Open the door to the local hardware or feed store at this time of year and you’re likely to be greeted by the peeping of newly hatched chicks. Whether you’ve raised poultry in the past or are thinking about it for the first time, there are some considerations for successful, small-scale poultry production.
“Raising chickens can be fun,” said Chicken Whisperer® Andy Schneider, USDA/APHIS national spokesperson for biosecurity for birds. “But it’s a major commitment not to be entered into without careful research and a clear understanding of the downside. Like other animals, chickens can create an odor if not properly taken care of. Chickens and their coops must be kept clean, and chickens must be kept safe from predators. Daily attention includes providing fresh food and water and regular egg collection. Coops must be cleaned regularly, including basic cleaning several times a month and a good overall cleaning with disinfectant once or twice a year. Nesting and bedding materials must be provided and changed. And chickens can be noisy.”
If this is the first time you’ll be raising chickens, it’s a good idea to check county and local zoning requirements and restrictions before purchasing chicks and supplies.
Hatcheries, which sell birds either online or through catalogs, are a common source of newly-hatched chicks. If you choose this source, make sure the hatchery is certified by the National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP). The NPIP was established in the 1930s to coordinate state programs to eliminate disease from breeding flocks. Hatcheries usually require ordering a minimum number of chicks, which may be more than the first-time bird owner wants. Feed stores are another source of chicks — just make sure that the chicks originated from an NPIP certified hatchery. Check the chicks’ overall appearance and make sure they look healthy and active.
Prior to bringing young chicks home, be prepared with a brooder. “There are five components of a brooder,” said Schneider. “The brooder itself, bedding, feed, water and heat. Make sure that the heat source is secured properly to prevent fire.”
Chicks will soon outgrow the brooder, so don’t wait too long to prepare a coop. The coop should be predator-proof from the sides, above and below. Common predators include raccoons, skunks, small rodents, opossums, foxes, wolves, coyotes and birds of prey such as hawks. Domestic animals (dogs and cats) can also be predators. Standard chicken wire will keep chickens in but it usually isn’t strong enough to keep predators out. A better choice is hardware cloth. Remember that rodents are expert diggers and can enter the coop from underneath. The coop should be well-ventilated to prevent respiratory illness, easy to clean and equipped with roosting poles with about 10 inches of space for each bird.
The coop floor requires bedding to absorb droppings and reduce odor. A two-inch layer of pine shavings (not pine chips) is ideal. The coop should include one nesting box for every three to five chickens. Boxes should be raised off the ground at least several inches, in a dark area and not crowded. The feeder and waterer should be suspended about six to eight inches from the ground so that chickens can’t roost there.
Chickens must be able to take a dust bath. “Dust baths are absolutely necessary,” said Schneider. “They prevent parasites such as mites and lice from finding a home on your chickens. If your chickens are confined and don’t have an area to take a dust bath, provide an artificial dust bath. Place a box on the floor of the coop and fill it with about six inches of a dusting powder that may include one part fireplace ashes, one part road dust, one part sand and one part diatomaceous earth.”
Ideally, chickens should receive a complete feed that is formulated for each stage of growth. It’s best to select a feed that is ‘complete’ and doesn’t require any nutritional supplements. Read the label instructions and be sure to supply the appropriate feed for each stage of growth.
Although it isn’t part of the ration, chickens require grit — small sand-like particles that are stored in the gizzard to help break down food before it reaches the stomach. Calcium, usually in the form of oyster shell, isn’t usually necessary with a complete feed, but birds that are outside foraging may need it. Keep both grit and calcium where chickens can access it.
Biosecurity is an important aspect of raising poultry. Once you have poultry, it’s a good idea to restrict your contact with other poultry. “Wild waterfowl and wild rodents can carry disease without showing signs of disease,” said Dr. Jo Anna Quinn, veterinary medical officer and poultry health specialist for USDA/APHIS. “Chicken owners with backyard ponds or who live near water should be especially careful to keep their chickens enclosed and separate from wild waterfowl that like to congregate in these areas.”
Salmonella lives in the intestines of poultry and waterfowl, and can cause disease in humans even if the chickens appear healthy. Prevent salmonella contamination through good sanitation, including thorough hand-washing after touching live poultry or eggs, washing and cooking eggs, and cleaning equipment and materials that have been in direct contact with live poultry. Adults should supervise children in poultry areas and oversee children’s hand washing. Always assume that the areas where birds are free-roaming could be contaminated. Avoid allowing chickens to roam into outdoor eating areas such as patios. Young chicks should not be kept in the kitchen or bathroom as a substitute for a brooder area.
If you plan to add adult birds to an existing flock, allow a four week quarantine. Watch for lice, mites, signs of respiratory disease and other indications of disease.
To acclimate new birds to existing birds, allow the two groups to see each other through a fence, without physical contact, for about a week before combining the birds.