Are you interested in raising chickens at home but aren’t sure how to get started? Now that more and more folks are embracing backyard homesteading, there are more resources than ever to help you raise your own backyard flock. Here’s a step-by-step guide and shopping list to get you started.
Step 1: Do your homework.
- Research your city’s permitting requirements. Many cities require permits for raising chickens. You can usually find out city requirements and apply for any permits by contacting 311 or checking local government websites.
- Take a class on keeping chickens. A class will cover all aspects of chicken care, coop requirements, city permitting, and everything else you need to know. Your local university extension may offer classes for free.
- Plan ahead. Make sure you have already planned for your outdoor coop to be ready for when your chicks are fully feathered and able to move outside.
- Outdoor coops must provide ventilation and protection from weather and predators. They should be insulated and include a heat lamp for the winter months.
- All chickens require adequate roosting, nesting and space. Plan for a minimum of 3 to 5 square feet of space per adult bird, including outdoor space.
- Purchase your supplies. Here is our recommended shopping list:
- Brooding container
- Brooding lamp and clip
- Red brooding lamp bulb
- Room thermometer
- Bedding (pine shavings)
- Chick feeder (1 foot trough or round feeder)
- Chicken starter feed
- Chicken waterer
- Roosting materials
- Green or red pop can (optional)
Step 2: Set up your brooding area.
Baby chicks are very fragile and must be kept warm and dry until they are fully feathered. You will first need to prepare a brooding area inside your home where the chicks can live for several weeks until they can safely be outdoors. Use a large container with walls at least 18” high on all sides. Chicks should have at least a ½-square foot of space per chick to move away from the heating lamps if necessary. Block corners of the brooder with cardboard to make wider angles that are harder for chicks to pile on top of each other to prevent smothering. Place the container in a safe place, protected from curious pets and children. Keep it away from drafty doors and windows.
Next fill the bottom of the container with at least 2-3 inches of pine shavings. These shavings don’t just absorb waste and odors; they provide a secure surface for the chicks to ensure that their legs develop properly as they grow. Then add a few roosting sites; these are easy to make using small dowels, bricks, or other materials.
Now clip the brooder lamp (we recommend a red bulb) to the side of the container, and use a room thermometer to measure the temperature at the bottom of the brooding container. Chicks younger than two weeks old should be in a brooding area with a surface temperature of 90- 95-degrees for their first two weeks of life. After the first two weeks, lower the brooder surface temperature by five degrees per week until you reach 70 degrees. Your chicks will stay at this temperature until they are fully feathered and able to move outdoors.
You can adjust the temperature by altering the height of your brooding lamp. Be sure to set up your lamp so that chicks can choose to be under the bulb or not. SAFETY NOTE: Brooding lamps are very hot and can melt plastic. Exercise caution if using a plastic container, and check it regularly for heat damage.
Food and Water
Finally, set out water and starter feed in separate containers. Use an easily accessible one-foot trough feeder or round feeder and a one-gallon waterer for every 25 chicks. Keep water at room temperature. Chicks should be fed starter feed until they lay their first eggs.
Step 3: Settle in your chicks.
When taking your chicks home, give them access to drinking water as soon as possible. Gently dip their beaks in the water so they know where it is. If chicks appear weak or lethargic upon arrival, mix about two tablespoons of sugar into one-quart of warm water and give to the chicks. After 16 hours, switch to the regular water.
Chicks need continuous access to water and feed, so be sure that water and feed are checked and changed daily to keep your chicks healthy. If your chicks are not finding the food, you can put chick feed on a small flat surface, like a container lid, so they can easily find it. This helps deter them from eating the bedding. SAFETY NOTE: Wear gloves or wash your hands before and after handling chicks to prevent the spread of salmonella and other diseases.
Step 4: Observe your chicks and adjust the environment.
Keep your chicks comfortable by using your thermometer and watching the chicks. If chicks are crowded under the heat lamp, that means they are cold. Adjust the lamp to make the brooder warmer, or consider adding a second lamp. If chicks are keeping to the edges or avoiding the light, then they are too hot. Raise the height of the lamp to cool the area, and use your thermometer to check the temperature.
Chickens are naturally social animals who like to huddle together, so it’s not always easy to tell the difference between cold-huddles and cuddle-huddles. When in doubt use that trusty thermometer, and remember that trial-and-error is part of the learning process with anything new. Remember also that chicks will know when they need to warm up and cool down, so be sure your chicks have enough space to move in and out of the light and regulate their own body temperatures. Chicks also enjoy roosting when they rest. If you notice your chicks roosting on the waterer or feeder, you can provide more roosting poles or small stacks of bricks so chicks have a place to perch.
Step 5: Care for your chicks daily.
Change bedding, food, and water daily to keep your chicks healthy and happy. Observe them for health problems or signs of stress. Some common problems include:
Pasting: Occasionally a chick will get manure stuck to its rear end, “pasting” it up. If you see this happen, very gently wash the “paste” off with a cloth and warm water. Pasting should last no more than a few days and can be caused by shipping stress.
Pecking: Chicks will use their beaks to groom or peck themselves. Occasionally pecking amongst chicks will become a problem if the brooding area is too hot or too crowded. We suggest using a red heat lamp to reduce brightness and the tendency to peck at each other. You can reduce this by providing more space or by adding an empty red or green pop can to the brooder. Chicks are naturally attracted to red and green and will generally choose to peck at the can instead of at each other.
Picking: Very young birds (1-3 weeks old) can develop a picking habit, using their beaks to pick around their wing bows, tails, or neck areas. This is sometimes a sign that the area needs better ventilation. If the picking persists or becomes a pattern in any of your chicks, consult your veterinarian.
Step 6: Connect to the community.
Chickens are full of personality. You will see your chickens show affection, fear, curiosity, pain, and contentment. They are living creatures whose daily care is your responsibility. Keeping them happy and healthy takes work. Raising chickens means tending to them with loving care, keeping their living spaces safe and clean, and doing your best to protect them from predators and disease. You might not always have all the answers to care for them successfully, especially if you’re new to backyard farming.
Jack’s is part of a robust community of urban farmers and chicken enthusiasts. We are always here to answer your questions, and we encourage you to connect with the greater community, too. There are many wonderful groups and resources online to offer support, advice, and answers to common chicken questions.
Do you have questions or advice about raising chickens? Share it by posting a comment below!