Chickens for the Backyard Homestead
For many, adding a flock of chickens is what truly turns a gardener into a homesteader. You’re suddenly caring for a group of animals on your property and, in turn, feeding your family with what they produce. You’re practically a farmer! While raising a flock of backyard chickens is one of the most enjoyable parts of homesteading for many, it’s not a commitment to be taken lightly. There’s plenty for you to consider beforehand to make sure that chicken-keeping is a fit for your family homestead.
Before you become a chicken owner, you need to make some important decisions. Caring for a flock is different from bringing home a puppy or taking in a stray kitten, and quite frankly, it ends up not being right for everyone who tries it. A little planning goes a long way toward a good first attempt at raising chickens.
Homesteading: legal issues and backyard chickens
To know whether you can legally keep chickens, first you need to know the zoning of your property. Next, ask your government officials about any laws regarding keeping animals and erecting sheds or other kinds of animal housing in your zone. You need to be concerned about two types of laws and ordinances before you begin to raise chickens:
- Laws concerning the ownership of animals at your home location: Restrictions may cover the number of birds, the sex of the birds, and where on the property chicken coops can be located. In some areas, the amount of property you have and your closeness to neighbors may determine whether you can keep birds and, if so, how many. Your neighbor may own 5 acres and be allowed to keep chickens, but on your 2-acre lot, poultry may be prohibited. Or you may be allowed to keep so many pets per acre, including chickens. Or you may need to get written permission from neighbors. Many other rules can apply.
- Laws that restrict the types of housing or pens you can construct: Do you need a permit to build a chicken coop? Does it need to be inspected?
Don’t take the word of neighbors, your aunt, or other people not connected to local government that it’s okay to raise chickens at your home. If you’re in the midst of buying a home, don’t even take the word of real estate agents about being able to keep chickens or even about the property zoning. You never know whether the information you’re getting is legitimate when it comes from a secondary source, so it’s best to go straight to the primary source of legal info.
Basic chicken care and requirements
Chickens can take as much time and money as you care to spend, but you need to recognize the minimum commitments required to keep chickens. In the next sections, we give you an idea of what those minimums are.
When we speak about time here, we’re referring to daily caretaking chores. Count on a minimum of 15 minutes in the morning and in the evening to care for chickens in a small flock, if you don’t spend a lot of time just observing their antics. Even if you install automatic feeders and waterers, a good chicken-keeper should check on the flock twice a day. If you have laying hens, collect the eggs once a day, which shouldn’t take long.
Try to attend to your chickens’ needs before they go to bed for the night and after they’re up in the morning. Ideally, chickens need 14 hours of light and 10 hours of darkness. In the winter, you can adjust artificial lighting so that it accommodates your schedule. Turning on lights to do chores after chickens are sleeping is stressful for them.
You will need additional time once a week for basic cleaning chores. If you have just a few chickens, these chores may be less than an hour. The routine will include removing manure, adding clean litter, scrubbing water containers, and refilling feed bins. Depending on your chicken-keeping methods, you may need additional time every few months for more intensive cleaning.
We devote an entire section of this minibook to the all-important chicken coop, and then provide step-by-step plans for building your own. For now, here are some basic space requirements for your birds.
Each full-size adult chicken needs at least 2 square feet of floor space for shelter and another 3 square feet in outside run space if it isn’t going to be running loose much. So, a chicken shelter for four hens needs to be about 2 feet by 4 feet, and the outside pen needs to be another 2 feet by 6 feet, to make your total space used 2 feet by 10 feet (these dimensions don’t have to be exact). For more chickens, you need more space, and you need a little space to store feed and maybe a place to store the used litter and manure. Of course, more space for the chickens is always better.
As far as height goes, the chicken coop doesn’t have to be more than 3 feet high. But you may want your coop to be tall enough that you can walk upright inside it.
Besides the size of the space, you need to think about location, location, location. You probably want your space somewhere other than the front yard, and you probably want the chicken coop to be as far from your neighbors as possible, to lessen the chance that they complain.
Unless you plan on purchasing rare breeds that are in high demand, the cost of purchasing chickens won’t break most budgets. Adult hens that are good layers cost less than $10 each. Chicks of most breeds cost a few dollars each. Sometimes you can even get free chickens! The cost of adult fancy breeds kept for pets ranges from a few dollars to much, much more, depending on the breed.
