The Ultimate Guide to Raising Backyard Chickens

Whether you are new on your poultry-keeping journey or you have been keeping birds for decades, raising backyard chickens can bring so much enjoyment and reward to your life.  Maybe you have fond memories of visiting your grandparents and helping feed the chickens.  Or, maybe you long to get your hands dirty and raise some of your own food.  Or, maybe you just enjoy watching your birds peck around the yard.  Whatever your reason, keeping backyard chickens is a wonderful way to get back to nature!  

Types of Poultry 

There are so many different types of chickens, ducks, and other poultry available today!  Variations in feather color, feather pattern, size, and egg color often result in flocks that exude charm and provide Facebook or Instagram-worthy eye candy for our friends and neighbors!  

When building a flock, it is very important to consider the types of poultry and their strengths and weaknesses.  I find that most backyard chickens will fit into three different categories…

Egg Layers 

The vast majority of backyard chicken keepers are interested in egg layers.  There are many different genetic varieties that have been bred specifically for egg production.  Because these types of birds put so much energy into producing eggs, they are usually very long, lean, and lightly muscled.  These types of poultry also tend to grow quite slowly.  It may take 4 months for these breeds to reach full size.  

Meatbirds

When you hear the term broiler chicken, do you know what that means?  Broiler chickens are birds that are specifically reared for meat production.  These birds have been genetically selected to grow fast and to produce lots of muscle tissue.  Broiler chickens are also very efficient eaters.  For every 2 lbs of feed that a broiler chicken eats, it will gain 1 lb of body weight OR MORE.  Because broiler chickens grow very fast and convert their feed to body mass so efficiently, it is not recommended to keep broiler chickens unless you intend to harvest them for meat.  Most broiler chickens will reach market weight in 6 to 8 weeks.

Dual Purpose Birds

Dual Purpose birds are the best of both worlds!  These types of poultry are excellent egg layers but they also put enough meat on their bones that they make good meatbirds too.  In fact, most of us that keep backyard chickens are probably keeping dual purpose birds.  Though, admittedly, we usually aren’t interested in the meat and are keeping them predominantly for the eggs!  Most dual-purpose breeds are hardy, strong, and very ornamental.  They make ideal additions to our backyard flocks!

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Nutrition by Type of Poultry 

While crude protein (CP) is not the most important nutrient, it is definitely the most recognized nutrient.  Most chicken feed companies, including Kalmbach Feeds, even put CP right in the name of their feeds – 17% All-Natural Layer, 16% Flock Maintainer, 18% Duck & Goose, etc.  This nutrient value can help the consumer choose the right type of feed for their birds.  

Most animals are going to use their nutrients in three different ways – growth, maintenance, and production.  Typically, poultry that grow fast and produce lots of body mass will require a more nutrient-dense feed.  This is why it is very common to see turkey and meatbird feeds in the 22 to 28% CP range.  Poultry that grow slowly, like many of our layer-type breeds, will require a less nutrient-dense feed.  Starter and grower feeds for chicks intended to become layers will usually be about 18 to 20% CP.

The size of the mature bird and the production demands on the bird also help determine the right feed to use.  Remember, animals typically use their nutrients in three ways – growth, maintenance, and production.  Excellent egg layers will require higher levels of nutrition; 1.  because they are in production (e.g., laying eggs) and 2. because they need to maintain their body and feather quality.  Non-producing poultry, like retired laying hens and most mature males, really only need a maintenance-level of nutrition.  

Size also plays a big factor in how poultry use their nutrients.  The larger the body, the more there is to maintain.  So, it is very common for larger-bodied birds to use more of their nutrients for maintenance and less for egg production.  Larger-bodied birds are still very good layers but usually produce fewer eggs (up to 30% less) than smaller-bodied breeds.  Please note that I am referring to larger and smaller-bodied varieties of standard-breed chickens and not standard breeds vs. bantams.

Husbandry and Housing 

One of the biggest advantages of keeping backyard chickens is their tiny footprint.  The investment in housing, acreage, and time for a flock of backyard chickens is much smaller than most other types of livestock.  A poultry keeper can comfortably house a small flock of birds in a standard-sized backyard!  Note – make sure to check your state and local ordinance first!   

