So you’ve been thinking about getting some chickens. For many people, raising backyard chickens is a logical next step in the homesteading/self-sufficiency adventure.
As far as livestock go, they’re small and don’t require a lot of space, expense, or hands-on care. They’re fun to have around, a good experience for the kids, and a great source of natural fertilizer. And of course, they produce eggs, one of the healthiest sources of protein you’ll find. I had some doubts too, but in my experience, chickens are about as easy as it gets. If you have a cat or dog, chickens shouldn’t be any more work, plus dogs don’t lay eggs.
I could (and many people have) write a book about raising backyard chickens, but for those of you who like the abridged version of things, I’ll try to boil it down to the basics. Obviously, there are numerous specific topics that you may run into that aren’t covered here. In those cases, a quick search is all you need. Otherwise, I hope to touch on enough to get you comfortable with the idea of raising backyard chickens yourself!
Raising Backyard Chickens – First, What Breed Should I Get?
One of the first questions to ask is what variety should you get? Although most people start with chickens for the purpose of producing eggs, some jump right in with meat birds. There are also several good dual-purpose breeds that can fit both niches. If eggs are what you’re after, then you’ll want to find breeds with good production.
Here in Ohio, cold-hardiness is a strong prerequisite. If you’re in a warmer climate, you may not care, although there are some varieties that don’t do as well in warm areas.
Some chicken breeds have a little extra wildness in them and do better at foraging. Although I strongly encourage you to let your chickens get outside to some degree, that may not be possible for you. There are some breeds that don’t mind being cooped up as much if you can’t let them out.
One final consideration that we looked at is broodiness. When a hen become broody, she’ll sit on her (or anyone else’s) eggs; it’s basically a strong motherly instinct. If you want more chicks, then this is a good characteristic. If not (and if there’s no rooster, there will never be any little chicks), then you’ll probably want a breed that’s not typically broody.
Among the breeds we’ve raised are Australorp, Barred Rock, Buff Orpington, Rhode Island Red, Easter Egger (also called Americana, not to be confused with Ameraucana), and Golden Buff (known by many other names, including Red Star, Comet, and Sex-Link), all of which I’ve been more than satisfied with. See below for a sample breed chart (note that there are a lot more varieties than listed here; these are just some of the more popular ones).
Chickens are domesticated versions of their wild ancestors. That means you’ll need to provide them with shelter. The shelter doesn’t have to be fancy, although many people do get carried away (check Pinterest sometime). At the most basic level, your chickens need something to keep the rain (and snow) off their heads, something to block the worst of the winter winds, four walls to keep predators out, and a place to perch at night. You’ll also probably want a dedicated nesting box area, unless you want to have Easter egg hunts daily.
If you already have a small shed, this can easily be adapted for chickens, but building one from scratch is quite simple, even for someone with minimal construction experience. If you have lots of extra money, you can buy one of those cutesie kits, but you’re better off spending the money on feed. I’ve seen some pretty creative conversions of various structures, so feel free to use your imagination.
Our coop is a straightforward affair constructed mostly of 2x4s (4×4 in the corners) and a few sheets of plywood. There’s a chicken-sized door on the side and a man-sized door in the front for when I need to clean it out. I also built a little lean-to type structure to keep their food and water under cover.
They do require a good bit of ventilation, so don’t go building an airtight box. You may want to keep them “warm” in the winter, but chickens are pretty tough, especially if you have a cold-hardy breed. You’re actually doing them a disservice if you try to shelter them too much, as they will adapt to the weather perfectly fine on their own.
Keep in mind that chickens are messy and you will have to clean the coop from time to time. If you keep the floor bare, you’ll have to clean pretty frequently and nobody wants to shovel a bunch of chicken poop every weekend. Because of this, it’s best to put something down on the floor to help reduce the need for cleanings.
I’ve had the best success with something called the deep litter method. You can find lots of detailed information other places, but basically, you throw down a deep (hence the name; at least 4-6″) layer of something, generally pine shavings. This loose organic matter helps absorb waste and will slowly start to break down as the chickens scratch through it on a regular basis. The litter helps eliminate the mountains of poop that can accumulate – the poop is still there, it just gets worked into the pine shavings so it’s not a solid nasty clump.
Using this method, I’m able to do two cleanings a year. When things warm up in the spring and cool down in the fall, I shovel all the crappy pine shavings out of the coop and throw them in a big pile (great for compost, by the way). I then toss a couple bales of fresh material on the floor and I’m good to go for another six months.
I’ve also heard of people using other materials like straw, sand, or dry leaves, although some tend to mat a little more readily, so you’ll just need to keep an eye on things to determine how often to clean.
Food and Water
For most people, the core of the hens’ diet will be a commercial feed. This is a grain-based mix that is specifically blended for chickens and usually comes in 30-50 pound bags. If it’s important to you, as it is to us, you should be able to find some organic/non-GMO versions, though they may be pricey. Buying direct from a local grain mill (if you have one nearby) can save you a lot of money. (If you have a lot of land, it’s theoretically possible to grow all the food your chickens may need, but you do need to be careful to create the right blend.)
Chickens are very sloppy eaters, so as a general rule, it’s best to elevate their food somewhat. They’ll kick all kinds of stuff into it otherwise, and a lot of the food will end up on the ground. I have a hanging feeder that I keep roughly at the level of their chest – they can still easily get to it, but make less of a mess.
