Getting Started With Backyard Chickens
You’re thinking about raising chickens in your backyard. Yes! This is a good idea. Keeping chickens is a practice that humans have passed down for many thousands of years, and it is immensely satisfying.
Until very recently in history, the majority of the world’s chickens were raised at the homestead level. We know that conventional chicken concentration camps are toxic to the animal and the land as well as our own body, mind, and spirit, so we must seek out the knowledge of past generations in order to provide this exceptionally nutritious food for ourselves.
This list is far from comprehensive, but by the end you should have a good idea of what you need to know and prepare for to get started with backyard chickens. Most importantly, I want to stress that raising chickens is easy and fun.
You can do it! ...As long as you’ve taken the following points into consideration.
1. What are the laws?
This can be the trickiest part for some, and in the end I can’t offer very much specific guidance because local laws and ordinances vary so widely from one place to another. Many homeowners' associations (HOAs) and local counsels have rules on the books banning livestock animals, but in my experience I’ve seen that these bans sometimes exclude laying hens, for example – so it’s worth heading straight to the source documents to review the exact wording yourself.
Now, I’m not exactly advocating breaking the law, and getting caught with chickens you’re not allowed to have can lead to massive fines – I mean hundreds of dollars per day, per bird. But do you really think your neighbors would notice the difference between four birds and, say, eight?
If you are confident that you can manage chickens in a place that says you’re not allowed to do it the way you intend to, and you’re confident that your neighbors won’t call the local code enforcers the first time they hear a peep out of your flock, then I say make with the civil disobedience.
Laws that limit your ability to produce your own food are unjust (beyond what’s reasonable – obviously nobody with a 1/10th acre yard should be raising dairy cows), and they ought to be met with peaceful resistance.
A note on noise: roosters can be very, very loud. Obnoxious really, especially in a neighborhood, and so there’s a good reason why you shouldn’t keep one in the city. But hens can be quite loud too, so if you are concerned about noise being a problem, then it’s probably best to err on the side of caution and stay on the legal side of your local ordinances.
2. What are your goals?
Are you planning to raise chickens for eggs, or for meat, too? How many people do you plan to feed? Do you have friends or family who would be interested in buying extra eggs from you? (Believe me, if you give them a sample of your fresh backyard eggs, they will come back begging for more!) Are you interested in fertilizing your soil or composting kitchen scraps?
These questions will give you a better sense of how many birds to raise, how you will manage them, and what breeds to consider.
There are breeds that are ideal for their breast or thigh or wing size, birds that are prized for their weight or their disease resistance, birds that are better suited for double duty as meat and laying birds, and on and on.
It’s worth doing a little research here (BackYardChickens.com has an exhaustive database), as well as consulting your local Craigslist page to see what breeds are available near you if you don’t plan to purchase chicks from a retail store or distributor.
Brooke and I raise a few different kinds of bantam breeds – primarily Silkies, Sebrights, and Mille Fleurs. We find their smaller size more amenable to our space, and we really like their personalities and general temperament.
3. How do you plan to manage your flock?
Your birds need protection from predators, and shelter from the elements that also provides adequate nesting and sleeping space. Beyond that, when working at the homestead scale, you’ve got several options regarding how and where your chickens will reside.
The simplest option is a coop surrounded by a run. There are as many design variables here as there are chickens on Earth, so much of it comes down to your individual situation and preferences.
The coop could be a glorified dog house encircled by an electric fence; or the two could be a single unit, like ours, covered on all sides. Or, if you’re lucky enough to have the space, you can just give ‘em a coop somewhere on your property and let them spend their days free-ranging as they please.
Another option is what’s known as a chicken tractor. This is essentially a combined coop/run that’s designed to be moved around your yard – every day or two, you pick it up and move it to a new spot.
Unlike a traditional coop, this gives you (and your chickens) some extra perks: they will always have fresh green grass to pick through, they’ll more or less mow your lawn for you, and by disturbing the soil and dropping their, err, amendments everywhere they go, they’ll fertilize your soil in a way that’s simple to manage.
In our case, we have a backyard that’s open to the neighborhood on two sides, and we have many neighbors who let their dogs wander freely (not our favorite thing), so free-ranging wasn’t an option here. I built a 4’x4’x4’ coop with a 4’x8’ attached run for our initial flock of nine birds.
Now we are up to 23 with the spring’s new chicks. Over the winter I built an addition off of the entrance to the run that’s 8 feet wide, 12 feet long, and 6 feet tall, within which we build hot compost piles for the chickens to root around in and help us turn. We took the idea from Geoff Lawton’s “Chicken Tractor on Steroids” and tweaked it for our situation.
4. What is your budget?
Chicks are pretty much a dime a dozen, so that startup cost is negligible. You could pay anywhere from $5-20 for an already mature laying hen on Craigslist, depending on what breeds are available – but consider that many sellers insist that you take a rooster or three off of their hands in order to leave with some hens.
A bag of decent chicken feed is comparable in price to a bag of decent pet food, and the amount of money you’ll spend on feed is more than made up for by the money you’ll save by not shopping for eggs anymore. I recommend organic, non-GMO feed if it’s available in your area.
As for a coop, tractor, or whatever structure you plan to build or acquire, the sky’s the limit as far as cost is concerned. If you’re thrifty and know where to reliably dumpster-dive for scrap wood (hint: try new construction subdivisions on the edge of town), you can build a coop for the cost of fasteners and a roll of hardware cloth.
There are also plenty of pre-made coops or kits that you can find for sale if carpentry’s not your strong suit. But heed Joel Salatin’s wise words on farm carpentry: “The chickens don’t care what it looks like.”
It’s also important to assess the time and energy you are able to invest in this project. Beyond a weekend or two to build your housing structure, your chickens will need daily attention. The coop will need cleaning, food and water dispensers will need filling, and of course, you’ll be collecting eggs every day.
But honestly, the day-to-day chores are pretty minimal, and if you’ve ever taken care of an average house pet, you’re probably responsible enough and capable of managing a flock. But...
5. Are you prepared to cull your birds when necessary?
Here's a hypothetical (but pretty typical) scenario: You get excited about the idea of keeping hens for eggs. You buy ten baby chicks from a local farmer, only to see five of them develop into roosters.
You don’t really want to keep more than one, and the five of them are becoming more and more of a nuisance every day, attacking each other – and you – and making a lot of noise.
You post them on Craigslist for free and cross your fingers, but nobody in your area wants a pack of roosters with no hens.
For some, the answer is as obvious as it is simple: you cull the birds, process their carcasses, and eat them, right?
Have you ever intentionally taken the life of another creature? An animal you’ve taken care of for weeks or months, gotten to know personally, and maybe even named? If your answer is no – as it was for us – then your learning curve will be a little more steep here.
The steps involved are beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say that if you’re new to the world of livestock animals, this responsibility will cause you to confront some uncomfortable truths about the nature of mortality and your place in the world as an omnivore with innumerable options.
You’ll be glad you did confront it, if you so choose, no matter where your thoughts eventually land. I know I am.