Backyard Chickens 101

Should I get backyard chickens?

If you’ve ever considered raising chickens for eggs or meat, you’re not alone. Bypassing the mega-farming industry and raising your own food is a growing trend in the US. This is a great thing for animals, people, and our planet.

I’m not a chicken expert. I wouldn’t even consider myself a “farmer”. But I have been raising chickens for both eggs and meat for the past 8 years. While raising chickens is fun and pretty easy, it’s still a commitment that requires careful thought and planning.

I’ve learned a few things that I’d like to share with you in this backyard chicken Q/A before you take the plunge into becoming a chicken-mom.

There’s nothing like hanging out on the porch on a quiet summer morning with a cup of coffee and “the girls”.

Can I even have chickens?

If you don’t live in a rural area, you’ll need to check with your local health and zoning boards to see if you can raise chickens. Some cities and housing associations have rules about the size of your flock, whether or not you can have roosters, the type of coop you erect, or the amount of acreage you need per animal. Don’t make the mistake of buying your chickens only to find out you can’t have them! Check first!

Will I save money on eggs/meat?

No. Unless you have a large operation and are raising lots of birds to sell eggs and meat, you will probably lose money. To raise chickens, you’ll need to invest in a coop ($300-500), feed ($15+ per 50lb bag), and the chickens themselves ($1-10 per bird). Factor those expenses, plus the time you’ll spend caring for them, and you will need to eat a lot of eggs to make up the cost! BUT, if your values include your health, the ethical treatment of animals, and the health of the planet, it’s well worth it…and it’s fun!

It’s wonderful to get fresh eggs from your own chickens…but you will not save money!

Is it a good project for kids?

Ha ha. Maybe. For older children with a responsible nature (LOL), it can be an excellent project and they’ll learn to love their birds. My daughter loves her chickens more than any other animal we own! But, like most pets in most households…mom usually ends up doing the dirty work.

Free range or fenced?

There are pros and cons to both. We free range our hens because we live on 35 acres. Free range hens have access to grass, bugs, and more natural food sources. During the warm months you need to feed them less and the eggs are higher in nutrients like Omega 3 fatty acids. Plus, I think free range hens are happier. On the con side, they destroy garden beds and flowers, poop everywhere, might visit (and crap all over) your neighbor’s yard, and they are easily picked off by predators like hawks, coyotes, raccoons, and foxes. Even if you choose to free range your birds, you’ll still need a secure coop they can go into at night.

If you choose to keep your birds penned, you won’t have as many issues with predators and poop on the porch. But the downsides of keeping chickens penned are that they have less access to natural food sources, they get bored and may fight with each other more often, and if you don’t clean the coop very regularly it will smell terrible.

The coop has to be secure to protect the birds from predators, and cleaned often so that it doesn’t smell to high heaven.

What do I need to get started?

You’ll need a solid coop that can shelter the birds from weather and predators. My rule of thumb is to buy or build double the size of what you think you’ll need. So, for example, if you plan to house 3 hens, buy a coop that holds 6 to 8 chickens. Ideally the coop will also have both an indoor space with perches and boxes, and an outdoor “run” so they can get some sunshine. You’ll also need chicken waterer and feed bowls, chick/chicken feed, and bedding such as hay/straw, sawdust, sand, or pine shavings.

What about winter-time?

It depends on the breed, but most of the chickens for sale in Ohio will be cold-tolerant. You don’t need to worry much about them unless the temperatures dip into the negative digits for extended periods of time. If that happens, we put a heat lamp inside the coop for them.

Many breeds of chicken are very cold-tolerant.

Should I start with eggs, chicks, or pullets?

You can purchase fertilized eggs, day-old chicks, or pullets. I’ve never personally bought pullets, which are fully grown hens that haven’t quite begun to lay eggs. They have a higher survival rate, and because they’re older, they’ll start laying eggs sooner. They are also more expensive. We started with chicks and have had good success with minimal losses. After about two years of buying chicks, we felt brave enough to attempt hatching eggs. I bought a small incubator for the job. Hatching eggs was super fun, but only about half of our eggs made it to term and hatched healthy chicks. Most people buy day-old chicks, so that is probably the best place to start.

Where can I buy chickens?

Your local farm and feed store will carry them during certain times of the year – usually around Easter time. You can also order them year round from hatcheries. Our favorite and locally owned place to order chicks is Meyer Hatchery, located in Polk, Ohio. You can buy specialty varieties and the folks working there are super helpful! Meyer Hatchery will ship chicks directly to you, or you can pick them up in their store.

What breed of chicken should I get?

This is largely personal preference. There are at least 140 breeds of chickens. Living in Ohio, you want to be sure you get a cold-hardy breed. We’ve owned several breeds including Rhode Island Red, Easter Egger, Black Brahma, Buff Orpington, White Leghorns, and few specialty varieties. Easter Eggers are hands down our favorite breed! They’re friendly (if handled well), cold-tolerant, great layers, and they lay colored eggs!

We love Easter egger chickens. They’re friendly and they lay colored eggs!

Roosters, hens, or mixed?

