images of chickens with logo to the guide

Raising Chickens: An essential guide for beginner’s 

Here at Pleasant Grove Homestead, we’ve been raising meat birds and egg layers for over 7 years! As of 2023, we raised 1,240 meat birds in the calendar year, and currently maintain a flock of 186 laying hens! We’ve learned a lot about what not to do– so here’s a complete guide of what to do in order to have a happy, healthy flock of chickens! 

images of chickens with logo to the guide

What to consider before getting chickens:

  • Do my local ordinances allow chickens? This is the very first thing to know! We live near a very, very small town in rural Iowa (less than 500 people) and they actually have a very strict no chicken ordinance. We were shocked when we first learned this, as many urban areas allow chickens, so it’s good to understand if chickens are allowed! Some ordinances will allow hens but not roosters– which brings up another point
  • Do you want a rooster? The purpose of a rooster is to fertilize eggs and protect the flock. Sometimes a roosters helps the hens establish a pecking order, as he’s the king of the coop. However, you don’t need a rooster to get eggs from your hens. We’ve only had a rooster by accident, and actually spend more money to order “pullets,” when we get chicks, meaning we are ordering only females so we don’t need to deal with a rooster. If you order “straight run” chicks, that means you are taking a random mix of hens and roosters– and there is such a thing as too many roosters! 
  • How many fresh eggs can you eat? Hens are very social, so you’ll need more than one. Decide a number of hens for your small flock based on how many eggs you eat or how many neighbors would like you to share! You’ll average 2 eggs from 3 hens a day from a 1 year old adult hen, so make sure you’ve god a plan for the eggs!
  • Are you looking for meat production or egg laying? While you could purchase a dual purpose breed of chicken that would serve the purpose of laying eggs and providing meat, they are not the same animal at all! Egg-laying chickens have an entirely different body build with little to no meat on them. Hybrid chicken breeds are probably good if you are truly looking for self-sufficiency, but you want a lot of eggs, or really delicious chicken you’ll want to choose from the wide variety of chicken breeds based on what you are needing! We prefer ISA brows or rhode island reds for eggs, and a cornish cross for meat birds as our best chicken breeds! 

Based on your answers to the questions above, you are now ready to order a batch of new chicks or find yourself a flock of new feathered friends! If you go the chick route, here’s some information on caring for chicks, and skip this section if you decide to get straight into the hens! 

You’ve picked up (or ordered) chicks, now what? 

Congratulations! You are well on your way towards having an egg or meat supply for your family! First, let’s make sure you are going to keep them all warm and cozy in your brooder. A brooder is a human made warm environment to mock the mama hen until your chick has feathers. We will also cover important things to know about managing your backyard flock if you are purchasing already laying hens for the first time. 

Size of Brooder for chicks

It’s essential to have a “just right” sized brooder to prevent over-crowding or getting too cold. .5 square foot per chick is the perfect amount until they have their feathers. 1 square foot once they are feathered. 

Measure your box by taking length X width to know how many square feet of floor space your box is. For example a rubbermaid tote is done below.

1 foot * .5 foot = 6 sq foot, 

6 / .5 = 12

This tote would comfortably hold 12 chicks. 

Once birds have feathers, they can be moved out of the brooder. Do not use a cardboard box as a brooder for chicks. They are messy, and they aren’t potty trained! 😉 

Bedding

Use what you’ve got! We’ve had good luck with multiple types of bedding, like pine shavings or straw, but if you can splurge a bit on mixing some corn cob pellets they help extend the life of your bedding. Do not use shredded paper as it becomes wet and slippery for the chicks. 

Temperature

A brooder should be kept at 90 degrees. Make sure to set up your brooder the day before your chicks arrive to have it ready to go! To help this chick stay warm before their full feathers have grown in, we highly recommend using a brooder plate. There’s a link at the end for one option that we recommend.  

However, if you are looking for a more economical choice, heat lamps are a great alternative. If you decide to  use heat lamps, make sure the lamp makes a complete circle for the birds to not crowd each other. Monitor your chicks frequently to see if they are spreading out, one small draft can cause crowding, which leads to death! 

