How to Start Your Backyard Flock

The current chicken renaissance has gathered momentum. It is now common to find coops in both urban and suburban backyards. This may be attributed to the surging interest in organic and local foods, and the fact that most people find chickens to be great pets. If you are considering bringing some farmyard into the backyard, then this short read will guide you on how to get started.

Why keep a backyard chicken?

Backyard chickens are increasingly popular because they are inexpensive, easy, and produce eggs!

    • You are in charge of what goes into them, which I’m guessing will not be the antibiotics, steroids, and other drugs that may be in store-bought eggs.
    • Chicken manure and eggshells produce fantastic nitrogen-rich fertilizer that is excellent for growing food.
    • They offer natural pest control by  scratching and pecking for larvae and insects to eat.
    • Most chicken breeds make great pets and enjoying cuddling and petting.
    • You can get the freshest eggs possible, mostly with fewer calories and fat than those bought in the store.

Important tips for starting your flock

Here’s what to consider before purchasing your first chick:

#1 – Understand the local regulations

The first step is to check the municipal laws or any homeowner association requirements on rearing backyard chickens. Some areas have limits for the maximum number of animals kept in each household. Most communities ban roosters, but this may not be a deal-breaker since hens can lay eggs without them.

Furthermore, some areas will require you to have permits and a signed agreement from your neighbors. You may also need to appear before the zoning board to discover restrictions on the placement and size of outbuildings. Some areas, however, have no restrictions at all.

By understanding the local requirements, you will be able to begin your project without any conflict with your neighbors or homeowners’ association.

#2 – Pick your breed

One advantage of rearing chickens is that you raise beautiful birds with a range of unusually colored eggs.

Most breeds come in two varieties: standard or large breed, and bantam (typically a quarter the size of the large bird). Both varieties do well in the backyard. However, standard breeds lay larger eggs than their counterparts.

When choosing your unique flock, consider the physical and behavioral characteristics as well as each breed’s climate suitability. Check out our comprehensive guide to find the right breed of chicken suited just for you.

#3 – Build the coop

Not only does it provide shelter for your chickens, but it also forms part of your backyard landscape. So when planning for your coop, consider the chicken’s needs and aesthetics.

You may build a stylish coop that complements your home, or even create a fancy customized coop that includes leaded stained glass windows placed above the nesting boxes. No matter what you choose, create the perfect space that you will love and with plenty of room to keep your chickens happy and healthy.

#4 – Feed and take care of your new pets

Your new chickens may be accustomed to digging up part of their food, but you also need to provide chicken feed. Their diet should be balanced and match their specific need such as if they are chicks, layers, or for meat. Moreover, growing birds, young chicks, and layers have specialized poultry feeds to keep them healthy. As a treat, you can feed Ace Hi or Kelley’s chicken scratch, or add vegetable scraps or grass clippings into the run.

Lots of water is particularly essential for consistent laying. If a layer goes for over 12 hours without drinking water, then this would mean weeks out of production.

Your birds ultimately become your friends and will appreciate the way you interact with them. They may get accustomed to a particular call or noise and will always flock around the gate with their cute ‘awk! awk!’ greeting noises.

#5 – Chicken health

As with any other animal, health problems also affect chickens. Therefore, you should always call your vet to help you with diagnosis and treatment whenever there is a health issue. Notably, you should monitor their health every day and you can even create immune support at home for your new flock.

Healthy birds are active, alert, have clean eyes, and silent unnoticeable breathing. Seek assistance if you notice dropping wings and tail, weakness, discharge from eyes and nostrils, paralysis of one or more limbs, or loss of appetite.

#6 – Gardening with your chicken

Although they are mostly kept for their fresh egg supply, backyard chickens can also benefit the garden. At the end of the gardening season, release your birds into the gardening space and see how they will go crazy! They will uproot the stalks and stems of weeds then gobble up the remaining overripe or damaged vegetables.

Any seeds or insects in the soil will also be eaten. Furthermore, the hens will peck apart the vegetable remnants such as carrot tops, broccoli stems, kale, and chard. All this will be done with endless curiosity and enthusiasm.

