giving them away for free.  Animal shelters will, at times, take in unwanted roosters; however, they are often overrun with roosters and will not take in any birds that have a history of aggression.

Unfortunately, unwanted roosters can be a difficult issue for many beginning chicken parents, particularly as roosters often have charming personalities.  For this reason, if you don’t have the space for or inclination to own a rooster, it is generally easiest to only buy sexed chickens to ensure you won’t have to rehome roosters later on.

Winter care for your chickens

Chickens are quite cold hardy and can withstand temperatures below freezing.  That said, there are some precautions you should take in order to make sure your chickens are prepared for the winter.  Be sure your coop is as draft-free as possible and make sure it is well-ventilated so humidity does not accumulate, which will increase the risk of frostbite.  Consider placing windbreaks, made of boxes, wood or other materials, near food and water dishes to give your birds a break from winter winds when they are eating.  It is best to avoid using heaters in your coop as they can increase the risk of coop fires and are generally unnecessary.  Even worse, if your birds become acclimated to the temperature of a heated coop and you lose power, they will struggle adapting to the sudden cold.

Chicken waterers should not be kept inside coops due to the risk of spillage and issues with humidity.  This is particularly important if you’re using a heated water dish as they can also be fire hazards.  If you aren’t using a heated watering dish, be prepared to refresh you chickens water at least twice a day in case of freezing.

Coop cleaning can prove to be extra difficult when snow and ice reduce outdoor movement.  To deal with this, many chicken keepers use the “deep bedding method” during winter months.  To begin, clean out your coop as normal and then add 3 to 4” of fresh bedding, such as pine shavings.  Next, simply add a thin layer of fresh bedding to your coop once a week and top with a sprinkling of chicken scratch.  As your chickens root around for the scratch, they will turn the bedding over helping it to naturally compost.  Continue practicing the deep litter method throughout the winter and only thoroughly clean your coop out in the spring.  When practiced properly, you should not notice any ammonia odors.  If you do, simply add more fresh bedding material and, perhaps, a bit of Sweet PDZ.  As an added benefit, deep litter produces some heat as it decomposes helping to warm your coop and, in the spring, your litter should be fully decomposed and ready to be used as compost in your garden!

Boredom busters

Free ranging chickens have lots to do: hunting for worms, dust bathing in the dirt and nibbling grass.  If your chickens aren’t free ranging, however, you may need to provide them with a bit of enrichment to reduce boredom and the likelihood of inter-chicken aggression. 

Sprinkling mealworms, scratch or food scraps around your run is an easy way of entertaining your hens.  You can also provide toys like a children’s xylophone, swings, small bells, treat balls and fruit or cabbage heads hanging from a string.  Your chickens will be delighted to find things to investigate, and you will get a chuckle out of watching them!

Adding new chicks

If you decide you want to add new chicks to your flock down the line, it is important that you take a few extra precautions to ensure the new additions are accepted by your older hens.  Never introduce chicks under six weeks old to adult hens; in fact, if you can, wait until your pullets are between eight and twelve weeks old before adding them to your coop.  

Chickens can be surprisingly aggressive to each other, so it is important that you take your time.  For ease of transition, it can help to keep your new chicks in a smaller cage inside your coop for a few days so the older hens can get used to them before they are released into the coop.  When you’re ready to add your new chicks, wait until after dark and your hens are asleep.  Carefully place your new chicks in the coop with your sleeping hens and lock your coop up until morning.  Hens are less likely to reject the new chicks if they wake up to find them already integrated into the coop using this method.

Adding older hens

If you want to add older hens to your flock, you will want to use the same method stated above by adding them to your coop after dark.  However, additional precautions should be taken with older hens as they are more likely to be carriers of diseases like Marek’s, which is particularly problematic if your hens are not vaccinated.  If you want to add older hens, inspect them thoroughly for signs of disease and mites, taking time to examine their eyes and beaks for discharge and their vents for pests.  To be safe, it is wise to preventatively treat all older hens for worms and mites and quarantine them at least 30 feet away from your coop for at least one week.  Many chicken keepers quarantine new additions for a month before adding them to their flock.

Common Issues

An important part of raising chickens is to know what is normal for your birds and, periodically, inspect them by checking over their feet, ruffling through their feathers and looking for clear eyes and a clean beak.  By regularly checking your birds, you are more likely to catch an issue early on so you can take action.

Though there are a number of illnesses and pests you might run into if you keep chickens long enough, some of the more common ones are listed below, as well as some suggestions on how to handle them.  Home remedies are not a substitute for vet care, so if your chicken is struggling, call your vet.  Many vets will treat chickens and, if yours doesn’t, call around to find one who does.

Inter-chicken aggression

Despite their harmless appearance, chickens can be quite nasty to each other, especially when you introduce new birds to your flock.  Always proceed with caution when adding new birds, watch your flock carefully for signs of aggression and be prepared to separate birds if needed.

