Keeping your own chickens is so much fun, and they can supply fresh eggs! Today I’m going to show you how to keep backyard chickens.
A beginner’s guide to keeping backyard chickens
Chickens are a perfect part of urban homesteading. They are also wonderful symbiotic partners with a vegetable garden. Backyard chickens can provide fresh, high quality eggs, and are so relaxing and entertaining to watch.
If you’re new to the idea, but want to get started raising backyard chickens, you’re in the right place!
I grew up keeping chickens, and have had my own for years. I’m here to share all of my tips and advice on how to keep backyard chickens.
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Should you keep backyard chickens?
How do you start keeping chickens? The idea sounds so fun! For many people, keeping backyard chickens is totally doable and very rewarding. But, as you should before thinking of brining any animal home, there are some questions you’ll want to ask yourself first:
- Know the laws. In many cities, keeping backyard chickens is allowed. Just be sure and check if there is a number limit. Also, if you live in a neighborhood associate or HOA, you’ll want to make sure chickens are on the allowed list.
- Make sure you can afford them. Chickens are not expensive, and they can eventually pay for themselves by supplying eggs. But, there are some upfront costs with getting started, and you’ll want to make sure this is something you can pay for. (We’ll cover the details of cost as we go.) Also, you’ll need to provide ongoing feed and other things for your chickens, so you’ll want to make sure this is something you can work into your budget.
- Find out if your neighbors will be okay with having chickens next door.
Planning for chickens
Once you’ve made sure that chickens are allowed where you live and are a good fit for you, it’s time to start with the planning. You’ll need to figure out how many chickens you want to get, what breed, and where they will live.
Choosing a breed
There are many options for laying hen breeds. You can request a catalog from an online hatchery, and start browsing!
Some things to consider when shooing a breed are:
- Your climate. If you have cold winters, you’ll want a breed that is okay with cold.
- Noise level. Some breeds are noisier than others.
- Size. How big do you want your chickens to be?
- Color. How do you want your chickens to look?
- Egg color. Do you want white eggs, brown, or blue green?
You can get more than one breed at a time, too. As long as they are raised together and gave adequate living space, different breeds can get along nicely.
The space you have will largely determine how many chickens you can keep. We’ll talk a little more about this when we talk about chicken coop options. You don’t have to go crazy! Even just 3-6 chickens can provide a nice amount of eggs.
When comes time to buy chickens, you can get baby chicks, or you can find adult chickens. Baby chicks are inexpensive (and so cute!) but they do require some special care at first.
You might be able to find adult chickens that are already laying on Craigslist or through word of mouth. They may cost more than baby chicks, but you’ll skip the fragile brooding stage.
Raising baby chicks
You can buy baby chicks online, or at a local feed store. Baby chicks only cost a few dollars each, but they have to be kept in a secure brooder with a heat lamp until they’re feathered out. Depending on how many you have, you can use a large plastic tote or livestock water tank to keep them.
Baby chicks need wood chips for bedding. You’ll need to add fresh wood chips periodically so they’re kept clean.
You’ll have to hang a heat lamp above them and keep it the correct distance to maintain 90ºF. Baby chicks need chick feed (also called grower) and water in containers that are the right size for them. They also need to be kept safe from predators, including dogs and cats.
Something that can happen to very young chicks is something called “pasty butt.” This is when their poop cakes on them. It can happen due to stress because they are too cold, or from the stress of being shipped. We add a splash of raw apple cider vinegar to our chicks’ water to help keep them healthy.
You’ll want to watch for pasty butt and clean it off right away if it happens. If the dried poop is left, the chick could die. Just wash the chick’s rear end gently under warm running water, and put them back under the heat lamp to dry.
Build or buy a coop
Chickens will need a secure place to live, sleep, and lay their eggs. There are a variety of structures and systems that can work well for backyard chickens.
You can have a permeant chicken coop that stays in one place. Or, you can have a moveable chicken tractor that can be moved to fresh pasture on a regular basis. When chickens stay in one place, they will eat all of the grass and end up on bare dirt. We prefer a chicken tractor that is moveable, so that our chickens can be on fresh grass all the time.
If you’re handy, you can build a chicken coop or chicken tractor. We built this one, and we really like it. It includes a roosting area, nest boxes, and outdoor area, all in one, and is super secure from predators, which is a must have in our area.
Our chicken tractor is big, too, and can fit up to 20 hens. Since we sourced lots of free and cheap material it only cost us about $300 to build. If you choose to build a smaller coop, it will probably cost much less.
