Today we’re going to be exploring how to take care of chickens on the homestead!
With the prices of poultry products skyrocketing, I think a lot of us are sitting back and wondering if there’s an easier, and cheaper way to provide eggs and meat to our families without breaking the bank each time we go to the grocery store!
While there is an initial start-up cost and lots of planning that goes into buying chickens, I am a firm believer that just about anyone (even if you live in town) can raise chickens. As long as you have a backyard (and your town or HOA allows chickens) you are set!
Before diving any deeper into how to take care of chickens, you need to first make sure that you are legally allowed to own chickens where you live.
Some towns and HOA covenants are against people having a small backyard flock. It is far better to know regulations ahead of time rather than realizing too late that they weren’t allowed. Let’s not get fined!
Once you’ve established that you can legally keep chickens, where do you start?
Well, my first recommendation is the same for every species of livestock you want to purchase: figure out what purpose they are going to serve.
Do you want chickens for meat or egg production?
After you’ve established this, everything else comes down to care.
How to take care of chickens:
- Chicks or Adult Birds
- Feed & Water
Chicks or Adult Birds
I think it’s important to start with determining whether or not you are going to start with chicks or adult animals.
Pros – It’s easier to find the breeds you want if you start with chicks. Hatcheries usually have a wide variety of breeds to choose from, and they ship pretty much anywhere in the states, which makes it really easy to get picky with breeds.
Plus, having the chicks from the beginning means that you know exactly how they were raised and what they were fed.
Cons – The learning curve and amount of equipment needed for chicks is going to be greater than if you start with adult or adolescent birds.
Pros – You don’t have to worry about the learning curve with raising baby birds. You won’t have to wait to start getting eggs, which means the feed to product costs are going to be much more reasonable.
Cons – You’ll likely have to sacrifice on specific breed preferences. Additionally, it can be much harder to find adult birds for sale that are still in (or are about to be in) their prime production years.
Chickens are fairly hardy animals, and absolutely thrive when allowed to free range. That said, it is important to have a shelter for them to return to at night, or in adverse weather, where they can stay dry and warm.
It is a fairly common practice to have heat lamps in the chicken coop. However, the reason behind having heat lamps is often misunderstood.
Heat lamps serve a singular purpose in a chicken coop for adult birds in most climates, and that is to provide several extra hours of light during the winter months to encourage laying to continue throughout the shorter days.
Unless the temperature is extremely cold (and even then it’s rarely necessary if you have good bedding), or you have young chicks, you don’t want to use heat lamps to provide heat to your flock.
If the coop is heated, your chickens are more likely to go into shock from the cold when they wander outdoors, as the temperature difference will be much greater.
So what constitutes a good shelter for your birds?
For adult birds, the minimum space requirement most people agree on for indoor shelters is 1.5-2 square feet per bird. If you aren’t letting your birds free range, having an outdoor run is crucial for their health.
They need sunlight and fresh air just like we do to thrive!
For outdoor runs, the general consensus is 8-10 square feet of space per bird.
The indoor space should be free of drafts and moisture, but also be well ventilated. You will also want to have several nesting boxes, depending on the number of hens you have.
Generally, 1 nesting box per 4 hens is thought to be adequate. That said, sometime you will need more, depending on the temperament of your chickens.
Keep an eye on them and if you notice any issues, be sure to add more nesting boxes to accommodate your hens.
A few signs of insufficient nesting boxes include: pecking, fighting, eggs lying around in other parts of the coop, and other bad neighborly behavior.
In addition to this, chickens also appreciate having somewhere to roost at night. While it doesn’t have to be extremely far off the ground, having at least a foot or two of distance from the ground helps them to feel safer as they sleep.
While these parameters are fairly intuitive, making sure the birds have somewhere safe to go where they can get out of the elements is a must.
Within that there is a ton of room for creative freedom, which makes the whole process way more fun!
Extra requirements for chicks:
Chicks have a few extra requirements than their adult counterparts. The main one of which is that they need to be kept in a brooder.
What is a brooder?
A brooder is a smaller space (usually within the chicken coop) where young chicks are kept to stay warm. When hatched out by a mama hen, chicks are kept warm by her feathers while they are still too small to properly regulate or insulate themselves from the elements.
People use heat lamps to maintain the proper temperature chicks need to thrive, mimicking the heat they would get from a mama hen.
Usually they can be moved from the brooder around 6 weeks of age. This however, is dependent on outdoor temperature. If it is cold outside (below 50 degrees F.), you might not want to let them out until their feathers develop more fully.
Feed & Water:
As with any animal, constant access to clean water is essential, especially on hot summer days. Without water, an essential nutrient, nothing else you do is going to matter. Chickens need it to survive!
