Raising Backyard Chickens: A Beginner's Guide

Interested in raising chickens? This beginner's guide to keeping chickens offers plenty of tips from experienced backyard chicken-keeper Lisa Steele.

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May 18, 2020
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Photo By: Quarry Books

Photo By: Quarry Books

Photo By: Lisa Steele

Photo By: Lisa Steele

Photo By: Lisa Steele

Photo By: Lisa Steele

Photo By: Lisa Steele

Photo By: Lisa Steele

Photo By: Lisa Steele

Photo By: Lisa Steele

Photo By: Lisa Steele

Photo By: Lisa Steele

Photo By: Lisa Steele

Chicken Keeping 101

Chickens are popping up in suburban and urban backyards all around the country. It's easy to be tempted to keep chickens. Those bins of adorable chicks you see at your local feed store make you want to just scoop them up and pop them right in your backyard. However, before you dive into chicken keeping, there are many things you need to consider. Author of DIY Chicken Keeping and 5th generation chicken-keeper Lisa Steele of Fresh Eggs Daily offers her expertise on getting started with backyard chicken keeping.

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Why Raise Chickens?

People choose to raise chickens for many reasons. Some want access to fresh eggs right from their own yards, and some enjoy having unique pets. Lisa says that chickens make a great introduction to animal husbandry. "Chickens are small and therefore easier and less expensive to take care of than larger livestock," Lisa explains, "and also allowed in many more urban/suburban areas than, say, a cow or goat!"

Learn More : Essential Backyard Chicken Terminology

Check Local Ordinances

Just because you want to raise chickens doesn't mean every neighborhood allows it. Before you start looking at chicken breeds or coops, you'll need to check with your municipality or county to determine the regulations for your area. Most urban and suburban areas have restrictions on flock size, whether or not you can own a rooster and the distance a coop must be from your property line. Lisa says once you find out how many chickens you are allowed to have on your property, get it in writing. This will save you headaches down the line.

Learn More : What Does Your HOA Think of Backyard Chickens?

How Many Chickens Should You Get?

Chickens are extremely flock-oriented and social so you'll definitely need more than one to start. A good starter flock size is no fewer than three chickens.

"A chicken lays an egg almost every day," Lisa says. "Not every day, but the good layers come close." If egg production is the primary reason you are getting chickens, then you need to determine the number of eggs you use per week, which will determine your ideal flock size. Of course, the exact number of chickens you get will also depend on how many chickens your county or city will allow you to have on your property.

Choosing a Chicken Breed

Choosing the right breed is an important part of raising chickens. Different breeds have distinctive personalities and temperaments. Here are some considerations when it comes to choosing a chicken breed:

  • Egg production
  • Color of eggs produced
  • Temperament
  • Noise level
  • Adaptability to confinement

Lisa suggests taking a look at chicken hatchery websites to research chicken breeds. "They have photos of what the egg, chick and adult hen will look like as well as some basic information about the breed, like whether it's a heat-tolerant or cold-hardy breed," Lisa says.

Selecting the breed that is hardy to your climate zone is important, especially if you live in an area with harsh winters. "Generally any chicken will do okay in a moderate climate, and chickens are generally better in cool climates than warm," Lisa says. "Unless you live in an extreme climate, just about any breed will do just fine with the proper shelter." Find out about preparing your flock for winter here.

Learn More : 45 Heritage Chicken Breeds

Starting Out With Chicks

Most first-time chicken keepers opt for chicks because they are inexpensive and, well, super cute. "I always recommend starting out with baby chicks," Lisa says. "Not only are they adorable, but you'll end up with a much friendlier and healthier flock if you get them when they're just days old."

The chicks you see for sale at feed stores are what's considered "day old" chicks. Although most hatcheries will identify whether your chick is male or female before you purchase, it's not competely assured. You could possibly end up with a rooster or two, which may not be an issue if your city allows roosters. "In over 10 years, I think I've only ended up with an "oopsie" rooster maybe three times," Lisa says. Day olds are less expensive, but you will be spending more money on purchasing supplies and equipment for rearing them. You will need to set up a brooding area for your baby chicks because they need to be kept warm under a special heat lamp for 10 weeks or so. The brooding area will need to be carefully maintained because the chicks are delicate and susceptible to a number of different health conditions and ailments. Also, chicks won't be ready to start laying for 20 to 24 weeks. Find out how to create a chicken brooder here.

