Chicken Care Considerations
Backyard chickens can be wonderful companions. Interest in keeping them has grown as part of the local, sustainable, and organic food movements. The HSUS supports measures that reduce animal suffering, and every family that gets their eggs from backyard hens is likely reducing or eliminating their purchase of eggs laid by hens who were confined to crowded cages on factory farms.
There are a wide a variety of chicken breeds, developed for egg production or good looks! While many breeds are adaptable to a backyard setting, certain breeds are better than others for backyard conditions. Medium to large breeds are good for cold winters. A mellow temperament and good egg laying are also pluses. If you see reference to a bantam bird, that is a small version of any particular breed. It will look the same but be smaller.
Popular backyard chicken breeds
These are a few examples of great, mellow breeds for the backyard.
Rhode Island red
Hens weigh about 6.5 pounds
Lay brown eggs
Dark red feathers
Dual purpose breed, but most often used for laying
Hardy breed that does well in small flocks
Hens weight about 6.5 pounds
Lay brown eggs
Dual purpose breed
Great for small flocks and rugged conditions
“Curvy” shape, good disposition
Many color varieties
Many different color varieties
Lay green eggs
Great long-term egg production
Dual purpose breed
Tolerant to all climates
Easy to handle
Hens weigh about 8 pounds
A larger dual purpose breed
Lay brown eggs
Many color varieties
Heavy size is ideal for cold weather
Quality feed and clean water will help keep birds healthy and productive
Chickens are omnivores. They eat grains, fruits, vegetables and insects. Chickens should typically be fed a prepared feed that is balanced for vitamins, minerals and protein. A healthy laying hen diet should also contain crushed oyster shell for egg production and grit for digestion. A 6-pound hen will eat roughly 3 pounds of feed each week.
They love fruit and vegetable scraps from the kitchen and garden as well as bread. Scratch-cracked corn and oats are a nice treat for the chickens that does not supply all their nutritional needs but is fine in moderation.
Feed consumption may increase in the winter when they burn more calories, and it may decrease in the heat of the summer. A critical part of a chicken's diet is continual access to clean, fresh water. This is especially true in the summer as they cool themselves by panting.
A quality coop is essential to backyard chicken
production. Coops must provide protection
from the weather and predators.
Layers need nest boxes — one per 4 to 5 birds.
Chickens are descended from jungle birds, which
means they like to be up high, so a place for them
to roost is important.
There should be a well-insulated area with a light
bulb or heat lamp for the winter months as well
as ventilation for fresh air. Be sure to have a
minimum of 3 to 5 square feet per bird, including
outdoor space. There is an endless variety of
coop designs with just as much range in cost.
Find a design that provides easy access and
otherwise suits your situation. There are many
books and websites with coop designs or
Their main predators are raccoons, rats, owls, hawks and cats. An enclosed space for chickens to stay at night is essential to their protection. Ensure that the coop is free of small holes for predators to sneak in. The space should be free of unnecessary objects like woodpiles or equipment, as they attract predators.
Chickens need to be fed and water changed daily. They need to be let out of the coop each morning and put back into the coop at to protect them from predators. Eggs should be picked up twice a day. The coop and pen should be cleaned out weekly to maintain sanitation and odor control.
Healthy birds will be active and alert with bright eyes. They will be moving around — pecking, scratching and dusting — except on hot days when they will find shade. Chickens that are healthy and active will also talk and sing quietly throughout the day.
As far as laying and eating habits, each chicken is different, so monitor each chicken to get a feel for her normal production and consumption. Healthy droppings will be firm and grayish brown, with white urine salts. Roughly every tenth dropping is somewhat foamy, smellier than usual and light brown.
Chickens raised in backyard settings generally stay healthy and are not easily susceptible to diseases. The easiest way to find disease in chickens is to know what a healthy bird looks like. When a chicken isn't acting normal, for instance if she doesn't run to the food as usual or she wheezes or sneezes, start investigating.
An important element to bird health is sanitation. In order to maintain a clean, healthy environment, the coop and outdoor area should be cleaned out weekly or as needed to control manure and odor build up. Feeders and waterers should be regularly cleaned and disinfected. Dust baths should be available, as they help control mites. It is important that at least once a year, usually in the spring, a thorough cleaning is done on the coop and yard. Also cleaning before introducing new birds to the area will limit the spread of disease. A fall cleaning is also helpful with mite control over winter.
During this cleaning, safety precautions must be taken in dealing with dust. Wear a dust mask and mist the walls surrounding the area to control dust movement. Inhalation of dried chicken manure can be harmful to humans. Rake and clean out the yard. All feeders should be removed and bedding completely cleared out. It is important to remove dust and cobwebs from corners of the coop. The inside of the coop needs to be disinfected — including troughs, perches and nests. To disinfect, use one-tablespoon chlorine bleach to one gallon boiling water.
Learn how to prevent disease in your poultry with biosecurity.
Chicken manure is made up of feed residue, intestinal bacteria, digestive juices, mineral by-products from metabolic processes, and water. In fact, 85 percent of chicken droppings, by weight, is water.
Composting can be done right in the chickens' bedding. To start this process, lay down about 4 inches of bedding. Regularly stir up the bedding to prevent clumping, and add fresh bedding until it is 10 inches deep by winter. Continue this process until the bedding gets 12 to 15 inches deep. At this depth, composting actively begins and after 6 months can kill harmful bacteria. This composting releases heat, which keeps chickens warm in cooler months and attracts natural fly predators. To maintain the compost, it must be stirred regularly to prevent crusting. The same process can be done outside of the coop in a separate bin.
Hens begin laying at around six months of age and can continue for five to 10 years with peak production occurring in the first two years. They will lay roughly six eggs each week. Egg production drops each year when the hens molt (replace their feathers in the early fall) and as daylight hours are lost. Hens need at least 12 to 14 hours of light each day to continue laying eggs. A regular light bulb is sufficient to supply this light.
The Adoption Option: If your local shelter has no chickens available, look to adopt a "retired" hen from a factory farm who now lives at a rescue or sanctuary that adopts these birds out. While not as productive as they were in their prime, many of these chickens still lay multiple eggs per week. Most of these older hens would otherwise end up being killed on the farm or sent to slaughter. You can find a list of adoption agencies near you by visiting sanctuaries.org or petfinder.com.