There is a lot to consider when raising backyard chickens but ultimately you will be rewarded with lots of feathered friends that will save you money in many ways. If you have already checked the local ordinances and understand the necessary commitment, there is no better time to start your backyard flock than now!

Pumpkin Season for Your Chickens Too?

chicken jack-o-lantern

Before the first leaf of autumn falls, pumpkin spice season is upon us! Grocery store shelves are lined with pumpkin flavor everything, pumpkin spice coffees are in every hand, and soon pumpkin patches will be taking over parking lots. Can your chickens enjoy pumpkin season just as much as you? Absolutely!

chickens eating out of a pumpkin

Pumpkins are loaded with so many great nutrients, they make a perfect seasonal treat. Pumpkin flesh contains vitamins A, B, C and zinc. And pumpkin seeds are loaded with vitamin E. Your chickens will enjoy all parts of the pumpkin: the stringy guts, the seed, the flesh, they’ll eat every bit until there is only a thing skin left. They’ll happily eat your jack-o-lantern leftovers!

Have you ever considered starting your own backyard pumpkin patch? Pumpkins are loaded with seeds and fairly easy to grow. You can create your own supply of pumpkins for years to come!

Feeding Chickens Seasonally: Summer

What is best to feed your chickens in summer?

What we eat changes with the seasons, and our chicken’s diet will change with the seasons as well. Consistently offering a feed made specifically for your chickens, like Ace Hi or Kelley’s Lay feeds, is important to their overall health, but what we feed as supplements and treats will change based on seasonal needs.

Feeding your flock properly during the summer months will help them stay healthy during the heat, but also set them up for a successful fall and winter.

You may notice that your chickens consume less of their feed during summer. This is normal, as the heat causes a loss of appetite, just like in us humans. If your chickens are free ranging, they may eat less of their feed because there are plenty of other options like grass and bugs available to them.

chickens in a grass field

Make sure you consistently offer them a high quality ration. A balanced feed will deliver the proper nutrients, vitamins, and minerals your chickens need. In addition, you can supplement with summer time treats. Offering a little yogurt can deliver a probiotic boost. Careful not to over do the dairy. Watermelon is a terrific treat for providing cooling hydration on a hot day. Home made chicken popsicles allow you to get creative! Freeze herbs, fruits, and vegetables in some ice, and your chickens will get hours of refreshing entertainment.

chicken eating watermelon
a cool juicy treat!

During summer, you’ll want to limit the amount of scratch grains you feed. The high amounts of corn found in scratch can increase their body heat production, and make them feel even hotter in summer. Instead, encourage your chickens to scratch and forage by giving them leafy greens, grass, weeds, or dandelions.

frozen strawberries and weeds
a chicken popsicle!

Electrolytes: Immune Support You Can Make At Home

Chickens are not well equipped to handle high temperatures. During hot weather, they are vulnerable to heat stress, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and are even at risk of death. They cannot sweat to cool themselves. They expel heat by panting and holding their wings out to increase air flow, which are not very effective during hot summers and heat waves. One strategy you can use to help your chickens stay healthy during heat waves is giving them electrolytes.

Electrolytes can be used to support your entire flock, or to treat a chicken in the sick ward. Electrolytes replenish the nutrients and minerals lost under extreme heat and stress. They boost immunity and support kidney and respiratory functions.

Electrolytes are also useful during times of stress, flock illness, or traveling. They give your chickens a little pick me up whenever one is needed.

Electrolytes are easy to mix at home with items you already have in the kitchen. The strength of the mixture will depend on its intended use. Dilute the mixture when giving electrolytes for general support, and give a stronger mixture to a sick bird needing more health care.

Make sure to only give your chickens electrolytes as needed, and only for a few days at a time. Make sure to have fresh, regular water also available at all times. Too much salt can be detrimental to your chicken’s health.

salt, baking soda, sugar, and a measure spoon are the ingredients needed to make homemade electrolytes for chickens
easy make-at-home electrolytes

Homemade Electrolyte Recipe for Chickens:

1 gallon water

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

Mix ingredients together until dissolved.

