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Family Farms

The Complete Guide to Raising Backyard Chickens

Words by: Kate MacLean of Longest Acres Farm

Raising backyard chickens is a joy that everyone should experience. It may be hard work, but chicken keeping comes with countless benefits for your home, your family, and even your neighbors. It's a labor of love that doesn't require a vast stretch of space, or even a large backyard; in fact, chicken keeping has become popular in urban and suburban spaces in recent years, proving that anyone with passion and care to give can turn it into a hobby. Whether you've already toyed with the idea of a backyard flock or haven't yet considered it, use this series as your starter kit. It's a complete guide to nearly all aspects of raising backyard chickens, and will help you navigate everything from chicken breeds to common predators. With information comes empowerment, so read on to dive into the world of chicken keeping.

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1. Why Raise Backyard Chickens?

There are so many reasons to raise backyard chickens—just ask the more than 13 million Americans who have taken on the hobby. Your backyard flock won’t just produce delicious eggs for you. It will also help with waste management, produce compost for your garden or potted plants, act as a natural form of pest control, build confidence, and serve as an educational tool for kids, if you have any. For these reasons and more, chicken keeping is a hobby worth considering.

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2. Understanding Local Laws For Raising Backyard Chickens

Once you've decided that raising a backyard flock fits into your lifestyle, the next step is seeking out and understanding local laws. State laws vary greatly and change frequently these days, so this process will require some research at your local town or city hall. Here, administrators can walk you through exactly what is and is not permitted in your town, down to the neighborhood level. This step is crucial, and the only way to ensure that your future flock won't get you into any trouble (legal or otherwise).

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3. How to Choose Backyard Chicken Breeds

When it comes to choosing chicken breeds, there are many, many options to consider. Your lifestyle, egg needs, and the size of your land will all determine whether a flock of reliable and consistent Rhode Island Reds or heirloom-egg-laying Araucanas is the best choice for your backyard. Consult this list of breeds ranging from exotic to hardy and you're guaranteed to find the type of chicken that's right for you.

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4. Sourcing Chickens from a Hatchery

Most chicken keepers choose to raise their flock from the chick stage, but some prefer to purchase fully grown adult chickens. No matter what you choose, it's important to carefully consider the source of your new flock. Before making that decision, you'll need to weigh the pros and cons of purchasing from a hatchery, via mail at your local hardware store, or at a nearby farm.

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5. How to Raise Chicks in a Brooder

Things happen in the flash of an eye once your chicks have arrived home, so setting up a brooder (a warm, safe space for your chicks to live until they grow their adult feathers) ahead of time is the most important step you can take to ensure that these fluff-covered babies grow up strong and healthy. This guide details everything you need to do in preparation for your chicks, starting with brooder setup before chick delivery day.

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6. A Beginner's Guide to Chicken Coops

Like a brooder, a chicken coop must provide some essential elements for your new feathered friends, including shelter, warmth, food, and water. Always keeping safety top of mind, you'll need to consider size and space, whether or not to add a chicken run, and how to protect your grass and gardens when building and setting up your chicken coop.

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7. Caring for Your Backyard Flock

Once your chickens have settled into their new home, your job is to care for them as they grow, ensuring that they have everything they need to remain healthy, keep laying, and exhibit natural social behaviors. This guide explores amenities like waterers, heat sources, and other tools and accessories that will help your flock transition from season to season.

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8. 20 Common Chicken Predators and How to Protect Your Flock From Them

Chickens are vulnerable creatures and have garnered quite the list of predators, ranging from soaring hawks and ravens to land-creeping weasels and foxes. This guide includes a list of the 20 most common predators to look out for, plus advice for keeping your flock safe from harm by installing fencing, adding a rooster or two, and securing even the smallest holes in your coop.

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9. Guide to the Perfect Nest Box

A nest box is an essential part of any chicken coop: it's a safe, private, cozy space where your hens can lay their eggs in peace each day. Experienced egg collectors know the frustration of finding eggs under the porch, in the flower pot, and buried in the garden, and while the occasional rogue egg is inevitable, putting some thought and care into creating an nest box is a good way to keep ground eggs to a minimum.

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10. The Importance of Letting Your Backyard Chickens Graze

Chickens are natural grazers and foragers, and much of their diet should consist of fresh greens and insects from the outdoors. This guide outlines the benefits of free ranging your flock, the importance of letting your backyard chickens follow their instincts, and the mitigable risks that free ranging chickens can face.

