Interested in starting a backyard chicken flock? Wondering what you need to know before you bring home those cute, fluffy, little chicks? Listen in as Nutrena poultry expert Twain Lockhart gives a quick overview of what you need to consider!
Make sure you can legally have chickens on your property.
Start with laying hens.
It is best to start small, with four to six chickens at most.
If you are bringing home baby chicks soon, you’ll need to know what to feed, and how to feed it. Listen in as Nutrena poultry expert Twain Lockhart shares tips on properly feeding chicks for a healthy start and a long life.
Use baby chick starter crumble. Lay crumble calcium content is too high and may damage kidneys of the chicks.
Chicks may pick out larger pieces of crumble if they have a hard time eating them.
Feed chicks as much as they want as they self-regulate.
Medicated chick starter helps to prevent coccidiosis. It is not an antibiotic.
Learn what the most important components of a brooder are for raising baby chicks. From the types of brooder containers, to lighting, to bedding to use, you’ll know all the key tips to keep your chicks happy and healthy in the brooder.
An old stock tank, plastic tote or cardboard box work well to hold the chicks and keep the heat in.
Make sure heat lamp is secured.
Both clear and red bulbs work fine. Red bulbs will reduce cannibalism.
Chicks like to scratch in the feeder and will waste a lot of feed when they’re young.
Use baby chick starter feed for the first 16 weeks.
Few foods are as appealing to a hungry chicken as a bunch of young lettuce or spinach sprouts poking through the spring soil. Given the chance, a few hens will quickly devour plants intended for their owner’s kitchen.
Ironically, few soil additives are as appreciated by lettuce, spinach and other vegetables as chicken manure. Plants seem to leap from the ground and produce human food in abundance when stimulated by the droppings that chickens produce every day.
The trick to achieving both healthy chickens and an abundant garden is managing the flock in a way that the hens help the gardener instead of their gobbling down valued veggies.
Here are a few ways to manage a flock for garden abundance:
The Double-Run System
Probably the best and easiest way to manage a flock and garden is to create a double run. The chicken run is simply the fenced in area where the birds enjoy daylight hours lounging, dusting their feathers, and foraging for seeds, insects, tender sprouts, and bits of stone that helps their digestion. Over the course of the day they deposit their droppings randomly.
Most coops have just a single run, but often the owner can convert this into a double-run system. The bigger and sunnier the area the better.
Stretch a wire mesh fence six or eight feet tall to split the run roughly in half. Devise a way to allow the chickens to access only one side of the run at a time. The rest is easy.
In one gardening season let the hens into only one side. Plant the garden in the other. Next year, reverse it. It’s an outstanding way to rotate crops and nutrients.
Many flock owners don’t have enough room to create the double-run system described above. They can still use chickens to help with gardening chores.
For most common garden vegetables, it’s vital to keep the birds excluded during the growing season. Otherwise they’ll harvest the crops. However, usually there are several weeks after the snow melts but before it’s warm enough to plant seeds. Come fall once the season’s last vegetables are harvested, there is often a long cooling window of time until the ground freezes and snow falls. These are prime times for chickens to enjoy gleaning tasty morsels from the garden.
Chickens have superb vision, strong legs and feet, and nimble pointed beaks. They gleefully spend hours scratching up the soil. Humans might call it tilling. Their sharp eyes spot tiny weed seeds and insect eggs and larvae. Their pointed beaks snatch them from the soil and turn them into delicious protein filled food. Chickens remove the seeds and bugs that can pester next year’s vegetable plants and convert them to food.
Turn a flock loose in early spring or late fall and hens will usually head right for the rich garden soil hiding delicious goodies, but there’s a way to encourage them to target the places that need the most chicken foot rototilling. Bait them by scattering a few handfuls of dried mealworms or black oil sunflower seeds – those in the hull – in the garden and rake them gently into the soil. Hens love mealworms and sunflower seeds. In the process of hunting these goodies they’ll loosen and soften the soil and discover hidden insects and weed seeds.
Excluding Chickens from The Garden
Many people can’t let their chickens forage in the garden, but they can still blend vegetable and chicken husbandry. It’s simple. Weeds and vegetable waste mixed with chicken manure and manure-laden litter decay into outstanding compost. Work the compost into the soil before seed planting and watch the vegetables flourish upward.
Much research is being done on the benefits of using chickens to restore degraded grasslands in China and Europe. Essentially scientists are finding how helpful it is to let hens access land. Dr. Carl Rosier works for the Rodale Institute at Etzel’s Sugar Grove Farm near Cedar Rapids, Iowa, studying ways to improve soils in cropland. “Chicken manure stimulates plant growth and increases soil productivity, water holding capacity, and nutrient retention. In a nutshell chickens, when incorporated into the garden correctly, can help bring balance to the soil ecosystem,” he said.
