Backyard Chicken Frequently Asked Questions
How should I feed backyard chickens?
Feeding your chickens the best diet possible is the most important thing you’ll do for them as their owner, and the quality of their eggs and meat depends on the quality of their food.
Through diet, you can not only provide beneficial nutrients to your flock, but by using all-natural supplements, you can reduce pathogens, increase gut health, improve nutrient absorption, and combat infection.
I recommend purchasing equipment specifically designed for poultry. Chicks in particular can fall into waterers and drown, and they do so quite easily.
- A feeder (made with plastic or galvanized steel – make sure to get enough so every chicken has a shot at eating)
- A mason jar waterer for chicks, or make an automatic waterer for adult backyard chickens with my free plans
Chickens are messy, and very quickly will block their waterer with shavings, food, or feces. Try suspending the feeders and waterer to prevent this.
Feeding hens from chicks to layers
Chicks (newborn to 12 weeks) – feed an 18 percent protein chick starter. I have a full article about caring for baby chicks here.
Young pullets/roosters (12 weeks until they lay) – grower feed that contains between 16 percent and 18 percent protein. Most commercial grower rations out there contain 16 percent protein. It’s very important to only use a feed that’s labeled as a starter/grower ration since layer feed has extra calcium in it – too much calcium can cause poor growth in backyard chickens that aren’t laying yet.
Layers – Offer layer feed, which usually contains 16 percent protein and extra calcium. Feed this when your hens start laying – roosters can eat it too.
What breeds of backyard chickens are best?
While there are many chicken breeds that are perfect for every flock, there are some that I recommend for a first time chicken owner. I like each of these breeds because they’re friendly and hardy, and they lay more frequently than other breeds.
The chicken breeds we’ll talk about are:
- Plymouth Rocks
- Rhode Island Reds (RIR)
- Jersey Giants
- Speckled Sussex
- Araucana chickens
The first breed we’ll discuss are Plymouth Rocks. According to The Livestock Conservancy, which is an organization devoted to preserving heritage livestock breeds, Plymouth Rocks were developed in America in the middle of the 19th century, and first shown as a breed in Massachusetts in Boston in 1849 [INSERT LINK].1
With Plymouth rocks, you can expect between 200 and 280 eggs per year, and in my experience, it’s on the higher end of egg production, but of course that depends on the individual.
Rhode Island Reds (RIR)
Rhode Island Reds are probably one of the most popular and best known chicken breeds in the world. These backyard chicken are friendly, lay very well, and make great pets for children and members of the family.
If you want to raise heritage Rhode Island Reds, it’s important to source your chickens from a reputable breeder, and to ask a lot of questions. You can buy either heritage RIR chickens or Rhode Island Reds developed for the egg industry.
Buff Orpingtons are a great example of how breeding can produce beautiful backyard chickens perfect for any flock.
The Buff Orpington was developed in the late 1800s in England by a man named William Cook, who lived in the town of Orpington. To develop the breed, Cook, who was a coachman by profession, crossed Minorca roosters with Black Plymouth Rock hens, and then crossed those offspring to Langshan chickens.
Buff Orpingtons are excellent foragers, which is an important quality if you want to free range your birds.
A large breed of backyard chickens with white or black feathers. They were developed in New Jersey during the 19th century as a replacement for turkeys. In addition to laying consistently – about 250 eggs a year – this breed is fairly docile, and the roosters are good protectors.
I have a full article about raising Speckled Sussex chickens here.
Should I let my backyard chickens free range?
I’ve had plenty of questions about whether chickens should free range, and there’s pros and cons to foraging. It’s up to you whether you want your flock to free range.
I have a full article about free ranging backyard chickens right here.
When it comes to free ranging, some disadvantages are:
- You will likely lose flock members to predators.
- During inclement weather, it’s harder to keep them out of the elements.
- You have less control over their diet.
- If you live near neighbor, they might not be too happy about hens in their yard.
- It’s difficult to administer medications and probiotics.
- You might have to search for eggs since hens can be tricky about hiding their eggs.