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11. What to Feed Backyard Chickens

Though your backyard chickens will get a good portion of their nutrients from forage and greens, even free range flocks need access to feed in order to remain healthy and productive. Consider fermenting your chickens' feed for added nutritional value, and take a look at these dos and don'ts before treating your flock to that juicy watermelon or orange rind.

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12. Tips for Keeping Free Range Chickens in Winter

Whether you live in the snowy north or the temperate south, it's entirely possible to keep your free range flock safe, warm, and laying during the winter season. This can be done by adding a heat lamp, white light bulbs, or solarizing your chicken coop; it's simply a matter of deciding which heat and light sources are safest for your flock.

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13. How to Prevent and Treat Common Chicken Ailments

Even free roaming chickens can fall ill or get hurt from time to time, but with this list of common ailments and their remedies, you can keep your backyard flock as healthy as possible. Knowing the ins and outs of prevention and treatment for chickens is key, and being prepared is the smartest thing you can do for your backyard flock.

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14. Raising Backyard Chickens Around Children

It's entirely possible to raise young children and chickens in tandem, but safety should always come first. This guide includes the precautions you should take as a parent when introducing children to your backyard flock. These are simple safety measures - hand washing, keeping your coop chore footwear out of the house, etc. - but crucial nonetheless, especially when kids are involved.

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15. The Best Way to Properly Store Freshly Laid Eggs

You've put in all the hard work, and now it's time to enjoy the bounty: an endless supply of fresh eggs. Storing the eggs from your backyard flock couldn't be easier, and isn't much more complicated than storing a carton of Pete and Gerry's Organic Eggs in your fridge after a trip to the grocery store. Just follow a few simple steps to keep the fruits of your (and your hens') labor as fresh as possible.

A note from Pete and Gerry's: For generations, our family of farmers at Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs has been dedicated to revolutionizing the way eggs are produced in the United States. We believe that consumers deserve better eggs from happier chickens living on small farms run by fairly paid farmers, and that’s what we have dedicated our business to. We also believe deeply in the transparency and verification of our standards, which is why we became a Certified B Corporation in 2013. It’s also why our farms meet the rigorous Certified Humane Free Range and USDA Certified Organic standards. We take the welfare of our hens, the sustainability of our farms, and health and happiness of our partner farmers and consumers very seriously. The resulting eggs are ones that stand out in the supermarket; they remind consumers of the eggs from their childhood farms and excursions abroad in Europe. And we're happy to be second best. In fact, we believe that everyone deserves a chance to raise hens right in their backyard and experience the joys that come with raising and growing food at home. Kate MacLean of Longest Acres Farm is here to tell you how.

Kate MacLean lives and works on 120 acres of land known as Longest Acres Farm in Chelsea, VT with her husband Nick, son Leland, and daughter Amelia. As an ex-city-dweller, she gained valuable experience working on friends' and neighbors' farms before making the move to rural Vermont with her family in search of a fulfilling, self-sustaining way of life.

Her breadth of experience in farming and raising countless varieties of chickens and other livestock on Longest Acres Farm not only makes Kate an expert in her field, but an advocate for home grown food and self-sustainability.

COMMENTS

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Kevin

October 26, 2020

WE have a large wet spot of urine on the floor in the coop, how do we dry it out? Can we use cat liter or will the chickens think its food?

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[email protected]

October 26, 2020

Hi Kevin, we recommend keeping a thin layer (~1") of pine wood shavings on the floor of the coop to help soak up any liquids and create a cleaner, more comfortable environment for the chickens. About once a week, shavings should be cleared out of the coop and replaced with fresh shavings.

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Walter

October 20, 2020

just wondering if i should de-worm my chickens and ducks or buy a certain feed the does it all ? Thanks

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[email protected]

October 21, 2020

Hi Walter, it's completely depends on your preference and what's available to you. While uncommon we do de-worm our hens as a precaution, since our hens are free range and spend time in the grass, making them a little more prone to roundworms.

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Patricia loconsole

October 10, 2020

Would like a guide please

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[email protected]

October 12, 2020

Hi Patricia, thanks for expressing your interest. We don't yet have a printable guide, however each of the 15 topics above have their own dedicated blog post that dives deeper into the topics and could be helpful to you. We hope this helps!

