Raising chickens is exciting and very rewarding for the whole family. It is also another skill to learn on your journey toward being more self-reliant.
Chickens have become the new family pet, now as common as having dogs and cats, and for good reason.
The excitement of seeing those day-old chicks in the feed store makes purchasing them almost a necessity. And the idea of having farm-fresh eggs daily makes the excitement grow even more.
But before you jump into owning your own backyard flock, there are many considerations you should keep in mind. In this comprehensive post, I will cover everything from preparing for your new healthy flock to raising your chickens through adulthood.
- Check Your Local Ordinances For Raising Chickens
- Chicken Breeds vs Standards
- Meat Chickens vs Laying Chickens
- The Rooster's Role When Raising Chickens
- Benefits of Raising Chickens
- Chicken Breeds
- Stages of Chickens
- How Many Chickens Do You Buy?
- Making Your Chickens a Home
- Preparing for Your New Chicks
- Bringing Home The Babies 0 – 6 Weeks
- Raising Chickens – 6- 10 Weeks
- Moving Your Chicks Into The Coop
- The Egg-Laying Stage
- Molting in Chickens
- Raising Chickens Through Adulthood
Check Your Local Ordinances For Raising Chickens
The very first thing you should do is to check your local ordinances to make sure chickens are allowed where you live and what regulations exist. Many towns have limits on the number of chickens you can own. Some allow chickens but not a rooster due to noise.
Some towns require a permit to build a chicken coop or chicken run. They may require certain size restrictions or that they are within so many feet of any property lines.
If you disagree with your town’s ordinances about chickens, work to change the law where you live. Either way, know what is legal and what is not before you purchase your chickens.
Once you have the okay from your town to have chickens it is time to do some research.
Chicken Breeds vs Standards
The term “breed’ is simply a name to identify a group of related chickens. The type of breed you choose when raising chickens will depend on the purpose of your getting chickens in the first place.
Some breeds are more suited to warm climates while others are more suited to cold climates. There are breeds that are best for egg-laying, and some for their meat. Many breeds provide both and are called dual-purpose chickens.
Breeds are also split by temperament. Some have good temperaments and some are not so good.
The term “standard” is used by the American Poultry Association. It is used when judging poultry to describe the different characteristics of each breed.
By learning as much as possible about the different breeds and standards you can make a more informed decision as to which type of chicken or chickens are best for your situation.
Meat Chickens vs Laying Chickens
Before I explain the different breeds of chickens, it is a good idea to understand the difference between raising chickens for meat and raising chickens for eggs.
Some breeds have been bred specifically to provide meat and some for providing eggs. The female of meat-providing breeds will still lay eggs, but not the number of eggs a chicken bred for egg-laying will.
Chickens that are bred for meat provide a higher nutritional weight and leaner (not so tough) meat. Egg layers tend to be tougher and less nutritional.
When choosing which chickens are right for you, you need to consider the purpose. You can keep both meat and egg layers, but they should be kept separately.
The Rooster’s Role When Raising Chickens
The biggest myth or misconception about having a rooster when raising chickens is that he is needed to have eggs. Hens lay eggs whether or not a rooster is part of the flock. The rooster only fertilizes the eggs to provide baby chicks.
The second myth is that roosters wake everyone up at 5 am. This is the furthest thing from the truth. Roosters crow at all times of the day, they have no internal clock. Your neighbors will not appreciate the noise, trust me.
And lastly, if you are going to get a rooster, get 1 rooster! Roosters are territorial. You only need 1 rooster for every 12 hens.
Benefits of Raising Chickens
Before I share a list of the basic breeds and their purpose, let’s look at why you should be raising chickens in your backyard or on your farm.
Here are the best reasons for raising chickens:
Fresh Eggs: No more grocery store eggs which can be over 2 months old. Now you can have fresh eggs every day. Those fresh eggs provide higher amounts of Vitamin A, Vitamin E, Beta-Carotene, and Omega 3 fatty acids than store-bought eggs, yet have much lower levels of saturated fat.
Inexpensive Feed Options: Chicken feed is pretty inexpensive. If they free range, then the feed is even less expensive as they get most of what they need on their own. Fodder can be grown (more on that later) to supplement their feed easily. Grains, fruits, vegetables, and insects also provide dietary needs.
Excellent Weed Eliminator: Many weeds are a delicacy for chickens thus eliminating some weeding in your gardens.
Manure Makes Great Fertilizer: Chicken manure is like gold for your garden since it can be used immediately.
Best Pest Control: Chickens love to devour insects.
Professional Weeding: Chickens devour many weeds in your garden, eliminating some of the work for you.
Clean and Safe Food Source: Your family won’t be ingesting chemicals and preservatives when eating your own chickens compared to the grocery store version.
