Backyard chicken-raising may seem like a great idea, but it's one that should be thought out, not hatched spontaneously.
That's according to David Frame, Utah State University Extension's Ephraim-based poultry specialist. He says the first thing new chicken owners should do is "study it out." And chicken newbies should have all of their equipment in place before bringing home the box carrying those fluffy balls of feathers.
"Have a clear idea," he says, "of why you're getting the birds -- is it recreation? Egg production?" Do your homework and talk with people who've owned chickens, he says.
The Internet is a good source, but may not be entirely reliable. "It's always good to consult with people who have science-based knowledge," such as extension agents, he says.
But most importantly, new chicken owners should have their chicken-raising spot set up before obtaining any chicks. Coops, feed boxes and nesting boxes should be in place, he says. "Sometimes we're, 'Let's buy some chickens!' and then we decide what to do. We're all prone to that," he says. "It should be the other way around. You really need to decide beforehand -- because they're live animals."
Here's some advice from the experts.
Chickens always need a coop -- a place to roost and to keep them safe from predators. "I recommend letting chickens out during day," says James Barnhill, Weber County Extension agent. "But put them in a protected place at night to at least keep dogs and raccoons away from them."
Winter weather won't affect chickens -- if they're cared for and have a coop, says Barnhill. "If chickens can be kept dry in cold months, then they can fluff up their feathers and stay very warm," he said. "But they need to have water that's not frozen to drink every day. And so their coop needs to be warm enough so water doesn't freeze solid."
Higher areas like Huntsville may require a bit more insulation on coops. But if chickens are kept dry and out of the wind, they'll do fine, Barnhill said.
Coops should also have adequate ventilation, he says, so humidity from the birds' breathing and urine doesn't build up inside the coop and cause an unhealthy environment.
Both Frame and Barnhill recommend chickens be fed a balanced diet that's professionally formulated. Chickens can eat a variety of things, such as insects and kitchen scraps, said Frame, but they need those vitamins and minerals that come from the feed store. "It's fine to let them in the garden to get bugs, but you need to give them their meat and potatoes," he said.
Barnhill agrees: "It's difficult to provide your own feed," he says. "For chickens to produce well, they need a balance of amino acids and nutrients, and those are provided in commercial mixes" that are geared to each phase in a chicken's life.
And then, he adds, "Provide some scratch to keep them busy."
Chicken lover Lisa Warner of West Warren every morning offers her birds scratch made of corn, millet, barley and other grains available from the feed store. "It boosts their metabolism and gets them going for the day, especially in the winter," she said.
Frame said the question he is most often asked is: What breed is best suited for our area?
His answer: "It's really up to you. Most breeds adapt well to the climate in Utah. There are not that many breeds I wouldn't recommend."
That said, each chicken type has its own characteristics. For instance, the white leghorn "is great if you're interested in high egg production." That's the kind commercial egg producers use. Other good egg layers include the Plymouth rock chicken in all its varieties, the red star and black star, as well as the Rhode Island red. "And any of the variety of different sex-link crosses - any of them are really good," he said.
If you're looking for a big, gentle hen, Frame points to the Plymouth rock again, as well as the buff Orpington and other Orpington varieties. "Another fun one is the Cochin," he said. This fluffy breed, which has feathers from breast to claw, "looks bigger than they are."
Look also for characteristics you don't want. High-jumping, flighty chickens like the leghorn and Polish may not do well if allowed to roam in a yard with shorter fences, said Frame.
If space and money is limited, Frame recommends the smaller bantam breeds. Nearly all chicken breeds have a bantam counterpart that is about one-fifth the size of a regular chicken, he said. "There's just a myriad of breeds of bantams that people can keep at a fraction of the cost it takes to feed a flock of big barred Plymouth rocks."
Bantam eggs are smaller, he adds, but, "they're just as good to eat, and they make excellent sponge cakes because there's a lot of yolk in them."
Caring for eggs
Eggs should be gathered daily, preferably twice or three times if you have big egg layers and the weather is hot, say Barnhill and Frame.
A rooster is necessary only if you want fertilized eggs. Many owners want fertilized eggs because they think they're healthier; but unfertilized eggs are no different nutritionally, they said.
Eggs should not be washed because of the danger of the porous eggshell absorbing dirty water, Barnhill said. As a result, he recommends avoiding the problem of dirty eggs by simply keeping coops clean. Clean, unwashed nonfertilized eggs can be kept outside of the refrigerator for several weeks.
Frame said the Utah State University Extension Service offers several publications about backyard chicken raising:
* "Basics for Raising Backyard Chickens": http://extension.usu.edu/files/publications/publication/AG_Poultry_2010-...
* "Handling Baby Poultry": http://extension.usu.edu/files/publications/publication/AG_Poultry_2010-...
* "Housing Backyard Chickens": http://extension.usu.edu/files/publications/publication/AG_Poultry_2008-...
* "Principles of Feeding Small Flocks of Chickens at Home:" http://extension.usu.edu/files/publications/publication/AG_Poultry_2008-...