Do you love the idea of being able to collect fresh eggs each morning?
Or do you love the thought of waking up to hens cackling and a rooster crowing? Makes you feel like you are really living the country life, huh?
Well, if any of this sounds like a dream come true to you, then you’ll want to tune into this complete guide to raising backyard chickens.
Hopefully by the time you reach the end, you’ll feel fully confident and ready to go buy your first set of hens. (Maybe a rooster too!)
Here is how you raise a flock of backyard chickens:
Do You Have What It Takes?
Before heading out on the journey of raising backyard chickens, there are two reality check questions you need to ask yourself:
- Are you allowed to raise chickens in your area?
- Do you have what it takes to raise chickens in your backyard?
There are many things to consider before you buy your first chickens. Is it legal? Do you have enough space, time, access to clean water, and, most importantly, the willingness to keep your chickens happy and healthy.
In the first chapter, we talk all about the requirements for keeping backyard chickens.
Choosing the Breeds
Before you begin to admire different breeds of chickens, relax and think:
What’s your primary objective of keeping chickens? What do you want from them? Besides raising them as your favorite pets, there are some benefits you want from these birds.
Eggs and meat.
Before we begin to the second chapter, take a look and familiarize yourself with some of the most popular chicken breeds for eggs and meat.
1. White Leghorn
White Leghorns are great layers. They usually produce around 280 eggs per year.
These birds can be a little energetic. If you are looking for a more docile breed, then this may not be the best fit as they scare easily and can be a little flighty when surprised.
2. Rhode Island Red
Rhode Island Reds lay around 260 eggs per year, slightly below White Leghorn.
They have a rather sassy temper, especially the roosters, so they can be a little more difficult to handle if you are new to raising chickens.
3. Golden Comet
Golden Comet is a very friendly bird that can lay anywhere from 250 eggs to 300 per year. That is a lot of eggs, depending on how you raise them.
Also, because of its gentle temperament, this might be a good breed to start with if you are a beginner at raising chickens.
1. Cornish Cross
The Cornish Cross, also known as Broiler, is a fast growing bird. The females average around 8 pounds per bird and the males average around 12 pounds per bird.
Plus, they are ready to be harvested at around 4-6 weeks so they don’t require a ton of investment in food or time.
2. Jersey Giant
The females of Jersey Giant average around 10 pounds per bird while the males average around 13 pound per bird.
However, these birds do require a little extra time since they can’t be harvested until around 20 weeks. Though, they grow to be quite large so the time may be worth your investment.
Bresse is a more expensive meat breed, but once you have your breeding pair, you are set. They cost so much because they are known for being extremely tender.
Bresse meat can be harvested around 7 pounds of meat per bird in an average of 16-20 weeks.
Dual Purpose Breeds:
1. The Black Australorp
Black Australorp is a large bird that is known for laying around an egg per day in the right condition. They have a friendly temperament while also be very aware of what is going on around the flock.
If you’d like to eat the bird after its laying years, depending upon the sex of the bird, it should produce a 5 to 8 pound bird.
2. The Speckled Sussex
Another chicken breed that is known for laying regularly under the right condition. Speckled Sussex known for having roosters that are very protective of the flock, which can be good or bad.
Once these birds are done laying, you should be able to have a 7-9 pound bird for dinner depending on the sex.
3. Rhode Island Red
You may remember Rhode Island Red from the list of egg breeds. That's just how good they are. You can get 6-8 pounds of meat from this breed when they're done laying.
Okay, so those are eight of the most popular breeds.
You may have noticed two things mentioned repeatedly from the list above: productivity (of egg or meat) and temperament. Choosing a breed based on its temperament is obvious — we want a breed that gives us the most eggs or meat — but what about temperament?
Choosing based on temperament is important if you have other livestock, pets, or kids in your property. Some breeds like Rhode Island Red is highly productive, but their temperament may throw some people off.
There are more to learn about choosing breeds based on productivity, temperament, and their behavior. So here's the complete chapter on choosing the right breeds for you.
Note that chicken temperament is mainly generalization, it serves as a starting point in choosing breed. Just like human and other animals, temperament is an individual trait. So you will most likely find friendly or unfriendly chickens even if they're the same breed.
Prepare the Housing
The third thing you’ll need to know about raising chickens is where they should sleep. If you’ve been looking at how other people keep chickens, then you know that there are so many different options to house your chickens.
In this chapter we talk all about different type of housing for chickens, which one is right for you, and how to prepare your backyard for their house.
First, let's talk the basic:
1. Chickens need adequate space
One chicken needs about 3-4 square feet per chicken.
