Raising Chickens 101: A beginners Guide

Phillip J. Clauer

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Phillip J. Clauer

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Raising chickens can be enjoyable as long as you plan appropriately. Before you build a coop or buy any chickens, it is important to consider the conditions and time you can offer to the chickens, as well as chicken feed, chicken breed, housing, and other technicalities. We will cover all of them in this article.

Can you raise chickens in your location?

Many localities restrict the raising of poultry. Recently, numerous localities throughout the nation have reexamined local laws, ordinances, and HOA guidelines to allow residences to raise small numbers of chickens in urban areas.

Regulations vary greatly and most urban areas require a permit to raise chickens and build a chicken coop. To avoid potentially harsh consequences, it is crucial to do your homework to understand all regulations and ordinances regarding keeping chickens in your municipality. 

How to care for chickens

Chickens require daily care and monitoring. Caring for any animal or bird is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week commitment that begins when the birds arrive. Remember that most domestic chickens will live six to eight years, but they can live for over 12 years. Develop a plan for who will care for your birds when you are away.

Provide a proper shelter from the weather

While it is true that chickens are hardy birds, protecting them from severe weather conditions is imperative. No matter the style of your coop, the idea is to keep your birds dry and healthy.  Chickens do not tolerate damp or cold drafty conditions, which will lead to various diseases and foot conditions.

Building your chicken coop on high ground can help prevent flooding and wet pens, but higher areas are windier, which can drive rain inside and increase drafts. To create a comfortable housing for your chicken, try these tips:

  • Build the shed on a level ground that drains well after rain
  • Do not build your coop and outdoor run in low, wet areas
  • Equip the interior of the coop with enough sleeping roosts for the chickens
  • Provide a protected, roofed outdoor space for your flock to frolic in all types of weather
  • Monitor temperature and humidity inside the coop, and add additional insulation or ventilation, if necessary
  • Make sure the coop is big enough to clean comfortably
  • There should be natural light as well as supplemental light for working at night or during darker winter months
  • Use pine shavings or straw for bedding

Remember to maintain good coop ventilation to provide a dry, safe, and comfortable environment where your chickens are protected from the elements and harsh weather. Good ventilation will prevent stagnation of moisture, ultimately reducing the risk of frostbite, moldy feed or bedding, and possible respiratory infections.

We also have a comprehensive guide on building safe and comfortable chicken coop housing, so make sure to check that out.

Design a coop that prevents injuries

In the previous section, we’ve mentioned that it’s important to provide housing that prevents injuries for chickens. Here are the factors to consider in order to do that:

  • Limit slippery surfaces and ramps to prevent leg injuries. 
  • Remove any loose or ragged wire, nails, or other sharp-edged objects from the coop.
  • Do not use wire that is large enough or allow gaps in fencing or equipment that a bird can push its head through. Birds will often catch their comb in fencing or gaps and rip their combs. These gaps are also a cause for pattern feather damage on the birds neck or breast. 

Provide roosting areas and nests

If you’re raising egg-laying chickens, make sure they have a comfortable roosting area and nests. Below are the steps required to make a good roosting area for the birds:

  1. Provide 6 inches per bird.
  2. Place roosts 18 to 24 inches above the floor to prevent injury to legs when they jump down.
  3. Space roost boards 1 foot apart.
  4. Place roosts away from nests to prevent egg eating.

When it comes to providing nests to egg layers, here’s what you need to consider: Before your birds start to lay at 18-22 weeks of age, provide a minimum of two 12-inch by 12-inch nesting boxes for the first four hens and add a nest for every additional four hens in your flock. Place nests 24 inches above the floor and away from the roosts. 

Please read our complete guide about how to build a chicken nesting box for more information.

Note: A roosting area and nests are not necessary for chickens that are raised for meat.

Provide constant access to feed and water

Be sure that birds have free access to water and feed at all times. The pecking order determines which birds get to eat and drink in the flock. When you have inadequate feeder space birds at the lower end of the pecking order may never be allowed to eat.

Provide at least 3 inches of feeder space per bird and if you have more than 25 birds place feeders in separate areas so all birds can reach feed. Feeders and water supply should be placed conveniently throughout the pen for birds’ access. Place the top lip of the waterers and feeders at the birds’ back height. This will keep the feed and water clean and prevent wastage.

