Raising poultry requires time and space

As spring arrives, many people get a little “chick fever.”

However, those new chicks will fail to thrive and will not be productive members of the farming operation without proper care.

Scharidi Barber, a poultry science instructor at the University of Arkansas, said many people, especially first-time chick growers, don’t know how to care for chicks properly.

“They don’t realize the time it takes,” she said. “They don’t have that brooder setting for the young chicks, which needs to be kept at about 100 degrees for that first week of life and dropped five degrees every week after that. They also don’t realize how much space they will need as they grow. It’s funny how so many people want to have egg layers, but there is so much to know to raise poultry; it’s not simple.”

Brooding chicks require about one-half square foot of space until they reach 4 weeks of age. During typical weather, infrared heat lamps placed 1 to 1.5 feet above the chicks will usually provide enough heat to start. Chicks need enough space under the brooder so they can keep warm without crowding, piling up or smothering. Adequate water and food must also be available for the young birds.

Chicks can be moved from the brooder phase at about 4 to 5 weeks, depending on feather development. However, proper housing is critical for poultry production throughout a bird’s lifetime. 

According to the University of Missouri Extension, poultry housing should provide clean, dry, comfortable quarters for birds throughout the year, be free from drafts, but allow for air movement. Litter, such as pine shavings, rice hulls, peanut shells and ground corn cobs, are absorbent materials that reduce the moisture and serves as an insulating material in cold weather. The litter should be clean, mold-free and dry, but not dusty.

Not only does proper housing protect birds from the elements, but it also protects them from predators.

“People will go to the farm store and get a prefab chicken coop or house and expect that will protect the birds,” Barber said. “Unfortunately, it’s not. A raccoon can get in just about anything, and opossums will also attack poultry. Of course, you also have neighbor’s dog, coyotes, foxes and other things that will attack a coop, especially if there’s nothing around the bottom of the coop. Some predators will dig right into a coop, so you have to have a way to secure that area.”

Chickens need to have 2 to 3 square feet of space in a coop.

“The biggest thing is to have that space and not have overcrowding because birds are cannibalistic, and birds will get aggressive if they don’t have the space they need. You have to prepare for birds as they become adults, not just baby chicks.”

She added that outdoor spaces also require predator protection.

Attacks can also come from other birds, such as eagles and hawks. Barber recommended using netting or obscuring the view from above to protect from an aerial attack.

“The best thing is chicken tractors,” she said. “The birds stay within the tractor and your move them around. You can move them to different areas, and they are protected.”

Barber said there are options for rectangular, portable chicken tractors that also offer an elevated coop area. The structure provides safety from predators and allows the birds to have a run.

Like other animals, poultry require preventative health measures.

“Most of the birds you get from the hatchery are vaccinated against Marek’s (a type of herpes viral disease), and sometimes for other things. Typically, most people with backyard flocks don’t do any other vaccinations, and if they do, it’s for fowl pox (a viral infection). You usually have to vaccinate for fowl pox when they are very young, depending on the vaccine brand. When chickens reach maturity, we recommend deworming every six months. Your local feed stores usually have something you can use to deworm with.”

As chickens reach maturity, their nutritional needs change.

“Chicks need to be on a chick starter, and that goes for game birds and turkeys,” Barber explained. “I encourage people to leave their chicks on starter a little longer than others. If you feed a high-protein diet longer, it will help that bird reach sexual maturity faster. We are seeing birds start laying at 16, 17 weeks, where naturally start at 25, 26 weeks. After the starter, you can go to a grower, which is a step back in protein, but still higher than a layer crumble. You can start feeding the layer at about 26 weeks.”

Without proper nutrition, egg production can be delayed, and meat birds will not gain weight.

Barber said waterfowl (ducks and geese) are not a good mix with chicks.

“They are carriers of diseases that will affect a chick,” she said. “It is often discouraged to raise them together. Their diets are also a little different. A waterfowl, turkey and even game birds need a higher protein feed than chickens. A larger animal, like a turkey, a goose or a duck, also takes up a lot more space, so you have to consider that. Waterfowl also need water they can get into, or they are constantly going to be looking for it.

“If you put a waterer in a pin with 2-week-old ducklings, you will have a mess,” Barber added with a laugh. “They are going to be trying to get in that water.”

Barber cautioned against buying young chicks and waterfowl on an impulse.

“In the state of Arkansas, you have to get a minimum of six,” she said. “Normally, people will think twice because they have to get six because they start to think what are they going to do with six.”

Single chicks also have difficulty keeping warm because they have no “buddies,” and chickens are also considered highly-social birds.

Barber also discouraged purchasing chicks or ducklings for children as Easter gifts unless parents are prepared to rear the birds to maturity, She also recommeded that all chicks and fowl be purchased from a National Poultry Improvement Plan-certified seller.


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