One of the latest gardening trends that has exploded on the scene in recent years is raising chickens right in your own backyard.
Last spring I remember going for a leisurely walk around my neighborhood when, in front of one house, I could swear I heard the distinctive clucking of a hen. Their backyard was fenced, but when I peered into a crack I found myself staring directly into the orange eye of a chicken. Naturally, I was quite taken aback. We live in the city-like suburbs of Washington, DC. But, I was very curious and after doing some research, was convinced by the many benefits of raising chickens.
Chickens are avid bug hunters and offer chemical-free pest and weed control for your whole lawn. They also produce an excellent fertilizer. Raising chickens is much less expensive compared with other animals, and they actually make for good pets, too. Chickens that are well socialized are friendly and calm, most even love being petted. And, of course, you get the added reward of delicious fresh eggs, that are organic and nutrient-packed. Four mature hens will produce about a dozen of these beauties for you each week. Raising chickens is a fun and rewarding project, especially for children. Here are some basics to keep in mind when considering this unique hobby:
City and county zoning laws vary hugely, even within one state. The first thing to check is whether your community is zoned for raising chickens. You would be surprised how many communities are. Visit this database to ascertain whether or not you can have chickens in your backyard. It is also a good idea to talk to your homeowners association as well. Talking to your neighbors before you begin gathering supplies is a considerate thing to do. Promising them that there will be no roosters is always a selling point. And you might want to throw in a little hint about bribes via fresh eggs!
What You'll Need
Exactly what you'll need to raise chickens depends on the age at which you want to adopt your new pets. Buying fertilized chicken eggs and watching them hatch is an amazingly gratifying experience. But to do it you need an incubator and lots of time. A good incubator can range from $95 to $200. There are plenty of ways to make one yourself though, and we will discuss these below in the “Hatching Eggs” section.
If instead you decide to raise chicks that have already hatched, you need no incubator, but you do need a brooder. A chick brooder is basically a nursery where you keep your chicks for the first two months of their life. The temperature and light have to be consistent, and you need to keep a watchful eye on your little flock. Again, there are plenty of ways to build your own brooder, which we will talk about below in “Chicks”.
If you want to bypass the egg and chick stages completely, you can buy young or fully mature hens. These need to be housed in an outdoor chicken coop. Coops should be large enough so that each hen has 3 to 4 square feet of space inside. You also need an outdoor chicken run, a fenced off outdoor area for the chickens to roam and hunt for bugs. This needs to be large enough so that each hen has 10 square feet of space. Other materials you need include bedding for your coop, chicken feed, and feeding and watering devices.
The most important thing you need to raise chickens is the ability to provide them with a safe living environment. Domestic chickens have plenty of natural predators, including eagles, hawks, fox, dogs, and even that curious neighborhood cat. There are ways to safeguard your flock, but think about all potential dangers well before you acquire your new friends.
Where Do I Get Them?
Although you've probably never stumbled on eggs, chicks, or chickens for sale, there are actually plenty of places where you can acquire chicken and chicken raising supplies. Your local feed store, which you may never have visited before, is always a first stop. Although it might be a hike out to farm-country for some readers, it is well worth the visit. Although I live close to a big city, only half an hour away is beautiful farmland, and naturally, the feed store those farmers use. A feed store is a place that sells farm equipment, supplies, feed, seeds, and usually eggs and chicks as well. You can also visit local farms that may sell eggs, chicks, and mature chickens. State fairs are a reliable place to find healthy stock. And, you can even order eggs and chicks online for delivery in the mail! Fresh chicken eggs and young chicks typically cost $1 to $3 per egg or chick, while young or mature hens can cost $15 to $40, depending on the type, size, and age.
If you do a bit of research you will see that there are countless breeds of chicken. All have their pro's and con's. Some are beautifully showy but can be temperamental. Exotic breeds are also cold sensitive and may need additional warming during hard winters. Some breeds are large and produce many eggs per week, but also eat pounds of feed per week. Likewise, smaller breeds eat less but produce fewer eggs. Popular and easy beginner breeds include Orpington, Rhode Island Red, Leghorn, and Cornish. You can keep multiple breeds of chicken under the same roof, just be sure you have plenty of coop space.
