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The Beginners Guide to Raising Backyard Chickens

Now more than ever, people are looking for sources of convenient, readily available, healthy sources of food for their family. 

And that means bringing back an American tradition: raising chickens! Backyard chickens provide delicious, fresh eggs right from the coop and aren't difficult to raise.


If you are thinking about diving into the world of backyard chicken keeping and care about the quality of life of their chickens, then this is your authoritative guide to coops, nesting boxes, runs, feed, and natural health care for optimal health with time-tested remedies, free of chemicals or antibiotics. 

I'm here to share with you not only the basics of raising backyard chickens, but the therapeutic value of herbs and natural supplements to maintaining a healthy environment for your chickens so they live happier, healthier lives and lay you baskets of fresh, delicious eggs

There's lots of information in this article, but I've also linked to various other articles on my blog at various spots in the text, so be sure to hover over them and click on anything you need more information about. 


The Beginne's Guide to Raising Backyard Chickens

Why raise chickens?

I assume if you're reading this, you are already playing with the idea of adding a few chickens to your backyard. And congrats to you! 

Chickens are funny, inquisitive, active beings that will provide not only a complete protein food source for you in the form of fresh eggs day in and day out, but also hours of entertainment and relaxation for the entire family - as well as teach children about responsibility and where their food comes from.

Chickens are small and therefore easier and less expensive to take care of than larger livestock - and also allowed in many more urban/suburban areas than say a cow or goat! 

Check the Regulations

Speaking of that... before we go any further, you'll need to check with your town or municipality to be sure you're allow chickens where you live. 

You'll want to find out (and preferably get in writing) if there's a limit to how many chickens you can have, whether you're allowed roosters (don't worry, you don't need a rooster for the chickens to lay eggs!), if you need a permit for your coop and if there are any restrictions as to how far from your property line your coop and run needs to be.

How Many Chickens Do I Need?

Once you know how many chickens you're allowed, you need to figure out how many you actually "need". A chicken lays an egg almost every day. Not every day, but the good layers come close. 

So divide that by the number of eggs your family eats in a week to figure out how many chickens you'll need (this is a great math problem for kids!)

Which Breeds Should I Get?

Next you'll need to figure out which breeds you might be interested in. Different breeds of chickens have different characteristics. 

Some are bred for production and lay lots of eggs, others lay pretty colored eggs, some chickens are good for dual purposes (meaning they lay eggs, but also would make a nice meal!), and others are bred for a calm temperament (these make good choices for families with kids). 

A good way to research different breeds is to take a look at some of the hatchery websites. They have photos of what the egg, chick and adult hen will look like as well as some basic information about the breed, i.e. whether it's a heat-tolerant or cold-hardy breed.

Generally any chicken will do okay in a moderate climate, and chickens are generally better in cool climates than warm, but unless you live in an extreme climate, just about any breed will do just fine with the proper shelter.


Should I Start with Baby Chicks?

I always recommend starting out with baby chicks

Not only are they adorable, but you'll end up with a much friendlier and healthier flock if you get them when they're just days old and know what they're eating and how they're being raised right from the start.

Most hatcheries and breeders offer "sexed" chicks, meaning you can order just females, but occasionally you might end up with a little rooster by accident, so just be aware of that if you live in an area where roosters aren't allowed.

I still do recommend starting with the baby chicks though. In over ten years, I think I've only ended up with an "oopsie" rooster maybe three times.

But for whatever reason, sometimes starting with chicks isn't possible or practical, so know that you can also get started pullets (which means chicks that are maybe 8 or 9 weeks old). 

One benefit of getting pullets is that you can be pretty sure you're getting the sex you want, because it's more obvious at that age. 

You also avoid the whole brooder or "nursery" in the house, since they can go outside into your coop right away.

Another option is POL hens (which means "point of lay", meaning they're about 18 weeks old and almost ready to start laying).  

Or of course you can take your chances and rescue hens or buy them at swaps or poultry shows as adults. I highly caution anyone doing this because the chance of ending up with a sick bird are very real.

Hatching fertile eggs is yet another option, but I recommend waiting on that until you have a few years of chicken keeping under your belt!  It's a bit more involved and honestly can be a bit stressful, but a wonderful experience if you do ever have the chance. Especially under a broody hen! 


