How To Raise Backyard Chickens: A Beginner’s Guide
Lauren Nowacki7-Minute Read
September 24, 2020
Did you know that supermarket eggs can already be at least 2 months old by the time they hit the shelves?
Of course, store-bought eggs are still safe to eat. However, these older eggs are much less firm, flavorful and nutritional as their farm-fresh counterparts.
While farmers, by law, have 30 days to package their eggs once they’re laid and another 30 days to sell them, there’s a way for you to get fresh eggs for your household the minute they’re hatched. You could go straight to the source – in your own backyard – by raising chickens yourself.
Along with providing fresh eggs, keeping chickens also allows you to know exactly how they’re sourced. For example, you’ll know what the chickens eat, how they’re treated and that they really are free-range.
While raising backyard chickens has its benefits, it does require a lot of work. Not taking the responsibility seriously can have dire effects on you and these innocent animals. That’s why it’s imperative to know how to raise backyard chickens and make sure you’re prepared before bringing any animals home.
Here’s what to do:
Find Out If Chickens Are Permitted In Your Neighborhood
The first step to raising backyard chickens is finding out if you can legally have them on your property. Many places have rules about keeping farm animals, so make sure you not only read zoning laws but also check with your homeowners association or municipality. There may be permit and fee requirements as well.
Make sure you understand these laws in full – some local laws will limit the number of chickens you’re allowed to keep or restrict the allowance to hens only, not roosters. (Because of this, we’ll focus on raising hens in this article.)
Before you begin building your coop, you’ll want to talk to your neighbors to give them advance notice and address any concerns they may have. The law may require that you get your neighbors’ approval. Even if you don’t need their approval, you’ll still want to put them at ease and do what you can to avoid multiple nuisance complaints.
If you need help understanding local laws on raising chickens, we recommend speaking to a real estate lawyer.
Understand The Time Commitment Chickens Require
Raising chickens requires a serious commitment to daily and weekly tasks that ensure the health and safety of your chickens.
Morning routines usually involve letting chickens out of their coop, checking for eggs and making sure nothing happened overnight. Inspect your chickens to ensure they are healthy. You’ll also want to provide fresh food and water and tidy up the coop, which will help make weekly cleanings less cumbersome.
Chickens can get bored when they’re pent up, so make sure you let them out to roam during the day. You’ll also want to spend time with your chickens, so they continue to feel accustomed to human interaction and handling.
In the evening, bring all of your chickens inside the coop and lock it to prevent predators from getting to them.
At least once a week, you should rake out the coop and replace the bedding with fresh stock. You should also clean and sanitize their feeders and waterers. As you clean the coop, inspect it for any damage and fix it right away.
Twice per year, or whenever a chicken gets ill or diseased, you should do a deep clean of the entire coop. To do this, take out all materials from the coop and wash it with a mixture of one part bleach and 10 parts water. Make sure you rinse the mixture away before bringing chickens back into the coop.
Research Backyard Chicken Breeds
Different chicken breeds have different characteristics and abilities, so it’s important to do your research and choose your chickens wisely. Beginners will want chickens that may be easy to care for and tame. Chicken keepers who want an abundance of eggs to eat or sell will want breeds known for their production. Those with children will want a breed that is docile and tolerant of handling.
Best Egg-Laying Chickens For Beginners
If your main goal in raising backyard chickens is to have fresh eggs straight from the source, you’ll want to fill your coop with chickens that produce.
Rhode Island Red
The Rhode Island Red is one of the most common backyard chicken breeds due to the number of eggs the breed can produce and its easy care. They’re natural foragers and love to roam the yard but can endure confinement when necessary.
Popular for their egg production, Rhode Island Red hens can lay around 250 – 300 brown eggs per year, usually starting when they’re around 18 – 20 weeks old.
This chicken breed is known for being friendly and easy-going, but it’s also tough – having the ability to take care of itself and thrive in any condition. This hardiness is one reason it’s popular among many areas of the U.S. and a great bird for beginners.
Buff Orpingtons have a docile temperament, which makes them a good breed for beginners, especially those with young children. Along with being friendly and tame, they also produce around 150 – 180 light-brown eggs every year.
