Getting backyard chickens is trendy and a good idea if you want to be in control of your food. It’s as simple as grabbing a few chicks from the feed-supply store or filling out some information online from a hatchery. Right?
Not so fast! If you’re a first-time or novice chicken owner, newbie mistakes can be costly. Learn how to avoid these mistakes to have a healthy and productive backyard flock.
Know Your Local Zoning Laws
Zoning laws can seem boring and tedious. But many a keeper of backyard chickens has found out the hard way that these laws will govern every step of their chicken-keeping adventure. If you run afoul of the law, you may be forced to rehome your chickens or try to change the laws.
The best advice? Don’t pick your chickens then look at local laws. Look first.
Zoning laws actually start at the feed-supply store when you buy day-old chicks. In my state, most feed-supply stores must enforce a six-bird minimum purchase. If your local zoning laws allow you to keep chickens, check to see your maximum bird limit.
So if your maximum bird limit is three but your feed-supply store can only sell six, you’re already over what the legal limit. Buying chickens from a swap meet or hatching eggs? The same maximum applies.
On a personal note, the six-chick minimum purchase is my most hated chicken law.
I understand the need, but I have to consider this when adding birds to my flock of backyard chickens. If you don’t mind purchasing by mail or live near a hatchery, you can check with them before heading to the store. Some hatcheries will sell/ship a minimum of three birds.
Zoning laws will also dictate if you can have roosters or just hens. I follow a lot of chicken social media sites and I always see someone looking to rehome an illegal rooster.
Even if you are careful, unwanted roosters happen. I know. It happened to me … twice! Here are a few tips to help decrease your chances of getting a rooster.
Know Your Terminology
Pullets are young hens (females). Cockerels are young roosters (males). Straight run means the chicks are not sexed, so there are pullets and cockerels in the group.
Order from a Hatchery
With a direct order, hatcheries tend to be careful about fulfilling that order correctly.
Don’t Hatch Chicks
When you hatch, you’re essentially populating the straight-run brooder. The percentage of pullets-to-cockerels in a hatch is about 50/50.
Meat Vs. Eggs
In theory, you can eat any chicken you raise. In reality, some provide better meat ratios than others. If you’re looking to raise chickens for meat and eggs, you can purchase dual-purpose birds (birds that can be raised for meat and eggs) that are straight-run, knowing you’ll eat the roosters and keep the hens. Or you can purchase meat chickens solely for that purpose.
But what if you don’t want to eat your backyard chickens? Just because a chicken is dual-purpose doesn’t mean it has to be used for both.
Many of the most popular laying breeds are technically dual-purpose. But be careful because there are chickens that are bred only for meat.
These chickens have different names at different hatcheries. In general, though, they are called Cornish Crosses. They grow quickly and don’t have long lifespans. And they are subject to numerous maladies including heart attacks and broken legs.
If you get meat chickens by accident and fall in love with them, it can be heartbreaking. Be sure you know what breed you are getting so you can avoid this problem.
Don’t Get Too Many Roosters
This might not be an option if you have backyard chickens, but if you’re able to keep roosters in your area, they can be an asset. A rooster first and foremost is needed if you want to expand your flock by hatching chicks. He can also provide predator protection and keep order by keeping flock squabbles to a minimum.
But keeping lots of roosters together in one flock can be a problem.
The best ratio of roosters to hens is one rooster for every 10 to 12 hens. Why? A rooster’s sole job in life is to reproduce. Everything he does is to ensure his reproductive success.
During mating season, a rooster will mate with every hen in his flock many times. If you have enough hens, the rooster has lots of mating choices. This helps to prevent overmating damage to the hens because it reduces the number of times each hen is mated.
This isn’t to say roosters don’t have their favorites. They do. But it does help to blunt the effects.
Roosters also don’t like competition for producing offspring. Other roosters can be competition. Fighting off competitor roosters can cause harm to the roosters themselves and any hens caught in the uproar.