Despite your best efforts, if you notice a bird has been pecked, treat the injury with antibiotics.  Because chickens are drawn to blood and will peck at injuries, products like Blu-Kote can be very helpful as they are both an antibiotic and a colorant that will color injuries blue so that hens are not attracted to them.

Respiratory issues

Respiratory issues can present in a number of different ways such as bubbles in your chickens’ eyes, watery discharge from chickens’ eyes and nostrils and open mouth breathing.  There are many different causes of respiratory issues in birds, including bacterial infections, viruses and gapeworm.  If the symptoms are mild, create a natural antibiotic concoction by adding a splash of apple cider vinegar, a crushed garlic clove and a sprinkle of dried or fresh oregano to your chickens’ water.  VetRx, an over-the-counter product, can also be added to water or dabbed on the feathers of any sick birds.  If symptoms don’t resolve in a day or two, call your vet.

Mites and lice

Signs of mite and lice in chickens include visible mites, particularly around vents, pale combs, dirty vent feathers, lethargic behavior, feather loss and bald spots, reduced appetite and a decrease in egg production.  Untreated, these pests will make your chickens miserable and can even cause severe anemia and death.  Some over-the-counter remedies are available, or you can ask your vet for assistance.  Mites and lice are less common in free-ranging birds because they frequently dust bathe, so if your chickens are cooped up, give them access to a dust bath, sprinkled with diatomaceous earthNeem oil sprays are also helpful, organic options.  In case of scaly leg mite, which causes raised scales on your chickens’ legs, apply petroleum jelly, neem oil, or vegetable oil to the legs to smother any mites.

Sour crop

Signs of sour crop include lethargy, decreased appetite, sour-smelling breath and a squishy, extended crop early in the morning.  Adding a splash of apple cider vinegar and probiotics to your chickens’ water can both prevent sour crop and help to treat an existing infection.  Additionally, gently massaging your chicken’s crop and limiting feed can help your chicken heal.

Worms

It’s a fact of life: chickens eat insects and insects often have parasites, such as worms.  Adding a natural, over-the-counter or vet-prescribed wormer to your regular chicken maintenance plan is essential.  Often, worming your hens twice a year is adequate.  Signs your chickens need to be wormed include visible worms in your chickens’ waste, weight loss, lethargy, lack of appetite, pale combs and reduced egg production.

Puffed feathers

Puffy feathers is not a disease but it can be a symptom.  If you notice your chicken seems to be puffing up its feathers, something may not be right.  Chickens will puff up their feathers when they are feeling chilled so it can be a sign of illness.  Inspect your chicken thoroughly and keep an eye on them to see if they are otherwise acting abnormally.  That said, chickens will also puff up their feathers when temperatures drop or when they are feeling sleepy, so it is not a clear sign of illness.

Molting
Molting is not a disease, but it is something to be aware of as a molting chicken is not the loveliest of sights.  Molting is a natural process and helps ensure chickens’ feathers are in tiptop shape.  If your bird is molting, give her a little help by upping the protein content of her feed and giving her mealworms or other high protein snacks.

Nail care

If you’re free ranging your birds, you don’t need to worry about trimming nails, but if your birds are in an enclosed run with a soft floor, you may need to trim nails about once a year.  This is an easy process and most chickens are very willing to participate.  If you have a wayward bird, simply wrap her wings gently with a towel before proceeding.  Dog nail trimmers work well for chicken nails.

Putting Your Hens to Work

Chickens are great additions to any garden or homestead and can contribute quite a lot despite their small size.  Besides providing chuckles thanks to their shenanigans, they are friendly birds that often love to cuddle and can make surprisingly good companions.  Not only that, but if you know how, you can put them to work for you and reap the rewards!  Some of the few ways chickens can contribute to your home and garden include:

  • Most obviously: producing eggs!  Whether you just want eggs for your family’s breakfast or you want to sell them, hens are productive little egg-laying machines.  If you intend on selling your eggs, cartons can be purchased wholesale online or you can place a wanted ad for used containers on social media.  People are often very happy to donate old cartons to local farmers.
  • Reducing kitchen waste.  Chickens are voracious omnivores and will happily consume most kitchen scraps.  Not only will this reduce your feed bill, but you will also be lowering your carbon footprint by reusing your unwanted leftovers.
  • All natural, organic pest control.  Chickens love finding insects in your garden so, if you can free range your hens, let them run wild and they will make short work of garden slugs, pesky beetles and even ticks!  Best of all, this is as organic as it gets.
  • Turn that compost.  If you have a compost heap in your yard, throw some scratch on top of it and your chickens will turn your compost for you!
  • Did someone say compost?  Chicken manure is rich in nitrogen and other nutrients plants need to thrive.  Instead of chucking your old chicken bedding in the trash barrel, add it to your compost pile and let it age.  Chicken manure is considered a “hot compost,” meaning it will burn plants when added straight to the garden, so be sure to allow it to compost for at least six months before use.

Necessities:

Chick Brooder Box

Outdoor Chicken Coop

References

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