Top 10 Questions and Answers About Backyard Chickens

Answers to Common Poultry Questions Like: How Old Do Chickens Need to Be to Lay Eggs?

backyard-chickens

By Byron Parker – It’s getting easier for people outside the backyard poultry community to understand why so many of us choose to dedicate a portion of our lives to raising and caring for backyard chickens. I don’t get the same reaction I used to from suburbanites when they find out I raise backyard chickens through casual conversation. Instead, most people end up telling me about someone in their neighborhood that is raising a few backyard chickens.

In fact, it has become quite easy to influence outsiders to take part in this “unusual” hobby simply by telling a story or two about our beloved chickens and their unforgettable antics. Let’s face it, stories about dogs and cats are about as interesting as a glass of warm water and dry toast for dinner. Who hasn’t heard the one about the dog that chased its tail? It’s not that it wasn’t funny but I suspect your audience has seen this behavior before. Now tell the story about the rooster that chased your screaming mother-in-law around the backyard, suddenly people become very interested in what you are saying. You’ll still have plenty of opportunity to talk about your dog when you raise backyard chickens as the two can produce some entertaining and crowd-pleasing stories, provided the story doesn’t end with the dog eating the chicken. I remember sitting on the back porch with my wife enjoying an ice cold drink when my 85-pound dog came running across the backyard with his tail between his legs and a Buff Orpington roosting on its back while a Barred Rock chased behind. The chicken on his back quickly jumped off as Farley (my dog) crawled underneath my chair for protection and some comforting. I’m not sure how that all got started but since then we have replaced our “Beware of Dog” sign with an “Area Patrolled by Attack Chicken” sign.

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A good story doesn’t always have to involve the chicken but rather the chicken coop. I love to tell the story about my 2-year-old son getting his head stuck inside our chicken tractor yelling “No! No!” as the chickens pecked and pulled at his curly blonde hair. Trust me; you don’t have to make this stuff up! Raise backyard chickens long enough (a few weeks will do) and you won’t have to look very hard to find a hilarious story to share.

But it’s not just the stories we share that make people from the small land owner to the urban adventurer commit to sharing their yard with a few chickens. It’s not just the fact that more people realize the health benefits of eggs from backyard hens, not to mention the more humane lifestyle they are exposed to. Could it then be they are looking for the blood pressure lowering effects associated with “pet” ownership that we keep reading about? Or could it be a way for people to escape back to the good old days by incorporating some of the sights and sounds we experienced during visits to Grandma and Grandpa’s farm? The real answer is most—or all—of the above.

Most people end up raising backyard chickens after one of three occurrences: 1) Intensive research suggested the positive aspects of raising chickens outweighed any possible negatives, 2) Dad has trouble saying no to his kids and came home from a recent trip to the feed store with six chickens, a toy horse collection, and two bags of candy but forgot the new shovel he went there for, or 3) Drinking beer while looking at poultry-related websites.

Conversely, I think the reasons many people don’t raise chickens is because they believe chickens are strictly farm animals that require a lot of space, feel they don’t have access to the types of supplies required or stay completely sober when surfing the internet. In reality, you don’t need any more room in your backyard for a few chickens than you do for a dog and you can order a chicken coop, chicken feed, and most other poultry supplies online 24 hours a day.

But before you wake up with a hangover and an online order of Barred Rock chicks, let me at least bring forth some answers to the questions that most people ask before jumping into the backyard poultry arena. Keep in mind there are experts in the world of poultry like Gail Damerow, who have written books like The Chicken Health Handbook and Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens that can serve as guides into your new endeavor. However, although I am not qualified to be considered an expert, I did manage to read both books and have raised, or at least eaten, backyard chickens most of my life, and spent the last 17 years in the poultry supply business, so I should be able to provide some unique insight into the world of backyard chickens.

To help do so, I polled the operators at Randall Burkey Company to help me come up with the top 10 questions asked by people who are either planning to raise chickens or are new to raising chickens. Hopefully, these turn out to be some of the same questions you might need answers to. Remember, no question is a dumb question if you don’t know the answer. I remind myself of that whenever I talk to a mechanic. “The battery’s dead! Doesn’t my car run off gasoline?”

So here are the top 10 questions about raising backyard chickens:

1. Do I need a rooster for my hens to lay eggs?

Okay, stop laughing! You didn’t always know the answer to this question. I will tell you that this is the most commonly asked question we get, so no one should be embarrassed. The answer is no, unless you want chicks. If you’re just looking for eggs to eat and /or some nice yard pets, hens minus the rooster can provide you with plenty of farm fresh eggs without a single crow to wake you up in the morning.