When it comes to water, provide one, 3 gallon watering device per 25 adult hens in your flock.  If you have more than 50 hens, provide extra watering devices.

If you choose to use nipple watering systems, place the tip of the water nipple at a level just above the bird’s eye level. The bird should need to reach up for the water nipple to prevent water and wet spots in the pen. Plan to have 1 water nipple for every 6-8 birds in the pen. Nipples should be separated by at least 10 inches.

Chickens need to be fed a balanced diet appropriate for their phase of life and production level.  Feed an 18-20 percent protein starter for the first 6-8 weeks, and then feed a 14-15 percent protein grower or developer to 18 weeks of age. For laying hens over 18 weeks of age, feed a 16-18 percent protein layer ration with a calcium source like oyster shells free choice in a separate feeder. Feeding a granite grit to the chickens prior to being allowed to range outside and have access to long fibrous materials will help grind the fiber in the crop and prevent compaction. Limit the feeding of table scraps or whole grains or you will experience decreased production, make the birds fat, produce soft-shelled eggs, cause prolapse and shorten the flock’s life.

Make sure to store feed in a cool, dark, dry metal container so sunlight, heat and rodents can not damage the feed. 

You can purchase feeding and watering equipment at any farm supply store. The main point is to use the proper number and proper sized feeding and watering equipment to make sure all birds have access and to prevent spillage.

Provide a proper base of dry litter

Make sure to keep the coop dry and draft free. Chickens do not tolerate damp or cold drafty conditions, which will lead to various diseases and foot conditions. Closing windows during cold nights and in winter will prevent drafts.

Another important thing to mention is that wet litter will generate an ammonia odor in your coop. In order to avoid trapping moisture in the coop, open windows in the summer to help keep the birds cool.

Birds should have a 3-inch base of dry litter such as pine shavings in their pen, and it should be cleaned every 6 weeks. 

  • Most manure will be dropped below the roosting area.  Raking and removing these droppings weekly can help.  
  • If the birds are raised in wire floored pens, the waste pans should be cleaned daily to prevent odors and flies.

Keep the chicken coop clean

Keep the chickens’ environment clean and dry to help keep your eggs clean. A muddy outside run, dirty or damp litter, and dirty nesting material will not only result in dirty, stained eggs, but these eggs have a high chance of being contaminated with bacteria.

Keeping your coop clean can go a long way to reducing the chances of your birds getting diseases. Depending on the size of your flock, you may want to consider a daily coop cleaning routine and then thorough cleaning monthly. 

Some tips on keeping the coop clean:

  • Make sure nests have a deep, clean layer of bedding to prevent breakage and help absorb waste or broken egg material.
  • Clean out the nest boxes at least every two weeks.
  • Clean out wet litter in the coop and make sure the outside run area is not over-grazed and has good drainage.

Control coop temperature

Stress in chickens due to less-than-ideal coop temperatures is one of the problems many producers have to deal with. That’s why it is vital to commit to managing the temperatures of your coop. Heat stress occurs when the temperature and dew point reach a sum of 150 (an 80°F temperature and a dew point of 70 = 150). So, how do you control coop temperature?

Depending on the breed you are keeping, you need to understand what temperature is too hot or too cold, then find ways of keeping your chickens in ideal temperatures.

The optimal temperatures for most chicken breeds are 55°F to 75°F.  When heat-stressed, the birds will stop eating,  consume more water, and decrease egg production.  The best way to cool the birds is to move as much air over the birds with fans.  When the temperatures drop significantly, you may consider using a UL-approved chicken coop heater.  Remember, chickens tolerate cold temperatures best when the coop is dry.

If you live in a region with wide temperature swings, from very cold to hot, it’s advisable to build a coop whose design is optimized for temperature control and insulate it as needed.

Protect chickens from predators

One of the most important considerations when building your coop is how to protect your birds from the threat of predators. Coyotes, raccoons, fisher cats, foxes, bobcats, dogs, hawks, owls, weasels, and snakes are some predators that pose the biggest threats to chickens. While most predators attack hens when foraging outdoors, some may take a more conventional approach and try to break into the coop through the cracks and opening to the coop during the dusk and dawn hours.

