Small farm expert explains the basics of backyard poultry
As recent outbreaks of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza continue to cause an increase in egg prices, consumers may consider starting a backyard poultry flock this spring. A recent article in Iowa State University Extension and Outreach’s Acreage Living Newsletter highlights best practices for raising a backyard flock.
Planning is key, according to Christa Hartsook, small farms program coordinator for Farm, Food and Enterprise Development with ISU Extension and Outreach.
“Early preparation prior to your poultry’s arrival will help ensure the establishment of a healthy flock for your family’s enjoyment and food production,” Hartsook added.
When selecting a breed of chicken, it is a good idea to select a heavy breed capable of withstanding Iowa’s cold winters. “Heavier breeds generally lay brown eggs and include Americanas, Brahmas, Orpingtons, Silkes or Wyandottes,” explained Hartsook.
For white egg layers, a popular breed is the White Leghorn.
Chicks for egg production typically ship via the United States Postal Service to a local post office and are subsequently available for pickup. In order to ensure survival, newly hatched chicks must be kept warm under a brooder light or brooder heater at 90 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit for the first week. After the first week, reduce heat by 5F each subsequent week until a temperature of 70F is reached.
Other important considerations for chick health and survival include access to food and water.
“Your birds will be thirsty once they arrive – hand dip each chick’s beak in water before you turn them loose in the brooder circle,” said Hartsook. “Use a one-gallon chick waterer for every 50 chicks.”
As for feed, commercial starter diets available from local farm or co-op stores are best for the first eight to 10 weeks of life according to Hartsook. Egg layers also require grit for digestion, which can be added to feed starting the third day after receiving chicks.
Egg laying chickens will begin to lay around 5 to 7 months in age. As chicks grow, it is important to provide them with a clean, adequately sized space. Keeping the coop area clean and changing shavings regularly minimizes ammonia buildup, preventing contamination of water and feed.
“Your coop can be housed in an existing building on your property, a small garden shed or new construction using one of the many plans found online,” added Hartsook. “Attention should be given to roosting space, nesting space and easy access for someone to enter to refill food and water, collect eggs and clean the coop.”
Those interested in backyard poultry can also complete the free, online course called Getting Started with Backyard Chickens eCourse, available on the Iowa State University Extension Store.