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Skipper

October 09, 2020

How do you pick a perfect chicken

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[email protected]

October 12, 2020

Hi Skipper! We believe every chicken is perfect in their own unique way. To find the best breeds for you, we recommend reading up on topics 3 & 4, above. You can get to each of those blogs by clicking their hyperlinked titles. Hope this helps!

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Annette Patterson

October 07, 2020

We are raising chickens in our back yard we have a lot of teens how old do they get before they start laying eggs? Right now we are getting from the bigger hens but our plans are to start selling eggs.

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[email protected]

October 09, 2020

Hi Annette, how exciting! Hens typically start laying anywhere between 16 and 24 weeks of age. Each hen can mature at a slightly different rate so you may have some hens laying at the 16 week mark and some that don't start laying until 24 weeks. As long as your hens are healthy and happy, with a comfortable environment and access to clean food and water, then you should have eggs very soon!

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Jennifer

October 04, 2020

Good evening , i have just started with 6 baby chick's and 2 baby ducks and there all different I got the starter kit but not sure how long there warmer light needs to be on with them dont want to cook them help

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[email protected]

October 05, 2020

Hi Jennifer. How exciting! Typically, baby chicks need supplemental heat for about 4-6 weeks, until they are fully feathered. We recommend toning down the heat about 5 degrees each week or until you reach the same temp as outdoors. This will help the chicks transition better and get used to the natural outdoor temp.

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Kelly Nicolini

September 26, 2020

I am not sure what is wrong with my hen. She is not laying. Fluffy feathers. Walks wobbly. I feel an egg. Hasn’t laid for Three days. I gave her calcium glucpnate. And warm soak. What do I do. She eats very little and drinks a little.

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[email protected]

September 29, 2020

Hi Kelly, we are so sorry to hear this. It's hard for us to know exactly what might be wrong with your hen. A couple factors that can contribute to the frequency at which they lay include age and environment. To get to the root of what might be going on, we would recommend consulting a local veterinarian. Hope everything works out well.

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Paula Makulowich

September 25, 2020

I live in a area where my chickens can’t run free If I keep them in a coop with a good area to roam is that ok? I haven’t started yet with chickens but want to but also do not want to be cruel by keeping them cooped up

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[email protected]

September 29, 2020

Hi Paula, absolutely! We understand if your chickens can't run completely free and that's okay. The biggest thing is to ensure they have plenty of space to move around and peck in the grass. Per free range standards, we recommend allotting at least 2 square feet per chicken. Best of luck!

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Liz Jones

September 07, 2020

Have a chicken coop , had 24 chickens years ago. Want to know if fall is the best time to buy chickens

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[email protected]

September 08, 2020

Hi Liz, that's wonderful! Many people choose to purchase chickens in the spring when there's usually a great selection of breeds available and the weather is warming up to a more comfortable temperature for the birds. That said, you could certainly still purchase them in the fall, just know the options could be a bit more limited. Hope this helps!

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Sheila Sobol

September 04, 2020

I'm wondering how much "dirt" I can expect from two chickens in the yard?

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[email protected]

September 08, 2020

Thank you for reaching out with that great question, Sheila. It's difficult to say just how much of a disturbance two chickens might cause, as it can be different for every chicken. If you don't want them overtaking your yard, we recommend reserving an area of your lawn just for them to start. This way you can observe and determine if you want to open up the rest of the lawn for them as well.

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Christine Peterman

September 03, 2020

Hi! I inherited 21 chicks in July that my grandson bought without checking with his parents. So my husband and I turned a 10' X 10' dog kennel into a chicken coup. He built a roof on it and shingled it we put tarps the hole way around it. He cut a section out of the fence and with chicken wire we built them a small area outside with a wooden door which is closed at night. We have three heat lamps for cold nights. Is it enough room for them? I have grown very fond of them and have followed all the information to a small backyard chicken coop. We live in the Laurel Highland Mountain area of PA and it gets very cold here will they be ok over the winter. The three lamps at 40 degrees keep it at 55°. We had a cold front two weeks ago. I use pine shavings but my daughter said straw is better she has a small farm but they do not like chickens. Can not understand that I adore them. And they love my garden scraps and fresh clover I pick daily. And how do they lay in the winter. Not sure how old they are we received them July 2nd and they were these wee little things that fit in your hand they are not so wee anymore.

