The practice of keeping backyard chickens is alive and well, and there is a world of difference between fresh eggs and store-bought. Keeping a small flock of hens may seem daunting, but once their habitat is set up, they require very little. You don’t need to have a full-on farm to keep chickens, just a chicken coop and a yard. Here are the basics of backyard chickens.
Starting Your Backyard Flock
A common misconception about chickens is that you need a rooster to produce eggs. There are several reasons why you only want hens in your backyard flock. Chickens will lay eggs when they come of age naturally, but when a rooster is in the mix, you’ll get fertilized eggs. Those are good for hatching into chicks, but not eating. Also, roosters are very loud and can be aggressive. In fact, most cities and towns have ordinances against them within city limits.
How can I be sure that I am getting female chicks?
A surefire way to know you are only getting hens is to choose a “sex link” breed, where the males and females are born different colors. There are other ways that experts can tell the difference between male and female chicks but they are not always 100% accurate. You can find the broadest selection of breeds between February and May at local farm stores or online.
I have my chicks, what’s next?
Raise the chicks indoors for the first 6 weeks of their life under a heat lamp. Use a large plastic storage container for an indoor “coop” that will contain the mess without taking up too much room. Line it with bedding like straw, hay, or wood chips.
Place a window screen or something similar over the top, and be sure to weigh it down. Use a ceramic heat lamp clipped to the container so the temperature stays in the mid-80s. Make sure food and water are always available for the chicks. Clean the container and replace the bedding as needed.
During the 6 weeks that they are being raised indoors, prepare their coop and yard area. Chicken coops come in many shapes and sizes, but there are some fundamentals that all need to have.
- Laying boxes: Chickens need a dedicated area that’s easy to reach where they can lay eggs
- Roost: Chickens want to roost as high as possible, so your hens will be much happier if there is somewhere to perch within their coop.
- Hanging water feeder: If the water feeder is sitting on a surface, it will likely spill all the time. A hanging water feeder has gravity keeping it stable and is less likely to leak.
- Grain feeder: The grain feeder can be set on the ground, or you can hang one.
- Runner or fenced-in area: Most chicken coops have a fenced-in runner, but some folks choose to let their hens roam around a larger part of a fenced-in yard. There are pros and cons to doing this—the hens will be happier and can forage for insects and worms within a larger area, but they are also more susceptible to predator attacks. To keep them safe, lock them in the coop at night if they are free-range during the day. For an extra precaution against predatory birds, install a covering of chicken wire over the fenced-in area or runner.
What to Expect with Backyard Chickens
After 6 weeks, weather permitting, your chickens will be ready to be introduced to their outdoor coop. If you choose to let them free-range, they can easily squeeze through even the smallest fence gaps, so wait until they are full size.
Your hens will start laying around week 20. You can supplement their diet of layer pellets with food scraps like lettuce and cabbage butts, and they will constantly forage for insects. When they start laying, expect about 1 egg per day from each chicken.
Certain factors such as cold weather and molting can hinder laying for periods of time. Make sure they always have access to clean water. If chickens go without water for even just a day, it can stunt their growth and their egg-laying.
Maintenance of Backyard Chickens
In adulthood, chickens become fairly self-sustaining. They are creatures of habit, so you can predict and control their behavior easily: where they are going to lay, sleep, eat, etc. Your daily routine will include gathering their eggs, making sure their bedding is clean, and keeping their food and water full.
When cleaning out the chicken coop, wear a mask over your nose and mouth. The dust from chickens’ waste is harmful to your lungs.
Maintaining your chickens’ area typically only takes about 10 minutes out of your day. The effort is well worth it to have fresh eggs for your family. Check with the laws in your city or town before investing in backyard chickens, and ask your home inspector if your yard is suitable for it.
If you are purchasing a new home and think you might like to have chickens in the backyard, mention it to your home inspector so that they can check the yard for proper irrigation and grading.