Today we have the chick update of all chick updates! We’re talking about how to raise chickens in your backyard.
As many of you who follow us on Instagram know, we now have a flock of backyard chickens laying fresh eggs every day. We started sharing regular chick updates when we got them as baby chicks back in February, and now they’re fully grown adults, living a life of leisure, snacking on kitchen/garden scraps and dried mealworms.
There have been some high highs and low lows over the past eight months, but we’re ready to share what we’ve learned so far about raising backyard chickens.
Raising chicks—part 2!
So this actually isn’t our first time raising chickens. About 12 years ago(!), we decided to get some chicks from our local Tractor Supply store. They’re available each spring, and we read up on how to brood and raise them.
My mom, ever gleeful at the prospect of food she coaxed out of the earth herself, designed the coop. Together, my dad and grandpa built it. (A mini-me dupe of our house at the time in color and character!)
In the meantime, the chicks lived in a cardboard box in the basement under the cozy glow of a red heat lamp.
It was a mobile coop, which slid along the grass (with significant effort—that thing was heavy) along two thick PVC pipes, so that we could move the girls to a new patch of grass each day.
We also let them out each afternoon so they could stretch their legs and forage for more bugs and plants. They loved jumping feet-first into our compost pile in particular! Our dog Jake at the time resisted the urge to chase them.
As you can see, our fence wasn’t much use for keeping the chickens in the yard, but they did a surprisingly good job of not wandering off our property! Sometimes they would all gravitate to a neighbor’s yard and we’d chase them back to ours.
This is all to say, we were noobs at the chicken game!
The chicks available at the Tractor Supply were white and brown layers, who laid 1 egg each and every day. Their eggs ranged in size from large to jumbo!
About a year later, my parents got the opportunity to live and work in Beijing, so sadly, we gave up the luxury of our fresh daily eggs and sold the coop and the hens to another family in the area.
Ever since then, we’ve been waiting for the opportunity to have backyard chickens. With our recent move, and with the price of eggs (particularly organic or certified humane eggs) going through the roof, it seemed like the right time to re-enter the backyard chicken game!
WHERE WE GOT OUR BABY CHICKS
This time around, we ordered our chicks online and got them in the mail. Did you know that the U.S. Postal Service will ship baby chicks? We ordered them online so we could get a mix of unique heritage breeds!
The chicks get to their destination within 1-3 days, which works because newly hatched chicks have absorbed enough nutrition from the yolk in their egg to live without food or water in their first few days.
That said, you do need to order enough chicks such that they have sufficient body heat in their box (usually padded with some sort of foam) to survive the journey. This is why most hatcheries have a minimum number of chicks you can order.
As we found out, chicks that come through the mail also may require more intensive care after they arrive home. They are more prone to a condition called “pasty butt,” in which their droppings stick to their butts (euphemistically called a “vent”) and must be very carefully cleaned off with warm compresses.
Baby chicks are incredibly delicate, and a weak chick will die without immediate care and attention. We did lose one chick after the first day, and for the next several days, we had multiple chicks with pasty butt. We found ourselves bending down into the brooder to check their bottoms multiple times per day!
Two chicks—now healthy hens named Mariah and Eggy—were also quite weak and needed special care (daily feedings of sugar water or raw egg yolk for several days with a spoon) to get them back up to strength. We kept them in their own small box for a few days so they could rest without getting pecked at by the stronger chicks.
This was pretty stressful, and we’ve decided that if we acquire more chicks in the future, we will drive over to the Tractor Supply to buy whatever chicks are available! You can also investigate online to see if you live near any local hatcheries.
That said, if you don’t have a store near you that sells them each spring, mail order may be your only option. If that’s the case, just make sure to keep a close eye on them—watch out for pasty butt, or for chicks who look kind of out of it (they will move less than the others and seem dazed or sleepy). These chicks need extra attention, or you may lose them!
For lessons in Treating Pasty Butt & Other chicken questions: Check out the “Fresh Eggs Daily” blog
For all our chick and chicken raising questions, we’ve relied the most on an amazingly helpful blog called Fresh Eggs Daily, by Lisa Steele. Lisa lives in Maine with her happy flock of chickens, ducks, and geese, and writes about how to care for these animals on her blog, as well as how to properly store (and enjoy) their eggs!
We peppered her with many a question on Instagram, and she always had such helpful answers. Check out her article on how to treat pasty butt (it’s a delicate operation), and the other great content she’s published over the years!
What You Need To Raise Chicks
1. A Brooder, Heat Lamp & Thermometer
Chicks need heat! You’ll need a 250-watt heat lamp (red light is preferred for its calming effect) and a high-sided container to brood the chicks in.