Although they subsist primarily on the feed, chickens will eat a wide variety of foods. While they’re not quite as versatile as pigs, ours can take care of a good portion of our kitchen scraps. And if given the chance, backyard chickens are natural foragers. It’s really pretty fun to watch them work their way through the yard, scratching the ground and sampling various plants and bugs along the way. (Chickens are naturally omnivores, so it kinda drives me crazy to see eggs touted as “vegetarian-fed” like it’s a good thing. Rant over.)
Water is much the same as food – they’ll make a big mess of it if you let them, so keep it elevated. I’ve had great success with this homemade chicken waterer, though a lot of people use a standard waterer like this.
I often only need to top off their food and water once or twice a week in the summer, so it’s very low maintenance when you have a good system in place. This does, however, change to daily in the winter when the water freezes.
If you’re raising backyard chickens in a suburban or rural area, protecting your flock is crucial. It’s probably a good idea even in urban settings where feral cats may roam.
For the coop, this means ensuring that any holes bigger than a few inches are covered with something strong and any doors shut securely. You’d be surprised at how small a space a raccoon or weasel can squeeze through. Trust me, I know from experience.
If you plan to let your chickens out of the coop, whether it’s fully free-range or just a small run outside the coop, you’ll need extra protection. For us, having a dog or two out during the day provides protection, as they keep anything away that might threaten the flock. (Do be sure that you acclimate the dogs to the chickens first though; the last thing you want is the “protector” eating their charges.)
If you don’t have dogs, a solid fence should work just fine, with a few specifications. The fence should be at least six feet tall, because chickens can fly a bit. It should also be a strong wire with a maximum of 1-2″ gaps. Despite the name, chicken wire isn’t good protection – it may keep chickens in, but raccoons can tear through it with little difficulty. Stick with hardware cloth or a good heavy gauge garden fence. Keep in mind that death can come from above as well, so in some places (if the run is large enough), you may want to string some netting over the top of everything to keep hawks or owls out.
Some people set up chicken tractors, which is basically a mobile coop/run setup. This probably works best if you only have a few chickens, or else you’ll need to make it pretty big.
Chickens are pretty hygienic, so you won’t need to bathe them. They actually bathe themselves using dust baths, shallow depressions in the ground that they flap around in. The dirt, somewhat counter-intuitively, helps to clean them and plays an important role in keeping mites and other pests off. And it’s quite funny to watch, unless it’s in one of your flower beds.
Probably the biggest, most obvious key to healthy chickens is keeping their living quarters clean. Change the bedding regularly, don’t let piles of poop accumulate, and provide good ventilation and outdoor access where they can have their dust baths. Do all these and your chances of any disease or pest problems go way down. Another way to reduce disease is to make sure you get your birds from a reputable source. You can sometimes find cheap hens on Craigslist or other local sources, but be careful if you go this route. Bringing in just one sick bird can infect your whole flock.
There are a number of things that they could come down with, although not common. If you find yourself in that situation, there are a number of great online resources to help you diagnose and treat your birds. In general, I’d recommend staying away from the chemical-heavy treatments, especially if you’re eating the eggs. There are a number of cheap, non-toxic remedies that work just as well.
They say that when determining the sex of chicks the error rate is roughly 10%.
Out of our first batch of 10 chicks, we ended up with a rooster, so we nailed that. Roosters can provide some benefits, particularly if you free-range, as they’re naturally protective of their girls.
However, not everyone wants a rooster, and homeowner regulations in some areas don’t even allow for them. So what do you do if you end up with one?
We kept ours for several months, because he didn’t really cause any problems initially. He crowed, but not incessantly or obnoxiously. He did a good job keeping an eye out for things for us. But then one day, he hit puberty or something, and started getting more aggressive. With me it was one thing, but with small kids around… not gonna work. After he came at me again one evening, I’d had enough and was ready to whack him. Lucky for him, I ended up finding someone who needed a rooster for their flock.
And that’s pretty much what you do if you have a rooster and don’t want it. Put him in the pot, or give him to someone else (who will often put it in their pot). There are rooster sanctuaries in some areas, but probably not everywhere.
Where to Source
Let’s pretend you’re ready to pull the trigger on raising backyard chickens and have everything else accounted for. The last thing to do is figure out where you’re going to get them.
Lots of rural pet stores sell chicks in the spring, which is one option, but selections can be limited. You’ll get a bigger selection buying from a large distributor like Meyer or McMurray, but chicks will ship through the mail and there’s a narrow window for shipping when they hatch.
We’ve recently found a (relatively) local source, which, if you can find a good one, I encourage you to do as well. He has a good selection and offers healthy birds. Even better, we have the option of buying when they’re pullets (teenagers). That means he does the dirty work of raising them from chicks, and I get to buy them when they’re just about ready to start laying. It’s more expensive, but when you factor in the costs of raising chicks, it’s probably a wash in the end. And a lot cleaner.
So now you either feel overwhelmed or ready to go (hopefully the latter). If you’ve been considering raising backyard chickens of your own, I strongly encourage you to give it a shot. In spite of my lengthy diatribe, it really is fairly easy, and the benefits are numerous.
Have fun and good luck!