Backyard Chickens 101

Backyard chickens are a great way to provide eggs or meat for your family in these uncertain times!

A Backyard Chicken Renaissance

Now, more than ever, people are considering raising their own backyard chickens.  Not since the victory gardens of WWII have so many people been interested in raising food in their back yard (aka backyard homesteading), but why?

If you have been to the grocery store, you know why.  Prices on almost every type of food have gone through the roof.  Chickens and especially eggs have seen some of the highest price increases of any food.  Just in 2023 alone, the USDA predicts that the price of eggs will go up by another 32%.  That is an incredible increase in a single year.

So a ton of people are looking to raise chickens, but the majority of them have absolutely no idea how to start or know anything about them.  If you are one of those people, then this article is for you!

I Have A Million Questions

Ok, well maybe you don’t have a million questions, but I bet you have a lot.  Why should I raise chickens? Do I have enough space? What breed should I consider? How do I even start this?  Stay calm… read on for all the answers, but if you prefer to consume your information in a video format… we’ve got you covered there too.  Just check out our linked video below.

Where Is The Best Place To Start?

The absolute best way to start is to learn! You’re in the right place and taking steps to learning what you need to know in order to raise a flock of chickens. Any time you add a new animal to your homestead, you must ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do I have the time to care for them?
  2. Do I have the resources to pay for or make their food?
  3. Am I truly dedicated to taking care of their needs?

After that, just learning and doing is where you go next. Some books about chickens we recommend are linked below.  See our affiliate disclosure here.   

Why Should I Raise Backyard Chickens?

There are a ton of reasons to raise chickens in your backyard.  We are often amazed at how many different people raise chickens for completely different reasons.  Some come at it from an independence approach, some from a “get back to nature” view, others see it as a health benefit play.  Some people embrace all these ideas and more.  No matter WHY you raise chickens, there are some benefits that you will reap regardless.

  • Fresh Eggs Daily

To state the obvious, you’ll have nutritious eggs within a few steps of your kitchen. In today’s world, you are going to pay an astronomical price for eggs in the grocery store ($10-$12 at the time of this post in some places), if you can even find any. Having a flock of chickens will become very popular in the months and years to come.  You may just become your neighbor’s best friend soon. 

  • Rich Compost

Chicken manure is packed full of nutrients that your plants will need in order to produce a bountiful harvest. These droppings should be composted before applying to the base of a plant or mixed into your garden soil because it may be too strong and burn the plants. After composting however, this manure will supply the nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium your plant will need to stimulate strong root development, green growth, and abundant flowering.

  • Less Waste

We live in such a wasteful society that throws stuff into a trash bag without even giving thought of the massive landfills we’ve created. Backyard chickens allow you to toss away less, while cutting feed costs. Have apple cores left over from canning that applesauce? Leftovers that no one in the house wants? What about scrap from your garden cleanup? Chickens will eat it all! Toss less in the trash and befriend your chickens even more.

What Is The Best Breed To Have?

This is really a personal preference and what goals you have in mind for your chickens. Below is a chart of breeds and what they are known for. One thing that we will caution you on though, is look at both the purpose you are raising the chickens for (egg production, pretty pets, etc.) and the climate that you live in.

 As an example, chickens with large ornate combs and wattles may be beautiful to see, but if it gets 20 below zero with a wind chill of -45 where you live, those chickens are likely to get bad frostbite on those large (and unfeathered) surfaces.  Some breeds are far better at recognizing aerial and ground predators than others.  Still other breeds are far better at feeding themselves through free ranging than other breeds.  You get the picture, but there are a lot of things to consider as you decide on a breed or breeds that you may raise.

Where Can I Purchase Heirloom Breeds?

Let’s begin with what an heirloom or heritage breed chicken is and why you’d want to consider one. Heritage breed chickens have been recognized under the American Poultry Association prior to the twentieth century. This is a long-time breed that has not been genetically modified in any sort of way, like many of the chicken breeds created today. These birds are also great for naturally mating and they generally live a longer life. Unlike hybrids like the Cornish Cross breed, these birds will take longer to fully develop into an adult chicken.

Some heritage breeds to consider are the Buff Orpington, Rhode Island Red, Road Island White, Jersey Giants, Silkie, Sussex, and the Barred Plymouth Rock.

 These backyard chicken breeds can be found:

  1. At an online hatchery. We like working with this hatchery. We’ve had great hatch rates from our quail from them and they have a large selection of heritage breeds to consider.
  2. From a local farm.  It’s always great to support local farmers who you know and trust.
  3. By joining a local social media group. Look for heirloom or heritage breed chicken groups that are near you.
  4. Check your local feed or supply stores. Some of the big box stores like Rural King have a selection of chickens for purchase during their chick days in the spring and fall months. The downside to this is that they have limited breeds and may not have heritage breeds available. It’s hit or miss.

