A major theme of this site is improving resiliency and preparing for a different future than we may be used to at present. One good way that is receiving growing interest is keeping your own chickens for eggs or meat. In this brief article, I will show that raising chickens is fun, easy, and provides many benefits, regardless of the need to prepare for the potential risks of Peak Oil or economic downturns.
There are many great resources on chickens already out there, with more detailed information than can be contained in this article. I’ll just highlight the basics here and share some of my personal experiences that have been successful.
Why have chickens?
Great reasons to have your own chickens include:
- Easy and inexpensive to maintain compared to other animals
- Fresh eggs are great-tasting and nutritious
- Bug and weed control with no chemicals
- Terrific fertilizer for your garden
- Fun and friendly pets with personality
- Knowing where your food comes from
- Resilient, local food production
- Eggs are great to share with your community
Starting Out with Chicks
Check out first the local laws in your town that might limit what you can do with chickens. For example, the City of Portland, Maine (north of me) has an ordinance that limits the number of chickens allowed to six, and only hens (i.e., female only; no roosters). Also consider potential impacts in your neighborhood; loose chickens that dig up your neighbor’s special flower beds may not make for good relations.
Sources for chickens include:
- Local feed stores
- Mail order
- Newspaper or online ads
- Agricultural fairs
Raising your own birds from baby chicks is a bit more work and you have to wait about 6 months until they begin to lay, but lets you get to know them. If you have kids, it’s a great experience for them, too. My chickens are very friendly to handle, since the kids have been around them so much since they were little.
Baby chicks are usually available from hatcheries only in early spring, so if you are thinking about chickens, start planning now! The easiest way to get chicks is from a local merchant; my local Agway and another building supply store both take orders. Selection may be limited to a few breeds, but you save on shipping costs and can pick out your own chicks to take home immediately. It’s a law where I live that you must buy a minimum of six at a time, which is a nice size flock for one family, anyway. Buy a couple extra to allow for deaths and culling.
Chicks can also be ordered through the mail from places like McMurray Hatchery. One advantage is that they have many more choices in breeds, which is helpful if there is a certain kind you want. A disadvantage is that the minimum order is 25 birds; the chicks need enough mass in numbers for them to keep warm during shipment.
A third option is to check local advertisements for available chickens. Be cautious of old hens that are past their prime, though. They might be nice pets, but not worth the feed cost if they don’t lay many eggs anymore. Production goes down a lot after a year or two.
For a variety of color in my backyard, my flocks started the last couple years are a mix of different breeds. They include Rhode Island Reds, Buff Orpingtons, and Plymouth Barred Rocks, which are all heavy “dual purpose” (for egg laying and meat) breeds. These classic backyard chickens are excellent layers, hardy enough for northern New England winters, and friendly in temperament. Folks in different climates may find other breeds to be more suitable. Other strains are more specifically bred to be meat birds; that is, they grow quickly but may not lay as well. This article will just focus on layer hens.
Newborn chickens can be kept in a box with pine shavings in your house or garage. Adjust the position and wattage of an incandescent light bulb 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. Feed them chicken starter crumbles and water, and clean their brooder daily as needed. Keep spare bulbs handy, and make very sure hot lights do not set anything on fire!
To save yourself a lot of hassle; have your coop ready before you need it! The dozen chicks in the photo above outgrew their box in less than 2 weeks, and I had to stay up late one night to shell out a new coop for them to move to.
There are a million different and equally good ways to build coops, and lots of great examples can be found at BackYardChickens.com. You can buy one, convert an existing structure (I once used an old ice shack), or build your own. Think about how you would like to manage your chickens and choose from one of the following basic types:
- Larger stationary coops that allow humans to enter to maintain
- Smaller coops sized for only chickens inside; may be semi-portable
- Chicken tractors (portable coops and runs)
Along with a coop, chickens need an outside run that is fenced to keep them in and predators out. Note that wherever chickens are, they will totally decimate the vegetation, sometimes within a couple days if the space is small. If you can allow your chickens to free-range, fence in any part of your garden that you don’t want disturbed. One time my chickens got loose and joyfully took dirt baths in the garden, where I had just carefully spent the morning planting seed potatoes.
Chicken tractors are small portable coops with an attached run. They are designed to be moved around frequently so that no one spot on your lawn ever gets totally trashed. My early attempts at chicken tractors failed miserably because they were too rugged and heavy and the chickens seemed less happy in a relatively confined space.
Below are some photos of the coops I designed and built.
Features that seem to work well include:
- Small door for chickens
- Large door for people access for maintenance
- Ventilation under the front and back eaves while keeping rain out
- Caster wheels with fat tires for portability
- Nesting boxes located at the darkest end, where chicks prefer to lay
- T-111 plywood walls and asphalt roof; more expensive but built to last
- Sliding acrylic panel over wire mesh window (still to be installed)
- Clearance underneath for shade or protection from rain.
