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When you decide to start raising backyard chickens it can feel overwhelming at first. There are so many things to think about before you start keeping chickens. But if you break it down into simple steps it makes things so much easier.
Keeping chickens just like any animal takes work and commitment. Whether you are raising them for meat, eggs, or pets they will take time every day to care for.
Before going further take some time to think about these questions:
- Do you have time to do chicken chores every day?
- If you go on vacation who will care for them?
- Are you allowed to have chickens where you live?
- Do you have enough room for a chicken coop or tractor in your yard?
- Can you afford to buy and feed chickens?
Once you know you are ready and able to keep chickens in your yard then you can start researching what breed and how many you’ll need.
Things To Do Before Getting Chickens
Check Zoning and HOA
Before you run out and buy chickens it’s a good idea to make sure you are legally allowed to keep them where you live. This is especially true if you live in an urban area.
Over the past few years, there have been many urban areas that have started letting residents keep backyard laying hens. But don’t just assume that it’s that way where you live.
Make some calls and find out if your zoning allows for keeping chickens and if so how many you can have.
If you are thinking about keeping a rooster then you will want to check into that as well. Many urban areas will allow hens but not roosters because of the noise they make.
Choosing A Chicken Breed
Once you have decided to get chickens you need to pick what breed of chicken is best for your purposes.
There are many breeds of chickens but they are grouped into one of three categories.
Egg Laying Breeds
These types of chickens have been bred over time to produce as many eggs as possible. Leghorns are an example of a prolific egg-laying breed that is used commercially.
Obviously, these breeds of chickens are the best options if you want to raise chickens for meat. They have been bred to grow very quickly and have a good feed to weight conversion.
Depending on the breed you pick meat birds are ready for your freezer in about 8-12 weeks.
Dual purpose hens make a great choice for small farm flocks.
They are very productive egg layers and also grow large enough to make good meat birds.
Getting Your Chickens
Once you know you can keep chickens and you have picked out your breed the next step is to get your birds.
But you have a few options to pick from.
You can hatch eggs or buy day-old chicks, pullets, or adult hens.
There are pros and cons to each way of getting started but they all work well. So it’s just a matter of picking what will work best for you.
Even if you don’t have chickens already you can buy fertilized eggs to incubate and hatch your own chicks.
But it may not be the best idea for starting your first flock. Incubating chicken eggs takes daily care to make sure the temperature and humidity are right and that the eggs are turned multiple times per day.
It’s not that it’s that hard to do but there are other ways of getting started that are easier.
Starting with day-old chicks is the most common way of starting a new flock. They are the cheapest way to start with chickens but it will take 4-6 months before you start to get eggs from them.
Chicks are available directly from small farm breeders and larger hatcheries.
In the spring you can find many breeds of chicks in your local farm stores too, just make sure you are ready for chicks before you bring them home.
Pullets are young chickens between 4 and 6 months of age. These birds have reached the stage where they will be just starting to lay eggs.
They are more expensive than starting with chicks but you get a return sooner.
Adult hens can be a good way to start a small flock but it can take time to find good young hens.
You may find a farmer who is reducing their laying flock and be able to pick up laying birds at a reasonable price. If you are looking for purebred hens expect to pay $30 to $50 per hen depending on the breed and your area.
How Many Laying Hens Do I Need?
The easiest way to decide how many chickens you need is to start by checking how many eggs your family uses in a week.
This will naturally be different for each family.
Most hens will lay 5-6 eggs per week but in the early spring, it can be as high as 1 egg a day.
During the early spring and summer, most laying hens will give you 1 egg per day or every other day depending on the breed.
To get an idea of how many chickens to start by taking the number of eggs your family eats in a week and divide it by 5.
This will help you know the average of how many laying hens you’ll need. Then adjust from there depending on what breed of chicken you decide on and how many eggs you’re getting.
How Many Meat Birds Do I Need?
If you are more interested in raising meat then all you need to do is think about how many times a month your family eats chicken.
If you want to have chicken 4 times per month and have enough homegrown chicken for a year times it by 12 for 48 birds.
Where Should I Get My Chickens?
It’s best to get your chickens locally if possible. Start by checking with your farm supply store often they will be an ordering location for hatcheries or can help you find a local breeder.
Another option is to look for Facebook groups for chicken keepers in your area.
When Will They Start Laying Eggs?
Chickens will start to lay eggs when they are between 4 and 6 months old. But this will also depend on how much light is available.
If your birds reach laying age in the fall when the daylight hours are getting shorter they may not start laying eggs until the spring.
If you want them to start sooner then adding supplemental lighting to your chicken coop can help keep them laying in the winter.
Will Chickens Lay Eggs All Year?
No, normally chickens won’t lay eggs year-round without using artificial lighting.
Chickens naturally start to lay eggs in the spring as the daylight hours increase and then slow down or stop when the light hours decrease in the fall triggers their molt.
You’ll find that some chickens will keep laying through the winter without extra lighting but they won’t give you as many eggs as they do in the spring. Slowing down to 1 or 2 eggs a week is something you should expect.
If you want to have lots of eggs through the winter you’ll have 2 choices. Use supplemental lighting so your hens keep laying through the winter or preserve extra eggs through the spring and summer to use in the winter.
