Raising backyard chickens is one of the most popular homesteading endeavors. From country life to suburban living chickens are a great addition to your homestead. They provide delicious eggs, fertilizer, and can till your garden space or keep an area weeded. They are also pretty entertaining and some are even affectionate and love human attention. They are so popular that RVing with chickens is even a thing. How cool is that?
In todays post I'm going to go over what to consider when it comes to owning and raising backyard chickens, as well as some tips.
Should you get chickens?
First off you have to find out if you can even have chickens. If you're living in a suburban neighborhood you need to check the home owners/neighborhood association as well as the city ordnances. Most cities (at least in my area) allow 2-3 hens to be kept in a backyard situation, but home owners/neighborhood associations may prohibit owning poultry. Also as a general rule rooster are not allowed to be kept in city limits. No one wants to hear crowing in the neighborhood.
Tip/fact #1-Hens do NOT need a rooster to lay eggs. They only need a rooster to fertilize them if you want baby chicks.
If you live in the country you don't have to worry about checking rules unless you live in a neighborhood. Even neighborhoods with 5 acre lots can have a no poultry stipulation in the neighborhood association guidelines.
To free range or not?
If you live in the city free ranging your birds isn't really an option, but if you have land out in the country its a fair question.
There are several options for free ranging your birds. The one that probably comes to mind when I say free range is where the birds are fully free to roam as they please and other than providing access to food, supplements, and water, the birds are on their own. While this method seems the easiest it does have its flaws. For instance, you can't control where the birds forage and scratch up the earth. Be it the neighbors yard or your flower bed, your chickens wont care if they are tearing up and foraging in areas they shouldn't.
Second they are at higher risk to predator attacks. Predator's include wild animals like racoons, weasels and hawks, as well as domesticated animals like dogs and cats. I've lost my birds mainly to raccoons and dogs (including my own puppy). It is always heartbreaking to loose an animal. So predator proofing is always on my mind.
Thirdly, it will always be an egg hunt if you want eggs. Your birds will lay where ever they please. Some locations will be obvious but other times they will be well hidden, only to be discovered after rotting or hatching into babies.
To curb that...
Another form of free ranging is with portable fencing and mobile coops. This is a method I've started dabbling in. The portable fencing can be a fully enclosed space that not only houses the chickens but also allows them access to a portion of the ground so they can forage. You then move this coup whenever the birds need fresh forage.
We currently have a small set up like this for our bantam flock. We purchased it from a local feed store for $250 and set it up ourselves. The design is not perfect and there are some things we are going to change and add on to it. For instance, we are adding a mesh bottom that we can remove. That way the chickens still have access to the grass and bugs that come their way but it also prevents predator's from digging under to the coop and harming our birds.
We move this coop around the yard as needed. They are literally backyard chickens with this coop set up. This works for having 3-4 standard sized birds or 4-6 bantam.
Another option for free ranging with portable fencing is with electric fencing and a mobile coop. The idea is to set up the fencing with the mobile coop inside the perimeter. The mobile coop is where the chickens go to (hopefully) lay their eggs and be put away at night. When they need a new area to forage you move both the coop and the fencing. This works well for larger amounts of birds but requires letting them out in the am and locking them up in the coop at night.
You can build a permanent chicken coop for your birds. If your working from scratch this method can be the most expensive to set up, but it will last the longest. I really enjoy having a permanent coop for my birds. It's predator proof. I always know where the eggs are. And I can let the birds into my garden to forage when I WANT them too (usually for winter clean up). The main downfall of a permanent coop is the up keep. You need to clean a permanent coop often to keep the environment healthy for your birds. Otherwise they can get sick and that's a whole other hassle.
So ask yourself. Do you want to move the chickens once a week but have fewer chickens? Do you want to let the chickens out in the am and put them to bed everyday? Or do you want to shovel chicken poop every few days?
Breeds and Age.
Once you have all that figured out you can start having fun deciding on what kind of birds you want. There are lots of different breeds out there, all with different sizes, colored eggs, colored feathers, and temperaments.
Do you want bantams or standard breeds? Bantams are like mini chickens and are very popular as backyard chickens. They are a fraction of the size of standard chickens, taking up less space and not eating as much food as a standard chicken. But they also lay smaller than normal eggs. If you're signed up for my monthly newsletter you've seen pictures of my bantam flock and my favorite hen Tina. They still are too young to give us eggs (soon though!) but I love their little personalities. In our bantam flock we currently have two silkies and a blue breasted red old English.
I also have a flock of standard breeds. I like getting an assortment of colored eggs so my flock is diverse. Over the years I have raised several hundred birds and I always keep a few of my favorite breeds around.
Easter eggs are colorful quirky birds that lay blue/green eggs. Their personalities always stand out for me and this years EE babies are super affectionate and run up to us whenever we enter the coop. I also love Copper Marans. My oldest hen is a 6 year old splash copper maran. She's a beautifully built bird that gave me the prettiest dark brown eggs in her prime years. She the matriarch of the flock and even out ranks my rooster! She's bossy but docile. The breed I find the most tired and true is the buff orpington. They are a cheery golden color, nicely bodied bird that lays light brown eggs. They are always hearty and docile even when I have not raised them myself.
Tip/fact #2 One of the perks of raising standard chickens is that if they turn out to be roosters or they no longer are laying, you can easily butcher them for meat if you desire.
Check out online hatcheries like Cackle, Ideal, and McMurray to discovered breeds and get familiar with hatchery pricing. Another site I love is FeatherSite, which is like an encyclopedia of all bird breeds. Be careful on FeatherSite though, I once spent 3 hours looking at different pigeons, and I'm not looking at owning pigeons.
Once you have an idea of what breeds you'd like you need to decide if you want to raise the birds from a chick or purchase young hens that are about to lay or have already started. Young hens might cost ore up front but you don't have to buy the equipment to raise baby chicks or feed them for the 7+ months it takes before they start laying eggs. If you decide you want to raise them as baby chicks you need to do additional research and have the set up for them.
Ready to buy?
When you've decided on breed and age of chickens you want and have their enclosure/brooder ready for them you are ready to buy them.
You can order birds from hatcheries, like the ones I've listed above, which I've done on several occasions. They schedule out when your order will be hatched and then send you the chicks via the post office
Tip/fact #3 Baby chicks can survive 3 days after hatching before they need food and water. This is because they absorb the nutrients from what was the yolk in the egg.
The downside is they only hatch out babies for part of the year and usually have ordering minimums you have to meet. Minimums are usually for both the breed you want and the totally amount being shipped. If you aren't wanting 3 of each breed with a total of 20+ chicks don't order from a hatchery.
You can also purchase birds from a local feed store. Feed stores usually order their birds from large hatcheries, but you get the bonus of picking out your chicks from the bins (this is where I got little Tina). They charge more per chick than a hatchery would because they are a middle man but you can buy just want you want (if they have it in stock) without any minimum purchase requirements.
Or you can buy from a local breeder or fellow chicken owner. This is the best option if you want grown birds and not chicks. You can make connections in local farming /poultry groups, online forums and sales adds, local poultry shows, and friends. I've gotten several chickens this way over the years. The most recent being my EE chicks we got from a friend who was trying their hand at incubating eggs with a homemade incubator.
Regardless of how you obtain your chickens once you have them you'll enjoy their eggs and personalities.
If your interested in learning about natural chicken care check out essential oils and chicken care.