Brooding is basically the period in which the chicks must have supplemental heat. Their first week, they need the temperature to be about 95°F. On the day your chicks are set to arrive, set-up the brooder with the heat lamp and warm it up so it’s at the right temperature when you place the chicks inside for the first time.
After that, you reduce the temperature about 5°F each week (so week 2 would be 90°F, week 3 would be 85°F, etc.) To reduce the temperature, you’d simply raise the heat lamp higher above the brooder.
To track temperature, keep a thermometer in the brooder (at chick level to ensure accuracy). We used an infrared thermometer gun, which worked really well and allowed us to measure the temperature in different parts of the brooder. (It also doubled as a fun game to fight chick boredom—they loved chasing the laser dot all around the box!)
You can tell the temperature is comfortable if the chicks are scattered throughout the brooder and moving freely. If they’re all huddled in a circle under the lamp, it’s too cold. If they’re huddled away from the lamp or panting, it is too hot. Watch your chicks closely to make sure their temperature is comfortable. Cold or heat stress are not good for these delicate babies!
Also make sure that your set-up has the heat lamp placed securely, so it doesn’t fall into the brooder. Don’t just clip your lamp onto a surface, as it might fall! We hung the lamp on an old broomstick handle across two secure surfaces with the brooder in the center.
We used a cardboard box lined with newspaper and pine shavings to brood our chicks in their first couple weeks. (The newspaper makes cleanup easier—just roll up the paper and shavings all together, and you’re done.)
Plastic storage totes also work well. As the chicks get older and larger, you’ll need larger containers for them, and you’ll need to change the shavings more often to keep the brooder clean!
If you’d rather not use pine shavings, Fresh Eggs Daily recommends using rubber shelf liners. This provides traction for the chicks (traction is very important, or they can get “spraddle leg,” a condition in which their legs splay outwards), and can be hosed clean. Check out Lisa’s full guide to raising baby chicks, which we referred to often!
2. Water, Food & Chick-sized grit or dirt
You’ll need a chick feeder and waterer and to make sure your chicks have free access to food and fresh water at all times. We used an adult sized feeder and bell waterer that we had left from our chickens last time (be sure to wash and disinfect any older equipment you might have before using).
For feed, we used an organic chick feed made by a brand called Nature’s Best. We fed them on this until they laid their first eggs at about 20 weeks (5 months) old. Then they got switched to a layer feed.
In addition to feed, chicks (and adult chickens) need access to grit to help them digest their food. A chicken’s gizzard supplies enzymes which, coupled with the grit, break down food.
You can get chick-sized grit at feed stores, or you can also provide clumps of dirt and grass that they will peck through. When they are adults, provide adult-sized poultry grit.
Also always make sure that the chicks have access to fresh, clean water. As they got older, we found that they would scratch shavings into their water. We raised the waterer onto a couple flat bricks in order to minimize this!
3. A place to put them!
Chicks can kick up quite a bit of dust, so consider carefully where you want to keep the brooder. The first time we raised chicks, we kept them in our finished basement. In our current home, however, the basement isn’t as easy to access, and we wanted to be able to keep a close eye on them.
We kept them in our pantry/mudroom off the kitchen, which has a separate door that could be closed to keep dust out of the kitchen and also keep Barley from walking in when we weren’t watching her!
As the chicks started feathering out and requiring less supplemental heat, we moved them into a larger brooder in the garage, which was basically a shipping crate (it once held a log splitter we had delivered) lined with cardboard and covered with chicken wire.
As the chicks get older, they will become more mobile—and agile! Chickens instinctively seek high “roosts” in order to stay away from predators. They even jumped out of their brooder box if it was left uncovered!
Hence the chicken wire (wire mesh also works well).
We were glad to get them out into a bigger space in the garage.
In this bigger brooder, we made sure to raise their water up on bricks, and we also put in a platform and some sturdy sticks for roosting.
These last few weeks in their brooder could get a bit stir-crazy for the chicks, as they were growing older and strong enough to explore more of their surroundings. On warm days, we would take the brooder outside to get the chicks some fresh air.
And we made sure to provide dirt and grass clumps to keep them busy!
When Can Chicks Go Outside?
Chicks can go outside at around 6 to 10 weeks of age, when they are fully feathered, as long as the temperature outside doesn’t dip below 50-55°F.
This is why it’s best to acquire your chicks in early spring, so that by the time they’re 6-10 weeks old, the weather has warmed up enough to move them outside.
Our Coop Set-up
Our chicken coop was on the property when we moved in. The previous owners also kept backyard chickens, and they ordered a really nice coop from Urban Coop Company (now called Roost and Root).
It has feeding tubes that allow you to scoop feed into them from outside the coop and not have to re-fill them for a week or two, depending on how many chickens you have.
