Chicken keeping can be very rewarding and fun! Here is a quick guide to chicken care. For much more detailed resources, check out the links at the end of this article. Also suggested is Wasatch Community Gardens' Tour de Coops event and urban chicken workshop, held each summer.
Much of the material presented here is taken from Gail Damerow’s excellent book, A Guide to Raising Chickens.
Selecting the Best Chickens
The right chicken depends on your needs. Consider these factors when choosing which breed to raise: temperament, size, demand for feed, noisiness, appearance, climate preference, self-reliance, availability, and whether you want the chickens for eggs, meat, or both. Production hens used in factory farms are not ideal for backyards, since they have a weak brooding instinct and require lots of food. We recommend raising an endangered or heirloom breed to help preserve diversity. See the books listed below for information about particular breeds and visit your local County and State Fairs.
Chickens that are encouraged to stay outside in the fresh air will be healthier and their coop will stay cleaner. Outdoor fences should be at least 4 feet high and may be electrified to discourage predators. Chickens also need a place to roost at night and to lay eggs. Coop designs can vary in design, but they must have these elements for success:
Easy to clean
Protection from wind and sun and from rodents, wild birds, and other predators
Provides enough space (about 2-4 square feet per bird, if it’s an open coop)
Perches for birds to roost
Space for nests
Plenty of light (natural and artificial)
Sanitary feed and water station
Clean your coop thoroughly every spring. Scrape off caked manure with a hoe, and scrub the inside with a mixture of hot water and bleach. A clean coop keeps your chickens healthy. Allow your chickens to maintain a stable pecking order by giving them plenty of room to roam and places to hide. Avoid mixing chickens of
different ages, which creates social stress and increases chance of disease.
Feeding chickens can be complex. The easiest solution is to buy pre-mixed rations tailored to the kind of chickens that you have (layers, broilers, breeders, chicks, etc). Locally, you can buy a feeder at Intermountain Farmer's Association or through a catalog (see list of resources below). You can supplement this feed with scratch, a mix of grains. Chickens generally need more protein when they molt (lose their feathers) and more feed during the cold months. A few food and plant scraps can be added as well. Just avoid raw potato peels, spoiled food, or strong-tasting foods like onions and fish.
Chickens might need additional supplements of calcium if their eggshells are very thin. If they are not fed with pre-mixed rations, they probably need additional grit (sand and pebbles), phosophorus, and a tiny amount of salt.
Make sure water is always available to your chickens. Use a water-warming device or deliver warm water to the coop twice a day during the winter when water might freeze. Make sure the water stays clean of droppings, and that the feed and bedding don’t get wet. Watering devices can be bought or homemade.
Weather can traumatize or even kill your chickens. In the winter, keep drinking water from freezing and reduce dampness and drafts in the coop, and feed your chickens more frequently. Windows that are high above the chickens are a good idea. Heat is even more stressful to chickens, and can easily result in death at over 104° F. In the summer, increase water stations, deliver small rations more frequently, open doors and windows, install a fan or mister (if temp is above 95°), provide outdoor areas of shade, hose down the coop outside walls several times a day, and let chickens relax during the hottest times of day.
Predators of chickens include weasels, minks, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, hawks, rats, snakes, opossums and skunks. A good dog will protect a coop, but many dogs enjoy killing chickens. Most predators work at night. Count your chickens, secure your fence, put the coop on a solid foundation, and if necessary, set traps. Rodents are always a major concern. Store feed securely and clean up spills. Get rid of hide-outs, like piles of stuff in the yard, and consider adopting a cat. Never use Bromethalin as rat poison because it is toxic to all animals!
Use bedding on the floor of the coop, and under any dropping boards. Bedding absorbs droppings, cushions the birds’ feet, and helps control temperature. Examples of bedding are wood shavings, chopped straw, shredded corn cobs, and shredded newspaper. On the coop floor, start out with a 4-inch layer of bedding and gradually add from there, until the bedding is 10-15 inches deep. Manage litter (the bedding and manure that builds up in the hen house) by allowing it to build up over time and adding bedding as necessary, keeping it slightly moist but not too wet. Remove damp spots, keep the roof water-tight, and aerate the litter by loosening and turning. The litter will decompose naturally, a process that sanitizes the litter (after about 6 months), helps reduce flies, warms and insulates the coop in the winter, and even provides vitamin B-12 for your chickens.