Although hatching eggs yourself is an undertaking compared to raising mature hens, it is a magical experience indeed. And, hatchlings are easy to socialize, making for pets that are friendly and personable.
Buying Eggs - When shopping for eggs, only choose from those that have been laid within three days. Ideally, eggs should be set in incubation within one week of being laid. After 10 days of storage without incubation, the rate of hatchability drops drastically, so get the freshest eggs you can. Look for eggs that are smooth, even-shaped, clean, and undamaged.
Choosing an Incubator - After you've found a reliable source for chicken eggs, it's time to get set up. Finding a good incubator is essential for success. In nature, when a hen lays eggs, she takes pains to keep them at a consistent temperature and turns the eggs frequently to stop the developing embryos from touching the egg wall and sticking to it. A good incubator mimics these conditions by keeping the eggs at a consistently high temperature, usually around 100 degrees Fahrenheit. There are many models of egg incubators and though some are quite cheap, unfortunately, they have low rates of success. Splurging for a model that is a little more expensive is well worth the reward of healthy happy chicks. Basic models incubate up to 10 eggs, and have settings for manual egg turning, temperature, and a fan system for even heating. They run around $100. More advanced models come with automatic egg tuning devices and humidity meters as well. Keep in mind that if the model you choose does not come with a hygrometer (humidity meter), you should opt to purchase one separately. You can get them quite cheaply from a Walmart or Home Depot. The exact humidity in your incubator will come into play, especially during the later stages of incubation.
Alternatively, you can build your own incubator. You will need to consider materials, thermometers, temperature control, size, and humidity.
Incubating - Once you have your eggs and incubator ready, you can set it all up. If you are having eggs sent to you in the mail, let the eggs settle for 24 hours before incubation. Place these eggs, fat end up, in an egg carton and let them sit at room temperature. Next, turn on your incubator and use the built-in thermometer to monitor the temperature for 24 hours before placing your eggs inside. Especially if this is the first time you have used your incubator, make sure it is working properly. In a forced-air incubator (one with a built-in fan) eggs should be kept at 99 to 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit. In a still-air incubator, temperatures should stay at 101 to 102 degrees. You are also aiming for a 45 to 50 percent humidity. If all works fine, take a few minutes to draw an X on one end of the eggs and an O on the other, so that you can turn them without confusion. Be sure to use a non-toxic marker. You are now ready to place your eggs in the incubator. If your eggs will be sitting on one end, make sure that they sit with the fat end up. If they will be laying on their side, simply place them on the surface of your incubator and let them position themselves. Now, start your watches! Eggs will hatch within 21 days, give or take one or two days.
Egg Care - While the eggs incubate, there are still plenty of things you need to be mindful of. Make it a habit to check the temperature of the incubator a few times a day. Plenty of things could go wrong, internally, to mess with the heating unit and the more you monitor the incubation, the smoother everything will run. Checking the temperature is a good chore for kids to take on. Turning the eggs is another chore that older children can take on. In nature, the mother hen turns her eggs up to two times each half hour. The easy answer to the question, “How often should I turn my eggs?”, is: as often as possible. Automatic turners will usually turn eggs 12 times each hour. If you are turning manually, you want to be sure to turn the eggs at least five times each day. Any less than this and the developing embryos may stick to the egg wall, causing growth deformities and usually death. Always turn eggs an uneven number of times a day to ensure that the eggs do not spend two nights in a row in the same position.
Candling - Keep in mind that not all eggs will hatch. Natural fertility can range from 55 to 95 percent depending on the season, conditions, and type of chicken. However, 95 to 100 percent hatches can happen. Eggs that are sent in the mail typically have a 50 percent hatch rate. The fertility of the eggs cannot be determined before incubating them. After 5 to 7 days in the incubator, white-shelled eggs can be “candled” to determine fertility. Candling is the process of shining a bright light into the egg during development so that you can clearly see the developing embryo. There are specialized candlers that are sold for this practice, usually running around $15. However, all you need to candle is a bright light with an opening of 1 inch in diameter. You can easily build one yourself using a bright flashlight and a piece of cardboard with a 1 inch diameter hole cut into the center and taped over the light. To candle, turn off or dim the lights in your incubation room. Carefully remove the eggs from the incubator one at a time and press the bright light directly onto the fat end of the egg. In normally developing eggs, you will see an air sac at the fat end of the egg and a developing embryonic sac towards the middle of the egg. Unfertilized eggs will show nothing inside and should be discarded. Do not attempt to eat the unfertilized eggs! They are no longer fresh and could make you very ill. Candle your eggs once a day during incubation. Sometimes embryos will simply stop developing and these eggs should be discarded. If left alone, they will rot and burst, spewing bacteria all over the rest of your brood. Also, as the embryos develop, the air sac in the egg will grow. If it is not growing, or growing too much, you most likely have a problem with the level of humidity in your incubator. Take a look at these handy pictures to see examples of candled eggs.