What Breeds Do Well In Cold Or Hot Climates?

What Do Backyard Chickens Eat?

There’s not much a chicken won’t eat. Chickens are omnivores so they will eat a diet full of seeds, insects, fruits, vegetables, and even meats. Be sure to provide lots of kitchen scraps from a “clean” diet, garden scrap, fresh grass and weeds, bugs and supplemental feed. You can either purchase commercial feeds or create your own feed with grains, sprouts, greens and various supplements.

Commercial feed formulations are available in the form of pellets or crumbles and can be found at your local feed store or big box farm supply stores. We like to purchase our feed in bulk from a locally owned and operated feed mill because it saves quite a bit of money and stores well in our garage. 

One word of caution, be wary of big box stores feed if you have other options.  There have been quite a few reports of bad feed causing layers to stop laying.  If you go to your local feed store, they will typically mix it to your specifications and you will know far more about what’s going into it. 

If you are interested in formulating a home-mix for your backyard chickens, this book has a fantastic recipe and provides all the ingredients you’ll need for a layer formula (for laying hens) as well as a formula for starter and grower formulas for meat chickens. Some of the ingredients include grains, wheat, vitamin supplements, and trace minerals the chickens need. We’ve actually started growing comfrey to feed our chickens, click here to check out our post on that if you’re interested. There are lots of great benefits!

What Is The Best Housing For Backyard Chickens?

Space is the limiting problem for backyard homesteaders. We need to maximize our space as much as we possibly can. Below are some housing options that are available for raising chickens.

  • Yard Rotation

You can divide your yard up into 4 or 6 spaces and rotate them on a regular basis (daily or every 2 days). This allows them access to fresh pasture, without leaving them to constantly graze on the same place. The downside to this however is that it requires quite a bit of sectioned off space. The concept is the same as a tractor in that the chickens get fresh pasture but the coop is stationary.

  • Permanent Coops

You can make the housing as simple or elaborate as you would like. There are many pre-manufactured coops or plans to build the structure yourself. These coops take less maintenance and make chore time faster but the downside is the chickens will not be able to graze on fresh pasture.

  • Chicken Tractor

Allows for constant grazing of pasture and bugs, which has many health benefits for your chickens. It is easy.  It also reduces the risk of parasites, because your chickens are never revisiting the area they were in previously until it has had time to “sanitize” from the sunlight.

  • Free Range

Many free-range chickens are still fenced in so they’re not running around your neighbor’s yards. Although this also has many health benefits, many backyard homesteaders avoid this one. With HOA rules and regulations, the last thing you need is to deal with neighbors getting upset because your chicken is scratching up her beloved prize-winning hydrangeas in her front yard.

Now that we have discussed the options, let’s talk about why we tend to recommend a chicken tractor to people new to backyard chickens.  Besides the fact that your chickens will provide you with nutrient dense eggs from feeding on pasture, your yard will thrive. This way your chickens move about your yard, rather than being in a stationary coop. This will eliminate the muddy, torn up grass in your lush lawn.

In a stationary coop, your chickens will tear up the grass, leaving you with a constant muddy and grassless mess that is full of chicken manure and is far more prone to parasites infecting your chickens.  Most parasites need to get to a host within a few hours to a few days before they die.  Stationary coops keep the chickens in constant contact with areas they have been before and manure from other chickens.

When you move your chickens daily however, they never have the chance to fully eat all the grass and they will leave their rich droppings behind. Free fertilizer and the chickens love the idea of a new area to explore!

What Items Do I Need To Include In My Coop Design?

Be sure to include the following in your coop design:

  1. Doors (both for chickens and one you can access to feed and water your flock) This door is fantastic if you work long hours are can’t always shut the coop door.
  2. Ladder for the chicken door
  3. Windows (this is optional but allows you to add natural light in your coop)
  4. Ventilation is super important so that dust and gases (carbon dioxide and ammonia) can exit the coop properly.
  5. A spot for food and water to hang. We like these feeders and waterers.
  6. Roosting bars
  7. Nesting boxes
  8. Flooring with plenty of pine shaving bedding

Best Small Coops Available For Backyard Chickens?

We are believers in building housing ourselves for our backyard chickens. This way we know the materials we build it with will be quality and last. Check our our PVC backyard chicken tractor build in the link below.

