chicken raising chickens
On the Farm

How To Get Started Raising Backyard Chickens

In my post from November, I discussed why you should have backyard chickens (even if they’re in your front/side yard like ours) and all the benefits of having chickens. If that got you thinking you should raise some chickens, here are the details of how to get started raising backyard chickens!

First step:

Find out if you are allowed to keep hens in your town or neighborhood. If you are not, work with your town or homeowners’ association to have it changed!  There are many ways to compromise so that neighbors avoid what they don’t want but you get what you want: chickens and eggs!

• For example, you can limit the number (say, 6 hens, no roosters).

• Remind them hens aren’t loud; in fact, they’re quieter than most dogs.

• They could need to be confined to an area. You could let them free range only under supervision or use a chicken tractor. A chicken tractor is basically a mobile coop/run. You let the chickens graze an area for a week or so, then move it to a new area, continually rotating so they don’t “overharvest” any one area.

• Let them know chickens don’t spread airborne diseases.

• With a small number of chickens there is almost no smell, especially if you clean the coop weekly and the straw/waste is composted.

• Bribe them with the promise of free, fresh eggs.

Ok, let’s say you are allowed!  (Yay!)

How many hens should you get?

This will depend on how many eggs your family eats and uses. A good egg-laying hen will average about 5 eggs a week in the laying season (Laying season varies by location; here in Delaware it’s about February through October.) I think 1.5 or 2 hens per family member works well typically.  Always round UP because you’ll have NO problem giving away or selling extra eggs! Remember that chickens are social creatures so you never want to have fewer than 2 or 3!

nesting boxes chicken coop
Tom built lots of nesting boxes to accommodate our growing population of egg layers.

What do chickens require?

• A secure coop with ventilation, safe from night-time predators and big enough to hold a feeder and water container. The possibilities for coops are endless – pre-made coops, sheds, chicken tractors (mobile houses), old playhouses, etc.

• One nesting box for every three hens for laying eggs, and a roosting bar off the ground with at least 6 inches of width per chicken for sleeping.

• A person who will collect eggs and give them food and water daily. Also, if not automated, someone will need to lock them up at night and unlock them in the morning. This person will also need to shovel the poop out at least weekly. If this is done regularly, it’s not as disgusting as it sounds.

• A run or yard with ideally at least 10 square feet per bird, unless you plan to let them free-range. The run should have an area where they can take a dirt or dust bath.

• Chicken food, water, straw for warmth and protecting the bottom of the coop (making poop shoveling easier and less smelly), and grit (only if they don’t have outdoor access) are about all they’ll need on a regular basis. Of course, you can and should treat them with oyster shells (for calcium for hard eggshells) and meal worms (for protein and a tasty treat).

There are many different ways to raise chickens and all have their pros and cons, but these are the basics.

Here is how we raise our chickens and why we’ve chosen this way:

• We converted a shed into their coop. We already had it and it was large enough.

chicken coop
Tom’s supervisor watched as he added roosting bars and nesting boxes to the shed we had.

• Their run is a large (17,000+ sf) 5-ft- high fenced area. We wanted them to be free range but also safe from predators. If we didn’t have the space that we have we probably would have made them a (mobile) chicken tractor so that they could be safe but still have the benefit of fresh pasture at all times. Chickens will eat every bug and every piece of greenery in their space in no time flat, so being able to rotate their area is ideal. It is in our plans to divide their area so that they can be on one side while the other recovers, regrows, and the bugs return. Their current area is big enough that they don’t deplete it in the growing season, but by February it’s pretty sparse.  At the time of this post, we are in the middle of redoing our back fence and it is open, so our ladies are currently free rangers. Luckily our farm dog, Buddy, is a great guard.

• We don’t heat the coop. Heating a coop is a fire hazard. Additionally, if the electricity goes out, they won’t be used to the cold temperatures so they could freeze. They are birds and they get acclimated to the temperatures. They fluff out their feathers and can take the cold!

• We use straw in the coop. Other people use sand, pine shavings, dirt, pine needles, etc. We like straw because it absorbs droppings well and is cheap and easy to find.

chick baby chicken• Our chickens came from our local feed store, and we purchased others as day-old chicks online, where we could choose the best breeds. We felt raising them from chicks from reputable breeders was the safest way to go. Chicks require a safe tub, trough, or box in a warm, draft-free area and a heat lamp for about 6 weeks in addition to food, water, and pine shavings or straw. Different breeds begin laying between 4-6 months old.

A typical day with our chickens:

When I wake up, the first thing I do is head outside to open the door to the chicken coop because they are already awake and squawking to get out. A mass exodus ensues – all of the birds come flying out (some literally, though they can only fly a few feet!). I give them fresh water and fill up their food dishes. They begin clucking about in the yard.

Around noon I go outside to check for eggs.  All the hens come running over to the gate to see what snacks I might have brought! I usually find most of the eggs already laid, and some hens are still resting in the nesting boxes. My noon visit isn’t a requirement, but I like to go hang out with the ladies then. I also usually take some pictures for our Instagram page, because some sort of interesting chicken drama is normally occurring.

At dusk, like clockwork, the hens head into their coop, ready for bed. No need for a bedtime story, another drink of water, or any tucking in: the ladies are way easier than kids. They’ve had a busy day and they are ready for sleep!  I used to go out with a flashlight and count to make sure everybody was roosting. But nowadays I only count occasionally because they’re in there, and if they aren’t, I have learned they will find somewhere safe to sleep (we have a few adventurers who’d rather sleep “out in the wild”!) So now once it’s dark, I just say good night and close the coop door!

Raising backyard chickens is not for everyone, but it is definitely worth it if you can do it.  After all, they are the only pets who poop breakfast for you!  Let us know if you have chickens or if you have any questions before deciding to get some!

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