Chickens and the Garden
Composted chicken manure is great for your garden. Litter that builds up and decomposes in the coop can be added directly to your garden before planting. Fresh manure can be dug into your garden beds in the fall and allowed to decompose in time for spring planting. Fresh manure can also be added to compost piles, as long as carbon-rich materials like bedding, leaves, etc. are also added. About 45 pounds or manure per 100-square feet of garden is a good minimum. One chicken produces about 45 pounds of manure per year.
Don’t leave chickens to roam in the garden for more than an hour, and keep them away from tempting tomatoes and strawberries! Do put the coop near the garden so it’s easy to throw them plant scraps and collect manure for the compost. You can also build a portable shelter that fits right on top of a raised bed and can be moved around the garden. See Andy Lee’s Chicken Tractor for more ideas on that!
The word around town is that since people started keeping chickens during the Depression, the licensing regulations have mostly fallen through the cracks unless complaints are issued from neighbors. Let your neighbors know of your chicken-keeping intentions and keep them as charmed with the chickens as you are by making them gifts of fresh eggs and by being a responsible owner. (Source: Amber Billingsley, Catalyst, 2006)
Official Salt Lake City code stipulates the following (updated 6/16/10):
Permits must be obtained from the office of animal services. Fees are $5 per animal, not to exceed $40.
You can keep up to 15 chickens at a time. (Apply for a special license if you want to keep more.)
Chickens must remain at least 25 feet from any neighboring structure used for human habitation.
Chicken houses must be whitewashed or sprayed with disinfectant in March, July and October.
Droppings under roosts must be cleaned out every 2 weeks.
Coops, runways and surroundings must be kept in a clean and sanitary condition.
For Chickens and Feed
Azure Standard (organic feed)
79709 Dufur Valley Road, Dufur, OR 97021
Phone: 541-467-2230 Fax: 541-467-2210
Clifford Family Farms (organic feed)
1461 N 2100 W, Provo, UT 84604
Intermountain Farmer's Association (chickens, pre-fab coops, feed)
1147 W 2100 S, Salt Lake City, UT
Phone: (801) 972-3009
1045 E 12400 S, Draper, UT
Phone: (801) 571-0125
McMurray Hatchery Catalog (chickens)
Downtown Farmer's Market (for feed and other resources)
When: Saturdays: June 13 - October 17, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Where: Historic Pioneer Park, 300 S 300 W, Salt Lake City, UT
Salt Lake County Fair (poultry exhibition and sales)
Where: Event Center and Fairgrounds, 11400 S 2200 W, South Jordan, UT 84095
Utah State Fair (poultry exhibition and sales)
Where: 155 N 1000 W, Salt Lake City
Utah State University Cooperative Extension (answers general questions)
2001 S State Street #1200, Salt Lake City, UT
John Wesley (801) 468-3183
(From March through May, you can ask John to pick up extra fertile eggs on his trips to the USU Poultry Farm in Logan. Contact him directly for more info.)
Poultry Fact Sheets
Damerow, Gail. A Guide to Raising Chickens: Care, Feeding, Facilities. Storey Communications, 1995.
Damerow, Gail. Barnyard in Your Backyard: A Beginner's Guide to Raising Chickens, Ducks, Geese, Rabbits, Goats, Sheep, and Cows. Storey Publishing, 2003.
Damerow, Gail. The Chicken Health Handbook. Storey Communications, 1994.
Kilarski, Barbara. Keep Chickens! Tending Small Flocks in Cities, Suburbs, and Other Small Spaces. Storey Publishing, 2003.
Lee, Andy. Chicken Tractor. Good Earth Publications, 1994
Luttmann, Rick and Gail. Chickens in Your Backyard: A Beginner's Guide. Rodale Press, 1976.
Creekside Animal Hospital
12720 Pony Express Road, Sandy, UT
Phone: (801) 565-1263
Parrish Creek Veterinary Clinic
86 N 70 W, Centerville, UT
Phone: (801) 298-2014
Lakeview Animal Hospital
1975 S Orchard Dr., Bountiful, UT
Phone: (801) 298-2314
Notes from our Urban Chicken Workshop
Thanks for those of you that were able to come to our annual Urban Chickens workshop this year held on June 24th, 2009! We had a great turn out with about 125 people and five different presenters covering topics from housing, breeds, and legal questions to chickens in the garden, feeding, and watering needs.
If you didn’t make it to the workshop, here is a great place to get more information about raising backyard chickens! If you did make it, here is some important info that wasn’t covered in the workshop. Some important considerations were brought to my attention that were not covered in our 2 hour workshop, so I created this post to address those issues. The most important topics that people wanted more information on have to do with bio-security, vaccinations, and predators.