At the same time, there are many advantages to free ranging, such as:
- Your chickens are likely to have a high-protein diet.
- They satisfy their natural urges to scratch, peck, and hunt.
- You may not have to feed as much grain, so you’ll save money.
- Your chickens will get a varied diet.
- You don’t need to provide a dust bath because they’ll make one themselves.
What kind of chicken coop is best for backyard chickens?
Although chicken coops can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make them above everything else, it should keep your flock out of the elements and provide shelter to keep them warm and dry during bad weather.
There are other things to take into consideration, such as space requirements, ventilation, cleanliness, and nesting boxes.
Proving adequate space in the coop is extremely important so your chickens stay healthy and to reduce the chance of stress and negative behaviors. Once they start, it’s difficult and time consuming to stop; you’ll do yourself a service by preventing negative behavior from the outset.
If you plan to free range your backyard for part or all of the day, then provide 4 square feet per chicken in their coop.
If your backyard chickens will remain cooped most of the day or all the time, then 10 square feet of space is necessary. Of course, providing an additional run is ideal as well.
What should be included in a coop?
Even the simplest structures will make a perfectly fine home for your chickens as long is it’s the right size, is dry, easy to clean, and has good ventilation.
Because chickens have delicate upper respiratory systems, too much ammonia in their coop, which can easily build up from their manure, can harm your chickens. Good ventilation and cleaning their coop regularly will help prevent upper respiratory infections.
Easy to clean
Make sure your coop has a door or window large enough for an adult person to fit through so you can easily remove soiled shavings, hay, or other bedding and replace it with new material.
Hens will try to lay eggs in the same nest (sometimes at the same time), so don’t worry about having a box for every backyard chicken. You can add herbs and hay to the nesting boxes so your chickens have a pleasant place to lay their eggs.
Nesting boxes can be of any material, as long as it’s safe and provides a dark, quiet place for your hens to lay.
One concern with nesting boxes besides cleanliness are mites and lice. Diatomaceous earth or herbs can help prevent mites and lice in the box. For more information about please visit this article about backyard chickens and mites.
A place to roost
Probably one of the most overlooked yet most important parts of a coop are the roosting bars. Chickens like to roost at night because it makes them feel safe from predators.
Without a roosting bar, your chickens will have to sleep on the ground. Not only does this make them vulnerable to predators, it also exposes them to bacteria and parasites that can make them sick―not to mention, nobody likes sleeping in their own manure.
If your coop doesn’t come with a place for them to roost, you can use 2×4 studs or even solid branches you find around your property. Roosting bars should be 2-4 inches wide since chickens don’t grasp bars like other birds―they sleep flat-footed, and a space wide enough for their feet is best.
What bedding should I use in my coop?
We’ll discuss several options, but just remember that if you don’t clean your chicken coop regularly, it doesn’t matter what bedding you use. Without consistent cleaning, your coop is going to smell and be a hotbed for disease and pests like mites.
Great bedding choices include:
- Shavings (small and large)
Straw – Straw can get moldy if left unattended, but if you’re cleaning your coop regularly and have good ventilation, it’s not going to be much of a issue. In a 10 foot by 12 foot coop, 1 bale of straw should be enough.
Hay – Hay is more likely to mold than straw simply because the blades of grass have a higher moisture content. Pull out wet and caked hay daily, and if you find that it’s just too labor intensive, switch to straw or shavings.
Shavings – Shavings are an excellent bedding because they’re very clean and they’re absorbent. Pull out wet shavings daily so they don’t mold and get stinky fast.
Sand – Sand is, for some reason, very controversial in the chicken world but it has its merits and pitfalls like everything else. Fans of sand claim it’s cleaner than the other options, and doesn’t host bacteria, or smell, and is easy to clean.
In my experience, however, sand can get mucky very fast, particularly if it’s mixed with dirt. There’s also a chance the particles can cause crop impactions, and if it’s very dry, it can be dusty.
