Wondering how to raise backyard chickens for an educational activity with your kids or as a consistent source of eggs? We spoke to an expert to discover the essential tips to raise backyard chickens safely, including how to set up a coop and the best ways to steer clear of foodborne illnesses.

By Karla Walsh
April 14, 2020
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For the last decade or so, backyard chickens have become much more common. The reasons vary, it’s one way to practice eating hyper-locally, people have more time on their hands due to shelter-in-place orders, and some are seeking a consistent stock of eggs as grocery store supplies of many items are low. No matter the inspiration for trying it out, hatcheries are reporting that they’re busier than they've been in the past 50 years. While it depends on the hatchery, many are reporting a 100% increase in sales year over year. In fact, in late March and early April of 2020, some went so far to say that people are panic-buying chicks.

We don’t recommend panic-buying anything, especially anything living, but we do fully endorse embracing your pet-loving, domestic side. So before you get crackin’ on that new backyard hobby, consider this safety advice from Megin Nichols, D.V.M., the Enteric Zoonoses Activity Lead at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia. 

Especially worth noting is the potential risk for salmonella infections.“Raising chickens can be very rewarding. It will teach you more about where food comes from and can be a really valuable educational experience for older kids too,” Nichols says. “But any time we see an increase in backyard chickens, we notice an increase in salmonella outbreaks, especially in those who are new to it.”

So before you add a chicken coop to your backyard garden, take note of these nine helpful tips.

Credit: Karla Conrad

Get Familiar with Local Laws and Regulations

About 93% of the largest cities in the U.S. allow non-commercial poultry, according to research published in the journal Public Health Reports. Search online to confirm the legality and your local ordinances; many cities limit the number of chickens, require permits, restrict the size of your plot, and only allow urban gardens to have chickens in coops (aka not free-roaming).

Consider the Investment Required

The financial investment is high for feed, coop building and maintenance, and vet services, as is the time investment, Nichols explains. According to estimates from Alliant Credit Union, the initial investment is around $550 and would be about $25 each following month if you own three chickens. Vet bills, as needed, range from about $25 to $100. “One of the top things people should consider is the time required. Is this decision a good fit for your family? Chickens live quite a few years [about 8, on average] and take a lot of care and cleaning,” she says.

Keep Your Family Demographics in Mind

Yes, chicks are adorable and begging to be cuddled. That doesn’t mean they should be. That’s one of several reasons why Nichols suggests that you wait until all of your household members are over the age of 5.

“Consider other animal choices if you have anyone in your household who has a weakened immune system, any older adults over 65, or any young kids under 5. The kids’ immune systems are still developing and they’re likely to put their hands in their mouth without washing them,” Nichols says. “Think carefully if this is the right fit right now.”

Shop Smart

If your city allows backyard chickens, you’re up for the investment, and your family fits those qualifications, the next step is selecting your chickens. Chicken are social animals, so you should always have at least two, but the ideal "starter size" flock according to many vet pros, is three to five chickens or chicks. While you can buy them online, it’s best to go visit a local facility so you can peek at the conditions. Once there, inquire about: 

  • Coop conditions
  • Where the chicks were born
  • The breed 
  • The gender (many cities don’t allow roosters, or male chickens)
  • If they were vaccinated

“When purchasing backyard poultry, owners should also ask, ‘What are you doing to keep your chickens healthy?’” Nichols says. 

Consider Chickens Instead of Chicks

Circling back to that salmonella safety talk, know that it’s something that exists in the gut of all poultry. 

“It doesn’t necessarily make them sick, they can look healthy and clean and still have it, but the germs can get on the cages and coops,” Nichols says. A University of Pennsylvania study found that there’s less salmonella in the commercial chicken industry, or eggs sold in stores, than in backyard eggs, due to more regulation and oversight. This is similar to how food safety is often better in restaurants than home kitchens.”

Backyard chicken coops may have rodents roaming around, and cleaning is often less stringent. To be on the safer side, clean the coop floor, nest, and perches early and often and consider older chickens rather than newly-hatched ones.

“Chicks are more likely to spread salmonella,” Nichols says. “Two things contribute to this: Age, because young birds have a less developed gut, and are more likely to have salmonella set up in their gut and be shed in droppings. The other is stress. Chicks are hatched amidst thousands of other birds, then shipped to a feed store in the mail. Then they are taken out and put in an area where they are sold.” Yep, sounds stressful.

Practice Proper Hygiene

One of the main ways to prevent the spread of many major viruses is to wash your hands properly. Same holds true for potential salmonella illnesses.

“Wash your hands thoroughly after touching the backyard poultry, after collecting eggs, and after handling the chickens’ food, water, or anything in the coop. Even if you don’t touch the chickens directly, anything within the space that they roam can still be contaminated with salmonella,” Nichols says. 

You should scoop up droppings once or twice a week, and aim to complete a deep clean twice a year to change the flooring material (a new batch of sand, hay, etc.).

Slip off your shoes before entering the house, and remember: don’t kiss, snuggle or cuddle your backyard chickens.

Don’t Invite the Birds in Your Home

As tempting as it might be to welcome chicks into your home to stay cozy on chilly nights, please don’t, Nichols warns. “Chicks have trouble regulating temperature and should be kept in a brooder [an outdoor heated space] not in your house,” she says.

Enlist Help from a Poultry Veterinarian

True, you can never fully eliminate salmonella from your poultry. You can take steps to reduce it, though. 

“Contact a local poultry veterinarian, and have him or her come out and check your set-up at the start. Vets can give you good advice about how to set up a backyard coop, how to set up a brooder to keep them warm,” Nichols says. “Then you’ll know your vet and have them at the ready for any emergencies that might arise. Backyard poultry can have other health issues too.”

Clean and Cook the Eggs Thoroughly

Planning to eat the eggs your chickens lay? “Don’t wash warm fresh eggs since they’re porous, cold water on warm eggs can pull bacteria into the eggs. Instead, clean with fine sandpaper or a clean cloth, then be sure to cook your eggs to 160°F or warmer,” Nichols says. “If you see any cracks on the egg shells, throw them away. Bacteria can easily enter the eggs through the cracks too.”

To collect, clean, and eat your eggs, follow these steps:

  • Collect eggs twice a day using gloved hands.
  • Remove gloves and shoes before entering your house.
  • Inspect eggs for cracks.
  • Wipe any dirt or grime off with a paper towel or fine sandpaper. If any remains, use a clean paper towel dampened with just a bit of warm water.
  • Allow eggs to air dry, mark them with the date of harvest, then store in the fridge.
  • Use within 5 weeks and cook as desired (these egg recipes are a great place to start!).

Now that you know how to safely start raising backyard chickens, you can feel secure about welcoming a new pet (or a few) into your brood. “Backyard agriculture can be a great experience for the families and the poultry,” Nichols says.

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