Questions, Answers & Notes from the Workshop
(Notes from Britta, Local Coop Owner and Workshop Participant)
If using Diotomatious Earth in your coop, make sure it’s food-grade (can be purchased from Steve Reagan or www.freshwaterorganics.com based in Sandy).
Make sure to make your chicken coop predator proof- even dogs can get your chickens, so make sure to keep your chickens secure, especially at night to protect against nocturnal predators like raccoons.
Below are some specific questions and answers from David Frame, Poultry Specialist at Utah State University. Feel free to contact him with questions.
Here are a couple of resources to help answer your questions, protect your chickens from diseases/predators and help keep them healthy and happy!
David D. Frame, DVM., Dipl. ACPV
Associate Professor, Extension Poultry Specialist
Utah State University
325 West 100 North
Ephraim, UT 84627
Voice: (435) 283-7586
Fax: (435) 283-5648
David’s Basic fact sheets- info on housing and feeding. http://extension.usu.edu/htm/publications/by=category/category=39
What are the most common problems and/or diseases seen in a backyard flock in Utah?
Usually here in Utah we don’t have too many problems with serious disease in chickens, but common diseases include:
Coccidiosis and round worms (Ascarids) – both can be evaluated by fecal sample analysis.
Red mites (“roost” mites”)
Scaly leg mite – often cause deformity of scales and toes.
Marek’s Disease – this is a viral disease causing paralysis and sometimes tumors. It is found in almost all chicken populations and there is nothing the backyard owner can do. There is a vaccine that is given at the hatchery, but must be given before exposure to the virus, which is very difficult in most small hatchery situations. Some breeds and strains of chickens seem to be more resistant to Marek’s than others.
“Chronic Respiratory Disease” or CRD. The cause of this respiratory disease is Mycoplasma gallisepticum (MG). MG can infect chickens without causing too many clinical signs; however, once the birds are under stress, such as cold weather, rain, etc., the MG can become active and cause sneezing, coughing, sinus infection, and airsacculitis. CRD is transferred in the egg, so once established, the only effective way of eradication is to depopulate and restock with chickens purchased from a certified MG-free breeder flock. Always purchase replacements from a National Poultry Improvement Plan certified hatchery. One way of getting MG back into your flock is by introducing new MG-infected birds. Never add to your established flocks birds received by neighbors or unreliable sources of replacement pullets.
If someone wants to get their chickens poop tested for worms is there a place they can get that tested besides the vet?
Veterinarians are specially trained in being able to look for worm eggs (most commonly Ascarid or Capillaria). Usually this is the best place to have chickens tested. The Central Utah Branch of the Utah Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory System, located in Nephi, Utah, will also do testing. The fee is currently $18.00 per fecal sample.
Is there a breed of chicken that seems to do really well in Utah or specifically the Salt Lake area, one that handles the heat and cold well?
Choice of breed is basically up to the owner. They only strains that I might have reservations with in raising in unprotected adverse conditions are the commercial Leghorns. Many standard-bred breeds such as Plymouth Rocks, Wyandottes, and Orpington are good dual-purpose choices. Rhode Island Reds and New Hampshire Reds are also good. There are commercial strains of Australorp, White Leghorn, and brown strains that are superb for egg production. The key to raising healthy chickens of any breed or variety is to keep them as well-protected as possible from extreme temperature changes, give them adequate nutrition, and protect them from predators.
What is the percentage of people that get salmonella from their backyard flock?
Generally speaking, there is not a great risk of contracting Salmonella from backyard chickens even though there are over 2000 serotypes of Salmonella – many of which have been found in poultry. Salmonella organisms are usually shed intermittently in infected flocks and at very low numbers; however most backyard flocks are most likely never infected to begin with.
Good husbandry practices will help keep your birds Salmonella-free as well as free from other diseases. The shell is a natural protection from most pathogens. Even if a Salmonella organism gained entrance into the egg, the number would be so small as to not be an infective dose for a human being as long as the egg was properly stored and cooked. Commercial egg producers practice Salmonella-free certification through government agencies. For example, the Utah producers are involved in the Utah Egg Quality Assurance Plan administered by the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.
If your chicken has mites or lice, who do you contact about what insecticide to use and are there any organic alternatives?
Carbaryl dust or spray is good for control. It must be applied at weekly intervals for at least three times. There is at least one silicon dioxide/pyrethrin product on the market for insect control in vegetables and plants (Diatect V), but I don’t see any clearance for animals or poultry. Try calling this number for further information 1-800-227-6619 or www.diatect.com The address is 875 South Industrial Parkway, Heber City, Utah 84032.