By Tyler Snortum-Phelps, Sustainable Contra Costa

Tyler Snortum-Phelps, who has been keeping chickens for more than 20 years, offered this fun and informative class on keeping backyard chickens. Tyler works with Sustainable Contra Costa, which co-hosted the class. He is also a certified Master Composter and has taught home composting workshops for many years. In this blog, Tyler has been kind enough to answer questions there wasn’t time to answer during the talk. You can watch Tyler’s talk in the video here and read his responses to your questions below.

Find additional backyard chicken resources, from websites to books, here.

What’s the difference between chickens and quail. Is there one? Or are they kinda the same?

Chickens and quail are entirely different species and quail are NOT a domesticated animal! I was just pointing out the quail are “ground birds” like chickens, in the sense that they spend most of their time on the ground and rarely fly.

When chickens fight, does it stress them out?

There is a certain amount of stress when they struggle for their place in the pecking order, but it’s an important part of their life, and they can actually be unhappy when the social order is not clear. But if you are talking about roosters fighting, that is very different and chicken keepers should not allow this, as the roosters can be seriously injured. That said, most roosters (if you even have more than one) tend to work it out pretty quickly.

Are there any animals that chickens do not get along with that we should be aware of if we own a large farm with various other animals?

Chickens tend to get along well with most other animals (like anything, there are always exceptions!) with the possible exception of dogs. Their relationship with dogs can vary from total friendliness to a predator/prey relationship where the dog will stop at nothing to kill the chickens. And everything in between! Backyard chicken website and forums are full of stories, advice and ideas from dog owners. My initial advice is to start out carefully until you know what your dog will do, and from there you may to do further research.

If you show a rooster who’s boss, can you “out-mean” him?

Not a good idea to get too mean. I have heard stories about tennis rackets and baseball bats, but that’s an invitation to injury for the rooster. If he keeps attacking you, it may be time to get rid of him.

Do chickens prefer to lay on hay, straw or shavings?

Something soft and malleable is nice in the laying boxes, although they will lay on bare wood if they have to. One thing the bedding does is help keep the egg from cracking. Hay or shavings are great, and I like hay because it doesn’t compact and get soggy, and is cheap. Since I use hay as part of my coop floor bedding, I just put some more in the laying boxes. You will have to replenish it from time to time.

Can you do the deep litter method with pine shavings instead of hay?

I would probably recommend mixing something coarser and drier with the shavings, since they can get compacted and possibly allow mold to develop. Wood shavings are also more expensive than hay. I don’t, however, recommend wood chips because they are too coarse. The chicken forums have lots of great discussions about coop bedding choices.

Are the manure fumes unsafe to breathe in, more than just don’t breathe in a lot?

If you are raking your manure into the bedding regularly (usually just the pile under the roosting poles, the chickens will take care of the rest) then there should not be a build-up of odor that is dangerous. And remember your coop needs good ventilation!

I recently heard Salmonella can be an issue. Should this be a concern?

If your chickens are not crowded, have good clean food and water and a well-ventilated coop with bedding that is changed regularly, they should stay healthy and you have little reason to worry about Salmonella. Of course you should practice good basic hygiene: washing your hands after being in the chicken yard/coop or handling the chickens, checking your shoes so you don’t track manure into the house, and discarding any eggs with manure on them.


At what age do we switch the food from chick feed to chicken food?

18 weeks, or 4 ½ months is the recommended age to begin offering laying food. Earlier than that and their livers can’t handle the extra minerals.

How about giving the chickens apple seeds?

The chickens can eat a few apple seeds, like those in an apple core you give them, but don’t go out of your way to give them lots of seeds, since there is a small amount of toxin in apple seeds.

What is the best way to integrate new chicks into existing flock/coop?

Be careful when doing this, since the old flock can be very cruel to the newcomers. The best arrangement is one where the two groups can see each other, but not come into contact, like some kind of wire fence. After a few days you can try introducing them. If there are still aggressive chickens in the “old timers” flock, I have had success squirting them with a spray bottle or squirt gun each time they try to attack. They hate that and will hopefully learn not to harass the new chickens.

If the new chickens are young, and considerably smaller than the older ones, it can also work to create a space where they can hide which has an opening that the bigger chickens can’t get through.

One of our chicks turned out to be a rooster?

As I said on the show, you have to decide if you’re going to keep them. And if not, you can ask at your feed store what they recommend, or look for a local online forum where you can offer the rooster.

Does the chicken yard need to be flat ground or can it be slanted? We have a lot of hill space and less flat area in our yard.

Chickens definitely don’t love climbing hills but they can do it. You could try creating terraces that make it easier for them to walk along.

Are there any suggestions for cold weather rearing of hens (Canada)?

This is definitely a good question for online research. I’m not experienced with chickens in cold weather, but there is a lot of information about it out there. If you use heaters in the coop, be very careful and have safety measure in place. They can cause fires!

I’m also curious about using technology to help keep my hens comfortable in the Suisun heat.

Most important is to have plenty of shade, and keep the water fresh and full. As I said, you can hose down the coop and chicken yard on extra hot days. The chickens hate the water, but they will appreciate the cooling effect.

Does the roost have to be tiered? Or is it possible to create a top space for all the chickens?

It’s totally fine for the roosting poles to all be on the same level. Mine is at an angle.

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The Solano Sustainable Backyards program and the talk are generously funded by the Solano County Water Agency.