Establishing a Backyard Poultry Flock

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Christa Hartsook
Program Coordinator, Small Farms/Acreage Living
Iowa State University Extension & Outreach

One of the fastest growing trends for small and beginning farmers is backyard poultry. Typically, poultry offers a small-scale livestock enterprise without requiring large amount of capital, land, time or equipment. Careful planning and preparation prior your poultry's arrival will help ensure the establishment of a healthy flock for your family's enjoyment and food production.


Once you decide you would like to raise poultry, you then need to decide if you want to raise meat birds or egg layers. Once you determine what type of flock you wish to raise, you can then select your breed of chickens.


Birds typically raised for meat production are generally a hybrid Cornish Cross, (Cornish crossed with the White Plymouth Rock). These birds are bred for fast growth and feed efficiency, often reaching 6 to 10 pounds in 8 weeks. Broiler chickens typically do not do well in a straight pasture system, as they need large volumes of feed for body maintenance and grow much slower in a pasture-based system without supplemental grain.


Egg layers generally lay either white eggs or brown eggs. The most popular white egg breed is the White Leghorn. One consideration is to select a heavy breed that can withstand Iowa winters. Heavier breeds generally lay brown eggs and include Americanas, Brahmas, Orpingtons, Silkes or Wyandottes. Prior to April, hatcheries may have a higher minimum order necessary to ensure safe shipping of live chicks.


Chicks for meat or egg production will ship via United States Postal Service to your nearest post office. From there, the post office will call you to pick up your chicks. Proper care of your newly hatched chicks is essential to their survival rate. Chicks must be kept under a brooder light or brooder heater at 90 to 95 degrees for the first week. To keep them close to the heat source and prevent drafts, use a brooder ring, child’s hard plastic swimming pool or cardboard circle with pine shavings inside. For the first day, cover your pine shavings with newspaper so the chicks do not mistake the shavings for a food source. Reduce the heat needed 5 degrees per week until you get to 70 degrees. Red bulbs are generally considered better than clear bulbs in heat lamps as they cause less picking of the chicks. The bulb should be approximately 18 inches from the floor. A general rule of thumb is one bulb per 50 chicks in cold weather and one bulb per 100 chicks in warm weather. Keep your draft shield approximately 5-6 feet across for starting 50 chicks or roughly ½ square foot per bird.

Your birds will be thirsty once they arrive – hand dip each chick’s beak in water before you turn in loose in the brooder circle. Use a one gallon chick waterer for every 50 chicks. Using chick waterers is preferred for the first few weeks as the baby chicks can climb into the watering trough of larger waterers, which gets them wet and chilled. A chilled chick does not do well and may die.


Start your chicks on a commercial starter diet for the first 8 to 10 weeks of life, prior to pasture turn-out or other food sources. Meat birds will require a higher protein diet than egg layers – please refer to your hatchery guidelines when ordering. Commercial feed can be purchased in bulk or 50 pound bags from your local co-op or farm supply stores.


If you are raising layers for eggs, they also require grit for proper digestion. On the third day after receiving your chicks, sprinkle some grit on your feed daily. It is too soon to fill an entire hopper of grit or the chicks will fill up on that and not eat their food. After four weeks, a hopper of grit can be established in the coop.


After four weeks, your birds are a little more established. They need additional floor space – one square foot per bird. Waterers can also be increased to one five gallon fount for every 100 birds. If you are raising layers, add roosts at the back of the brooder area. Meat birds do not need roosts.


Keeping your coop area clean is critical to minimizing ammonia buildup in the coop, keeping your chicks dry and comfortable and preventing contamination in the water or feed. As your birds grow, you will need to change the shavings regularly. Your coop can be housed in an existing building on your property, a small garden shed or new construction using one of the many plans found online. Attention should be given to roosting space, nesting space and easy access for someone to enter to refill food and water, collect eggs and clean the coop. You may allow your layers or meat birds out during the day to forage in pasture, but birds should be shut up at night in the coop to prevent predator access.


Egg layers will begin laying eggs in 5-7 months. All breeds have different laying abilities – your hatchery will give you specifics on the individual breed your select. Prior to your hens reaching maturity, you should place nest boxes in the coop. Nest boxes should be 18-20 inches off the ground and approximately 14 inches square. Four to five hens can use one nest.


Iowa hatcheries include the following:


Date of Publication: 
August, 2014