Farmers Bulletin 889: Back-yard poultry keeping

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Farmers Bulletin 889: Back-yard poultry keeping was a USDA Farmers' Bulletin published in 1917[1] and revised in 1919.[2]

Inside the Front Cover

The inside of the front cover of the 1917 edition includes the following statement:[3]

"In every household, no matter how economical the housewife, there is a certain amount of table scraps and kitchen waste which has feeding value but which, if not fed, finds its way into the garbage pail.
"Poultry is the only class of domestic animals which is suitable for converting this waste material, right where it is produced in the city, into wholesome and nutritious food in the form of eggs and poultry meat.
"Each hen in her pullet year should produce 10 dozen eggs. The average size of the back-yard flock should be at least 10 hens. Thus, each flock would produce in a year 100 dozen eggs which, at the conservative value of 25 cents a dozen, would be worth $25.
"By keeping a back-yard poultry flock the family would not only help in reducing the cost of living but would have eggs of a quality and freshness which are often difficult to obtain.
"Remember that eggs produced by the back-yard flock costs very little, as the fowls are fed largely upon waste materials."

The 1919 revision changes the values to 35 cents a dozen and $35.

Advantages of Home Poultry

The 1917 edition of the bulletin states:[4]

"The keeping of a small flock of laying hens in a town or village lot or in a city back yard is an important branch of poultry keeping. Though the value of the product from each flock is small of itself the aggregate is large. The product of such a flock, both in the form of eggs and fowls for the table, may be produced at a relatively low cost, because of the possibility of utilizing table scraps and kitchen waste which would otherwise be thrown away. A small flock of hens, even as few as six or eight, should produce eggs enough, where used economically, for a family of four or five persons throughout the entire year, except during the molting period of the fall and early winter. By the preservation of surplus eggs produced during the spring and early summer this period of scarcity can be provided for. The keeping of pullets instead of hens will also insure the production of eggs at this time. Not only will the eggs from the home flock materially reduce the cost of living, but the superior freshness and quality of eggs are in themselves well worth the effort expended. Eggs are a highly nutritious food and are so widely used as to be almost indispensable, and an occasional chicken dinner is relished by everyone.
"Where conditions render it feasible and cheap small flocks of poultry should be kept to a greater extent than at present by families in villages and towns, and especially in the suburbs of large cities. The need for this extension of poultry raising is particularly great in those sections where the consumption of poultry products exceeds the production, with the result that prices are high."

Overcoming Objections to Keeping Poultry in the City

The bulletin states:[5]

" Objection is frequently raised to the keeping of poultry in towns and cities because of the odor which may result and also because of the noise which is made by roosters crowing, particularly in the early morning. In some cases city regulations have been formulated to prevent or to control poultry keeping. Where there are city regulations it is necessary to find out their provisions and to conform to them. There is no necessity for the poultry flock to become a nuisance to neighbors. If the dropping boards are cleaned daily and the houses and yards are kept in a reasonably clean condition there will be no annoying odors.
"The male birds need not be a nuisance. unless it is intended to hatch chickens from the flock it is unnecessary to keep a male bird. The fact that there is no male in the flock will have absolutely no effect on the number of eggs laid by the hens. If it is desired to mate the hens and to hatch chicks the male bird should be sold or eaten just as soon as the hatching season is over. This is desirable not only for the purpose of eliminating noise, but also to save the feed that would be eaten by the male and for the reason that the eggs produced after the male is disposed of will be infertile. Since these eggs are incapable of chick development they keep much better than fertile eggs and consequently are superior for preserving or for market.
"The flock must be kept confined; otherwise the hens will stray into neighbors yards and gardens, where they may cause damage and are almost sure to cause ill feeling."

Kind of Fowls to Keep

The 1917 edition of the bulletin states:[6]

"Householders usually desire not only eggs for the table and for cooking, but also an occasional chicken to eat. For this reason one of the general-purpose breeds, such as the Plymouth Rock, Wyandotte, Rhode Island Red, or Orpington is preferable to the smaller egg breeds, such as the Leghorns. Not only do the mature fowls of these breeds, because of their larger size, make better table fowls than the Leghorns, but the young chickens for the same reason make better friers and roasters, whereas chickens of the egg breeds are only suitable for the smaller broilers. The general-purpose breeds are also "broody" breeds, the hens making good sitters and mothers, which is a decided advantage when it is desired to hatch and raise chickens, since the hens of the egg breeds seldom go broody and are in any event rather unreliable sitters and mothers. If, however, the production of eggs outweighs the desire for an occasional table fowl, the lighter egg reeds undoubtedly will be found better, because they lay as many eggs and do so on less feed, with the result that they produce the eggs more cheaply. It is by all means advisable to keep some pure breed or variety. [emphasis added] Where this is done, sales at a profitable figure can often be made of breeding stock which it is intended to market or of eggs for hatching."

