Beyond the Farm – Backyard Poultry Basics

Tabatha Regehr, DVM
Associate Veterinarian, Clinical Toxicology
Pet Poison Helpline

Farm fresh eggs have long since been a staple on the family farm, but in recent years there has been an explosion if the popularity in back yard poultry flocks. Communities across the country are permitting small flocks of birds in residential communities and within city limits.

The benefits of back yard poultry are bountiful. There is extreme satisfaction in collecting an egg from your own birds to prepare a meal. This is the essence of farm to table. Once you begin consuming farm fresh eggs you will become spoiled to their rich flavor and color. Raising your own birds for eggs can be quite economical and even profitable.

Chickens, ducks, and geese have unique personalities and are quite social. You will find you may develop the same human-animal bond you have with your canine and feline 4 legged family.

Research before you build and buy!

Getting started will require a bit of investigative work on your part. Check your community ordinance about what species are permitted and if there is a limit on number of birds you can keep. Some communities may restrict you to chickens only. You will also need to check with your homeowner’s association regarding permissible housing sizes and type.

Secondly, buy, borrow, or check out some reference books. There are countless books about backyard poultry with most tailored to the beginner. Check your favorite online retailer, pet store, or farm store. Youtube and hobby sites like Pinterest are an excellent supplement to your printed reference material but may not make the best primary resource.

Take a class from your local community college, extension office, or farmer’s market cooperative. An extension office is an educational service through your state’s department of agriculture and is typically set up by county. Join a local social media forum and visit other bird enthusiasts in your area.

How many birds should you get?

That depends on your goals. Do you want only enough eggs for your family? Are you interested in starting a small business? Decide on how many birds you may want or need based on how many

dozen eggs you desire to consume and/or sell per week or month. The best recommendation is to start small to establish your care routines and incorporate them into your already busy life! You can always get more birds.

Keep track of how many eggs you purchase on a regular basis then start doing some math. Chickens, when actively laying, will produce 1 egg ever 26-48 hours, essentially every 1-2 days. Ducks may lay an egg as often as every 24 hours. When your birds first start laying, are molting, or when the days are shorter this interval may be longer.

What breed of bird do you want?

Again, the sky is the limit. Do you have an egg color preference? Is there a breed you find fancy? Go for it! Our household has 5 different breeds that produce white, blue, green, and tan eggs!

Where will your birds live?

Housing types are almost limitless and can be quite fashionable. The sky is the limit with unique ideas. Consider using a garden shed, premade coop, ready to assemble coop, converted dog kennel, existing building, or put your construction skills to work. The internet has infinite excellent ideas and you will find ideas that will suit both your design style and budget.

You will need to provide an indoor space with nesting boxes and an outdoor space. Chickens need 2-3 square feet each inside and 8-9 square feet each outside the nesting area. You will also need to consider a space that is safe from predators which include hawks, owls, fox, coyotes, and raccoons.

Feed and water?  

Farm supply stores make this easy and there will be one where you live. There is feed for growing birds, laying aged birds, scratch (mixed grains to aide in grinding food), and supplements. An excellent resource for feeding information will be your county’s extension office and the reference materials discussed earlier. Chickens always need free access to feed.

All animal we care for need plenty of fresh water. Chickens can use any galvanized or plastic waterer meant for poultry while geese and ducks will need waterers that allow them to submerge their beaks completely. Consider using waterers made for these longer beaked species or if using a standard poultry waterer, also have a bowl or pan of water available.

Bird health?

We are not addressing the various diseases of poultry in this article but do recommend you seek a veterinarian that treats avian species before acquiring birds. Use the resources available from your extension office and the more experienced bird owners in your area. Since it may be difficult to access veterinary care 24 hours a day for your birds, these relationships are invaluable.

So, what are you waiting for?

Spring! Chicks are sold primarily in early spring and begin laying about 6 months of age. Make your plans in the winter so you are ready to bring birds home in March or April. Aside from community rules regarding numbers of permitted birds, the sky is the limit regarding creativity and care for your flock. Should you choose to add the amazing avians to your life you will wonder why you waited so long!