Today my daughter has a small but thriving egg business which has helped her learn not only where her food comes from, but also how to care for poultry and understand basic finances. While her profits may not be huge, she easily earns three times her allowance every week, and the experience is enriching for all of us. (Did I mention I also get free eggs?)
The following is a basic description of what you (or your children) need to know to bring chickens into your backyard (or back forty) to produce eggs for sale or the family table.
What Chicken Breed to Start With?
Before purchasing our chickens, we talked with farmers and other friends to find out their advice on chicken ages and breeds. The general consensus was that raising chickens from chicks was a great experience for kids, but it cost more money in feed before eggs are produced. Mortalities are also more common, and you can end up with a lot of roosters, unless sex-linked chicks (chicks easily sexed at hatching) are readily available in your region.
Timing your flock is also an important consideration. Our start date meant our chicks would be maturing just as the days would be getting shorter, and shorter days trigger most hens to lay fewer eggs. For this reason, we settled on hens that were just about ready to produce. Known as point-of-lay hens, these girls will usually be between 18 and 21 weeks.
After considering heritage breeds, we eventually chose hybrids from our local supplier. Again, our choice was limited by availability, but we also wanted our daughter’s venture to succeed. Hybrid varieties are great for beginners. They lay very well—up to one egg per day per hen for some varieties—and many of the breeds are sweet in nature and don’t mind being handled. However, many hybrids won’t lay as long as heritage breeds and most of the best egg-producers aren’t dual-purpose (good for meat and eggs). Choosing your breed is a personal decision that involves considering your family’s needs and the goals for your flock.
If you do select hybrids, some favorite dual-purpose breeds include the Rhode Island Red and the Barred Rock. Some of the best egg producers are the Isa Brown (brown eggs) and the Leghorn (white). However, while Isa Browns tend to be calm and comfortable with handling, Leghorns are known to be flighty—not a great quality when mixed with children.
After much anticipation, our fifteen chickens arrived at 20 weeks laying small eggs. Within a few weeks, those eggs were medium- to large-sized. All of a sudden, my daughter was in business.
How to Provide a Simple, Secure Coop
Housing for chickens has three main purposes: first, your chickens need a safe haven from weather and predators, which may be many or few, depending where you live. Second, chickens need a place to roost at night. Third, chickens need a place to lay their eggs during the day. Although chickens will lay anywhere if they have to, collecting them is easier if you know where to look.
The main components of a good coop include:
- Nesting boxes. The rule of thumb is one box for every 3-4 hens. Nesting boxes are best if covered on five sides and positioned above the coop floor. You can also have a hinged door on top if desired, which helps children collect eggs without having to enter the coop or run. Some nesting boxes have a hinged back wall so you can access the eggs from outside the coop.
- Roosting poles. Roosting poles are where your chickens can perch at night, preferably high up in the coop and not positioned over their food. We used dry, cedar branches about two inches in diameter. The edges should be rounded for comfortable gripping. Provide 5-10″ of space per bird and ladder the poles in ascending height if more than one is necessary. Our chickens all roost on the same pole (the highest one), although seven are available. Sticky horticultural tape around the start of the poles will limit some mites, as will lime painted onto the roosts.
- Bedding material. For bedding material, use non-cedar, non-dusty wood shavings or straw. After a season of using straw, which later became excellent mulch for the garden, we switched to wood shavings to explore the deep litter method (a method that allows manure and bedding to decompose inside the coop, providing beneficial microbes for the flock). Whichever you choose, keeping the bedding clean means a healthy flock and clean eggs.
- Ventilation. Be sure to provide adequate ventilation to prevent disease and to air out your coop. We opted for a window in the back and a door in the front. From dawn until dusk the door is open, allowing easy access to the coop. At night, when the door is closed, the window provides fresh air. Wherever you place your ventilation, be sure all permanent openings are secured with wire mesh to protect your hens from predators (and your coop from rodents). Position coops so openings aren’t receiving the brunt of winter storms. Like us, hens need to stay warm and dry in poor weather. Depending on your climate, you can provide shutters or Plexiglas windows for inclement weather.
- A place to hang food and water. Feeders should be hung no lower than shoulder height (your chicken’s shoulder, that is), or much of the feed will end up on the floor. In most cases, this is six to ten inches off the ground. Chickens know how much food they need, so be sure to keep the hopper at least half-full. For watering, use a hanging watering tray, either plastic or metal, available at any farm supply. The hanging water tray should be hung in an open space within the coop so several birds can drink at the same time. Avoid hanging the water tray beneath the roost so it won’t become fouled.
After exploring various coop designs, we chose an 8 x 4 foot rectangle with a shed roof six feet tall at its peak. Seven roosting poles and five nesting boxes provide adequate space for up to 16 chickens, although our hens all lay in one or two boxes on any given day (though not always the same two boxes). Two square feet of coop space per chicken is generally recommended. We also elevated our coop to provide a shady, screened haven beneath. This space could also double as a rearing area should we ever decide to have chicks.
Tending the Flock: Feeding and Watering
The easiest way to meet the nutritional needs of your laying flock is to purchase feed from your local supplier. Layer pellets or mash include most of the vitamins and minerals your chickens will need to stay healthy and produce eggs. To supplement this and provide a treat for our chickens, we add a few handfuls of ‘scratch’ tossed into the run each day. Chicken scratch is not a complete food, but it does contain oats and corn and other grains that chickens prefer. Like most feeds, layer rations and scratch are usually available in organic varieties from commercial feed stores.