It also has a drip watering system, which makes providing fresh water really low maintenance. (Though we always keep the bell waterer in the coop, which they prefer to use. It’s always going to be more refreshing to dip your beak in a cool pool of water, after all.)
Four nesting boxes, lots of roosting bars, and plenty of floor space make enough room for up to 25 chickens.
The coop is under the shade of a juniper tree at the edge of the pond—an idyllic spot for our chickens’ new home with cover from birds of prey that might be flying above.
A couple weeks before the chicks were set to go outside, we did a deep clean of the coop, which was pretty caked with muck and grime from its former residents!
We scooped out all the old shavings and chicken manure and moved that to the compost pile…
And then we scraped all the walkways, roosting bars, and walls to remove old caked on, uh…stuff.
Then my dad power-washed the entire coop, and it went from looking vaguely gray to shiny white again!
New straw in the nesting boxes, fresh shavings on the floor, and voila! The Ritz-Carlton for chickens!
It was a big step to move them out of the garage and into the coop, but they were happy to have tons of space to run around in!
When they had settled into the coop for a few weeks, there was a lot of hopeful peering into the nesting boxes to see if any eggs had made landfall.
And then…at about 18 weeks, we saw our first egg!!! The first eggs were quite small.
We even saw one chicken lay an “egg” without a shell! This is normal for a young hen, or pullet, who is just starting to lay.
This only happened once out of all our hens. Once chickens start laying, it’s important to supply them with a high quality feed and grit, so they get enough calcium to form hard shells.
It’s important to note that hens also don’t reach reproductive maturity until the day length has reached 12 hours. In other words, they need at least 12 hours of sunlight per day in order to stimulate ovulation and lay an egg!
Chickens actually lay the most consistently when they’re getting at least 16 hours of daylight each day. In other words, they lay more in the summer when days are longer, and less in the wintertime when days are shorter.
A steady egg supply!
As our hens grew larger and more mature, they began laying larger eggs. In the peak of summer, we were getting around 1 egg daily per hen, each ranging in size from medium to large.
We found that 9 hens were the perfect amount for supplying eggs to the 5 of us with enough to spare and share.
The ranges in colors, patterns, and size is so cool!
In those early days, some had double yolks, and some had barely any yolk!
Now that the days are getting shorter, we’re getting about 50-60% the number of eggs we were getting in the summer.
Kaitlin says she saw on Tiktok that a disco ball can make their lives more enriching during the wintertime and help with the lag in eggs, but we have yet to test this theory! You will all be the first to know about any breaking updates on the disco ball front.
Nothing Goes to Waste
One great thing about having chickens and ducks is that nothing goes to waste! We give them all sorts of kitchen scraps, from carrot tops and carrot peelings to corn cobs and watermelon rinds. They love it all and pick everything clean!
Depending on what veggie it is (e.g., carrots which are hard to peck), we’ll chop it into smaller pieces so that it’s easier to eat. Things like watermelon and corn they gladly peck at without much preparation.
(The ducks will also eat anything in a bucket of water. We like to chop herbs, the outer leaves of cabbage or napa cabbage, carrot tops, etc. and add it to their water bucket. They happily dive on it!)
Problems & Predators
When it comes to how to raise chickens, we’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about some of the problems you might encounter and how to prevent them!
We’re in the midst of the worst bird flu outbreak since 2015! This affects wild birds, but also domesticated birds and backyard poultry.
We do have some wild birds in the area due to our pond (we get a blue heron that comes in regularly, and earlier in spring, we had a pair of Canada geese), which presents a danger to our flock.
That said, we don’t want to keep our birds totally confined at all times. They need to stretch their legs and forage like chickens and ducks should!
Our solution has been to set up a relatively contained temporary fence around the chicken coop and duck house/run using netting that is reinforced with wire and comes with pegs to stick in the ground. Our flock can run around and be free (but not too free).
We also hung old CDs from strings around the area. As they spin in the wind, their shiny reflections keep other birds like hawks away. There’s also a soothing wind chime hanging in a tree nearby. We hoped that the noise from the wind chime would also help deter predators.
This is the worst, trickiest, and potentially most devastating part of raising backyard chickens.
When we moved the chickens outside, we set up motion sensor cameras around the coop to watch for predators. Over the next several months, we saw several foxes and raccoons (who knew these dumpster divers also prey on chickens!) come to check out the coop at night, and during the day, we noticed a couple of hawks flying in the area and hanging out in the trees near the coop.
Needless to say, predators abound at The Woks of Life HQ! We suspect that this is why we haven’t had small animals like gophers, rabbits, or squirrels in our garden eating our crops.
