If you’re a new chicken owner and you have a million questions, then this cheat sheet is for you.
Relax, chicken ownership is easy!
This ultimate cheat sheet on chickens has everything you need to know (and then some!) to get you started on the right scale-covered foot.
Why aren’t my chickens laying?
There can be a ton of reasons your chickens aren’t laying, so here’s a few to get you started.
Are your hens the right age? They can start laying anywhere from 6 months old, although most start laying around 7 to 12 months.
Is her nutrition good enough? She should eat at least 18% protein in her feed.
Data shows that chickens that free range eat up to 70% protein (because they eat bugs, worms, etc), but if free ranging isn’t an option, make sure her feed hits that 18% mark. I personally feed between 18% and 22% protein grain, along with letting my flock forage for other goodies.
It’s also possible she needs to eat more vitamins and minerals, and her intake is off. You can read more about the vitamins and minerals chickens need here.
Is there some sort of stress going on? For example, chickens who constantly battle predators might not lay.
Is she just old? While some chickens will lay for years and years, the average age most chickens stop laying regularly is 2-3 years old.
How do I introduce new chickens to my flock?
There’s a ton of ways to introduce new hens to an existing flock, including just putting the new hen in the coop, but here’s how I do it.
Whenever I get a new hen, my first step is to isolate her for a week or two to make sure she doesn’t get sick.
The last thing you want is to bring a disease into your flock. Ask me how I know.
Assuming that goes well, I next put her in what I call the “Hello Box” for a day or so. It’s nothing fancy, just a wood frame made from scrap wood with chicken wire stapled to it, but it keeps everyone safe.
It also reduces drama during feed time, because the new chickens can eat their dinner in peace.
The new hen can see the other chickens, and they can see her.
If the vibes seem good (I’ve never had a problem), then I let the hen out in 24 to 48 hours to integrate with the flock.
My king rooster is usually happy to add a new girl to his brood.
Why do I go through all this trouble?
Well, I have, in the past, had disease introduced to my flock by sick chickens (who didn’t look sick at the time).
It’s a huge pain in the butt, and caused my chickens to stop laying.
I’ve also had roosters beat up new hens in a bid to become king rooster, and that lead to torn up hens, and – you guessed it – they went off their eggs.
What should I feed my chickens?
Well, what your chickens should eat depends on their age.
Chicks (newborn to 12 weeks)
For chicks, I give them an 18% protein chick starter to eat until they’re 12 weeks old.
I do give medicated chick starter, although it’s up to you if you want to go that route. I know plenty of people who feed unmedicated feed and their flocks do well on it also.
What you give your chickens to eat is an individual choice.
Some people recommend providing a 20% protein feed, which is fine, but an 18% feed is readily available in my very rural area, and I’ve never had a problem with it.
The “medicated” on the label means the feed has a wormer in it to help the chicks fight coccidiosis, which is probably the #1 killer of baby chicks. You can read more about that here.
I believe there’s so much working against my chicks in this world, I want to give them every defense possible, including letting them eat medicated feed.
Young Pullets (12 weeks until they lay)
My young pullets eat a grower feed of 16% – 18% protein mixed with chopped corn. I just take a 50 pound bag of grain and mix with a 50 pound bag of corn.
I do this, honestly, to reduce the expense since my chickens get to run around and hunt bugs to eat, and, since we have 50 or so chickens, the expense of feed adds up quickly.
I feed this mixture to my young roosters I keep to breed and my meat chickens.
Once they begin to lay, my hens get to eat a higher protein ration in addition to the bugs and goodies they dig up in their tractor.
I’ve fed 16% protein and up to 22% protein. Every flock is different, and my layers respond better to a 22% protein feed.
Since it’s more expensive, I only feed it to my layers (who are isolated to their own run so I can keep a watch on who’s laying).
They also eat an extra calcium supplement, such as oyster shells, to ensure they produce good, hard eggs. Offer this in a separate dish, not mixed with the feed.
I avoid giving them egg shells, but that’s a choice individual to my flock. One of my hens realized she could eat her own eggs to get the shells she loves so much, but egg shells are another great source of calcium.
The only other one who eats this feed is my king rooster, when I want him with the hens so I have fertile eggs.
I don’t personally feed scratch since there’s not enough vitamins in it to justify the expense.
Scratch is a good supplement for your chickens to eat if they free range, but it’s more a source of energy rather than a source of nutrition.
A great way to add some protein and let your chickens “hunt” for food is to offer mealworms, either alive or freeze dried. You can even start a mealworm farm to always have fresh protein for your girls to eat!
Looking to improve the taste of your eggs? Here’s what to feed your chickens for great tasting eggs (my most popular article!)!
How do I feed chickens that are different ages?
If I have to feed chickens of different ages together, I let them eat a starter/grower ration that’s around 18% protein.
If you have layers and chicks together, you’re better off sticking to a grower ration, because the amount of calcium in a layer feed can cause permanent damage to a growing chick’s kidneys.