Hatching - In the last days of incubation, you will notice when candling your eggs that they are almost completely dark. This is because the chick has grown substantially and now takes up almost all of your egg. After day 18, stop candling your egg. The chick inside is almost ready to hatch and needs to be left alone to position itself to do this. Also at day 18, increase your humidity to 65 percent. A high humidity in the incubator allows for an easier hatching and is an important component. Around day 21, the chick will use its egg tooth, a small knobby growth on its beak, to break into the air sac and breath for the first time. Then, it will start “pipping,” or cracking through the shell. The first pip is used as an air hole to allow oxygen into the egg. Next, it will start cracking through the shell in earnest. This process can take up to a full day. Never interfere or try and “help” the chick by picking through the egg yourself. The chick knows what it is doing. Try to keep in mind that this little creature has barely ever moved before, and this process takes effort! They will take little rests and breathers while they hatch, and this is totally normal. Just sit back and let nature take its course. Once the hole is wide enough, the chick will use its body and its legs to push the egg apart and emerge.
Wet, tired, and matted-looking, your chicks have finally hatched. They will be exhausted, so let them relax in their incubator for 24 hours before moving them to your chick brooder.
The brooder, or nursery, will be your chick's home for the first six weeks of their lives. Buying a pre-made brooder with all the fixings will run around $85. However, many chicken owners build their own brooder at home. The size of your brooder will range depending on how many chicks you want to raise. You should allow for at least 1 square foot of space per chick, more is always better. Large Rubbermaid tubs, crates, or sturdy wooden boxes make for great brooders.
The Brooder - Line the bottom of your brooder with bedding. For hatchlings, paper towels spread over wood shavings is recommended for the first few days. Then, switch over to pine shavings. Shredded newspaper can become very slippery and has been associated with leg development problems in chicks. Bedding should be changed out once every three days. At this age, cleanliness is very important and dirty or damp bedding is known to cause many problems with healthy chick development. The temperature of the brooder is very important. Most chicken owners use a heat lamp or bright lamp with a reflector to keep the brooder at a consistent temperature. The brooder should be kept at 95 degrees Fahrenheit for the first week and the temperature should be decreased by 5 degrees each following week. Keep a thermometer in the brooder and check the temperature often. Keep your light at one end of the brooder so that the chicks can migrate to the cooler end if they want to cool down.
Feeding Chicks - You will, of course, need to provide clean water and food for your chicks. Keep a shallow dish full of clean room temperature water on the other side of the brooder from the heat lamp. Make sure to keep the dish full of water and marbles or pebbles so that the chicks cannot fall in and drown or get soaked. While they are in the brooder, the chicks will eat “crumbles” which is a feed designed for full nutrition. Some formulas are medicated with a low dose of antibiotics that guard against common infections and diseases. If you choose a non-medicated diet, keep a watchful eye on the cleanliness of your brooder. Chicks will naturally scratch at their food, so a feeder that keeps everything in one place is very convenient. Likewise, chicks will use their feeding bowls as little toilets, so feeders that keep chicks from roaming around in their food are very helpful as well. You can buy a chick feeder for around $8.00 on Amazon. After the first week or two, you can start feeding your chicks treats! Yogurt, finely chopped strawberries, grapes, crushed cheerios, pet store mealworms and crickets, and even small or chopped garden worms make great chick treats. Keep in mind that to digest these treats, chicks need chick grit, which can be bought online or in feed stores, or coarse sand, which works just as well.
