The purpose of this article is to summarize the basics of raising a small flock of chickens and show that it is easy, fun, and rewarding. Readers should explore the references provided to obtain more in depth information and expand their knowledge as desired. Starting out small will provide valuable first-hand experience while minimizing the impact of initial mistakes.
Why Backyard Chickens?
Raising chickens in the backyard for eggs or meat is a popular, growing activity for many people interested in self-reliance. Keeping a small flock of chickens has many advantages and benefits, including:
- More natural food production, of known origin, with less antibiotics etc.
- Resilient, local food production.
- Fresh eggs have better nutrition and flavor.
- Easier to raise than most other animals.
- Fun and friendly pets with personality.
- Bug and weed control with no chemicals.
- Production of fertilizer for the garden.
- Eggs are great to share with your community.
For more reasons to raise chickens see:
Before starting out with chickens at home, local zoning laws and ordinances should be checked to see if there are any limits on chicken-keeping activities. Also consider potential impacts to neighbors and what may be tolerated. Loose chickens can rapidly dig up gardens or flower beds, and roosters can crow very loudly early in the morning. However, many neighbors may also appreciate the sight of chickens and delight in shared fresh eggs.
For more information on regulations see:
Some common chicken terms include:
- Bantam: Miniature chicken.
- Brooder: Heated enclosure used to imitate the warmth and protection a mother hen gives her chicks.
- Broody: Describing a hen that covers eggs to warm and hatch them.
- Cockerel: Male chicken less than a year old.
- Comb: The fleshy, usually red, crown on the top of a chicken’s head.
- Hen: Adult female chicken that has laid eggs for six months.
- Hybrid: The offspring of a hen and rooster of different breeds.
- Incubate: To maintain favorable conditions for hatching fertile eggs.
- Litter: Straw, wood shavings, or other material scattered on the floor of a coop or brooder to absorb moisture and droppings.
- Molt: Annual process in which chickens shed and grew new feathers.
- Pullet: Young female chicken, usually less than a year old, or until the first egg is laid.
- Rooster or Cock: Adult male chicken.
- Sexed: Newly hatched chicks sorted by males and females.
- Straight run: Newly hatched chicks that are a mix of males and females.
- Wattles: The two red flaps of flesh that dangle under a chicken's chin
For the definitions of more chicken terms see http://www.backyardchickens.com/a/glossary-definitions-of-common-terms-for-raising-backyard-chickens
Chickens come in many interesting breeds and varieties to serve different purposes as efficiently as possible. The main categories include:
- Laying breeds: bred to lay eggs prolifically
- Meat breeds: bred for rapid growth and butchering
- Dual-purpose breeds: good for both eggs and meat
- Ornamental birds: for exhibition and aesthetics primarily
- Bantams: miniature chickens, usually for show or where space is limited.
Dual-purpose chickens are ideal for backyard flocks since they are typically large-bodied, hardy, and self reliant. Dual-purpose breeds are often more docile and easier to work with than commercial layer strains (e.g. White Leghorn) while still laying eggs very productively. Although not as fast growing as meat birds, young excess males and spent layers of dual purpose breeds will still have appreciable meat on their bones.
Popular dual purpose breeds include Rhode Island Reds, Buff Orpingtons, Plymouth Barred Rocks, and Golden Comets. Dual-purpose hybrids have been developed including the Black Sex Link (cross between a Rhode Island Red and a Plymouth Barred Rock) and the Red Sex Link (cross between a Rhode Island Red and a white Leghorn).
Most backyard breeds lay various shades and sizes of brown eggs, with Rhode Island Reds producing some of the largest. Large, hardy breeds should be chosen for cooler, northern climates while other breeds may be more suitable for hotter, southern areas.
More information on chicken breeds can be found here:
Obtaining Chicks or Chickens
The first decision to make is whether to raise your own chicks or obtain mature birds. Raising your own baby chicks involves more work and a wait of about six months until they begin to lay, but it allows the opportunity to get to know your birds well. Raising chicks can be a great educational experience for children too. Chickens may be most friendly that have been handled since they were little by their keepers. However, one should remember not to get so attached to their birds that their primary purpose as working animals is forgotten.
Sources for chicks include:
- Local feed stores
- Mail order
- Newspaper or online ads.
- Agricultural fairs
- Hatch your own!
Baby chicks are available from hatcheries usually only in early spring through summer. A convenient way to get chicks is from a local feed store or building supply store that takes orders. Selection may be limited to a few breeds, but saves on shipping costs and avoids large minimum orders. Some localities have laws requiring a minimum purchase of 6 chicks, which is a nice size flock for one small family. Extra may be purchased to allow for deaths and culling. The cost is typically $2 to $3 per chick.
