Chickens come home to roost in back yards

Angela Daughtry, News-Leader
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Hens with red earlobes lay brown eggs, while hens with white earlobes lay white eggs. The “Silkie” breed of chicken looks like a Dr. Seuss character, and has black bones and black meat. Araucana chickens lay blue eggs. Nine billion chickens are raised and slaughtered commercially every year. 

These are just a few interesting facts about chickens an audience of interested residents learned at a Backyard Chicken Workshop held Feb. 6 at the Nassau County Extension Service in Yulee.

A White Leghorn, Golden Comet, and Barred Plymouth Rock, above, are examples of chicken breeds that can be raised in the backyard.

Sponsored by the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, the workshop addressed the management, feeding, breed selection and local regulations for aspiring backyard chicken farmers. 

“Urban farming” is growing in popularity for big-city dwellers interested in having fresh produce available, along with community gardens and the “slow food” movement. 

According to University of Florida Agriculture Agent Mike Davis, who spoke at the seminar, it is not difficult to raise chickens for eggs and/or meat, but it does take dedication and a modicum of knowledge.

One of the most important things that beginning chicken farmers need to know is that chickens need attention every day, Davis said, especially in keeping them supplied with clean water. 

“If you just leave them alone, tons of things can happen,” Davis said. The maximum time you should leave chickens is just one overnight, he said. 

Chickens also need adequate shade, ventilation, lighting and a way to keep nocturnal predators out. There are many options for housing and sheltering chickens, including do-it-yourself plans that can be found online. Chickens can even be housed in portable shelters called “chicken tractors” that can be moved around the property as a source of grounds fertilizer. 

If you want your hens for non-fertile egg production only, there’s no need to have roosters around, Davis said. Hens average about one egg every day or two, and egg production is highest the first year after hens become mature. Egg production drops off every year after that, at only 20 percent of the original egg production when a hen is 10 years old. 

Hens also need supplemental lighting in the autumn when the daylight becomes shorter, Davis said, or egg production will drop. But other stresses such as poor nutrition, heat and overcrowding can cause a drop in the number of eggs. Hens that have access to the outdoors will sometimes hide their eggs under foliage, or try to collect enough eggs for a clutch, Davis said. 

Hens are also territorial, Davis said, and will take time to accept new members into the henhouse. 

“You can have new hens in the same area, but keep them separate until they know each other,” Davis said. “‘Pecking order’ comes from chickens.” 

Hens only have one orifice, Davis said, from which they expel waste and also lay eggs – which is why eggs can be dirty when gathered. But it’s not a good idea to wash eggs because the moisture can penetrate the shell, bringing bacteria to the inside. 

“Don’t wash your eggs,” Davis said. “Dirty spots can be removed with sandpaper ... if the egg is extremely dirty just throw it away.” There are strict rules for the cleansing and sanitizing of eggs if they are sold commercially, Davis said. 

It’s also not necessary to refrigerate eggs immediately, Davis said. They can actually be left unrefrigerated for weeks, but refrigeration keeps bacteria from growing on the shells, and keeps the yolks from becoming flat. But he did not recommend leaving eggs out for more than a week, just for safety’s sake. 

Raising chickens from chicks can be a bit more complicated, but is possible as long as the chicks are kept within the correct temperatures after being hatched, Davis said, and have a proper “brooder” environment. 

The breed of chicken you select depends on whether you’re raising them for eggs or meat, or both, according to Amanda Burnett of the Nassau County Extension Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, who also spoke at the seminar.

Leghorns are small, white chickens that are good layers but not usually raised for meat. Cornish crosses are good for meat and can be butchered at six to 12 weeks, Burnett said. Silkies are raised for their black meat and for their unusual appearance. They have down instead of feathers and also make great brooders for many different poultry species. 

Dual-purpose breeds, that are good for both eggs and meat, include barred rocks, Rhode Island reds, New Hamp-shire reds and Buff Orpingtons, according to Burnett. The most common backyard breeds are the Plymouth Rock, the Orpington, the Black Austrolorp, red sex-link crossbreeds, the Rhode Island Red and the White Leghorn.

Poultry diets vary with the age of the chicken, but generally consist of mash, pellets, or “crumbles,” which are pellets that have been rolled. Foods that are toxic to chickens include raw green potato peels, salty foods, dried or undercooked beans, avocado skins and pits, raw eggs and sugary items. Chickens can be fed “treats” such as berries, apples and carrots. 

“Free-range” chickens will eat bugs, seeds and grasses, but their diets must still be balanced, and chickens typically consume about twice as much water as food. Chickens with access to the outdoors can also become prey to other animals, and must be locked in their coops at night. 

Chickens can live to 20 years and can be kept as pets, but in commercial operations are butchered when they reach maturity at a few weeds old, or when their egg production drops off. 

Nassau County has an “open rural” code allowing for poultry structures within 100 feet of any property line. However, subdivisions or homeowner associations will have their own rules regarding the ownership of chickens or other poultry. 

Hilliard’s rules for its agricultural district state that structures for poultry must be at least 200 feet from any property line. Callahan’s code enforcement of poultry varies from property to property. 

In the city of Fernandina Beach, residents must get permission from the city manager to have backyard chickens. City Manager Joe Gerrity said that, so far, he has allowed residents to own only one chicken per household. 

For more information on backyard farming, go to or call the Nassau County Extension at (904) 530-6353.


Becky Jordi

A variety of backyard chicken coop designs can be found online.