Have you been toying with the idea of keeping your own chickens for a while now? Or maybe you were convinced by our recent article on the benefits that backyard chickens can bring.
After all, who doesn’t want to wake up to fresh, organic eggs? And then there’s the chickens themselves – quirky, interesting creatures who will entertain you for hours at a time.
If you have never kept chickens before you may be a little overwhelmed by the prospect of getting set up. I mean, they’re not your typical pet and need more than a food bowl, some cat nip and a litter tray.
But, the initial set-up is worth it in the long run and this article aims to make getting started keeping your own backyard chickens as straightforward as possible.
The basic things we’ll be covering are: choosing a breed, shelter and security, and the fundamentals of feeding.
Choosing Your Chicks
There are literally hundreds of breeds of chickens to choose from. You may want to consider a number of things when deciding which one is right for you such as:
- the number of eggs produced
- temperament of the breed
- noise level – particularly if you live in an urban setting or have close neighbors
- how the breed handles confinement (especially if your chickens can’t wander freely all day)
- the climate you live in – not all breeds can handle temperature extremes
Try These Breeds on For Size
If you’re living in the city or have a smaller space, try a ‘bantam’ chicken, which are one-quarter the size of standard chickens. The Pekin Bantam has a gentle personality so she’s great for kids. But, being smaller, these chickens lay smaller eggs and are targets for predators.
If you are primarily looking for a pet, try the Orpington. These sweet ladies have a lovely personality and fluffy feathers, and they won’t wreck your garden. However, they often start incubating eggs, meaning they are excellent mothers but not so great for egg lovers.
If egg production is your top priority, then try the intelligent Rhode Island Red or Sussex breed, which lay large eggs. They’re also less destructive than other, less productive varities.
Have a look at this handy little chart to help you decide which chicken works best for your home and family.
Buy versus Rescue?
The cost of chickens depends very much on the breed, but you can save by buying small chicks instead of mature ones … although you’ll have to wait up to six months for eggs and may need extra equipment such as a brooder lamp for warmth.
Of course, rescuing chickens is free and you’ll be saving a life … something your new chick will be forever grateful for. Just know that their egg production may be less than chickens you buy.
There’s a lot to weigh up when it comes to choosing your chickens. Take time to think about your needs, budget and the environment in which the creatures will be kept.
How to House Your Chickens
Because your chickens depend totally on you to provide them with a safe and warm shelter, you’ll need to invest in (or build) a pretty decent chicken coop and run.
The coop will need to hold a feeder, water containers, perches and nest boxes. Don’t forget it should be large enough for you to get in there to clean it out, collect your eggs and check on your birds!
Chickens are sociable creatures and don’t like to be alone, so you can expect to keep at least three to four birds.
As a rule of thumb, the coop should have at least 2 square foot of floor space per bantam chicken if they are free range during the day. Bigger breeds need 4 square foot each. But, just like us, chickens don’t like to be crowded so be generous with your space.
Birds that are confined all day, or overcrowded, are much more likely to become unhealthy and unhappy.
If you’re buying a coop, it will usually state on the instructions how many birds can be safely accommodated (although sometimes manufacturers can be a little miserly with the space – if you can afford to give your girls more space, then do).
A well ventilated coop is important and if you can buy or build one with removable perches and nest boxes for easy cleaning then you’ll lighten your workload in the long run.
For those who want to try their hand at building a coop, make sure to source well-laid out chicken coop plans and don’t scrimp on materials. These plans are great for beginners and they provide the entire list of supplies, tools and material dimensions required.
Chickens like to sit down when they sleep so make sure the perches are wide enough to accommodate this – between 1.5 and 2 inches is ideal. Scientific research has shown that square perches with rounded edges are best for the welfare of your ladies.
The research also shows that you should add material to the perches to make them softer which also provides more grip for your hens. Inner cycling tubes work well, as does solid insulating tape. Both of these can easily be cleaned or replaced as necessary.
Perches should be long enough that the birds can huddle together if they choose to (and they often do) but also wide enough apart to give them space, especially for those birds lower in the ‘pecking order’ than the rest. (Did you know it was chicken’s ordered social structure that gave rise to the phrase ‘pecking order’, way back in 1921?)
Larger breeds have difficulty jumping down from high perches so the height you place the perches at will depend on your breed. If you plan on having mixed breeds or you want to future-proof your coop, then build a series of perches of varying heights to accommodate everyone.
Next, you’ll need to provide nest boxes below the height of the perches – one nest box is needed for every three hens. But, even if you only have three hens you should have at least two nest boxes.
Fill these with straw, chopped cardboard or other suitable nesting material – check out farm supply stores to see what is safe and appropriate. Hay is never suitable as it gets damp and causes fungal spores which are dangerous for your new chicks. Don’t forget to add straw to the floor of the coop too.
Be sure to change this material frequently, particularly if you’re using something like shredded paper which isn’t very absorbent.
The run is often the weakest link when it comes to predators. Don’t underestimate the ability of a hungry fox or even a bored pet dog to dig and chew their way into a chicken run.
When choosing a run, you’ll need to take into consideration how many chickens you will have. And then leave room for a few more – chicken keeping is addictive! While there are no hard and fast rules for how much space chickens need in their run you should build it as big as you possibly can, within reason.
They should have ample room to run, scratch, feed and escape from other hens that are pecking at them. Remember, a roomy run will lead to happy hens – meaning they will lay more eggs and more nutritious eggs. Paying for a decent run now will pay off long-term.
And, if you see coops and runs with wheels then consider buying or building one of those. The wheels allow them to be easily moved onto new ground providing your chickens with fresh grass to graze on and even more bugs to peck at.
Letting Chickens Run Free
If you can let your chickens out for a few hours every day (when you are there to supervise and protect them of course) then do. This is especially important if their run is on the smaller side.
This free range activity means they can forage for food, pick weeds for you and entertain themselves. It also leads to the healthiest and happiest hens.
If your garden is your pride and joy, try fencing off your favorite areas as chickens will peck and scratch at everything in their path!
Feeding Your Chickens
Just like us, chickens will need to be fed every single day. For three chickens, you’re looking at a cost of around $15 to $20 a month, although this is a very general estimate. You can expect to pay more for higher quality food.
That said, it’s definitely worth it to get a good quality feed from the local farm supply store and go organic if possible. Most animal feed is genetically modified now, which is not something you want for your chickens – especially as it will get into your own food supply through their eggs.
Buying in bulk is a great way to help cut costs without compromising on quality. Why not team up with some other chicken enthusiasts in your area and spread the cost of the feed amongst you?
Chickens will also eat table scraps – but they can’t be fed on scraps alone. And, you need to be really careful about what scraps you feed them. However, it’s a great way to get extra nutrients into your chicks and cut down on your own food waste. Try them on foods like fruit and vegetable peelings, bread, cooked rice, oatmeal, pasta and lots more. Check out this list of all the treats you can feed your chicks and here are some toxic treats to avoid feeding them. Also, here’s how to grow your own chicken feed to save money.
Don’t forget to kit out your coop with a waterer for every three chickens or so and keep it topped up with fresh and clean water. You’ll also need to add a feed trough or two to your shopping list – long enough to allow all the chickens can feed at once. If you have the time, why not consider making one of these DIY feeders instead to save money and recycle?
There’s a lot to think about when raising backyard chickens – but there are a lot of rewards to be gained from opening up your garden to them too. If you haven’t already, make sure to check out these reasons to keep chickens, which also includes some important points to consider before taking the leap.