When the weather is cold, we often think of warmer spring days ahead filled with chicks, baby bunnies, little lambs, and calves galore. In these bleak winter days, if you are considering your first chicken flock in the spring, the time to plan is now! Do some research on different breeds, overall costs, and care for owning a flock. The following are some questions and general pointers to review before you buy that first group of chicks.
What are your goals for your flock? What purpose do you want your flock to serve?
Many people do not research the various types of birds available and end up unhappy when their chickens are not performing how they had envisioned. Taking your flock goals and your lifestyle into account before purchasing birds will make you a happier flock owner. Generally, there are two goals of chicken owners: either chickens that lay eggs or chickens for consumption. Yet some owners want chickens that do both, which requires the effort of research to determine which breed is best.
If your goal is chicken eggs, you should ask yourself:
- Do you need eggs for your family, or would you like to sell eggs to others?
- How many eggs do you want from your hens?
- How long do you want these hens to lay?
If you want to process your chickens for meat, ask yourself these questions:
- Do you want meat for your family, or do you intend to sell to others?
- What breed gains weight the easiest?
- Do you have an appropriate area to butcher these birds?
What are your neighborhood/city/state ordinances?
■ Some cities only allow a limited number of chickens or hens. If your city doesn’t allow roosters, make sure your chicks are sexed at the time of purchase.
■ Most Ag supply stores only allow you to purchase a minimum of 4-6 chickens. Research stores to see how many or how few you can buy.
■ Be a good producer and discuss your backyard flock plan with your neighbor, especially if you plan on caring for a rooster.
■ If you are raising birds for meat, check your city ordinances as most cities do not allow them to be processed on residential property.
Space, Shelter, Predator Mitigation & Cost
Do you have enough space for your backyard chickens?
■ Your coop should allow 3-4 square feet of space per chicken, and about 8-10 square feet per chicken of outdoor space to accommodate a run.
■ Make sure your coop and run provide shade when the weather is hot. An insulated coop can help during the winter as well. Be careful when using heaters during the winter- they should only need heat when the temperature is zero or below.
■ The coop should have nesting boxes and roosts for your birds to lay eggs and have a place to sleep at night.
■ For your flock’s protection, the run should be fully enclosed by fencing. The coop should be free of holes and you should be able to shut every door at night. If your birds are free range during the day, it is best to at least keep them in a fenced area. Coyotes, mink, weasels, raccoons, and hawks are some of the better-known chicken predators. Motion lights and electric fencing can also help deter predators.
■ The cost of raising chickens can vary due to a variety of factors. Your initial costs will be higher if you are purchasing or building your coop and obtaining the necessary equipment. An average coop can cost $400+. Your remaining costs will include feed and shavings throughout the year, and the costs will depend on the number of chickens you own. Expect to pay $15-20 per month on feed for a smaller flock of chickens.
Know What Breed You Want & Understand its Background
Find the breeds of chickens that fit your flock’s goals, space requirements, climate, and budget. Make sure you can buy a bird that can handle the weather where you live. Research the temperament and characteristics of different breeds, for example, some are better for families with kids while others are not.
The following list contains ideal breeds for each category, as well as some general characteristics:
■ Egg Laying Breeds: Australorps, Brahmas, Chanteclers, Dominiques, New Hampshire Reds, Orphingtons, Plymouth Rocks, and Wyandottes
Characteristics – Egg-laying hens can lay for several years. Hens generally will show a decrease in egg production every year around fall or during mount. This is due to fewer daylight hours. If you want your hens to keep laying eggs, make sure they have between 12-14 hours of light.
■ Meat Breeds: Cornish Cross, New Hampshire, Plymouth Rock, and Orphingtons
Characteristics – Different breeds vary in the time required to reach harvest weight. Depending upon your goal, the harvest date may come sooner or later. Some producers want whole chickens to butcher, while others are most concerned with breast meat. Most birds are butchered between 4-6 pounds. Some birds reach that weight in 6-8 weeks, while others take longer.
Where are your birds from?
If you purchase chicks from an agriculture supply store, there are a few things you should ask to understand what you are buying.
■ Most Ag supply stores get their poultry from hatcheries which could be out-of-state or even out of the country. Ask which hatchery your chicks came from.
■ Research the hatchery from where your chicks came from. Good hatcheries are part of the National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP). This is a USDA program that monitors common poultry diseases.
