10 Essential Considerations for Raising Backyard Chickens
Keeping chickens can be one of the most exciting moments during the spring season. Whether you live out in the country or in an urban neighborhood, chicken keeping can be a rewarding experience. There are many considerations when keeping chickens and it is best to do as much research as possible before you take the leap. It is also important to involve all possible chicken caretakers in the planning process so everyone knows what to expect.
We have compiled a top 10 list of considerations to get you started with your information gathering. Remember to dig deeper into all aspects of raising and keeping chickens so you can have an enjoyable and successful flock.
- What is the best location for a coop?
Consider the location of the coop. If you live in warm climates, consider locating your coop where it will receive shade during the hottest part of the day. If you often have wind, consider placing your coop against a wall or hedge to prevent drafts. If you live in a climate that receives snow, consider placing your coop where it will benefit from sun during the middle of the day. This will help to melt snow on and around the coop and your chickens will appreciate the radiant heat.
- What size coop do I need and what are the different styles of coops?
Chickens will need adequate space to sleep, lay eggs, and spend their days. Having the wrong size coop (too small) for your flock can lead to illness and chickens ‘picking’ on one another. Birds should have 2-3 square feet per bird inside the coop and 4 square feet per bird in the run. There are multiple coop designs to choose from. Make sure they have a safe indoor space and a covered outdoor space/run.
What are coop requirements?:
-Roosts- Chickens sleep off of the ground on roosts. You will need at least 12 inches of roost space per chicken. Roosts should be made of wood, not metal, which can be too cold in the winter.
-Ventilation- A coop without ventilation will lead to sick birds. Ammonia, dust particles and moisture can build up in closed coops causing respiratory issues. Ventilation can come from windows, vents or drilled holes near the top of the coop. Don’t confuse ventilation with drafts. Drafts, which is air blowing directly on the birds, can cause problems and illness.
-Nesting boxes- Hens like privacy when laying eggs. Nesting boxes should be filled with pine shavings or straw. Boxes should be 12” high by 12” wide. You will need one nesting box per 4 hens. It is normal to find all of the eggs in one nesting box, and you may even see your hens “waiting in line” to lay, even when there are other boxes available.
-A Run or Yard- Normal behavior of chickens consists of foraging, scratching and hunting for food. A good rule of thumb is to provide 4 square feet per bird in the run. If you have predators in your area, be sure to research methods to protect your birds. The chicken run can be bedded down with sand, pine shavings or left as dirt.
- How many chickens can I have?
Okay, let’s be honest here. Chickens can be addicting, and every time you visit the local feed store this spring, you’ll hear the cute peeping sounds from the baby chicks they have for sale. Keep in mind the size of your coop and the breed of chickens you have. Some say you can have 2 bantam chickens for every 1 standard size chicken because of the bantam’s small size. However, to be on the safe side and for optimal chicken happiness, you may want to stick with the rule of 1 chicken per 2-3 square feet of indoor space and 1 chicken per 4 square feet of outdoor space. Following these guidelines will help ensure a healthy flock that gets along well.
Also, it is not advised to add additional chickens once you already have an established flock. The addition of new birds will upset the pecking order and smaller chickens will most definitely get picked on to the point of injury or death. If you plan to add to an existing flock, do your research on how to safely add them to the group. This will take time and two separate spaces. Keep in mind, chickens only a month apart in age can be very opposed to the new kids on the block!
- What are the most common breeds of chickens?
There are many breeds of chickens including purebred and breed mixes. The breed of chicken you choose is one of personal preference and need. Some breeds are fantastic egg layers, while others (bantams) will only lay 2-3 eggs a week and are half the size of normal eggs. Some chickens are very docile and friendly and more accepting of being handled by small children, while others prefer to be left alone and tend to come across more “wild”. Be sure to do your research to include the temperament of certain breeds. To see a list of commonly found breeds, see the infographic below.
- Should I free-range or confine my chickens?
You will want to consider if you plan to keep your chickens cooped or if you will allow them to free-range. Depending on how your home is zoned, you may be subject to certain rules as it pertains to having chickens, and allowing them to free-range may not be an option. If free-range is an option where you live, you will want to take the following into consideration:
-Chicken's natural behavior consists of scratching. They will scratch anything and everything, including neatly planted and placed landscaping. If you have mulch in landscaped areas, the chickens will most likely scratch up the mulch, pushing it outside of borders.
