If you get your feathers ruffled when thinking about starting your own poultry flock, here are some tips so you don’t chicken out!

The Wildcat Extension District hosted an introductory poultry workshop last week in Girard, Kansas, sponsored by Ag Choice, Blue Ribbon Farm and Home and Producers Co-op.

The meeting started off with Keith Martin, Wildcat Extension District livestock agent, discussing how to get started with chickens. “First, you need to check to see if you are allowed to have chickens where you live,” Martin said. Some towns have regulations regarding chickens, he explained.

Next, you have to decide their purpose — meat, eggs, a pet, exhibitions, heritage breeds or dual purposes.

“This decision will help determine what breeds of chickens you will consider purchasing,” Martin said. For egg breeds, you can base your selection on egg color, flock uniformity, hybrids or characteristics that may be important to you, such as docility. For meat breeds, you can decide based on how fast or slow the chickens grow.

Martin suggested considering housing for your flock. First, you will need a floor. You may choose to use concrete or three-quarter inch exterior-grade plywood as your floor. On top, you need absorbent litter that is clean, mold-free and dry but not dusty, with a depth of 3 inches. Pine shavings, rice hulls, chopped straw, shredded newspaper, peanut shells or ground corncobs can be used. Hardwood shavings are not recommended as they can produce mold, and cedar shavings tend to mat, which enhances odors. Litter should be stirred to reduce packing, and wet litter  replaced to prevent odors. Move waterers regularly to prevent wet areas.

Martin said proper ventilation is necessary to keep birds healthy. Proper ventilation is required because chickens cannot sweat. At 95 degrees F they start to pant. Windows should be placed on the south side of the henhouse for light and warmth during winter. Vents can be placed on the south or east side for proper ventilation during the summer months. If you discover dampness and an ammonia odor, this could indicate a lack of proper ventilation. The roof and walls need to be insulated to reduce summer heat and moisture accumulation.

For laying hens, provide one nest for every four to five chickens. The nest should be roughly 12 inches by 12 inches in size, which can fluctuate based on the size of your breed. The material used can be wood, metal or plastic. With a south-facing coop, you will want to place the nest on either the east or west walls with a landing board for easier entrance/exit for the birds. To prevent egg breakage, you will want to provide bedding in your nests.

Spacing requirements vary based on the size of breed, he added. A good rule of thumb is 5 to 9 inches per bird, with 12 to 14 inches in between for them to defecate. The roost needs to be located opposite nesting boxes and contain the highest point for the chickens to roost. For feeders, you will need 1.5 to 5 inches per bird. A waterer does not need as much space per bird; at least an inch will be sufficient unless you have a larger breed.

Now that you have the housing for your flock, it’s time to bring home some chicks! Martin suggested purchasing chicks in the fall so their egg production will begin in the spring. When starting chicks, you must remember this is the most critical time in life.

“It is not the time to cut corners,” Martin said.

At this time chicks are developing various systems in their body including their immune, thermoregulatory and digestive systems. They will also begin their feathering and develop their eating and drinking behaviors. Since a chick’s thermoregulatory system is developing, you will need to ensure the chick stays warm enough with a brooder. A brooder should have a draft shield of 12-18 inches high with one-half square foot per bird of space. There should be a heat source over the brooder. You want to start the heat at 95 degrees Fahrenheit and decrease five degrees per week. The heat should be on for 24 hours before the chicks arrive to ensure warmth. The litter in your brooder should be clean and dry, but not too fine.

Martin recommends one quart of clean water per 25 birds. Feeders should be placed near the heat, but not directly underneath and kept fresh at all times. Do not limit the intake of water or feed. Monitor behavior to judge temperature.

Martin also discussed biosecurity due to recent reports of avian influenza. To prevent disease, you need to keep your coop as clean as possible. Also, you need to know the warning signs of infectious diseases and seek advice from your veterinarian or extension specialist if needed.

Now, if you decided you’re raising chickens for their meat, you most likely selected a fast-growing breed. It will take your broilers roughly eight weeks to finish, with the first two weeks requiring them to be indoors. Chuckie Hessong Wildcat District family and consumer sciences agent, showed an example of her broiler house on wheels that she can move twice a day to give the chickens fresh grass. She also said for 100 chickens from start to finish it will require approximately one ton of feed.

Before processing, select the birds that are healthy, well fleshed and well finished. Six to eight hours before slaughter, remove feed but continue access to water. The water allows the bird to bleed out easier causing less work and mess.

Next, you will move onto your processing station. This station should have three work areas. The first area is where you will kill, scald and pluck the feathers of the chicken. At this station, you will need knives for cutting the artery and water that is 140-145 degrees F to scald the bird for feather removal. The next area is where you will eviscerate and wash the chicken. Here you need knives as well as a waste container and cool running water. Lastly, you will chill and pack the chicken in a heavy-duty plastic storage bag and place it in a cooler with clean ice water.

If you have layers, Hessong discussed what to do if the eggs need cleaned.

“You don’t want to wash them unless you have to,” Hessong emphasized.

Eggs naturally have a coating called a bloom, which seals eggshell pores. Washing removes that bloom and open the pores and allow bacteria to penetrate the egg. If washing is necessary, Hessong recommended, the water should be 20 degrees warmer than the egg to prevent the pores from contracting and producing a vacuum causing them to suck bacteria through the pores. Soap you should be mild, unscented and non-foaming. You can use a one teaspoon of bleach per gallon of water solution and dip the egg in to sanitize, she added.

Eggs should not be stored in the door of the refrigerator, Hessong said, because the temperature fluctuates and can actually be the warmest spot in the refrigerator. Also when placing them in the cartons, sit them large side up. This places the air cell in the egg exposed, which helps prevent bacteria from entering.

For more information, contact your local extension agent.

That’s all yolks!

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