After the first week, the temperature can be decreased by 5 degrees each week until the birds have their full feathers. This will happen quicker for a meat bird than an egg layer. Once they are fully feathered, if it is not during the winter months, your heat lamps can be turned off and the birds should be able to stay warm in a chicken run, which is a safe place for them to be at night. 

Safety

Baby chicks are not the safest, or smartest, of animals. Anything they can get behind, in or under may cause them to suffocate! Ensure there are no spaces they can get smashed and make sure your heat source is evenly spaced with no draft to prevent crowding. It is beneficial if this space can be circular in shape so the chicks do not over crowd each other in a corner and suffocate. We’ve kept chicks in old broken swimming pools.

Feed and Water

If your chicks came in the mail, they have not yet had water or feed! Dip at least 75% of the birds’ beaks gently in fresh water so they know where the water source is located. They should always have access to fresh water. As for feed, we have always fed a non-medicated starter feed without any issues as long as we keep the brooder clean and dry. Chicks need at least a 20% protein starter, according to university extension research. Protein, minerals and nutrients are essential for chicks to get off to the right start– don’t attempt to mix your own feed without assistance from a nutrition specialist. As your chicks turn into adult chickens, it will depend on the type of chicken, meat bird or egg layer, which feed you provide. 

Meat birds- We’ve been trialing methods with our feed specialist for quite a few years and have the best luck keeping the meat birds on the chick starter for their entire (9 week) life. The change in diet is a hard adjustment for the meat birds and we’ve had less losses staying on the same feed ration. 

Egg layers- as soon as your birds are at the egg production stage (around 22 weeks) being feeding them a rationed layer diet. It will be lower in protein (around 16% mix), and likely cheaper. Again, it is not recommended to try to DIY a chicken’s diet. Let them free range, and provide the correct ration for the best, most productive flock of backyard chickens! 

Both types of chickens, no matter the age, will always need clean bedding or ground cover, clean water, access to feed and ability to roam and flap their wings. If you want to go above and beyond, build a small run for your birds out of chicken wire, or use poultry netting to protect them from predators if you need! We also love allowing our hens to take dust baths when they are free ranging– this can just be in loose dirt, or we provide them our ashes from the wood stove. Dust baths help prevent mites on the birds, but it’s also just fun to watch! 

Identifying Sickness

Any of the following are potential problems for your young chicks:

  •  Poop stuck to the vent (butt) 
  •  Lack of interest in interacting with the other chicks 
  •  Lethargy and inactivity  
  •  Prolonged time under the heat source  
  •  Unwilling to eat or drink 

Many of the above problems can be adjusted with proper temperature, water and food. A wet rag can clean the chick’s vent to prevent infection. 

These are external problems that can be avoided when getting chicks at the feed store. Check that each chick is spry and energetic. Here are some potential problems to look for:

CROSSBEAK- the upper part of the beak crosses over the bottom part of the beak

CROOKED TOES- a toe or multiple toes are not straight and can hamper proper walking   

WRY NECK- a chick holds it head constantly at an angle  

CLUBBED TOES- the toes constantly curl under the foot and make for difficult walking  

STARGAZING- a chick has its head craned back over its back and looks like it is looking at the sky 

In birds that are of laying age, you may see the following:

LOSS OF FEATHERS: This likely means they are molting. It is a natural process, and they will grow feathers back (and get back to laying eggs) in about 4 weeks. It is a good idea to increase their protein in their diet during molting to support feather growth. We do this by soaking corn in fresh cow’s milk. 

COCCIDIOSIS: This is a parasitic disease, you may see your chicken looking pale with ruffled feathers. It can be treated with corrid, and you should isolate that particular animal. Keeping a healthy environment will nearly eliminate coccidiosis.  

You may also have heard about Avian Influenza, which can be spread by wild birds or from other chicken owners visiting. We still allow our hens to range in a safe space, but do not allow visitors into our chicken coops to prevent this. It would need to be identified by a research lab and vet if your flock had avian influenza.

