Raising homegrown eggs begins well ahead of springtime.
With rules changing to allow backyard chickens, many urban and suburban residents are finding themselves the happy owners of a feathered flock. But what do you need to know to succeed at raising healthy, happy chickens?
The first question any would-be chicken farmer should ask themselves before welcoming poultry to a property is whether backyard chickens are permitted in your area. Next, ask yourself if you want to raise chickens for meat, eggs or both. The breed you choose will ultimately depend on local availability and what you hope to produce with your flock.
Which chicken breed is best?
If you plan to produce your own eggs, you can choose one of the many varieties bred for good egg production. This includes some old-time heritage breeds along with modern hybrids.
If you hope to produce meat, you’ll want to concentrate your efforts on breeds designed to quickly convert protein into muscle.
For both meat and eggs, look to the dual-purpose birds.
Here’s a little more about different breed classifications and which one is right for you.
These breeds have been around for generations. They are all-round good birds, with sound stock that helps them stay healthy and live longer. They are also excellent foragers with good cold tolerance. The trade-off for these traits is (usually) fewer eggs per year than newer hybrids. But in the grand scheme of things, many people prefer proven breeds with a long life.
Best heritage breeds for eggs: Leghorns, Austrolorp, Buff Orpinton, Araucana, Columbia Wyandote, White Sussex.
Hybrids are newer breeds that have been selected to lay more eggs on less feed than old-time heritage breeds (anywhere from 280 to 350 eggs per year). They’re usually a cross between heritage breeds and other hybrids. While they efficiently convert feed to eggs, they don’t breed true or make great parents. Additionally, these breeds don’t live very long—just a few years.
Best known hybrid layers: Isa Brown, Golden Comet, Black Rock, Bovans Goldline.
Cornish cross is the breed most often raised for meat. That’s because breeders haven’t come up with anything that’s faster at converting chicken food into muscle mass. These hens don’t usually exhibit classic hen behavior: they don’t scratch or bathe in dust or even peck at bugs once they reach a certain weight. In general, they live to eat, which means they’re ready to process in less than 12 weeks.
This classification includes heritage and hybrid birds that are good layers while also being large enough to for meat production. Dual purpose breeds are common to homesteads and hobby farms because of their versatility. They won’t usually lay as much as the best hybrid layer, or produce as much meat as the Cornish cross, but they are fantastic all-round birds.
Best dual-purpose breeds: Dorking, Australorp, Rhode Island Red, Plymouth Barred Rock, New Hampshire.
For a comprehensive list of chicken breeds and their uses, see this chart from the Livestock Conservancy.
Should you get chicks or adult chickens?
As discussed above, the answer to this question depends on whether you’re after meat or eggs. Broilers usually come as day-old chicks. You rear them until it’s time to process for the freezer. For egg-layers, consider the following options:
Point of lay hens
If you want homegrown eggs but don’t want to raise your own chicks, point of lay hens are usually available through your local feed store. Stores take orders several times each year and will give you birds just on the cusp of laying full-sized eggs. The breed options in point of lay are usually limited and are most often hybrid layer varieties.
If you want the experience of raising your chickens from the beginning, starter chicks are available from local and online hatcheries and often your local feed store. Raising starters involves more equipment—you’ll need a warm light and a safe, enclosed space for rearing. But more chicken varieties are usually available as baby chicks, meaning you will have your pick of heritage and dual-purpose varieties.
Just remember to ask for “sexed” varieties—these are those breeds that are easy to sex at birth. If you don’t, you might end up with “straight run” chicks, in other words, chickens that could be male or female.
What to know about chicken coops
A good coop will provide protection from predators, shelter from weather, and a place for feeding and gathering eggs. Here are some things to think about when building or buying your first chicken coop kit.
A coop should provide two square feet of space for every laying hen. For example, 16 hens will need a minimum of 32 square feet in their coop.
Chickens also require eight to ten square feet of outdoor space per chicken, but more space is always better. Apart from broiler birds, most chicken breeds need to scratch raw ground.
Green grass is an excellent source of protein since it houses bugs and other delicacies. Dry ground is also important, since it gives free range chickens the tool they need to keep mites at bay: dust. Chickens adore a good dust bath whenever available.
Get to know what predators exist in your area and build a coop to address these concerns before they become a problem. That means making sure the entrance to your coop closes securely at night and any windows or vents are covered with pest-proof wire mesh.
Racoons have been known to rip off or chew through chicken wire. Choose thicker welded wire mesh instead.
Overhead predators can attack hens in the run or when free ranging, so provide cover over your chicken run if hawks, eagles, and owls frequent your area.
Chickens love to roost at night. Adding perches to your coop gives them a place to feel safe off the ground when darkness falls. It also helps concentrate their waste in a smaller area, helping to preserve bedding material.
Build perches that are removable for easy cleaning no more than three feet off the ground. Dowels that are two inches in diameter are the ideal size. You can also use two by two lumber that is rounded on top.
Hens naturally seek a secluded, quiet place to lay their eggs, and nesting boxes fit the bill. When built correctly and maintained regularly, nesting boxes make it easy to collect eggs and identify broody hens.
An ideal design is a nesting box built onto the outside of a coop with a hinged lid. This makes gathering eggs easy—you don’t even have to go inside. Nesting boxes should be 12 to 15 inches square and at least a foot deep.
Venting your chicken coop is important to preserve a healthy flock. Since air moves differently at different times of year, having vents at the top and bottom of your coop is a good idea.
