Backyard Chickens 101
Forgiveness or permission
It’s dumb, but sometimes keeping chickens can be a touchy subject. Not every town allows people to keep chickens. So…you have 2 options. 1) ask for forgiveness or 2) ask for permission.
Even if you’re not “legally” allowed to have chickens if you bribe your neighbors with eggs you might be ok. But don’t take my word for it.
Your neighbors will almost certainly know that you’re keeping chickens. Even hens make quite a bit of noise.
But if you feel the need to be 100% in the clear go to your town hall and ask.
They’ll be able to point you in the right direction and give you a clear answer.
How much space do you have?
Before you start buying a bunch of supplies and planning out your dream coop you should consider your available space.
When you first get chickens they’re deceptively tiny.
When your chickens are full grown they’ll each be about the size of a basketball and they CONSTANTLY poop.
If you have lots of room go crazy but if you only have a small backyard start small. For a small yard I’d start with 3-4 chickens max
You’ve been warned!
In the end you’ll get about an 1 egg, per chicken, per day.
Find a chicken mentor
Before we started with our chickens we visited several farms as research. We asked questions and saw what other people were doing.
Finding someone that can act as a teacher was immensely helpful for us and got us started on the right track.
If you can find someone local, great! If not there are tons of online resources with lots of helpful people.
One in particular is our facebook group for backyard chicken raisers.
Where can you buy chicks for your backyard?
They are quite a few places you can buy starter chicks.
Often times you can get them from farm supply stores like Tractor Supply.
If you go to a farm supply store and pick them out yourself make sure you don’t get a rooster.
That’s a whole heap of trouble and by the time you figure it out you’re pretty much screwed.
From our experience the easiest place get chicks is online.
On the day they arrive you’ll have to pick them up in person at the post office but it makes for a fun trip back home.
In the past we’ve ordered from Meyer Hatchery and had really good results with survivability. If memory serves, we’ve only “lost” 1 chick in shipment.
Placing your coop
Before you setup your coop there’s a few things to consider…
Place it close to your house for easy egg gathering each day.
If you’re like me you’ll get lazy and want to skip a day here and there. If it’s close to your house you’re much less likely to skip even if it’s cold outside.
Another thing to consider is what other ”animals” roam around in your backyard.
If you let your chickens and dogs co-mingle in the same space your dogs WILL eat the chicken poop and they WILL get sick.
If you have kids playing in your backyard you’ll also want to make sure that the chickens and the children have separate play areas.
Preparing your coop
When it comes to coops you have 2 choices. To build or to buy. Lucky for us our property already had some makeshift garages that we converted into a coop.
The truth is that unless you’re buying a prebuilt coop you’ll probably end up doing a combination of the two.
There are tons of companies that sell everything from plans to fully built chicken coops.
The price point I’ve seen most is around $1000 which is a lot, but hey, you do get “free” eggs.
If you feel a bit more adventurous you can build you own coop, but don’t expect to save much money.
Even going the DIY route you’ll still need a lot of materials and it ads up quick. Especially if you don’t have tons of tools laying around.
This is the hardest part. Once you’ve got things setup the chickens themselves pretty much run on autopilot.
To setup the perfect house for your hens, I’ve created a shopping list below that should make things easier.
What your chickens will need as chicks
A large plastic bin
We had our chickens in the living room for the first couple weeks so they’d stay warm. After a few days it got REALLY stinky and dusty.
Even when they’re small chickens can make a huge mess.
When we got the second batch we moved them out as soon as they started to show feathers.
If you put them in a garage or barn make sure you maintain the appropriate temperature for each week of development.
Chicks need to maintain a very narrow window of temperature when they’re young.
Having a thermometer is critical to make sure they aren’t too cold or too hot.
You can get this from home depot or tractor supply but they’re essentially the same thing.
You’ll need a light socket & hood with a clamp. This will allow you to adjust how close the light is to the chicks and thus control the temperature.
A red warming bulb, like the ones in restaurants to keep food warm.
Small Chick waterer & Small Chick feeder
Get small ones to use when they’re smaller. We initially got regular sized versions of both, but soon realized the chicks were too small to use it.
Sadly, you’ll need a set of large and small.
Cedar shavings / Newspaper
If you visit Tractor Supply you’ll notice that the chicks are walking around on cedar shavings.
My wife recommends using newsprint torn into strips for the first week or two.
From what I understand it’s less springy than shavings and encourages the chicks to stand rather than lay. Supposedly this helps with the development of their leg muscles.
After a couple of weeks you can transition to cedar shavings. Using shavings significantly helps with the gross smell.
When they’re tiny you’ll need to give them something small to eat.
When they’re older you can feed them table scraps but for now just feed them the store bought chick starter food.
