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Backyard Chickens are a wonderful addition to the backyard farm for so many reasons and it seems like everyone is suddenly jumping on the wagon and raising backyard chickens. In so many ways they are the perfect backyard farm animals: they don’t take up much space, they provide delicious eggs for breakfast, they provide hours of entertainment, and even eat bugs and weeds. Learning how to raise backyard chickens is one of the best things you can do on your backyard farming journey.
Why you should Raise Backyard Chickens
Raising chickens has been a favorite and first step into keeping farm animals for me as well as for many others backyard farmers. While they still require consistent care, they are generally easy to raise and learning to raise chickens is relatively easy.
- Lay better tasting and healthier eggs
- Provide humanely raised meat
- Make manure for the garden
- Eat food and garden scraps – therefore aiding in composting
- Provide bug control when allowed to free range
- Are entertaining with their own personalities
- Can be noisy (especially when you have a rooster – although hens will make noise mostly after laying an egg)
- May possibly expose you to potential health concerns (avian flu)
- Will scratch up seedlings and eat produce from the garden when allowed to free range
- May be restricted in your neighborhood
- Can smell if living conditions are cramped or not cleaned
- Must be protected from predators
What You Need to Raise Backyard Chickens
If you are planning to raise chickens, you will need a backyard chicken coop. Chickens need nighttime protection from predators and from the elements. When you raise backyard chickens, it is possible to keep your chickens in a barn or other outbuilding but you will need to ensure that the space is secure and can be kept clean. You should plan for each of your chickens to have at least 5 square feet of space inside as long as they have access to outdoor space as well. When you build or purchase your chicken coop, make sure you think ahead – if there is even the smallest chance you will want more chickens in the future, make sure you get a bigger coop than you need now.
At a minimum, a coop should protect from predators, rain, wind and provide nesting boxes and roosts or perches for the chickens to sleep. Chickens will also add moisture to the air through breathing so it is important to have ventilation. You can choose to build your own chicken coop. For chicken coop ideas, visit my Pinterest Board all about chickens or check out this book: Chicken Coops: 45 Ideas for Housing Your Flock.
Unless you are committed to free ranging your chickens, you will need to build a run so your backyard chickens can safely spend time outside hunting bugs, eating scraps and more. A good run is sturdy with fencing that goes down into the ground and some sort of covering. Chicken wire does not make a good run as it is too flimsy and you will need something more sturdy. A basic run can simply be a rectangular space connected to your chicken coop, but there are many ways you can build your run. For small spaces, a chicken tractor or a moveable run allows you to rotate your chickens around the yard to help eat bugs, weed, or fertilize.
Read more about Chicken Runs and Chicken Tunnels
You can also build chicken tunnels or multiple runs to rotate your hens to different spaces. Thinking of your chickens as just a part of your backyard farm means you should maximize all the benefits of your hens including weed control, bug suppression, fertilizer, and more.
Food, Water, and Treats
Healthy chickens need good food and clean water every day to help them thrive. It’s important to buy a quality pellet or crumble mix for laying or meat hens from your local supply shop. You will want to keep their food in a basic chicken feeder and check this twice a day. Chickens also thrive when their diet is supplemented with treats and kitchen scraps. We always throw these into their run and don’t mix them with their feed. A general rule is that if you can eat it – so can they (although there are a few exceptions including avocado, rhubarb and a few others). Laying hens in particular benefit from additional calcium to help with egg productions, and you can also purchase treats for your backyard hens.
Another option for fresh food in the winter is to grow your own sprouted grain or fodder.
Looking for more information on the best chicken supplies? Check out:
Choose a chicken waterer that is easy to clean, easy to refill, and provides enough access for the number of chickens you have. If you are keeping chickens in cold climates, you will also want to consider how you will keep the water thawed in the winter. You can purchase heated waterers or buckets, or a unit that goes under your poultry waterer. The first year we kept chickens in the cold, we did not have a way to keep the water melted and we spent a lot of time heating chicken water!
Bedding and Extras
Chickens need clean bedding to help keep them warm and healthy. Pine shavings make excellent bedding and can be purchased at your local feed store. There are also many products that may benefit you and your backyard chickens but aren’t 100% necessary such as a timed chicken door, chickens saddles, herbs for the nesting box and so much more!
How much time does it take to Raise Chickens
Raising chickens or any backyard farm animals means you are responsible for the health and safety of your animals. This doesn’t mean that it takes all day but you will need to be available for your hens. Here is what our chicken care routine looks like on our backyard farm:
Mornings: let the chickens out of the coop into there run, check chickens food and water, fluff bedding, do a quick inspection of the chickens, collect eggs
Evenings: shut chickens back into the coop, check eggs, food and water
Weekly and seasonally: clean coop, clean water and food containers, do any run or coop repairs
Breeds of Chickens
There is a saying that raising chickens is a little like eating potato chips – once you have a few you are bound to have a few more. It’s hard to resist the urge to acquire more and more chickens as your backyard farm grows. Chickens are social animals and you always have at least 2 chickens to keep them happy and healthy.