■ Ask for the date that your chicks were delivered. This will give you a better idea of how old the chicks are to help you best monitor their health. Sometimes chicks can linger at the store if they are not purchased immediately.
■ Get a vaccination history on your chicks prior to buying. Some vaccines can only be administered while in the egg or first day of hatch. I am asked if chickens can be vaccinated for Marek’s Disease after they hatch; technically they can but the vaccine provides little to no protection against the disease. If you want your chicks to have certain vaccines or be medicated prior to buying, it is often best to work directly with the hatchery.
Caring for Your Flock: Diseases/Parasites/Nutrition/General Management
Research what diseases your chickens are susceptible to contracting. Diseases can be passed down from parents to offspring, as well as contracted from their environment. I highly recommend reviewing the Merck Backyard Chicken Vet Manual online for an overview of common backyard diseases. Know that other birds and hogs can transmit disease to your chickens. Remember that chickens, like dogs and cats, are also prone to parasites including worms, mites, and lice.
Understand that good management of your flock can prevent many diseases. Take pride in keeping your coop clean and limiting contact with other flocks (wild or domestic). The following house-keeping practices will help keep your flock healthy:
■ Chicks need a heat lamp that provides a 90-95-degree temperature. Make sure your chicks have an area where they can get away from the heat. If birds group directly under the heat lamp, this indicates they need a warmer temperature. If they are spread apart, panting, or far from the heat, that means the heat lamp is set too high. As the birds grow and get new feathers, the temperature of their environment should be decreased. Try backing off a degree each week until they are about 3 to 4 weeks old. At that time, you can decrease the temperature even more if they tolerate it well. By the time the birds reach 6 weeks of age, the temperature should be around 75 degrees.
■ Set up their pen (large box, metal stock tank) with a 2 to 3 inches of shavings and ensure the chicks have easy access to food and water.
■ Keep them in this area for the first 2 to 3 weeks, after that they will need more space. They can be transitioned to another larger pen or the coop with a heat lamp.
■ It is extremely important to keep litter dry during the brooding period to ensure mold does not threaten their developing lungs.
Other daily care includes the following:
■ Provide fresh water every day and ensure that feed is not wet.
■ Make sure there is adequate ventilation through your coop to keep it from becoming airtight. There may not be a need for fans as the most important issue is the air exchange. This will keep your litter fresh and minimize respiratory issues.
■ Examine the litter to make sure it is dry. All wet spots should be removed immediately as mold and bacteria like to grow in these environments. Consider fluffing bedding once each week. Clean the coop out at least twice each year and re-bed. Make sure there is bedding in your laying boxes as well.
■ Make sure your birds are all around the same age. Do not mix young and adult chickens. Older birds have built an immunity to certain diseases that can plague young birds, much like children and adults.
■ Collect eggs at least once every day to keep those hens laying.
Nutrition is very important to the health of your chickens. Know what you need to feed them and when.
■ Make sure you are feeding the correct food for the age of the birds. Younger birds need more protein for growing than adult birds. They need about 20%protein from the time they hatch to around 6 weeks of age. After that, the protein can be reduced to approximately 15% until they start laying.
■ Laying hens require more calcium and phosphorus intake for egg production than roosters or broilers need, which dictates that they should be fed a different diet starting at about 17-18 weeks of age. Protein at this age can be bumped up to 18%.
■ If you are raising your chickens for meat (broilers), the diet can be changed after 6 weeks of age to a slightly lower protein between 15-17%.
■ Running medicated feed for the first 6-8 weeks is a good idea to keep coccidiosis at bay. If you are raising meat birds, consider having them vaccinated at the hatchery for coccidiosis to eliminate adding it to the feed.
■ Although it is not necessary, grit can be given in addition to feed when chicks reach 2 weeks old. If adult birds forage there is no need to provide grit as they almost always find small rocks outside to help digestion when needed.
■ Many people provide oyster shell supplements to their hens that are laying and this practice is acceptable. If you are feeding a layer diet, most of the time there is enough calcium and phosphorous added to the feed that your hens will not need any additional supplements. This is especially true if you are feeding Backyard Advantage Layer Feed through Sioux Nation. This can be fed to your layer hens from 17-18 weeks on for consistent hard-shelled eggs.
These are just a few of many pointers to help you when owning your first chicken flock. At Sioux Nation Ag Center, we are here to help you through your first flock and with any chicken or other poultry questions. Happy first flock!