By Cassie Johnston
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I’ve been meaning to write this post for quite a while now. I get asked all the time how to start a backyard chicken flock. There is so much information out there about chickenkeeping that it can, honestly, feel really overwhelming. I know I felt so intimidated by everything for so long, that I put off starting our flock for years because I wasn’t sure I could do it. I was so wrong.
I personally don’t think keeping chickens needs to be hard, complicated, or life-altering (well, other than having life-alteringly good eggs to cook with). Once your flock is established, you can spend as little as five minutes a day caring for them. I think that anyone who has the space—and it doesn’t take much—can raise chickens if they want to. You can do this, I promise!
I decided to pull together a simple guide to get you started with your flock. Of course, this isn’t all the information you ever need in your chickenkeeping journey—but this is a really great start on the basics. For more comprehensive chickenkeeping info, I highly recommend Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens and/or The Backyard Homestead.
Alright, let’s dig in—and as always, feel free to ask any questions in the comments. I’d love to help other people get on the chickenkeeping train!
This is not a problem for us way out in the middle of nowhere, but if you want to do suburban or urban chickenkeeping, you need to check in with your city, state, local, and homeowner’s association ordinances. Many locations ban roosters because of the noise, and some places put a limit on the number of backyard chickens you can keep. Some still completely ban chickenkeeping (whomp. whomp.). Check the laws before you get too far down the chicken path.
Chances are, you’ll be raising your chickens from just-hatched chicks. Incubating and hatching egg is more of an advanced-chickenkeeper thing, and personally, I’d recommend waiting until you have a bit of chicken experience before trying it out.
Since these freshly-hatched chicks will be away from their mother hen, you need to set up a hen-like environment for those baby chicks to grow and thrive in—this is called a brooder.
The traditional brooder set-up is a big cardboard box, pine shavings, feeder, waterer, and a heat lamp. This is a really affordable and simple way to get started—but I personally don’t use this set-up. The pine shavings can be hard on baby chick’s lungs and the heat lamp can be hard to control, and in the worst case scenarios, burn your house down.
Depending on the number of chicks, we either use a cardboard box or a plywood box, and fill it with corn cob bedding—this is typically used for horse stalls and can be found in almost any farm supply store. It’s cheap as all get out, super absorbent, and easy on the chick’s lungs.
Instead of the heat lamp, we use an electric radiant-heat brooder. At $80, it’s definitely more expensive than the heat lamp method, but I love that there are no worries about fire or inconsistent heat. The brooder lamp works just like a mother hen—the chicks run under it when they need to warm up, and come out when they don’t. It’s a really great investment if you plan on raising more than one batch of chicks—and the resell value is great on them, too.
You need to keep the brooder away from any predators (including your other pets—dogs, cats, etc.). And keep it in a protected area. A basement or garage works—but be warned, chicks can be really messy and dusty, so I wouldn’t put it in a super nice area of your home.
And then, of course, provide food and fresh water. We just use these cheap-o plastic waterers up on scrap blocks of 2″ x 4″ wood—raising them up helps keep the chickens from messing in their food and water.
You’ll want your brooder to be easy to clean—you’ll be amazed at how much poop little chicks can produce—and you’ll want to keep everything nice and tidy while they’re growing big and strong.
Just like dogs or cats or any animals, different breeds of chickens have different qualities. Some chickens are flighty and anxious. Some are cuddly and loving. Some are great egg layers. Some lay crazy color eggs. Some thrive in hot climates. Some are made for freezing weather. You need to decide what qualities are important to you and your family.
If you’re looking for a few suggestions of friendly, good-laying, non-anxious breeds, I recommend Speckled Sussex, Light Brahmas, or Cuckoo Marans. We have all three and they are all amazing. And you can’t beat an Easter Egger for fun colored eggs.
You can get your chicks from one of three places: a farm/hardware store, an online hatchery, or a local hatchery. Most folks get their chicks from a farm store in the Spring. Your selection will be limited, but some bigger farm stores will sell a huge variety of breeds.
You’ll probably want to get sexed chicks—ones that have been determined to be hens from birth. Look for signs that say “sexed” or “pullet”. If you see something that says “straight run” that means you get what you get—meaning you have a 50% shot at getting a rooster. Many farm stores only sell straight-run chicks, so if you want to ensure you’re getting hens, a hatchery might be your best choice.
