Ruth Correll: Raising backyard chickens

Ruth Correll • Nov 14, 2017 at 8:55 PM

Recent trends in agriculture find people becoming more interested in where their food comes from. A spinoff of this trend is an interest in raising backyard chickens.  Raising backyard chickens not only supplies food, it is a great way to teach about agriculture and responsibility for caring for animals.

There is a wide a variety of chicken breeds, developed for egg production, meat production and some are dual-purpose breeds, but most backyard chickens are raised for laying and not for meat. Often, those interested will select a breed for the color of egg they lay. While many breeds are adaptable to a backyard setting, certain breeds are better than others for backyard conditions. Medium to large breeds are good for cold winters. A mellow temperament and good egg laying are also pluses.  

If beginning with baby chicks, they cannot generate enough heat to sustain themselves and must be provided care in a controlled temperature location. The process of getting chicks off to a good start is called brooding. The brooding period is roughly the first three to four weeks of a chick’s life. By then, most breeds are fully feathered and can generate enough heat on their own to get by.

Housing for adult chickens is called a coop. Chickens are adaptable, and no single best way exists to house them. A coop provides a location to nest, roosting areas, protection from weather and protection from predators. The number of nest boxes is determined by number of chickens but the rule of thumb is one nest box per four to five birds. Coops should be well ventilated but also provide protection from inclement weather. There should be a well-insulated area with a light bulb or heat lamp for the winter months as well as ventilation for fresh air. Be sure to have a minimum 3-5 square feet per bird, including outdoor space. Chickens need also need outside areas for exercise. Confined areas make predator control much easier.

A 6-pound hen will eat roughly 3 pounds of feed each week. Feed consumption may increase in the winter when burning more calories, and decrease in the heat of the summer. A critical part of a chicken’s diet is continual access to clean, fresh water year-round. Chickens should typically be fed a prepared feed that is balanced for vitamins, minerals and protein.

Chickens need to be fed and water changed daily. They need to be let out of the coop each morning and put into the coop at dusk each night to protect them from predators. Eggs should be picked up twice a day. The coop and pen should be cleaned out weekly to maintain sanitation and odor control.

Chickens raised in backyard settings generally stay healthy and are not easily susceptible to diseases. An important element to bird health is sanitation. To maintain a clean, healthy environment, the coop and outdoor area should be cleaned out weekly or as needed to control manure and odor build up. Feeders and waterers should be regularly cleaned and disinfected. Dust baths should be available, as they help control mites. 

Hens begin laying at around six months of age and can continue for five to 10 years, with peak production happening in the first two years. They will lay roughly six eggs each week. Egg production drops each year when the hens molt and as daylight hours are lost. Hens need at least 12-14 hours of light each day to continue laying eggs. A regular light bulb is sufficient to supply this light.

There are several regulations that you may encounter with chicken ownership. Check for city regulations or neighborhood regulations. Chickens should never be allowed to roam outside the boundaries of your property.  

For more information, contact the UT-TSU Extension Office in Wilson County at 615-444-9584. You can also find us on Facebook or visit extension.tennessee.edu/wilson. Ruth Correll, UT Extension-TSU Cooperative Extension agent for Wilson County, may be reached at 615-444-9584 or [email protected]


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