By Kimberly Willis, Robert T. Ludlow

Chickens can take as much time and money as you care to spend, but you need to recognize the minimum time, space, and money commitments required to keep chickens.

Time spent tending your chickens

Naturally, setting up housing for your birds takes some time. If you’re building a chicken coop, give yourself plenty of time to finish before you acquire the birds. You will have to judge how much time that entails, depending on the scope of the project, your building skills, and how much time each day you can devote to it.

Count on a minimum of 15 minutes in the morning and 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 are 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 very stressful for them.

You will need additional time once a week for basic cleaning chores. If you have just a few chickens, this may be less than an hour. The routine will include such chores as 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 chores.

More chickens doesn’t necessarily mean more daily time spent on them until you get to very large numbers. A pen full of 25 meat birds may increase your caretaking time only a few minutes versus a pen of 4 laying hens. But how you keep chickens can increase the time needed to care for them. If you keep chickens for showing and you house them in individual cages, feeding and watering them will take at least five to ten minutes per cage.

Space for your flock

Each adult full-size 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 actual 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.

Money to house and feed chickens

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. Chicks of most breeds cost a few dollars each. The cost of adult fancy breeds kept for pets ranges from a few dollars to much, much more, depending on the breed. Sometimes you can even get free chickens!

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, then your housing start-up costs will be very 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 prebuilt structure for a few chickens, count on a couple hundred dollars.

The best way to plan housing costs is to first decide what your budget can afford. Then comparison-shop to see what building supplies would cost for your chosen housing (or prebuilt structures) and see how it fits your budget. Don’t forget to factor in shipping costs for prebuilt units.

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.

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. The cost of feed for three to four layers should be less than $20 per month.