Buff Orpingtons are also known for their beauty, with plump bodies and fluffed feathers that give them an almost gold appearance. These birds do well with handling and confinement. Their regal appearance and tolerant dispositions make them ideal show birds as well.
If you decide to raise Buff Orpingtons, make sure you have adequate shelter and shade. The bird’s thick feathers may cause it to become overheated if there is no shade provided and chilled if their feathers get too wet. Both conditions can cause it to die relatively quickly.
If you’re familiar with the popular Looney Tunes character Foghorn Leghorn, you probably know what a Leghorn looks like – all white with a red comb. They’re also the most common producers of grocery store eggs. This chicken breed lays an average of 280 – 320 white eggs annually. They typically start laying when they’re 16 or 17 weeks old.
While these birds are great egg-layers, they may not be the best birds for people who would like them to serve as pets, too. That’s because these birds can be a bit erratic and hard to tame. They also prefer not to be handled.
Classified as a heavy breed, Australorps can weigh up to 8–10 pounds, depending on their sex. Their name is a mix of their storied origin, they were developed in Australia when breeders mixed black Orpingtons with other egg-laying breeds, like Rhode Island Reds and Leghorns.
They are easy-going birds that lay 250 light-brown eggs per year, on average. Though one hen holds the record for laying 364 eggs in 365 days.
Already a large breed, Australorps can become obese if they’re confined, so they should be let out to roam, as they also like to be active. Because of their dark color, they must have access to shade at all times.
Barred Plymouth Rock
Barred Plymouth Rock chickens are easily identifiable with their unique black, white and gray striped feathers. This breed tends to begin laying eggs at 18 – 22 weeks old and can produce up to 200 – 250 light-brown eggs each year.
The birds are great for beginners because they’re docile and easy to tame. They often do well with other breeds, if you want a diverse coop, and their friendly and calm temperament makes them ideal for those raising chickens with young helpers.
Best Chickens For Kids
Raising chickens can be a great way to spend more time together as a family and help children learn more responsibility. When it comes to kid-friendly chickens, some breeds are much better options than others. You’ll want to make sure you choose birds that are friendly and not a flight risk, should a young keeper accidentally leave a door open.
Known as “gentle giants,” Brahma chickens are large birds, but have a docile demeanor. They typically get along with other chicken breeds and tolerate children very well. They tend to be very friendly, even cuddly, and deal well with being handled. Due to their large size, they’re also easy to contain.
These dual-purpose birds can be kept for egg-laying and meat needs; however, many people love to keep them as pets because of their calm disposition. With small pea combs and robust feathering, the Brahma chicken is perfect for northern climates.
Polish chickens are easily recognizable thanks to the unusual-looking poof of feathers on their heads. In fact, their crazy poofs can often cause vision problems, making these birds a little skittish and easily startled. A routine trimming can help with this issue and also prevent eye infections.
While they aren’t the best egg-layers, Polish chickens make great pets because they’re friendly and enjoy being held. You’ll need to keep an eye on them, as other chickens may pick on these docile birds and their own curiosity can get them into trouble.
Faverolle hens usually have fluffy, salmon-colored feathers that extend down their legs and make the birds look bigger than they are. Faverolles are known for their enthusiasm, which is often shown by dashing around the coop, excitedly greeting visitors and “talking” wildly. They’re curious birds and love getting treats and cuddles. However, their gentle nature can often make them targets for more aggressive hens.
Cochins, along with Brahmas, are famous for having caused “Hen Fever” from 1845 to 1855, when Americans became obsessed with owning and breeding chickens. Despite their large size, Cochins enjoy being picked up and love resting on laps. Feathered from head to toe, these fluffy birds rarely wander and are perfectly content lounging around the home, which is good since they’re considered poor flyers.
Choose Between Chicks, Pullets And Adults
The age of your chickens has an impact on the type of care you provide, the amount of money you’ll spend and how the chicken will act in its new home.
Chicks are ideal for starting your coop because they’ll grow up accustomed to humans, which can ensure a more docile temperament. They’ll also have longer to socialize with the other chickens in your flock. While chicks are the cheapest to purchase, they need special care and may require extra accessories, like brooder pens and warming lamps. You’ll also have to wait several months before they can begin laying eggs.