We ordered our first batch of chicks from an online hatchery, and just like everything in life, there are pros and cons. Pros: you get to pick your exact breeds, get only hens, and the chicks are normally in really good health. Cons: there is a lot of stress in the shipping process (for both the chicks and you). You might lose some chicks if the weather gets cold or there are shipping delays.
I think the best of both worlds is finding a local hatchery to you where you can pick up your chicks. They normally have better selection and better sexing than the farm stores, but you don’t have to deal with the hassle and worry of shipping. You’d be amazed at how many small and large hatcheries there are (especially in rural areas). Ask around at the farmer’s market or to folks in your area selling eggs. Or try googling “hatchery” with the name of your area/town.
Now you need to decide how many chicks to get! It can be really tempting to pick up “extra” chicks. They are so tiny! And so cute! And so cheap (most places will sell them for $3-$5 each). But try hard to remember that each fluffy baby chick will become a big, pooping, eating, adult chicken—and you need to have space for them.
I recommend starting with 2-3 chicks, and going from there (you can always add more chickens in years to come). With that few, you can really give your chicks the attention they need, they’ll have friends to interact with, and you will get 2-3 eggs per day once they are laying.
Your brooder is set up and you have your chicks, so you’re basically all good to go! Taking care of chicks is actually pretty simple. You need to make sure they have clean water and a good quality chick starter food. I highly recommend using an organic chicken food—and Purina makes a great organic chick starter that you can get at most farm supply stores.
Other than that, just keep an eye on them and love on them! The more you hold and interact with them now, the more they’ll be tame around you later. Chances are, your chicks will be happy and healthy, but use your instincts – if something feels wrong, do an internet search to see what other chickenkeepers are saying. There is a great backyard chicken community online, and your question has probably already been answered!
One thing you’ll need to watch out at first for is a condition called pasty butt—yup, that’s really what it’s called. It’s usually caused by inconsistent heat in the brooder. If you use the radiant heat brooder I recommended, you don’t have to worry about pasty butt nearly as much. With a traditional heat lamp, you need to take a warm, damp paper towel and wipe your chick’s bum at least twice a day for first week.
If the weather is warm, you can bring them outside and let them roam around and get a taste of the great outdoors for a little bit every now and again—just make sure you have some way to keep them secure. They can be slippery little buggers! Other than that, just enjoy being a chicken parent. See how easy it is?
Your chicks will be in the brooder for about six weeks before they move into their permanent home—the coop. Guess what? Six weeks is pretty much the perfect amount of time to research and build your own coop! Nothing like a deadline to get you crackin’, eh?
If you’re looking to do this on the cheap, I highly recommend building your own coop. The markup on premade chicken coops is unbelievably high! But, if you don’t have the space, time, or resources to make your own coop, I highly recommend asking for recommendations on coops at your local farm store. Also, check on Pinterest for some great ideas for upcycled coops made from everything from refrigerators to children’s playhouses!
We ended up making our own coop using The Garden Coop plans. We modified those plans to be twice as big—because it’s always a good idea to go as big as possible when you build a coop. You can always keep fewer chickens in a bigger space, but you can’t keep more in a smaller one. We LOVED working with The Garden Coop plans—and they have a bunch of different sizes for different flocks. Highly recommended!
Your coop will need some sort of bedding in probably three locations. In the nesting boxes, just use straw that the chickens will form into nests. In the hen house, we use cob just like we do in the brooder. And in the run, we use sand. Sand is easy to clean (like kitty litter), really affordable, and, most importantly to us, it helps keep the coop cool when it gets super hot here in the summer.
Depending on your location, this decision might already be made for you—many local ordinances don’t allow backyard chickens to range outside of an enclosed run in a coop. But if your ordinances don’t require you to keep your chickens cooped up, you’ll need to make some decisions about what you feed your chickens and if and when they range.
Letting chickens roam free is nice, in theory, but chickens are prey animals, and can be really difficult to keep safe from predators. If that’s a risk you are willing to take, then free ranging will give you the healthiest eggs, the happiest chickens, and a reduced food bill.