Chicks can also be ordered through the mail from breeders like McMurrary Hatchery (www.McMurrayhatchery.com). Advantages are they have many more choices in breeds and more batches available during the season. A disadvantage is the minimum order is typically 25 birds; the chicks need enough mass in numbers for them to keep warm during shipment. Chicks are typically shipped as soon as they hatch since they can survive the first 48 hours of life without food.
Chicks may be ordered straight run (mix of male and female) or sexed. Female only chicks should be ordered if you are primarily interested in laying hens. Because the sexing procedure is not 100% accurate, there is still a chance of ending up with a male (rooster). A rooster is not necessary to produce table eggs but is needed to produce fertile eggs to hatch.
A third option is to check local or online advertisements such as www.Craigslist.com for available chickens. Full grown layers should cost about $10 to $15/each and be preferably under one year old. Egg production from older hens may decline a lot after a year or two, with less return on the cost of feed.
While full grown chickens are very hardy, chicks require close attention and care especially in the first eight weeks of life. Specific items of attention include:
- Housing and cleanliness
- Food and water
Chicks start out living in a “Brooder”, which can be simply a small enclosure or box. The bottom should have a layer of clean litter such as pine shavings (not sawdust). Paper towels may be best for the first few days while the chicks’ feet are just developing, but newspaper is not recommended.
Chicks should be kept indoors or in a heated space until they grow feathers, absent a mother hen to keep them warm. The brooder temperature should start at approximately 95 F and be reduced approximately 5 F each week until room temperature is reached. Adjust the position and wattage of an incandescent light bulb or heat lamp to keep the chicks warm based on observation of their behavior. If they are just on the edge of the circle of light they are about warm enough. Keep spare bulbs handy, and make very sure that hot lights do not set anything on fire!
Chicks should have access to clean, fresh water at all times. Clean waterers daily, and adjust the height of the watering base upward as the chicks grow. Do not use an open dish, which is much more likely to be soiled and may cause some chicks to drown.
Medicated chicken starter crumbles are the appropriate ration for chicks for the first eight weeks. A trough style feeder with individual slots is best to start, to minimize the chicks from perching over the feed or scratching in it. As the chicks grow bigger and stronger, the feeder may need to be secured to prevent them from overturning it.
Watch for health problems as chicks develop, and cull runts or deformed birds if necessary. Pasty bottoms and crooked toes are a couple of the most common problems.
For more information on raising chicks see:
Be sure to have a suitable coop or other housing ready before starting to raise chickens to avoid a lot of hassle. Options are to buy one, convert an existing structure, or build your own. Building a coop is usually less expensive and provides greater value if one has the time and skill. There are many different and equally effective examples to follow can be found at resources like www.backyardchickens.com. Depending on how one wants to manage their chickens, a choice can be made from one of the following basic types:
- Larger stationary coops, that allow humans to enter to maintain.
- Smaller coops, sized for chickens only inside, may be semi-portable.
- Chicken tractors (portable coops and runs).
Important features in a successful coop include:
- Small door for chickens to pass through.
- Large door for people access for cleaning.
- Good ventilation while free from drafts.
- Protection from rain and sun.
- Security from predators and rodents.
- Plenty of light.
- Secluded nesting boxes that entice hens to lay.
- Roosts for birds to perch on at night.
- Durable, weatherproof materials.
- Sturdy wheels, if portability is desired.
The minimum space recommended for heavy breeds that spend most time indoors is 4 square feet/bird. For birds that will spend their days outdoors, coming in only at night to roost, a minimum of 8 to 10 square feet of yard space and 1.5 to 2 square feet of indoor space per bird should be provided.
A perch with a flat top such as a 2 x 3 should be provided for the chickens to roost on at night. Allow about 10” space per bird for larger breeds.
Hens like to lay eggs in darker out-of-the-way places that they perceive as more secure. A nesting box should be provided for about every 4 to 5 hens, sized 12” to 14” in width and height, and 12” deep. Nests should be padded with clean litter that is changed often.
Chicken tractors are small portable coops with an attached run. They are designed to be frequently moved around to allow chickens to graze on fresh ground. Successful chicken tractors must be light enough to be conveniently moved.
For more information on housing and coop designs, see:
Fencing and Management
Along with a coop, chickens need at a minimum an outside run that is fenced to keep them in and to keep predators out. The more space, vegetation, and variety that can be provided for chickens to graze during the day the healthier and happier they will be. Options to manage confinement of chickens include:
- Fixed coop and run
- Portable chicken tractor
- Portable coop and paddocks
- Coop and free range
Runs attached to coops should have shelter from wind and rain and have good drainage to keep birds out of the mud. Note that wherever chickens spend too much time or are too confined they will totally decimate the vegetation, sometimes within a couple days if the space is small. Portable chicken tractors can avoid this problem but must be frequently moved. While limited in space, runs or chicken tractors are typically the best choice in urban or small backyard settings.
