Some people like to keep backyard chickens as a ready source of eggs and meat, others for help in pest control, and people like to have the birds around just because they are fun to watch.
Whatever the reason, chickens can be a great resource if properly managed and given appropriate care. Consider these tips from David D Frame, Utah State University Cooperative Extension Poultry Specialist.
1) Chicks have special needs
Be aware of basic brooding needs in the first three to four weeks of a chick’s life. These include clean water, quality chick starter feed, clean litter (pine or cedar shavings are recommended) and a circular confined area to keep the chicks from wandering from the heat source.
2) Offer enough space
Provide a building large enough for proper air circulation, but small enough to keep chicks from getting too cold in winter. Plan to have 1-1/2 to 2 feet of floor space per adult chicken. Housing should provide easy access to feed and water and provide nesting areas for hens in egg production.
3) Give her a perch
Although not mandatory, it is a good idea to provide perches. These allow birds to stay off the floor, particularly as they roost at night.
Manure tends to accumulate in greatest concentration under the roost area, keeping the rest of the bedding material cleaner. Allow six to 10 inches of linear perch space for each chicken housed.
4) Give laying hens nest boxes
Provide nest boxes as furnishings for a hen house so she has a secluded place to lay eggs. Commercial or homemade boxes both work.
Box height and width should be 12 to 15 inches by at least 12 inches deep. One nest box is required for each four to five hens. Place nest boxes no less than 18 inches above the floor. Add at least two to three inches of clean, dry shavings to reduce egg breakage and minimize the number of soiled eggs.
5) Be aware of water needs
If inadequate water is available, not only will eating decrease, but so will egg production and growth. Fountain-type drinkers are affordable and easily moved around. Watch carefully so they don’t become empty. Water should be changed frequently in order to prevent bacterial growth, over-warming in summer or freezing in winter. Provide at least two or three additional drinkers as a buffer against spillage or leakage.
6) Keep the food healthy
Ensure that feed is not stale, rancid or moldy. This can cause disease or nutritional deficiencies if consumed.
Purchase feed that is fresh. Vitamins will start to degrade if feed is stored for prolonged periods.
Plan to purchase new feed at least every two months. Always store feed away from heat, moisture and direct sunlight and protect it from rodents.
7) Choose the right feeder systems
Be aware that feeders come in a wide array of sizes and designs. Trough feeders are usually used for young chicks, and bucket feeders of various sizes for growing and adult chickens.
Feeders should be raised off the ground and positioned level with the mid-to-upper breast region of the chickens. Keep feeders in an area protected from moisture, wild animals and free-flying birds.
Chickens can forage for bugs and greens, but always provide them access to the appropriate type of formulated balanced feed.
8) Roosters not always required
Note that hens do not need roosters present to produce eggs. Increasing day length, not the presence of males, stimulates egg production.
A rule of thumb is that four to five hens will supply two to four eggs per day during their production cycle. Pullets (young females) reach sexual maturity and are capable of laying eggs when about five to seven months of age; however, this can vary depending on the breed and strain.
9) Know molting changes
Be aware that during the molt, hens go out of egg production and lose feathers. Under natural conditions, this occurs in the fall or winter. However, modern layer strains have been bred to maintain high egg production over a long period, therefore, you may find your flock laying eggs and losing feathers at the same time.
The laying cycle causes the feathers to become worn and broken. After the molt, hens have a new covering of feathers. They generally produce fewer eggs with each molt. Eggshell strength may also be reduced with each subsequent molt.
10) Be a good neighbor
Keep your chickens enclosed and confined to your property. Properly dispose of used poultry litter.
Although chickens pose a relatively low risk of giving disease to humans, there are a few infections that can be transmitted back and forth. Proper care and handling of eggs and processing of poultry carcasses are critical to avoid problems. Small backyard flocks, if not properly managed, could significantly increase the probability of disease exposure to the commercial industry.
Also see Should you raise backyard chickens? for more ideas and advice!