One of the best things about raising chickens is the many different chicken breeds. These breeds differ in so many ways such as how many eggs they lay, how big they are, how cold hardy, if they have feathers on their feet, their color, the color of their eggs, and so much more. It is important to consider your climate and needs before you select a breed. For someone who is more interested in the enjoyment of having chickens, you may want to choose bantam hens, while others may focus on egg production. There is no reason you can’t have many different breeds of chickens in one coop as long as the chickens have enough space and access to food and water.
There are many great online sources for learning more about the different breeds.
What About Roosters
You do not need a rooster to have backyard chickens lay eggs. Most people just choose to keep female chickens for their backyard farm. If you do keep a rooster, the hens will naturally form a little hen group around him and he will in turn protect them. Roosters are also required if you want fertilized eggs for eating or hatching. Due to their nature, roosters are stronger, can be more aggressive and are generally noisier than hens.
Where do you get Chickens?
Raising chickens is fun, but raising baby chickens (chicks!) doesn’t really get any cuter. Most people choose to purchase baby chicks when they are just a few days old. You can purchase them at your nearest animal supply store such as Tractor Supply or Agway, or order them through the mail. Baby chicks hatch with enough reserve to last a few days, so it is possible for companies (such as My Pet Chicken) to mail them and you can pick them up at the post office. These chickens often come sexed so you can just get females if you don’t want a bunch of roosters as part of your backyard chicken flock.
You can find local farms or individuals willing to sell you older chickens. It is also possible to hatch chicks from eggs under a broody hen or in an incubator but you will need to start with fertilized eggs.
How to Care for Chicks
Chicks require their own special type of care. Most importantly they need to be protected from predators, kept warm (100 degrees for the first week – and 5 degrees less each of the following weeks), fed special chick feed, and given access to clean water. Depending on the time of year, you will want to set up a chick brooder either in your home or somewhere safe and warm. As the chicks age, they need more space and will become awkward looking teenage chickens as they feather out. Don’t introduce your chicks to your other hens until they are full sized or the other chickens will pick on them.
See an Complete Guide of Raising Baby Chicks.
Raising Chickens for Eggs
Most backyard farmers with a small chicken coop are raising chickens for eggs. It’s good to remember that chickens don’t start laying eggs until they are 5-6 months old and then only lay eggs a few times a week depending on the breed. Chickens will also take time off laying eggs when there is less light and when they molt. Some people choose to light the chicken coop to keep the hens laying during the darker months.
If you are raising chickens for eggs, you will want to collect eggs daily. Most of the time, chickens naturally lay their eggs in a nesting box if you provide one in their coop making it easy to collect. Fresh chicken eggs can be stored on the counter as long as you don’t wash them until you are ready to use them. Washing them removes their protective coating and they will need to be stored in the fridge.
Raising Chickens for Meat
If you are raising chickens for meat, you will likely need a different coop set up. Meat chickens are usually processed around 6-8 weeks. Most people purchase a larger number of chickens and select breeds that grow quickly – such as Cornish Rocks. It is difficult to raise chickens that are both egg laying and meat birds for this reason. You can choose to process the chickens yourself or find a local processor but either way you should be prepared to say goodbye after just a few months.
Protecting Your Chickens from Predators
No matter what type of chickens you raise or where you live, you will need to protect your chickens from predators. There are many wild animals that will harm a chicken and some that do it for sport and will take out your whole flock. Some of the predators that can harm a chicken include:
- Fisher cat
Most of these predators will attack during dusk, dawn or nighttime hours (although dogs and hawks are more of a problem during the day). You will want to secure your chickens for the night as soon as it becomes dusk. Animals, like racoons, are smart and will figure out how to open doors, so make sure everything is locked and secured. Double check that your run is secured with fencing that goes down into the group and keep an eye out for any digging. For daytime protection, you should ensure that your run is protected overhead with fencing, netting or even some bushes/trees for cover. Even if you choose to free range your backyard chickens, there are some precautions you can take to keep them safe such as only letting them out at certain times of the day and locking them up at night.
Another helpful tool is a chicken coop camera that lets you see what’s going on when you’re not there. You can see more about getting a camera in this article: best chicken coop cameras.
Raising Chickens Throughout the Year
Depending on where you live, you will face different challenges with raising chickens throughout the year. In the summer and heat, chickens need access to shade and water to keep cool. During the winter months, it is important that chickens have a draft-free shelter and unfrozen water. While some people choose to heat their coop over the winter you are risking a fire by using a heat lamp in your coop. When possible, it is better to insulate your coop and select chickens that are cold hardy and provide food and warm water to keep the chickens warm.
Is it Safe to Keep Chickens?
When you are first learning how to raise chickens, you may wonder if backyard chickens can make you sick. Like any farm animal, chickens can carry germs or bacteria that can make you sick. The most common zoonotic diseases that a chicken can pass to a human include: Salmonella, Listeria, Campylobacter, and E.Coli. This can happen to backyard chickens as well as commercially farm raised chickens and just because a chicken doesn’t look sick doesn’t mean they can’t carry these diseases. Here are a few things you can do to help protect your family from these diseases:
- Wash your hands anytime you handle a chicken
- Take excellent care of your chickens to keep them healthy
- Clean their coop regularly and be on the lookout for rodents or other possible sources of disease
- Regularly inspect your flock for signs of sickness