Purchasing a chicken coop or modifying a structure into a chicken coop can be a very exciting process.  There are a few things to keep in mind when setting up housing for your birds.  First, you want a safe and secure place for your birds to live.  The average lifespan of a backyard chicken is about 8 years.  However, predators are always a threat to your flock.  Make sure the coop is secure and you can lock the birds safely inside the coop at night.  Locking your birds inside their coop at night is the #1 way to keep predators away from your flock.  

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When setting up your coop, there are a few recommendations to keep in mind.  First, you want to make sure you have the right amount of space.  Most birds are going to need at least 1.5 ft2 of indoor space per bird.  If you have laying hens, they will also need nesting boxes and roosts.  As a general rule, you will need 1 nesting box for every 4 hens.  You will also need about 6-12” of roosting space per hen, depending on the size and breed of your birds.  Make sure your roosts are at least 12-18” away from the wall so the birds have plenty of room to hop up on the roost and sit down comfortably.  

You will also need good quality bedding.  Bedding serves many purposes and you will need to decide which option works best for you.  For example, do you want to use a built-up bedding program?  If yes, choose an option that absorbs a lot of moisture and is easily turned over and remixed.  Do you prefer pristine and will replace the bedding often?  If yes, then choose an option that is lightweight.  Are you planning to compost your bedding?  If yes, choose an option that is easily biodegradable.  There are a great number of bedding options available today.  Some examples include pine shavings, chopped hay or straw, recycled paper, sand, etc.  Each one of these options has pros and cons so make sure to choose the option that works best for you and your level of husbandry.

Feed Management 

Choosing the best animal feed option can often feel overwhelming, especially if you are just getting started in your chicken-keeping journey.  However, don’t feel overwhelmed.  There are wonderful resources available to help you choose the best option for your flock.  Consult with your local feed dealer or contact us directly!  We would love to help make a recommendation for you and your flock.

If you start with baby chicks, you will need to begin your feeding program with a good quality starter/grower feed.  Starter and grower feeds are designed to provide the nutrition that chicks need to develop their digestive and immune systems, begin to form feathers, and start to grow.  You may wonder when the starter phase ends and the grower phase begins.  For simplicity sake, we can say the starter phase is before feathers have formed and the grower phase is after feathers have formed.  It is very common today for starter and grower feeds to be combined into one feed.  This makes feeding easier and removes the need to switch feeds between phases.  

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Chicks that are intended to become laying hens will eat approximately 10-15 lbs of starter/grower feed per bird between hatch and 4 months of age, varying with breed and management.  Also, it is very important to note that most poultry feeds are designed to be fed ad libitum.  This simply means that the birds have access to feed all day and can eat whenever they are hungry. 

At 4 to 5 months of age, most layer-specific breeds have reached sexual maturity and are ready to begin laying eggs.  Egg production varies quite a bit depending on breed.  If you aren’t sure when your preferred breed will begin laying eggs, refer to our When Hens Start Laying Eggs article.  At 4 to 5 months of age, you will need to begin switching your birds to a layer feed.  Layer feeds are specifically formulated to meet the nutrient demands of egg-producing poultry.  Layer feeds have high amounts of calcium and other nutrients that hens need to produce high quality eggs and replenish their body stores.  A mature laying hen should eat approximately ¼ to ½ lbs of feed per hen per day, depending on breed and management.  Once again, it is important to keep in mind that most poultry layer feeds are designed to be fed ad libitum.  This simply means that the birds have access to feed all day and can eat whenever they are hungry. 

At Kalmbach Feeds, we are committed to producing high-quality poultry feeds with proven results.  Our commitment to quality and health allows us to stay on the cutting edge of nutrition.  The health and performance of your birds is our #1 focus and we are committed to producing the products you need to keep your birds happy and healthy for many years.  We love our birds!  We enjoy our birds!  And, we want to help you in any way that we can.  Visit our website to learn more about our products and feel free to contact us with any of your poultry-related questions!  

Nancy Jefferson, Ph.D.

Nancy Jefferson, Ph.D.