Guide to starting with Backyard Chickens

Guide to starting with Backyard Chickens

Follow our journey - 9 easy steps to a successful backyard flock

We moved north of the city and left behind our subdivision for the rural, quiet life. This natural way of living has lead to our mini organic homestead and backyard chickens. here's how we got started...

1. Establish your REASON for wanting to raise a farm flock

Do you want birds for meat or eggs or both for your family-calculate how many you would want in a year?

Will you free range them - if so what species are good for free ranging? How will this work with neighbours, pets and predators

How much time will you commit to them, and what are the needs of each species? 

Do you want show birds? Heritage? Mixed breeds? Commercial layers?

Will you start with hatching eggs, day old chicks, or ready to lays?

Do you want to keep roosters or not?

Our main priorities were ranked in this order (a least when we began)

Family pets - we were hoping for a breed or species that we could pamper and give a good life to. 

Something friendly and intelligent, and hardy!

We didn’t want a LOT of eggs, so major egg producers were not needed. 

This meant that the males would be equally welcome on our homestead

We were NOT getting any of of our animals to EAT. 

Nothing was going in the freezer, so we had to keep numbers low,

We also wanted to keep space, costs, and time limited - which would impact the numbers of animals we would get, and be extra selective in those we did bring home.

We were interested in animals that could assist in eating bugs, so free ranging species were to be desired.

2. Choosing the right species for your flock

Chickens - My husband insisted a few chickens made the list as he wanted some farm fresh eggs. His grandfather has raised some for years, and I really look up to them and their lifestyle, so chickens were going to make the list.

 Ducks - I wanted ducks for family pets, I have read that a duck will imprint and form a special bond on humans, although this is adorable, it is much better to keep them as a flock, as we wanted them to be able to live a natural, normal duck life.  They also do not require as much space as far as height requirements.  They eat flies and mosquitos and their larvae. They also naturally aerate your lawn searching out grubs, and provide a lot of entertainment.  Guinea Hens - They are very popular in our area because they eat ticks better than any other bird or fowl.  I adored the fact that they would be happy to free range and nest up in trees, they can be raised with chickens to be slightly more domesticated and share a coop nicely.  They also create a. Nice little alarm system and keep on the watch for the entire flock.  A few guineas would call our coop home.

Turkeys, geese, swans, peacocks, quail  - These are some birds that did not make the cut, mainly for size, and not wanting to eat our flock.

3. Set a Number (limit) for how many birds you want to keep

Keep in mind how much space for each bird you will need when full grown. Chickens require minimum 4 sqft per bird, and ducks 6 sqft each. Their run will require approx 10 sq ft of space per bird. We hoped to start with 3 of each which would give us 9. However CHICKEN MATH is a real thing let me tell you, and when you see cute little fluffy adorable chicks and ducklings, what is a few more--right? Although I did know the absolute maximum number I would want at any given time would be 25. It is also harder to introduce new chickens to an established flock, so it may work to get the max number of birds you want all at once to avoid the aggressive pecking order yard disasters. Ducks were extremely welcoming of their new clan, and adapted them immediately to their trio.

4. Choose what kind of shelter you will use for your birds, and where it will be located.

Over the winter, we had designed a perfect plan to build our coop and pen, and the perfect location. However in the spring we realized that the location we chose was way too muddy and wet, and continued to stay that way right into the fall. we also changed our minds on having it so far from the house, as we wanted to be able to watch them from the house for enjoyment purposes and also keep an eye on predators. The thoughts of carrying buckets of water several times a day in the winter, made us change our minds on location before we really got started. The previous owner had a coop holding 3-4 chickens right on the back of his shed. I knew that spot would not be large enough for our birds, so I did would any other wife would do...I bought my husband a brand new shiny, larger shed that he could build on the other side of the house, and took over the entire wooden shed for our birds. It actually worked out perfectly. With a few minor variations, we were able to house chickens on one side and ducks on the other.

5. Once you have figured out what type of birds and how many, have fun choosing what breeds you would like too start with

We wanted to start with pure bred heritage birds, ones that were friendly, beautiful, and hardy for beginners, and eastern Ontario where we have lots of wind, snow and ice at least 4 months out of the year. the first bird that caught my attention was the:

Cayuga drake - Jasper is my all time favourite duck - he is absolutely stunning, and enjoyed being handled most of the time. Friendly and non-bitey - a good trait as they pinch and twist when biting lol.Call ducks - smaller birds that have adorable round features. Great flyers. We have a snowy call female and a bantam black bib call drake. They are considered to be noisy, but they are nothing compared to my mixed breed female, and Guinea hens. Despite size, the female call duck has ALWAYS been in charge of the duck (and chicken) pack. As a young one, she was always terrorizing the chicks by scaling the wall separating them, and then bathing in their water and eating all their food. Wherever she goes-they all follow, and she regularly leads them to trouble, and then flies back quickly when she is discovered.Mixed ducks - We have 3, that were for companion only and not for breeding. they are beautiful, bold and friendly