Beat the Heat! Keeping Your Chickens Cool in Summer

chickens wading in a small pool

Every year the summer feels longer and hotter.  We hide indoors, with the air conditioner blasting, drinking ice water and wait for the sun to go down.  We tell ourselves we’re moving to a colder state.  We manage it until winter comes.  But what about our animals?  What about the most delicate of our animals, our birds?  How do chickens beat the summer heat, and what can we do as chicken keepers to help them get through it as comfortably as possible?  Keep your chickens cool in summer with these tips and tricks.

Chickens cannot sweat to cool themselves off.  Instead, they pant, or breathe rapidly.  They also hold their wings slightly out from their body, allowing air to flow through.  In high temperatures, this is not enough to keep them cool.  In extreme temperatures, your chickens are in danger of heatstroke.

Provide an escape from the sun with shade, shade, and more shade.  If your birds are free-ranging around the yard, they stand a good chance of finding a bush or a tree to hide under.  They may even seek refuge under a parked car or on your patio!  If your chickens are housed in an enclosed run, it is essential that you provide them with shade.  Know the position of the sun throughout the day, and put up a barrier to block its rays during the hottest parts of the day.  If your birds cannot get out of the sun, they do not stand a chance.

Keep the air moving.  Setting up a fan in the coop or run will help your chickens significantly.  It will cool the surrounding air and reduce humidity.  This is a particularly helpful strategy for chickens that are housed in enclosed coops and runs, as a natural breeze may not always reach them.

chicken standing in water pan

Provide easy access to cool water.  Where do your chickens hang out during the day?  Make sure there is water nearby, so they don’t have to go far to reach it.  Put out additional water sources.  Make sure the water is not in direct sun, so that it heats throughout the day.  Keep it in the shade to keep it cool.  Not only do you want to make sure your chickens have drinking water, consider setting up a mist system, putting out a kiddie pool, or making a little mud and wet sand.  As the water evaporates off your chickens, it acts as sweat does on our bodies, and carries heat away.  They may enjoy walking through a cool puddle to cool their feet off, and a nice mist can cool surrounding air temperatures by up to 20 degrees.

Ice ice baby.  Put out frozen gallon jugs, blocks of ice, or toss a bunch of ice cubes into a feed pan.  You can even add ice to water dishes throughout the day to keep it cool.  Chickens can drink the ice water as it melts, or place themselves close to it to stay cool.

Frozen treats!  Frozen watermelon makes the perfect summer treat for your chickens.  Its wet, mushy, cold, and tasty!  They’ll enjoy eating it, and they’ll get a hydration boost from the melon’s high water content.  Don’t over do it and feed them too much, or you might start seeing pink droppings everywhere!

chicken eating frozen watermelon

If your chicken is in distress, act fast.  If you see a chicken panting excessively, looking pale and lethargic, you must act quickly.  Immediately take your bird and submerge it up to its neck in a cool water bath.  Their body temperature must be reduced as quickly as possible and this could be a life saving measure.  Consider bringing your vulnerable chickens indoors.  Spending the afternoon in a dog crate in the air conditioning may not seem like their ideal day, but it is much more comfortable than the heat outdoors.

 

Virulent Newcastle Disease in Chickens

Being a good bird keeper means protecting them from danger, both seen and unseen.  One of the latest threats to rear its ugly head is Newcastle Disease.  What is it, what can you do about it, and how can you prevent it from harming your birds?  Keep reading to find out.

Newcastle Disease is a highly contagious viral disease.  The virus lives in respiratory discharge and feces of infected birds, and can be spread through direct bird to bird contact, or through contact with contaminated people, feed, or equipment.  While all birds can become infected, chickens are affected most severely and can die from the disease.

Symptoms include swelling around the eyes, swelling that may be purple in color around the wattle and comb, nasal discharge, loss of appetite, and diarrhea.  Birds may exhibit a twisting of the head and neck, and sometimes will die suddenly.