Housing costs are extremely variable, but they are one-time costs. If you have a corner of a barn or an old shed to convert to housing and your chickens will be free-ranging most of the time, your housing start-up costs will be low — maybe less than $50. If you want to build a fancy chicken shed with a large outside run, your cost could be hundreds of dollars. If you want to buy a pre-built structure for a few chickens, count on a couple hundred dollars.
You may have a few other one-time costs for coop furnishings, including feeders, waterers, and nest boxes. For four hens, clever shopping should get you these items for less than $50.
Bargain hunters can often find used equipment online. Check websites such as Craigslist or eBay, or ask on neighborhood social networks (the modern-day “classifieds”). Lots of people go gung-ho raising chickens and then call it quits after just a year or two; you may be able to score a good bit of gently-used gear at a bargain price!
Commercial chicken feed is reasonably priced, generally comparable to common brands of dry dog and cat food. How many chickens you have determines how much you use: Count on about a third to a half pound of feed per adult, full-sized bird per day. We estimate the cost of feed for three to four layers to be less than $20 per month.
What kind of chicken farming do you want to do?
You may be nostalgic for the chickens scratching around in Grandma’s yard. You may have heard that chickens control flies and ticks and turn the compost pile. You may have children who want to raise chickens for a 4-H project. Maybe you want to produce your own quality eggs or organic meat. Or maybe you want to provoke the neighbors. People raise chickens for dozens of reasons. But if you aren’t sure, it helps to decide in advance just why you want to keep chickens.
Egg layers, meat birds, and pet/show chickens have slightly different housing and care requirements. Having a purpose in mind as you select breeds and develop housing will keep you from making expensive mistakes and will make your chicken-keeping experience more enjoyable.
It’s okay to keep chickens for several different purposes — some for eggs and others as show birds, for example — but thinking about your intentions in advance makes good sense.
Want eggs (and, therefore, layers)?
The egg that we enjoy with breakfast was meant to be food for a developing chick. Luckily for us, a hen continues to deposit eggs regardless of whether they have been fertilized to begin an embryo.
If you want layers, you need housing that includes nest boxes for them to lay their eggs in and a way to easily collect those eggs. Layers appreciate some outdoor space; if you have room for them to do a little roaming around the yard, your eggs will have darker yolks and you will need less feed.
Thinking about home-grown meat?
Don’t expect to save lots of money raising your own chickens for meat unless you regularly pay a premium price for organic free-range chickens at the store. Most homeowners raising chickens for home use wind up paying as much per pound as they would buying chicken on sale at the local big-chain store. But that’s not why you want to raise them.
You want to raise your own chickens because you can control what they eat and how they are treated. You want to take responsibility for the way some of your food is produced and take pride in knowing how to do it.
You need enough space to raise at least 10 to 25 birds to make meat production worthwhile. If you live in an urban area that allows only a few chickens, producing meat probably isn’t for you.
Average people who have the space and enough time can successfully raise all the chicken they want to eat in a year. And with modern meat-type chickens, you can be eating fried homegrown chicken 10 weeks after you get the chicks — or even sooner.
Raising chickens to eat isn’t going to be easy, especially at first. But it isn’t so hard that you can’t master it. For most people, the hardest part is the butchering, but the good news is that you can usually find folks who will do that job for you for a fee.
You can raise chickens that taste just like the chickens you buy in the store, but if you intend to raise free-range or pastured meat chickens, expect to get used to a new flavor. The meat has more muscle, or dark meat, and a different flavor. For most people, it’s a better flavor, but it may take some getting used to.
Neighbors are any people who are in sight, sound, and smelling distance of your chickens. Even if it’s legal in your urban or suburban area to keep chickens, the law may require your neighbors’ approval and continued tolerance. And it pays to keep your neighbors happy anyway. If neighbors don’t even know the chickens exist, they won’t complain. If they know about them but get free eggs, they probably won’t complain, either.
A constant battle with neighbors who don’t like your chickens may lead to the municipality banning your chickens — or even banning everyone’s chickens. Regardless of your situation, the following list gives you some ideas to keep you in your neighbors’ good graces:
- Try to hide housing or blend it into the landscape. If you can disguise the chicken quarters in the garden or hide them behind the garage, so much the better. Don’t locate your chickens close to the property line, if at all possible.
- Keep your chicken housing neat and clean. Your chicken shelter should be neat and immaculately clean.