(This was a big problem at our old house, where a brazen groundhog would waddle into our vegetable garden and treat it like an all-you-can-eat buffet! Barley would be the hero of the day, chasing him off!)
It was extremely important for us to make sure that the coop was completely predator-proof. Raccoons can chew right through regular chicken wire, and foxes and coyotes can dig deep under the coop to get in.
Luckily, our coop has a cement foundation, and the previous owners left large rocks piled around the perimeter to prevent predators from digging down underneath it. The entire thing is covered with hardware cloth, and the door has a latch with a carabiner holding it in place.
We used the design of the chicken coop to later design our duck run (which we’ll talk about more in a future post).
Knowing that these predators were around, we would only let the chickens out when we were also outside in the area (which was often—almost daily—throughout the spring and summer).
Sadly though, tragedy still struck this past summer, and it taught us that we really can’t take our eyes off the flock when they’re outside—not even for a short time!!!!
We were outside cleaning up the chicken coop area and in the garden, and let the chickens and ducks out. We went inside for a quick break—a snack and a drink of water.
When we came back out, something was clearly wrong. We won’t go into the unpleasant details, but we ended up losing 3 CHICKENS and 3 DUCKS to a fox—in a matter of minutes, in broad daylight!
It was HORRIBLE.
Absolutely a dark, no good day. At this point, we had our favorite chickens. They were always going to be egg laying chickens, so we were settling in for the long haul. They were our pets! The chickens all had names at this point:
- Thelma: A plump Light Brahma hen who was big, but also quite docile and good-natured with the other hens.
- Eggy: A spacey Barred Rock who had a white spot on her head as a baby chick and never quite got her smarts back after being a googly-eyed, woozy mail order chick.
- Mariah: Formerly Mariah the Pariah thanks to also nearly not making the mail order journey. The other chicks kind of ignored her in those early days, but now she’s one of our best layers! We think she’s a California White.
- Amy Farrah Fowler: The largest, fiercest, and smartest of them all, named after the character from The Big Bang Theory. Looking into her eyes was like staring down a velociraptor, but we all loved how smart she was. Even as a chick she would stare up at us while the other chicks were totally oblivious to the provenance of hands from above. We even took selfies together!
- Fro-y, formally known as Diana Ross: Probably our most striking and beautiful hen, she has the mane to prove it! But due to the plume of feathers on her head, her vision isn’t the best. For a while, she would lay her eggs on the ground, and we’re convinced it was because she couldn’t see well enough to jump up to the nesting boxes. She’s a breed called a Golden Laced Polish, and apparently polish hens are often at the bottom of the pecking order due to their gentle nature and lack of peripheral vision.
- Red: Either a Rhode Island Red or Production Red hen, she was our tiniest, zippiest and fastest chick! She had tons of energy when she was young, but has since calmed down into a more mellow lady.
- The Iron Chefs: A set of 3 blackish brown chickens (we think they’re Black Copper Marans), named after the original Iron Chefs: Hiroyuki Sakai, Chen Kenichi, and Masaharu Morimoto.
Sadly, we ended up losing, Thelma, Amy Farah Fowler, and Morimoto, and ducks who were so relatively young that we hadn’t even yet figured out their personalities to give them names.
They were some of our biggest hens—definitely the top of the pecking order. Our theory is that while the other hens escaped to safety, these larger hens took on the rooster role and stood up to the fox.
Needless to say, we were really upset about this. :( We’d raised them from young chicks and ducklings after all.
We read later that foxes will watch you and your patterns throughout the day. They’ll wait patiently for the right time to attack. They’ll also take out more chickens than they need.
While fox cubs need to eat too—and it’s all part of the circle of life—it was still a big blow.
At the end of the day, we acknowledge that our little working mini farm is its own ecosystem. We have a couple foxes living on or around the property. While they keep the rodent and rabbit population in check, they also present a danger to our birds.
We don’t fault the fox for being a fox, but we certainly took it as an important lesson.
Needless to say, we don’t let our birds out of our sight anymore. We’ve set up chairs around the coop and duck run so that when the hens are out and about, we can watch over them. Sometimes, we’ll even take our laptops out there and do work while they peck around.
It was an important lesson and a reality of raising backyard chickens to be aware of. Especially if you live in a rural or wooded area like ours.
On the brighter side, the remaining ducks and hens are enjoying life, and we’re still looking forward to next spring! We plan to get another handful of baby chicks to rebuild our flock. While it can be difficult to integrate new birds into a flock of chickens (pecking order politics), there are ways to do it gradually.
So our chicken raising journey continues! We hope you enjoyed reading this, whether you’re interested in how to raise chickens in your own backyard, or just armchair farming. Until next time!