There is no cure for Virulent Newcastle Disease.  That means that prevention is the most important thing you can do to keep your birds safe.  Follow good biosecurity practices.  Wash your hands after coming into contact with birds.  Avoid sharing equipment.  Make sure to disinfect equipment and thoroughly wash clothing.  Any vehicles on the property should have their tires washed upon entry and exit.   Do not bring in any new birds to the flock while there are any active disease outbreaks in your state.  Quarantine any birds on your property that exhibit symptoms.

Humans do not normally become infected with Virulent Newcastle Disease.  In very rare cases, people in extremely close contact with infected birds may experience a mild fever or redness and swelling near the eyes.  Properly cooked meat and eggs from infected birds are safe to eat.

To report an unusual number of sick/dead birds, call:
Sick Bird Hotline
866-922-BIRD (2473)

To learn more visit the California Department of Food and Agriculture website here.

 

Protect Yourself from Salmonella

thorough handwashing is a powerful weapon against salmonella

Eggs have been making headlines news lately, and unfortunately, it’s not for their delicious and nutritious qualities.  It’s because a bunch of them carrying the bacteria Salmonella made their way into grocery stores and homes.  So what the heck is Salmonella, and how do you protect yourself from an infection?

Salmonella is bacteria that is commonly associated with raw and undercooked eggs, meat, and poultry products.   The Center for Disease Control estimates that Salmonella causes about 1.2 million illnesses in the United States every year.  You might recognize it as food poisoning.  Symptoms typically appear within 6 to 48 hours after eating contaminated food, and include fever, abdominal cramping, and frequent trips to the toilet.  Most people can ride it out and recover in about 4 to 7 days.  Young children, senior citizens, and people with weakened immune systems are more susceptible to being seriously ill and could potentially need hospitalization.

As much as we love our backyard flock of chickens, we need to be aware that they can carry germs!  We can get Salmonella not just from eggs, but from our birds, their coop, their food and water dishes, and the soil where they live and roam.

Eggs become contaminated in two ways.  If a hen is carrying Salmonella germs, those germs can pass to the egg as it is being formed before the shell is made.  The germs are then inside the eggs and we are exposed once we crack them open.  The outside of an egg can become contaminated during the laying process, either from the hen herself or from the bedding in the nesting box.

Chickens might carry germs in their droppings or on their bodies, even though they appear healthy and clean.  Salmonella bacteria can live in the environment, so germs can get on coops, dishes, plants, and soil.  It easily transfers to our hands, shoes, and clothing when we’re caring for our flocks.

It all sounds a little scary, but fear not!  We just need to follow some protocols for reducing our risk, and it’s a list of very simple tasks.  By being aware, we are better armed to protect ourselves from infection.

dark blue plate with waffles, bacon, buttered toast, and two farm-fresh eggs

  • Always wash your hands with soap and water after handling your birds or working in your coop
  • Keep your birds outside, don’t let them in the house
  • Set aside a special pair of “coop shoes” and store them outside of the house
  • Don’t eat or drink in the area where your chickens live
  • Don’t kiss your chickens or snuggle them with your face
  • Keep all poultry equipment out of the house
  • Discard dirty or cracked eggs
  • Stores eggs in the refrigerator at 40°F or colder
  • Cook eggs until both the yolk and white are firm, with an internal temperature of 160°F or hotter
  • Make sure foods that contain lightly cooked eggs are made only with pasteurized eggs
  • Eat or refrigerate foods with eggs promptly after cooking
  • Do not keep eggs warm or at room temperature for more than 2 hours
  • Wash hands and items that touch raw eggs with soap and water

By simply washing your hands frequently and cooking your eggs thoroughly, you can really cut down on your risk of catching a nasty stomach bug.  So love your chickens, enjoy your farm fresh eggs, but take the right steps to stay healthy!