Where Do Chickens Live?

Your chickens are going to need a place outside to live once they're full grown, or if you started with chickens, once they're able to be outside without supplemental heat at around 10-12 weeks old.

A chickens' home is called a coop or a hen house. You can purchase one pre-built, buy a coop kit, convert a shed or playhouse, or build your own coop from scratch using plans.

Whatever route you choose to go, you'll need to allow about 3-4 square feet of coop floor space for every chicken (and plan for the flock you eventually plan on having, it's much easier to build big the first time around than to try to add on). 
Chickens should be locked up at dusk each evening and not let out again until sunrise each morning. Most predators are out during dusk and dawn hours, so erring a bit on the side of caution is a good idea. 



Where Will my Chickens Sleep?

You'll need roosting bars in the coop for your chickens to sleep on. Wood works best - plastic can be slippery and metal will get too cold in the winter.  

A thick branch works well or a 2x4 board with the wide side facing up.  Roosts should start about 18" off the ground or so, and be laddered or staggered, so each hen can choose where she wants to sleep. You'll notice that your hens higher in the pecking order (yes, that really is a "thing"!) will roost up higher. 

You'll need something on the floor of the coop to provide a nice soft landing pad when the chickens hop off the roosts, and to absorb some of the manure. I use straw and love it for it's warmth in the winter for my chickens, plus it composts really well in the garden. But large pine shavings is another alternative.

You want to avoid using sawdust which is too dusty or cedar shavings which are thought to cause respiratory issues in poultry.

Sprinkling a drying agent on the coop floor will help to control ammonia fumes that come from the manure, as well as kill any mites or lice before they become an issue for your chickens. Diatomaceous earth is my choice - and this one with added essential oils smells absolutely heavenly! 

Cleaning the coop on a regular basis is important for optimal flock health. Bleach is a bad choice because if it mixes with the ammonia in the chicken manure, it can create toxic fumes. 

Instead, white vinegar is a better cleaning choice and adding some citrus oils and other aromatics makes a wonderful smelling all natural coop cleaner! 

Bedding needs to be removed and replaced any time you smell ammonia or it becomes wet and packed, and your coop needs good year-round ventilation up high near the eaves for adequate air flow.

In the warm months, a thin layer of bedding is fine, but when it's cold, your chickens will appreciate a bit thicker layer of bedding. In extremely cold climates using the deep litter method is an easy way to create some natural heat in your coop.

Adult, healthy chickens don't need heat in their coop. Not if you live in Maine like we do, not if you live in Alaska or Scandinavia.  And definitely not if you live somewhere it doesn't even get that cold.

Coop fires kill countless chickens and barns and even homes have been burnt down by heat lamps. Dry bedding, chickens and heat lamps are a bad combination, so resist the temptation to heat your coop. Chickens don't need heat.

If you do live in a colder climate, then a coop just big enough for your flock is recommended to give the chickens the best chance of keeping it warm with their body heat.

Feed and water should always be outside, not inside the coop. It just adds moisture to the air and attracts flies and rodents.


Where Will My Chickens Lay their Eggs?

Chickens like to lay their eggs in a nice, quiet, dark, secluded place. Nesting boxes can be made from wood, or you can re-purpose things like 5 gallon buckets or even kitty litter trays. You want the boxes to be about 12" square to allow space for just one chicken at a time. 

Chickens naturally all want to lay in the same box - usually at the same time! - so while the rule of thumb is one box for every 2-3 hens, you can likely get away with just a few boxes even for larger flocks. 

Soft bedding in the boxes is important so eggs don't break. You can line the floor of the boxes with an old yoga mat or piece of rubber, and then straw or shavings on top of that works well. I like using these aspen nesting pads because they hold their shape really well.

Sprinkling fresh or dried herbs in the boxes can help repel insects and keep your coop smelling fresh. I grow all kinds of herbs such as mint, rosemary, lavender and calendula that I love adding to my nesting boxes during the growing season.

Adding curtains to the front of your nesting boxes not only looks pretty, but can encourage broody hens (that is, chickens who want to sit on eggs to hatch them), discourage egg eating and encourage laying in general.

