How to Raise Backyard Chickens
Plus, the rule of thumb to keep in mind when building a coop.
Rooster crows startled me from my sleep the first few nights after I moved into my house. To this day, I am still not sure which of my neighbors has a rooster, but I suspect it's the ones further down the block with a fenced-in side yard. The sounds of that rooster have become commonplace now. Another neighbor who lives one block over sells fresh eggs from their farm, also a small side yard. A sign in front of their house says that they sell corn, tomatoes, potatoes, and a few other small vegetables as well. No, I don't live in a rural area. I actually live in the city. Houses are fairly close together, and apartment buildings are found on almost every corner of every four-block area.
Urban farms are not a new concept. We're seeing more of them as laws change to accommodate farmers who live in cities and want to work their magic in small land plots. Community farming has also become popular in my city, where unused city land is being offered to community-supported farming groups. You may be able to raise backyard chickens in your own neighborhood, too. If you're interested, here's what you need to know.
Check Local Laws
Before you entertain the idea of raising backyard chickens, be sure to check your local zoning rules and regulations. Some communities won't permit you to have chickens, while others will put limits on how many you can have and how close they can live to the house. "I have countless people contact me on what to do with their chickens because they have to remove them when they first should have checked their local laws," says Claire Woods from The Happy Chicken Coop. She has raised many backyard chickens (anywhere from five to 50 at a time) and absolutely loves the work she invests in these animals. "I have had so many different experiences with chickens, some sad, most wonderful. The most important thing to remember is, don't ever give up. Get educated, apply what you have learned, love them, and you will succeed. I would not trade it for anything."
Give Them Enough Space
Cramming chickens into a small corner of the backyard won't result in happy animals. "Give them their proper space. This is another big issue," Woods says. "People are just not giving their chickens the necessary square footage of living space and it causes health, social, and sanitation issues in their flock. The minimum rule of thumb is three square feet per chicken."
"If you are going to build a chicken coop, size it with an assumption you will have 25 percent more chickens than you do today," Woods explains. "I honestly believe half of the chicken owners I have met have had to rebuild, modify, or purchase a larger chicken coop. Start a little bit larger and save a headache in the long run." Cost wise, expect to make about a $500 investment as you'll need a predator-proof coop, special feeding containers, wire mesh for the run, and chickens.
Have the Essentials
In addition to having enough room for the chickens, you also need to have the essentials for their care. (And you definitely want to find a veterinarian in your area who can help you with things like vaccinations and regular health checks.) "Raising chickens, like any other animal, has its requirements," Woods emphasizes. "There are essential questions you need to ask yourself before making a final decision in raising chickens: Why are you going to raise chickens? Food or fun? Where will you put your chickens? They have space requirements. Who will take care of them if you are not home for several days? Will you spend time with them? They will need to know who you are frequently so you can perform proper health checks on them. Will your neighbors have issues with chickens? Good neighbors affect your quality of life."
Know how to feed your chickens, what to look for when it comes to injuries and illness and what they need for comfort and warmth. Baby chicks have special heating requirements and need specialized feeders and waterers, which are designed to limit waste and stay clean. Hens also need nesting boxes where they'll lay their eggs, and a secure coop and run. For bedding, pine shavings are the healthiest option. When it comes to food, manufacturers have formulated "complete" feeds that contain all the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients your chickens will need. Living in their own housing, by no means should you neglect them: Chickens benefit from regular attention from their caretakers. Dr. Lori Marino published research on the cognitive and emotional abilities of chickens, and it has been observed that chickens possess self-awareness, mathematical abilities, and emotional empathy.
Put Away Unsafe Materials
Chickens like to eat, and Woods says that they will eat practically anything, including what could harm them. "Be sure to put away potential poisons such as automotive fluids, fertilizers, and rodent poison in a safe, stowed-away location. Also, the wrong kitchen scraps will harm your chickens," she says. "Chickens do not need salt or refined sugars, keep that in mind when feeding them scraps from the dinner table."
Above all? Two words of encouragement: "Be patient," Woods says. "It can take up to six months for your hens to lay eggs, they can make a mess, they can get sick. Get educated, go through the process, and you will never look back. I promise!" You also don't need to have a rooster in order to get your hens to lay eggs. Chickens begin to lay eggs when they are between 20 and 24 weeks old. A hen will lay an egg every day whether or not a male is around; on average, they lay about five eggs a week. If the hen sits on her egg, it will take 21 days after fertilization for the egg to hatch. It is important to collect eggs often, otherwise hens will continue sitting on the eggs and stop laying them, which is a phenomenon known as "going broody." Check on your chickens and watch for signs of illness as well. Woods says that ignoring a chicken's health could mean that an illness spreads to the whole flock.
Keeping chickens as pets is fun and easy, and the benefits are far-reaching. A backyard of chickens helps reduce your impact on the environment, as you cut out the need for pesticides and fertilizers in your garden. And savvy home cooks know that the most flavorful and nutritious eggs are from chickens grown in home-built coops.