Inside the coop is a perch for the chickens to roost at night. They may like to sleep standing up, but I’m glad I don’t have to! Each coop also has nest boxes about 12 x 12 x 12 inches for the chickens to lay eggs in. They seem prefer to lay in what they perceive is the most secure, protected place.
Management and Fencing
Desperately trying to stop my newly planted apple trees last year from being decimated by deer, I surrounded them with 7 foot high deer fencing. I soon discovered the fencing would also serve as a large run for the chickens as well. Double door gates mounted to the fence posts provided convenient access.
The chicken coop stays in one place within the fenced area, avoiding the need for frequent moves. First thing in the morning before work, the coop is simply opened to let the chickens out. They seem stay outside all day no matter what the weather. At dusk they go back in the coop on their own, and the chicken door is closed to protect against predators. The fenced areas are large enough so they never get totally beaten down by the chickens.
If we’re home on weekends and working outside, the chickens are allowed to free range in the backyard. This requires caution though; a stray basset hound wiped out one of my beautiful new Buff Orpingtons recently while we were inside eating breakfast. If I’m away for a weekend, I just leave the coop open and keep my fingers crossed; so far I’ve never lost a chicken that stayed inside the fencing.
Every couple months I rotate the coops between different fenced areas. For example, as soon as the corn was harvested earlier this fall, the chickens were moved into that area and enjoyed feasting on leftover cobs while fertilizing for the following year’s crop (potatoes are next in the rotation). One coop is in my raised bed garden area now, with the fall harvest complete. Remaining veggies like spinach, claytonia, and carrots left to overwinter are protected by cold frames from unwanted nibbling by the chickens.
Feeding Your Chickens
Day to day management is incredibly easy and integrated into our daily routine. Mornings before work, we open the coop, stir their bedding, and check that their water and feed are full. Evenings we check for eggs and close the coop up. Every week or so I fill up the feeder with layer pellets and add a scoop of oyster shells for calcium and grit. The feeder is kept inside the coop to keep it dry, and hung from a string so the birds won’t like to climb on it.
The chickens also get daily treats from leftover food that doesn’t go into compost. They go bonkers over apple cores, carrot peelings, bread, pasta, and tomatoes. The excessive harvest of squash and pumpkins from this year’s garden, which I thought would be wasted, is turning out to be a good supply of treats that also stores well. The treats get recycled into chicken poop and fertilizer again for the garden next year; what a great cycle!
Chickens do fine in the subfreezing temperatures here in New England, even in an un-insulated coop. About the only challenge is keeping their water from freezing. You can buy water heaters, but I built my own “cookie-tin heater” from scrap parts. A 25 or 40 watt bulb is enough to keep their water thawed out. I added some conduit this year to protect the cord 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.
Some folks wonder if you need a rooster (male chicken) to get eggs; the answer is no. A rooster is necessary, though, to have fertile eggs that will hatch into new chicks. Fertile eggs take 21 days to hatch if allowed to be kept warm by a hen that is broody enough to sit on them or by keeping the eggs in an incubator. My kids are looking forward to trying this next year.
Chicks are sexed at the hatchery, so you are supposed to just get mostly hens, but this year one of ours grew up to be a rooster. Fortunately, my neighbors don’t mind his crowing first thing in the morning, and we are early risers anyway. He also keeps the hens in order and may help deter small predators.
Eggs, Community, and Other Benefits
Fresh eggs from free ranging chickens have dark yellow yolks and taste great, totally unlike what you find in the supermarket. I never used eggs much except for baking until I started getting my own; now they are my favorite source of protein. My kids love to collect eggs daily and also play with the chickens like pets, while becoming hopefully more educated about where their food comes from.
A good layer hen produces an egg almost every day, about 5 to 6 per week, which can really add up if you have several hens. Layers may slow down in winter or stop for a period when molting, which means losing feathers and growing new ones. I haven’t tracked the costs closely, but I estimate feed costs are about $2 for every dozen premium quality eggs.
While I have more chickens at present than I need just for my family, that has turned to be of benefit to community relations. Excess eggs from my backyard are shared or traded with neighbors, friends, and colleagues in return for other stuff or help. In addition, I’m hopeful that I’m setting an example of resiliency and improved quality of life for others to consider.
A short list of helpful resources is provided to link you to more sources of information if needed. Also look to see if local classes in poultry are available.
- 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.
- Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens is a great reference book with enough detail while still being an easy read. There is a new 3rd edition out this year.
- McMurrayHatchery.com is an online/mail order source for chicks and equipment and also has helpful articles at their website.
- DeerBusters.com is where I get plastic deer fencing. Use metal fencing if predators are a serious concern in your area.