Have you finally decided to take the plunge into raising backyard chickens? A flock of hens can remind anyone of a simpler time – one where people got up early, leisurely tossed grain down to their birds, collected a basket of perfect eggs, and then cooked up a nice BIG omelet. YUM! Sounds ideal, right? Are you already hitching up your overalls and pulling on your mud boots?
Backyard chickens can be an amazing addition to any family and the eggs they lay can make the ones from the grocery store taste bland and boring. When you crack open your first home-grown egg and see the rich, vivid orange of the yolk and taste how almost buttery it is, all of the prep work will be worth it.
I’ve been raising chickens on a small farm for countless years, which is a huge jump from my background in commercial poultry production. It is a wonderful way to become grounded and a great way to support better conditions for egg-laying birds. The life of a backyard chicken is so much more wonderful than the life of a battery-cage hen in a warehouse.
So, for all of you newcomers (or even those of you who have had chickens in the past and are revamping your setup) I put together my five most important tips!
#1: Keep It Simple, Take It Slow
It can be almost too exciting when you go out to get your first chickens, but beginners (or the casual keeper) should strive for simplicity. Don’t rush into it, because the mishmash you may create can take the fun out of poultry keeping. Quite a few people have impulse-bought some chicks at the feed store, but then later realized they were strictly meat birds, would not lay many eggs, and would die young. Don’t make those kinds of mistakes!
Building your own coop is a great way to customize your setup, but you need to plan for the extra time and money. A store-bought coop can be an excellent choice, because after you factor in the building time, waste of supplies, and new tools that you’ll probably need, a homemade one could end up being more expensive.
Do your research well in advance of bringing home your first birds. If you have a brooder full of chicks and nowhere to put them, you might end up rushing things or cutting corners. A well-thought-out setup will be easy to clean and the inhabitants will be easy to care for.
Do your homework and plan on having a coop and run that are the appropriate size for the number of birds you want. Make sure the coop is easy to access and clean, is not in a low point of your property where water collects, and is close enough that you won’t dread making the trip in inclement weather.
#2: Stay Dry
Many people don’t take this into consideration, but I feel that it’s one of the most important factors for poultry success. When you raise chickens in your backyard, they will be close to something – like your house, garden, or deck. Chicken coops and runs can get smelly and that smell can travel! You don’t want a bunch of angry neighbors if you live in a more urban area. Also, no one wants to go sit out in the yard in the evening with the smell of chicken poop wafting over them.
One of the best ways to keep the smell down is to keep it dry! If the rain saturates the run and mixes with spilled feed and feces, the smell will be horrendous. The odor of a dry run will be a lot more manageable.
Clean chickens are also healthy chickens. The chance of disease or parasites is greatly diminished by keeping their home neat and tidy. Collect eggs at least once a day to avoid hens accidentally breaking eggs or worse – a rotten egg explosion. They really do explode and it’s worse than you think.
The coop should have decent ventilation to stay cool and dry, so make sure the one you buy or make takes this into consideration.
If you live in the city, you may feel like you are exempt from worrying about predators. Unfortunately, animals like raccoons, opossums, dogs, cats, and hawks are all present and would like to make a snack out of your birds.
You might skirt by for a while without any losses, but once the local wildlife learns they can get your chickens they’ll keep coming back. Plan on having a secure coop and cover all windows and vents with hardware cloth.
Make sure the doors and nest boxes can be latched and locked well enough to keep devious little raccoon hands at bay. You should also be prepared to spray the coops for wasps seasonally and make sure there are no holes larger than ½”, otherwise you might find some snakes hanging out.
Runs should also have security that extends below the ground. Some animals will dig under fences to get to the other side, but buried hardware cloth or concrete foundation can stop them in their tracks. If you’re not into making serious trenches in your yard you can run hardware cloth from the run out about a foot to discourage diggers.
Chickens should return to the coop at night and it should be tightly locked. A majority of predators come out at night, and by tucking everyone in you can avoid losses.
#4: Find YOUR Ideal Breed
Don’t pick chickens based only on looks! If you have a family with small children you should find a larger, calm breed with a gentle disposition. Some breeds or lines within breeds can be flighty, neurotic, or aggressive, which can ruin the appeal of even having backyard chickens.
You should also take your climate and space into consideration. Some breeds are prone to frost bite or can’t tolerate high heat levels. Some need a lot of room to be happy, while others are perfectly content to stay in a run.
Most people with backyard chickens want eggs, so make sure the breed you pick lays enough eggs of the correct size. Some fancier, novelty breeds lay small eggs or lay very few eggs, so they would not be a good choice.
#5: Stick to Pullets
Most chicks (and all hatching eggs) are sold straight run, which means you end up with roughly 50% hens and 50% roosters in the end. With small numbers of birds this can quickly become skewed in the worst possible ways. I’ve gotten 90-100% cockerels from small groups of hatching eggs or straight run chicks. Once I ordered 15 chicks and 10 ended up being male! If you are starting off, make sure you read our guide on raising chicks to get your feet wet.
Roosters have more potential to be aggressive and can do quite a bit of damage. Most urban areas also ban roosters, because they crow. They don’t just crow in the morning, either. Hens do not need a rooster to lay eggs and they would prefer not to have one if he’s a jerk.
If you buy all pullets (either sexed chicks or older birds) you don’t have to worry about a rooster attacking your kids or relentlessly chasing the hens. You also don’t have to worry about what you’re going to do with all those extra boys!
Good luck and I hope you enjoy raising backyard chickens!