Livestock is not typically what comes to mind when you hear the word “hobby.” Gardening? Sure. Pots filled with tomatoes and herbs, raised beds full of greens, and even rows full of corn are commonly found in the backyards of hobby farmers, especially in rural areas. But recently, another type of hobby farming is on the rise: Backyard chickens are clucking their way into urban and suburban locales nationwide.
Chances are that if you’re reading this, you’ve been thinking about jumping on the bandwagon yourself. But before you go out and buy a handful of cuddly chicks, there’s research to be done. In this guide, we’ll walk you through what chickens need and how to find and care for your new feathered friends.
There are a lot of benefits to farming fowl, starting with the mental and physical benefits that come along with having a hobby. In short, hobbies make us happier and healthier by improving our mood, decreasing our stress levels, and getting us up and moving. Of course, chicken farming has some very specific pros as well, starting with these:
There is no doubt about it — “homemade” eggs from your own chickens are the most nutritious eggs you can get. Not to mention they’re delicious. Thanks to a healthy diet of quality feed, table scraps, and a yard full of bugs and weeds, your chickens will pass the benefits onto you.
Each time you crack open an egg with a creamy, orange yolk, you will consume less cholesterol, less saturated fat, and more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than you do when you eat eggs from the grocery store.
Natural Pest Control
Chickens are omnivores, and they love to eat bugs. They’ll peck out harmless beetles, grasshoppers, and worms, as well as the more menacing spiders, flies, and slugs. But they don’t stop with insects. Chickens will also keep your property free of any mice, frogs, and snakes they can get their beaks on.
Compost and Fertilizer
Chicken manure makes for a great garden additive. After you compost it with other organic material, you can scoop it onto your garden to give your plants a boost of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. Speaking of composting, your chickens will love the meat and protein scraps that you can’t normally put in the compost bin.
The education raising chickens provide to you and your family is hard to get anywhere else. Even young children can learn about caring for livestock and raising your own food through chickens. Doling out feed, collecting eggs, cleaning the hen house, and caring for chickens in an environmentally-friendly way teaches the whole family about living sustainably.
It may not seem like it, but chickens are actually very lovable. Each chicken you bring home will have its own personality. You may end up with a bossy Betty, a nervous Nelly, or a cuddly Cathy. No matter what, they’ll find their way into your hearts and become members of your extended family. Like any pet, the love you and your chickens share can be good for you and your family’s mental health.
After reading that long list of perks, you may be chomping at the bit to turn your backyard into a chicken haven. Before you do, there’s another list with which you need to familiarize yourself — the cons. Like any venture of this size and scope, raising backyard chickens requires careful discernment. Otherwise, you may end up with egg on your face instead of in your frying pan.
Contrary to what you may think, you won’t save money by raising chickens. No matter how many eggs you get, it will cost more to feed, house, and water them than you would ever spend at the grocery store. In addition to setup costs, expect to spend $25 to $30 per month to keep your chickens happy and healthy. Your exact expense will depend on how many chickens you have.
Depending on your chickens’ supply and your neighbors’ demand, you could offset these costs by selling extra eggs at your local farmer’s market.
Clucking and Crowing
We all know that roosters crow loudly at the crack of dawn, but hens can be just as noisy. Some will even shout there own cock-a-doodle-do. Besides that, hens cluck loudly when they lay an egg, when they are looking for a mate, and just for fun. While you may be fine with the occasional cackle, your neighbors may not be so enthusiastic. In many cases, though, it’s nothing a few shared eggs can’t make right.
You won’t have to house train them, but chickens come with their own poo problems. They produce a lot of it, and it smells. It will be in your hen house, in your yard, and on your eggs. To keep your yard from smelling like a full-on farmhouse, you’ll have to scoop the poop regularly from any area where you allow your chickens to roam. Here’s are some general guidelines:
- Clean the hen house every few weeks.
- Wash the run area every week.
- Rinse or power wash porches or play areas at least every few days.
One thing most people don’t know about chickens is that they don’t produce eggs for the majority of their lives.
It takes about six months for a chick to start producing eggs, and then she’ll only lay reliably for two to three years. However, chickens can live up to 10 years.
