How to raise backyard chickens

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Interest in raising backyard chickens continues to grow among hobby farmers, homesteaders and suburbanites, alike. As consumers have become more and more interested in where their food comes from, backyard chickens have become increasingly commonplace.

Recently, legislation has even been proposed to accommodate the trend. You can find more information on the homestead bill introduced to the Ohio legislature here.

Backyard chickens can be raised for eggs or meat, but more commonly they are raised for eggs. They are also a great way to teach children about nature, agriculture and responsibility. They can be a great addition to your backyard, but proper care is a must.

Selecting your chickens

Chickens can be selected for egg production, meat production or appearance. Many breeds can adapt to backyard habitats, but certain breeds are better suited than others.

Many beginners to backyard chicken raising want birds with mellow temperament and good egg production. Here are some breeds with both characteristics:

Rhode Island Red

  • Hens weigh about 6.5 pounds
  • Brown eggs
  • Dark red feathers
  • Dual purpose breed, used primarily for laying
  • Hardy breed
  • Thrives in small flocks

Ameraucana

  • Green eggs
  • Various colors
  • Dual purpose breed
  • Tolerant to all climates
  • Easy to handle

Wyandotte

  • Hens weigh about 6.5 pounds
  • Brown eggs
  • Various colors
  • Dual purpose breed
  • Hardy breed
  • Thrives in small flocks
  • Good disposition

Orpington

  • Hens weigh about eight pounds
  • Brown eggs
  • Various colors
  • Larger dual purpose breed
  • Larger size is better for colder climates

Many municipalities restrict the number of birds you can have, so check your local restrictions before buying too many.

Feeding

A 6-pound laying hen will consume about 3 pounds of food a week. Its diet should consist of a prepared feed that is balanced for vitamins, minerals and protein; crushed oyster shell for egg production; and grit for digestion. Feed consumption should increase in the winter when your birds are burning more calories and decrease in the summer.

Fruit and vegetable scraps from the kitchen or garden, bread, scratch-cracked corn and oats are nice treats for your flock in moderation.

Chickens also need access to clean, fresh, unfrozen water. During the winter months, providing a heated water bowl or providing fresh water twice a day may be necessary.

Housing

Chickens need shelter for nesting and roosting. You need to provide 2 to 3 square feet of indoor space and 4 to 5 feet of outdoor space per bird. You also need to have one nest box for every four to five birds and a place for them to roost.

Your chicken coop needs to provide protection from the weather and predators. There should be a well-insulated area with a heat lamp for the winter. It should also offer draft-free ventilation in the roosting area. The coop should be free of small holes that predators can sneak in, while the outdoor space should be free of obstructions like wood piles or equipment that can attract predators.

It’s also a good idea to house different species of poultry separately to promote healthier flocks.

Health

Backyard chickens are generally healthy and not easily susceptible to diseases. The easiest way to spot a diseased chicken is to recognize deviations from normal behavior, such as decreased appetite, low production, wheezing, sneezing or strange fecal matter.

An important part of chicken health is a clean living environment. The coop and outdoor area should be cleaned out weekly to avoid manure and odor buildup. The cleaning should include feeders and water sources. Additionally, cleaning is always necessary before introducing a new bird.

The coop should undergo a more extensive and thorough cleaning once a year to control the odor and fly populations associated with chicken manure. Other manure control solutions include moving the coop to a new location or composting the chicken’s bedding.

For more information on chicken health, coop cleaning and manure control, visit the University of Minnesota Extension.

Egg production

Age, daylight exposure and diet are the most important factors to egg production. Hens can begin laying eggs at 6 months old and can continue for 5 to 10 years. However, peak production usually occurs over the first two years.

Each hen will lay about six eggs a week, but production will drop in the fall when they molt and daylight decreases. Hens require at least 12 to 14 hours of light each day to keep laying eggs, and they reach peak production with 16 hours of light a day.

Daily care

  • Food and water need to be changed daily.
  • Hens should be let out each morning and put away each night.
  • Eggs need to be collected twice a day.
  • The coop and pen should be cleaned weekly.

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