Free-range or rotational pasture arrangements are healthier if the space is available such as in a country setting. In a rotational pasture arrangement, chickens are moved between one of several fenced paddocks every few days or weeks before they significantly impact the vegetation in any one area. The rotations allow grazed over areas to recover and grow new plants and bugs for the chickens to consume. More fencing is required but provides protection from predators.
One paddock strategy is to allow chickens to use fenced garden areas after vegetables are harvested. Tall deer fencing may be used to serve dual purposes of protecting fruit trees from deer while keeping chickens within.
The free range option involves simply letting chickens out every day from the coop to roam where they may. Chickens will typically not stray far from the yard or their food source, and they will instinctively go back to the coop at night where they can be shut up again for protection. Free range chickens must be guarded against predators, and gardens or flower beds must be protected from scratching. Chickens love to take dirt baths in any loose soil they find and to nibble on vegetables like tomatoes.
There are a variety of fencing materials depending on needs and degree of security. Plastic deer fencing is lightweight and tall enough to keep most birds within. Metal wire fencing is necessary to keep out aggressive predators that can tear plastic fencing. Overhead nets or other protection may be needed if predator birds such as hawks or owls are present.
Many backyard chicken breeds are hardy enough to do well even in sub freezing climates and typically do not require insulated coops. Supplemental heat may be needed only for extreme conditions (<10 F) to avoid frost bite of combs and wattles. Heat lamps should be used with extreme care to avoid the risk of fire.
One challenge during winter is to keep their water from freezing. Water heaters can be purchased or one can build their own “cookie-tin heater” from scrap parts. A 25 or 40 watt bulb is enough to keep a chicken waterer from freezing. Note that wiring may need protection in conduit from rodents.
In hot summer weather, keep your chickens comfortable by providing a place for shade and plenty of water. For wet seasons, chickens will much appreciate some shelter from rain and a well drained, mud free area to stand.
Roosters, or male chickens, are distinguished by their larger bodies, larger combs and wattles, pointed saddle (neck) and tail feathers, and often colorful plumage. These and other traits including assertive behavior and crowing will become evident in a growing flock after about 12 weeks if not all the birds are truly hens.
A rooster is not necessary for a hen to produce eggs. A rooster is necessary though to have fertile eggs that will hatch into new chicks. Including a rooster in your flock allows the opportunity to raise and hatch new chicks. Roosters usually lead the pecking order, and may lead hens to food or help protect them from predators. There are a few draw-backs to roosters. Loud, early morning crowing may be objectionable to neighbors that are close by. Roosters that are overly aggressive to family members, especially small children, should not be kept. Frequent mating by roosters may be hard on hens and cause feather loss and potential infections. Also, roosters consume feed while obviously not producing eggs.
Day to day management of chickens is relatively easy and fun to integrate into ones daily routine. Morning duties typically include:
- Opening the coop chicken door.
- Giving the litter or bedding a stir (keep a small rake handy)
- Checking waterers and feeders are clean and full.
- Putting out food or treats, if desired.
- Moving chicken tractors, if applicable.
Evening duties typically include:
- Checking for eggs.
- Checking nest boxes are clean.
- Closing up the coop.
Cleaning the coop and replacing litter should be done regularly as needed to maintain health and cleanliness. Chopped straw, wood shavings, leaves, compost, or other dry material can make good litter to absorb moisture and manure. Used litter can be added to the compost pile for future application to the garden. An alternative is to use the deep litter method, in which material is allowed to build up and compost in place. More information on litter management can be found here http://www.backyardchickens.com/a/deep-litter-method-the-easiest-way-to-deal-with-chicken-litter-dlm
Commercial feed will make up most of the diet for backyard flocks. Free hanging feeders in a sheltered location are recommended to discourage chickens from climbing on and fouling them. The suggested feeding program for layers based on a popular feed brand http://www.blueseal.com/poultry/feedprg.php is below. Other feeds are available that are optimized for meat birds.
- Chick starter crumbles: 0 – 8 weeks
- Grower pellets: 8 – 20 weeks or until first egg
- Layer pellets: 20+ weeks
Free-range chickens can also feed on bugs, worms, grass and whatever else they find, reducing the expense for feed. Kitchen scraps or “treats” are also a great source of food for chickens, as long as they do not make a majority of the diet. Treats can include apple cores, carrot peeling, bread, pasta, squash cores, and tomatoes. Chickens should not be fed sugary foods, dry beans, or raw green potato skins.
Supplemental calcium may be needed to ensure strong egg shells. Sources include crushed oyster shells available at feed stores or crushed egg shells from the kitchen.
Fresh eggs are the top reason to keep a backyard flock. Home produced eggs, especially from free ranging chickens that include greens in their diet, usually have dark yellow yolks and taste fabulous, in stark contrast to the pale bland alternatives found in the supermarket. The daily duty of collecting eggs is also a rewarding chore, especially enjoyed by kids.
