Backyard chickens: A primer

Backyard chickens: A primer

Story by Michelle Stein


Organic, GMO-free, free-range, cage-free: These are just a few details taken into consideration when we decide what to buy at the grocery store. And in recent years, it seems as if more people have a heightened awareness for how their food is grown or raised.

So it makes sense that, according to local experts, there has also been an upward trend of individuals taking control of their food sources. This could be as simple buying only organic produce, or as growing your own garden. More ambitious consumers may even decide to raise their own flock of chickens for fresh, homegrown eggs. Area residents considering the latter may be wondering: But where do I even start?

If it’s something you’ve considered — even for a moment — a couple of agriculture educators in the area have offered their expertise when it comes to starting your own flock of chickens for the purpose of eggs.

“I think the first thing you need to assess is what are the needs of yourself and of your family,” said Brooke Beam, Ph.D., agriculture and natural resources/community consultant extension educator for the Highland County OSU Extension Office. “What is the goal you’re going to have for your flock once you’re established?”

It’s important, too, to keep in mind that chickens have a potential lifespan of seven to eight years.

“It’s a commitment,” Beam said. “And you need to think of your chicken as livestock, but also somewhat similar to a family pet because it needs supervision. If you take a vacation, you need to make sure that it has feed and water, and is taken care of.”

Jeff Stachler, extension educator for agriculture and natural resources with the Auglaize County OSU Extension Office, noted for those who live outside city limits, keeping farm animals is fair game. It gets a bit more complicated for would-be chicken farmers who live in town.

“You’ll have to check with each city/town ordinance to know what you can and can’t do,” Stachler said. “There is no one policy for everybody.”

You’ll also have to figure out what type of shelter you want, in order to keep your birds out of the elements. And there is a variety of different options out there.

“There’s these fancy little chicken houses that you can buy anymore that are really cool and very practical, and they work very well,” Stachler said. “Or you have where the chickens can come in and out — like you remember seeing on the old cartoons — where they have a little ramp where they go up into the barn. And then they actually have boxes that the chicken house is small enough, you don’t go in, the chickens do. But they have boxes with lids on the outside, and so you can lift them up and pick the eggs out of them.”

Heat lamps are a must-have for the flock, particularly if you want to continue egg production during the colder months, Beam noted. This is because hens need to be kept warm and they require 16 hours of light per day in order to lay and produce eggs.

“If it’s in the summer, where there’s more daylight, that’s not so much of a problem,” Beam said. “If you want eggs in the winter, you need to have some sort of artificial light in the coop.”

“You’d want to have some kind of run outside, if at all possible, so they can get out and walk around,” Beam added, noting that individuals may also want to consider fencing, particularly if they’re in town.

Aside from shelter, heat and light, providing feed and maintaining a clean water supply is obviously a must. How much feed depends on the situation, Stachler explained.

“Even if you let them roam around the yard, they’re still going to need to have a little bit of feed to get some of the nutrients that they need,” he said. “But you don’t need to provide as much food for them if they’re foraging in the yard on their own, most of the time.”

You’ll also want to make sure to purchase birds from a certified hatchery or a trusted farm supply store, Beam advised. That way, you can establish a healthy flock. If there were an issue, concerning behaviors to look for in your chickens include: Not eating, no appetite, lying around or not a lot of energy or activity.

“The breeds that have a reputation for being calm and docile are the Plymouth Rock, Wyandot and Orpington,” Beam said. “So those are recommended because they are good for backyard poultry, and also they’re more calm if you have children.”

Here are a few other things Beam advised to take into consideration when purchasing chickens:

• There’s no need for a rooster if you’re just wanting to have eggs — only if you want to have them fertilized so you can hatch your own chicks.

• If you decide to purchase chicks, you can actually buy them sexed. That way, you can make sure to only get pullets (female chicks) if you want hens for eggs — instead of cockerels (male chicks) if you’re avoiding roosters.

• If you buy the chicken as a chick, it will take about five to six months before it starts laying eggs.

• Different breeds can lay different colors of eggs, if that’s something that’s important to you.

• The recommended number of birds, if you’re just starting out with a backyard flock, is four to five.

• On average, each hen should lay about one egg per day, sometimes two, depending on a number of factors — including the breed, age, weather, etc.

Stachler noted that chicken owners should plan to pick up eggs twice per day, wash them, and, then make sure to get them into a refrigerator as soon as possible.

“There are going to be certain chickens that are going to lay their eggs outside, and you either have to accept that they’re not going to be any good, or they can tend to lay in the same area outside, even,” he said. “So if you know where they’re laying, you can start looking for the eggs. If you pick them up every day, then you’ll be able to keep them. But if they get more than a day old, from a safety standpoint it’s best not to use them. Are you going to have a problem? Probably not. But it’s safer to make sure, especially if somebody has quite a few chickens.”

Both Stachler and Beam noted that for whatever reason, there does seem to be more people dabbling in backyard chicken-raising.

“I think it’s a combination of things,” Beam speculated. “Particularly if they have children, wanting to educate them about where their food comes from.”

“Especially in the cities or towns, there’s been a little more interest than maybe out in the country,” Stachler said. “But overall, there’s an increased interest to raise backyard chickens. I think it’s just controlling how your eggs are produced and knowing that they’re GMO-free, free-range — or whatever type of production practice that you want, you can make sure that that’s what you’re doing.”

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