Raising Chickens for Beginners: 15 Tips

Tidbits To Make a Foray Into Chicken Ownership a Bit Easier

by Sarah Coleman

Raising chickens for beginners can seem daunting. Here are 15 bits of wisdom from experienced chicken keepers that they wish they’d known before getting chicks.

1. Health Knowledge

I wish I had read more about common chicken ailments before getting chickens.

Finding a large-animal veterinarian in many areas of the country is difficult, but finding vets with a poultry persuasion can be even more difficult. When raising chickens for beginners, the key is finding a vet who will care for chickens before you need him or her, if possible. If no vets with poultry experience are available, read as much as you can about common ailments, how to diagnose ill chickens and how to care for them.

“Chickens get sick,” says Christine Wright of Stamping Ground, Kentucky. “Be ready for it, don’t beat yourself up and don’t give up.” Also, don’t underestimate the knowledge (and concern) of online chicken communities. Consider joining a quality chicken group on social media or through a poultry website, and bookmark blogs that provide guidance for chicken owners.

Learning how to do a lot of things for yourself is often the key to successful chicken-keeping especially when raising chickens for beginners. “I learned how to make a nontoxic [balm] out of food coloring to cover wounds and bald spots to prevent other chickens from pecking the area,” says Kimberly Jakubec of Austintown, Ohio. Other chicken owners learned on the fly how to administer penicillin shots. Amanda Estep of Georgetown, Kentucky, wishes she’d known what medications to have on hand and how to deworm.

Bottom Line: Locate a vet or have a chicken community at the ready to help you through injuries, ailments, and emergencies.

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If you mail-order chickens, be sure you don’t get a whole flock of males without a plan for rehoming them.

2. Arrival Instructions

I wish I had truly understood how chickens arrive when you mail-order them.

“Read the fine print from hatcheries if ordering online,” says Melanie Sprinkle from Lexington, Kentucky. “Males packed for warmth” is an important phrase and one to consider if you’re delving into chickens with children in the household. “We received 21 male chicks to go with nine females we ordered,” Melanie says.

“Even if you buy what’s advertised as only pullets, it’s not a guarantee unless you’re getting a sex-link breed where males and females look different at hatch,” says Maddie Johnson of Georgetown, Kentucky.

Bottom Line: Be prepared to think outside the box for end-of-life decisions if keeping roosters is not on your agenda.

3. Dirty Birds

I wish I had known how dusty chicks are.

“I wish I had known how much dander chicks give off and how dusty their brooder can get between their feathers coming in and the pine shavings,” says Julie Jacobson of Whittier, North Carolina. “I also didn’t know I would be allergic to baby chicks! I brooded chicks in my home twice because it was too cold outside, and from now on, any baby chicks I get will have to be raised by mama hens outside in the coop!”

Kristin Werner of Georgetown, Kentucky, agrees. “It really is surprising how much dust things so little can kick up! Having a broody hen do the chick-raising work outside in the coop for my second round of chicks was clutch.”

Bottom Line:  Buy extra cleaning supplies, and be prepared to dedicate time to cleaning around their brooder if raising chicks indoors. Additionally, when raising chickens for beginners, if family members suffer from allergies or asthma, think long and hard about raising chicks indoors.

Many breeds are cold-hardy and aren’t concerned with falling temperatures.

4. Temperature Control

I wish I had bought a brooder plate.

Chicks can be fickle, especially about temperature, and human homes are often nearly 20 to 30 degrees too cold for them to survive. Newly hatched chicks require temperatures of 95 degrees Fahrenheit for the first week, with required temps dropping by 5 degrees each week until they’re ready to live outside.

Fire in coops or homes is a very real concern when using heat lamps to keep chicks warm – even those specifically designed for use with newly hatched birds. It’s imperative that you use a base specifically made for heat bulbs, which can damage inappropriate lamps. Bulbs should be kept a minimum of 2 feet from combustible materials.