Do I Need A Rooster?
No, you don’t need a rooster to keep a chicken flock.
It’s a common myth that you need to keep a rooster when you have chickens.
But you really only need a rooster if you want fertilized eggs for hatching.
Although I have found that when we have roosters with our hens the hens fight less and when they get started the rooster will break it up.
But it really is optional and if you live in an urban area that won’t let you keep roosters don’t worry you can still have lots of eggs from your hens without one.
Learn more about how to decide if keeping a rooster is right for you.
Get Your Chicken Coop Ready
Before you bring home chickens it’s best to have their shelter ready.
Shelter needs for chickens are pretty basic but there are a few important things you don’t want to forget.
Your chickens need a safe place to get out of extreme weather. The summer heat, drafts, and cold winter temperatures all can make chickens sick.
Make sure your coop is draft and leak-free so they have a safe, dry place to get out of the weather.
When building or buying a chicken coop make sure it has good ventilation.
This will help you regulate the temperature to keep it cool in the summer and warm in the winter. If your coop gets too hot in the summer add more windows or ventilation slots to increase airflow.
Good ventilation can also help keep the chicken coop from building up with dampness that can lead to health problems in your birds.
Overcrowded birds will become stressed and that can cause health problems but also behavior problems like pecking each other. Make sure to give your birds enough room in their coop and run.
Roost are wooden poles that birds fly or jump up onto to sleep at night.
You’ll find most of your birds will like to roost together for company but it’s common to have a few birds that prefer to be by themselves. So having a few roosting places in your coop will help give the birds a choice.
Make sure these are not placed over food and water containers.
If you are raising laying hens you will of course need to keep nesting boxes in the coop.
Aim for at least 1 box for every 3 hens but if you have enough room more is always better.
Don’t be surprised if you find hens sharing a nest box though. It’s very common for them to have a favorite nest box and to have multiple hens wanting to use the same one, even with other nests not being used.
While young chicks should be kept indoors once they have fully feathered out they can start going outside. Adult birds will love being outside and you will rarely find them inside the coop on a nice summer day.
Make sure to give your chickens outdoor space whether you are letting them free-range, using a pen attached to your coop, or using a chicken tractor.
How To Raise Backyard Chickens
After you have your chicken coop or tractor ready and your chicks have grown into adult birds their care is really very easy.
Your hens only need basic things from you to produce eggs.
Get In A Routine
Each morning go outside and let your chickens out of their coop. Then clean and replace their water and feed.
Take a look over your birds to make sure they are all healthy and have no injuries or illness starting.
Collect any eggs that have been laid, then check a few times throughout the day for more eggs. Keeping them collected helps to keep them clean and reduces the chance of hens eating their eggs.
In the late evening after your birds have gone inside and roosted for the night go out and lock up the coop. This will help to keep predators from getting inside.
Clean out your coop weekly or as needed depending on what type of bedding method you are using. Don’t forget to clean out the nest boxes and add clean bedding every week.
What you feed your chickens will depend on why you are raising them. Meat birds will need a feed that helps them grow quickly and put on weight while laying hens will need feed that helps them to lay lots of eggs.
Keeping your birds well fed will make them happy. Hungry or poorly fed birds develop many problems from weight loss, illness, to simply bullying each other.
It’s very important to make sure your chickens always have good clean water.
A hen will drink about 1 cup of water per day but this can go up to 2 cups in hot weather or simply because she’s more thirsty.
It’s always better to have more water available to your birds than what they will need.
Place multiple chicken water stations around your coop and outside so that there is no competition or shortage of water for the birds.
Common Chicken Problems
You might think that predators are only a problem for people raising chickens in the country but that’s not true. Even if you live in a town or city there are many animals that can hurt your chickens.
This can range from your own dog to rats, weasels, raccoons, foxes, hawks, and coyotes.
Learn about what predators are in your area and make sure your coop is secure.
Many of the popular egg-laying chicken breeds have been bred to not go broody. Broody means that they lay a number of eggs and then sit on them to incubate and hatch their chicks.
You can recognize a broody hen because she will stay in her nest and squawk a lot when approached. If you try to remove her or her eggs she may also peck you hard. In her mind, she’s trying to protect her babies.
But if you don’t have a rooster (the eggs will not hatch if they aren’t fertilized) or simply don’t want your hens going broody you’ll have to try and stop her broody cycle.
Not Laying Eggs
If you are keeping chickens for eggs and they suddenly stop laying it can feel frustrating.
But chickens don’t lay eggs naturally all year. There are many reasons that your hens can stop laying, from a lack of proper food to decreasing daylight hours.
Have you ever heard the expression pecking order? With chickens, each bird has its place and if they start to step out of it other birds will peck them.
This can be caused by a lower-tier bird trying to eat before those at the top.
While this is normal chicken behavior it can sometimes go too far and birds will start to heavily bully others.
Keeping chickens in your backyard is so worth it. They provide you with eggs, meat, and can be used to help weed your garden and make compost.
Kim Mills is a homeschooling mom of 6 and lives on an urban homestead in Ontario, Canada. Blogging at Homestead Acres she enjoys sharing tips to help you save money, grow and preserve your own food.