Winter for Hens – No Eggs, No Feathers

You brought home your first batch of little spring chicks a year and a half ago.  They’ve grown up into beautiful hens, each with a distinct personality, and each providing you with delicious, nutritious eggs like clockwork.  Right about now you’re asking yourself, “where are my eggs?” and “why are my hens going bald?!”

molting hen
a hen’s annual molt can start as early as late summer

Not laying eggs and losing feathers are two things that go hand in hand during fall and winter, and are totally normal.  If you notice this happening during spring or summer, that is not normal and could indicate a health issue.

As days get shorter and nights get longer, adult chickens will undergo their yearly molt.  Molting is the process of shedding old feathers and growing new ones.  It’s just like when a dog or a horse sheds out their coat, just with feathers!  The shorter daylight hours trigger this process.

Each chicken molts differently.  While some birds may only lose a few feathers and it’s hardly noticeable, other birds lose almost everything and are walking around practically naked!  Feathers usually shed starting from the neck and then move down the body.  Fluffier hens like Orpingtons tend to lose much of their underfluff feathers, giving them a deflated appearance.

molting hen
each hen molts differently, some worse than others

Unlike when a dog or horse sheds its coat, growing new feathers can be uncomfortable and quite painful for birds.  New feathers first emerge as pin feathers.   These look a lot like quills or the shaft of a feather.  They are narrow cylinders encased in a plastic looking tissue, and they also have a blood supply.  If a pin feather is damaged, the bird will bleed heavily, even from a teeny tiny cut.  If your bird has a damaged pin feather, it is best to pluck it out from the base to quickly stop the bleeding.

pin feathers
new feathers covered by a waxy casing

As the new feathers become ready to unfurl, the blood supply recedes, the casing falls away, and the feather is revealed.  You might notice that as your birds age, their new feathers vary slightly from the previous year.  A splash might be splashier, a blue might be deeper blue, a buff might be more gold, and so on.

While your hens are molting, their egg production will drop significantly, or even stop completely.  The reason for this is two-fold.  Hens require at least 14 hours of daylight to produce eggs regularly.  Less daylight in the fall and winter means less eggs.  Also, growing new feathers is hard work!  While your birds are molting, their bodies are using maximum nutrients and energy to replace old feathers.  This diverts their bodies’ resources away from producing eggs.  From your chicken’s point of view, feathers are more important than eggs!

You can help your birds by feeding them a little extra protein while they’re molting.  This can come in the form of treats – mealworms, scrambled eggs, fish, packaged chicken treats – or in the form of a high protein lay feed.

molting chicken
Molting is a normal part of chicken life, but it can still be stressful on a bird.

Your chickens will have completed their molt within 8 to 12 weeks, and they’ll have a set of beautiful brand new feathers.  They won’t return to laying eggs right away.  You might not be filling up your egg basket until spring!  As the days get longer and your hens are seeing 14+ hours of light, they’ll return to their regular egg laying schedule.

When it comes to Chick Season, winter is the new spring.

Traditionally, raising baby chicks is a springtime activity.  Chicks fit right in with the sense of renewal and new life that Spring brings.  In years past, when mother hens raised their babies “the old-fashioned way,” spring was the perfect time to do it.  But nowadays, with tools like brooders and heat lamps at our disposal, chicks can be raised just about year-round.  Have you ever considered raising chicks in fall or winter?  There are some considerable advantages you might want to know about!

raising baby chicks
Chicks can be raised indoors in any weather!
  • Work with the weather, not against it.

If you live in a cold weather area, your chicks will be kept warm and cozy all winter long in their brooder under a heat lamp.  By the time they have grown big enough to live outdoors, it should be warm enough for them to thrive.  It is also said that chickens who finish maturing during a chilly spring are hardier throughout their lives.

If you live in a hot weather area, shipping day-old chicks is less risky during cooler months.  While chicks like to be kept warm, there is a real threat of overheating while being shipped in spring or summer.  Raising chicks in the winter also gives them more time to mature before the grueling summer temperatures hit.  They will be larger, more equipped to regulate their body temperature, and less at risk of dehydration.

  • Take advantage of fall “end of season” merchandise clearance sales

Do you buy your holiday decorations the day AFTER the holiday, in preparation for next year?  Same concept goes for all your chick raising merchandise!