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[email protected]

September 04, 2020

Hi Christine! Wow! That's exciting for you and we are so glad you were able to give your grandson's chickens a good home. We recommend providing each hen with at least 2 square feet of indoor space and at least that in outdoor space as well. From what you've described, it sounds like your birds have a comfortable environment. Chickens are pretty hearty and can even tolerate freezing temps, however, they are most comfortable in temps between about 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Keeping the coop around 55 degrees should be okay for them but, as with everything, we'd recommend just keeping an eye on your birds. If they start acting different and really huddling together at night, you may need to add some more insulation. As far as shavings go, we are big fans of using pine shavings as well because they are fairly cheap, absorbent, and insulate pretty well.We hope this helps and wish you and your chickens all the best!

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Verdeana boyles

September 02, 2020

I had a rooster that died for unknown reasons, when I checked him today and he was gone. I only have 4 chickens now three. As far as I know the three are hens. Any suggestions on what to do so it doesn't happen again. They are bantam and silky mix.

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[email protected]

September 04, 2020

We are so sorry to hear of your rooster's passing. It's difficult to say what might've caused this, as there are several factors that play a part in chicken health. The best you can do is give them a comfortable spacious home, with fresh food and water, and plenty of access to the outdoors. It's important to just monitor their behavior. If one of your chickens starts acting a little different, you should probably separate it from the rest of the flock and take it to get checked out to ensure it is not ill. Chickens are pretty hearty creatures, so we hope the rest of your chickens stay safe and healthy for you. All the best!

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Evangeline

August 26, 2020

Our chickens have 1 acre to roam. They have slowed down egg production to about 10 per day out of 57 chickens. They are not molting at this time. What can we do?

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[email protected]

August 26, 2020

Hey Evageline, Although there is no way to increase egg production as the hens get older, you can try these simple steps to keep your older hens comfortable towards the end of their laying part of life. 1) Making sure you provide them a quality feed 2) Cleaning their nest boxes very frequently 3) Providing an open area for them to roam 4) Providing enough calcium in the hen's diet 5) Inspecting their bodies for cuts or bruises 6) Constant fresh water 7) Keeping an eye out for parasites These simple steps will not increase egg laying as the hens turn the corner into older age, but it may keep the hens more comfortable in their older age, therefore extending the few eggs they will be laying in the future.

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Carol Johnson

August 24, 2020

Does noise, such as lawn mower noise and airplanes in the distance disrupt from hens laying eggs?

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[email protected]

August 26, 2020

Hey Carol, Hens do need quiet, enclosed nest boxes. Should be draught-free and lined with clean, dry, comfortable nesting material. When they are outside pecking around the environment doesnt need to be super quiet.

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Megan

August 18, 2020

Hey so I was wondering if it would be better to get chicks or chickens? I know you said it’s your choice but you seem very wise and I was just wondering if you had a certain preference?!

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[email protected]

August 19, 2020

Hi Megan! You are kind and we appreciate you taking the time to reach out to us on this. There are great reasons to do either. By taking them in as baby chicks you are able to ensure that they've been cared for and raised to your standards from day one. You can also start training them earlier. Taking them in when they are older, usually ensures they're either already laying or will start laying shortly thereafter, giving you fresh eggs much sooner than if you were to take them in as babies. Both are wonderful options if you want to raise your own backyard flock. Hope this helps!

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Carmel Alston

August 17, 2020

I live downtown in Denver and have new neighbors who have 3 tiny kids ... and now 7 chickens. They are being kept in a small coop (4’x4’ ) and there is a tiny yard they let them out to - I mean tiny ! 6’ x 4 ‘ for all 7 chickens . The city ordinance says 18 square feet of area PER chicken . They have a decent sized fenced yard but never let them out into it. This seems in humane to me .

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Marco

August 18, 2020

Hey Carmel, This does sound very unfortunate! Some education to your neighbors may be a positive and helpful learning experiencing for them. Letting them know about our mission may inspire them in the future to make better and more humane choices for their hens! Education is always key! If any of y'all have questions feel free to email us at: [email protected]

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Carol Brewer

August 17, 2020

Can you use android fire ant bait around baby chicks

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Marco

August 18, 2020

Hey Carol, Thanks for reaching out to us! We would not recommend using any harmful synthetic pesticides or herbicides near your hens, especially if it's granular (the chicks may think it's food.) A better option would be to use an organic spray that is safe for kids and pets or at the very least an applicant that is non-toxic. We don't want anything happening to those precious chicks! Email us at: [email protected] if you have anymore questions! Thanks for being loyal to small family farms!

