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Main Content

How to Raise Chickens

Those irresistible baby chicks that appear each spring are adorable to watch, but they also provide a manageable way to get started raising your own livestock — and have fresh eggs.

But before you take home your brand new chicks, do some preparation and you'll be rewarded with a healthy flock, says Dr. Kevin Roberson, a Michigan State University associate professor of Poultry Extension and Research.

Safety Considerations

It is important to keep in mind that live poultry at any age may have Salmonella germs in their droppings and on their bodies (feathers, feet, and beaks) even when they appear healthy and clean. The germs can also get on cages, coops, hay, plants, and soil in the area where the birds live and roam. Additionally, the germs can be found on the hands, shoes, and clothing of those who handle the birds or work or play where they live and roam. People become infected with Salmonella when they put their hands or other things that have been in contact with feces in or around their mouth. Young children are especially at risk for illness because their immune systems are still developing and because they are more likely than others to put their fingers or other items into their mouths. It is important to wash your hands immediately after touching poultry or anything in the area where they live and roam, because the germs on your hands can easily spread to other people or things. 

Getting Started

Chicks, of course, are babies, so they require special care. Disinfect a dry, draft-free area with chlorine or ammonia before spreading 2 to 3 inches of litter, preferably wood shavings, Roberson recommends.

Warmth is critical for these little ones. "Chicks need a brooder guard in large areas the first week and supplemental heat such as a 250-watt infrared bulb, suspended 18 inches off the ground," he says.

A brooder guard, which can be a cardboard box or a circular cardboard fence, confines the chicks near the heat source in a draft-free area. Don't make it too small — chicks need to be able to move away from the heat if they're too warm.

Turn lamps on the day before chicks arrive to prepare and warm the litter. "It should be warm to the touch," Roberson says.

Take your cues from the chicks. If they're too hot, they move away from heat and huddle in corners. If they're cold, they'll chirp a lot — they're complaining — and pile up under the lamp, he says.

Ideally, they should form a loose circle around the lamp. They do well with 24 hours of light the first week but should work their way down to 12 to 13 hours thereafter.

Keep clean water available. Add electrolytes (supplements that regulate metabolism) to counteract physical stress caused by moving.

Chicks up to eight weeks old should eat a "chick starter" diet, following bag directions. "Don't buy more than a month's supply at a time," Roberson says. "Vitamins deteriorate over time."

Dispense their feed in troughs, not in litter or dirt. Change the chicks' diet to growing ration at eight weeks, maintenance ration at 14 weeks, and laying ration by 20 weeks. "Don't supply anything extra," Roberson advises. "That dilutes the good diet — a protein deficiency could result."

When the chicks are ready to graduate to the hen house, at 6 weeks old, depending on the weather, allow at least 1½ to 2 square feet per bird. Use litter, which can be the same kind you used for the brooder.

Two to three 1-cubic-foot straw-filled nest boxes in a dark corner will serve a dozen hens. Roosts, which allow chickens to perch, are preferred by chickens but are not necessary.

Design your coop recognizing that chickens are gourmet fare to hawks, dogs, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, opossums, foxes, rats, weasels, and other carnivores.

Some predators climb walls or fences; others dig under. One-inch chicken wire measuring 5 to 6 feet high and fixed to the ground usually keeps chickens in and predators out. Add netting to the top for added protection.

If you let your chickens scratch outside the coop, be sure to secure them each evening.

Coops should be cleaned regularly. "Chicken manure is excellent fertilizer," says Roberson, "but watch that soil phosphorus levels don't build up."

You may not save a lot of grocery money by raising chickens but you will enjoy the freshest eggs around while witnessing the unmatched industrious character of hens at work. Freelance writer Georgiana Kotarski raises chickens in Dunlap, Tenn.

When they're ready to lay eggs

When hens start laying by 20 weeks, "train" them where to lay by placing an egg-shaped or round object in the nest, says Dr. Kevin Roberson, a Michigan State University associate professor of Poultry Extension and Research. That's because hens feel safest laying where someone else laid.

To stimulate laying, increase light artificially in the coop by two hours then add 15 minutes more per week until reaching 16 hours. "When laying starts, don't let ‘day length' decrease," he says. A 40-watt light bulb is fine for a small coop.

Hens usually lay in the morning, he says. After several days of production, they rest a day or two before laying again. A flock of 15 hens will produce about a dozen eggs a day during their peak.