You did it! You made the excellent choice to raise your own flock! Your chicks are growing up strong and healthy, and are showing more and more of their individual personalities every day. They’re growing fast, though, and now you’re wondering: What’s next? Here’s a quick-run-down of the needs of your flock once they’re ready to move outdoors. Just remember, this guide is not meant to be comprehensive, and you might have other questions. I recommend learning from the resources at the end of this article, as well as contacting your local extension office and poultry veterinarian for more resources and answers that also have the benefit of being specifically for where you live.
If you’re looking for a guide on starting baby chicks, I’ve got you. Head over to An Eggstraordinary Start: How to Raise Chickens.
What do growers and/or broilers need?
These chooks, much like chicks, will need housing with bedding, food, grit, clean water, pasture rotation if you’re able, and plenty of enrichment.
a) Housing: This will be where the chickens live when they’re adults, as well as while they’re growing. What kind of housing you purchase or build depends on a lot of factors: How big is the breed you’re getting? Will they grow up to lay eggs? What predators are nearby? Will they be safe in the whole yard, or do they need a fenced-in area? Can you keep them away from your delicious tomatoes and squash? How hot does it get in the summer, and how cold in the winter? Your comfort with accessing the coop is a consideration too – how easy is it change bedding and collect eggs? Are you going to ram your head on it every time you enter? Your local extension office will have the best information for your area on what considerations to take when considering your flock’s housing, and there are many free blueprints online for coops and runs if you’d like to build your own. Several of these also appear in the books at the end of this article.
b) Bedding: Regardless of whether you need heating, cooling, a large space, or a small one, your chickens will need bedding inside their house to help keep things tidy and comfortable on their feet. The same considerations that should be made with starter chicks apply to growers/broilers as well – Stay away from cedar, and virtually anything else works fine. I’m particularly fond of hemp bedding because it seems more absorbent and environmentally friendly than a lot of others, and it composts especially nicely. There are also bedding extenders that will work with any kind of bedding to absorb smelly fumes and help keep waste from building up as quickly for both growing chickens and adults, which can be a real time and money saver. Oh, and while I’m here, look up the “deep litter” method of laying bedding – it’s really neat.
d) Grit: Many chickens, once transitioned to the great outdoors, are able to find the right sized pebbles while running around doing their chicken things. If you have a relatively small area, however, or otherwise just not a lot of pebbles lying around, you should get a grit that’s appropriately sized for their growth stage. As they get larger, so do their gizzards, which means the smaller stuff might pass right through. Anything too large still poses a blockage hazard, however, so make sure you’re getting the right size.
c) Food: You can feed a starter ration right up until your chickens start laying their first eggs, but rations made specially for grower/broiler chickens are also commercially available. I once again recommend one where the first ingredient isn’t soy or corn, and that has a meat such as fish meal or black soldier fly included. The nutritional requirements are a little different, though – 3-6% fat and fiber is still a good range, but for both chickens 2-6 months old and for adult laying hens 16-18% protein is better than the 20% in starter feed. I love crumbles and pellets because the older a chicken gets, the more likely they are to completely avoid the fine dust of vitamins and minerals that surround the grains in a mash feed, which can be bad news for their health. That having been said, you can also mix that fine dust into their water like it’s a sports drink- just keep in mind that the mixed water will go bad after a day or two (or sooner if it’s hot) and then those healthy powders go straight down the drain anyway.
e) Clean water: Growing chickens have more options for waterers than baby chicks do. While many of the same principles apply, a growing chicken isn’t as likely to get sick if it falls into a puddle and is less likely to fall in to begin with. This means auto-waterers, which refill from a hose or spigot as water is depleted by your chickens, become an available option, as well as other deeper dishes for maintaining water. Just keep in mind that the same rules for hygiene apply – if you don’t think it’s clean enough to drink from, yourself, it’s probably not clean enough for your chickens’ best health. This is why I recommend sticking with a nipple based waterer, as these are the easiest to keep clean. However, the needs of your flock might vary, and you should always make what you feel is the best decision for your flock’s health.
f) Pasture rotation: Pasture rotation has been shown in studies to steeply reduce instances of major poultry diseases while still affording chickens all the benefits of outdoor access, and cannot be recommended enough. This is because it keeps them from interacting too much with waste from themselves and wildlife, as well as giving them fresh vegetation to pick through for new snacks and play opportunities. The general rule of thumb is to give ten square feet per bird and rotate their pasture as often as once per day, or as long as when the vegetation gets below two inches high. Then, give the pasture at least three weeks to recover. This way, all the healthy forage doesn’t end up replaced by weeds from overfeeding, and the waste gets washed into the soil and has time to be eaten by the plants.