All the while, you’ll still be feeding, watering, and protecting them. One thing that can shorten the life of a chicken are common predators, like raccoons, owls, and even dogs.
Can you even own chickens where you live? Municipal and county land use laws determine whether you can have hens, roosters, both, or neither. They’ll tell you how many you can own, and they may even have rules regarding how close to houses and property lines the creatures can be kept. Check out the regulations in your area to be sure you’re coop is in the clear.
If scooping poop in exchange for farm-fresh eggs sounds good to you — and your local land use codes agree — this checklist is for you. Here are the next steps in becoming a poultry parent, from selecting the right breed to bringing them home, to keeping them happy and healthy.
1. Pick a Chick
Which breed of chick you choose depends on a variety of factors, including how many eggs you want, personality, size, and physical appearance.
- If you want lots of eggs, a Rhode Island Red is a popular choice.
- For a docile bird that will cuddle with your little ones, you might choose a Silkie.
- Larger birds, like White Brahmas, will need larger spaces.
- Smaller breeds, like a Golden-Laced Polish, can survive with less space to roam.
- If you want an Instagram-worthy pick, take a look at a Golden Campine.
In addition to breed, you’ll also have to decide whether you want to start with chicks or pullets. This decision will depend on your budget and your ability.
Until they’re six weeks old, your chicks require special care. You’ll need to provide an enclosed brooder with a heat lamp until they grow feathers.
From seven until 20 weeks, baby chickens are known as pullets. They can live outside in a coop, and they are just a few weeks from beginning to lay eggs. Because of this, pullets are more expensive than chicks.
2. Set Up a Chicken Coop
Your chickens will need an indoor space to sleep and lay — a coop.
- You can build one yourself if you have the time, tools and know-how.
- Buy one from a local farm supply store, or find one secondhand online.
- Hire a local carpenter or a handyman near you to build a custom shelter.
- You can even modify an old playhouse or storage building if you already have one.
No matter which option you choose, make sure there’s enough room. Chickens need four square feet of space each inside the coop.
Your chickens will also need an enclosed, outdoor space where they can roam — a run. Some coops have runs attached, but if yours doesn’t, you’ll need to construct a safe space for them to peck and squawk. If you don’t mind cleaning up after them, your chickens would love free range of your entire backyard.
If that’s too much work, you can section off a single area of your property instead. In either case, you should make sure the area is fenced in and that the structure is in good shape. The last thing you want is a loose chicken!
If you need to install a fence, or if your existing fences needs repairs you don’t feel comfortable making on your own, hire a local fence company to do the work before you bring home your first chick.
Coyotes, hawks, or other predators roaming your area, will require some additional security measures. A coop with a locking door and a fully-enclosed run (with a cover and deeply set fencing) should keep predators away.
3. Feed and Water
Making sure you feed your birds a healthy diet is important to their health and egg production, for obvious reasons. How, when, and what you feed them, on the other hand, may not be so obvious.
Conventional feed is available from local stores and online, but you may prefer organic or soy-free options. You can even make your own. Just pay attention to how much protein your pets need based on their age, and be sure to share your leftovers with them at least occasionally. Do a little research to protect your flock from toxic table scraps; check out this guide.
Most people choose to use a waterer to give their birds constant access. You can choose from hanging versions, the kind that sits on the ground, automated dispensers, fountains, or troughs.
4. Clean and Maintain
Now comes the dirty work. Pick a coop design that provides easy access so cleaning it every few weeks won’t be such a chore. Large doors and ample height to stand in will keep you from having to scrub and scoop on your hands and knees.
If you plan to use the generous amount of chicken waste your chickens produce, you’ll have to compost it first. Age the mixture of shavings and waste from the coop for six months before mixing it with other organic yard and food waste, keeping it in an enclosed container, and turning the mixture every few days.
5. Care and Comfort
Last, but not least, you’ll need to have a plan to care for your feathered family members in the event they get sick or injured. Chickens can suffer from a variety of ailments, like chipped beaks, broken feathers, and bumblefoot. It’s possible to take care of these issues at home if you have the right tools and knowledge.
More serious illnesses may require the care of a professional. Since not all veterinarians treat chickens, be sure to build a relationship with a nearby avian vet.