Care and Feeding of Backyard Chickens


Chickens can live as long as 8 years

These days, you just can’t keep the chickens down on the farm. With the increasing popularity of “hobby poultry,” anyone with a backyard may contemplate setting up a henhouse.

[Dr. Yvette Johnson-Walker]
Dr. Yvette Johnson-Walker | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Dr. Yvette Johnson-Walker, a veterinary epidemiologist and poultry expert at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, offers these husbandry tips and other considerations for would-be chicken farmers.

The first thing to check before acquiring any birds is the municipal code. Many suburban and urban areas have rules about keeping livestock and poultry. It is not uncommon to need a permit to have poultry on your property. There will also likely be restrictions on free-range birds and a limit on the number of animals.

Give ‘Em Shelter

After you figure out the legalities, your next step should be determining how to house your birds. Typically, municipalities prohibit free-range birds, but even if yours doesn’t, a well-built run is the preferred way to keep your chickens safe.

“Shelter needs to be dry and draft-free, with good ventilation,” says Dr. Johnson-Walker. “It should be on high ground that drains well. It’s important to protect birds from the elements and from predators, so an enclosed coop with an indoor nesting area and an outdoor run is a good plan.”

Most poultry varieties are hardy enough to withstand the Midwest winters when provided with appropriate housing and support. Applying plastic sheeting around the run can provide a nice windbreak. When the temperature dips below freezing, you will need to break the ice out of water bowls a couple of times a day, or provide a heated water bowl, to ensure the birds have a water source. The laying house itself can be equipped with heating, and it is important to make sure the chickens have enough litter to nest.

Birds of One Species

How many chickens should you get? Many municipalities restrict the number to six to eight birds, so be sure to check the rules.

Dr. Johnson-Walker says there is also a lower limit: “Birds are social animals, so you always need at least two together.”

To limit disease transmission, she also advises against housing different species of poultry together. “Different types of poultry can carry parasitic diseases that may affect one subtly and another more severely,” she says.

The Right Feed

Be sure to feed the right diet for your type and age of chicken. Complete balanced rations can be purchased already mixed at most farm supply stores. These commercial feeds are formulated differently for broilers (meat chickens) and layers (hens used for eggs). For example, layer diets are rich in vitamins and minerals to help create strong eggshells, whereas broiler diets are high in protein to help build muscle.

Just like a dog, cat, or person, chickens should not be indulged with unlimited “treats.” Scratch grains, such as oats and barley, as well as leafy greens and veggies should be fed in moderation and should not comprise more than 10 percent of the diet. Starches, including bread and crackers, should be avoided altogether.

“Chickens that do not get a balanced diet will be more prone to disease, and may show signs of stress, like feather picking,” explains Dr. Johnson-Walker.

If you are planning to collect eggs from your chickens, you will only need hens. In fact, many municipalities do not allow roosters due to the noise.

Lifelong Eggs-pectations

“Chickens will lay about one unfertilized egg a day. The egg laying is stimulated by exposure to daylight and will occur regardless of the presence of a rooster,” says Dr. Johnson-Walker.

Hens reach peak laying capacity when they are exposed to 16 hours of daylight a day. During the winter, when the days are short and light is limited, you will need to light the henhouse artificially if you want to maintain peak production. A 100-watt bulb is usually sufficient, according to Dr. Johnson-Walker.

It is also important to accept the responsibility associated with acquiring these animals. Dr. Johnson-Walker says, “With good care and no major health problems, chickens can live as long as eight years, but egg production will decrease around three years of age.”

If you have questions about backyard poultry, you can contact the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital or a local poultry veterinarian.

By Hannah Beers

Feature photo of Capitola (left) and Fanny provided by Karen Carney, proud chicken owner in Champaign, Ill. Carney also provided this helpful addendum to the column: “Some ordinances require folks to purchase a permit for their coop. Champaign requires that folks apply for a license, which costs $25; owners also have to provide information about the dimensions and location of their coop.”