Backyard Chickens for Beginners
Updated: Apr 19, 2022
So you are thinking of getting a few hens for your backyard, and you love farm fresh eggs, but you don't know anything about chickens.
You have come to the right place.
Raising Chickens is not overly complicated. Give them shelter, food and water and they will be happy. Chickens are very docile creatures, they love people. They love treats and a happy hen will lay lots of eggs for you.
ROOSTERS OR HENS?
Maybe you have been to your local Tractor Supply store or farm store and you've gawked at how cure the baby chicks are, but what you may not have done is paid attention to the tank that they are in.
Baby Chicks are normally sold out of stock tanks marked PULLET or STRAIGHT RUN. Pullets are all female chickens (hens) and Straight Run is luck of the draw - they could be male or female.
If you are thinking of backyard chickens and live in a neighborhood - this is IMPORTANT.
Most municipalities that allow backyard chickens will limit the number of birds you may have and also restrict you to just hens. Roosters are generally not allowed in suburban neighborhoods. Be sure to check your local ordinances on Backyard Chickens before buying chicks.
Baby chicks will need to be kept in a brooder until they get their adult feathers in. A brooder can be as simple as a rubbermaid tub, a cardboard box, or a stock tank. It will need a heat lamp to keep them warm, along with food and water.
If you get your chicks from the local farm store or a hatchery, here are a few things to consider:
Baby Chicks are fragile (they cannot regulate their body heat) and require more attention than adult chickens. Their cage needs cleaned constantly and they eat like vultures. You have to keep them warm until their body can regulate their temperature for them. If you do not have the time to dedicate to raising your baby chicks, then they will easily die if neglected.
Raising chickens from babies definitely has its rewards - you bond with your birds and they get to know you. It's also fun to watch them grow up. Let's not forget how incredibly cute they are as baby chicks!
EGG LAYING CHICKENS
You can buy egg laying chickens that are fully grown from most farmers who have a large flock or who raise chickens. Egg layers are usually 8 months to 2 years old. Many people like the idea of having fresh eggs right away and not waiting the 8 months for the baby birds to begin laying.
Contrary to popular opinion, a female chicken (hen), does not need a rooster in order to lay eggs. So you can successfully have a coop full of hens and still have fresh eggs. In fact, the average hen will lay approximately 220-280 eggs per year.
If you wanted those eggs to hatch, then you would need the assistance of a rooster (male chicken).
You will also need to consider is space. - where will you put your chicken coop? There are lots of options for chicken coops online - most will tell you the maximum capacity for chickens. Make sure you pick up a chicken coop with the appropriate size for your anticipated flock.
You can also make a chicken coop out of virtually anything. Check out our blog post: Getting Creative with Backyard Chickens for some inspiration.
The basics of the coop should have the following features:
You must be able to access it for cleaning
You must be able to easily collect eggs.
There should be 4 walls and a roof to keep the chickens protected from the elements.
There should be adequate ventilation
It should lock to keep predators out
Additionally, I have found that chickens enjoy having a window to let the natural light in. They do not enjoy homes without at least 1 window.
FOOD AND WATER
You will also need a feeder of some sort and a waterer. Both of these can be handmade or purchased. There are a variety of waterers and feeders out there on the market.
For egg laying chickens, you will need to purchase an egg layer feed found at your local Tractor Supply or Rural King store. You can always check the Co-op if your have one in your area. Egg layer feed is a special blend of grain for your birds specially formulated for chickens laying eggs. It has the correct calcium and nutrients your birds need to give you those hard shells and nice rich yolks.
Chickens are also scavengers, so in addition to feed, they will scratch and forage for other food. They will eat virtually anything: table scraps, bugs, worms, grass, weeds, your flowers, and your vegetable garden. Mine seem to really love barely, grapes and watermelon. We take our food scraps out to them and they pick through it and eat what they like. (Do not feed your birds decaying or moldy food. You can get them sick).
Non-egg laying chickens, such as roosters and older hens, can still benefit from the egg layer grain and free ranging.
Baby Chicks - It is a personal choice of yours whether you feed your baby chicks medicated chick starter or unmedicated chick starter. I would recommend doing some research on the pros and cons of both. Medicated chick starter utilizes coccidiostats, which help limit the incidence of coccidiosis in young birds. Coccidiosis is an intestinal parasite that is widely spread and found just about everywhere. It multiplies rapidly and has been known to take out an entire fleet of chickens.
Because baby chicks run around on the ground when they are young, they are prone to infection. You can use an unmedicated grain and natural diet successfully when raising baby chicks. It will take some research and dedication to keeping their brooder clean and dry.
Chickens love clean water, as with all animals, keeping fresh clean water for them keeps them healthy.
People will tell you that chickens need nesting boxes but I can tell you that it differs for each bird. Some will conform to the nesting box to lay eggs while others will literally build a nest on the coop floor and lay eggs there.
If you decide to allow your chickens to free range during the day (out in the yard) they may also lay in secret places like under the deck or shed, or perhaps, in your flower garden.
If you provide nesting boxes, old milk crates work well, most of them will conform. You can encourage the use of the nesting boxes by lining them with straw or grass clippings.
You will need to regularly check the nesting boxes for eggs if you have active egg laying hens. I usually check the coop in the morning and evening. I remove the eggs right away. This prevents them from getting pooped on or trampled on. The longer they are in the coop the more at risk they are for cracking.
FREE RANGING CHICKENS
Chickens like to forage and scratch the ground, so you can let them out of their coop to roam around. I will advise you to get a fence to keep them contained, or they will end up in your neighbor’s yard. You can train chickens to come when you call them by feeding them treats regularly. Shake the bag first to get their attention and then shower them with treats. They will learn to listen for the bag sound and will come running to you.
If you do free range your birds, you will need to keep them out of your garden areas by fencing them in. They have been known to take out an entire garden in as little as a day or two.
Farmers utilize chickens to turn soil, spread compost and clear areas of overgrowth by setting up temporary fencing in the areas to keep them contained. They absolutely love it. So there is some method to their madness.
Bedding inside the coop can be anything - grass clippings, wood chips, straw, dried leaves, and will keep the smell down. A properly maintained chicken coop should never smell bad if it is maintained properly. Chickens are happiest when they are dry.
Chicken poop is an excellent source of nitrogen. You can use it to fertilize your garden but you will need to age it first. Fresh chicken poop is oftentimes too potent to go straight from chicken to garden. Adding it to your compost pile and turning it every week makes a great base. If you haven't tried composting before, check out our blog post Do you Compost?
A chicken tractor is a great alternative - because it can be moved daily, allowing the chickens to naturally fertilize the ground as it moves along. It should not be kept in one place longer than 1 day or 2. This will prevent the ground from receiving too much nitrogen from the chicken poop.
I hope this answers most of your questions about backyard chickens. If I've missed anything or if you have additional questions, comment below. I'm happy to answer them.