Because of this, “just get the brooder [heat] plate!” is a common refrain and those who hatch out multiple clutches will rest easier knowing that the heat source they’re using is safer and more energy efficient than a heat lamp.

Additionally, the heat plate’s lack of a bulb can reduce the likelihood of behaviors sometimes seen with clear heat lamp bulbs, such as the interruption of the chicken’s sleep cycle, higher stress or feather picking.

Bottom Line:  Buy the plate.

5. Hardiness

I wish I had known how cold-tolerant chickens are.

Many chicken owners, especially those in the Northeast, are concerned about their chickens staying comfortable in colder temperatures. While this is a concern, hens often struggle more in warmer weather.

If you’re raising chickens for beginners, diligent research about the breeds best suited to your climate is key. While some adaptations can be made to keep hens comfy, it’s often easier to get breeds that won’t struggle in your climate.

Concerned about the chilly weather, Jacobson placed her coop in a sunny spot. “I wish I would have placed the coop in the shade because the summer sun is way harder on them!” she says. “We ended up having to build a covered run to give them relief from the heat.

Bottom Line: Research breeds diligently before bringing baby birds home.


6. A Big Chicken Coop is Better

I wish I had built a bigger coop.

When it comes to hen shelter, bigger is often better. “I wish I had bought or built our coop with cleaning in mind,” says Krista Lea of Versailles, Kentucky. “Our coop has a small inside part above the ground area and I can’t get it clean; you have to crawl in to even make a good attempt! I really want a full-sized shed I can walk into and sweep out.”

Estep says that putting linoleum on the floor of her coop was a game changer. Also, learning about the different types of bedding and the amount of dust and breakdown each has, as well as how often it needs to be cleaned was imperative to keeping her flock healthy.

“Truly, you need at least double the size of coop you think you need,” says Marion Maybank of Missoula, Montana.

Bottom Line:  Whatever size coop you think you need, build bigger.

7. Security Risks

I wish I had known what “predator proof” was.

“Almost everything will try to eat your chickens, so chicken wire is the worst choice when building runs and coops, despite its name,” Jakubec says. “A cement pad is a great investment for an enclosed run for predator control [to keep them from digging under the fence] and you can add dirt and sand and grow greens in it for the chickens, too!”

Protecting the flock is often the biggest challenge a backyard flock owner will face. When raising chickens for beginners, it can be shocking how cunning (and dedicated!) predators can be when trying to get a tasty chicken treat, so ensuring that chickens return to roost at night is imperative to their safety.

Never let chickens roost outside, and use ¼-inch hardware cloth — even on windows —to keep predators at bay. You’ll need to bury the cloth to thwart predators from tunneling under the coop and invest in complex latches to keep raccoons from opening coop doors. Additional measures that may be helpful include using livestock guardian animals or guinea hens to alert the chickens (and you) to danger.

Bottom Line:  There is no such thing as too many measures to help keep your chickens safe from predators.

Chickens can be very dusty.

8. Chickens Like to Dig

I wish I had known how much they dig.

Leah Alessandroni of Midway, Kentucky, wishes she had known how much they dig. And we don’t mean just shallow depressions for dust baths. Chickens can create deep holes in yards and gardens, making chicken keepers susceptible to a rolled ankle if they’re not careful. Once a hole has been started, it’s difficult to get chickens to leave it alone. Of specific concern are holes dug near fence lines; if hardware cloth isn’t buried, chickens may dig deeply enough to escape their enclosure.

Bottom Line:  Fence chickens out of areas where you’d like to prevent repeated holes and be cognizant of holes near fence lines.

9. Socialize Chickens Early

I wish I had handled them more.

Chicks are so tiny that you may be reluctant to hold them for fear of injuring them. While care should be taken, it’s helpful to hold and handle chicks regularly. “Handling them [chicks] often while they’re young makes it much easier to provide care and examine them when they’re adults,” Estep says.