It's always best to collect eggs several times a day. This can prevent accidental breakage, frozen eggs in the winter and keep eggs cleaner.

Chickens naturally seek high ground to sleep to be safer from predators, so you'll want to be sure that your nesting boxes are lower than your roosting bars. 

Floor level is fine for the nesting boxes, or they can be raised a bit off the floor. If they're any higher than about 18" from the ground, you might need a ladder to help your chickens up into them.

Allow for at least 8 inches of roosting bar for each hen. More space is better so they can spread out in the warmer months and stay cool, and they'll snuggle close during the winter months.


The Chicken Yard

Chickens are exceptionally vulnerable to predators and no matter whether you live in an urban, suburban or rural area, there are things that want to eat your chickens. So you'll need to build a yard, or "run" for your chickens to spend their days in when you aren't home to watch them.  

Even if you have a fenced in yard, a completely enclosed run is safer because there are aerial threats to chickens like hawks, owls and eagles. And if something can fly into your run, then fox and raccoon can climb over the top to gain entrance as well.

Unlike a coop where bigger isn't always better, when it comes to the chicken run, bigger IS always better. Build the largest pen you can for your chickens, but it should never be smaller than a space that allows for ten square feet per chicken. But that's a bare minimum - more is better.

Chickens that don't have enough space can pick on each other and star to get aggressive and bored, leading to feather loss, egg eating and a host of other problems.

Although you'll likely have grass in your chicken run for a hot minute before adding your chickens, they'll scratch that down to dirt in the blink of an eye and that's okay. Chickens love to scratch in the dirt for worms, bugs and seeds. 

Dirt is fine. No need to add anything or even clean out the run. Sunshine and rain should keep your run fairly clean and dry.

Letting your chickens out for "supervised" free range time in the yard is always much appreciated by them. And as long as you stay outside with them, you mitigate the chances of loss from a predator. If you let your chickens out in the late afternoon, they'll automatically return to the coop and put themselves to bed at dusk, making rounding them up so much easier!

But keeping your chickens safe inside their run when you're indoors or no one is home is critical, and be sure to cover your run with some type of fencing to prevent aerial predators and also bury the fencing into the ground to prevent ground predators from digging their way in from underneath. 

And it helps to have a small area covered with a solid roof where you can set up your chickens' feed and water and a dust bath area.

Dust Bath

Chickens don't need water to stay clean. Instead they take dust baths. You can set up an area somewhere in their run for dust bathing, or more likely your chickens will choose a spot they prefer in your yard when they're out roaming around.

What Will my Chickens Eat?

Chickens' main diet needs to be a balanced poultry feed that's appropriate for their age. Basically there are three stages of growth: chick, grower and layer.

Chick feed: Hatch to 8 weeks
Grower feed: 9 weeks - 18 weeks
Layer feed: 19 weeks+

Chick feed is high protein for the fast-growing chicks and comes in a crumble form that's easy for the little ones to eat. Medicated chick feed is available and offers added protection to your chicks from coccidiosis which can be fatal while their immune systems have yet to fully develop. 

The choice to feed medicated feed is a personal one and not necessary. Organic chick feed is also available.

Grower feed is a bit lower in protein because the chicks aren't growing quite as fast any longer. 

Grower feed is available in crumble or pelleted form and both contain exactly the same nutrients, except for the size and shape. 

Some flocks seem to prefer crumble, others pellet, so you can experiment to see which works best for you.

Layer feed is similar in in protein levels to grower feed, but contains more calcium, which laying hens need to lay eggs with nice hard shells. Layer feed also comes in crumble or pellet, with organic and whole grain formulas also available.

Chickens won't overeat their feed, so you can leave it out for them all the time and let them pick at it when they get hungry. An adult chicken eats about 1/4lb. (approximately 1/2 cup) of feed a day.  You can supplement their diet with healthy treats, limiting the treats to about 10% of their diet.

Chickens also need two supplements: grit and calcium. These two supplements perform very different specific functions. 

Since chickens don't have teeth, they need something to help grind up the food they eat. That's where the grit comes into play. Grit is nothing more than small stones and rocks that the chickens eat and store in their crop or gizzard to help digest what they eat. 

