Prepare before bringing home chicks for a flock
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Farm supply stores are full of cute chicks in the spring, and the sight of the fluffy baby birds, combined with future dreams of fresh eggs, prompts many people to impulsively start a backyard flock.
Jessica Wells, poultry specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said chickens can be fun and productive animals that provide enjoyment for families.
“Keep in mind that just as with any pet or livestock you purchase, that animal needs constant care and attention,” she said.
Good planning is the first step toward having a successful backyard flock of chickens.
“Raising your own meat and eggs may seem like a good idea, but there are challenges to overcome,” Wells said. “It is probably cheaper and less work to buy from the store rather than to produce it yourself at home. However, they can be a fun and productive hobby.”
Wells said chickens can be friendly and display unique personalities. Some people see a flock as an educational opportunity for children, a fun hobby, and a potential source of meat and eggs year-round.
“Chickens are living creatures and will be dependent on you to feed, care for and protect them 24
hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” Wells said. “While they may be a bit less maintenance than some livestock, it is very important to remember they are still a livestock that must be managed and cared for properly.”
Those who decide to start a backyard flock should plan in advance and do some homework so they can make informed decisions.
An early step when living in a city is to check to see that local ordinances allow backyard flocks. There may also be restrictions on roosters, so carefully examine what the law allows. As a courtesy, it is wise to notify nearby neighbors of the plan to keep a backyard flock.
“Next, decide how many chickens you will have and then consider housing and pen space,” Wells said.
A small bantam chicken needs a minimum of 1 square foot of indoor space and 4 square feet of outdoor space, while a large chicken needs a minimum of 2 square feet of indoor space and 10 square feet of outdoor space. Outdoor space gives the birds access to pasture, and some people choose moveable enclosures to allow the birds access to fresh pasture on a regular basis.
Keeping the flock penned rather than letting the chickens run free is usually a better option, as it lessens disease threats and protects birds from predators. Among the animals that enjoy chicken dinners are raccoons, opossums, skunks, snakes, hawks, owls, dogs and cats, all of which are found in many residential areas.
Wells said penning the chickens and allowing them to free range are both acceptable, depending on the situation and flock needs.
“The main thing is to make sure you have taken the time to determine which is best for you and your birds,” Wells said.
Chicken feed is readily available at farm supply stores, and flocks with good pasture areas can supplement their own diet. Have plenty of feeder space, and be sure all birds can eat at the same time. Keep water supplies clean and fresh and positioned so that all birds can reach them.
“Have lots of scratch feeds and treats available but be aware that these do not hold much nutrient value,” Wells said. “They should only be used as a small supplement periodically, not as a large portion of the birds’ daily nutrient value.”
Chickens develop a pecking order, so watch for timid birds being kept away from the feeder by more dominant birds.
“Timid birds may require separate feeding to ensure they are getting what they need,” Wells said.
Jonathan Moon, research coordinator for the MSU Department of Poultry Science and researcher with the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, said owners must monitor the health of their birds to keep the flock strong.
“A good biosecurity program is a critical best management practice for all backyard flock owners,” Moon said. “This means you do all you can to prevent an infectious disease from being carried onto your farm and taking steps to reduce the likelihood that any disease that may occur does not leave your property.”
An in-depth biosecurity plan is highly recommended, as avian influenza has been detected in nearby states. Moon said at a bare minimum, growers should consider having a dedicated pair of boots or shoes that are only worn in or around the chicken house.
“Good biosecurity measures help prevent the spread of disease and maintain healthy flocks,” Moon said. “The three key components are isolation or keeping your flock away from other birds; traffic control, which is limiting human and animal movement through the flock’s area; and sanitary living conditions.”
The MSU Extension Service offers extensive information on raising backyard chickens. Much of this information is available in publications found at . These include Publication 3624, “Poultry Beginnings: Raise Your Own Backyard Chickens,” and Publication 2768, “Managing the Backyard Flock.”