Keep in mind, the more space they have the happier your birds will be, and the cleaner the coop will stay. Plus, you have less chance of disease spreading among your flock because they won’t be living in cramped spaces with other birds.
2. Your birds need roosts
Chickens don’t sleep on the ground. They like to roost on bars. Therefore your coop will need to have roosting bars.
Roosts don’t have to be anything fancy. You can hang branches in your coop horizontally so the birds have a place to perch and wrap their feet around. You can also use other types of rounded wood.
But you do want to make sure that the roosts are rounded so it is easier for the chickens to wrap their feet around them.
Also, make sure that each bird has about 8 inches of perch space per bird. Also make sure that they are not anywhere near the feeders or waterers.
Plus, be sure that you do not stack the roosts vertically above each other. No bird should be above another bird, because a sleeping chicken is a pooping chicken.
3. They need a place to lay
Nesting box is where your hens will go each morning to lay their eggs. Make sure to place them inside your chicken house.
It's recommended to have at least one nesting box for every three chickens. However, know that your chickens will most likely to have a favorite box, and others will fight over it. If possible, provide more boxes, unless space is premium.
4. It must be secure
Security is the number one focus of your coop. Your hens are animals that lots of other animals like to prey on.
Make sure there are no holes in your coop, use lots of chicken wire, and choose latches that no toddler could figure out. If a toddler can’t open your coop, then a raccoon can’t either.
Also consider flooring in your coop. If you don't have an actual floor in your coop, embedding chicken wire into the ground is a good idea so that if an animal tried to dig in, it would dig into the chicken wire and would stop digging.
And that's it for the basic.
Now let's see more in-depth about chicken housing options and how to build a proper housing if you choose to build it by yourself (it's still a good thing to know even if you purchase a pre-made coop).
Feeding Your Chickens
Chickens are not finicky animals. They will eat just about anything.
The simplest way to feed your chickens is the full-feeding method. Hang a feeder in the coop, fill the feeder full, and fill it up as needed from that point on. Your chickens should be able to access the food whenever they need it.
Now you might think keeping the feeder full at all time is wasteful, but there are reasons why this is the best option.
First, in general, chickens won't overeat.
Second, chickens can be quite smart biologically when it comes to food management. If they see an empty feeder, the hens will think there is a food shortage. As a result, they stop laying eggs. That's not good.
In contrary, if they see plenty of food, they will have no worries and lay continually.
Different breeds eat different amount of food. Seasons also affect how much they eat. A good rule of thumb is to provide one full bucket of feeder for every three chickens you have then figure out whether you need more or less as you go.
If you want a more specific answer, one adult laying chicken eats roughly 1.5 lbs of feed per week and drink 0.5 liters of water per day.
What you choose to fill that feeder with is totally up to you. You can use store bought scratch grains, cracked corn, layer feed, or you can go a more organic route such as raising your own fodder, feed chickens table scraps, mealworms, or these other inexpensive chicken feeds. You may also want to try these alternatives to layer feed as well.
While it is quite easy to feed chickens, it's important to also know about their nutritional and supplemental needs.
In this chapter, we covered everything you need to know about feeding your chickens from their digestive system, digestive problems that may arise, different types of feed, treats, and supplements, how to make homemade feeds to cut costs, dangerous foods to avoid, and more.
Should You Free-Range?
Now that you know about housing and feeding, let's step back and talk about free-ranging your chickens for a moment.
The pros to raising free-range chickens is amazing, but it also comes with huge cons.
First-time chicken owners like to leave their chickens outside when they got lazy with the routines and figured their birds look just fine the next day. In reality, leaving your chickens outside all the time can potentially be harmful for you and also your neighbors.
Free-ranging should be done with a deep planning and not out of laziness.
So, here are a few things to consider about raising your chickens free-range.
Pros to free-ranging your flock:
- They require less food.
- When chickens free range they are able to search for their own food. They naturally peck and scratch which helps them locate bugs to eat.
- In turn, this means that they eat less of your store-bought or homegrown food because they are able to forage for their own.
- They don’t need as much coop space. When you allow your birds to free range, they spend most of their time out and about foraging for food. Nothing makes a chicken happier than foraging. So they don’t need as much coop space because they will only hang out in it when the weather is bad or when they are sleeping.
- Their coop requires less maintenance. Obviously, if your birds only go to the coop to sleep, they don’t make as much mess as they would if they were in the coop full-time. So it means that you shouldn’t have to clean it as often. This is good news for the busy farmer because the less frequently you have to do chores, the easier it makes it on you.
Cons to free-ranging your flock:
- They are at a higher risk for predators.
Chickens are easy prey. When they are out of the safety of their own coop, it is game on for predators.
