How to get started with chickens – what to consider and the 4 things you need!

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I’m assuming, if you are reading this, that you have at least a passing interest in having chickens.  Well…to get it out of the way – I totally think you should do it! Read on to learn about why it is sustainable to raise your own chickens and what you need to get started.

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Chickens are a fantastic way to start being more self sufficient and sustainable with your food choices.  We’ve kept chickens in a very small backyard in the city and on over 5 acres in the country. Our chickens were happy and productive in both places, so you don’t need a lot of space.  Chickens are also the perfect starter live stock since they are pretty easy to care for and very rewarding.  And they are also pretty cheap to care for. Feed doesn’t cost much, you can build a coop out of recycled materials, and they can even eat garden pests or scraps! Finally, the way we produce chicken and eggs in the US is pretty bad for everyone involved – from the chickens to the environment to the people eating them or working with them.  So raising your own chickens is a great way to be more sustainable – and can save you money too!

So the first think to ask is – why do you want chickens?  Eggs? Meat? Entertainment (and believe me, they are entertaining)?

One of our hens enjoying the grass

Our chickens are for egg laying, but we do have a rooster so we get chicks and we have a great hen who raises them (more on that in another post later).  Some of our chicks turn out to be roosters of course so those are either traded to bring new genetic diversity into the flock (we don’t want to have our rooster breeding his daughters) or become chicken soup.  So we do eat some of the extra roosters.  Trust me, you don’t want too many roosters running around and neither do the hens!  But having one rooster is great for a few reasons (see below).

We’ll post later on about some of the more advanced parts of having chickens (how to raise chicks, how to build a coop, to humanely process them, etc) but for now let’s think about the basics.

Chickens for eggs:

In a commercial facility chickens can lay over 300 eggs per year at their peak (Clauer), but backyard hens usually peak at around 200 eggs per year (Martyn).  The number of eggs per hen per year depends on a variety of factors including breed, diet, age and living conditions (including if you supplement light – more on that later).  We get about an egg every day from our younger hens.  Some of our older hens only lay every few days, but we don’t try to figure out who is laying when or cull them when they get older.  We figure they earn their retirement!

Our rooster likes to watch his flock from a high perch

You do NOT need a rooster to get eggs.  Hens will lay with or without a rooster.  You do need a rooster to fertilize the eggs if you want chicks.  We also find that our rooster defends our girls when they are out and about. He finds them good things to eat too, so even if we didn’t want chicks we would still keep a rooster.  They do crow though!  Ours starts at around 3am. You get used to it…I sleep right though it and I’m a light sleeper.

Some breeds to try for eggs: Rhode Island Red, Barred Rock, and Ameraucanas. We have had all three of these breeds, plus a lot of mutts we have inherited. One of the perks of Ameraucanas is that they lay greenish eggs that are very pretty and unique.

Chickens for meat:

Commercial meat chickens can be harvested as early as 30-35 days old or up to 60 days old depending on size desired (Australian Chicken Meat Federation).  In backyard flocks broilers (meat birds) can be harvested as early as 49-63 days (7-9 weeks) or you can keep them longer for larger birds (Jacob).  Growth rate depends on breed, diet, gender, and, surprisingly, the age of their parents (older parents lay bigger eggs which grow faster) (Australian Chicken Meat Federation).  We don’t keep our chickens for meat and only eat the occasional rooster. We tend to harvest roosters when they are annoying the hens or starting fights among themselves, so our harvest age varies dramatically based on their personalities and how many we have.

chickens in front of coop
Our flock – most of our chickens are mixes

Some breeds to try for meat: Cornish, Rhode Island White, Buckeye.  We don’t raise birds for their meat so we don’t have any of these, but I’ve heard multiple recommendations for them for backyard meat chickens. I used to raise Cornish chickens at a farm where I worked.  They were pretty easy to care for and taste way better than chicken from a grocery store!

Multipurpose chickens (eggs and meat):

If you want chickens for both eggs and meat you’ll have to compromise on both the number of eggs they lay per year and the time it takes for them to get to harvest size.  You can also can just eat the extra roosters like we do, but you won’t get much meat that way.

Some multipurpose breeds to try: Plymouth Rock, Orpington, Australorp.  We’ve had Australorps and Orpingtons as egg chickens and I like them – plus their breed names are fun.

Chickens for fun:

Some people also keep chickens as pets or show birds.  Believe it or not, chickens are quite entertaining to watch,

On of our recent additions is a Frizzle from a neighbor

especially when they hunt or chase each other for a choice tidbit.  And the chicks are adorable – Marc likes to carry them on his shoulder like a pirate’s parrot when they are little.  Some chickens like to hang out with their owners and get pets – just like a dog.  Ours are not that tame – they are trained to come when I call and they’ll let me touch them if I feed them, but they only come up to me if they think I have food.  Ours are pretty fearless of us – one stole half a muffin right out of my hand when I was talking with a friend in our backyard and wasn’t paying attention!

Some breeds to try for fun: Silkies (very soft feathers, also good moms if you want to hatch eggs, but they are small), Frizzle (have feathers that curl up rather than lay down – this is not actually a breed in the US, but a genetic trait.  It is considered a breed in other parts of the world)

Chicken Supplies:

If I’ve convinced you that you want chickens they will need a few things before you pick them up:

  1. Our current coop – the door at the top of the ramp can close at night

    Shelter – A safe place to hole up.  They’ll need a place to stay at least at night, even if you are free ranging during the day.  It should be as predator-proofed as possible. You can buy one or DIY.  We have built 4 different styles.  We’ll share a post later on how we built our current coop, it’s a chicken fortress!