6. Where will you find your flock? - This is important and not as easy as you think

Spring is by far the best time of year for finding day olds, newly hatched chicks, ducklings, and keets. If you are looking for ready to lay, than early summer will probably be the best time to purchase. You can order from reputable hatcheries (My two local favourites are Bonnies Hatchery, and Performance Poultry- although I haven't ordered and picked up from them directly, I have some birds that have came from there). Markets, and Fairs are where we obtained most of our birds - but you do have to be careful if you already have an established flock, that you don't bring home disease that could wipe out your flock. You will also need a quarantine phase if you are adding to. This is why we chose to get most of ours in one day. We purchased from 4 breeders, 2 well known, 2 new. We lost both a chick and a duckling before sundown, one was from a reputable breeder (The other 5 birds were fine), and one was a last minute purchase. Either way it was a successful purchase for us - and our birds have thrived once in our care. Kijiji, Facebook Market, and local groups are another way to start a flock. Do your research and remember CHICKEN MATH - and your limits.

6. Figure out what type of supplies you will need to bring your brood home, and plan for you will need in near future

Brooder - we started with small totes, easily cleanable, and stackable., as they got older we made a 30" x 8' brooder that later became 6' long and went inside coop to house the "teenagers separate from rest of flock.

Heat source - I would not recommend heat lamps, even thought you will see them in our original set up, we will not use again - we had a fire in the house when a bird knocked the heat lamp down - we thought it was fool proof secured and we were wrong. There are many safer options. I found one on Amazon called EcoGlow by Brinsee for around $40 delivered to my door in two days--this is what we will use for the next season.

Thermometer - not needed, we bought two - they never worked, and we never relied on them anyways - your chicks will let you know whether they need more or less heat .

Water dishes - different sizes for when they grow. Ducks will require a large enough one to dunk their bills regularly. Chicks need easy to clean, not very deep - there are many options out there. We used a commercial one when they were little and after spending a fortune on water dishes, we ended up by the blue camping jugs and cut a few holes around the sides - these work perfectly!

Feed dishes - easy to clean, accessible to all, and a cover to prevent them from messing in it, or tipping overFood - chick starter - we used medicated for the first 4-6 weeks. Ducklings require NON-medicated chick or duck starter with extra niacin (Brewers yeast, and peas help supplement)

Bedding - we prefer pine shavings, have used straw in past and prefer wood shavings - no cedar though.

small perches for growing chicks and water sources for the ducks to swim. (Bathtub, pool, large totes work well), and yes that is a pool in our basement for the ducks- they were spoiled. Happy and healthy

Gloves and cleaning supplies - vinegar and water work well. I make my own natural spray for disinfecting the coop and brooders, and dishes.

Other items for health such as grit, to help with chicken digestion, Niacin to help with ducks, medication to have on hand incase they get ill. Diluted Apple cider vinegar can also work in a pinch. Oyster shells to add extra calcium for layers.

7. Plan out your maintenance schedule, which will include health of birds and coop.

We use the deep litter method, which is a natural slow composting type of method. You start with a nice base of 3-4" of shavings, each day you rake it and top with some fresh dry ones. very month or so, you remove some and add extra fresh dry shavings. This prevents smell, creates warmth, and keeps it clean - if you monitor it. there are many youtube videos on the subject.

Our ducks NEED fresh clean water every single day, this means in the winter, they get a heated large pet bowl to ensure no frozen water. The chickens all have access to it, as well. In the summer this means cleaning and filling their pool every few days.

Establish early on who will do what, our flock is pretty low maintenance now, but they do require every day chores. Make sure you have a number for people to watch them if you are away or an emergency comes up.

make sure you have someone you can share your delicious eggs with, either sell a dozen here or there, or become creative in finding egg recipes. hands down my favourites are homemade carbonara sauce - which uses like 6 eggs. Homemade hollandaise sauce (many eggs) and poached eggs on the weekends! Yummy!

8. Be prepared to understand you cant fight nature! 3 years later into this journey, and it has been an incredible one. We have fought off foxes, hawks, eagles, measles, raccoons and and snakes. Chased chipmunks from their feed. Dealt with frostbite, crossbreed, egg bound, angel wing, splay leg, mites, and SO MUCH MORE! You cannot possibly be prepared for everything.

9. Our biggest learning lesson - was us having to "EAT OUR WORDS". See the very first paragraph. As it turns out, it is not easy to house multiple roosters come spring, even the best of them scrap and overrate the hens. We have had 2 years of people on the waiting list go back to work, change their mind, and no longer want the 30 ducks, 50 chicks we painstakingly hatched for them. So we now take deposits for waitlist for anything we hatch. We have learned Coq-Au-Vin is amazing (rooster and wine), and roasted duck is incredible. Our farm is healthy, managed, happy and thriving. Plus we eat free range birds when required and I could never go back to store bought chicken. Don't be afraid to enjoy your hard work - and appreciate the life given to you, to provide food on your table.

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