To cut down on the amount of commercial feed consumed, we also provide generous helpings of kitchen scraps and garden waste. This includes vegetable peelings, non-poisonous garden weeds, any and all leafy greens and table grains. Our chickens are partial to beet tops and spent broccoli plants, but anything green seems to be a favorite. However, never give your chickens anything moldy. They won’t like it any more than you do. And if you are supplementing their rations with scraps, it’s also good practice to add a source of grit to their diets. Chickens need grit to grind fibers and seeds in their gizzard. This can be a simple toss of fine gravel in the run. Ground oyster shells work well for grit.
Laying chickens also need a source of calcium to encourage strong egg shells and support production day after day. Common sources include oyster shells, calcium grit, and crushed limestone (formulated for chickens). You can also save eggshells from your compost pail and disguise them by baking them in the oven and then crushing. Whichever you choose, provide your calcium source like the laying ration—free choice, either scattered in the feed or in a separate container located within reach.
For watering, we use a pressurized watering tray that runs off a garden hose. The hose is always on, but a spring-loaded valve controls the flow. The water only turns on when the tray gets below a pre-set level (that we set). Another option is a hanging automatic waterer. An automatic waterer delivers the water ‘neck high’ and the trough is too narrow for bird to try to hop onto. Also, the waterer only needs to be refilled once a week, which simplifies the chores. A steady supply of clean water is the best assurance of a healthy flock.
Roam on the Range: Fencing and Space
Chickens are built to scratch and roam, so providing enough space is key to a happy, healthy flock. Opinions about how much space chickens need vary wildly, but we have found that fifteen chickens will turn over a 40 x 40 foot run in approximately one month. That includes uprooting all grass and digging holes for dust baths. In another two weeks, they will start to get bored and peck at one another. This doesn’t mean you need a football field to accommodate them, but you do need to consider carefully how you will quench their appetite for new territory.
If you have a small flock, you can confine them to a moveable coop and run, or chicken tractor, and shift this around your green space whenever the turf starts looking tired. Luckily all that pecking and eating produces ample fertilizer, and one scratched patch of grass can grow back in two short weeks if the season is right. Then you can use it all over again.
If you have a larger flock, consider a semi-stationary coop with a movable fence. We opted for this model after realizing our coop was heavier than we thought. Built from site-milled cedar, our coop requires four large men or a car with a trailer-hitch to move. In between moves, we keep the coop in place and shift the fence instead. Using an electro-mesh fence with integrated posts and spikes allows us to easily adjust fence location every month or so. We simply wait until the chickens are in the coop, reposition the fence, and jab in the spikes. If your coop is positioned in the middle of your run area, you can shift the fencing into a variety of new positions without ever having to move the coop. In one location, we grew some oats nearby and let our chickens into the patch once the oats were mature.
Another alternative is to use a fixed coop and fence, but permit your chickens to roam freely for a set period every day. If you have a fenced yard, your chickens will do a good job of digging up insects and grubs while at large. But beware that chickens also like fresh young greens. Turning them loose in a freshly planted garden means damaged seedlings and scratched up beds.
A final consideration is overhead netting. In our neck of the woods, eagles, owls, falcons, and other predatory birds are more prolific than chickens. Our first month of chicken rearing coincided with eagle nesting season, and more than once we opened our door to find a bald eagle sitting on top of our coop or a barred owl eyeing the flock from our pea trellis. Adding overhead netting to our system has ensured zero losses. Owl and eagle appearances have also dwindled.
Once established, a flock should be easy to care for and will provide delicious eggs for several years to come. Our family has settled into the following simple routine, with our daughter taking the lead:
- Let the chickens out if the door was closed over night. Chickens like to go out at dawn, so if you don’t like getting up very early in summer, consider a system that lets them enter and exit the coop at will or get an automatic door opener that is sensitive to light. During the summer, we leave the door open because our overhead netting and electric fence provides protection from our region’s predators. Our chickens also stay up later than we do during those long summer days.
- Toss some scratch into the run. Your chickens will love you for it, but as with all treats, more is not better. Layer pellets should form the bulk of their diet.
- Check water tray to see that it’s not getting low.
- Check food. Ensure feeder won’t run out before the next top-up.
- Gather and wash eggs. Our chickens finish laying by the early afternoon. If you are away during the day, you can gather the eggs when you get home, but keep in mind that some chickens will eat eggs if they get the chance. Check in both the yard and the nesting boxes.
- Count the birds when shutting them in. Counting them at this the end of day is a good idea, because some chickens may decide to roost elsewhere.
Our daughter is in charge of feeding and watering the chickens, gathering and washing the eggs, and letting them out for the occasional jaunt around the garden. She purchases their feed and scratch with profits earned from egg sales, which she keeps. She also pays her sister (age five) two dollars a week to feed them compost and garden scraps. This routine has helped distribute responsibility and provides a source of income and food security for our children.
Taking care of chickens has been a learning experience for our whole family. As someone who previously worked with other types of farm animals, I was pleasantly surprised by how low maintenance chickens really are. I’ve also enjoyed watching my daughter learn about herself and her chickens as the months go by. Although challenges do arise, watching your chickens cluck and peck happily in the earth is a source of peace and entertainment. Anyone with a little bit of space and a curiosity about farming would do well to consider backyard chickens.
- Buy vaccinated birds from reputable hatcheries.
- Watch for signs of pests and disease and segregate birds while treating. Supplement with vitamins in addition to whatever treatment is prescribed.
- If your chickens seem reluctant to lay eggs in your nesting boxes, place a wooden egg inside. We have two wooden eggs that we use periodically. Inevitably our chickens will lay where we place these eggs.
- Acknowledge your child! A few words of gratitude go a long way to boost the child’s self-esteem and fuel enthusiasm for this interesting and useful child’s activity.