a. Just keep in mind that your chickens are likely to come into contact with wildlife when they’re out to pasture, and not all of it is friendly. A good practice before moving your chickens outdoors is to contact your local extension office to discuss best practices for keeping predators and disease away from your flock. This is especially important when one wild bird flying overhead can make your whole flock sick.
g) Enrichment: Chickens, like most animals, love to play. Chickens are also very visual creatures. Consider giving them novel objects to clamber over and look at, like colorful buckets or sturdy balls. They also love many of your kitchen scraps, such as lettuce, celery, and carrot ends, apple cores, and citrus pulp. While no more than 10% of their daily calories should be treats, it’s fun to watch them go wild for a tasty tidbit. You can grow your own or buy mealworms and other insects that chickens love, as well. Chickens also have a few unique behaviors that will need to be accommodated: They love to roost, so give them somewhere they can hop up to and perch where they’ll feel safe enough to take their naps. Roosts are generally built into housing, but if your coop doesn’t have any good spots you’ll need to add some to their environment. They also love to dust bathe, so if you see them burying themselves in dirt, don’t worry – they’re actually taking the chicken equivalent of a shower. They’ll shake it out, preen a bit, and come out cleaner and more parasite free than when they started. Of course, not every yard has a good dirt spot – you can also offer them a home-made dust bath in a pan, for which there are many recipes online and I’ll likely take a shot at, myself, at some point.
What do adults and/or laying hens need?
Next, these growing chickens will become adults. For many, this means the tastiest part of raising a chicken: eggs! Layer hens and roosters have different needs from growers/broilers, but not by much. They need the same housing with bedding, clean water, and enrichment, but there are a few other considerations to make:
a) Food and grit: Layers, because they’re consistently producing eggs, use up a lot more calcium than a growing chicken. As a result, they need a lot more calcium in their feed – a whopping 3.5%, minimum! Ideally they should have 4%, but if you find a feed you love with a lower calcium content you can also offer your chickens oyster shell or crushed limestone in a dish that they can access any time. Avoid dolomite, since dolomite contains magnesium which can mess up the careful balance of minerals in a feed. While roosters don’t lay eggs and as a result don’t need so much calcium, they can still safely eat layer feed as adults, though it might not lead to peak performance. If you’d like to feed your roosters separately, however, you can always keep feeding them grower/broiler feed or switch them to a rooster-specific feed.
b) Nesting boxes: These are usually built into a chicken’s house. These encourage chickens to lay their eggs in a central location instead of scattered around the yard in hard-to-reach nooks and crannies. They should be just a bit bigger than the hens, cozy, quiet, and relatively private. Up to four hens will use one nesting box, though it’s always nice to give them a couple options. It’s especially nice to have nesting boxes that can be accessed from outside the coop for easy egg collection and coop cleaning.
c) Collecting the eggs: Ah, the most satisfying part – a freshly laid, warm egg in your hand. You should check for eggs every day, and be careful to keep cracked or raw eggs away from your chickens. They think their own eggs are absolutely delicious, and if they figure out how to break them open it can be a difficult and messy habit to try to break. It is, however, fine to give them cooked eggs as a treat.
d) Continuing health: It’s always good to know a veterinarian in your area that is able to treat your flock if they do happen to fall ill, but ultimately an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. You can get your adult chickens vaccinated! Though it isn’t as effective as getting them vaccinated as chicks since some chickens will have already been exposed to the disease you’re vaccinating against, it’s still better to be safe than sorry! Otherwise, keeping your flock in clean conditions with fresh water and complete nutrition is the easiest way to maintain their good health. Of course, the odd malady does strike once in a while – be sure to regularly check each bird, or a random sampling of birds if you have a very large flock, at least once a week. Check under feathers, especially around the tail and neck, for mites and lice. Check up on their feet – does everything look normal? Do they seem inflamed or swollen? Has anything gotten caught or wrapped around their toes? Check general condition, too – Does this hen feel like she’s lost weight? Are her feathers in good condition (and if not, is it molting time)? Does she appear happy and active when she’s out playing with her flock?