  2. Food – chick feed for chicks (we do non-medicated), layer feed for laying hens (we use pellets), broiler feed for meat chickens (often called starter or grower). You can buy chicken feed from a local feed store or even on Amazon.  We buy feed but supplement with a lot of goodies and they forage too.  We’ll share a post later on chicken nutrition!
  3. Water container – you can buy a waterer or make one. They can be as low tech as the plastic coffee containers we are currently using.  One of our future projects is to make an a automatic waterer from a rain barrel – we’ll keep you posted!
  4. Grit – you can buy this at a farm/feed store or online. Grit helps chickens “chew.”  Chickens don’t have teeth so they use grit in their gizzards to break up food.  They also can find this themselves if you free-range your flock and they have access to small rocks.

Optional Supplies:

  • A nesting box – somewhere to lay eggs (if you are using them for eggs).  This can be as simple as a plastic box or a wooden border around an area in the coop.  They prefer a dark area that feels tucked away.
  • different colored eggs
    Eggs from our flock -we have several different breeds and they lay different colored eggs

    Some roosting poles up off the ground in their shelter. Chickens like to sit up off the ground to sleep – you can make these from sticks or round dowels.

  • An outdoor secure area where they can scratch around.  Our coop has a small outdoor area made of chicken wire, but if yours is out in the open you probably want to use hardware cloth instead.  Chicken wire isn’t enough to stop many predators.  Our coop is already inside our fenced-in yard and our yard is surrounded by our fenced pasture so we feel comfortable with chicken wire.
  • An larger area to roam around in during the day.  We free-range our chickens and they love it.  We lose the occasional chicken to a hawk nearby, but not many.  It’s sad, but it’s part of life on a farm.

Other items depending on how you want to do it and where you live:

  • Light(s) for increased egg production in winter. We don’t do this but many people do – older hens will stop laying when the day gets shorter.  Younger hens will often lay all winter during their first laying season. We always have some younger hens around since we have a rooster and a hen that will raise chicks.   Besides, we figure the older girls deserve a break!
  • Heated waterer if you live somewhere cold.  We used to live in the mountains of North Carolina and got by without one.  We used a metal water bucket and added rocks heated by our wood stove a couple times a day, but it was labor intensive.
  • Heat lamp if you buy chicks.  We usually let one of our hens raise chicks, but if you don’t have a hen you’ll need a heat lamp to keep chicks warm.

Getting chickens!

Big Momma with some pullets she raised – these are old enough to be okay without a heat as long as the weather is decent

Once you have what you need (and maybe a few extras) you are ready to get your chickens!

I recommend starting with pullets for your first chickens.  Pullets are young hens that are not laying yet, but have their feathers.  Pullets are more expensive than chicks, and sometimes hard to find.  However, they are much easier for a beginner to take care of since they can basically just go straight into your coop.  Chicks are adorable, but can be hard to keep alive and healthy for the new chicken owner.  They also need a heat lamp if you don’t have a broody hen to plop them under (more about that in a later post!).  Pullets are also already sexed – so you know you are getting females!  Many chicks are sold as mixed sex (straight run).

You can find chickens at a local feed store, from a hatchery online, or from someone you know who already has chickens.  I would avoid getting them from Craigslist, etc. as you want to make sure they are healthy.  We got our first pullets from a local feed store.  Since then we’ve gotten many chickens for free from people who were moving or didn’t want to care for them anymore, but wanted their hens to have a good home.  One of our homesteads actually came with chickens in addition to the ones we brought with us!

Chicken Care:

Caring for chickens is pretty easy – we let ours out in the morning to free-range.  Besides checking that they have water, we just let them out to run around.   We close them up in the coop at night after it gets dark.  They go into the coop on their own – we just have to close the door.  We only give them feed at night since they forage outside all day eating plants, insects, and grain they steal from the horses and goats.    You’ll also need to collect eggs if you have laying hens (my favorite farm chore).

Our hens are tame enough to eat out of your hand

If you keep are going to keep your chickens in  a pen you might want to feed them twice a day and you should definitely make sure they have water morning and night.  Chickens tend to knock water over or muck it up fairly regularly so this is key.  Daily chicken chores take us about 10-15 min a day total – our easiest farm animals by far!

Periodically you will need to clean their coop. We do this whenever it starts to smell bad enough and when it is dry enough to clean easily.  How often we clean the coop depends on the time of year and how much time they are spending inside. We don’t have to clean our coop often since our chickens spend the vast majority of the time outside and we live in FL so they can go out year round.  Lots of people use bedding in their coops (shavings, etc.) – we don’t.  We find it easier to clean up the bare wooden floor of our coop. Our chickens spend most of their time either outside or on their roosting poles in the coop so they don’t seem to care.   We do put a handful of shavings or old hay in their nesting boxes.  The poop from cleaning goes in our compost to eventually feed our veggies.

I hope this post has helped you figure out how to get started with chickens – I’ll post later on some of the more advanced parts of chicken care and how to build your own coop (we’ve built several different sizes and styles).

Still have questions? Ask away!  Other suggestions? I’d love to hear them!