A good layer hen produces an egg almost every day, about 5 to 6 per week. Layers may slow down in winter or stop for a period when molting, which means losing feathers and growing new ones. Feed costs vary depending on the source and percentage of waste, but should be about $2 to $3 for every dozen premium quality eggs.
Eggs should not normally be washed since they have a natural “bloom” that is a barrier to contamination. Very soiled eggs are a good idea to wash though, especially just before cracking. Collecting eggs more than once per day if possible will reduce the potential for hens to soil or break the eggs. The decision to refrigerate stored eggs is a personal preference, but refrigerated eggs may be kept for several weeks. Writing the date of lay on each egg will help ensure the oldest eggs are used up first.
Excess eggs beyond what a family can consume are often easily sold or traded to neighbors and friends, with a great benefit to community relations. Maintaining a layer flock also shows others an example of resiliency and improved quality of life for others to consider.
Birds for Meat
Backyard chickens can provide meat with less time and effort than most other forms of livestock. Poultry raised at home can be much better tasting and healthier than store-bought chicken.
The two basic ways to raise meat birds are:
- Commercial Cornish-cross strains
- Old fashioned dual purpose breed
Cornish-cross birds are commercially developed breeds specifically raised for meat. Their traits include rapid, efficient growth versus food consumed, and they are butchered as soon as the desired size is reached in a few weeks.
Meat birds can also be dual purpose birds obtained as a byproduct of the laying flock. Their growth is slower but there is much more flexibility in the age of butchering. If one hatches their own chicks, about half will be cockerels which, along with culled pullets, can be used for meat. Older hens can be turned into stewing fowl when they are no longer productive as layers. The meat tends to be more flavorful, firmer in texture, and with a higher percentage of dark to white meat compared to hybrid meat birds.
Traditional meat classes by age are:
- Broiler: 7 to 12 weeks
- Fryer: 14- 20 weeks
- Roaster: 5 to 12 months
- Stewing Fowl: 12 months or older.
The appropriate cooking method to obtain the best results varies with age. Older birds required lower cooking temperatures and longer cooking times. An excellent description of how to raise and cook traditional breeds for meat is here:
Butchering chickens involves work but is a valuable skill that is easily learned. The basic steps are:
- Cutting up and Storing
Some excellent step by step guides with photos for butchering chickens are here:
Incubating and Hatching
Chicks can be hatched at home versus purchasing from a hatchery once one has established a laying flock with desirable traits and a rooster is present to ensure fertile eggs. Chicken eggs that are fertile will usually hatch if incubated at about 100 F for a period of 21 days. The two ways to incubate eggs at the proper temperature are:
- Allow a broody hen to sit on the eggs (natural incubation)
- Storing eggs in an artificial incubator.
Broodiness is a trait that has been bred out of many breeds, but occasionally a hen will become “broody” in a backyard flock. A broody hen will stop laying after a clutch of eggs is gathered, and persistently stay on the nest except for a few minutes each day to eat and poop. The broody hen does all the work, avoiding the expense of an incubator, but one is at the mercy of the hen’s timing. After the eggs hatch however, the mother hen will help make sure chicks are kept safe and warm, reducing the need for supplemental heat.
For more information about working with broody hens see
Artificial incubators maintain the required incubating temperature automatically and are best to use when wants to hatch eggs on a certain date. An automatic egg turner is recommended to avoid the need to manually turn eggs several times a day. This popular model holds up to 42 eggs and has a large viewing window to observe the hatching process. After the hatch is complete in about 24 hours, chicks should be moved to the brooder.
Model 1588 Hova-Bato by GQF:
Chickens Place in the Garden Cycle
Chickens are more than just egg and meat producers; they are part of a resilient, productive cycle in the backyard farm. Chickens can eat food scraps and marginal produce that would otherwise go to the compost or trash. With this energy source, they produce fertilizer, dig up weed roots, and consume pest insects when they are permitted to roam in the vegetable garden or yard. Finally, chickens are a visually attractive and dynamic element in the backyard, with discernible personality, and allow one to have a closer understanding and relation to food sources.
- Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens is a great reference book with the right level of detail while still being an easy read. http://www.amazon.com/Storeys-Guide-Raising-Chickens-3rd/dp/1603424709/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1292170513&sr=8-2
- How to Raise Chickens: Everything You Need to Know has concise, easy to read information and beautiful illustrations. http://www.amazon.com/How-To-Raise-Chickens-Everything/dp/0760328285/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1331394532&sr=8-1
- www.backyardchickens.com is a website with easy to understand articles for the beginner, a long list of resources, examples of coop construction, and a friendly forum.
- www.McMurrayHatchery.com is an online/mail order source for chicks and equipment and also has helpful articles at their website.
- www.Deerbusters.com is a source for plastic fencing.