You will lose chickens to predators if you allow them to free-range, even if you don't see any predator around you. It is just part of the risk you take when you let them live beyond the wire.
Be advised that by free-ranging your chickens, you are not risking your chickens only. Once these predators realize there are free food in your area, you are also exposing yourself, family, and neighbors. Especially to the bigger predators.
- They get into things.
Chickens are usually pretty good about knowing their boundaries, but if your garden or flower bed is within their boundary, it is fair game. They will scratch in your garden hunting for bugs. It is what chickens do after all.
- They lay everywhere.
If the main reason you free-range is out of laziness, think again. Letting your flock be everywhere also means they lay eggs everywhere. Which makes it difficult to find their eggs because they could be on the ground or in a bush. Every day is an egg hunt.
The mid-ground, safer alternatives to free-ranging your flock:
- Building a chicken run.
If you want to give your chickens room to roam outside but also keep them safe, an alternative could be a run. This is just a strip of fencing that may have a top over it or it may not.
But this allows them to get out of the coop, scratch around, and also get sunlight while still hanging out in a protected area.
- Building a chicken yard.
You could also build a chicken yard. This is a fenced in yard (that is usually larger than a run) that gives the chickens room to get outside, scratch, peck, dust, and do anything else outdoors they wish while still being contained in a larger fenced area.
So as you can tell, free ranging is a decision that will vary between chicken owners. You just have to do what is best for you and your specific situation.
How to Keep Your Chickens Healthy
You have three big challenges when it comes to chicken's health:
Diseases, pests, and predators.
Do realize that they will always be a part of raising chickens. You will meet them along the way, and some of your chickens may not be survive. However, it's not a reason not to do anything about it.
Other than the big three, there are other problems to keeping your chickens (and you) happy such as behavioral problems like pecking order and fighting birds, molting, and noise complaints from the neighbors.
In this chapter we discuss everything about chicken health management from keeping predators away, common chicken diseases and pests, first-aid, and more.
How to Keep a Clean Coop
Helping your chickens to have a clean area to live is one of the best things you can do for them to keep them healthy.
You need to clean their chicken coop out at least about once a week or so and change the nesting material daily. Here's everything you need to do:
1. Clean the floor
Begin by cleaning out all materials from the floor. If you have a dirt floor in your coop, then you might want to try the deep litter method.
If you use an actual floor in your coop, you’ll want to come through with a pitchfork and toss all of the material into a wheel barrel.
Then you can use it in your compost pile.
2. Refresh nesting material
You might want to do this step daily or every other day because your hens won't lay in a dirty nesting box.
3. Clean the feeder and waterer
Next, empty the feeder and waterer. Wash them out with a water hose and allow them to dry.
Be careful using any kind of cleaner in your coop as it can upset your chicken’s sensitive respiratory system. If you feel like you need to scrub the waterers or feeders, use vinegar. It is natural and wont’ harm them.
4. Clean the roosts
Then, go along the roosts with a garden hoe to knock off any poop. If you feel they need a solid scrubbing, use vinegar and water.
Be sure to wear gloves if you are handling chicken poop. You don’t want to get sick while trying to keep them healthy.
5. Empty the run
Finally, if you have a run area, open the door and empty it as well. Then you’ll need to add fresh material to the run to ensure that your chickens aren’t constantly walking on poop.
If you follow these steps on a regular basis, then you’ll be well on your way to having healthy and happy chickens. Which hopefully equates to lots of eggs for you.
Getting Eggs (and Meat) from Your Chickens
We've talked about everything you need to know to make your chickens happy and healthy. Starting from the housing, feeding, and managing their health.
Do everything adequately right, and your chickens will give you eggs in return.
In this chapter, we answer some of the most common question about raising chickens for eggs and meat like how many chickens should you raise to get enough eggs/meat for the family? When will your hens start laying? What to do if they're not laying?
Hatching Eggs and Raising Chicks
As your flock grows older, they will decrease in productivity and number. You will start getting fewer eggs, and some of them will die of old age or diseases/pests/predators. So naturally, you will need to get a new generations of chickens if you want to continue.
One way to get new chickens is to buy them, as you already know how.
But the more interesting and cheaper way to get new chicks is to get fertilized eggs from your current flock and hatch them into a new chicks.
In this chapter, you will learn all about mating chickens, getting fertilized eggs, and how to hatch them. Most importantly, you will also learn how to raise newborn chicks and introduce them to your flock.
As a final note, hatching eggs and raising newborn chicks are some of the more advanced stuff. It has some big advantages compared to buying new chickens, but it also requires big responsibility on your part. So, it is perfectly okay not to do this if you don't want or need to.