If you want to raise backyard chickens, you need to ask a lot of questions. But the most famous query — "Why did the chicken cross the road?" — isn’t one of them, according to Heather Kolich, a University of Georgia Extension agent.

What people need to know is that “chickens don’t cross the road well,” she said.

That’s not another riddle, she’s quick to point out. What she means is that chickens have special needs. If you do your homework and understand those needs before you bring your chickens home, Kolich believes anyone can successfully raise backyard chickens.

To help you prepare, here are five questions Kolich said you should ask before building your first coop.

1. What are the local rules for backyard poultry?

“The first thing you need to find out is whether you can even have chickens where you live,” Kolich said. To make that determination, check your neighborhood covenants and your city or county ordinances.

Even if the covenants and ordinances permit backyard chickens, you should also check to see if there are any limitations. “Some regulations limit the kind of chickens you can raise, the number you can have in your flock, and where you can place your chicken coop,” Kolich said.

2. Why do I want to raise chickens?

Many people want chickens as pets rather than to raise them as part of a growing movement of increased food consciousness and urbanization, said Kolich. “But,” she advised, “raising backyard chickens is not the same as having a cat or a dog. Chickens have different needs.”

rooster crowingShe puts light at the top of that list. “Chickens are light-sensitive and need 14 hours of sunlight every day to produce eggs,” she said.  When day length grows shorter in the fall, hens will stop laying, and the decrease in light may cause them to molt. “When chickens molt, they replace their feathers, first shedding old ones, then growing new ones,” Kolich said. “It takes energy to do that.”

You can use artificial lighting, such as an incandescent bulb in the coop, to supplement daylight hours and to keep hens laying through autumn and the winter months. But the trade-off, Kolich explained, is that the chickens won’t replace their feathers because the energy they need to do that will be going into egg production.

Laying hens will typically produce an egg a day once they are the correct age, Kolich said, putting that age at 18-22 weeks. If you want chickens that are egg specialists, Kolich suggested White Leghorns as a popular choice. Chickens that serve a dual purpose for egg and meat production include Rhode Island Red, Plymouth Rock, Wyandotte and Sex Link, she said. (Hint: If you plan to raise chickens for the frying pan, oven or grill, don’t let your children name them!)

For the record, Kolich offered a reminder that laying hens don’t need a rooster to produce eggs. Other reasons to avoid roosters, she added, are that they may violate local sound ordinances and, because they are protective of the hens, may challenge you, your children or your neighbors’ kids. On the other hand, the worst noise hens will make is boasting when they lay an egg, she said with a chuckle.

3. What do I feed them?

colorful eggs in a basketChickens need the right type of nutrition to grow well and produce eggs. “It’s very hard to meet their nutritional goals by feeding them kitchen scraps or scratch grain such as cracked corn,” Kolich said. While buying a big bag of cracked corn and broadcasting it on the ground might be a good physical activity and might seem like a good thing for the birds, cracked corn is low in protein, she said.

It’s important to use a commercial mix that is formulated for the age and stage of the birds in your flock, Kolich advised. Once laying hens begin producing eggs, that feed will need to be a laying ration high in calcium.

Commercial feeds are available at a local feed and seed store or from online suppliers.

4. Can I add new birds to my flock?

Yes, but you need to separate birds based on their age.

“Different ages need different feed mixes,” Kolich said. “Young birds, for instance, can’t take a laying ration. It’s too high in calcium and may cause kidney problems for them.”

In addition, she added, the pecking order is real. “Older birds may chase younger birds from the feeder.”

5. How do I protect my flock from disease?

Backyard flocks are the ones that tend to get avian diseases, Kolich said. “This is particularly true when backyard chickens are seen as pets and are allowed to mingle with wild birds, particularly waterfowl.”

yellow chicksThe real danger with disease in chickens raised at home is that the implications can extend well beyond the backyard. China banned imports of U.S. poultry and eggs after a USDA-confirmed strain of avian H5N8 influenza was discovered in wild birds and in a so-called backyard flock of guinea fowl and chickens in Oregon, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal in mid-January. The poultry industry is economically critical to Georgia and several other states, Kolich emphasized.

One way for people who want to raise backyard chickens to ensure they start off on the right foot is to purchase chicks from hatcheries that participate in the National Poultry Improvement Plan, Kolich said. Birds raised in hatcheries participating in the program are certified to be free of diseases, Kolich said.

To be on the safe side after receiving birds, Kolich said it’s a good idea to isolate the new birds for 15-30 days. During this time, she said, look for signs of respiratory and digestive diseases and parasites.

Other safety precautions to keep your birds disease-free (and out of your neighbor’s vegetable garden) include:

  • Sanitize your boots and change clothes after visiting other backyard coops and before you enter your coop. Organic material can stick to clothing, Kolich said. If that material carries disease organisms, they can infect your flock. “Diseases are hard to cure, and there are very few medications for laying hens,” she advised.
  • Have all of your equipment in place before you bring your chickens home, and when building your coop and any adjacent runs be sure to enclose the tops. In addition to protecting your chickens from wild birds, this will also help keep them safe from cats, raccoons and coyotes. Remember, “chickens don’t cross the road well!” she said.
  • Do not place the coop or the runs near a water source, such as a pond or a stream.
  • Do not let your chickens drink from an open water source.
For local advice, check with your nearest Cooperative Extension agent. There are Extension resources in every state in the nation, Kolich said. The University of Georgia also offers a “poultry tips” page with a wealth of information for people who want to raise backyard chickens.

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Chicken eggs: woodleywonderworks/flickr

Rooster: Juan Tello/flickr

Chicks: Kabsik Park/flickr