Learn More : Housing Baby Chicks

Consider Buying Adult Chickens

"One benefit of getting pullets is that you can be pretty sure you're getting the sex you want, because it's more obvious at that age," Lisa explains. A pullet is a young hen, especially one less than 1 year old that has not started laying eggs. Adults may not be as cute as chicks, but they are easy to care for. The initial cost per bird is higher for adult chickens, but you will not have to purchase any specialized equipment to keep them warm like you must with chicks. Finding adult hens from chicken rescue groups and poultry swaps might seem like a good option but Lisa advises against it. "I highly caution anyone doing this because the chances of ending up with a sick bird are very real," Lisa warns.

Learn More : Chicken Coop Essentials

The Coop

Getting a chicken coop is probably the second-most exciting thing about chicken keeping. Coops are available in many styles, colors and layouts. The sky's the limit when it comes to coops, but you need to make sure you get the right size. According to the University of Florida Extension Office, one medium-sized chicken needs at least 3 square feet of floor space inside the coop. Whether you opt to buy a coop or build your own, Lisa highly suggests you build a coop for the flock you eventually plan on having. "It's much easier to build big the first time around than to try to add on," Lisa says.

Your flock will need to be locked up and secured inside the coop from dusk each evening until sunrise. "Most predators are out during dusk and dawn hours," Lisa cautions. "So erring a bit on the side of caution is a good idea."

Learn More : How to Build a Chicken Coop

The Yard and Run

Chickens need room to move. Plan on having at least 8 to 10 square feet outdoors for each bird. In general, the more space your chickens have, the happier and healthier they will be. Overcrowding contributes to disease and feather picking (when one bird pecks or pulls at the feathers of another.)

Ideally, you should have an enclosed chicken run. Even when supervised, chickens are susceptible to aerial predators and harm from domestic pets. "Chickens are exceptionally vulnerable to predators and no matter whether you live in an urban, suburban or rural area," Lisa says. "You'll need to build a yard, or 'run' for your chickens to spend their days in when you aren't home to watch them."

Allow room in your run for a dust bath area. Chickens do not use water to bathe. Instead, they need fine sand or dirt to help keep their feathers free of mites and other parasites.

Learn More : Building a Better Chicken Run

Roosting

Chickens sleep and rest on roosting bars. Wood is the best material for roosting bars because unlike plastic or metal, it is not slippery and won't get cold in the winter. "A thick branch works well or a 2x4 board with the wide side facing up," Lisa says. It's best to stagger the roosts so the hens can select where they want to sleep. Hens can be picky about where they want to sleep and it all depends on who's in charge, or the "pecking order." The hen in charge will roost higher.

Learn More : Why Chickens Roost

Nesting

"Chickens like to lay their eggs in a nice, quiet, dark, secluded place," says Lisa. A nesting box helps to provide your hens a safe location for laying eggs. Nest boxes also help to keep your hens from trying to lay eggs in secluded corners of the chicken coop or in random places outdoors. Nesting boxes can be made of wood or repurposed plastic buckets. "You want the boxes to be about 12-inch square to allow space for just one chicken at a time," Lisa says. Chickens will naturally want to share nesting boxes.

The nesting boxes also need soft bedding to keep the eggs from breaking. Common nesting materials include pine shavings, hay/straw litter blends and even commercially manufactured nesting pads. Find out how to make a chicken nesting box.

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Food and Water

The bulk of a chicken's diet should be a balanced poultry feed. The type of feed depends on the age of the chicken. The feed types are typically labeled as chick, grower and layer and come in a pelleted or crumble form. Your flock will determine which feed they prefer.

Chickens also need two types of supplements: grit and calcium. Grit consists of small stones and rocks. Chickens eat grit and store it in their gizzards to help them digest what they eat. If your chickens are allowed to free range, they will find enough grit for their needs. If not, you will have to provide commercial grit.

"Chickens also need supplemental calcium to ensure strong eggshells," Lisa says. You can purchase crushed commercial oyster shells to feed them. Another option is to save the eggshells from your flock and crush the eggshells to feed back to your hens.

You can also give them natural supplements. "Giving your chickens natural supplements such as dried herbs, sea kelp, probiotics, brewers yeast and garlic can contribute to your flock's immune, digestive and respiratory health," Lisa advises.

Chickens also need access to cool fresh water all day long. "Adding a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar to the water a few times a week helps balance the pH, prevents algae from forming in the water and improves digestive health for chickens," Lisa says.

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Egg Laying

Once your hens have a nice place to nest, good food to eat and plenty of water, they will start laying. Most hens will lay eggs through spring and summer and into the fall. Egg laying is largely dependent on the length of the day, and most hens will stop laying when they receive fewer than 12 hours of daylight.

Learn More : What to Expect From Your First Eggs

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