What your chickens will need as hens
A coop (duh)
It doesn’t have to be fancy, just a place for them to not get eaten by foxes or bitten by snakes at night.
You can use a fancy one like this or build one yourself.
Bottom line is you’ll need some place that the chickens feel safe and can lay their eggs. Ours just lay in this wheel barrow that we filled with wood chips.
Large plastic bin
You can reuse the original bin as long as it’s clean.
We store the chicken feed directly inside the coop since we have such a big coop.
When we re-up (and by we, I mean me) we head to Tractor Supply and buy several bags of the organic chicken layer scratch at once.
Once home all the bags get dumped into the large bin at the same time. Doing this as a “batch” rather than buying one bag at a time makes it way less of a headache.
I’m forgetful and seem to always run out of food when I least expected so it’s nice having more than enough.
Also, we use a bin with plastic hinges so the chickens can’t get it open.
If you get one where the lid just sits on top and snaps the chickens will work it open and one day you’ll come into the coop and have food all over the place.
A cup to distribute food to the feeders
I keep a cup in the feed bin so it’s easy to refill the feeders. There’s nothing worse than having to stop in the middle of my routine and run back inside to grab a cup.
Stick a cheap plastic one in the feed bin so it’s handy when you need it.
When the days shorten here in the Northeast the egg production starts to slow down to a crawl. Using a daylight bulb to trick the chickens helps to keep the egg production consistent.
Large Chicken waterer & Large Chicken feeder
You’ll need a large set in addition to the small one. Refilling the feeders and waterers ever other day gets old after a while. Having big versions cuts down the amount of repeated tasks.
When refilling the feeder just open the top of the bin, hold the feeder above and quickly dump the food in.
All excess feed spills out and falls right back into the feed bin. This way you can quickly refill without having to fumble around with bags of feed.
If you live somewhere cold you’ll need a heated waterer too. You could use it all the time and only plug it in when it’s cold, but we swap out in the summer.
A little bit goes a long way.
One bag of shavings will last longer than you think since it’s compressed.
Sprinkle it around and when the coop is halfway dirty sprinkle some more on top.
After a couple of doses, clean it out and save the muck for your garden or compost heap.
Chicken Layer Scratch
I buy the organic egg layer feed. If you don’t care about organic or non-organic you can save quite a bit of money.
I however like my eggs cage & torture free 😉
This may sound dumb but it’s worth purchasing some false eggs to leave in your nesting boxes.
It helps show the hens where they should lay and it has worked well for us.
A couple Home Depot buckets
Having some dedicated buckets to schlep water or feed around is always handy.
Also reserve a bucket as the “death bucket” to use when one of your chickens crosses the rainbow bridge.
I specifically dedicate a bucket for this procedure since I don’t want to get the other chickens sick.
This is probably overkill, but I’m crazy I guess…
Obviously this is a critical piece of equipment.
If you want to create a run or section-off your chickens from your kids this is a must.
We have a couple different sizes, 3ft and 6ft. You could get only the 6ft and cut it down, but it’s a big pain to use tin snips to cut a lot of it.
When the time comes that you find a dead chicken, you’ll be glad you have something you can use and throw away.
Be prepared and get them before you suddenly realize it’s necessary.
To pick up a dead hen and “do the deed.”
Caring for your chickens
How much do backyard chickens eat?
Obviously this depends on the birds, but with our 6 chickens we go through a 30lb bag of feed every 2-3 weeks.
Plus we feed them left over scraps a couple times a week.
What to feed your backyard chickens?
Chickens will eat nearly anything vegetarian. Chickens will eat nearly anything vegetarian.
You can feed them stuff from your kitchen like vegetables and fruits but one thing to rememberer is NEVER feed them left over chicken.
To give you an idea of what our hens eat here’s a list of things we’ve fed them.
• Old lettuce
• Potatoes and potato shavings
• Carrots and Carrot shavings
• Strawberry tops
• Apple cores
• Old Bread
• Pretty much anything except meat
Prepare yourself for death
Inevitably a day will come when one of your birds dies.
On our farm a local cat has gotten a couple, a hawk has gotten a couple others and yes…even our dog has gotten a few.
I have to admit when it first happened it was pretty freaky. Being a city kid I had limited experience with death. The whole thing was pretty traumatic at first.
But take it from me; as time passes you’ll get more grizzled and less shaken up.
The first few times will be very hard and also sad. As time passes and you learn the process the sting will be less severe.
Although there’s ups and downs dealing with food producing pets it’s super worth it!
Seeing your chickens run around your yard will bring such delight and entertainment. Not only that but you’ll also get best tasting darkest yolked eggs you’ve ever seen.
Join the backyard chicken raisers group on facebook to get advice and share your chicken adventures.