  • Easy ordering from hatcheries

Spring is still the busy season for commercial hatcheries that ship chicks to backyard chicken keepers across the country.  By ordering during the off season, you can skip the spring rush and avoid breeds being sold out.  There could be a reduced number of breed choices, but the breeds they do offer will be tried and true, fan favorite, heritage breeds.

  • Be more competitive in the show ring.

If you are planning on entering poultry shows, getting a jump start on raising your birds could give you the advantage.  Shows are usually held in summer and fall, so a winter chick will be older, larger, and have better plumage than a spring chick.

show chicken
Be more competitive in the show pen with an older bird.
  • It’s all about the eggs!

Let’s consider 2 main points.  #1 –  With any hen’s laying cycle, egg production is at its peak in spring and summer, and at its lowest in fall and winter.  This is directly related to length of daylight.  #2 – Young hens begin laying egg at around 5 – 6 months old.  If you raise your chicks in spring, your hens are mature and ready to lay eggs at the end of the season.  This results in them laying a few eggs here and there until winter comes.  Sometimes, hens won’t lay any eggs at all until the following year.  If you raise your chicks in fall or winter, they’ll be ready to lay eggs as soon as spring comes around, and that means maximum eggs!  It is also said that since the hen will have had a chance to grow larger before producing any eggs, she will lay larger eggs throughout her lifetime.  What’s not to love about that?

All that being said, raising chicks in fall or winter sounds like a great idea!  Give it a try and let us know how it works for you!

 

 

 

Eggs tasting a little… fishy?

black breakfast plate with waffles, bacon, toast, and fresh eggs from backyard chickens

Have you ever sat down to a beautiful egg breakfast, taken that first bite, and noticed something fishy? Yes, it’s possible your hens are laying eggs that are super funky!  So what’s causing it and what can you do to fix it?

The culprit: Omega-3’s.

Omega-3 is a fatty acid that is essential, meaning the body cannot produce it but must consume it from food.  Omega-3’s are associated with healthier brains and hearts, improved mood, reduced joint pain, and healthier skin and hair.  They may also play a role in protecting against heart disease and cancer.  Basically, Omega-3 fatty acids are really good for you!

eggs omega 3
You can find special Omega-3 eggs on store shelves

So what foods are high in Omega-3?  Leafy vegetables, nuts, flaxseed and flaxseed oil, some animal fats, and fish.  When it comes to sources of Omega-3’s, fish reigns supreme.

Omega-3’s are fantastic, wonderful, healthy fats.  But they have a dark side… a fishy side.  They can smell and taste like fish, regardless of their source.  Here’s a brain teaser for you – does your fish smell and taste fishy because it’s fish?  Or because it’s loaded with fishy Omega-3’s?  Hmmm…

Normally, when a hen eats her feed, her liver produces an enzyme that deodorizes the fishiness of the Omega-3’s in her diet.  However, some hens have a defective gene that prevents enough of the enzyme from being produced.  That means the smelliness from the Omega-3’s in her feed get concentrated and deposited right in to the yolk of her eggs, and passed on to you.  You can thank her for the healthy fats, but they’ll come at a smelly cost!

So what can you do about it?  Take a look at the list of ingredients on the feed tag.  Look out for fishmeal, flaxseed, flaxseed oil, canola, or canola oil.  These are all ingredients high in Omega-3 fatty acids.  Then think about what extras you might be feeding your hens.  Treats like leafy vegetables, squash, and beans are high in Omega-3’s.  All of those Omega-3’s adding up in your hen’s diet will result in fishy eggs!  You probably won’t need to eliminate all of those things completely, but try reducing them until you get eggs that are smellible and edible.

close-up photo of person's hand feeding a chicken
If your eggs get fishy, decrease the Omega-3’s in your hens’ diet

But hey, if the fishiness doesn’t bother you, there’s nothing wrong with the eggs.  In fact, the fishier the eggs, the higher in Omega-3’s, and the healthier they are for you.  So eat up!