If you love the idea of going outside in the morning and grabbing fresh eggs for breakfast, then backyard chickens just might be for you. With the increase in popularity over the last few years, supplies are easier than ever to come by, and almost everyone knows someone with chickens. At least five of my neighbors have a yard full of chickens, and those are just the ones I know about. With a little planning, you, too, can have cheerful hens following you around looking for treats.
Choosing the girls
Your first decision is whether you want to start with full grown hens, pullets, or chicks. If you start with the older girls, ideally you want to get them from the same place so they know each other. Chickens have a very strict pecking order, and putting one hen or pullet with two that are already acquainted messes up the pecking order and causes terrible squabbles until they get things sorted out.
Full grown chickens are usually a year or more old and have already started laying. Year-olds will generally lay 5-6 eggs per week, with some variation depending on the breed. Chickens lay no more than one egg per day, and these girls are in their prime, pumping out the max. Even two year old hens are excellent layers, but at about three years old their production really starts to drop, and continues to drop as they age. If your hen has managed to make it to five years old, she might produce one egg a week, or maybe not. If you decide to start with full grown hens, I recommend getting them from someone you know, both for reasons of health, and so you don’t get scammed into buying a five year old hen.
Pullets are girls that have either just started laying, or will likely begin to lay in a few weeks. They don’t look as plump as full grown hens, and their feathers have a little bit softer appearance. These will be your most expensive choice, but you’re paying for the cost of raising them to this age. When they do start laying their eggs will be a little bit small, and you may get a few soft shelled eggs until the laying mechanism all gets up to speed.
If you decide to start from chicks, you need to keep them in a proper environment until they are old enough to be fully feathered, and roost in a safe coop.
Your next decision is breed. You might decide to choose your chickens based on appearance, or go for egg color, as I did. There are some really fancy chickens out there, but if you want eggs I would suggest going with a hardy breed recommended by your local farm store (if you have one) or other chicken owners in your neighborhood. Some birds are more resistant to cold or heat and will be easier to care for in your climate.
There are some other questions in here such as “do you pay for a vaccine” (for Marek's disease) and “do you feed chicks with medicated feed” (for coccidiosis) . If this is your first chicken experience, I would say yes to both. It will give you peace of mind and won’t hurt anything; neither of these things will affect your children if they play with the chicks.
Choosing their home
Now you’ll need a coop, and a secure place for the chickens to roam. There are some really snazzy pre-made coops you can find online or custom built (check Craig’s list), or you can build your own if you’re handy. Check around for plans on the web or design your own based on the requirements of your chickens. Pay attention to their need for ventilation and protection from weather and predators. Don’t rely on chicken wire to protect your girls. Minks, raccoons and other nocturnal predators can, and will chew through. Raccoons will reach through the large holes in the wire, grab a chicken and pull it back through the wire piece by piece. This is not something you want to see in the morning. Use hardware cloth on all openings of your coop. You also want to keep out rats and snakes, so don’t assume a small hole will be ok. I put pine shavings on the floor of the coop to make the cleanup a little easier.
If you have an enclosed pen, remember to protect the ground around the sides to prevent something from digging in. Some people pour a deep foundation, some bury chicken wire around the sides, I have a layer of paving stones. The top of the pen needs to be covered to prevent flying predators and climbing raccoons.
If you decide to free range your girls in your yard, get a really good fence. Don’t forget to protect them from your dog, if you have one. It’s a lot less stressful to have an enclosed pen.
Chickens make a lot of poop, which you will have to clean up. The good news is that it’s really good for your garden. Some people put sand in their coop and use a cat scoop to clean out the poop, I throw in a bale of straw, and pitchfork it out when it gets yucky.
Your girls will clear a spot in the pen for dustbathing. The first time you see this you’ll panic because it looks completely unnatural, as if your hen is having a seizure. It’s ok, this is what they do. They also like to stretch out in the sun on their sides, with one wing extended, kind of like they’re tanning their armpit, er, wingpit. They also tend to nap on the floor.
Credit: JestMeThe easiest way to feed your girls is by buying a complete feed from a farm store or poultry cooperative. Feel free to throw them table scrap; your hens will be happy to eat whatever you eat. Don’t give them moldy or rotten food though, you’ll make them sick. Avoid strong flavored foods like onions and garlic unless you like garlic flavored eggs. I save the eggshells, crush them up, and give them back to the girls for extra calcium. Even though a layer feed will provide calcium, it’s always a good idea to have extra around. Those shells use up a lot.
That’s all there is to it. Barring any chicken emergencies, having hens around is really easy. You don’t need a rooster to get eggs, but if you want one, or accidentally ended up with one, read about them here.
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