Chickens that are allowed to free range at last some of the time will likely pick up enough pebbles as they wander around. Otherwise you'll have to provide commercial grit for them.

Chickens also need supplemental calcium to ensure strong eggshells.  Commercial oyster shell is one option; another is crushed eggshells. 

Which ever you choose to supplement your chickens' diet with, it should always be fed free-choice so each hen can eat as much or as little as she needs. Better layers will need more calcium, young non-layers or older hens and roosters won't need any.

Other natural supplements such as dried herbs, sea kelp, probiotics, brewers yeast and garlic can contribute to your flock's immune, digestive and respiratory health. My line of all natural poultry feed supplements are a great way to be sure your flock is getting all the nutrition they need.

Water

Chickens need access to fresh water all day long. It should be cool - chickens don't like to drink warm water. In the summer months, putting out several waterers or tubs of water in the shade is a good idea, especially if you're not home all day.

Adding a Tablespoon of apple cider vinegar to the water a few times a week helps balance the pH, prevent algae from forming in the water and improves digestive health for chickens.

A garlic clove crushed and added to the water on occasion will boost your chickens' immune system health.


When will my Chickens start Laying?

Chickens will start laying eggs somewhere around 5 months old. Switching to layer feed won't make them start laying! Each will start when she's ready. 

Some of the larger breeds and the colored egg layers can take longer to start laying eggs. While some hens might start laying as young as 16-18 weeks old.

Chickens lay an egg about every 26 hours, but no chicken lays every day. They take breaks here and there.
Fresh eggs shouldn't be washed until you're ready to use them. There is an invisible coating on the eggs that protects the egg from air and bacteria entering through the pores in the shell. Washing removes that coating. 

As long as eggs haven't been washed, they don't need to be refrigerated, but an egg will last seven times longer chilled in the fridge.

Chickens lay well for the first 2-3 years, and then you can expect egg production to drop off about 20% per year until the chicken approaches 5-6 years old and likely will stop laying. 


Seasons of Chicken Keeping

Spring 

Spring is the season when egg production should be at its peak. Some hens might go "broody" and want to sit and hatch chicks. 
They'll stop laying during this period,  but start up again once they have hatched and raised their chicks, or you break them of their broodiness.  Spring is also the season when most people get started with baby chicks.

Summer

Chickens don't handle heat very well at all, so watching for heat exhaustion, adding electrolytes to the water and providing lots of shade is important.  Summer treats that provide lots of hydration are a good idea.

Egg production might drop off a bit in extreme heat, but in general this should be a good production season. If you had baby chicks in the spring, now is the time when you'll be introducing them to the rest of your flock or getting them outside for the first time.

Fall 

Fall is molting season. This is the time of year when chickens drops their old feathers and grow in nice, new feathers in preparation for winter. Egg laying will likely drop off a bit as your chickens use all their energy to grow in new feathers. 

The complete molting process can take weeks or even months, depending on the chicken. Roosters molt too and are generally impotent while molting. A chickens' first molt will be around 18 months old. They won't molt that first fall.

Winter 

With new feathers, your chickens will be ready to face their first winter. As mentioned before, chickens don't need heat.  Scratch grains fed before bedtime will help to keep your flock warm overnight, as will other warming treats.

Your spring chicks will lay well their first winter, but following winters will likely slow way down or more likely stop laying all together. 

You can add supplemental light to your coop to force your chickens to lay through the winter, but I  don't recommend that and instead prefer to give my hens a break and let them start laying again naturally come spring.



Chickens, when well cared for and protected from predators, can live to be 10-12 years old, so be prepared for many years of caring for your hens long after their productive years are over.

However, backyard chickens provide many more "services" than just laying eggs. They also act as insect control, weed control, natural fertilizers and still make great moms to new baby chicks long after they stop laying eggs.

This is a very basic overview of what raising backyard chickens entails. For more details about any section, please click on the text links within that section to be directed to a more in-depth article or visit my Chicken Care Guide.


And pick up a copy of my first book Fresh Eggs Daily: Raising Happy, Healthy Chickens Naturally for all my best advice, tip and tricks to help you raise a healthy flock in YOUR backyard! Available from Amazon.com or wherever books are sold.
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All photos courtesy of Brianna Waltman | Breezy Photography


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