To minimize the chances of predators attacking your chickens, avoid placing your backyard chicken coop close to wild areas that appeal to predators. Shrubs, woodpiles, and low-hiding objects can harbor predators, snakes, and rodents. Hawks and owls can also hide in overhanging branches unnoticed. If raptors are an issue, you may need to net the tops of your chicken pens.

Raising the coop about 10 to 12 inches off the ground is advisable to protect your chickens from predators. This will prevent them from burrowing under the coop to live. This can also prevent wood rotting, ensuring longevity.  Whether you build your chicken coop on or off the ground, it is imperative to use sturdy wall materials and set it on a reinforced foundation to deter digging predators.

Setting your coop on a concrete slab and burying the outdoor fence in a toe-out manner can also help deter curious predators that may want to attack your chicken by burrowing under the pen. For a more comprehensive understanding and additional tips, be sure to read the full guide on predator proof chicken coops.

Minimize egg breakage

Prevent eggs from being broken to minimize a hen learning to eat an egg and developing egg-eating habits.  Provide free choice oyster shells or limestone to help strengthen the egg shells.

Do chickens require outdoor runs?

For chickens, outside runs are not necessary. If desired, you can confine the birds to an exercise area that provides at least 10 square feet per bird. It is best to not place birds on rough surfaces like gravel or weed stubble. If you provide an outdoor fenced run, provide a minimum of 8-10 sq ft/ bird. 

How to raise chickens for eggs and meat? Factors to consider

There are multiple things to consider if you’re raising chickens for eggs or poultry. We’re going to go over some of them.

Provide proper lighting

Light is very important for egg-laying chicken. The coop should provide natural and supplemental light for layers and to aid working at night in the darker winter months. One 25- to 40-watt bulb located above the feed and water area at ceiling height for every 40 square feet of pen is ample. Provide 14 to 16 hours of light per day for maximum year-round egg production.

Never decrease the lighting period on birds in egg production, or they may stop laying. You will need to add lights in the fall or winter. An inexpensive time clock can be installed to turn lights on in the morning hours and let the birds go to roost with the natural sunset.

Lighting a coop can help your chickens stay warm during winter and keep egg production consistent. Adequate light helps you see everything when cleaning the coop or caring for your birds. However, remember electricity in the chicken coop can pose a fire risk if not set up properly. 

The most important point to remember about lighting is that chickens see light at a different spectrum than the human eye.  So, full light to a chicken is at one-foot candle or very dim light.  So do not use high-intensity lighting. They only need the equivalent of 1 25-40 watt bulb in most coops. Intense light will stress the chickens and can bring on behavior problems in the flock.

Provide fresh water

It is essential that you provide a constant supply of fresh, clean water for your chickens. Clean the waterers and provide fresh water daily. Place the waterers so that the lip of the waterer is level with the birds’ backs. If you use a nipple watering system, have the nipples just above eye level.  Never let the laying hens go without water for more than eight hours; you will see a drop or stoppage of egg production.

In winter, a heater may be required to prevent the water from freezing. If you do have issues with freezing water, make sure to clean and provide fresh water first thing in the morning and at least an hour prior to the birds roosting for the night.

Consider chicken breeds

While all chickens will lay eggs and produce some meat, there is great variability between breeds and strains. The best layers have relatively small bodies.

From the pure egg-laying efficiency standpoint, the commercial red sex-linked hybrid will lay 240 to 280 brown eggs a year. They are a hardy yet docile bird that is great in a small-flock setting. Common heritage-type breeds will lay 50 to 200 eggs a year. However, there is great variability between strains and the source of these breeds.

Eggshell colors also vary between breeds, from white and shades of brown to green and blue shell colors. Egg shell color is determined by the breed and makes no difference in the nutritional value or taste of the egg.

Commercial hybrids specifically bred for meat production are much more efficient at meat production and have a much greater meat yet verse frame. However, those chickens that are bred for meat production have two characteristics in common: they are poor egg layers and they grow faster.

Dual-purpose breeds are average layers and can grow large enough to produce some meat.   There are over 350 different breeds and varieties of purebred chickens recognized by the American Poultry Association (APA). There are large purebred chickens as well as bantam (miniature) purebred chickens.