I recommend making sure there’s enough feed stations, especially if your chickens are housed in a coop and not allowed to free range.
If you have a lot of chickens, it’s possible some won’t be able to get to the feed to eat if there’s not enough stations available (water too!), which can bring up another host of issues.
What are the best chickens for a starter flock?
You’ll get answers as varied as there are stars in the heavens, but here’s a list of chickens to get you started if you’re looking for layers.
My personal recommendations are:
- Barred Rock (great layers and very pretty),
- Blue Copper Marans (same reason),
- Production Red (excellent, hardy egg layers even in winter),
- Cuckoo Marans (very friendly and pretty), and
- Rhode Island Reds
- Buff Orpingtons (also good to eat!)
If you want colored eggs, here’s a list of chickens that will lay them!
For meat chickens you can harvest to eat, you can go with a heavy breed chicken (like a Buff Orpington), or you can try Cornish Crosses.
Heavy breeds will be ready at about 15 weeks (give or take) while Cornish Crosses will be ready much sooner, between 6 and 10 weeks.
Cornish Crosses can have a host of health issues, such as sudden heart attacks and leg issues, caused by their rapid growth, but they’re cost effective because they convert feed to muscle so easily.
Heavy breeds take longer to reach harvest weight, but have fewer health issues.
Should I let my chickens free range?
The answer to this question is: it depends.
I tackle that topic in this article about free ranging your chickens, and the short answer is it’s completely up to you and your particular situation.
There’s advantages and disadvantages to allowing free ranging. You can also provide a tractor for your chickens if you want them to free range and eat bugs, worms, etc., but have predators in your area.
Can I keep chickens in the city?
Yes, as long as your city allows it. If there’s restrictions on livestock, I would not recommend keeping chickens because you won’t want to deal with the stress and heartbreak of giving them away if your neighbors complain (and it happens a LOT!).
If you’re able to keep chickens – great! Provide a coop, protection from predators (like hawks), let them eat grain and water, and your chickens should thrive!
You can try boosting their protein with some mealworms. You can feed them live mealworms (gross but chickens LOVE “hunting” them) or freeze dried ones.
How much space do my chickens need in the coop?
Well, the more space the better, but the minimum suggested space is 4 square feet per chicken if your birds will be allowed to free range or go into a run, and 10 square feet if they will be cooped all the time.
If your coop can only be a certain size, you’re better off getting fewer birds. They’ll be happier, and so will you because they’ll lay better.
Chickens that are confined to an area that’s too small start to develop nasty habits like egg eating and pecking at each other. Waste can also build up, giving them respiratory diseases and nutritional deficiencies.
Should I clip my chickens’ wings?
The bottom line answer to this question is no. Unless you want eggs all over the coop floor and dead chickens.
I know people who do clip their chickens’ wings, and one of my hens, Floppy Head, who was a rescue from factory farming, had her wings clipped. It’s not a good life for them.
Even though we made a special nesting box for her, she never wanted to use it, and laid her eggs on the coop floor since she couldn’t get into the nesting box the other hens use.
She also couldn’t roost with her friends, making her a prime target for any hungry predator looking to eat a chicken dinner. She couldn’t fly away in defense, so we had to keep an extra eye on her.
I personally can’t support clipping the wings of chickens since the ability to fly (they can sort of fly) is their only defense against a predator. Wings also help them get to their roost, which as another way they protect themselves against predators.
How can I tell if my chicken eggs are fertile?
While this one takes a little practice, once you got it, you got it.
First things first, to have fertile eggs you can incubate, you need a rooster that knows his job. Without a rooster, you won’t have fertile eggs to incubate, and you might as well eat them.
Here’s the thing:
You can’t tell from the outside if a chicken egg is fertile.
You can only tell once you open it up. So check out the eggs you’re planning to eat for breakfast, and if they’re fertile, it’s a pretty good bet the other eggs your chickens lay will be fertile as well.
You can tell if your eggs are fertile by looking for the embryo – that’s a small cluster of cells that look like a bullseye. That bullseye means the egg is fertile, and your rooster’s doing his job.
Don’t worry, though, the embryo this isn’t actually a chicken until you incubate it, so you can still eat the eggs and feed them to your critters (our ancestors ate them for thousands of years, right?)
If you don’t see the bullseye, then chances are your eggs aren’t fertile, and you should eat them instead of incubating them.
I’d like to hear from you!
Is there a chicken question you have that I didn’t address? Leave a comment below!
Maat van Uitert is a backyard chicken and sustainable living expert. She is also the author of Chickens: Naturally Raising A Sustainable Flock, which was a best seller in it’s Amazon category. Maat has been featured on NBC, CBS, AOL Finance, Community Chickens, the Huffington Post, Chickens magazine, Backyard Poultry, and Countryside Magazine. She lives on her farm in Southeast Missouri with her husband, two children, and about a million chickens and ducks. You can follow Maat on Facebook here and Instagram here.