- Store or dispose of manure and other wastes properly. Consider where you’re going to store or dispose of manure and other waste. You can’t use poultry manure in the garden without some time to age because it burns plants. It makes good compost, but a pile of pure chicken manure composting may offend some neighbors. You may need to bury waste or haul it away. Or if you’re already composting in the garden like a good homesteader, consider adding your chicken manure to your pile. It may help mask the smell of the manure and enrich your overall mix.
- Even if roosters are legal, consider doing without them. You may love the sound of a rooster greeting the day, but the noise can be annoying to some people. Roosters can and do crow at all times of the day — and even at night. Roosters aren’t necessary for full egg production anyway; they’re needed only for producing fertile eggs for hatching.
- Keep your chicken population low. If you have close neighbors, try to restrain your impulses to have more chickens than you really need. We suggest two hens for each family member for egg production. The more chickens you keep, the more likely you’ll have objections to noise or smells.
- Confine chickens to your property. Foraging chickens can roam a good distance. Chickens can easily destroy a newly planted vegetable garden, uproot young perennials, and pick the blossoms off annuals. They can make walking barefoot across the lawn or patio a sticky situation. Mean roosters can scare or even harm small children and pets. And if your neighbor comes out one morning and finds your chickens roosting on the top of his new car, he’s not going to be happy.
You can fence your property if you want to and if it’s legal to do so but remember that lightweight hens and bantams can easily fly up on and go over a 4-foot fence. Some heavier birds may also learn to hop the fence. Chickens are also great at wriggling through small holes if the grass looks greener on the other side.
- Be aggressive about controlling pests. In urban and suburban areas, you must have an aggressive plan to control pest animals such as rats and mice. If your chickens are seen as the source of these pests, neighbors may complain.
- Share the chicken benefits. Bring some eggs to your neighbors or allow their kids to feed the chickens. A gardening neighbor may like to have your manure and soiled bedding for compost. Just do what you can to make chickens seem like a mutually beneficial endeavor.
- Never butcher a chicken in view of the neighbors. Neighbors may go along with you having chickens as pets or for eggs, but they may have strong feelings about raising them for meat. If you butcher at home, you need a way to dispose of blood, feathers, and other waste. This waste smells and attracts flies and other pests. Those of you who raise meat birds and have close neighbors should send your birds out to be butchered.
Finally, don’t assume that because you and your neighbors are good friends, they won’t care or complain about any chickens kept illegally.
Getting the right number of chickens for a backyard homestead
No matter how many chickens you intend to have eventually, if you’re new to chicken-keeping, it pays to start off small. Get some experience caring for the birds and see whether you really want to have more. Even if you have some experience, you may want to go to larger numbers of birds in steps, making sure you have proper housing and enough time to care for the birds at each step.
Because chickens are social and don’t do well alone, you need to start with at least two birds: two hens or a rooster and a hen. (Two roosters will fight!) Beyond two birds, the number of birds you choose to raise depends on your needs and situation:
- Layers: You can figure that one young hen of an egg-laying strain will lay about six eggs a week, two will lay a dozen eggs, and so on. If the birds aren’t from an egg-laying strain but you still want eggs, count on three or four hens for a dozen eggs a week. So, figure out how many hens you need based on how many eggs your family uses in a week — just don’t forget to figure on more hens if you don’t get them from an egg-laying strain.
- Meat birds: It really doesn’t pay to raise just a few chickens for meat, but if your goal is to produce meat and space is limited, you can raise meat birds in batches of 10 to 25 birds, with each batch of broiler strains taking about six to nine weeks to grow to butchering size. If space and time to care for the birds aren’t problems, determine how many chickens your family eats in a week and base your number of meat birds on that.
If it takes six to nine weeks to raise chickens to butchering age and your family wants two chickens a week, you probably want to buy your meat chickens in batches of 25 and start another group as soon as you butcher the first. Or if you want a rest between batches, raise 50 to 60 meat chicks at a time and start the second batch about three months after the first. Remember that frozen chicken retains good quality for about 6 months.
- Pet and show birds: When you’re acquiring chickens for pet and show purposes, you’re limited only by your housing size and the time and resources you have to care for them. Full-size birds need about 2 square feet of shelter space per bird; bantam breeds need somewhat less. Don’t overcrowd your housing.
If you’re going to breed chickens to preserve a breed or produce show stock, plan on at least two hens for each rooster, but not more than ten. In some large breeds with low fertility, you may need a ratio of five or six hens per rooster.