Pullets are very young hens that are almost ready to start laying eggs. These chickens will cost a little more than chicks but won’t require as much care. They aren’t as expensive as adult hens, but you’ll still have to wait for them to start laying eggs, usually a few weeks.
Adult hens will be more expensive than chicks and pullets because they are less hassle and can produce eggs right away. However, they may be less friendly with humans since they have had little to no time interacting with them. They may also bully younger birds.
Weigh The Costs Of Raising Chickens
Depending on the breed and age of the chickens you want, you can get chicks from relatively cheap. The average cost starts at around $3 per chick. However, the cost of the bird isn’t the only expense to consider. When building your budget, make sure you include these costs.
The chicken coop is likely the largest upfront expense you’ll incur. The cost will depend on a variety of factors, including how many chickens you have, the types of chickens you raise and how much space you need. You can craft your own coop or purchase a prefabricated one. You can choose a very basic coop or add in little luxuries that up the cost.
Of course, the DIY route will be the cheapest option, especially if you can find recycled materials. Depending on whether you buy or build, costs typically range from around $100 to a couple thousand dollars. With all that said, the average cost for a chicken coop is around $500.
The chickens themselves will not take up much of your budget, but of course, that will depend on the amount and breed of birds you buy. When it comes to purchasing hens, keep these facts in mind:
- Females (hens) are more expensive than males (roosters).
- The age of the hen plays a role in the cost. Chicks are the cheapest. Adult, laying hens are the most expensive.
- Rare breeds are more expensive.
- Mixed breeds cost less than purebreds.
While these factors play a role in the cost, here’s what you can expect to pay for hens, on average, depending on the breed:
- Baby chicks: about $3 – $5 each
- Pullets: about $15 – $25 each
- Adult: about $10 – $100 each
Like the other expenses listed, the number of chickens and their breeds influence the cost of food. For example, if you have free-range chickens, you may spend less on food because the chickens will supplement their meals by foraging for their own food.
There are three types of chicken feeds to choose from, each with a different purpose:
- Starter feed, which is protein d – dense and made for baby chicks.
- Grower feed should be fed to “adolescent” chickens, or pullets, who don’t require as much protein as growing chicks, nor as much calcium as egg-laying adults.
- Layer feed contains a mix of nutrients, like calcium and omega-3 fatty acids, that aid in quality egg production.
These types of feed also come in a variety of textures, including mash, pellet, crumble, whole grain and shell grit.
While several factors play into the cost of food – including whether you choose regular or organic or more expensive brands – you can expect to spend around $25 per 50-pound bag.
You can also save on food costs by making your own chicken feed.
Buy Your Backyard Chickens From A Reputable Source
The best place to buy your chickens is from a local farmer, hatchery or farm store, where sellers have more expertise in identifying their breed and sex. They are also more reputable than online marketplaces, where sellers could be selling chickens that are ill or not producing eggs. When buying from a stranger online instead of a business, it’s harder to know whether the chicken was raised humanely and fed a proper diet.
When purchasing a chicken, look for signs of good health. Be sure to check for:
- Clear, bright eyes
- Mites and lice
- Abscesses, ulcers and injury
- Straight, forward-facing legs
- Signs of being underweight
- Whether chicks are active or dull and withdrawn
You’ll also want to check around the pen and observe the other chickens for sale. Is the pen tidy and free from mess or diarrhea? Are the other chicks active and healthy or do they seem unwell, withdrawn or dull?
Be Prepared For Common Chicken Problems
Once you get your chickens home and start caring for them, a few problems could eventually arise. It’s important to be prepared with information on how to spot problems and fix them.
A broody hen is one that wants to hatch her eggs – whether they’re fertile or not. Broodiness is caused by many factors, including hormones, motherly instinct, genetics, breed and maturity.
If you’re not raising chickens for fertile eggs that hatch, broodiness can be a big problem. When a hen is broody, she’ll stop laying eggs. If she has produced eggs, she’ll be very protective over them and very territorial of her nest. Not only will this problem keep you from getting a hen’s eggs; it can also threaten your hen’s health. When a hen is broody, she will sit on her nest indefinitely, neglecting her health in the process.