Size of Flock

The 1917 edition of the bulletin states:[7]

"The size of the flock which can be most efficiently kept will depend first of all upon the space available and, secondly, upon the amount of table scraps or other waste which is available for feed. It is a mistake to try to overstock the available space. Better results will be obtained from a few hens in a small yard than from a larger number. The back-yard poultry flock rarely will consist of over 20 or 25 hens and in many cases of not more than 8 or 10, or occasionally of only 3 or 4. For a flock of 20 to 25 hens a space of not less than 25 by 30 feet should be available for a yard. Where space is less available, the size of the flock should be reduced, allowing on average 20 to 30 square feet per bird. A few hens are sometimes kept successfully with a smaller yard allowance than this, but if the space is available a yard of the size indicated should be used."

Procuring Stock

The 1917 edition of the bulletin states:[8]

"The best way for the city poultry keeper to procure hens is to purchase them in the fall. An effort should be made to obtain pullets rather than older hens, and the pullets selected should be well matured, so that they will begin to lay before the cold weather sets in. Evidences of the maturity of pullets are the development and red color of the comb and a size and growth which are good for the breed or variety. Hens will lay little or no eggs during the fall and early winter, while they are molting. Well-matured pullets, however, should lay fairly well during this period, so that an immediate return is realized from the investment. The purchasing of pullets in the fall is preferable in most cases to purchasing day-old chicks or to hatching chicks in the spring. Usually there is little space available for the raising of chicks, and, moreover, many city dwellers have no experience in raising them. [emphasis added] Under these conditions the results are apt to be very poor. Hatching and rearing chicks also necessitates broody hens for this purpose, or else investing money in artificial apparatus such as incubators and brooders. Such an investment is often too great to prove profitable with the average small flock. If chicks are raised, they must be fed throughout the summer and no return will be obtained until the pullets begin to lay in the fall, except that the males can be eaten or sold.
"When pullets are to be purchased, it is well if possible to go to some farmer or poultryman who may be known to the prospective purchaser. In some cases it may pay to make arrangements with the farmer to raise the desired number of pullets at an agreed price. Where the householder does not have an opportunity to go into the country for his pullets, he can often pick them out among the live poultry shipped into the city to be marketed. The advice of some one who knows poultry should be sought in making such a purchase, to make sure that pullets or young hens are obtained, and that the stock is healthy. Often the local poultry associations are glad to help the prospective poultry keeper to get stock by putting him in communication with some of its members having stock for sale. Sometimes the local board of trade or chamber of commerce is glad to help bring together the prospective purchaser and the poultry raiser."


The 1917 edition of the bulletin states:[9]

"The flock should be comfortable but not expensively housed. A house which provides a floor space of 3 or 4 square feet per bird is ample for the purpose and fowls are often successfully kept with an allowance no greater than 2 1/2 to 3 square feet. Houses must be dry and free from draft, but must allow ventilation. Often there is an unused shed or small building on the place which can be easily converted into a chicken house (see fig. 3). The front of the poultry house should be faced toward the south, if possible, so that the sun will shine into it. Perfectly satisfactory houses can be made cheaply from piano boxes or other packaging cases. Two piano boxes with the backs removed can be nailed together and a door cut in the end. These boxes should be covered with a roofing paper in order to keep the house dry and to make it wind-proof. A portion of the door should be left open or covered with a small piece of muslin, so as to allow ventilation. (See figs. 4 and 5.) Similar houses can be constructed of packing cases at a relatively small cost. A small amount of 2 by 4 or 2 by 3 lumber can be purchased for framing. The box boards can be applied for siding or sheathing and then covered with roofing paper. Where there is a board fence it is sometimes possible to take advantage of this by building the poultry house in the corner of the fence, and making the fence itself with the cracks covered by strips or battened, serve as the back and one side of the house."

The caption on Figure 4 states:[10]

"Poultry houses, each of which is made out of two piano boxes. The two boxes are placed back to back, 3 feet apart, the back and top of each removed, a frame for the roof and floor added, and the part between the boxes built in with the boards removed from the boxes. The whole is covered with roofing paper. With piano boxes at $2.50 each, such a house can be easily and quickly constructed for $12. It will accommodate 12 hens comfortably."