Many families that keep chickens also enjoy growing beans, tomatoes, and many other vegetables. It feels good to bring both fresh eggs and crops into the kitchen. Meshing chickens with gardening is a perfect way to maximize food production while improving the soil’s health.
The days are getting shorter, the girls are finishing up their molts, and you are getting less eggs as winter approaches. You might be wondering, “is this normal?” The answer is, yes, it’s perfectly normal.
Chickens need about 16 hours of light per day to produce eggs, with the exception of some over-eager first year hens who may lay throughout winter. But with the shortened daylight hours, and the cold weather requiring more of their energy resources be directed to keeping their body temperatures where the need to be, egg production will go down.
Just because your ladies have slowed down on their egg production, or even stopped, however, doesn’t mean they need less nutrition. Continuing to feed a quality, nutritious, energy-providing diet, just like you would through the warmer months, will help your girls continue some egg production and provide them the energy reserves they require to stay warm and fit. It will also help them show up next spring in prime condition to start laying regularly again.
You may hear some chicken owners say they feed a cheap layer feed, or even nothing but scratch in winter, because it is cheaper and “they aren’t laying anyway”. If you pay attention, these are often the same folks that lose birds in the winter, or their birds look pretty rough come spring time. Scratch grains should never make up more than 10% of any birds diet – or what they can clean up in about 5 minutes.
Don’t forget to provide grit throughout the winter as well, as they may not be able to find it on their own due to snow and mud.
As summer’s heat transitions to fall’s balmy days and cool nights it’s time to think a few months ahead. January is on the way, and for much of the northern hemisphere that means blustery cold wind, ice, snow, and long dark nights.
Winter is a challenging time for both people and chickens. Humans prepare by bringing coats, long johns, mittens and hats out of storage, checking the furnace, and closing the home’s holes and gaps with weather-stripping and caulking. These tasks are important to do! And, remember the chickens, too.
Chickens evolved in the sultry jungles of Southeast Asia. It is amazing that these tropical animals survive icy winter cold and continue laying eggs as snow drifts pile up outside. Many common chicken breeds sport layers of fluffy down under their outer feathers. They keep hens toasty warm, and with proper care, chickens are likely more comfortable during winter than when the temperature and humidity zoom upward in July.
Anyone keeping chickens in an icy area should prioritize sticking with hearty breeds well suited to surviving cold. In general, large brown egg laying, fluffy feathered breeds, like Orpingtons, Brahmas, New Englanders (Rhode Island and New Hampshire Reds and Plymouth Rocks), Wyandottes and several others thrive in cold. Smaller white egg layers often have a large comb and sparse feathers and are less suited to life where winter’s chill takes the breath away.
In summer a chicken’s comb acts like a radiator, giving off body heat and helping keep the hen cool. That’s helpful in July but is a January liability. Combs frostbite. The most winter hearty breeds have a small pea or rose comb that’s less likely to freeze than tall single combs.
Even the most winter hearty breeds need protection from winter’s chill. Pleasant fall days are the perfect time to prepare the coop and chickens for the coming chill. Here are several fall projects to keep the flock health through winter.
Few items are as handy during winter as electricity. Electrically heated founts keep water liquid and eliminate the tedious chore of replacing frozen water buckets with fresh water. Electricity also enables plugging a light into a timer so the birds have the 15 hours of daily light that stimulate laying. Set the timer so lights come on a few hours before the sun peeks over the horizon. Finally, having switch operated lights in the coop makes checking birds after dark easier than using a flashlight.
It may be convenient to stretch an extension cord from the house to the coop, but it’s not a good idea. Extension cords aren’t made for continual use and most aren’t built to withstand severe weather. Hiring an electrical company to run power to the coop may be the best investment a chicken owner ever makes, and it might not be too expensive.
Cords will be safe, and fall is a great time to get this task done.
On sultry evenings chickens love sleeping as cool breezes flow over them. Windows on opposite sides of the coop help create cross ventilation. In winter summer’s breeze transforms into a draft wafting through the coop, threatening to frostbite vulnerable combs. To reduce drafts and let more light through soiled windows clean the glass and close windows as the temperature drops.
Nearly all coops have plenty of cracks between boards, at the edges of windows and doors, and where the roof joins the walls. An inexpensive caulking gun filled with a tube of silicone caulk quickly plugs cracks and holes. Caulking doesn’t usually work on wide cracks but expanding foam does. Caulking supplies are available in every hardware and home store. The chemicals work best when the temperature is above freezing.
