A Beginner's Guide to Keeping Backyard Chickens
Keeping backyard chickens for eggs is the bomb. Really. Just be warned: once you have a real egg, you won't be able to go back to the pale, flavorless things found at the store. And then you'll start wondering what else you can raise...like rabbits, or goats, or hey, maybe you could even fit a cow between the swing set and the shed without the neighbors complaining too much. Really, chickens are gateway animals.
Why is it such a popular "hobby"? Here's a few reasons:
- Everyone likes eggs. Okay.. maybe not everyone. But an awful lot of people LOVE an omelet. The best part of keeping your own chickens is having access to gorgeous tasting eggs without having to even walk to the store.
- Knowing what you're putting into your body. I've always been health-conscious, so it's important to me that I know what I'm actually consuming. With the recent food scandals it's even more important that we take back control of our food and make better choices as to what we put into our body. By eating your own homegrown eggs, you'll know exactly what your chickens have eaten, where they've been kept and how they're bred. Not only that, but backyard eggs have about half the cholesterol of factory eggs.
- Eating eggs from your own chickens has a positive impact on the environment. Think about it, some of the eggs you buy from the store aren't even from your state, that's a lot of transportation for an egg. By eating eggs from your own backyard chickens, you cut down on the fossil fuel emissions related to the transportation of the food and you also save on the horrible plastic packaging which often unfortunately ends up in landfills.
- And it's much more humane. Chickens raised commercially are usually kept in tight quarters - and when I say "tight" I mean a small cage that doesn't allow them to move - and are fed unhealthy corn and soy products. Even "cage-free" chickens aren't much better. They are usually still kept in factories, but now without cages to keep them from each other, they often get their beaks removed so they won't peck each other to death under the stress. Yeah, not cool.
Yup, it's enough to make you wanna whip out the toolbox, start building your own coop, and take a crack at a better way of doing it. Here's a little more guidance as you go:
Consider Your Space
Just like any animal, backyard chickens love as much space as they can get and they deserve it. You wouldn't want to be trapped in a super small box either! Try to give them as much room as you can, a minimum of 4 square feet each, but preferably 6-8 or more. I'd highly suggest that you also keep them away from your lovely lawn and plants, because they are worse than children at ruining the grass, I promise you.
All breeds of chickens have similar space requirements, although you may find that just like humans, some birds may prefer more space than others. It's important to decide whether you'll be allowing your backyard chickens to roam the gardens free-range. If so, then 4 square feet of coop space per bird will be fine. But if you're keeping them caged up all the time, then you'll want to increase the space to 8 square feet each or more. This is just to give them more space to stretch their legs and helps prevent squabbles between roommates!
What Your Coop Needs
Your new feathery little friends are going to need somewhere to stay, and since they'll be outside you'll want to make sure that it's reasonably warm inside for them. Within your coop you'll want an area for them to lay their eggs, a perch, a good amount of insulation and also a "run" for your birds to stretch their legs and enjoy the sun. Check out the infographic below for a more detailed guide on what to include in your new chicken house:
Some people do choose to heat their coops with heatlights, but this is only advised for places where it gets really cold, as in negative temperatures for multiple days. The problem is that if the humid air can't escape it can cause problems with the birds health. That's why it's recommended that during winter you actually ensure ventilation is sufficient and lay plenty of extra hay. This way the birds can snuggle up together and conserve body warmth. If you do live in a really cold area you could also choose to make the coop smaller as to keep it warmer.
If you're going to be letting your flock out of their pen and into the garden then I'd highly recommend a triangular prism style coop shown in the photo below. This is a super simple beginner's coop that essentially consists of a run with a "living quarters" as shown in the photo below.
This is the best style of coop for someone who wants to keep a small flock of free range chickens, because it doesn't have to take up a large amount of space and is cheap and easy to build.
On the other hand, if you don't want your flock running riot through your garden you may opt for an all-in-one solution and keep the birds within their pen. In this case, I'd recommend what I call the "chicken house", because they really are quite large and are often styled like real houses. This is also ideal if you don't always have time to make sure the birds are back in their coop in the evenings. These house coops can be a lot more expensive, but they can also hold a substantially bigger flock. In addition, these houses are more technical and often come with great features like egg collecting flaps, which allow you to reach into the coop without having to crawl around on your hands and knees.
Supplies for Backyard Chickens
Like any pet, backyard chickens require a variety of different supplies. Firstly and most importantly, they're going to need a lot of food and water. I'd highly suggest that you purchase a good quality waterer so that you can ensure your flock is well watered without having to worry all the time.
Chickens generally eat small amounts extremely frequently, so unless you want to keep heading out to feed them it's best to fill their feed dishes full so food is available to them when they want it. The best food for your chickens is chicken pellets which you can pick up from your local pet store. This feed contains the perfect proportions of protein and minerals that your flock will need to produce their eggs.
Each bird eats around 1/4 of a pound of pellets each day, so make sure that you've got enough feed on hand in case you get caught short! While chickens will eat almost ANYTHING, you would be well advised to comprise the bulk of their diet out of chicken pellets. Some people also recommend that you would feed your birds a selection of green vegetables like cabbage and lettuce, which provide them which a greater range of nutrients. Personally, I find myself feeding them any food which I would not otherwise have eaten, often leftover salad!
Some people actually rarely feed their backyard chickens. Instead letting them roam large fields and self-regulate by eating bugs, grass etc. You'll need the space to be able to do this. And plenty of others make their own chicken feed because if you do it in a large scale it can work out cheaper. But generally, if you have a small backyard flock it's about the same to buy from a store and it's much easier.
You'll also need a sizeable supply of bedding for your flock. Most keepers use a soft straw as a flooring material for the coop, but be sure to change it out when it starts to look dirty or if it gets wet. This will help to prevent your birds from becoming ill. More and more people are also choosing to bed their coops with wood chippings or sand, but remember that sand can be difficult to replace when it becomes damp and dirty.
And then comes the actual chickens...
You can purchase your own chicks for only a few dollars each at a local farm, or older laying birds for a little more. I'd suggest buying chicks to start off, it's great to see them grow up and it's a wonderful experience when you get your first ever egg!
When you're choosing a breed the most important factors to consider will be the climate and environment you'll be keeping the birds in, and the type of eggs they produce. Generally, most breeds are comfortable in both warm and cold environments, but it's best to check with the breeder before you purchase them.
My two favorite breeds for backyard chickens are:
- Rhode Island Red - This is a hardy bird that will enjoy any climate, and produces eggs at a greater than average rate. These birds are brilliant for beginners because they are easy to care for and generally deal well with both penned and free-range areas. If you want a great all-rounder then the Rhode Island Red would be a great choice, but I wouldn't suggest mixing them with other breeds because they can be quite feisty!
- Leghorns - These are some of the best egg laying birds around, producing upwards of 300 each year. They are also quite small which is why they are preferred by factory producers. Leghorns are another good breed for backyard chickens because they are easy to care for and produce eggs on a regular basis.
And them's the basics folks! Of course, once you get started with your backyard chickens you'll want to learn more, so check out these books to help you keep your flock alive and well (some of these are actually free if you have a Kindle subscription):