Deep litter method
Deep litter gets a bad wrap because it can easily turn into an ammonia-filled nightmare, but done correctly, you can end up with fewer farm chores, a warmer coop in winter (about 10 degrees warmer) and compost for your garden.
As your flock’s manure mixes with shavings and decomposes, there’s plenty of microscopic organisms hard at work breaking down the droppings—both healthy and unhealthy. The key to successful deep litter is creating an environment where there’s more beneficial microbes than harmful ones.
I have a full tutorial on deep litter bedding for backyard chickens right here.
What’s the best way to keeping backyard chickens safe in the winter?
Chickens generally do very well in winter as long as they can get out of the elements and remain away from drafts.
Do I need a heat lamp?
I advise you to skip infrared heat lamps (unless you live in a very cold climate where it’s -30°F regularly). Most hens do fine in winter, and when it comes to the risk compared to the benefits, the risks are way too high.
Those heat lamps get really hot, and all it takes is a hen knocking it down and you might lose your whole flock and coop to a fire. In most cases, they really aren’t necessary.
How do chickens stay warm in the winter?
Chickens stay warm by fluffing their feathers, which traps air between their body and the outside world, and acts as a buffer against drafts. It’s their natural way of keeping their body temperature regulated.
Chickens also keep their body temperature up by moving around during the day as they forage for food. Constantly moving keeps their blood circulating. At night, they keep their feet warm by resting their bodies on them as they roost.
What do I do if my backyard chicken gets frostbite?
Frostbite happens most often on combs and wattles, as well as feet. It’s more likely to be an issue with hens and roosters with large, impressive combs. Symptoms of frostbite include:
- Dark or blackened areas on the comb, wattles, or feet
- Lying down/not wanting to stand
I have a full article about how to help a backyard chicken with frostbite here.
How do I keep waterers from freezing?
Here’s a few ideas to keep your flock’s waterers from turning into a block of ice.
- Heated waterers
- Deep black rubber water tubs
- Hand warmers
I have a detailed article about how to keep water from freezing here, as well as this super simple hack to keep backyard chicken water from freezing.
How to I protect my backyard chickens in summer?
Hens tend to battle heat stress during the summer, and it’s something you should pay attention to. Summer is also a particularly important time to make sure your chicken coop is very clean.
Chickens have a natural body temperature of 107°F, so they feel heat more than humans. To tell if your chickens are getting too hot, watch their behavior.
- hanging their wings away from their bodies?
- breathing heavily?
If your answer to any of these questions is “yes,” then you need to act quickly to prevent damage or death from heat stress. I have a full article about how to keep chickens cool in summer and how to battle heat stress here.
Some other things you can do are:
- Make sure your coop is well-ventilated
- Make water easily available in the shade all day with an automatic DIY chicken waterer
- Create a cool place to stand by spraying down the run with cold water or keep a shallow tub filled for them to stand in.
- Use misters to reduce temperatures around the coop
- Offer cool treats such as frozen coconut oil suet cakes
How do I introduce new chickens to an established flock?
The best way is to create a way for the chickens to see each other without being able to touch each other while they sort out their pecking order. The reality with chickens is that there’s going to be some level of pecking order drama whenever you add a new chicken to an existing flock―it’s how they figure out their social order.
I discuss my preferred method of introducing new chickens to each other here.
Help! I got a weird egg in my coop!
There’s many reasons why chickens lay eggs that don’t look quite right. I explain:
- Common abnormal chicken eggs here,
- why softshell eggs happen here,
- what lash eggs mean here, and
- whether double yolk eggs are a cause for concern here.
I think my chicken is sick. What do I do??
You should always consult a vet if you think your chicken is sick or hurt. Even though I’m knowledgeable about backyard chickens, there’s no way I can help a hen or rooster over the internet, and only a licensed vet should provide a diagnosis.
For informational purposes only, you can find out about common illnesses here, including:
Why are my backyard chicken’s feathers falling out?
Chicken feathers fall out for many reasons, including molting, stress, and broodiness (wanting to hatch chicks). You can find 7 reasons your backyard chickens feathers are falling out right here.