Chickens aren’t especially difficult to care for, but before you dip your toes into backyard chicken keeping, there are a few things you need to consider to be sure you raise a happy, healthy flock that’s best for your family and home.
Each municipality has their own set of rules relating to keeping a flock of backyard chickens. Lots of suburban and even urban areas have started to allow chickens, but most have limits on the number of chickens allowed on a particular property and many allow flocks of hens only, no roosters. Some areas require permits for the coop and even for the chickens themselves, and others require coops to be set back a certain distance from the property line. So before you crack open your first hatchery catalog, be sure you check out the rules in your area and understand them. Then follow them. A coop and run is a big expense, whether you build or buy, that you don’t want to have paid in vain if you try to raise chickens in an area that doesn’t allow them and are forced to give them up. It’s not worth the time, expense and heartache to break the rules. And if you don’t like the rules where you live, work on changing them.
Just because you are allowed 6 chickens where you live, or 10 or a dozen, doesn’t mean you need that many to start. The typical chicken lays an average of 5-6 eggs per week. Figure out how many eggs your family eats each week and then do the math. Also keep in mind that chickens start laying around 5 months old and then will only lay well for about two years. After that, production will start to drop until it pretty much ends when the hen is around 6 years old. But well-protected and cared for chickens can live to be 10 or 12 years old, so you’re looking at a few years with no egg output. It’s a good idea to stagger your flock, so maybe you get 3 chickens the first spring, then another 3 the next spring, and so on. That way you’ll be assured of collecting eggs for a longer period of time. Also, be sure you have a “retirement plan” for your older chickens. Even if that’s continuing to feed and love them until they pass due to natural causes. And remember, you don’t need a rooster for your hens to lay eggs.
Once you have decided to take the plunge and get some chickens, it’s considered good practice to let your neighbors know. Even without a rooster, chickens can make a bit of a racket, and often people worry about the smell of a chicken coop or the idea that chickens and their feed attract rodents and raccoons. Assure your neighbors that you plan on being a good steward of your flock – and bribe them with fresh eggs if necessary.
You’ll need to figure out which breeds of chickens you want. If you have decided to start with 5 chickens, choose five different breeds. They will all get along, and that will make for a more colorful egg basket. And you’ll be able to tell your chickens apart easily – which makes it easier to name them. Hatchery catalogs and websites are great places to start to try and narrow down your choices from the over 100 breeds of chickens available. Meyer Hatchery (www.meyerhatchery.com) in particular is a great resource, outlining not only a breed’s temperament but also their cold- or heat-tolerance which is important if your weather is extreme where you live, but also what the chicks and grown birds will look like, the color egg the hens lay and other characteristics.
Although it is possible to start a flock with older chickens (called POL or point of lay) that are 16-18 weeks old and almost ready to start laying, but for a friendlier and healthier flock, I always recommend starting with baby chicks. They’re not hard to raise, although they will need to live in a “brooder box” in your house for a few weeks to start off, but the baby phase is fun and they’re so cute!
If you do start with baby chicks, once you get them, the clock starts ticking on the time you have to figure out their permanent outdoor living accommodations. There is a wide variety of chicken coops available on the market – or if you’re handy, you can easily build one or convert a playhouse, shed or other outbuilding – with the main considerations being that you allow enough room for the number of chickens you have (or plan on eventually having) and that the coop is completely secure from predators, meaning every window, vent and other opening is covered in ¼” or ½” welded wire and the doors have predator-proof locks and latches on them. Rule of thumb is to allow 2-3 square feet of floor space for each chicken, at least 8” of roosting bar and one nesting box for every 3-4 hens. Their pen should be constructed of 1” welded wire, covered, with the fencing sunk into the ground to prevent digging predators. Chickens need to be locked up in their coop from sundown to sunrise to keep them safe.
Free ranging, or letting your chickens out into your yard or other unprotected area is always going to be a risk. Chickens are about as low on the pecking order as possible and nearly everything wants to eat them. Aerial predators include hawks, owls and eagles, and ravens and crows will even try to grab baby chicks. Ground predators include everything from your neighbor’s dog to fox, raccoon, weasels, coyotes, and more. If you are planning on letting your chickens roam outside of their protected pen, then staying outside with them to supervise is your safest bet, and even then a bold predator might still try to make a grab for them. I can’t overstate the importance of keeping chickens safe from predators. And if you free range, be prepared for losses.
Baby chicks should be fed chick starter feed for the first 8 weeks. This gives them the protein and other nutrients they need for this time of fast growth. Grower feed from 9-18 weeks continues their feeding regiment. Around the time the chickens will be getting ready to start laying, switching to a layer feed will provide them additional calcium they need to make strong eggshells. Providing free-choice calcium either in the form of oyster shell or crushed eggshells will ensure they are getting all the calcium they need. Chickens also need “grit” which can be in the form of small stones or pebbles they pick up in the yard or purchased commercially. This is necessary to help chickens digest the foods they eat since they don’t have teeth.
In addition, adding some natural supplements to your flock’s diet will keep them in tiptop shape. One tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in their water a few times a week provides respiratory support, garlic powder in their feed or crushed garlic cloves in their water boosts the immune system. Probiotics help keep their digestive systems healthy and fight bad bacteria. And sea kelp provides beneficial pre-biotics that help the probiotics work at their best.
While eggs are usually the reason for getting started with raising chickens, don’t forget their feathers and manure. Chicken manure makes wonderful garden fertilizer – just be sure to let it age for several months before using it on your garden – and chicken feathers also add beneficial structure and nutrients to garden soil.
Hopefully these ten tips will get you started in the right direction with your backyard flock, but the main thing to remember is to have fun and enjoy the experience!