Care of Chickens

If you chose hens for laying eggs, around 22 weeks of age you will get your first egg! It will likely be a very small egg, sometimes it will not even have a yolk! But you’ll be so excited anyways because you just cared for a hen for 22 weeks before it even gave you an egg! If you decide to buy already laying adult hen, keep this age in mind as you are choosing your birds. In our operation, we only keep hens until they are 3 years old as they have slowed down and do not lay eggs efficiently. Many people will sell egg-laying hens around 18 months old, but you will get your best deal finding a hen that is around that 22 week mark! 

Conversely, if you are raising a meat bird, a cornish cross will be ready for your dinner table in as little as 9 weeks, or some of the slower growing breeds will take 20 weeks. 

Costs of having Chickens

​Here is a link to our egg laying calculator if you want to use your own costs to answer this! In Iowa, we’ve determined it costs $28 to get a hen to egg laying age (feed, chick cost, etc.). Add in your costs depending on if you have a coop already or need to purchase one. Stay tuned for our meat bird production calculator!

One of the biggest reasons we decided to start selling eggs and owning a larger flock of chickens is due to the fact that we could purchase higher quality feed at a lower price by buying it in bulk. Chicken feed at the local farm store is costly compared to being able to bulk purchase from a local feed mill, but we needed over 100 laying hens to use the feed before it spoiled– 186 hens later, here we are!   

Other supplies for raising chicks or chickens

Here are some products we wouldn’t raise birds without! They are affiliate links so we do make a small commission through sharing these links with you, but the cost is the same for you. It’s just a small way to say thank you to us for sharing this information with you.

Chicken Coop- A chicken coop does not need to be a fancy structure. We’ve always kept our hens in a simple enclosed space that is predator safe and easy to shovel all the chicken poop out of! Pre-made chicken coops may look beautiful, but anything that allows for good ventilation, enough space for them to stretch their wings, an outdoor area for foraging, access to clean feed and fresh water. Don’t make chicken keeping cost more than the price of eggs! 

Chicken Tractor- This is not a necessity, but if you have a movable, safe structure for meat birds you will benefit from them being able to forage and fertilize your soil. Plus, the best reason to raise meat birds in a chicken tractor is that you won’t have to shovel the poo– and meat birds poo a lot! It’s not recommended to keep a laying hen in a tractor like ours in these photos as they cannot roost or range far enough. Stay tuned in 2024 as we build a large mobile structure for our laying hens! 

image of a chicken tractor that we raise our chickens in to allow them to forage
Our original chicken tractor design. It has feeders on the side and plenty of ventilation.

Nest Boxes- Again, don’t make it complicated! You’ll only need nesting boxes if you have layer hens and there are simple DIY designs online if you are handy! Otherwise search FB marketplace or craigslist for some options. 

A roosting bar- Only egg layers will need a roosting bar, as meat birds do not roost. We’ve used ladders as roosting bars on a budget, anything the hen can get onto to feel protected is good. Keep the roosting bar a bit higher than the nesting box to encourage the birds to sleep on that bar instead of inside the nesting box. 

Brooder plate: This is a safer option than a traditional heat lamp as it will not catch on fire.  https://amzn.to/3LonYTP

Traditional heat lamps will cost about $2 a day to run. A brooder plate is a nice safe option for keeping your chicks warm. They are based on size, so select the right size based on the number of chicks! A red heat lamp is a cheaper alternative to pick up at a local store. 

Waterers: RentACoop watering cups are a great asset to small and large flocks. We’ve used them in water barrels or with T’s and PVC  https://amzn.to/3yE8CmE 

image of ashley dipping a chicks beak in water so it learns where to drink
This is the rent-a-coop waterers attached to a PVC pipe.

Ink bird: This device is great for ensuring proper temperature in your brooder! You set the desired temperatures and it will set off an alarm if the temperature is too high or low. In the summer, we use this to turn on fans so the birds don’t get too hot. We own about 8 of these and use them all over the farm to keep things hot or cold! https://amzn.to/3l7CV2d 

We hope you’ve been enlightened about caring for and raising a backyard flock! Please contact us with any questions you may have about chickens or caring for chickens!

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