An option in between cooped and free range is penned ranging—where the chickens roam in a large run or pen throughout the day, and then are shut into a coop during the day. This is what we do, and it’s the best of both worlds. Our chickens get to be “free” in about a half acre pen during the day, but they are safe from the biggest predator we fight—stray dogs.
Regardless of if you choose to free range or coop your chickens, you’ll need to feed them a high quality poultry feed. If you free range or pen range your flock, you’ll need to just supplement their diet—they’ll get a lot of their nutrition from the bugs and plants they pick out of the ground. If they are cooped all the time, you’ll be giving them their entire nutrition via the feed. Either way, you want good stuff. Trust me, you can tell the difference between eggs from a chicken who is fed good quality feed and one who is not.
We choose to feed our chickens organically, and we really like the Purina line of organic poultry feeds. We love it because they are readily available at even our small town feed stores. It’s nice to not have to special order organic feed—and we still feel good about the health of our flock and quality of our eggs.
Regardless of what you decide to feed your flock, you’ll want to find a reliable source near-to-you. Trust me, when those chickens run out of feed, they are not happy campers. Chickens get hangry, too!
You’ll slowly want to introduce your not-so-baby-anymore baby chicks to the outdoors, until the big day when they move into their coop permanently. Right around the 5-6 week mark is a good time to do it—basically, when they have lost all of their fluff and have a full set of feathers to help keep them warm.
If you plan on ranging your flock, you’ll want to keep them “locked” in their coop for about a week to train them that the coop is their home. After that, you can let them free to range, and they’ll come home to roost each night around dusk. It’s magic! We’ve never had to herd our chickens into the coop at night. They know that’s their safe home, and they automatically go there when things start to go bump in the night.
And then, you wait! Keep the chickens fed, watered, and their coop clean, and within a few months, you should find your first egg. It’s pretty much the most exciting thing ever. On average, chickens start laying at about six months old—but this can vary widely based on breed, season, and other factors.
If your chickens are free ranging or ranging in a pen, they might not know to lay their eggs in a nesting box, so if your hens show other signs of laying (most visually—if their comb is bright, bright red), keep an eye out! We actually found our very first egg under a bush behind our house.
You can fix the nesting box problem by locking the chickens up in the coop for about week, and placing dummy eggs in the nesting boxes. Chickens like to do what other chickens do, so if they see another hen has laid there, they are more apt to, as well. Even since we did that, the girls have consistently laid in their nesting boxes.
Now that your flock is established and laying, there really isn’t a whole lot to do. Keep their coop stocked with clean water and fresh food. Clean the coop every now and again. Collect your eggs. And just keep an eye on your flock to make sure there are no diseases or injuries.
Because chickens are prey animals, they tend to hide their diseases and injuries decently well, but if you know your flock, you’ll be able to tell when something is off. If their comb loses color, they start to lose feathers, or they just don’t seem like their usual chicken-y selves, it’s time to check up on them.
You also might want to call around in your area and see if you can find a local vet that sees chickens (ours does) and set up a chicken first aid kit.
Chickens will lay extremely well for the first two years of their life, then their egg production will dwindle as they age. You can then decide what to do with your hens after that—that’s one of the reasons we built such a big coop, we decided to let our chickens live out their happy little chicken lives here as long as they’d like.
Some chickenkeepers give older hens away and some butcher older hens for eating. We kinda feel like since the hens give us so much in eggs and enjoyment that it’s the least we can do to repay them is to let them live their lives out in peace, but I know not all chickenkeepers feel that way.
And there you have it! It doesn’t seem so hard now, does it? Like I said, there is a lot more information, but I hope this basic primer helped you get excited about chickenkeeping. You can do this! I promise!
My friends at Purina believe in you, too, and want to give you a free bag of their organic poultry feed to help you get started with your chickenkeeping journey! Just enter using the widget below. They’re also offering a $5 off coupon for Purina® Organic Poultry Feed to everyone! Click here to nab your coupon.
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Good luck! And happy chickenkeeping.
This post has been sponsored by Purina Animal Nutrition, as such I received free product from Purina to share my opinion with my readers. However, my opinions are based on my individual and unique experience. Based on my experience in 2016 I believe this line of feed has been amazing for my flock and I encourage you to try it too!
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