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2. How long do chickens live?

The life expectancy of most standard chicken breeds shielded from predators and deep fryers can range from 8 to 15 years. There are many reports of pet chickens living as long as 20 years! With the increasing popularity of raising chickens as pets, I imagine someone will develop a new line of chicken coops such as nursing coops or assisted living coops for the growing population of elderly chickens. All joking aside, chickens are very hardy animals that rarely need a trip to a veterinarian, no matter how long they live.

3. What do I need when my chicks arrive?

Boil some water and grab some clean towels! Isn’t this what we heard on television when the mother went into labor? However, with newborn chickens, we only need to boil water if we plan on cooking them. What you do need is a way to keep your chicks warm without cooking them. Depending on the number of chicks and your budget there are several options. Most commonly used and most economical is a single lamp infrared brooder with a 250-watt red glass infrared bulb. Of course, you will need a perimeter to contain the chicks inside the heated area —something as simple as an 18″ high corrugated paper chick corral will get the job done. Place a small thermometer inside to ensure the correct temperature of 95° F is maintained, dropping 5° each week thereafter. A proper chick feeder and waterer are also necessary and you should provide ample space for the number of chicks inside. Pine shavings will work well as bedding and although there are many other options, you want to avoid using material such as newspaper that does not provide stable footing.

4. How old do chickens need to be to lay eggs, and how many eggs will they lay?

Typically hens will start to lay when they are around 5- 6 months of age and will lay approximately 200 to 300 eggs annually, based on the breed type. Breeds like Rhode Island Reds, Golden Sex Links, and White Leghorns are considered some of the most prolific egg layers. Peak production generally occurs at two years of age and slowly declines thereafter.

5. How much feed do chickens eat?

Once you know what to feed hens, the question becomes how much do your laying hens need to eat? The amount of feed a chicken will consume varies dramatically based on breed type, feed quality, climate, and other variables that make it difficult to provide one good answer. However, a typical laying hen will consume around 4 to 6 ounces of feed each day with an increase during cold months and a decrease during warm months. Many types of feeders available today are designed to prevent feed from being scratched out to reduce wasted feed and lower your overall feed bill. Depending on where you are located, your chickens can nearly survive strictly by foraging for their food on a good size piece of property. Foraging for food is really the chickens’ preferred method of eating because it makes life much more interesting for them as opposed to standing around the all-you-can-eat food trough. Even during the leaner times, you can promote natural foraging behavior by hanging a “Free Range” feeder in your yard. With a timer that can be set to release varying amounts of pelletized feed, you can provide your chickens the sustenance they require while still allowing them the opportunity to act upon their natural instincts.

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6. How big does my chicken coop need to be?

Because chickens spend most of their active time outside of the chicken coop, generally 2 – 3 square feet per chicken is sufficient space. Remember, you will need to provide space to roost at night and space for the nesting boxes. If you plan on keeping them cooped up full-time then 8 – 10 square feet per chicken would do, counting the outside run. In this case, more is always better. If you are planning on buying or building a mobile chicken coop, space requirement is minimized because it offers you the ability to frequently move the coop and chickens onto fresh ground.

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7. How many nest boxes will I need for my hens?

If you asked a slick nest box salesman, he would probably tell you the answer is one box for every hen and then tell you how much he likes you and how he is willing to give you a great deal if you buy today. Fortunately, I don’t think there are many “nest box salesmen,” especially slick ones. However, there are plenty of poultry supply companies that sell nest boxes and the answer they should give you is approximately one nest box for every 5 – 6 hens. Now, this can and does vary somewhat but the point is this, if you have 25 hens you don’t need to purchase 25 individual nest boxes. In fact, one six-hole nest box would probably be sufficient for 25 laying hens, or 6 extremely pampered laying hens.

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8. What is the best way to deal with internal and external parasites?

Because we are dealing with an animal that we may eat or eat the eggs from, I prefer to recommend the more natural alternatives for treatment opposed to chemical use. “Food grade” diatomaceous earth (DE) is the fossilized remains of microscopic shells created by one-celled plants called diatoms and is the most popular natural product for controlling internal and external parasites. Chickens can be dusted with DE to treat lice and mites, and it can be mixed with their feed to control worms. Another alternative all-natural product is Poultry Protector, used to control external parasites such as mites, lice, and fleas. Poultry Protector uses natural enzymes to control parasites and can be sprayed in all areas of the chickens’ living quarters and safely on the birds as well.

backyard-chickens

9. What is the best way to protect my chickens from predators?

Obviously, a well-built chicken coop is your first and best defense against predators. The coop should be designed to prevent predators from crawling through small openings or from tunneling under. A light roof made from chicken wire can be very effective at protecting chickens from hawks and other flying predators. Most troublesome predators come at night so it may be a good idea to place a few Nite Guards around your coop. Nite Guard Solar emits a flashing red light at night that makes predators think they’re being watched by something more terrifying than they are, forcing them to leave the area, and preventing predators from ever approaching your coop.

