How to Raise Backyard Chickens
We’ve kept chickens on our small 3-acre farm for over five years. I grew up raising them, so I’m comfortable with the ins and outs of the practice. As food gets increasingly pricey, and consumers turn to organic and free-range for their egg and poultry needs, a backyard flock is becoming more popular each year. (See also: 10 Fantastic Facts About Eggs)
This short guide to owning a backyard flock is by no means complete. Entire books have been written on the topic, so consider this a conversation starter for those who want to explore the idea further. Chickens can be so much more than just food. Our entire family (even my young kids) has had a blast sharing our farm with these feathered friends!
Check Your Local Laws
If you live outside of city limits, chances are great that you’ll be able to lawfully keep chickens. As you head toward town, however, the ordinances become murky. Some towns allow for two hens in a backyard, properly contained. Others will not be so accommodating (especially if you come under a housing authority for your regulations). If you are unsure as to whether you can keep chickens, ask. Remember, however, that some chicken owners have been keeping their flock under the assumption that no law is the same as allowing it. Be wary if you choose to go this route. (Don’t like the law in your town? Change it!)
Set Up Your Habitat
Whether you choose to let your chickens run all over the yard (as we do) or confine them to a small run or fenced-in area, you will still need to provide them with a sturdy, safe shelter to protect them from the elements and predators. We converted an old shed into a coop by hanging some laying boxes, using broken ladders as roosts, and laying straw on the ground. You can look into buying premade chicken coops and chicken tractors, as well as plans for making your own. Remember, newborn chicks will not reside in the coop at first. They will likely live in a box with a heating lamp in your home or basement until they are old enough to go outside.
Order Your Chicks
Getting your chickens may be as simple as strolling down to the local farm supply store and popping a few in a box to take home. Depending on the variety you are looking at getting (and where you are located), you may have to order your chickens from a specialty supplier or a local hatchery. When ordering chickens by mail, be sure you will be home on the day they are set to arrive. They come to you just a few days old, in a box with holes poked in it. You will need to get the chickens out of the box ASAP and to their feed and water within hours.
Raising chickens from just a few days old is not for the faint of heart. It is likely that, even with your full attention and care, one or two may die. Baby chicks are extremely fragile in the first few days of life. They are prone to falling into their water and drowning. (I recommend filling any water dish with marbles to the top. This will allow the babies to drink from the spaces between the marbles, but not be able to fall in.) If you do not have any idea how to care for new babies, just skip the process altogether, and buy a pullet that is close to egg-laying stage.
I shouldn’t have to say this, but you will need to have hens (females) if you want eggs. Hens will lay eggs with or without a rooster. You can eat fertilized eggs — they won’t hurt you. If you do decide to keep a rooster or two, be prepared. They like to stay busy with the hens (if you know what I mean).
Watch and Care for Them
Chickens are relatively low-maintenance, but can be costly to keep (especially with the increase in grain prices). Once established, they will need nothing more than a daily “checking,” fresh feed, the proper amount of grit (to keep their gullets healthy and egg shells strong), and water. Keeping their coop clean is important to prevent disease, but chickens do not need to be bathed. If given access to dirt, they will take regular “dust baths” — burrowing into the ground to coat their entire bodies with fine dust. This prevents mites and feels good to the chicken!
You will want to pay careful attention to keep them from predators. In addition to neighborhood dogs, chickens can be attacked or eaten by hawks, ferrets, raccoons, and skunks, among other critters. (If you have large rats in your area, you will want to be certain to keep any small holes sealed from the inside. Rats will eat chickens, as well as your feed!)
Gather and Store Your Eggs
After about four or five months, your hens should start laying eggs, and they will continue to lay up to an egg a day during the sunny season, if properly fed. If you just have a few hens, you’ll probably eat the eggs as fast as they are laid. If you have as many as we do (40 at the moment), you’ll need to gather, clean, and store them properly — especially if you will be selling them to friends and family. There are many different opinions on how to do this, as many farmers have had luck leaving the eggs on a basket on the counter and then eating them as they get to them. I have a process of gathering daily, using an egg wash to gently remove any dirt from the shell, allowing to air dry, and then storing in clean egg cartons in my fridge for two to four weeks For details on how to “wash” eggs (which is really only necessary for very dirty eggs), see this document on egg-cleaning procedures.
To Eat, or Not to Eat
Perhaps you’re looking forward to eating your own fresh chicken meat. This is doable even with the smallest flock, although it’s not for the faint of heart. I have yet to butcher my own chicken, as I have a hubby that does the honors, but I do know that skinning instead of plucking is where it’s at. Those that want to explore the conversation further can reference this tutorial on skinning a chicken in 20 minutes or less.
Even after you’ve owned chickens for what seems like forever, it’s always useful and fun to stay connected to updated resources and a like-minded, chicken-loving community. I highly recommend the following resources for getting your poultry fix:
- Chicken Revolution – The official website of CITY (Chickens in the Yard), a group focused on getting urban chickens legalized all over the country.
- Urban Chickens – Don’t let the title fool you! While it’s designed to help you get started raising chickens within city limits, the tips are useful for farm folks, too.
- My Pet Chicken – This is a great site for 101-level chicken info. I suggest reading over the FAQs before you make the commitment to buying your first chicken.
- Grit – Perhaps my favorite print magazine for rural living, their chicken articles are perfect for any size flock.
- Backyard Chickens – A visitor-friendly site with a little bit of everything, the site has a large assortment of coop designs.
This is a very abridged version of the ins and outs of raising chickens. There are so many benefits to backyard chickens that I would highly recommend it to anyone with the space, time, and commitment. Our chickens are more than a source of nourishment. They are a delight to be around! Inquisitive, friendly, and beautiful, chickens are one of God’s most charming creatures. Once you find a variety that suits your personality (we adore Barred Rock), you may stick with them for life!