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Basic Guide for the Backyard Chicken Flock

by 5m Editor
4 June 2010, at 12:00am

A guide to raising a small, backyard chicken flock by Dr Derek L. Barber, Livestock & Natural Resources Extension agent for Columbia County Extension at the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida.

Raising a small, backyard chicken flock has gained interest in recent years as many small-farm owners desire to produce their own high-quality food. In addition, youngsters can learn to care for animals and experience the enjoyment of keeping animals as a 4-H project.

Brooding

Newly hatched chicks need a heat source the first few weeks of life. The most common way to brood a small flock (25 to 50 chicks) is with a heat lamp. The 250-watt heat lamp should be placed 12 to 18 inches above the chicks. Day-old chicks need a temperature of 90 to 95°F.

The behaviour of the chicks is a good indicator of their comfort. If the chicks are huddled close to the heat source, they are cold; if they stay away from the heat source, they are too hot. Quiet, evenly distributed chicks are a sign of optimum temperature.

A thermometer is the most accurate way to keep track of the temperature. Be sure the height of the thermometer is at the same height as the chicks for an accurate temperature reading at chick level.

The temperature should be lowered by five degrees per week until the chicks are four-weeks-old or have feathered. Adjust the height of the lamp to adjust the temperature. Raising the lamp a few inches each week should drop the temperature by five degrees.

More information on the care of baby chicks can be found at the IFAS web site [click here].

Housing

A flock house in Florida does not need to be expensive or elaborate. An area that is covered by a roof and enclosed with a minimum of two sides for protection from prevailing rain and wind is sufficient.

The size of the house should be based on a minimum of three square feet of floor space per bird. Twenty-five birds with three square feet of floor space will require about 75 square feet of floor space; a house eight feet by ten feet will be sufficient for this example.

The use of fencing (chicken wire) helps in confining the birds and provides protection from predators. The top of the enclosure also needs to be covered to prevent flying and climbing predators from entering. Using an enclosed run or free-range during the day provides an open area that reduces stress, pecking, and will allow the birds to supplement their diets with a variety of greens and insects.


top to bottom: Buff Orpington hen
Barred Rock hen
Rhode Island Red hen
(All photographs by Tom Wright, UF/IFAS)


Feed and Water

The type of feed recommended varies with the age and intended use of the bird. Good nutrition is very important in maintaining a healthy flock.

If the chicks are female, the following feeding schedule can be used to grow the birds until and during egg production:

  • Newly hatched chicks will require a commercial starter feed (20–24% protein) that is usually fed until six weeks of age.
  • Expect to use at least four pounds of starter feed per bird.
  • After six weeks, switch to a grower feed (16–20% protein), and feed this up to 18 weeks of age. Many feed stores carry a combination starter/grower feed that will work well for both stages of growth.
  • At 18 weeks, switch to a layer feed (14–16% protein) to prepare the birds for egg production.
  • Do not feed layer feed to birds less than 18-weeks-old or starter/grower feed to birds producing eggs.
  • To support rapid growth, the starter diet for chicks has the highest level of protein a chicken will receive during its lifetime.
  • If layer feed is fed to male or female chicks, a reduction in growth can be expected and an unnecessary stress will be placed on the young birds.
  • Chicks fed layer feed will develop kidney problems and rickets since the calcium to phosphorus ratio is out of balance.
  • Layer feed normally contains approximately 3.5–4.0% calcium; however, birds less than 18-weeks-old require only about 1% calcium in their diet.
  • Layer-age birds need a diet lower in protein and higher in calcium for eggshell formation.

If the chicks are male, then they can be fed the same starter or starter/grower feed as the females until six weeks of age and then switched to the grower feed indefinitely.

  • Do not feed layer feed to males.

Many commercial starter feeds are medicated to control coccidiosis. This disease is caused by a microscopic parasite that infects the intestinal tract. The mild strength of the drug used in the feed will kill most, but not all, of the parasites. This will allow gradual immunity to develop so the birds usually will not have problems with coccidiosis as adults. Grower and layer feed usually do not contain medication.

It is important that chicks have easy access to clean, fresh water. Manufactured chick waterers usually consist of a quart or gallon jar with screw-on base that allows for water level adjustment. If water spills occur in the location of the waterer, then these should be cleaned as soon as possible to prevent bacterial growth that leads to odours and possibly disease. An automatic waterer placed six inches off the ground is the most adequate way to ensure the birds have clean, fresh water daily.

A constant supply of clean, fresh water is essential for healthy birds. Twenty-five hens can drink a gallon of water each day. Water consumption will increase dramatically during hot weather.

Nesting

As the birds reach the age of 18 to 20 weeks, nesting boxes should be in place. Boxes measuring 12×12×12 inches, half filled with straw are ideal. Provide one nest box for each five hens in the flock, and place them about two feet above the ground. A perch may be placed in front of each box allowing a spot for hens to land before entering the box. Nesting boxes should be checked twice a day for eggs. Eggs should not be allowed to accumulate in the nests. Otherwise the hens will go out of egg production and want to sit on the eggs to incubate them. This type of hen is commonly referred to as a 'broody' hen.

Daylength influences egg production. If daylength decreases during the laying period, the number of eggs may decrease. The use of artificial light can add extra time at the beginning or end of the true daylight. A combination of natural and artificial light resulting in 14 to 16 hours of light per day is effective to maintain egg production throughout the year.

Egg production for a small backyard flock should be about 200 to 240 eggs, or 17 to 20 dozen, per hen a year.

Breed Description

You have two basic choices when deciding what type of poultry to keep. You may choose a breed that excels in egg production or a breed noted for meat production; a few breeds produce both fairly well. Chickens bred to produce eggs fall into two classifications – the leghorn type that produces white eggs and the sex-linked type that produces brown eggs.

While the leghorn strain of chicken will produce the most eggs, these birds are quite small and are not a good choice for meat. The Rock-Cornish, a commercial broiler-type bird, has been bred for rapid meat production. Breeds that may work well for dual-purpose include the Rhode Island Red, Plymouth Rock, New Hampshire, Wyandotte and Orpington.

Table 1. Breed descriptions
Breed Plumage colour Eggshell colour Rate of lay Breed information
Barred Plymouth Rock Black and white barring Brown Excellent Oldest breed; excellent dual-purpose breed
Black Sex-Links Black with gold hackle and breast Brown Excellent Cross of Rhode Island Red and Barred Plymouth Rock
Brown Sex-Links Dark red with black tails and wings Brown Excellent Cross of Rhode Island Red and White Plymouth Rock
Gold Sex-Links Light red with white tails and wings Brown Excellent Cross of Rhode Island Red and Rhode Island Whites
Red Sex-Links Dark red with black tails and wings Brown Excellent Cross of Rhode Island Red and Delaware
Rhode Island Red Very dark red Brown Excellent Old Breed; popular dual-purpose
Black Australorps Black with greenish sheen Brown Excellent Excellent, small-flock producer; hardy
Ameraucanas Multicoloured (white, brown, red, black) Green, blue, light brown Excellent From South America; nicknamed 'Easter Egg Chicken' due to colour of eggshell
White Leghorn White White Excellent Excellent layer
New Hampshire Reds Chestnut red Brown Very good Popular, dual-purpose breed; grows fast
Silver Laced Wyandottes Silvery white, edged with black Brown Very good Beautiful old breed; popular for cold areas
White Plymouth Rock White Brown Very good Medium-sized, dual-purpose breed
Golden Laced Wyandottes Golden, edged with greenish black Brown Good Same as Silver Laced
Buff Orpingtons Rich golden buff Brown Good Large breed with quiet disposition; popular backyard flock
June 2010