-They will pick at and scratch at tender plants. If you plan to have your free-range chickens near your garden, be sure to read up on how they can live in harmony.
-You may find eggs around the house or yard. When chickens are able to free-range, some hens may begin to lay eggs outside of the coop, under shrubs or porches.
-They poop. Chickens will poop as they forage around the property. If they find their way to your porch or deck, you may find them perching, and pooping, on and around outdoor furniture or décor. If your chickens are free-ranging in a high-traffic area of the yard, you will need to look out for poop in walkways.
- What kind of feeder and waterer will they need?
Chickens will need unlimited access to feed and water. Feeders and waterers should be stable enough to prevent spills. There are many styles to choose from and plans for DIY feeders can be searched for on Pinterest. During winter, you will need a heated waterer or a galvanized waterer that can sit on a heated base.
What are the requirements?:
-Unlimited access to feed and water.
-Electricity for a heated waterer during winter months.
- What kind of feed do they need? What is scratch, grit and oyster shell?
There will be a few feed items you’ll need to keep on hand.
-Feed- There are many feed options that range from organic to store brand. You can also choose from pellets, crumbles, and mash. It really is a matter of personal choice. Just ensure the feed meets minimum nutritional requirements.
-Chicken scratch is a mix of grains that chickens love! Make sure you use scratch as a treat as it is not intended to be their main feed.
-Grit should be fed as directed and can be helpful for birds that are not free-range. Grit will help chickens with digestion.
-Oyster shell comes crushed and is used to add calcium to the diet. Calcium aids in strong eggshells and hen health. Use as directed.
- What if I get a rooster?
When you purchase chicks, you accept the risk of obtaining a rooster. There is no guarantee that a chick is a hen or rooster, but they are pretty accurate when it comes to sexed chicks. You may not know for sure until about 4-6 months of age. During this time, you may see a pronounced comb, taller stature and the beginning sounds of crowing. Plan ahead for what your options are if you end up with a rooster. Some people are able to keep them and they become the keeper of the flock and tend to be very beneficial. Some people may not be able to keep roosters and will need an alternative plan. Make sure to do your homework in case you end up with a rooster.
- What is the natural pecking order?
Chickens have a natural pecking order. Your flock will work out who is top hen and consequently, who is the bottom hen. It is very interesting to watch the development of the pecking order. It is normal to see them peck at each other, seeming to put the others in their place. This is natural and will work itself out quite quickly. Make sure that the lowest chicken on the totem pole is not getting hurt. Check their comb and eyes for injuries (rare, but could happen).
- How do I know if something is wrong with my chickens? Chicken check!
Chickens are livestock. Chickens are farm animals. Farm animals come with some realities flock owners need to be aware of. These are not to deter you from the enjoyment of keeping chickens, but it is good to be informed about the realities of adding a flock to your yard.
-Roosters. If you end up with a rooster you cannot keep, have a plan B. Make sure your plan B is humane.
-Poop. Farm animals poop and poop a lot. Have a plan to keep the coop clean. A clean coop will ensure a healthy flock and will be less smelly.
-And speaking of smells…Chickens may smell if their coop and/or run are not kept clean. This is not pleasant and not healthy for the birds.
-Grass. Grass in the run of your coop will disappear in 7 days or less. Chickens will peck at and scratch up all grass in their immediate living space. The coop run will become dirt. Chickens that free-range, and move from place to place on the property, do not do as much damage to grass. However, free-range chickens will do a number on your landscape.
When done correctly, keeping chickens can be enjoyed by the whole family. Kids love to pick them up and are often the best people when it comes to taming your flock. The ability to have access to your own fresh nutritious eggs is a huge benefit. Keeping a flock of chickens is a great way to teach animal care and responsibility and for learning where your food comes from. Kids will benefit from the daily care needed and from observing the flock. They can also become involved in a local 4-H or FFA group and show their chickens at a local fair.
Whether you plan to have just a few chickens or a large flock, you can expect to become quite fond of them. You may find yourself sitting for hours observing their natural behavior. If they free-range, and if you have a rooster, observing his role within the flock can be heartwarming. Roosters are caretakers of hens and their job is to ensure they are safe and fed. The rooster will call to the hens if he senses danger and the hens will watch for his cue when the coast is clear. Roosters will call out when food is found and almost always gives their find to the quickest hen that comes over.
Chickens, when kept in appropriately equipped coops with clean runs or free-range areas, are great additions to any yard.