As people are becoming more and more interested in knowing where their food comes from, the trend of raising backyard chickens is growing. Raising backyard chickens can be a rewarding experience and a great way to teach kids about nature, agriculture, and responsibility of caring for animals. Since most backyard chickens are raised for laying and not for meat, this fact sheet will focus on layers.
There is a wide a variety of chicken breeds, developed for egg production, meat production, and/or good looks. While many breeds are adaptable to a backyard setting, certain breeds are better than others for backyard conditions. Medium to large breeds are good for cold winters. A mellow temperament and good egg laying are also pluses. If you see reference to a bantam bird, that is a small version of any particular breed. It will look the same, but be smaller. Here are a few examples of great, mellow breeds for the backyard.
Rhode Island Red
- Hens weigh about 6.5 lb
- Lay brown eggs
- Dark red feathers
- Dual purpose breed, but most often used for laying
- Hardy breed that does well in small flocks
- Hens weight about 6.5 lb
- Dual purpose breed
- Great for small flocks and rugged conditions
- “Curvy” shape, good disposition
- Many color varieties
- Many different color varieties
- Lay green eggs
- Great long-term egg production
- Tolerant to all climates
- Easy to handle
- Hens weigh about 8 lb
- A larger dual purpose breed
- Heavy size is ideal for cold weather
Quality feed and clean water will help keep birds healthy and productive.
Chickens are omnivores. They eat grains, fruits, and vegetables as well as insects. Chickens should typically be fed a prepared feed that is balanced for vitamins, minerals, and protein. A healthy laying hen diet should also contain crushed oyster shell for egg production, and grit for digestion. A 6-pound hen will eat roughly 3 pounds of feed each week.
They love fruit and vegetable scraps from the kitchen and garden, as well as bread. Scratch-cracked corn and oats are a nice treat for the chickens that does not supply all their nutritional needs, but is fine in moderation.
Feed consumption may increase in the winter when burning more calories, and decrease in the heat of the summer. A critical part of a chicken's diet is continual access to clean, fresh water. This is especially true in the summer as they cool themselves by panting.
Click to enlarge. Simple coop design for up to 16 hens from Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens
A quality coop is essential to backyard chicken production. Layers need nest boxes — one per 4-5 birds. Chickens are descended from jungle birds, which means they like to be up high, so a place for them to roost is important. Coops must provide protection from the weather and predators. There should be a well-insulated area with a light bulb or heat lamp for the winter months as well as ventilation for fresh air. Be sure to have a minimum 3-5 square feet per bird, including outdoor space.