Starting a home flock (Backyard Flocks)
(Editor’s note: Dr. Jonathan Moyle is a poultry Extension specialist with the University of Maryland.)
Currently, many people are purchasing chicks to start a home flock. While the reasons are varied — some want a secure food supply while others are looking for a hobby — it is important to understand what you are getting into.
Before you start, ask yourself the following questions.
• Is it legal to raise poultry in your area? While the state and counties allow chickens to be reared in backyards, many cities and homeowners associations do not. Make sure to check before you start. Additionally, both Maryland and Delaware require small flock owners to register their flocks with the state so, if there is ever a poultry disease outbreak, they will know where birds are located and can be tested.
• Why do you want to raise birds? For food, a hobby, stress relief, project for kids, breed preservation?
• What type of chickens do you want? Egg layers take from five to six months before they start laying eggs. Meat birds eat a lot of food and then must be processed when they are the correct size you desire.
• Chickens require daily care. Who will watch your flock if you go on vacation or get sick?
• Do you have a reliable source of food for your birds?
• What will you do with their manure? What will you do with a bird if it dies?
• Where will you house your birds? If you are constructing a coop, remember to check with your zoning department on setbacks from property lines.
• Will this cause issues with my neighbors? All animal production results in an increase of flies in and around the areas they congregate. Noise may also be an issue because roosters will crow at all hours of the day as well as the early morning hours before dawn.
With over 400 different breeds, sizes, colors and varieties of chickens, selecting a breed can be difficult. Or it could be as easy as, it’s the only one available, depending on how quickly you want to start. While the majority of small flocks are reared for eggs, a few are looking for meat birds as well.
When selecting a breed for production, the newer or “modern” breeds and cross breeds will out produce the standard heirloom varieties. If you are interested in raising chickens for egg production, you will want to buy pullets. These are female chicks.
If you purchase straight run chicks, you will likely end up with a mixture of hens and roosters. Most of the roosters will have to be culled or separated from the hens.
Your birds will need protection from extreme weather, predators, injury, and theft. Keeping poultry totally confined in a coop with a fence and covered run is the best protection from predators, however, many people like to see their birds roaming freely around the yard.
Other housing options include moveable coops that keep the birds confined, but are moved often so birds have access to new pasture.
Coops can be as simple or elaborate as you would like, as long as they protect your birds and provide a space for food and water.
When designing your coop, plan on at least 22 feet per bird so they will have plenty of space to move around. Perches are also recommended as birds like to get up off the ground to sleep and they provide a place for birds to get away from each other during the day.
Chicks need food, water, heat and a safe housing to thrive. It is important you have all of these things in place before the chicks arrive. Once the chicks are placed, it is important that there is plenty of food and water available to them in a form they can access and consume..
Most local farm stores carry all the supplies you will need for your flock. For new chicks it is recommended you give them a starter feed that contains around 22-percent protein (if you are raising gamebirds or turkeys you will need a higher protein content, 28 percent). As the birds age, they need less protein so a grower diet of 18- to 20-percent protein will work well.
For layers, a 16-percent protein diet should work well. To encourage the chicks to eat, place feed in feed trays and then place the chicks on top of the feed. Feed trays can be any low-sided object like: egg flats, pie tins, the bottom off of a milk jug, or you can even place the feed on newspaper. You can remove extra feed trays after a few days once the birds are eating well from the feeders.
Birds need clean water, so use the water from your home and clean the waterer daily to help keep your birds healthy.
Chicks are often kept in a smaller confined area for the first few weeks of life.
This is often referred to as the brooder. This is usually placed in an area where the chicks can be observed regularly and is safe from weather and predators. Pine shavings, chopped straw or other material is placed on the floor to insulate and absorb any excess moister to keep the chicks warm and dry.
Heat is provided in brooding areas, as newly hatched chicks cannot fully maintain their body temperature for the first few weeks. Heat lamps are the most commonly used method to provide heat to chicks for small flocks. They are simple to use and easy to find.
Heat lamps work best when they heat one part of the brooding area and allow the chicks to move in and out of the heated area to adjust their body temperature. Be careful to keep the heat lamp high enough from the floor to prevent the shavings from igniting and causing a fire.
As your birds get older they will not require as much care, but will still be fun to watch as they learn to explore their world. It is recommended that birds are not allowed outside until four weeks old and the outdoor temperature is 70oF or higher. As the birds get larger and their feathers fill in, they will not need additional heat to warm them.
In Maryland, coops do not need to be insulated for the winter months, but you will need to find a way to keep their water from freezing up. Also, if you want your birds to lay year round, you will need a light in your coop to keep the day length of 15-16 hours a day all year long.
Raising a small flock is an excellent way to teach children about agriculture, connect with nature, and learn responsibility.
It is also a fun way to be more self-sufficient as well as preserve heritage breeds. If you need/want more information on raising a small flock visit the University of Maryland small flock page at https://extension.umd.edu/poultry.