10. How do I get my chickens to go in the coop at night?

The big question on everyone’s mind: can chickens be trained? Chickens instinctively move into their coop when the sun goes down. It may take a little coaxing for grown chickens to move into a newly built coop but once they realize it’s home, they generally go right in at night. Your job is to close the door behind them once they enter, and then to open it back up in the morning. If this sounds like something you don’t care to constantly deal with, you can buy an automatic chicken coop door such as the new Poultry Butler Automatic Poultry Door.

Whatever reasons made you decide to start raising chickens, personally I think you made a great decision, even if it happened to be alcohol induced. I guarantee you’re going to have some great stories to tell about your life with chickens, and I wish I could hear every one of them.

To those of you who already have backyard chickens, don’t forget to pet the dog every once in a while. If you’re like me, you still love your dog but wish it were eggs he was laying all over the backyard. Now that would be a great story!

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Originally published in 2013 and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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Comments
  • You are hilarious…and helpful. I’m picking up my first 7 chicks in a couple weeks. Not alcohol induced, only because I ordered first thing in the morning, accompanied by a cup of coffee.

    Reply
  • I got 10 beautiful chicks on April 11th after they hatched. I got 7 Barred Rock female chicks, 1 Female Silver Laced Wyannadotte, 1 Golden Buff female, 1 Silver Penciled Rock female. I was blessed to be able to imprint on 8 out of my 10. I have 2 shy little girls ( a barred rock and my silver penciled Rock ) The rest honestly think I’m their mother. They are brooded in my large dog cage with a Ecoglow brooder for warmth. About 4 to 5 times a day I open the cage, sit down and all but two of my chick’s fly into my lap and they cuddle! They are getting quite big now at 11 days old so I will have three perched on my left arm, two on my right , two in my lap, and one on my chest , yes my chest! I sing and cuddle each one. One of my lap sitters went through the motions of a dirt bath in my lap the other day! Seeing this behavior as my husband has he was thinking we have very friendly little chicks…until he went to hold on and it chirped so loudly (chick scream) we realized they are bonded to me as their mother!! Only mom gets special cuddles and trust! I can honestly say they bring such great joy into my life and I’m greatful and thank God for each one! I ordered mine from Meyer Hatchery and they did such a great job with shipping from Ohio to California! All the girls are beautiful and healthy, Thank God! They were shipped with a heat pack and nest material and we’re cozy for their long journey. I have two older silkie hens and I can’t wait for them to meet their new baby sisters! Chickens are Awsome! So much fun. Love your blog, love chicken stories!

    Reply
  • Once I let my girl out of their cop can I close it for the day? They will be protected. I am scared of snakes and i dont want one to go in during the day while am at work. My chickens will be protected by their run. And will they still lay eggs?

    Reply
  • I’m using a dog cage for my run,do I need to put wire or netting over it ? I live in a woods. can I use foam spray to fill holes in my soffit ?

    Reply
  • Last week, one of our chickens (8 months old) puffed up, looked distressed and ended up discharging what originally looked like a broken balloon. On that day, we only got 4 eggs from our 5 hens. Today, we discovered the same material on the floor of the coop but there was 5 eggs, one with a very different coloured (gray) shell. We think that maybe this chicken isn’t getting enough calcium and the material she is discharging maybe the shell. Do you have any suggestions what & why this has happened. Thanks

    Reply
  • I need help and cannot find an answer. Can I not only raise the chicken coop off the ground, can the outside pen be off the ground with wire mesh. Completely off the ground. mike-pbm@hotmail.com Thank you for any help you can provide. Mike

    Reply
    • Sure it can be off the ground if you mean by making it like a big bird cage yes.

      Reply
  • My two hens are out side in a screened in space up against my house this breaks the rules tho I can not make them a coop outside away from the house because of neighborhood dogs get to run freely around here and theirs no leash laws so and the store that sold me the hens never said I needed to get a permit before getting the hens so i have no permit I have the chickens coop cage screened to the side of the house so they are safe I’ve got a really crabby neighbor who loves to complain about anything so think if I did have a run or coop as you call it out in the open where he could see it and the two chickens I’m in the county but live in a neighborhood that neighbor always has been a cramp in my tail he’s one who loves to cause and make trouble for others that live around him he lacks respect.

    Reply

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