As spring chicks begin to appear at local farm stores, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Youth Animal Science Education Specialist Amy Powell offers some tips and resources for those looking to try their hand at chicken rearing.
The first step to introducing poultry into a backyard farm is selecting a breed. Most backyard breeds are considered “dual purpose,” which means they are raised for both meat and eggs.
“Most chicks available at farm stores are pretty hardy,” explained Powell. “They’re usually Rhode Island Reds, or a crossbreed like Black Star or Red Star.”
Those looking to introduce several new chickens, or a special breed of chicken, can also use catalogs or an online service to order chicks. However, most ordering services require a minimum of six chicks in order to ship. Powell recommends using a local hatchery. “In my experience, it’s less likely that a rooster might accidentally slip into the mix when you order from a hatchery rather than getting chicks at a farm store, but you will likely get healthy chicks either way,” said Powell.
Housing is also an important consideration when building a flock. Chicks younger than six weeks require a brooding period, where they will need to be kept inside and warm. Powell recommends a 4-H publication from the University of Tennessee Extension, which addresses specific temperatures for brooding based on the chicks’ age and answers other common questions about the process.
A chicken coop should also be safe from predators, including neighborhood cats and dogs. “Anything will eat a chicken, including dogs and cats, so predator awareness is essential,” warned Powell.
While chicks generally tend to be healthy, in order to keep both people and poultry safe, it is important to maintain hygienic practices to keep them that way. It is important to have clean clothes, boots and hands around poultry to prevent illness.
“One thing to keep in mind is promoting good biosecurity, since chickens can carry salmonella,” said Powell. “It is also important to be aware of highly pathogenic avian influenza, or HPAI, since there has been an increase in detections lately.”
Poultry owners are encouraged to consult extension resources outlining good biosecurity practices and answering questions about HPAI.
Chicks and adult chickens also will need access to food and water. Chicken feed sold at farm stores is a great option, as it has been specifically formulated to meet a chicken’s needs at various stages of growth. Chicks under six weeks should be given starter feed, which has a higher level of protein to promote healthy growth.
After six weeks, chicks being raised for meat should be given a finisher diet until they are processed, while those being raised as layers or for breeding purposes should be given a grower diet. At 20 weeks, or after hens begin laying, hens should be switched to a layer diet.
Finally, it is important to check local restrictions before bringing home chickens. In Ames, there are no restrictions on backyard chickens so long as they are being held in safe, sanitary housing and being kept reasonably quiet and healthy. However, different areas may have different restrictions.
Raising chickens is a fun and educational way to engage with agriculture and food production, especially for children. Powell recommends that children interested in raising poultry get involved with 4-H, where they can learn more about livestock and enter competitions. A short course offering advice on getting started with chickens is also available through the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Extension Store. Keeping some simple tips in mind can make chicken ownership a rewarding experience.