When it comes to feeding your birds, their stage of development is going to play a huge role in determining the nutrient composition of the feed you will need.
Chicks from 0-6 weeks of age need a minimum of 20% crude protein, and are fed what is called a starter ration.
Chicks from 6-14 weeks of age require 16% crude protein minimum, and their rations are usually referred to as grower rations. If raising meat birds, such as Cornish crosses or Freedom Rangers, this will be the ration you feed until harvest day.
For chicks between 14-20 weeks old, they need 14-16% crude protein in their diets, which are known as developer rations.
Chickens 20 weeks and older are fed layer rations with a crude protein percentage anywhere between 15-19%.
When deciding what brand of feed to give your birds, I would strongly consider looking for organic, non-GMO options. I like the Scratch and Peck feed Azure Standard sells.
While they are more expensive, they will ultimately provide your flock with more nutrition, and you with healthier food products (i.e. eggs or meat).
Supplementation and ways to decrease feed costs:
In the summer months, chickens allowed to free range will readily eat insects and other plants they find while foraging. This is beneficial for you and the birds because it not only provides more nutrition to them, but also cuts back on the feed bill.
Other ways to cut down on the feed bill would be to supplement their diet with garden produce, as well as sprouted greens, or even fermenting their feed.
Another important consideration is to make sure your chickens have access to both grit and oyster shells.
Since chickens don’t have teeth, they swallow grit which goes into their gizzard and acts as a form of mechanical digestion for the feed in place of teeth.
Oyster shells are a good source of calcium to ensure that your chickens have thick, healthy shells when they lay eggs.
Two important factors to consider for poultry hygiene are: dust baths and clean bedding.
Dust baths are essential for chickens because they help cut down on mite and lice populations. If chickens have a large run, or free range, they will scratch their own dust bath in the dirt.
For birds that might not have easy access to dirt, you can make them a small dust bath. It’s as simple as making a box and filling it with dirt.
Clean bedding is another essential aspect of chicken hygiene. Parasite and disease infestation are a bigger problem in messy coops.
Messy living spaces are a favorite of any and all things bug and disease!
The key to keeping your chicken coop clean is the frequent addition of new bedding (the deep bedding method). Another way to keep the chicken coop clean is to frequently remove old bedding and replace it with new.
That said, the deep bedding method is definitely easier.
Chickens are susceptible to a variety of internal and external parasites. Knowing the signs of infestation as well as how to prevent infestation are important things for poultry owners to know.
External Parasites –
Northern Fowl Mites: Most common type of mite in chickens. The symptoms, usually only present in severe infestations, include: anemia, decreased weight and production, as well as decreased appetite.
Scaly Leg Mites: Symptoms include crusty, thick, deformed legs and feet from the mites burrowing and feeding under the scales on the legs of the bird. Severe infestation can result in loss of toes.
Lice: Symptoms of lice infestation include: agitation, poor appearance, decreased feed intake, decreased egg production and growth in younger birds.
Internal Parasites –
Large Roundworms: While not the most common internal parasite that plagues chickens, it is one of the most dangerous. It is easy to distinguish these small worms who are about 4 inches long and the diameter of a pencil.
They cause an interruption of nutrient absorption, and, in severe infestation cases, can block the intestines and cause death.
Coccidia: An extremely common protozoal parasite that affects chickens, coccidia is a persistent organism in the environment. This means that your chickens will always have the chance to become infected.
That said, they build up an immunity to the coccidia organisms as they age. For this reason, infection is most common in young birds. Signs of infection include: diarrhea, specifically bloody diarrhea, lethargy and decreased production and feed intake.
Fowl Pox: This disease presents in either wet or dry lesions/eruptions that most commonly appear on the bird’s face. Generally, these lesions go away in about two weeks.
Infectious Bronchitis: Just like colds in people, infectious bronchitis presents in much the same way for your flock.
Symptoms include: decreased production and appetite, potential watery discharge from their eyes and nose, and labored breathing.
Marek’s Disease: This disease is most prevalent in birds between 12-25 weeks of age. Symptoms include: tumors, oddly shaped pupils, blindness, and partial paralysis.
Due to infected birds being persistent carriers of the disease, the best course of action is to cull them.
Now that you’ve learned the basics of how to take care of chickens on the homestead, it’s time to go out and get started!
We’d love to hear what you’re doing with chickens on your homestead!
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Other poultry resources:
Before getting started with anything, but especially livestock, it is critical to do your own research! Here are a few other resources on raising chickens.
Oklahoma State Extension information on backyard chicken flocks – click here
Alabama A&M Extension on chicken rations for meat and laying birds – click here