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 post. I’m going to give you a complete guide to raising your 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:
Where Do They Sleep?
The first thing you’ll need to know about raising chickens is where they should sleep. If you’ve been browsing the internet long, then you know that there are about a million different chicken coop options.
Well, maybe not actually a million, but there are a lot. If you need coop ideas be sure to check here for some great ones.
Regardless of what kind of coop you choose to use, you need to know a few basics of an ideal house for chickens:
1. Chickens need adequate space
I said they needed adequate space, not a lot of space. Chickens really only need about 4 square feet per chicken.
But 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.
So remember that 4 square feet is the minimum you want to go with, but a little more won’t hurt.
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.
Now, these 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 ma, e 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. The girls need a place to lay
You’ll need to be sure to include nesting boxes in your coop. This is where your hens will go each morning to lay their eggs.
However, you’ll probably need multiple boxes. It is best to only plan on having 3 birds per box, but I’ll let you in a little secret. Your birds are all going to have a favorite box, and then fight over it. Just be prepared.
But give them adequate boxes anyway. You never know, you may get the first ‘normal’ group of hens yet.
So far, choosing a favorite box to lay in has been the trend of our coops.
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.
So be sure that you have no holes in your coop, that you 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.
But you’ll also want to consider things like flooring in your coop. In our first coop, we had a wood floor. We also had to embed chicken wire into the ground, so that if an animal tried to dig in, it would dig into the chicken wire and would stop digging.
Now, we have an actual floor in our coop so we no longer have to worry about that. These are all decisions you’ll have to make when deciding to build your coop. Just make sure that you leave no room for predators.
Read this article to learn more about different chicken predators and how you can protect your chickens.
What Do Chickens Eat?
Chickens are not finicky animals. They will eat just about anything. In my experience, it is best to hang a feeder in the coop. Fill the feeder full and fill it up as needed from that point on. That way you aren’t worrying yourself about if your chickens are eating too much or too little.
But the risk you take by not leaving food free flowing in the coop is that if a chicken thinks there is a food shortage, they will stop laying.
However, if they feel like there is plenty of food, they will be happy and lay continually.
In short, chickens will eat pretty much anything you throw their way. Just be sure that you feed them plenty of protein because they need that in order to lay properly.
Also, include some calcium in their diet as well. They need this for strong eggshells. If they don’t have enough calcium in their diet they will start breaking their own eggs to get the calcium out of it.
Finally, chickens also require grit. This is basically rocks that go down into their gizzard which will help them grind their food and make it easier to digest.
To Free Range or Not…That is the Question
Choosing whether or not to free-range your flock is a personal decision. There are pros, cons, and alternatives to each method.
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.
As mentioned before, chickens are highly preyed upon. When they are out of the safety of their own coop, it is game on for predators.
So be advised that you might lose chickens to predators if you allow them to free range. It is just part of the risk you take when you let them live beyond the chicken wire.
- 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.
So just know that they will scratch in your garden hunting for bugs. It is what chickens do after all.
- They lay everywhere.
Finally, this is the reason why I struggle the most with allowing my chickens to free range. They lay their eggs everywhere.
So it 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 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.
Best of the Bird Breeds
Different chickens serve different purposes, but you’ll want the best breed for the purpose you are raising them. Here are the best breeds:
1. White Leghorn
White Leghorns are great layers. They usually produce around 280 eggs per year.
However, be advised that 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 are great layers too. They lay around 260 eggs per year.
However, these birds have a rather sassy temper, especially the roosters. So be advised that they can be a little more difficult to handle if you are new to raising chickens.
3. Golden Comet
This is a very friendly bird that can lay anywhere from 250 eggs to 300 per year. That is a lot of eggs.
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 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
Jersey Giants are great birds to raise. I actually raise these myself. The females 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. But they grow to be quite large so the time may be worth your investment.
This 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.
So you can be ready to harvest around 7 pounds of meat per bird in an average of 16-20 weeks. Once you taste them, you may decide that it’s definitely worth the investment.
Dual Purpose Breeds:
1. The Black Australorp
This is a large bird that is known for laying around an egg per day. It is said to have a friendly temperament about it while also be very aware of what is going on around the flock.
But 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
This is another chicken breed that is known for laying regularly. It also is known for having roosters that are very protective of the flock.
But once these birds are done laying, you should be able to have a 7-9 pound bird for dinner depending upon the sex.
3. Rhode Island Red
The Rhode Island Red makes our list again. These birds are great layers as we’ve already discussed.
But I can’t stress enough to watch their temperament. Once you decide it is time to eat this bird though, you should end up with 6-8 pounds depending upon the sex.
Here's more list of the best egg breeds:
How to Keep Them Healthy
Diseases and pests are a big challenge for chicken owners.
But pests like mites are just part of raising chickens. They are little bugs that climb on your chickens and cause them a lot of discomforts. It can actually lead to death if they are attacked by too many at once, as they wear down their immune system due to stress.
All you’ll need to do is sprinkle DE on your chickens about once a month or so. You could even include it in an area where they like to dust bath. This will kill any mites on them.
But when you begin to notice that your chicken’s eggs have a lot of poop on them, you’ll know it is time to deworm them. You do this by sprinkling DE on their food. They ingest it, it makes them poop, and the worms are gone. You’ll do this on an as needed basis.
If by chance you begin noticing that your chickens’ legs are scaly, this is a different type of mite known as leg mites. You’ll want to rub Vaseline on your bird’s legs for about 1-2 weeks to smother the mites. When you see their legs have returned to normal, rub the Vaseline on their legs for a couple more days just to be sure that all of the mites are gone.
You now know how to help your birds beat the most common pests that will try to share their coop.
Read this article if you want to learn more about the most common chicken diseases and how to treat them.
How to Keep a Clean Coop
Helping your girls to have a clean area to live is probably one of the best things you can do for them. It helps to keep them healthy.
So I usually clean my chicken coop out about once a week or so. I refresh nesting box material as needed, though.
However, once a week I go in and complete these steps:
1. Clean the floor
I always begin by cleaning out all of the material from the floor. If you have a dirt floor in your coop, then you might want to try the deep litter method.
But if you have 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
Your girls will not want to lay in a dirty nesting box. That is why I change mine almost daily.
However, be sure that this is an item included on your weekly cleaning trip to ensure that your girls have a happy laying space.
3. Clean the feeder and waterer
Next, you’ll want to empty the feeder and waterer. Wash them out with a water hose and allow them to dry.
But 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 you’ll need to go along the roosts with a garden hoe to knock off any poop. If you feel they need a solid scrubbing, then just use vinegar and water.
However, 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, be sure to open the door to it 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 few 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.
What Your Hens Need to Produce Eggs
The final step to raising your chickens is to make sure you give your birds what they need in order to lay eggs. They need the following items:
1. Clean space
We just discussed how to give your chickens a clean laying space. If your birds aren’t laying, be sure to check their housing situation. It may be dirty or overcrowded.
So try to avoid this issue if at all possible.
2. Food and Water
I mentioned this earlier too, but be sure that your birds know that they have plenty of food and water available.
If they feel they do not, they can potentially quit laying.
Finally, your chickens need sunlight. During the winter you will notice that most chickens lay fewer eggs. This is because of shorter days and less sunlight.
However, you can stick a regular lamp in their coop and put it on a timer so your chickens think the days are longer. This means they’ll wake up earlier and stay up later so they have enough time to lay for you.
Well, those are the basics to raising happy and healthy chickens. I wish you lots of luck on your backyard chicken adventure.