For the Birds: Tips for Backyard Chicken Keeping

Story by Dana Zook, Northwest Area Extension Livestock Specialist

Photos by Todd Johnson

These days you don’t have to live on a farm to raise chickens as interest in backyard poultry has increased substantially in the past few years. Much of this interest stems from an increase in food awareness and the farm to table movement. People are interested in agriculture and small flock poultry production is one way to take part. Typically, most people rear backyard flocks for the purpose of egg production. Many may remember the commercials on television about “The Incredible, Edible Egg”.  I grew up in a household where a fried egg sandwich could be the center of any meal and thankfully my husband doesn’t mind the grand variation of egg dishes served at the Zook household. Not only are they delicious, eggs are extremely good for you.  According to the American Egg Board, a large egg contains 70 calories, provides 6 grams of protein while also supplying 13 essential vitamins and minerals. It’s no wonder why so many people want their own egg producers close at hand.  Raising poultry for egg production is fairly simple, however, there are some steps one can take to keep their egg source healthy and safe.

Research

Proper preparation before bringing chicks home is the key to success in effectively raising young chicks to adults. Whether you are raising broilers, laying hens, or are just looking for a few feathered friends to keep the bugs down in your garden, there are few things to keep in mind.

Before starting a flock, it is important to check the city ordinances in your area. Some towns allow chickens, but many do not. Stillwater has very specific ordinances regarding keeping chickens or any other livestock within the city limits. Visit http://stillwater.org/call#animals to learn more about these laws and how they affect you before committing to keeping any kind of livestock within the city limits.

If chickens are allowed in your area, look for reputable places from which to purchase chicks. Chicks can usually be obtained from the local farm store this time of year. However, if you would like to start with a more specific breed, there are a number of hatcheries around the United States that allow online orders and will ship live chicks directly to your door.  

Chickens can be raised for meat or egg production, so depending on the overall goal, select the breed according to the production goal. Chicken breeds are specific to egg laying, meat production, or dual purpose which have traits for both laying eggs and meat production.  However, most backyard chickens are raised for egg production. Some popular egg laying or dual purpose breeds include Rhode Island Red, Orpington, Wyandotte, and Leghorn. Egg color can range from white to dark brown, however some people enjoy getting more colorful eggs.  The Ameraucana and Araucana breeds are both high producing and lay different shades of blue and green eggs.

Preparation

Prior to bringing chicks home, prepare a brooder for the young chicks to live in for their first six to eight weeks of life. Depending on its size, chicks can remain in the brooder until they are six to eight weeks old. Chicks will need approximately one square foot of floor space per bird in the brooder. For a small number of chicks, a simple brooder can be made from common things such as a small livestock water tank, a kiddie pool, or plastic storage tub. You will also need a heat lamp, watering trough, and feed pans. Bedding material for the brooder is also very important.  Choose an absorbent, non-dusty bedding such as pine shavings, rice hulls, or peanut shells.  Never house chicks on smooth, slick surfaces such as flat cardboard or newspaper, as it can lead to leg problems. During the time the chicks are in the brooder, add litter as necessary to keep the chicks warm and dry as moisture is a chick’s worst enemy. It is also important to ensure that the brooder is built to keep predators out.  Never underestimate the ability of a cat to find a way to your chicks!

At this age, chicks will not be able to mediate their own body heat and an artificial source will need to be provided. Chicks that are one week old should be able to bask in warmth of around 90-95°F.  After the first week, the temperature may be lowered 5° each week until a temperature of 70°F is reached. To accurately gauge temperature within the brooder, place a thermometer at the chick’s level.  If the brooder you have chosen is large, a brooder guard (a plastic, cardboard, or wire barrier) may be used for the first few days to encircle the brooding area so that the chicks don’t wander too far from warmth. Place the heat lamp one to one and half feet above the chicks to provide adequate heat to start with. The lamp can be raised or lowered slightly to adjust the heat if needed. The chicks are the best indicators of the amount of heat needed.  Chicks that are scattered throughout the brooding area often indicate a level of comfort while chicks that are huddled together need more heat. Chicks that are at the outer edges of the brooder or are panting are too hot and the heat needs to be lowered.  

Nesting Boxes and Roosts

Make sure there are enough suitable nesting boxes in your chicken coop. One nesting box for four to five hens is sufficient. Hens often prefer to lay eggs in nests that are in low light areas and this is sometimes why certain nesting boxes are preferred over others. Each nesting box should contain some bedding material such as hay or straw. This is not to provide hens with a comfortable sleeping place, rather, to help keep eggs clean when they are laid and to reduce breakage. Overtime, litter may accumulate in these boxes and the bedding should be changed to maintain cleanliness. Collect eggs from nesting boxes no less than once daily.  Roosts are a popular addition to chicken coops, giving hens a place to sit while not in the nesting box.  To avoid hens from roosting on and soiling into the nesting boxes, provide a roost higher than the nesting boxes in a separate location in the coop.

To Wash or Not to Wash

In the U.S., Food and Drug Administration regulations require that USDA-graded eggs be carefully washed and sanitized. For this reason, consumers should know it is not necessary to wash your eggs purchased from a retail outlet. Washing eggs coming from small flocks is encouraged but measures need not be as extensive. To clean slightly soiled eggs, wash with running water that is slightly warmer than the temperature of the egg. If mild detergent is required, be sure to rinse thoroughly. All eggs should be allowed to air dry before packaging.  Above all, do not attempt to clean excessively dirty eggs, rather look to make improvements within the coop to control this.

Is Refrigeration Important?

According to government regulations, eggs produced in the U.S. should be stored at 45°F or less. This recommendation is also for small flock producers. Clean eggs should be stored large end up in a clean carton on the refrigerator shelf. Some refrigerators have a nice slot on door for egg cartons, however frequent changes in temperature give reason to keep them in an area of the refrigerator with more consistent cooling.

SOURCES:

This story was sourced from two articles by Dana Zook entitled “Safe Handling of Eggs from Small Backyard Flocks” and “Springtime: A Season for Baby Chicks” and provided by Summer Leister, Extension Educator, 4-H Youth Development, Payne County. Families with questions about backyard chicken keeping are encouraged to call Summer at 405-747-8320 or email her at summer.leister@okstate.edu. Summer provides school programming with chickens, hatching, and the science behind it all.