Have you been wanting to raise backyard chickens or are you just curious about how it all works? Do you wonder if chickens can survive outside in winter, or what sorts of things they can eat? Have you wondered if they really do lay a steady supply of eggs? Well, just call me you go-to chicken gal, because I have the answers to those, and more, questions about keeping backyard chickens!
My husband and I decided to get chickens last August, and we love it! Not only are they fun to watch, but our hens have provided us with eggs daily, and are creating free fertilizer for our gardens. If you are curious about the ins and outs of keeping hens, I am more than happy to share all that I know! Well, may be not ALL because that would take some time! But in this post I am going to break down the basics of keeping backyard chickens, and then you can decide if it is right for you (if you still have questions, feel free to ask in the comments).
To begin, you need to know the regulations for keeping backyard chickens in your area.
Some communities have very strict by-laws that either won’t allow it, or will with certain conditions. Check with you local government to find those rules, because you do not want to be saddled with a fine or have your birds seized.
Next, think about what kind of birds you want, and what is suited for your climate.
For example, here in Canada we need hens that can handle cooler temps, but if you live in Texas you will need a breed suited for extreme heat. There are a lot of resources online to help you determine what breed is best for your area (for reference, we have Red Stars, which are also called Sex Link), or you can check with local farm supply companies. Once you know the breed you want, you have to find a way to obtain them! Many people start with day old hens purchased at farm supply stores, but we opted to purchase them several weeks old from friends. You can find young hens for sale online, through Facebook, and more.
The reason we choose not to raise day olds is because they need need to be kept in a warm area under a special lamp, and we didn’t have the space for that. We got our hens when they were old enough to be out from under the lamp, which was about 8 weeks of age.
Another thing to consider before getting hens is where you will keep them.
We built a large shed/coop for them, with half the space being devoted to their coop area. Our coop is quite tall but most people say chickens do not need that much indoor space. The thing to consider is how often they will be outside. If they are going to be spending a lot of time indoors, they should have a larger coop so they can still get exercise (we get terrible snow storms in winter so we had to keep our hens inside for a while. Thankfully they had enough space indoors to keep busy!). But if you plan on letting your flock outdoors often, they may be okay with a smaller coop since they will just go there to sleep and lay. I have heard people say that small coops are better for cold weather, because the hens can generate enough body heat to keep the small space warm. However, small spaces mean they may not be active, which can lead to weight and other health concerns. Use your discretion here! We chose to make the coop larger than it needs to be, and use a small flat panel heater to keep it at a low, but warm temperature (more on that later). In the coop, they chickens need four main things: a dish for food, a fresh supply of water, nesting boxes, and somewhere to roost (sleep). They need to have a full dish of feed as well as fresh water daily because the water actually helps them regulate their internal temperature. The nesting boxes are where they lay, so the boxes need to big enough for the hen to get in and turn around, as well as contain some type of bedding like straw or mulch. The roosts are very important because chickens sleep on a perched area, not in the nesting boxes. We anchored large tree branches for our hens, and they really do hop up there to sleep!
You also need to decide if they will be totally free range outside or if they need to be contained in an outdoor run. Around here we have a lot of open space and birds of prey, so we built a large enclosure out of chicken wire to keep the hens safe outside (we made sure to make the run predator proof by burying the wire 12 inches below the ground and surrounding it with rocks, then covering it with dirt again).
If you are allowing your chickens to go outside, they need access to dirt or sand (even fine mulch works) so that they can give themselves dust baths. Our hens dig holes in the ground and nestle in there to kick up dirt under their feathers. Our girls did it a lot in the summer to help keep themselves cool, but it is also a way to prevent pests and parasites, because the dust clogs the breathing pores of whatever has latched itself onto the hen. You can use a shallow kiddy pool as a dust bathing area, or just let the chickens find a patch of dirt. If you have indoor hens only, you can still place a container of some sort inside for them to bathe in.
FAQs that I often hear:
1 | What do chickens eat?
They need a proper feed, which has been researched and developed to provide them with the most nutrients. Giving them scratch or even bird seed is okay as a treat, but they need actual feed. We purchase layer feed, since our hens are for eggs, at a local farm store. They can enjoy chicken scratch from the store, fruit and veggie scraps, bugs, and really anything that people can eat with a few exceptions. Dairy is not healthy for them, neither are avocados, potatoes, and food with high vitamin C content. Generally, they should only receive these treats on occasion, because their food should be mostly feed or foraged.
2 | Does the coop need to be heated or insulated?
Not usually, but it does need to be draft free. Chickens are great at regulating body temperature, and most can handle cool weather without our help. However, the coop needs to be draft free or else the wind will disrupt their air pockets in their feathers. Chickens puff themselves up to create spaces in their feathers which traps heat against their body. BUT, the coop needs to be ventilated so they are not breathing in the ammonia from their waste! Our coop has windows that open in the warm months, and some small gaps higher up that act as vents. Our coop is in an un-sheltered area of the property so the wind was making it quite cold in there in winter, which is why we opted for a special wall mounted heater. The coop is set to be around 5C in winter, which is fine for them.
3 | Where can I find chicken sweaters!?!
Please do not put these on your chickens! The sweaters serve no purpose, and are actual harmful since the hen is not able to preen herself or take dust baths. If you have roosters, their talons can actually get caught in the sweaters as they try to mate with the hens, which is very dangerous. If you are putting a sweater on a chicken, do it quickly, snap a photo, and take it off!
4 | How soon will they lay eggs? Will I get one everyday?
Most chickens lay around 6 months of age, depending on the breed. They become “broody” which means they begin nesting for a few days or weeks before they actually lay. Our hens all starting laying with a few days of each other, and we get one egg a day from each. Our breed is actually specifically meant for large scale egg production, so they are great layers, but other breeds vary.
5 | What do the chickens do in winter?
Our three chickens usually stay indoors in winter, especially if there is bad weather. But on a not windy, not snowing day we open their door and allow them the choice of going outside. Usually they stay in on their own, but at least they get fresh air coming in!
6 | Do they really get up early in the day?
YES! When the sun is up, so are our hens! They also go to bed when the sun goes down.
7 | Do they have names and can you really tell them apart?
Sure do! They are Laverne, Shirley, and Mrs. Babish, and yes I know which is which. They all have slightly different markings and very different personalities.
Do you still have questions about chickens? I will do my best to answer any you may have, so leave a comment below!
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