Keeping Water Liquid
Chickens can’t drink ice. The biggest challenge flock owners have on arctic days is keeping water liquid. If the coop has electricity investing in a heated waterer solves the problem, but many coops lack power. The time-tested way to let the chickens enjoy a drink is to bring a fresh bucket of warm water to the coop and remove the frozen one every few hours. It works, but it is a labor-intensive chore. These days most people are at work or school and can’t make frequent water switches.
Insulation works. Chicken body heat will keep a well-insulated coop a few degrees warmer than outside temperatures, helping keep chickens comfortable and slowing the water freezing process. Insulating the coop also keeps it cooler in summer. Fall is a great season to insulate a coop’s walls and ceiling.
Insulation also works with water containers. Some insulated waterers are made for chickens, but a re-purposed bait bucket may be less expensive and works just as well. These are plastic buckets lined with Styrofoam and sold to anglers who want to keep their minnow water from freezing while they ice fish. Cut a small hole in the lid so the chickens can access water, fill the bucket with lukewarm water, and it will resist freezing for several hours longer than an un-insulated bucket. Insulated bait buckets can be purchased at stores that sell fishing gear.
Mice are one of nature’s craftiest animals. They sense that winter’s coming and seek comfortable warm places to overwinter. Spilled feed becomes nutritious mouse meals. Caulking holes and cracks helps exclude rodents, and fall is the perfect time to set up a trapline in and near the coop.
Commonly available snap traps have been successfully catching mice for over a century and work perfectly in the technology age. Be sure to set them in places where children and chickens can’t access them. Mice tend to run next to walls, rather than cutting across open rooms. The most effective way to set snap traps is to place two or more together next to a wall with the trigger side close to the wall. A dab of peanut butter on the trigger is irresistible to a hungry rodent. Often there are plenty of mice in a coop, so keep trapping until no more furry feed thieves are caught.
Avoid mouse poison. Mice sometimes eat a poison meal and die in inaccessible places where their decaying bodies stink. There’s also the scary possibility that chickens or children can access poison. A final reason to avoid poison is the threat it poses to one of the greatest friends of chickens. As long as hens are securely locked in a tight coop each night owls will patrol outside. Few animals are as efficient at catching mice and rats as these beautiful predators. Sometimes a mouse will eat poison, stagger outside and be caught by an owl. The poison transfers and the helpful mouser either sickens or dies.
Chickens are tough birds. As long as they are draft protected and have plenty of food and water they’ll thrive even if the mercury drops to zero. Most parts of the United States rarely experience super cold, so heating the coop isn’t needed. But if the mercury falls to 20 or 30 below zero adding warmth could save chickens. Heating the coop to a balmy temperature isn’t needed but taking the edge off a super cold night will be appreciated by the hens. The same heat lamp used to brood chicks last spring will often raise a coop’s interior temperature from 10 or 20 below to a balmy zero.
Be fire safe. Most coops are flammable, so make sure any heat source is positioned away from combustibles.
Fall is a good season to be outdoors but it’s winter’s harbinger. It is the perfect time to winterize the coop so hens will be comfortable and keep laying even as blizzards rage outside.
Anyone who keeps chickens is likely to occasionally have a hen go broody. She’ll make a dramatic mood change, stop laying, fluff her feathers, change her vocabulary, and spend all day and night in the nest. Her life’s goal is motherhood.
We can consider broody hens either a problem or an opportunity. Since they don’t lay while in the mothering mode, a broody is a problem for someone who needs plenty of eggs. Yet, watching her incubating eggs and raising chicks is a fascinating, especially for children, and an easy way to add replacement layers to the flock.
Broody hens perpetuated chickens for most of the thousands of years they’ve been domesticated. Before artificial incubators, they were the only way to hatch eggs.
In those pre-incubator days chicken keepers needed some hens to go broody and raise a new generation. It worked, but was woefully inefficient. At best a broody can hatch and raise only about a dozen babies, making mass production of chickens and eggs impossible. Because of this inefficiency eggs and chicken meat were scarce, expensive and only served on special occasions.
The ancient Egyptians figured out that eggs could be artificially hatched if kept at just the right temperature and humidity for their 21 day development. For hundreds of years in those pre-modern technology days they used incubators to hatch chicks. In the rest of the world broody continued to do the work.
Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit helped launch today’s chicken industry by inventing the mercury thermometer in 1714. Sealed in a glass column the liquid metal expands when warmed and contracts when cooled. A scale on the mercury column enabled a person to accurately measure temperature for the first time in history.
