It’s no secret that factory farmed animals, like chickens, don’t typically live very good lives, and the practice itself can be extremely harmful to the environment. There are other options, like purchasing cage free and free range eggs and chicken meat, but these options can be tough if you’re working with a tight budget.
Raising your own chickens comes with numerous benefits – you get to have a great pet, inexpensive fresh eggs, and they’re not difficult to raise or care for. Best of all, you know they get to live a good life because they’re living life right in your yard!
Before you get started, there’s a lot you should know. Here’s a quick guide on how to raise backyard chickens.
Picking the right chicken
Before you start thinking about building a coop or picking up some chicks from the farm store, you should first think about what you want to get out of having chickens. Do you want a good producing meat bird, a prolific egg layer, a friendly bird, or maybe a good foraging bird? Each breed is a little bit different.
Welsummers are a docile and friendly chicken with an independent streak. If you have a large yard for your chickens to free range, Welsummer chickens will undoubtedly save you money on feed costs. These chickens are called the ‘zombie apocalypse chicken’ because of how well they find their own sources of food.
Buff Orpingtons are excellent egg layers and meat birds as well. These types of birds are called ‘dual purpose’ chickens. They mature quickly, are great egg layers, and the hens readily sit on their own eggs.
Silkies are a type of crested chicken that, while usually not known for being good meat birds, are decent egg layers and extremely friendly. Silkies are a good family bird, great with kids, and easy to get along with. They’re also hilarious looking with their poofy “crests” and feathery feet.
There are so many different breeds of chicken out there that no one has even been able to accurately count them all. Professor C.J. Nichol of the University of London has counted over 500 “fancy breeds” of chickens around the world. There are lots of colors, varieties, temperaments, and other attributes to pick from. We recommend doing lots of research to settle on the best bird for your family!
The most cost-effective way to get chickens is to find a local source of fertilized chicken eggs and hatch them yourself. It’s easy to have a lot of success with hatching eggs as long as your fundamentals are good and you’re paying attention to your incubator. You’ll also want to consider how many hens you’d realistically like. Each hen will lay an egg about every 24-30 hours. Don’t incubate 100 eggs if you only want 10 chickens! You should plan to keep at least four chickens, as they are very social and need companionship.
This is an excellent guide to hatching chickens yourself. Be warned: approximately half of your chicks will be roosters. You’ll have to be prepared to deal with more roosters than you probably want.
Raising your chicks
Whether you’ve decided to hatch your own chicks or have picked some up from a farm supply store, your young chicks will need your care and attention for the first few weeks of their lives. They aren’t ready for the great outdoors just yet!
They’ll need clean water, special chick feed, and a proper source of warmth while they grow up. They’ll also need proper housing, bedding, and enough space to avoid crowding, disease, and injury.
This is a great guide for raising happy, healthy baby chickens.
Building a chicken coop
Eventually your chicks will be ready to move outside, but first you’ll need to build them a proper shelter. Chickens easily fall prey to urban and rural preditors like birds of prey, raccoons, foxes, skunks, coyotes, wolves, and even bears. Your chicken coop needs to be sturdy enough to fend off these animals and keep your chickens safe.
Your chicken coop should have 2 to 3 square feet of floor space per bird, so if you have 10 chickens, you’ll want to build a 20 to 30 square foot chicken coop. Chickens can’t live their entire lives cooped up and will require a “chicken run,” some enclosed space where they can get fresh air, peck at bugs, and scratch at the ground. Modern Farmer has an excellent guide on how to build a chicken coop for a smaller flock.
Other basic needs
Like all animals, chickens have a handful of basic needs. They need a safe, structurally sound chicken coop, an area to free range, healthy food, clean water, and attentive chicken parents to take care of them if they become sick or injured.
Chicks will need to be fed a special chick feed, and adult laying hens will need to be fed a special layer feed. These feeds are designed specifically for these different periods of life. Chicks fed adult feed and vice versa can cause harm to your birds, even death.
And just as you would any other pet, pay close attention to their behavior. Are your chickens eating? Do they seem sick or listless? It can be really difficult to take care of a sick chicken, and most vets aren’t trained to care for them.
What happens when they stop laying?
Your chickens will start laying around one egg every day at around 20 weeks of age. After their third year, laying begins to taper off and may eventually come to a complete halt. But a chicken can actually live quite a bit longer than that, as many as 12 years. Before you pick up an incubator or think about building a coop, you should consider what it is you’ll do when your once faithful breakfast machines start eating your feed and giving nothing in return. What you do is ultimately up to you.