I recently wrote about the continuing threat of Avian influenza. Today I am going to use a news release from NDSU Extension offering advice for beginning backyard poultry owners. This article offers some great advice for new poultry owners or those hoping to start a small flock. The NDSU Extension Online Publication “Beginners Guide to Raising Chickens” at https://www.ndsu.edu/agriculture/extension/publications/beginners-guide-raising-chickens is also a great resource.
Both the news release and the online publication offer some advice about breeds. They do not, however, mention hybrids like Red Star or Black star that you might find at your local farm store. These are typically hybrid or crossbred chicks rather than true breeds. They are hardy brown egg layers that are also fast-growing meat breeds. They are also “sex-linked”. This means that the female chicks are brown and the male chicks are yellow when born and will get white feathers.
While these are great chicks to purchase if you want a few laying hens or if you plan to process a few roosters for your freezer, they are not good chicks to purchase if you want birds to show as part of a 4-H project or to show at in an open class division at a county fair. They would be acceptable for market classes or trios of production pullets or hens.
Breeding classes or pullets, cockerels, hens, and roosters are judged against breeding stands specific to the breeds being shown so hybrids entered in a breeding class will generally get a red ribbon at best or be disqualified in any open class show.
NDSU Extension offers advice for backyard poultry owners
Beginner poultry owners should consider breed selection, brooder and housing setup, nutrition, and health before purchasing chicks.
A recent movement has led more homeowners to get involved in raising chickens.
Backyard poultry is appealing because it offers families the opportunity to raise their own meat and eggs, says Penny Nester, North Dakota State University Extension agent in Bowman County.
Before purchasing poultry, Nester advises families to check on any city or housing ordinances to make sure it is allowed in their community. After ensuring backyard poultry flocks are allowed, beginner poultry owners can start getting ready to select and care for chicks.
“Raising chickens in northern climates can be challenging if you are not aware of the basics for purchasing and raising new chicks that will make up your backyard flock,” says Nester.
Basic considerations include breed selection, brooder and housing setup, nutrition, and health.
North Dakotans who raise chickens typically look for a dual-purpose bird. Birds in this category are adequate egg layers and will develop enough muscle mass to be used for meat production.
“Dual purpose breeds of chickens are better able to handle cold weather climate due to their excess muscle and size,” says Samantha Lahman, NDSU Extension 4-H youth development specialist in animal science. “Some of the most common breeds of dual-purpose chickens are Orpingtons, Barred Rocks, Australorps, and Wyandottes.”
Most dual-purpose breed hens will take at least five to seven months to begin laying and will continue to lay for four to six years, says Lahman. Typically, egg-laying production will decrease after the first two years. At peak production, hens will produce between four to six eggs per week depending on the time of year, breed, and diet.
After selecting a breed, new poultry owners will need to prepare to house and care for their new chicks.
“Raising day-old chicks requires frequent monitoring and adjustment,” says Nester. “If chicks are purchased in winter or early spring, develop a plan for housing that includes a brooder area that will be insulated enough to maintain high temperatures and minimize drafts.”
Newly hatched chicks are sensitive to temperature because they cannot regulate their body heat without feathers. For the first-week post-hatching, maintain the heating source temperature at 95 degrees Fahrenheit. After seven days, reduce the temperature by five degrees each week until the chicks are one month old. Keep a thermometer in the brooder area to monitor the temperature regularly, especially during the first 48 hours of placement.
Additionally, chicks will need constant access to water in a shallow watering container and starter feed. A good rule of thumb is to plan for 40 pounds of starter feed per 100 chicks for the first two weeks.
Chicks generally require 1/2 square foot of housing or brooder space per bird for up to six weeks of age. Depending on the breed, growing pullets will require 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 square feet of confined floor space.
“You must have a plan for managing manure in the living area,” says Mary Keena, NDSU Extension nutrient management specialist. “Manure will consist of wet litter, fecal matter, feathers, and spilled feedstuff. A clean brooder area and coop will help prevent the spread of disease and keep the chickens clean.”
Ammonia, a colorless gas with a very distinct, irritating odor, may build up in a brooding area or coop if the area is not kept clean, says Keena. While ammonia is a useful fertilizer for growing plants, it is not safe for humans or animals in high concentrations with low ventilation.
Removing manure regularly and replacing it with fresh, dry material will keep the environment clean and safe for both animals and humans. Manure that is removed should be placed on a non-porous surface and can be composted to stabilize nutrients and reduce the total volume.
As chicks grow, they will need housing that provides shelter, protection from predators, ventilation, and easy access to cleaning.
NDSU Extension recommends good biosecurity and hygiene procedures to reduce the risk of contamination and illness from zoonotic diseases when working with your flock.
When birds will be handled, hands should be washed prior to handling and immediately following the handling of the birds and/or contact with poultry equipment like cages, nesting boxes, feeders and waterers.
For more information on raising poultry, NDSU Extension provides a “Beginners Guide to Raising Chickens” at https://www.ndsu.edu/agriculture/extension/publications/beginners-guide-raising-chickens.