To break up broody behavior, you’ll want to act as soon as you notice it.
- Remove the hen from her nest and block off access to the nesting box.
- If she needs more help, place her in a separate pen designed with a wire bottom to allow airflow to cool the hen and add discomfort. It should have food and water, but no bedding to nest in.
- You can also help prevent broody behavior by removing eggs immediately after they’re laid or keeping hens out of their nesting boxes after they’ve laid their eggs.
While hierarchy, or pecking order, in the flock is normal, bullying can cause physical harm to your chickens and affect egg production. It usually stems from boredom, stress, overcrowding or the personality of the chicken.
If pecking, or bullying, gets out of hand there are ways to intervene.
- Alleviate boredom by encouraging chickens to go outside, hanging a mirror or cabbage in the coop or tossing mealworms into bedding.
- Inspect your chickens for signs of illness or injury. Unhealthy chickens are an easy target for bullies.
- Thin out your flock or expand the coop space to prevent overcrowding.
- Separate bully chickens from the flock and put them in a separate cage for a few days.
- Stop bullying when you see it by using a squirt gun or loud noise.
No matter where you live, you’ll encounter predators, whether they’re animals, like coyotes, raccoons or dogs, or other humans. To help prevent predators from killing or stealing your chickens or their eggs, take the following precautions.
- Instead of chicken wire, use hardware cloth, which is harder for predators to get through.
- Bury hardware cloth or chicken wire around the coop as well, which will deter predators that try to dig their way in.
- Install a roof over the coop and cover the run with hardware mesh.
- Routinely inspect the coop and repair holes, cracks, water damage and weak structures.
- Lock your chickens in the coop at night.
- Secure your coop with high-quality locks.
- Install motion-sensor lights.
- Collect eggs each day.
- Inspect the coop daily for predators, like snakes.
Just like other pets shed, so do chickens. The natural process is usually triggered by the changing of seasons. It happens when your chickens lose their old feathers and replace them with new feathers that will help keep them warm in the winter months.
Molting can be stressful for hens and many may stop producing eggs during the cycle, which can last 3 – 16 weeks. While there’s nothing you can do to prevent molting, there are ways to help your chickens through this time.
- Provide extra protein in their diets, as they’ll need much more of it to create more feathers.
- Keep chickens comfortable by providing ample space, proper air ventilation, clean bedding and tons of water.
- Refrain from introducing new birds to the flock until molting is over.
- Avoid handling the chickens as their skin is extra sensitive at this time.
Stopped Egg Production
There are many reasons hens may stop laying eggs, some are temporary issues that can be fixed, while others are not. Some of the common reasons for stopped egg production are:
We’ve already addressed broodiness and molting, so let’s focus on how to fix the other issues that cause hens to stop producing eggs. To address the other issues, make sure you’re taking the following steps:
- Cut back on treats and scraps as they can dilute complete layer feeds that provide the essential nutrients needed for egg production.
- Make sure hens are receiving at least 12 – 16 hours of daylight. During winter, when days are shorter, provide artificial light or, better yet, allow your hens to rest and recover for the season.
- Make sure your coop is safe from predators, spacious and clean.
- Keep coop temperatures comfortable, but around the same temperature as the outdoors.
- Separate bullies and other aggressive birds that may cause undue stress.
A hen’s egg production will be best in her first year of laying eggs and will taper off as she gets older. Once she stops production due to age, there’s not much you can do. However, you can still utilize her as a companion and leader for the flock. They can also be useful for catching bugs, controlling weeds and keeping an eye out for predators.
The Bottom Line On Backyard Chickens
Raising backyard chickens can be a rewarding experience for the whole family. However, it’s important to remember that you’re responsible for the lives of these animals. If you aren’t ready to take on such a responsibility, you should wait until you are. Instead, try starting with a low-maintenance plant and work your way up to living animals.
When you’re ready to take on the challenge of keeping chickens, this article can get you set up for success. For other articles to help you accomplish more as a homeowner, check out the homeowner tips on the Rocket HomesSM blog.
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