How to Raise Backyard Chickens

by Linsey Knerl on 21 March 2011 13 comments

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!

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Guest's picture

There has been a petition in our city about this for what seems like forever. We'd love to have some chickens. Other municipalities near us allow chickens but the zoning rules are quite strict. Lots are usually 40'x110' and the zoning laws state you need to be 15' from either side of your lot and 25' from the front or back of your lot. This gives you a 10'x50' space to put a coop. A lot of peoples houses reside at this particular spot!

Linsey Knerl's picture

I really hope that your city gets something passed. Even in Nebraska, it's a mixed bag. Our state capital allows them, but the other major cities don't. And while it's easy to move slightly outside of city limits for the purpose of having a bit more freedom, Nebraska is a unique state with lots of open areas. I can't imagine trying to raise chickens in an area that's more densely populated. Good luck!

Andrea Karim's picture

Linsey, with your chickens not being penned up, do you lose many to predators? Or do you have some sort of built-in alarm system (like a dog)?

I love chickens, but our current housing space would never allow us to keep them adequately. I can't even imagine the kind of security I would have to provide to keep raccoons out, either.

Linsey Knerl's picture

Good question, Andrea. It definitely depends on the day, but assuming it's above 30 degrees and we are around on the farm, we let the chickens out of their coop once we get up to do morning chores. (By being a bit lazy and waiting until late morning, the chickens have actually had a chance to lay more eggs in their laying boxes. The alternative is to try to find eggs all over the yard.) We have a Great Pyrenees/Bloodhound mix with a deep bark and a penchant for furry things, so we know that as long as he's around, the chickens will likely be safe. We do keep him in his kennel for much of the day, however, because we have an open farm layout (no border fence) and he could end up on the road next to our house where the farmers go screaming by with their grain trucks in the spring and fall. (We've lost one dog that way.)

If we are home, the dog in the kennel is enough to scare away most land-bound critters (which are nocturnal, anyway, and likely not out.) We also have a Rat Terrier who helps keep the rat and mouse population down so they are not getting into the feed, as much. For the most part, however, the day is a safe time for them to be out. They are on alert for the occasional overhead hawk, and some of the same things we've done to keep animals from our fruit trees (hanging compact discs from the branches of our cherry tree, for example) also works to keep away predators.

We do lose a few a year, but it's usually due to a wayward hen who got too far away from the flock when the sun went down and the rest of the flock went in for the night. Sometimes, you'll find her that night, up in a tree praying for morning to come. Other times, you'll find her the next morning, still in the tree, asleep and safe. Rarely, however, you'll find her dead in the yard. It's always sad.

Guest's picture
Keri Ritenour

Loved the article. We were given 2 roosters last week and purchased 6 hens. They are all about 20 weeks old. I swore I would never have chickens on the farm, but here I am with them. They are such fun to watch. Now we are learning about chickens. Kind of backwards. Fortunately, the barn cats are looking after all them. You cannot even find a mouse on our farm (or a possum, rabbit, squirrel). Along with their feeding, they freely graze throughout the day and head for their "beds" at night. So far, we have 2 eggs from the Brahma and are awaiting our Sexlinks to start producing. I cannot tell you how excited my husband was to wake me up at 5:30 am to show me our first egg. Can't wait until they all are laying eggs. Thanks again for sharing.

Meg Favreau's picture

Linsey, are there any varieties of chicken you've tried raising that you didn't like, or breeds that are known to be particularly difficult?

Linsey Knerl's picture

Well, I'm very particular to the Barred Rocks, as mentioned in the article, but we've had all kinds, including Buff Orpingtons and your typical Reds. I don't see much difference in personality, just size of eggs and perhaps meat quality. Some people swear that certain breeds are "sweeter" or "smarter", but I personally think it comes down to how you care for them. My mom bought a bunch due to their rumored personalities, but they all turned mean. I think if you keep your Rooster's "busy" and keep them entertained with different kinds of feed, you'll find them to be more friendly. (And don't even let children tease them. This is a great way to raise up some mean chickens!)

Guest's picture
Richard

Just a nitpicky comment, but laws in the United States of America enumerate the limits to the govenment. The laws are not listings of what is allowed. This is in contrast to the laws in other countries, e.g. the United Kingdom which actually lists what is allowed.

Ergo, if there is no US federal/state/municipal law on "chicken-in-your-backyard-prohibited", there is no limitation.

IANAL, and I don't even play one on TV. If some other lawyer-ly type would correct me if I misunderstood this basic tenet.

Linsey Knerl's picture

Great point, Richard. And one that I agree with 100%. Although in some communities, what is allowed by law and what is condoned socially are two totally different things, most will always have the right to do something until it is outlawed. I have seen too many people have rights that have then been taken away through new zoning ordinances just because of a few who didn't like it, and there was no grandfather exclusion. Just a warning to those who aren't sure how their hens will be received.

Guest's picture
indio

I live in the CT suburbs and keep 2 Rhode Island Red laying hens, 2 Buff orpingtons, 2 Barred Rocks and 4 Ameracaunas that are all 4 week old chicks. I got the RIR at 14 weeks old and they were very timid. Now they are almost like dogs. As soon as they see me or hear me in the backyard, they start squawking for attention and following me around. In addition to laying eggs daily, they also turn over the soil in my raised vegetable beds. I'm trying not to view them as pets, just in case any of them become a snack.
The best part of keeping backyard chickens is the food they produce. Almost every day, I use the eggs for baking, pancakes, etc. I actually have to plan to save up the eggs when I know I'm making French toast or some other egg intensive dish.

Linsey Knerl's picture

Oooh.. Ameracaunas? I'm jealous. They are beautiful!

Maggie Wells's picture

We keep wanting to do it but as we live in the forest, chickens often become snack food for mountain lions. However our neighbor's hens have decided that they like laying eggs behind our garage!

Guest's picture
Linsey K

Thats funny! Our chickens, if let out of their coop too early in the morning, will lay eggs all over the yard. The kids have had fun trying to find them all (like an Easter egg hunt year-round.) One way we've avoided this is to wait until noon to let them out, regardless of how nice it it outside. Then they've all laid by the time they go out, and we know that they've likely laid them in their nesting boxes. My husband did get a nice surprised yesterday, however, as he opened his tool chest to find eggs in the bottom cabinet! They sure are crazy critters ;)