Bedding / litter
Chickens will scratch inside their coop as well as out. Adding bedding or litter will help keep them happy and occupied indoors. It will also provide them with a place to bathe when dry ground outdoors is hard to come by.
Coop litter absorbs moisture and helps insulate against cold. The most common type of coop litter is clean wood shavings—pine or fir—purchased from a local feed supplier. Straw will often go moldy leading to problems with chicken health.
One of the easiest ways to manage your coop is using the deep litter method. This involves starting with a thin layer of shavings or straw (three to four inches). Once per week, add another thin layer to cover any accumulated chicken manure. Toss in a handful of scratch to encourage your chickens to turn over the litter, speeding decomposition. Once a year, clean out most (but not all) of the litter and begin the process over again.
This method, while simple, requires good ventilation.
What about food and water?
Chickens need the right food for the job you want them to do. That’s why commercial chicken feed is available with different levels of protein and minerals. Choosing the right feed will make the difference between a healthy flock and one that is unable to thrive.
A list of the common feed categories is detailed below. It’s also worth knowing that commercial chicken feeds come in two main sizes: mash/crumbles and pellets. The mash is generally for smaller, younger birds, while the pellets are for larger birds.
Here’s a breakdown of the best food for your chickens at a glance:
What to feed laying hens
Starter feed (18-21% protein): For chicks less than eight weeks old.
Grower feed (14-16% protein): For chicks between eight and 18 weeks old.
Layer feed (16-18% protein plus calcium): For adult laying hens.
What to feed broiler chickens
Broiler starter (21-25% protein): For meat birds less than 10 days old.
Broiler grower (19 to 23% protein): For meat birds 10 to 24 days.
Finisher (19 to 21% protein): For meat birds older than 25 days.
You can supplement the food of adult laying hens by feeding kitchen scraps. Adding oyster shells to adult feed also helps provide the calcium needed for strong eggshells.
Feed your chickens using a hanging-style feeder for ease and cleanliness.
Chickens need to have fresh water available at all times. The amount they’ll need will vary with age, weight, activity level, and outside temperatures. You can ensure your flock gets enough to drink by providing a basin that automatically tops itself up using gravity or one that attaches to your garden hose.
Chickens prefer water with a pH that’s neutral or slightly acidic. Adding a small amount of apple cider vinegar to the water will help it stay clean and improve your flock’s health.
How to keep your coop clean and sanitary
Keeping your coop clean is not as hard as it sounds. The first step is to keep rodents away by sealing up all entry points and using small wire mesh on vents and windows. Next, use clean feed and water dishes hung at shoulder height (that’s your chicken’s shoulder) to minimize what ends up on the ground.
Removing food at night or sealing in a rat-proof garbage can is another way to deter rodents.
Clean feeders and waterers regularly and between flocks to prevent passing on disease. Store all food that’s not being used in metal tins secured with a tight-fitting lid. Rats can chew through plastic, so if you don’t have a metal tin, consider removing food at night.
Pick up and clean up all garbage. Only give chickens the food scraps they’ll eat during the day. Clean up spilled feed and remove stagnant water near coop.
Preventing backyard chicken pests
The best way to keep pests out of your coop is using barriers that stop them from entering. This includes a solid coop and run that isn’t easy to dig under or squeeze into. It also means cleanable floors such as concrete and sweeps on doors to keep out rodents. Soffit and window screens will further prevent birds and mice.
For small pests, like mites that take up residence in your chickens’ feathers, dust birds with diatomaceous earth under wings and close to the skin. If possible, make sure your chickens have access to dry ground where they can take a daily dust bath.
Chicken health and diseases
A healthy flock living in sound shelter with good ventilation won’t be plagued by disease or illness, but some common conditions to watch for include the following:
Your chicken limps as if suffering from a sprain or a splinter in the foot. The bottom of the foot appears puffy and swollen. Bumblefoot is caused by a staph infection in the pads of the foot or the toes. To treat, soak the area in warm water and Epsom salts, then drain and coat with antibiotic ointment. A vet may also provide antibiotics to give along with the feed.
Infected chickens lose weight and have diarrhea. It can be particularly deadly in chicks, which is why most chick feed comes with medication to prevent coccidiosis. Watch for this condition if you use unmedicated feed, because it can be contagioius.
Scaly leg mite
Parasitic mites burrow under the skin on chicken legs, making the scales lift. If left too long, the mites can cause a chicken to go lame. Soak affected areas in warm water and soap. Once clean, scrub gently with an old toothbrush and neem oil. Dry and coat with petroleum jelly. Re-coat until affected scales have fallen off and new scales are growing in their place.
If your chicken is lifting its beak and yawning repeatedly, it may have a blocked crop. This can happen when there’s a shortage of grit or when the chicken has eaten too many long, woody grasses.
The crop will be the size of a tennis ball and will feel doughy when massaged. Treat by feeding only water for 24 to 48 hours and dosing with small amounts of olive oil. You can also massage the crop gently to break up the blockage. If the condition persists, consult your local avian vet.
A chicken who walks slowly or stands with a drooping backside may be having trouble laying a partially formed or soft-shelled egg. Submerge her vent in warm water for 20 minutes once or twice daily. Dry her gently and place her in a warm space to see if she passes the egg. If she doesn’t, it’s time for the vet.
Raising chickens in your backyard
Keeping chickens may not be for everyone, but it can provide a steady supply of fresh eggs, along with the opportunity to make sure your food is as healthy as possible. Added to this is the satisfaction of contributing to your family’s food supply. Oh, and the pure joy that comes from watching chickens peck and cluck is worth its weight in eggs.