Ideas & Inspiration
How to Raise Chickens
Chickens are showing up in many suburban backyards. They are relatively easy to raise and do not take up a lot of space. Having a source of farm-fresh eggs right out your door may tempt you to give chicken keeping a try. Before you rush out and buy a coop, it’s important to consider a few details. Follow this guide to learn how to raise chickens and what you need to keep them healthy and happy.
Not all municipalities and counties will allow you to raise chickens on your property. Before you look at chicken breeds or coops, you need to find out if you are allowed to have chickens. Most of the time, there are restrictions on flock size, roosters and distance the coop can be from your property line. Also, there may be a permit you have to purchase in order to have chickens. Thankfully, many urban and suburban areas are loosening restrictions when it comes to chicken raising, but it’s best to check with your municipality or county first.
Since chickens are social animals, flocks should have a minimum of three chickens. The total number of chickens you add to your yard will be determined by the amount of space you have and the number of chickens allowed by your local ordinances. In general, one medium-size chicken needs at least 3 square feet of floor space inside the coop and at least 8 to 10 square feet of outdoor space.
There are hundreds of domesticated chicken breeds in existence. Some breeds are better suited to urban areas and others do better in colder climates. Picking the right breed that matches your climate, living area and personal preference is important. Here are some things to consider when choosing a chicken breed:
- Adaptability to confinement
- Noise level
- Egg production
- Color of eggs produced
When researching chicken breeds, look at chicken hatchery websites. They will have vital information about the chickens that will help you with your decision. Hatchery sites have photos of what the egg, baby chicks and adult chicken will look like. Also, there’s basic information about the breed and whether it's a heat-tolerant or cold-hardy breed.
Most people start out with chicks versus pullets. Chicks are also known as “day olds” and pullets are young hens (usually less than a year old) that have not started laying eggs. There is, of course, the option to adopt a chicken from a rescue.
Day Old Chicks:
- Less expensive: Day-olds are a fraction of the cost of an adult chicken.
- Cute: They are fuzzy and small.
- Flock harmony: Raising several chicks together allows them to naturally harmonize slowly as a flock.
- Variety: There’s usually a better selection of day-olds available for purchase.
- Need more equipment: Day-olds need a brooding area and to be kept warm under a special heat lamp for 10 weeks or so.
- Fragile: You will need to carefully maintain the brooding area because day-olds are delicate and susceptible to a number of different health conditions and ailments.
- Gender: Most people want hens so they can eventually have eggs. Although day-olds are sorted by gender at the hatchery, there’s a chance you may end up with a rooster (male chicken). This may not be a big deal for some, but some municipalities will not allow roosters. Also, it’s recommended that you only have one rooster for every 10 hens. However, that depends on the breed of chicken you have.
- Longer wait for eggs: Chicks won't be ready to start laying for 20 to 24 weeks.
- Gender: It’s easier to determine the gender of an adult chicken.
- Eggs: Pullets are ready to lay eggs, so there’s no waiting for maturity.
- Lower Risk: Pullets are not as fragile as chicks and easier to care for on day one.
- More expensive: Pullets cost about three times the price of a chick, on average.
- Flock harmony: The term “pecking order” refers to the dominance order with chickens (mostly hens). Unless pullets were raised together as chicks, bringing them into a new location can prove to be difficult. Chickens will naturally sort themselves out (usually through fighting), but it can result in an injured chicken or two.
There are also options for adopting a chicken through a poultry rescue. Depending on what your plans are for your chickens (to have eggs or as a pet) you generally have the same pros and cons as you would with a pullet. Be sure to ask plenty of questions about the chicken’s background before you add it to your flock.
The coop is where your chickens will sleep and lay eggs. It needs to be a secure structure that you can close and lock at night to keep the chickens safe. Coops are available in many different sizes and styles. However, you do need to make sure the coop is large enough to accommodate the flock you eventually plan on having. It’s much easier to build or purchase a coop that’s big enough the first time around versus adding onto the coop. It’s recommended that one medium-size chicken needs 3 square feet of floor space inside the coop.
Chickens need 8 to 10 square feet of outdoor space at a minimum. The more space your chickens have, the healthier they will be. Overcrowding can lead to feather picking (when one bird pecks or pulls at the feathers of another) and disease.
Chickens are also susceptible to wild and domestic predators. It’s best to have an enclosed run to keep them safe from aerial predators and household pets. If you let them free range in your yard, they need to be supervised.
Within the run, they will need a place for a dust bath. Chickens use fine sand or dirt to help keep their feathers free of mites and other parasites.
Chickens do not sleep on their nests. Instead, they roost on bars or boards. Wood is the best material for roosting bars versus plastic or metal. Wood will not get cold in the winter or slippery when it’s wet. Old branches or even 2 x 4 boards will work as roosting bars. Place roosting bars 2 feet above the floor, 18 inches from the nearest parallel wall and space them 18 inches apart. The dominant chicken will roost on the highest bar.
Chickens will lay eggs in a dark, secluded space. A nesting box will provide hens a place to lay and also keep your hens from laying eggs in the corners of the coop or in a random places in your yard or run. Wood boxes or repurposed plastic buckets can be used as a nesting box as long as they are no larger than 12 square feet. The goal is to allow space for one chicken (so they do not share nests.)
Line the nesting boxes with soft materials such as pine shavings, hay and straw litter blends or even manufactured nesting pads.
Most backyard chickens eat a balanced poultry feed. There are different feed types depending on the age of the chicken. They are labeled as chick, grower and layer. They come in a pelleted or crumble form. The type you use will depend on your flock’s personal preference.
Chickens also need supplemental grit and calcium. Grit consists of small stones and rocks. Chickens consume the grit and store it in their gizzards to help them digest what they eat. Chickens that free-range will usually find enough grit for their needs. If your chickens are in a run, you will need to provide commercially manufactured grit for them.
Hens also need supplemental calcium to lay eggs with strong eggshells. You can purchase crushed oyster shells to feed them at first, then save the eggshells your flock produces. Crush the eggshells after you use them and feed them back to your hens.
Make sure your chickens have access to cool fresh water all day long. During warm weather, you may need to provide water several times a day.
Once your hens have plenty of food, water and a place to nest, they are ready to lay eggs. Egg laying is dependent on the length of daylight. Most hens will lay one egg per day as long as they receive 12 hours of daylight. As the days grow shorter in the fall and winter months, egg production will decrease.
Chicken keeping is a wonderful way to get fresh eggs and get into animal husbandry. Looking for materials to help you raise chickens? The Home Depot delivers online orders when and where you need them.