What’s the solution if you end up with too many roosters? There are a few possibilities.
- Identify the best flock leader and eat the others.
- Get more hens.
- Separate your birds into multiple flocks, each with its own rooster with separate housing and areas to roam.
- Keep your roosters in a bachelor pad away from your hens so the roosters don’t compete for reproductive rights.
Chicks can’t maintain their body temperature and rely on their mother or you to keep them warm. The ideal brooder temperature for the first week of life is 90 to 95 degrees with a 5-degree temperature decrease each following week.
The temperature should be measured where the chicks live. Keep a thermometer at the brooder floor so you measure what the chicks are feeling.
Beyond the thermometer, watch chick behavior. They’ll let you know if everything is right in the brooder. If they’re lightly clucking to themselves and spread out eating, drinking and scratching, things are probably right. But if they’re frantically and loudly peeping in distress and huddled under the heat lamp, your brooder is likely too cold.
And if they’re panting with their wings spread, aren’t chirping happily and are as far away from the heat lamp as possible, it’s too hot.
If you are using a heat lamp, adjust the temperature of the brooder by moving the lamp up or down. Heat lamps can be a fire hazard, so make sure you are careful and safe.
Know Chicken Breeds
You don’t have to memorize the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection for chicken breeds, but it’s good to know a few basics about the backyard chickens you’re picking. Everyone has different needs and wants for a backyard flock.
Pick the wrong breed and you may not fulfill those needs and wants.
For instance, do you want enough eggs to supply your family and have some left over to sell? You’ll want to choose a prolific egg-
laying breed such as a Leghorn or Wyandotte.
Do you have harsh extremes in winter and/or summer? You’ll want a cold-hardy breed such as a Buckeye or a heat-tolerant breed such as a Leghorn.
Do you want colored eggs? Easter Eggers will provide pastels while Marans will provide dark chocolate brown.
Looking for family-friendly birds? Try Orpingtons or Cochins.
The good news is that hatcheries are good at providing breed information, and there are hundreds of breeds to choose from. So there are chickens to fit everyone’s backyard!
Sidebar: Location, Location, Location
Be sure to check your local zoning laws before you put up your coop (and definitely before you get backyard chickens). They can be a limiting factor.
Depending on what you build, some coops can be considered as outbuildings. You may need a permit the same as if you put up a garden shed.
Some communities also have zoning laws that dictate how far away from a property line a coop must be located. Others have size and color requirements.
Beyond meeting the law, there are considerations for your coop.
The first is size. How many chickens can your coop comfortably support? On this issue, most chicken-keepers use the bigger is better rule. This gives you room to expand your flock without adding another coop. This also gives your flock more room if they have to stay in their coop and run more than planned.
Once you’ve picked your size, consider the elements and access. Is your coop going to bake in the hot summer sun or is there some shade during the hottest part of the day? This is especially important if your birds are confined during the day.
Will you have to climb a hill to get to your coop? That could make carrying heavy items to the coop a challenge, not to mention being muddy and slippery during the rain or snow.
How does the rain typically blow across your property? You may not want to have your coop’s door facing into the rain.
Sidebar: Temperature Control
On a personal note, I used a heat lamp in many of my brooders. I eventually moved away from a heat lamp and started using a heating plate made specifically for brooding chicks. I did this after watching my broody hen care for her clutch.
The baby chicks would huddle under her for heat, then run out to eat, drink and scratch in the chips.
I brood my baby chicks in my house where the air temperature is always 71 degrees or so. The baby chicks go underneath the heater plate for warmth when they need it. They come out when they want.
This way I know my chicks have access to the proper temperature. I also worry less, since the plate heaters are much less of a fire hazard.
I also don’t have to worry about lighting—red versus clear versus being on all day and night. Instead, my chickens have the same lighting as we have in the house and adjust to the natural rhythms of light and dark.
Had I known these benefits all along, I would have never used a heat lamp. My heat plate investment was well worth it!
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Chickens magazine.