There are also chicken coops and chicken tractors that you can purchase, already made. Depending on how big they are, they can cost anywhere from $150 on up.
Whoever route you go, you’ll want to make sure that your structure provides the following things for your chickens:
- Shelter to keep your chickens protected from the weather
- Ventilation so they have fresh air, but no drafts
- Adequate space providing about 3 indoor square feet and 8-10 outdoor square feet per chicken
- Nesting boxes where they can lay their eggs
- Roosts for sleeping
- An outdoor area, preferably on grass, where they can scratch for bugs and get fresh air and sunlight
- Security so that they are kept safe from predators
How to raise chickens for eggs
Are chickens easy to keep? Backyard chicken care is pretty simple. If you raised baby chicks, they will be ready to move outside when they are feathered out. This usually happens around 4-5 weeks. They are always so excited to be outside after living in the brooder!
We keep feeding our chickens grower feed until they’re about 4 months old, and then we switch to layer feed. We keep their feeder full of feed at all times. You can buy bags of feed at your local feed store, or you can order it online. This is our favorite organic chicken feed.
Chickens need fresh water at all times. In the winter you’ll have to keep on top of this. During the cold months, we have more than one waterer, so we can swap them out whenever the outside one freezes.
You’ll need to provide some grit and oyster shell. The grit helps them break down their feed, and the oyster shell provides calcium. We provide free access to the grit and oyster shell.
Chickens love kitchen scraps! We feed our chickens all of our leftover food and vegetable trimmings.
If you have a chicken tractor, you will be automatically spreading chicken poop over your grass. This is the perfect, all natural lawn fertilizer!
How often should you clean a chicken coop? If your chicken house is stationary, you’ll need to clean the chicken poop out every now and then. Chickens need a clean place to sleep and to lay eggs. How often you do it depends on how many chickens you have. You don’t have to do it every day, but maybe once a month or so is a good average.
When will chickens lay eggs?
Once chickens are around 4-6 months old, they will start laying eggs. They’ll start slowly, one egg every now and then, and gradually pick up momentum until most of them lay and egg every day.
What is the best bedding for chickens? Chickens need a clean place to lay eggs. Our favorite bedding for the nest boxes is a piece of burlap.
What do you do with chickens in wintertime?
For the most part, chicken care doesn’t change that much during the colder months. There are a few things to keep in mind, though.
Water will freeze. You’ll have to keep on top of bringing thawed water out to your chickens whenever this happens. We keep more than one waterer on hand to make this easy.
Many breeds of chickens are actually pretty hardy during cold temperatures, but when it gets really cold, they might need some extra heat.
We are in Colorado, and there are some nights where the temperature drops into the single digits or below zero. Whenever that happens, we put a regular, incandescent light bulb inside our chicken house overnight. A heat lamp bulb would be too much, but the incandescent bulb provides just the right amount of temperature boost.
What do you do with backyard chicken poop?
If you raised baby chicks, or have a chicken house that you clean out periodically, you can use the poop and dirty shavings to fertilize your garden.
Just make a big compost pile with the chicken poop and wood shavings, and let it sit through the winter. In the spring, it will be the perfect thing to mix into your soil for your vegetable garden!
Are backyard chickens worth it?
The answer to this question depends on your personal priorities. If you compare the costs of raising chickens with the price of a dozen, factory farmed eggs from your local mega chain grocery store, you’ll quickly see that raising backyard chickens costs more than buying cheap, low quality eggs.
But, let’s take a look at something important. Eggs from healthy, organically fed, pastured raised chickens are much higher quality and contain more beneficial nutrients than eggs from factory farmed chickens (source).
Pasture raised, organic eggs can cost around $7.00, which is quite a lot more than the conventional, factory farmed eggs. If you are raising healthy, happy hens on fresh green grass and feeding them organic feed, chances are very good that you are raising high quality eggs for less money than you can buy them at the store.
And, raising chickens have benefits that you can’t put a price tag on. For example, learning to care for chickens and learning where are food comes from are important life lessons. Kids who are involved with their own backyard chickens learn these life lessons. In this age of disconnection with where our food comes from, that is priceless!
Older kids with an interest in business can also sell eggs and start learning about entrepreneurship.
Let’s also not forget about how much fun chickens are! They are very entertaining and so relaxing to just watch.
Know a local expert
It can be really handy to know someone in person who is experienced with keeping chickens. I recommend trying to find someone like this.
They can be very helpful when you’re getting started, and can guide you through any questions you might have.
Look for a local chicken expert among your friends, at a feed store, or locate someone through your country extension office.
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