By David D. Frame, DVM. Utah State University Extension Poultry Specialist
Now that spring is on its way and feed stores are full of baby chicks, many folks are looking forward to the fun and economy of raising a few chickens right at home. Whether kept simply as pets or raised for home food production, the clucking and scratching of chickens roaming the yard have an aesthetic appeal that many people find hard to beat. Chickens are easily accessible from many local outlets, require little space in which to thrive, and they are relatively quiet. These advantages bode well for raising them in small acreage lots and backyards in areas where the law allows. However, in order to be successful, a few basic guidelines need to be followed – especially for first-time owners.
Check with local municipality to be sure chickens are allowed in your area.
Find out the maximum number allowed and if roosters are prohibited. Make sure the coop is offset from property lines according to local ordinances. Conform to all local regulations so that any regulatory privileges are not revoked.
Get ready for the babies
Have the coop, heat source, feeders, waters, and other equipment in place before bringing the chicks home. Figure at least two square feet of floor space in the coop for each adult chicken. Most coops will exceed this minimum square footage. Purchase feeders and waterers commensurate with the size of birds. For example, small chicks will require a different size than adult laying hens.
Be smart in buying your chicks
Always purchase chicks originating from a National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP) certified hatchery. If it isn’t apparent, ask the seller! NPIP-certified poultry distributors have documentation for every lot received. This assures that they are free of certain devastating diseases, most of which are transmitted from hens to their chicks.
Be a good neighbor!
Keep your birds confined to your own yard. An enclosed run with a wire or net covering is ideal. Heavy breeds tend not to fly as frequently and roam as far as bantams and lighter breeds. Clipping wing feathers to inhibit flight is not recommended and often works poorly.
Keep your yard clean. Protect feed in enclosed containers, hang feeders from the ceiling, and promptly clean up feed spills to minimize rodent populations. Promptly dispose of used litter by removing from the premises, properly composting it, or tilling it into the garden. Do not leave piles of raw used litter out in the open. This encourages varmints and flies to congregate.
The commercial poultry industry contributes a significant and vital part to the agricultural economy of Utah. Anything that jeopardizes the viability of this industry also jeopardizes the economic health of Utah. It is important that these commercial flocks are kept protected from serious diseases that would decimate this sector of Utah’s economy. Please be a good neighbor by keeping your birds confined and away from any commercial poultry enterprises.
Baby your birds!
Chicks need additional warmth until they are fully feathered. A simple way to provide heat is with an infrared light (100 to 250 watts) available at your local farm supply store. Turn the birds out into open runs when they are feathered well, weather is good, and temperatures are mild.
Always provide a ready source of professionally formulated feed that is tailored to the age of the chickens. These feeds contain all of the vitamins and minerals needed for optimal growth.
Fresh water is a must. If hens don’t drink, they won’t eat, and subsequently will not lay eggs. Change water frequently to reduce bacterial buildup and contamination with litter and dirt.
It is imperative to follow sound animal welfare practices. One of the most important things is to protect your chickens from extreme heat, cold, and inclement weather. This is best accomplished by providing a comfortable enclosed coop. Lock your birds into the coop every night to protect from predators and marauding animals.
An egg is just not an egg. . . .
Eggs are a fragile commodity and require diligent care. Commercial egg producers go to great lengths to provide a fresh, wholesome, and disease-free product for the grocery store. A home chicken owner must do the same. Unsanitary coop conditions, infrequent gathering, and improper storage can ruin an egg and even make it dangerous to consume. Maintain clean dry shavings in the nest, gather eggs at least twice a day – more often during hot summer months, and immediately store the eggs at 45°F (refrigerator temperature). It is not recommended to routinely wash eggs. If you discover that the eggshells are frequently soiled, find out the reason why. It is much better in the long run to solve the problem at the coop level rather than running the risk of washing dirty eggs and increasing the probability of contaminating the inside of the egg with bacteria that enter through a dirty wet shell.
Keep the flock healthy
Most small backyard flocks remain free of disease if purchased from a reputable source and kept away from neighbors’ birds. There is seldom a need to worry about vaccinations and medication. However, it is extremely important to never add new chickens to your flock – especially if you don’t know their disease status. It is very difficult – and often impossible – to visibly tell if a chicken has disease or not. Many serious diseases do not show outward signs, so you could easily introduce a “Typhoid Mary” into your home flock with subsequent devastating results to your resident chickens. If egg production dwindles, or if the chickens are just getting old, it is better in the long run to dispose of the entire flock and start over with fresh birds from an NPIP-certified hatchery.
By following a few basic principles, one can easily gain the knowledge necessary to become a confident and successful chicken owner. More in-depth information can be found by visiting www.chicken.usu.edu or by contacting the USU Extension Poultry Specialist.