First off, it’s a myth that you need a rooster for the hens to lay eggs. The hens will lay eggs regardless of the presence of a rooster. You only need a rooster if you wish to hatch your own eggs from your own hens. Our experience with roosters has not been good. We’ve had to “dispose” of every one we’ve ever owned because they become extremely aggressive. You might not think an 8-pound chicken would be scary. Call me back when he’s chasing and attacking you, your dog, your child, and your dinner guests. If you are a first-time chicken owner, I would advise that you pay the extra for the “sexed” chicks so that you are sure to get only hens.

Do chickens smell? Are they dirty?

Yes, they smell. The birds themselves aren’t stinky, but what comes out of the back end certainly is. And they poop a lot. Cleaning the coop one to two times per week is essential if you don’t want your neighbors to complain. If you plan to free range your chickens, you’ll need to clean the coop less, but plan to have poop everywhere else. Our chickens poop in our barn, on the driveway, all over the yard, and on our porches.

If handled properly from a young age, chickens can be very friendly and like to hang out with humans.

Are chickens friendly?

Chickens aren’t affectionate like dogs or cats, but if handled properly from a young age, they become quite habituated to humans. I was shocked at how friendly they can be and how much “personality” each chicken has!

Can I leave my chickens when I vacation in the Outer Banks for a week?

No. They need to be let out of the indoor part of the coop every morning, they need fresh water and feed daily, and they need to be locked back up at night. You will need to hire someone to come at least twice a day while you are out of town.

How much do chickens eat?

For us, that depends greatly on time of year because we free range our flock. During the warm months – or pretty much whenever the ground isn’t covered by snow – they’ll go out and eat grass and bugs all day. In the winter when the birds are using a lot of energy to stay warm or there’s no grass, they need to eat a lot more. Our 12 hens will go through about one 50-pound bag of feed per month in the summer, but might go through three bags per month in the winter. Keep in mind that if you don’t free range your hens, they’ll be completely dependent on commercial feed for nutrition, so you’ll likely end up purchasing more.

Chickens will also eat table scraps (but don’t give them too many). We feed them leftover meat, bread, and wilting lettuce. It’s a pretty convenient way to reduce food waste! For a list of things chickens should not eat, check out this post.

The first time you get an egg is so exciting!

How soon will my hens start laying eggs?

If you are raising them from day-old chicks, it will take 6 to 8 months before they lay their first egg. If you get pullets, you’ll probably get eggs within a month or two of purchase.

How many eggs will my chickens lay?

It depends on the variety of chicken, but most breeds lay one egg per day during peak season. That means if you have two chickens, you’ll get about a baker’s dozen eggs per week. Keep in mind that this isn’t year-round. Most chickens go through at least one period per year where they stop laying eggs for several weeks to months. The shortest days of winter and/or during their yearly molt, they typically stop laying. Certain “stress events” can also cause a chicken to stop laying eggs. Extreme cold or a predator entering the coop can cause chickens to quit laying for a time.

Need a great recipe that uses up eggs? Try my Sunday morning frittata recipe!

During peak laying season, you’ll get about one egg per day, per chicken.

How long will chickens lay eggs?

Most chickens have an egg-laying lifespan of 2 to 3 years, though occasionally you’ll get one that lays longer. Once a hen is “spent”, she may still lay eggs, but it will be sporadic. Some will quit laying eggs entirely.

How long do chickens live?

Here’s the biggest obstacle to owning chickens for eggs: a hen’s egg-laying lifespan is 2 to 3 years, but her actual lifespan can be up to 10 years! This leaves many backyard chicken folks in a tough position: what to do with “spent” hens? To get more eggs, you need to raise new hens. But most people are short on coop space. You can’t accumulate chickens in your 8-hen coop forever!

What about those “spent” chickens?

I love chickens. I think everyone who has an inkling to own them, should. But if you aren’t prepared to do the right thing when their useful lifespan is gone, then don’t get them. I despise seeing the words “free chickens to a good home” plastered across the local newspaper or in a Facebook group. No one wants your spent hens or your mean rooster!

You absolutely need to plan in advance for what you will do with your spent hens or an aggressive rooster! You have a few options here. You can send them to a processor and use them as stewing chickens for soups and stocks (this is what we do with ours), or you can keep your spent hens as forever pets. But please, please, please don’t buy chickens with a plan of trying to give them away when they’re no longer useful to you!

My kiddo’s favorite farm animals are hands down her chickens!

Keeping backyard chickens is fun, but it’s also a responsibility

There’s a lot to consider when taking on backyard chickens. For us it’s been a worthwhile adventure for the joy of seeing the birds happy and thriving, and being able to walk out the back door to collect fresh eggs for breakfast!

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Kelly Bailey
Kelly is wife to one wonderful (and lucky) husband, mom to an audacious and strong-willed 8 year old girl, and fur-mom to 15 chickens, four cats, two ponies, two ducks, and one dog. She enjoys outdoor pursuits including hiking, camping, kayaking, and fishing. Kelly is a certified personal trainer and certified holistic nutrition coach, and she owns and operates Kelly Bailey Wellness. Her passion is helping women find true happiness with their bodies and in their lives through a multi-faceted approach that integrates intuitive eating principles, nutritious foods, movement, sleep, and smart supplementation. You can read her blog and reach out to her at kellybailey.fit.
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