The 1917 edition of the bulletin continues:[11]

"A cheap house 8 by 8 feet square can be made of 2 by 4 inch pieces and 12-inch boards. Plans for such a house are given in figure 6. The 2 by 4 pieces are used for sills, plates, corner posts, and three rafters. No studding is required except that necessary to frame the door and window space. The boards run up and down and add sufficient stiffness to the house. They are also used for the roof and are covered with roofing paper. The back and sides of the house also can be covered with roofing paper, or the cracks can be covered with wooden battens or strips 1 1/2 to 3 inches wide. In the front of the house there should be left a window or opening which can be closed, when desired, by a muslin screen or curtain which serves as a protection against bad weather but allows ventilation. In the side a door should be provided which will allow entrance. A shed or single-slope roof is best because easiest to build. A height of 6 feet in front and 4 feet in the rear is ample. If desired, the house may be built higher, so that it is more convenient to work in; the increase in cost will be slight. The ventilator in the rear is not needed in the northern part of the country, but is desirable in the South where summers are very warm."

It goes on to provides plans for a coop. Following this, it continues:[12]

"When the soil is well drained and consequently will remain dry no floor need be used in the house, the ground itself serving as the floor. Often a slight dampness can be corrected by filling up the floor several inches above the outside ground with sand, cinders, gravel, or dry dirt. Three or four inches of the surface of the floor, and of the run if a very small run is used, should be removed and replaced with fresh dirt two or three times a year. If the ground is so wet or damp that this condition can not be corrected by filling it is best to provide a board floor, as this will help to keep the house dry, will allow easier cleaning, and will promote the general health and welfare of the hens. A house with a board floor should be set on posts or blocks, so that it is 5 to 12 inches above the ground. When this space is left the floor will not rot so quickly and rats are not so likely to take refuge under the house. (See fig. 7.)
"In order to keep the flock in a clean and sanitary condition, droppings boards should be provided and roosts above them. This makes it easy to remove the droppings each morning and helps greatly to keep the house free from objectionable odors. A little sand or ashes sprinkled on the dropping board after reach cleaning will be found to make the cleaning easier.
"The droppings boards and roosts should be placed against the back wall. Here they are out of the way and at the same time where they are least likely to be reached by drafts. The droppings boards should be about 20 to 30 inches from the floor, depending on the height of the building. This gives space enough under them so that the hens have room to exercise and is not too high for the heavier hens to fly up to. The roosts should be 3 or 4 inches above the droppings boards. If more than single roost is used, they should be on the same level; otherwise all the hens will try to crowd upon the highest roost. A piece of 2 by 4 or 2 by 3, laid on edge and with the upper corners rounded off, makes a good roost. A pole or even a piece of board 2 or 3 inches wide, may be used. If the roost is of light material and fairly long, it should be supported in the center, as well as at the ends, to prevent it from sagging badly. An allowance of 7 to 10 inches of roost space for fowl, according to the size of the birds, should be made. If more than one roost is used, they should be placed about 15 inches apart.
"Nests must be provided and may be very simple. Any box about 1 foot square and 5 or 6 inches deep is suitable. An ordinary orange box with the partition in the middle serves this purpose very well, each box forming two nests. The top is removed, the box laid on its side, and a strip 3 to 4 inches wide nailed across the lower front. (See fig. 9.) Nests can be fastened against the walls of the house or set on the floor. It is preferable to fasten them against the wall, as they take too much space if set on the floor. One nest should be provided for each 4 to 5 hens.
"The straw or other material used int he nest should be kept clean and not be allowed to get so low that the eggs when laid by the hen will strike the board bottom of the nest, as this will cause them to break and will start the hens to eating the eggs, which is a very troublesome habit and one that is very difficult to break up once it is formed.
"A litter of straw or the leaves raked up in the fall about 3 or 4 inches deep, should be used on the floor of the house. This material helps to absorb the droppings and also provides a means of feeding the grain in such a way that the hens are obliged to exercise by scratching for it.
"When the hens become broody, they should be "broken up" as quickly as possible, for the sooner this is done the sooner they will resume laying. To break a hen of broodiness she should be confined to a small coop, preferably with a slat bottom. give her plenty of water to drink; she may be fed or not as desired. Not much difference will be found in the time required to break her of broodiness, whether she is fed or made to fast. Usually from 3 to 6 days' confinement will break her, but some hens require 10 to 12 days. The broody hen will be recognized by her inclination to stay on the nest at night, the ruffling of her feathers and her picking at anyone who approaches her, and by the clucking noise she makes. The fact that her broodiness has been broken up can be recognized by the disappearance of these symptoms."