Another way to keep your chickens healthy is to practice good biosecurity, too. I’ll write a larger article on this later, but it’s mostly common sense. Since most chicken diseases are airborne, treat every interaction with chickens like they have an airborne disease. Shower and change your clothes before going into your coop if you’ve just been out at a county fair with chickens or someone else’s coop. Disinfect new equipment before your chickens interact with it. Keep new chickens separate from the rest of your flock for at least three weeks before making introductions to make sure they aren’t sick. In general, err on the side of caution – chickens are prey animals, so by the time they show symptoms of illness they’re usually very sick, so it’s always better to prevent the illness from happening in the first place.
I want you and your flock to thrive, and to feel empowered to make the best possible choices for your family, your community, and our shared planet. Below, you’ll find that list of lovely resources for a more in-depth dive into raising chickens, other than your extension office and local poultry veterinarian. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!
City Chicks: Keeping Micro-flocks of Chickens as Garden Helpers, Compost Makers, Bio-recyclers, and Local Food Producer, by Pat Foreman
This book takes a no-fuss, no-muss, to-the-point approach in teaching you about chickens and how to care for a flock in an urban setting. It’s shockingly comprehensive and a fantastic place to start your journey, with the added bonus of tips on convincing your community to allow chickens.
The Small Scale Poultry Flock, by Harvey Ussery
This is a super-comprehensive guide to raising poultry, from incubating your own eggs to processing your chickens, this is for both the homesteader looking to increase production in the garden and the flock and small scale farmers looking to increase efficiency while making a tidy profit.
Chicken Tractor: The Permaculture Guide to Happy Hens and Healthy Soil by Andrew W. Lee and Patricia Foreman
Learn how to use mobile chicken pens to feed your chickens and utilize their potential as natural pest control, fertilizer, and food source.
Feeding Pasture Raised Poultry, by Jeff Mattocks
This is a perfect beginner guide to understanding what should go into a pastured feed and why, with special consideration to keeping birds healthy.
The Chicken Health Handbook, 2nd Edition: A Complete Guide to Maximizing Flock Health and Dealing with Disease by Gail Damerow
This guide to keeping your chickens healthy is a favorite of my long-time-chicken-raising-poultry-specializing friend and is shockingly beginner friendly while still being reasonably comprehensive.
Look, I know this guy’s stuff is tempting but… He advocates against medicating or vaccinating chickens, treating them less like living creatures and more like objects that don’t have the capacity to suffer. Chickens feel pain. Chickens feel loss. Chickens deserve the best we can reasonably give them, just like our pets and we ourselves do. He has some good ideas on pasture rotation, but so does virtually anyone else doing pastured poultry. If you pick up one of his books, proceed with extreme caution.
Pastured Poultry Talk, by Mike Badger
Not only does this podcast have a multi-part guide to raising and processing your own pastured poultry that you can listen to on your morning commute, it also delves into all sorts of other current events and issues in the poultry community and best management practices to help.
Hey, if you wanna read something super dense and dry for fun, I’m not gonna stop you. In fact, I’ll just excitedly chirp facts at you and point to the best parts of the chapter, because I’ve read these from front to back. I’m a nerd, I’m aware.
Basic Animal Nutrition and Feeding, Fifth Edition, By Wilson G. Pond, David C. Church, Kevin R. Pond, and Patricia A. Schoknecht
This is a wonderful resource for anyone just starting to get into nutrition, with broad overviews that are still technical enough to be useful for actually creating formulations.
Nutrient Requirements of Poultry: Ninth Revised Edition, By The National Research Council’s Subcommittee on Poultry Nutrition
Not gonna lie, I find this one mostly useless. There’s a few gems hidden in here, like how to feed quail, but for the most part the information contained in these pages is either dated or a little too vague to be helpful. That having been said, it’s free on the NRC website and you can still use it to pretty good effect if you have no other resources.
I know, I know, this isn’t a book. But holy cow, the stuff you can find on here these days! Did you know fresh bamboo leaves are an effective broiler and layer feed? I didn’t! Google Scholar is the best!
This Study on back-yard bird deaths
I know it’s morbid, but I don’t want to seem like I’m pulling that over-20-percent-of-birds-die-from-Marek’s statistic out of my butt. So… Here you go! Enjoy!
Cadmus KJ, Mete A, Harris M, et al. Causes of mortality in backyard poultry in eight states in the United States. Journal of Veterinary Diagnostic Investigation. 2019;31(3):318-326. doi:10.1177/1040638719848718