This handling is especially helpful when battling “pasty butt,” a condition that requires a chick to beheld and her vent be cleaned with warm water to ensure their health.

“Let your kids socialize them,” says Paige Adams of Eddyville, Kentucky. They’ll get used to being handled quickly!

Bottom Line:  Handle chicks often to ensure their wellbeing later in life.

Chickens bring so much joy to a home.

10. Be Secure

I wish I had understood biosecurity better.

Accidentally introducing disease into your flock is a difficult lesson to learn, and once you see how sick chickens can get, it’s a mistake you won’t want to repeat. Asking if chicks have been vaccinated for coccidia (or feeding them medicated feed) can save you a lot of trouble down the road. “I also get my chicks vaccinated against Mareks,” says Lindsey Leach of Harrodsburg, Kentucky.

Always quarantine new flock members for at least two weeks, don’t share tools or supplies with other chicken keepers (or be sure to disinfect them well when they come home), and know the signs of illness.

Bottom Line: Having stringent biosecurity measures in place will keep your flock healthy and happy.

11. Quality Tools Rule

I wish I had invested in quality tools. If you want to fast-track your way to chicken-keeping frustration, buy cheap tools. “Invest in a nice 5-gallon feeder bucket and galvanized waterer with the heated base,” Adams says. “All the money you spend on the cheap, plastic ones is wasted when they crack!”

Lea says that chick nipple-style drinkers make a huge difference in keeping the water clean and the brooder dry. Quality puppy playpens are also helpful in containing chicks and thwarting frustration, says Leach.

“I wish I had known about poop trays when I first got chickens,” says Patty Broner of Sadieville, Kentucky. “Build you roosts with a tray underneath them, fill the tray with [nesting/bedding material], and spend 5 minutes every morning cleaning the ‘litter box’ with a scoop and a bucket. This saves a ton on bedding as most ‘poopage’ happens at night while the hens sleep. It also greatly reduces the smell and almost no flies!”

Bottom Line: Spend the money upfront to reduce frustration later.

Amanda Estep of Georgetown, Kentucky, wishes she’d known what medications to have on hand and how to deworm her flock.

12. Automate the Chicken Coop

I wish I had automated everything.

“Automate whatever you can,” Estep says. This could include installing a solar-powered coop door on a timer (and that has a remote), using big gravity-fed feeders, placing coop lights that are on timers or utilizing solar-powered fans for moisture control and cooling.

Bottom Line:  Installing automated tools saves time and energy.

13. Free Eggs Aren’t Free

I wish I knew that I wouldn’t be saving any money on my egg bill.

Though your grocery bill isn’t likely to decrease with the acquisition of chicks, your eggs will be better tasting than anything you could buy in a store. Additionally, think of all the other benefits you’ll receive, such as fertilizer, bug patrol and elimination, endless entertainment, aeration assistance and so much more.

Bottom Line: Backyard birds will give you the tastiest eggs you’ve ever had and a bunch of other bonuses.

14. Learn Math

I wish I knew that chicken math is real.

It’s a legitimate thing; ask anyone with a backyard flock. “You start out wanting four, but two weeks later, you want more and magically four chickens turns to eight,” Adams says. “Then you find a ‘chicken dealer’ and before you know it you have 20 because you always see another pretty breed you must own.”

Bottom Line: “They become a lifelong addiction,” says Amanda Reho of Midway, Kentucky.

Chickens dig holes to bathe themselves and to simply have fun. It’s a natural behavior, but it can be annoying.

15. Joy to the World

I wish I had known how much happiness they would bring me.

“I wish I knew how easy it is to have them,” says Elizabeth Finnegan of South Beloit, Illinois. “I wouldn’t have put it off for so long! They have a lot more personality than one might expect, and they really are very low maintenance.”

“I never knew how much I’d be entertained watching chicken TV,” Broner says.

Bottom Line:  Chicks will enhance your life in more ways than you could ever dream.

This story about raising chickens for beginners was written for Chickens magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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