There are so many breeds of chickens to choose from. Below is a list of some of the common breeds for raising chickens in your backyard. For an excellent way to find what breed is best for you and your family, look at Murdoch’s Breed Recommender.
Here are some of the common breeds according to their purpose:
- New Hampshire
- Plymouth Rock
- New Hampshire
- Rhode Island Red
Now that you know you can legally own backyard chickens and you understand the types of chickens according to their purpose, it is time to decide what stage of chickens you will purchase. This post addresses only layer birds.
Stages of Chickens
The biggest reason for choosing which stage your chickens will be in is so that you can better prepare for their coming to their new home. There are 4 basic stages of chicken sold. Knowing and understanding these stages will help you decide which stage will be the best fit for you.
4 Stages of Chickens:
- Eggs: These are fertilized already and ready to be shipped to your door for hatching. Going this route is not suggested for the beginner as the survival rate is usually about 50%.
- Day Olds: These are day-old chicks that are usually purchased in the spring. They are cheaper than adults or pullets, however, their survival rate is usually between 70% and 100%.
- Pullets: These are females that are less than a year old. They are less risky and are recommended for the beginner.
- Adults: These are usually bought from individuals, not the feed store. Their cost depends on the rarity of the bird. They are mature and are usually laying eggs regularly.
How Many Chickens Do You Buy?
The choice of how many chickens completely depends on you. Generally, a good starter flock is no less than 3 and no more than 12. Three laying hens will normally produce about a dozen eggs. A larger flock may be needed if you use a lot of eggs or have a larger family.
Remember when raising chickens that they are social birds. I mean, not that anyone can only really buy just one anyway!
When considering meat birds, I figure each bird goes into the freezer. I want at least one full bird every 2 weeks. So 12 meat birds will give me 3 months of full roasted chicken meals every other week. If I break them down into pieces and parts for stew, grilling legs, tenders, and breasts, then I can make 12 meat birds last 6 months. You have to decide what works best for you and your meal planning.
Making Your Chickens a Home
Most articles you find on the internet tell you to prepare your brooder (a cardboard box or plastic tote) first. I disagree. Your chickens will need a permanent home about eight weeks after arriving if you purchase tiny chicks from the feed store. Those 8 weeks will be there before you know it so it would be smart to build a chicken coop or buy a premade enclosure first.
You can get quite creative here by turning an old shed into a chicken coop. Look online too. Many times I see free or inexpensive coops for sale on Craigslist and/or Facebook Marketplace.
Whatever way you go when producing a coop for your chickens, keep the following rules of thumb in mind.
Requirements for the Coop and Run When Raising Chickens
For every three to four hens, allow 3-5 square feet of floor space, 8 inches of roosting space, and 1 nesting box.
For the enclosed run, however, you need to allow 8 – 10 square feet per bird. If there is not enough space for your chickens they can become stressed and bored. When this happens they will begin pecking each other which could end with a fatality.
Also, consider using a heavy wildlife wire instead of normal chicken wire for the run and for any ventilation windows. It may keep the chickens in but it won’t keep predators out.
Location of the Coop
Since you will be visiting your feathered friends each day, consider keeping the location of the coop close to the house but not too close. They tend to be a bit smelly in summer especially. Just make sure you can see them, know all is well and can spot a predator should one decide to visit.
Other considerations for the coop:
- A source of electricity – you may need to plug in a heater during the winter months or need to have lights.
- A level spot with good drainage – there is nothing worse than a wet, mucky coop and run.
- Access to shade – chickens need to escape the sun and heat.
- Ability to forage – insects are a delicacy and weeds are a delicious treat to chickens.
- Good ventilation – fresh air is essential to prevent mold, an eave vent could be used.
- A door that can be opened easily – to allow chickens to go from the coop to a run or outside easily. (closed at night)
Roosts for Sleeping
Chicken instincts tell them to perch high to stay away from predators at night. Your perches should be at the highest spot possible that they can get to. Perches can also be placed outside in the run for them to escape the ground.
Place enough roosts so that each chicken has enough room to sleep comfortably.
Chickens love to swing. Yes, you read that right. A swing placed within the run can prevent boredom and make for happy chickens. Depending on how many chickens you have, you may want to place a couple of swings.
Nesting boxes are made to allow your chickens to lay their eggs in a private and quiet, undisturbed space. There should be one box for every three chickens. Don’t worry they will choose which box they want anyway so it is ok to provide a few options.
Nesting boxes need to be at least 1 square foot with a 1-foot opening. A small lip will help keep the bedding inside the nesting box. Plastic or metal is the ideal material to use. It is easier when cleanup must happen.
You can use dishpans, milk crates, and other containers as well. Be creative. Check your nesting boxes daily and early so you can collect clean eggs before they become soiled.