The Yard

The 1917 edition of the bulletin states:[13]

"The yard should be inclosed by a board or wire fence. Wire fencing is preferable, as it is cheaper and the then hens are less likely to fly over it. If cats prove troublesome, where one is raising young chickens, it maybe necessary to cover the top of the yard with wire also. A board should not be used at the top of a wire fence, as this gives the hens a visible place to alight and tends to teach them to fly over. A 5-foot fence is high enough for most conditions, but if the hens show a tendency to fly over such a fence the flight feathers of one wing should . The larger the yard which can be provided the better the hens will do, as it not only gives them greater opportunity to exercise, but also makes it possible to maintain a sod on the yard. In most cases not enough land will be available so that a sod can be maintained.
"If the yard is fairly large, it can be divided into two parts and green crops, such as oats, wheat, rye, or dwarf essex rape, allowed to start in one yard while the hens are confined to another... The green cop should be sown very thick, and the following quantities will be found satisfactory for a yard 25 x 30 feet: wheat, 2 1/2 pounds; oats, 1 1/2 pounds; rye, 3 1/4 pounds; rape, 5 ounces. When the growing stuff reaches a height of 2 or 3 inches the hens can be turned upon it and the other yard be similarly sown.
"Where it is inadvisable to divide the yard, it is possible to keep a supply of green stuff growing by using a wooden frame 2 or 3 inches high, cover inch mesh wire. A frame made of 2 by 4 lumber, 6 feet long and 3 feet wide, with an additional piece across the center to support the wire when the hens stand on it, will be founded desirable for a small yard... A part of the yard as large as this frame is spaded up and sown, the frame placed over it, and the material allowed to grow. As soon as the green sprouts reach the wire the hens will begin to pick them off, but since they can not get them down to the roots the sprouts will continue to grow and supply green material. This frame can be moved from place to place in the yard, and in this way different parts cultivated.
"The yard should be stirred or spaded up frequently if not in sod in order to keep it in the best condition. This will not only tend to keep down any odors which might arise, but also allow the droppings to be absorbed into the soil more readily and therefore keep the yard in better condition for the hens.
"Although it is necessary to keep the hens confined to their yard most of the time, it is sometimes possible to let them out where they may range upon the lawn for an hour or so in the evening when someone can be at hand to watch them, or at certain seasons of the year to allow them to run in the garden plot. This will be enjoyed it greatly by the hens and will be very beneficial to them.

Articles and Resources

Related SourceWatch Articles


  1. Slocum, R. R. (1917). Back-yard poultry keeping (Vol. 889). United States Department of Agriculture.
  2. Slocum, R. R. (1919). Back-yard poultry keeping (Vol. 889). United States Department of Agriculture.
  3. Slocum, R. R. (1917). Back-yard poultry keeping (Vol. 889). United States Department of Agriculture, p. 2.
  4. Slocum, R. R. (1917). Back-yard poultry keeping (Vol. 889). United States Department of Agriculture, pp. 3-4.
  5. Slocum, R. R. (1917). Back-yard poultry keeping (Vol. 889). United States Department of Agriculture, p. 4.
  6. Slocum, R. R. (1917). Back-yard poultry keeping (Vol. 889). United States Department of Agriculture, pp. 4-5.
  7. Slocum, R. R. (1917). Back-yard poultry keeping (Vol. 889). United States Department of Agriculture, p. 5.
  8. Slocum, R. R. (1917). Back-yard poultry keeping (Vol. 889). United States Department of Agriculture, pp. 5-6.
  9. Slocum, R. R. (1917). Back-yard poultry keeping (Vol. 889). United States Department of Agriculture, p. 7.
  10. Slocum, R. R. (1917). Back-yard poultry keeping (Vol. 889). United States Department of Agriculture, p. 8.
  11. Slocum, R. R. (1917). Back-yard poultry keeping (Vol. 889). United States Department of Agriculture, p. 8.
  12. Slocum, R. R. (1917). Back-yard poultry keeping (Vol. 889). United States Department of Agriculture, p. 11-13.
  13. Slocum, R. R. (1917). Back-yard poultry keeping (Vol. 889). United States Department of Agriculture, pp. 13-15.

External Resources

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