Beginner’s Guide to Chicken-Keeping

Beginner's Guide to Chickens
Right off the bat, let me just say… chickens rock. I have owned chickens for years… Chickens are a joy and I can’t imagine not having them. However, believe me… as a chicken keeper who has learned the hard way… There are things I wished I would’ve known during my beginner’s poultry experience that could have saved me lots of work and trouble… Chicken keeping doesn’t have to be hard or complicated… but it definitely can be. In this guide, I have included some basic chicken-keeping tips and info to hopefully help make your beginning experience with chickens a good one… So here’s to simplicity and happy, healthy chickens!

Note: If you would like to read more about chick care specifically, you can reference this article, which is more on the subject of caring for chicks: Basic Guide on Chick Care.

Important Keys to Keeping & Caring for Chickens:

Space

Chickens need space. The more, the better. It is way better to have too much rather than not enough. However, space requirements vary breed-to-breed (and even bird-to-bird) especially considering chick breeds can weigh anywhere from 8oz (Serama Bantam) to 13 pounds (Jersey Giant)… Obviously, the Seramas will need far less space than the Jerseys. Additionally, set up and breed temperament has a huge impact on how much space you will need.

Here’s a few basic guidelines for the standard-sized chicken that might help give you a general idea:
  • Perching: Each bird should have at least 1 ft of perching area (lengthwise).
  • Nesting: You’ll likely need about 1 nest box per 3 hens. However, again… this depends on the breeds. Breeds that lay more will spend more time occupying the nesting area. For production breeds that may lay 200-300+ eggs for the first few years (such has Leghorns, Production Gold/Black Sex-link hybrids, Rhode Island Reds, Plymouth Rocks and Easter-Eggers), I recommend having 1 nest box per 2 hens.
  • Coop area: This factor is extremely vague… there is no real way to give definite on exactly how much space your particular flock will need. Additionally, coop design plays a role in minimal area requirements. Some chickens need far more than others to be okay… but when in doubt about minimum space requirements, lean on the ‘more is better’ side of things. However, here are some general guidelines that might help: For standard chickens (average-sized chickens) that free-range outside, you will need at least 4 cubic feet of coop space per chicken. For chickens kept confined, you will need at least 10 cubic feet of area per chicken. Additionally, mixed flocks (flocks consisting of different breeds or species) with breeds of varying size and temperament often need more room. Estimate generously.

Practical Tips for the Coop

  • Consider removable roosts and/or Dropping Boards (which can make coop cleaning much easier).
  • Opt for a simple, easy coop. If it is simple, it will be easier to maintain, which will, believe me, make your chicken-keeping experience more pleasurable.
  • Avoid making roosts to close to the ceiling (chickens can bruise their wings on the ceiling when they fly up on the roost).
  • Try to keep roosts ~18″ apart if you have more than one roost (this prevents chickens from pooping on one another when roosting).
  • Try to keep each roost no more than 2 inches in width (unless you have rounded roosts than you don’t have to be concerned about this). If perches are to wide, chickens may perch sideways on them and thus get manure piled up on the perching areas.
  • Keep nesting and perching separate (you can read more about why below).
  • Ventilation (you can read more about this below).

Health & Sanitation

Sanitation is one of the key things to keeping healthy chickens. Done right, keeping chickens is healthier for your person than walking into a public building. (Since chickens are so biologically different from humans they are capable of transmitting far fewer diseases to us than other humans are). However, unsanitary conditions can can harm humans as well as chickens.

Since chickens are foragers and love being in the dirt, let’s just say you can’t keep them from germs… some bugs are good anyways. 😋

Here are some simple tips on coop sanitation for healthy chickens:
  • Feeders and waterers should be kept clean. If chickens are perching on waterers/feeders, I advise adding other more appealing perching areas and/or hanging the waters/feeders.
  • Nesting areas should be cleaned thoroughly if eggs have been broken/smashed in them. I use Vinegar or Alcohol.
  • Nesting areas should be kept away from perching areas… because chickens poop… a lot (annually, about 45 pounds per hen… that’s a lot of poop). Nobody wants poopy eggs.
  • Pick good bedding. Some beddings (particularly ones that keep moisture in) can breed bacteria and/or lead to respiratory problems in poultry. Certain beddings are also easier to maintain than others. I highly recommend shavings or pellets in the coop. Sand is awesome for the run area (easy to clean, inexpensive and sanitary, particularly if you add salt to it). Straw/hay works but is not really the best option because it retains more moisture than shavings and pellets. It also may pose as a respiratory hazard to people and birds. Avoid wood chips/bark (in the coop) because they keep moisture in and can lead to foot problems in poultry (such as bumble-foot).
  • Ventilation & Dander: Chickens have LOTS of dander… They shake it, drop it and preen a lot of it off when perched. However, to much dander build-up is not good for respiratory health. For this reason, it is a good idea to dust off perches every now and then (be sure to wear a mask!). Also, ensure the coop is well ventilated (while still being fairly insulated for cold weather, if needed in your climate). You can read more about chickens’ cold weather tolerance here: “How Cold is to Cold for Chickens?

External Parasite Prevention

Chickens are walking parasite magnets… Their plumage is water-resistant and their bodies are warm. This is why it is extremely important to pay attention to parasite prevention. Chickens can take care of themselves… and they do, when given the right resources. The 2 most critical parasite prevention resources are space and dust/dirt… Yup. It’s that simple… Chickens roll in dust and preen to naturally keep nasty bugs away.  Why is the space factor so important then? Since chickens have little means of defense (yet many predators), their first instinct, when stressed, is usually ‘flight’. In conclusion, when chickens are stressed, they avoid preening and sitting/laying down for a bath… which often leads to external parasite issues.

To read more about preventing, treating and identifying external parasites in poultry, please visit this article on: Preventing & Treating External Parasites in Poultry.

Feed

Chickens grow VERY fast (some breeds, like the Fayoumi, mature in as little as 4 months!). To grow healthy and strong and productive, chickens need good nutrition. However, once they are older, their nutritional needs change.

Though a popular  feed supplementation, chicken scratch is different from chicken feed and does not supply chickens with what they need to be healthy. For this reason, chicken scratch should not be the sole source of nutrition for chickens. Thanks to poultry nutritionists, you don’t have to be a chicken nutritionist to have healthy, happy chickens! Most commercial ration feeds are complete with the basic, essential nutrients for chickens:

For young chicks (0-10 weeks), they should be fed Chick Starter. Chicks over 10 weeks should be switched to Grower Feed.  Layer Ration Feeds are for egg-laying chickens and are thus enriched with ‘extras’ of specific nutrients used to produce eggs (such as calcium). Layer Ration should generally be given to chickens 18 weeks and older (unless the chicken begins laying before then).

All feeds listed above should be available at your local Farm/Feed or Tractor Supply store. You can read more about chicken nutrition here: “Chicken Nutrition: Feeds & Supplements”.

Recommended Resources for Beginners

Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens (Gail Damerow), The Chicken Health Handbook (Gail Damerow), The Chicken Chick’s Guide to Backyard Chickens and The Chicken Chick (website).


Have any questions about chicken keeping? I’d love to hear from you and am happy to answer any questions I know answers to! If I am not sure of the answer, I will likely recommend other people, sites, articles and/or books on the subject.

 

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