Nesting Box Materials
Nest boxes should be lined with pine shavings, grass clippings, or any chemical-free materials. The bedding should be changed often to stay clean for your chickens. Fresh herbs like rosemary and lavender are good to keep the smell down too.
Chickens love a bath, but not like the one you take. Instead, they scratch at the ground making a shallow rounded bowl-shaped hole. They will dredge themselves with dirt and loose sand. This process eliminates old skin cells and even insects that may be hitchhiking on them.
They also use the dust bath when they are hot, to socialize, and relax. You will enjoy the show when your first chicken takes her dust bath. It reminds you how much fun raising chickens actually is.
If your outdoor area is packed ground you can build a few boxes from wood and add some dirt and sand. Do not add anything else. Diatomaceous earth is often recommended on the internet but the dust in this product will do more harm than good. Stick with dirt and sand.
Have a Water Source
Make sure to keep their waterers full of clean water as often as possible. This means you may have to clean and scrub them periodically. Remember that plastic becomes brittle over time so I prefer metal waterers.
Chicken feed is loved by predators so you may want to have a handy container with a lid to store your feed in. I use galvanized garbage cans with a heavy-duty construction bag placed inside. Once the lid is on, it stays dry and the insects can’t enter the feed.
Some feeders can be hung from the ceiling or set on the ground. The lip of the feeder should be level with the adult chicken’s back as a rule of thumb. Therefore, you may have to set your feeder on a wooden block or a cinderblock to allow it to be the right height. When your chickens are small the feeder is best left on the ground until they grow taller.
There are also trough feeders which are the most common. These are designed to keep the chickens from roosting on the top and getting in the food directly. These can be adjusted as the chickens grow.
Lastly, are tube feeders. These hang from an S-hook and a single chain. These feeders are filled from the top. A good rule of thumb with these is to hang the feeder so the bottom of the feeder is at the height of the chicken’s back.
Preparing for Your New Chicks
When you bring home those fluffy little chicks they will need a safe and warm place to stay. A kiddie pool, a stock tank, or even a heavy-duty cardboard box can work for this. This “brooder” needs to be somewhere the chicks can stay warm and away from predators.
The size of your brooder should allow space for the new chicks’ water, feeder, and at least 1 square foot of space per chicken, Fill the bottom of your brooder with at least an inch of pine shavings. DO NOT USE CEDAR CHIPS! Cedar chips are toxic to chips.
The point of the bedding is to absorb water and urine and provide some footing for your new chicks to prevent spraddle. This is a condition where the chick’s legs are splayed apart making it impossible for the chick to stand.
Spot clean the tank each day and completely change the bedding every 2 – 3 days. Leaving waste in the brooder can cause the chicks to eat the chicken poop or develop coccidiosis.
Baby chicks are covered in a layer of down The down will eventually transform into feathers and until it does those babies need a heat source.
The best way to provide heat is with a heat lamp with a 250-watt brooder bulb attached to the side of the brooder. Make sure to purchase a red light bulb. The red light protects their eyes, and since they do not perceive the red light during daylight hours, it will not affect their sleeping pattern. The bulb should start at about 17 inches off the bottom of the brooder.
The temperature inside the brooder should be between 90 and 95 degrees for chicks up to 2 weeks old. Place a thermometer inside the tank to monitor the temperature at all times. Reduce the temperature by 5 degrees each week until you reach 70 degrees. Do this by raising the heat lamp higher in the tank.
If the chicks are huddled under the lamp, they are too cold. If they are at the outermost edges of the tank they are too warm They should be happily roaming the tank and peeping most of the time.
Feeding Your Chicks
It is recommended to get a chick starter or starter feed for the first 18 – 20 weeks of their life. Non-medicated feed is fine if the chicks were vaccinated. Medicated is preferred if they were not immunized. Either way, just make sure you meet their nutritional needs.
Put your feed in a chicken feeder or a small bowl that is easy to clean, easy for them to reach, does not allow them to get stuck in, and can provide enough room for each and every chick to have room to eat. Your chicks should have access to food at all times.
Bringing Home The Babies 0 – 6 Weeks
When your baby chicks arrive home for the first time they will probably be stressed out from all the moves and changes. Take each chicken and dip its beak into the water and make sure it drinks. After all the chicks have been placed in the brooder and have had a bit to drink wait one hour and place their feeder filled with feed into the brooder.
Keep an eye on your new babies for the first few weeks and make sure they are lively and happy. They should run around, eat, drink, and poop on a regular basis.
Keep an eye out for signs of sickness.
2 Common Health Issues In Baby Chicks
As mentioned earlier this is a disease that affects the intestines of chickens and causes loose droppings. The parasite can attack the gut wall. Either the chick will not be affected or it could prove fatal.