Eggs must be kept precisely between 99 and 102 degrees to hatch, so accurate thermometers and thermostats were essential technologies needed to make an incubator work. It took a while for them to be perfected. The first successful incubator was produced 167 years after Fahrenheit invented the thermometer. That invention changed chicken culture and the American diet forever.
Today’s modern hatcheries use massive incubators to hatch tens of thousands of chicks every week. Fertile eggs are kept at precisely the right temperature and humidity and nearly all hatch. Most chicks coming off incubators end up at either massive egg production or broiler facilities that house thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of birds. Even smaller hatcheries that sell diverse breeds directly to customers hatch them in incubators.
With the coming of incubators broody hens became obsolete and a problem for commercial egg farms. They wanted high egg production, and since a broody stops laying, she’s not adding to the bottom line. Poultry scientists used their understanding of genetics to develop breeds and hybrids that rarely go broody. So huge incubators combined with non-broody hens enabled mass production of chickens and eggs, and broilers for consumers. Today these are the most inexpensive protein for sale at the grocery store.
Broody hens aren’t needed anymore to perpetuate chickens. So, have incubators given them the pink slip? Maybe not.
Scan a hatchery catalog or website and breeds will be described as “broody” or “non broody.” If customers want maximum eggs, they can buy non broody types, but many people keeping just a few hens in the backyard can choose broody breeds to help them enjoy one of the most enjoyable aspects of chicken rearing. Broody hens are as fascinating as they are educational as they hatch, protect, and educate their babies. Broodies are just plain fun.
Hens can become broody at any time of the year and once in awhile one is downright silly and tries to bring babies into a frigid January world, but it’s more likely in spring and summer. Older hens are somewhat more likely to be broody than young pullets and generally classic brown egg laying breeds are more prone to have the mothering instinct than small agile white egg laying breeds. But there are always exceptions. Sometimes a non-broody hybrid, like a California White Leghorn, decides she wants to be a mother and becomes broody. It’s rare but happens and sometimes breeds described as being broody decide they want nothing to do with mothering and refuse to incubate eggs.
Breeds famous for broodiness are Silkies, Orpingtons, and Brahmas. Most of the larger bodied brown egg breeds have a tendency to hatch eggs and raise young. Brown egg laying hybrids, like ISA Browns and many white egg laying breeds and hybrids tend to not go broody, but the important word is “tend.” Exceptions rule.
Preparing for a Broody
Managing a broody is a fascinating experience for anyone raising a small flock in the backyard. Nothing’s quite so endearing as seeing a peeping baby chick poking it’s head out of its mother’s fluffy feathers or watching mom teach her babies how to find food and stay out of trouble. It’s a great process for children to be part of.
To enjoy the brooding experience, choose some chicks of breeds that tend to be broody. Usually a young hen will lay for several months before the mothering instinct kicks in. Be prepared to help her successfully hatch eggs and raise babies by doing these things:
Have a nest box ready and a place where it, with the broody hen inside, is separated from the rest of the flock. A large hen, like a Plymouth Rock should be able to incubate about a dozen fertile eggs.
Put a small feeder and waterer near the nest. The broody won’t eat or drink much but needs a snack and water once in a while.
Have chick starter mash and a chick feeder and waterer ready for when the babies hatch.
If all goes well, eggs will hatch 21 days after mom started incubating. Chicks will soon scamper all over the coop. Continue to keep them separate from other chickens, and let the mother hen care for her babies. She’ll keep them toasty warm, even on cold nights, and give them a better lesson in survival than any human can.
What If I Don’t Have a Rooster?
Infertile eggs won’t hatch but a broody doesn’t know that and will sit on them anyway. Fortunately, she can’t count so doesn’t know how many days elapse. This gives a helping person time to do one of two things:
Get fertile eggs from a friend or neighbor or order them immediately. Many hatcheries sell fertile eggs, which are also available on eBay. While waiting for the fertile eggs to arrive put golf balls under the hen. She won’t know they aren’t eggs! Or, let her sit on infertile eggs until the fertile ones arrive.
Keep the broody on golf balls and in two to three weeks buy chicks at a farm store. Or, as soon as she goes broody place an order at a hatchery for delivery in two to three weeks. When the baby chicks arrive bring them to the broody after dark. Gently remove the golf balls or infertile eggs under her and replace them with live chicks. She’ll immediately adopt them as her own.
Incubators have given broody hens the pink slip for commercial chicken production. They just aren’t needed anymore, but a good old fashioned broody is ready to both raise chicks and give the flock owner a fun and educational experience watching her bring babies into the world and raising her chicks. No pink slip for her.