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paige

August 05, 2020

hi so we are get chikens i have a quishitn can you pick them up and if you do how are you sposhtyo hold them

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[email protected]

August 06, 2020

Hi Paige, how exciting! The answer to your question is yes, you can hold chickens, however some may be more friendly than others, so you'll want to read the personality of each chicken before doing so to make sure neither you nor the chicken will be uncomfortable. A technique that we find works well for holding a chicken is to swoop in from above rather than head-on. Once you're standing over the chicken you'll want to gently hug the chicken while holding down its wings. We hope this makes sense and works for you too. Best of luck with your new chickens!

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Amie Libby

July 31, 2020

Hello there, I am not sure if my 2.5 month old chicks are girls or boys. Could I possibly send you a picture so you could help me decide? I hatched them myself and I am not allowed to keep roosters in my city. Thank You!?

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Marco

August 03, 2020

Hi Amie, We would be happy to help you. Please send us an email at: [email protected] Thanks for choosing small family farms!

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Rachal Hughes

July 27, 2020

I’m wanting to raise some chickens, and this information has helped me in many ways. Thank you

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[email protected]

July 28, 2020

We're so glad you've found this information helpful, Rachal. Don't hesitate to reach out if we can be of any help to you as you set forth in this endeavor.

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Karla McCusker

July 04, 2020

My husband just gave the go ahead to put up a chicken coop in our yard. Can you tell me if it’s too late to get chicks? Do I need to buy adult hens right now? I’d prefer babies.

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[email protected]

July 06, 2020

Hi Karla, how exciting! It's really up to your own preference as to whether you would prefer to raise them up from chicks or purchase them as older chickens closer to laying age. It also depends on what is still available for purchase from where you are sourcing your chickens from. In terms of timing, now should still be a good time to start out your flock. Hope this helps!

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Katrina

June 26, 2020

We purchased 2 hens three weeks ago. They are very happy and healthy. I spoil them when it comes to there feed, grains, water and a comfy clean coop! On the second day I had the girls they blessed me with one egg......nothing since! Any tips on getting my girls to lay eggs? I'm hoping I didn't get lied to about there age. I was told they are 11 months old. Is there anyway to tell a chickens age?

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[email protected]

June 26, 2020

How exciting, Katrina! We are here for you on this new adventure of yours. Sometimes it's tricky to tell exactly what might be causing them to not lay. It could be age or a variety of environmental factors, such as changes in temperature or light. As long as you continue providing them with food, water, shade, and a comfortable loving environment, we don't doubt they'll be laying again in no time!

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Robin Symons

June 12, 2020

My daughter and her husband have had chickens for years. But where the chickens lived the barn had to come down because a storm. The chickens are a mess. He built a temporary coop until the barn/coop is built. He built a temporary coop. The chickens will eat and drink there but not go in to sleep/ roost. They have never had this problem. (The chickens are on the deck at night....it's a disgusting mess in the morning... ) Do you have any suggestions on how to get the chickens in the coop for the night?

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[email protected]

June 15, 2020

Hi Robin, thank you for reaching out to us. Sometimes change can be difficult, especially if your chickens are not used to their new (temporary) home. Some things you might try to encourage them to go in at night is to turn on a dim light just before dusk so they are drawn in to roost. It's important it's not too bright, otherwise this could prevent them from roosting. You could also encourage them with some food. Sounds like you keep plenty of food and fresh water accessible to them in their coop already, but making sure of this will give them further reason to go in. Finally, ensuring there is plenty of space for all of the chickens in the coop and that the doors are easy for them to get in and out of, should help encourage their return as well. Other than that, it might just take them a little time and encouragement to adjust to their new living conditions. Hopefully, when the barn is restored, they will be eager to get back to their old routine. We hope this helps and wish you all the best with your backyard flock!

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Renate Reisel

May 22, 2020

Good information we just picked up 4 chickens and I need to get information if the need now has or Wood chips

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[email protected]

May 26, 2020

Hi Renate! We are so excited for you to begin raising your own little flock and are here to help you navigate along the way.

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Samara

April 29, 2020

Does your chicken have to have a fenced backyard how do you keep them from running away when you let them out of there coop

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[email protected]

April 30, 2020

Hi there! We do have a large fenced in area for the chickens to roam around in that keeps them from wandering off to far and, even more importantly, keeps the predators away from our girls.

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