Cleaning Chicks - One condition that chicks are very susceptible to is called “pasty butt.” Pasty butt occurs when a plug forms over the chick's vents and they cannot relieve themselves. This condition can be fatal. So, for the first two weeks, check your chicks' butts often. Remove any clogs with some warm water, pat them dry, and apply a small amount of Vaseline or vegetable oil to the area. A few drops of organic apple cider vinegar added to the chicks' water has been proven to be very helpful in preventing this condition.
Socializing - Chicks are curious critters and love play time. Socialize every day with your chicks; hold them, pet them, and tickle them. The chicks will imprint to you, and most will even follow you around. Many chicks have been known to come when you call them! After they are two weeks old, you can start taking your chicks outside for short periods of time if the weather is warm. Be very watchful of them. They are fast, curious, can squeeze into small spaces, and are totally vulnerable. Only take a few chicks out one at a time so you can keep a better eye on them.
After six weeks in the brooder, your chickens are ready to move to their coop. Pre-made chicken coops can cost around $85 if used, and all the way up to $4,000+ for custom built work. With some carpentry skills, though, you can build a coop yourself. Check out these cool coop designs for some ideas.
Feeding Chickens - Adolescent chickens (also called “pullets”), between the ages of six and 22 weeks, should be fed a pullet pellet feed, which is a low-protein diet designed for slow and steady growth. At 22 weeks, the hens are of a laying age and should be switched to a high protein pellet diet to foster strong eggshells. Pellet feeders and watering mechanisms can either be bought online, or built at home. Take a look at some of these plans and ideas for easy DIY feeders and waterers. Chickens should also be allowed to roam outside of their coops for a few hours a day. During this time they will graze on grass and other plants as well as catch bugs. This is important to maintain a good nutritional balance. Make sure that if you are free-ranging your flock you have someone available to keep an eye on them. Chicken ranges are enclosed structures where you chickens can roam in safety, usually made from metal mesh. It is always fun to give your flock some treats a few times a week. Fresh fruits and veggies, yogurt, oats, seeds, popcorn, raisins, and cooked rice are all yummy treats that your brood will enjoy.
Coop Care - The bottom of your coop needs to be lined with bedding. Again, pine (never ceder) shavings are a popular choice. Sand is also a great option. Hay or straw molds very easily, making it a hazardous bedding choice. If you mix your bedding with food grade Diatomaceous Earth, this component will help desiccate droppings, prevent odors, and control flies. It does not harm chickens of any kind. Chicken coops should be cleaned deeply once a week and old bedding should be replaced with new.
Coop Amenities - Your coop needs to contain nesting boxes. Nesting boxes are the roosts in which your hens will lay their eggs. Nesting boxes should be mounted on the wall or built on legs 1 to 2 feet off the ground. Place a step in front of your nesting box for your hens to hop onto when they are coming down. Make sure your nesting box has a sloped roof so that the hens do not roost on top of the box. The nests themselves should be large enough for a hen to comfortably stand up and turn around.
During the snow storms and harsh winters, it is natural to worry about your flock. However, cold hardy chicken breeds can take it all the way down to -30 degrees Fahrenheit! Making sure that your coop is well insulated and has working vents is the most important part of keeping your flock warm enough.
Coop Cleaning - It is very important to maintain a high level of hygiene within your coop. Otherwise, a coop can become a breeding ground for bacteria that can make your flock very ill. Always stick to a strict weekly or bi-weekly coop cleaning schedule. Many chicken owners spot clean their coops daily and remove droppings. Wear clean gloves and clothes when working in your coop and handling your chickens. Wash your hands before and after handling your chickens. Before bringing new chickens into your coop, keep them for a few days in isolation, either in your old brooder, or a smaller coop. Observe them to ensure they are healthy. Likewise, if you notice a chicken from your flock is looking ill, immediately remove her to the isolation coop for observation. Store excess food in airtight containers such as tupperware.
Now that you have a healthy mature flock, kick back and enjoy. Hens can live anywhere from 8-11 years and socialized hens have great relationships with their humans. Check your nesting box daily for eggs and store them in the refrigerator. If you find parts of your lawn with pests problems like mosquitos, ants, or aphids, simply get one or two of your chicken friends to hang out in the area for a few hours and take care of the problem. If you need an easy fertilizer, chicken droppings happens to be one of the most nutritious fertilizers known to man. Once established, flocks are easy and fun to maintain.