Large chicken breeds require a floor space of 2 to 5 square feet per bird. Bantam chickens can live in half the floor space. Remember, purebred birds are selected for specific appearance traits rather than the ability to produce eggs and meat. Although they are not efficient at the production of meat or eggs, they tend to have colorful plumage and very unique traits like feathered feet or head crests.

How long do chickens lay eggs?

Under proper management, pullets should come into production at around 18-20 weeks of age.  Shortly after the onset of production, 94 percent of your birds will lay an egg daily. They will gradually lay fewer eggs until 60 percent or less of the hens lay eggs daily near the end of the laying cycle. Flocks should remain above 60 percent production until 65 – 85 weeks of age.

After the flock drops below 55% production it is best to molt the flock together if possible. Birds will take about 10-12 weeks to complete a molt and come back into production. Hens can be kept for multiple laying cycles. However, the hens will lay fewer eggs, are less efficient, and will lay eggs for a shorter time with each additional cycle.

In many small flocks, the owners let the individual chickens molt at their own pace.  This is fine however, this will cause the overall daily egg production rates to stay between 50-70% or lower after the first laying cycle.

What you should know about correct egg handling

The condition of the egg that you collect is directly related to how well the flock is managed.

Provide a minimum of two 12-inch by 12-inch nesting boxes for the first four hens and add a nest for every additional four hens in your flock. This will help limit egg breakage from normal traffic and daily egg laying. Keep the laying flock in a fenced area so they cannot hide their eggs or nest anywhere they choose. If hens are allowed to nest wherever they choose, you will not know how old eggs are or with what they have been in contact…if you can find them at all.

Here are some tips on how to handle the eggs properly:

  • Collect eggs in an easy-to-clean container like plastic coated wire baskets or plastic egg flats. Place eggs in the container gently to prevent breakage.
  • Do not stack eggs too high. If collecting in baskets, do not stack eggs more than 5 layers deep. If using plastic flats, do not stack more than 6 flats. If you stack eggs too deep you will increase breakage.
  • Never cool eggs rapidly before they are cleaned. The eggshell will contract and pull any dirt or bacteria on the surface deep through the pores when cooled. Try to keep the temperature relatively constant until they are washed.
  • Wash eggs as soon as you collect them. This helps limit contamination and loss of interior quality.
    • Wash at 90°F and a min of 20°F greater than egg temp with an approved cleaning compound. Then rinse at a slightly higher temp. This will make the egg contents sweat and push the dirt away from the pores of the egg. Never let eggs sit submerged in water. Once the temperature equalizes the egg can absorb contaminants in the water.
  • Dry and cool eggs quickly after washing. Store eggs, large end up, at 40–45°F and 70% relative humidity. Eggs that sit at room temperature (65°F or higher) can drop as much as one grade per day. If fertile eggs are kept at a temperature above 85°F for more than a few hours, the germinal disc (embryo) can start to develop. If fertile eggs are kept above 85°F over two days, the blood vessels of the embryo may become visible.

When should you collect the eggs

Most eggs are laid prior to 10 am, so collect the eggs early and again before dark daily. This will prevent egg breakage, broodiness, and the potential for egg eating by the flock or predators.

How to make sure the eggs stay fresh

If eggs are stored properly in their own carton in a 45°F cooler, they should hold a quality of Grade A for at least six weeks.

Is raising chickens cost-effective?

In most cases, raising chickens for either eggs or meat is more expensive than simply buying the products from a supermarket. That is especially true if you’re managing a relatively small chicken coop. However, if you employ creative marketing techniques, you can sell eggs and meat for a higher price in order to cover your costs.

Raising chickens: the takeaway

If you want to raise chickens, whether it’s for eggs or meat, you should consider several factors, like chicken housing, chicken breed, proper maintenance of food, water, and living conditions. As an owner, you should also monitor bird health and seek help if anything appears questionable. Birds need to be sheltered from the environment and predators in order to ensure a long and healthy life.

Raising chickens can be a rewarding experience but keep in mind that caring for the birds and tending to their basic needs is a constant responsibility – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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