You heard the cheeping when you walked into Murdoch’s, Jax or Tractor Supply and you made the side visit to see the chicks. Now you are thinking about keeping a few chickens so you can have fresh eggs. Unless you have raised chickens before, you need to know what you are getting yourself into before you purchase any chicks. If you live in town, check with your municipality to see if you need a permit or license, how many birds you can have and set-backs for the coop and run.
Raising chickens is a full-time commitment. If your family likes to travel or be gone a lot, keeping chickens is probably not for you. While they don’t need to be walked like a dog, they still need daily attention and care. Before you bring them home, you need to have a brooder and a coop set-up. The brooder is where you’ll keep the chicks until they are old enough to be in the coop. The brooder can be as simple as a cardboard box or a large storage bin with 18” tall sides and 1/2 square feet per chick. You’ll need bedding, food and water dispensers and a heat lamp. Initially, chicks need to be kept warmer than room temperature (90 to 95 degrees). Be careful how the brooder is set-up so that the heat lamp doesn’t cause a fire. If you decide you want to skip this step and get birds that are already laying, 4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA) members sell some of their birds at the local county fairs.
It’s best to purchase a premixed ration that is formulated for your bird’s age. Initially, you’ll want a chick starter formulation that has higher protein and the correct calcium amount to get your birds off to a good start. As your chicks get older, you’ll want to change to a layer mix and provide them with a free choice calcium and grit supplement. You can give your hens some scratch feed and vegetable scraps, but you will want to limit the amount so that they will get a balanced diet. They also need a good supply of clean water. Keeping both the feeder and the water clean and sanitized will keep your birds healthy.
Hens produce an egg approximately every 26 hours starting at the age of four to six months. It’s best to collect eggs at least twice a day. Egg production is affected by daylight so in the winter, egg production decreases. Hens will be at their maximum egg production for about three years, after that their production will slowly decrease. They can live for an average of six years so you will need to decide whether you want to keep birds that are not producing.
To keep your family safe and the hens healthy, you must wash your hands before and after collecting eggs and handling birds. It is also a good idea to have a separate set of at least shoes that you wear only when you are dealing with your birds. Separate pants and shirt are even better. Keep the coop and run clean. You’ll also want to identify a veterinarian that is willing to treat your birds should they become ill.
Allowing your birds to leave the run and free range can help with yard and garden insect management. However, allowing your birds to free range when you are not home can encourage predators. Remember to not just protect your birds from the land roaming predators such as foxes and coyotes but also hawks.
For more in depth information on keeping chickens, please visit the CSU Extension Boulder County website at boulder.extension.colostate.edu/natural-resources-wildlife-rural-properties-pasture/livestock.
By Sharon Bokan, Colorado State University Extension – Boulder County