Signs of coccidiosis include:
- not eating
- hunched over type posture
If you think any of your chicks may have this disease remove it from the tank immediately and call the vet. Any feces left in the tank by an affected chicken can spread to the rest of the flock.
Pasting happens when a chick’s vent is pasted shut by its own droppings and therefore cannot make a bowel movement. This is usually caused by poor hydration or switching foods. Use a warm, wet cloth, to remove the paste. Usually, this will solve the problem. Do not mistake dried droppings on their down with a blocked vent.
Bonding and Handling
The first week you can softly whistle and talk to your chickens. After the first week, you can start gently handling them so they can get used to you and start to bond. Some chicks will be more willing to be held and touched than others.
At about 3 weeks of age, you can begin adding a roosting bar if you so choose.
Raising Chickens – 6- 10 Weeks
By this stage, you may notice some chicks seem to try to escape the brooder. Their down should be mostly gone and feathers should be taking their place. You can start introducing your chicks to the outside daily if temperatures allow.
Once your chicks are fully feathered, usually around 10 weeks, they can be placed in the coop and can stand temperatures as low as 30 degrees. make sure the first week of being outside overnight that the temperatures stay above 60 degrees.
Moving Your Chicks Into The Coop
After moving the feeders and waterers outside to the coop, take your chickens to their new hen house.
Make sure to keep a close eye out for predators in your chickens.
Common predators include:
Treats are the favorite item for most chickens. But when you decide to introduce treats you must supply grit. Since chickens do not have teeth, grit helps chickens to break down their food easier. Grit is usually sold as crushed stone and depending on the age of the chicken will depend on what kind of grit to get. Crushed oyster shell is popular among chicken owners.
Please use treats in moderation as they should only make up about 15% of your chicken’s diet. Look at the lists below for acceptable as well as unacceptable treats for your chickens.
Acceptable Treats for Chickens
- Oatmeal (raw or cooked)
- Bread with no mold
- Corn – any form
- Cabbage – especially when hung on a rope
- Sweet Potatoes
- Anything Greasy
- Salty Food
- Processed Food
- Coffee or grounds
- Raw Meat
- Anything Spoiled, Moldy, or Rotten
- Avacado – all parts are toxic
- Raw Potato Peels
You may want to keep onion and garlic out of your chicken’s diet as they will alter the taste of any eggs being laid. You can always add fodder to supplement their diet also!
The Egg-Laying Stage
Around 18 weeks is a good time to transfer your young chicks to a layer feed. This complete feed is filled with amino acids, vitamins A, D, E, and K, minerals, quality protein, and B-complex vitamins. Make sure to wait the full 18 weeks though before starting this feed. The extra calcium in layer feed can permanently damage your chicken’s kidneys if given too soon.
Layer feed increases the calcium intake so that your chickens don’t have to take away from the calcium in their bones to produce enough to start their egg production. Make sure when switching to a layer feed that it is at least 90 percent of their diet and treats are 10% or less.
If you are wondering how many eggs you should be getting, take the number of hens you have and multiply by .75. That is the number of eggs you will get each day. Your chickens should lay from 6 months of age to approximately 6 years of age.
Molting in Chickens
Sometime around 16 to 18 weeks of age, your chickens will suddenly lose some feathers. It may be a few here and there or it may be a lot. You may notice bald spots or patches on your chickens. Don’t panic. Your chickens have started their first molt.
This is the time that the old feathers fall off to make room for new ones. During this time, which can last from 2 to 6 months, your hens will take a break from their normal laying. Also during this time, the oviduct will rejuvenate so that egg-laying in the spring is productive. After the first molt, molting happens annually usually in the fall when the hours of light per day decrease.
The process can be sped up by eliminating light in the coop for around six weeks. If you do this during colder weather that requires heat in the coop, make sure to use a red brooder light so they don’t mistake a heater light for daylight.
During this time you will want to reduce any scratch grains and stick with a high-protein feed. There are some appreciated treats during this time that include; mealworms, and tuna. Black oil sunflower seeds and any high-protein treats found in feed stores.
Raising Chickens Through Adulthood
You have successfully raised your fuzzy little down-filled babies into adult-laying chickens. You have provided them with a safe and comfortable home, provided them with some entertainment, and can now sit back, collect your family’s eggs and enjoy your feathered friends as they grow into adults.
On average, chickens live between 5 and 10 years. As they get older egg-laying decreases. Some chickens owners keep their chickens even after they have stopped laying and some do not. The choice is up to you.
Either way, raising chickens is a rewarding experience. Enjoy your feathered friends and thank them for providing you with fresh eggs and entertainment every step of the way.