For the past six years, my family and I have owned a few backyard chickens, and by a few, I mean anywhere from 6 to over 100. We primarily keep them because we eat a lot of eggs; however we have also raised and butchered some for meat. If you have considered having your own flock, what follows is some of the do’s, don’ts, and lessons learned from my personal experience. And as it isn’t intended to be a comprehensive guide to keeping chickens, I have included a number of links to excellent sites that have been helpful to me. For example, a great resource for all things related to chickens can be found at Mother Earth News.
What breed of chicken is best?
If your goal is egg production, I would suggest one of the following heritage breeds: Rhode Island Reds, Leghorns, Barred Rocks, and Plymouth Rocks to name a few. If you want to raise a few chickens for meat, I highly recommend Freedom Rangers from J.M. Hatchery. This breed gains weight quickly and are good foragers (unlike commercial breeds). Don’t make the mistake I made and raise chickens that are supposedly “dual purpose breeds.” These chickens don’t lay eggs well, take forever to gain weight, and aren’t very good foragers.
Should I start with chicks or full grown chickens?
Raising baby chicks can be a wonderful experience, especially if you have kids; however chicks require a totally different type of shelter vs. grown chickens. Baby chicks will need a heat source and protection from a wider range of predators. If you decide to purchase baby chicks, you can order them from hatcheries that will ship them via mail, or you may be able to purchase them from your local animal feed store. Some hatcheries with good reputations include: McMurray, Mt. Healthy, and Welp.
With respect to full grown hens or hens that are nearly ready to begin laying, I have had good luck in purchasing them on craigslist. However I would recommend against buying chickens from multiple sources as the likelihood of introducing disease drastically increases.
Do I need a rooster?
In general the answer is no unless you want or need fertilized eggs. However, if you have more than a handful of hens, a rooster is incredibly important to the social structure of the flock. I have heard (not verified) that sometimes when a flock does not have a rooster, one of the hens will try and establish herself in that role.
For some of you that live in town, or in close proximity to neighbors, keeping a noisy rooster may not be an option. And their noisiness isn’t confined to daylight hours – during our first ever family campout in our backyard, we found out that our roosters like to start crowing around 3am.
Lastly, sometimes roosters can be less than friendly. Of the two that we own, one is very laid back and the other waits patiently for me to turn my back so he can jump into the air and try and scratch me. My feed bucket has served as a defensive weapon on many occasions.
What do chickens eat?
First and foremost, chickens are NOT VEGETARIANS. If you give them access to the outdoors, they will eat as many bugs, worms, fly larva, etc. as they can find. And they will eat quite a bit of green grass as well. In a well-managed pasture, I would estimate that chickens can forage for 30% or more of their diet. For the remainder, I feed my chickens a pelletized mixed grain ration from my local feed store. If it is important to you to avoid feeding your soy to your chickens, it is possible; however the feed is substantially more expensive. In addition, the primary protein source will likely be from fish meal which can impart a less than desirable flavor to the eggs.
How should I house my chickens?
I am extremely partial to keeping chickens outdoors in a movable coop, sheltered from the worst weather and protected from predators. Here is a picture of my setup:
It is approximately 8 feet square at the base with two 16 feet long “cattle panels” providing the structure for the roof. Cattle panels are made from heavy gauge wire and are available at most livestock feed stores. This shell is covered with chicken wire and a tarp. Cost to build is about $150-$200 and it will house up to 30 full grown chickens.
Keep in mind that this is where the chickens are at night. During the day they are allowed to range away from the coop and are protected by an electric netted fence. You can find this fencing at Premier1.
How long do chickens produce eggs?
During the year, my chickens typically produce eggs for about 10 months with a break during December and January. This break is somewhat due to the cold weather but much more as a result of the short days. Commercial egg producers keep lights on so the chickens keep right on laying; however this is a horrible practice as it prevents the hens from recharging their bodies.
Chickens can lay eggs for many years, but their production drops after about 2 seasons of laying. When I first started keeping chickens, I bought a few 2 year old hens from a farmer friend who was replacing his flock, and they did well for me for two more seasons.
If you have additional questions, I am happy to try to answer them in the comments below.