We developed our own plans for our coop and built everything by hand. Not everyone has the time to do this though. We have a book that has fantastic plans for both large and small coops. Check out the book here.

How Often Should I Clean The Coop?

This really depends on how many chickens you plan on keeping and the housing you choose. We clean our coop every week and add additional pine shaving bedding every 3-4 days. Since we keep them in a chicken tractor, it reduces the waste and mess we have inside the coop area.

Do I Need To Lock The Coop At Night?

This also depends on the housing you choose. If you have an electric fence or net and have a roof to your coop and run, you can get away with not locking it. This electric poultry net that we have allows us to not only protect our flock from predators but it also expands their grazing area during the day. If a predator comes up to the fence, they will quickly learn to avoid that area.  Wet noses are EXCELLENT conductors.

However, we still lock our coop up each night . Its simply a good practice and doesn’t take much effort on our part.

When Do Backyard Chickens Start Laying Eggs?

This may vary from breed to breed but the average age a chicken starts laying eggs is around 6 months. Some chickens start laying as early as 18 weeks but this is rare.

What Does It Mean When A Chicken Goes Broody?

Broody hens believe it’s time to sit on her eggs to hatch them out. Having a hen that goes broody has its advantages and disadvantages. If you’re a backyard homesteader, the likelihood of you keeping a rooster is slim. This does not produce fertilized eggs obviously. A broody hen in this case is a little annoying and is not great for the hen’s health since there’s no chicks that will hatch from the eggs. She will not leave the nesting box much to eat or drink until the eggs hatch. Since you don’t have fertilized eggs, she could sit there for too long and won’t get the proper nutrition she needs.

On the flip side of this, having a broody hen is wonderful in some scenarios. If you have the space and ability to have a rooster, you could have fertilized eggs that she can hatch out. No incubator required!

How Can I Encourage A Hen To Go Broody?

If you have a rooster and would like to encourage your hens to go broody, there are a few things you can do.

  1. Choose a breed that are good mothers and tend go broody often. The Buff Orpingtons are great mamas and are good for egg and meat production as well.
  2. Place a dummy egg in your nesting box. Pick these up from your local feed or supply store. Its simply a wooden or plastic egg that you can put in there. As the hen sees this, her instinct will be to sit on it. People have even used golf balls for this.
  3. Keep a clean and private nesting box area. She will want her space away from the other chickens in your flock to sit on the eggs.
  4. Wait on the seasons. Many hens go broody in the spring and summer months. Winter is not a popular time for hens to go broody.

What Are The Advantages of Adding A Rooster?

Having a rooster will allow you to be more self-sufficient. Your hens will lay fertilized eggs, allowing you to hatch out your own chicks. In the times we’re currently living in, finding chicks from hatcheries have become harder. Many time you need to place your order months in advance to purchase your chicks.

Aside from the self-sufficiency factor, having a rooster will help to protect your flock. They will alert the flock when a predator is nearby.  There is also lots of examples out there of roosters taking on raccoons, skunks, and all kinds of other critters.

How Much Space Do You Actually Need In Your Yard For A Flock Of Backyard Chickens?

If you choose to have a small flock of about 4-6 chickens and house them in a stationary coop, you can raise backyard chickens on approximately 32-48 square feet of space (8sqft per chicken).

You can also find a small tractor to house them and move them about every day. This is a less permanent option.

What Do You Do With Your Chickens If They Die From Predators Or Disease?

We try to use as much of our animals as possible. Many people harvest their chickens before the end of their lifespan so they have quality meat free of disease. In the case of a predator or disease however, we choose not to eat them. The best way of disposing of them that we have found is to plant a new fruit tree and bury it. This way we’re adding to our homestead and our future harvest, providing the tree with plenty of nutrients and still “using” the bird. As that bird decomposes, it will nourish our tree and later provide our family with fresh apples or peaches.

Where Do I Go From Here?

You now have the basics to start your own backyard flock.  Start small with 6 or less and learn into it, as chickens are a very forgiving animal.  There’s a reason people consider it a “gateway” homesteading animal that leads to bigger and more complex animals. 

A few final thoughts as you begin your journey.  Do not be scared away from starting by news reports of “huge outbreaks of avian flu” or “backyard flocks are testing positive for bird flu strain xyz”.  The news sensationalizes things to sell advertising.  That is why you never see stories about people being licked by puppies or cats being rescued from trees.  It is because that’s not what sells.

The reality is that backyard flocks are the most humane and sanitary way to raise chickens for food or for egg production.  The large CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) are the operations that are concerning.  When you must constantly give antibiotics, vaccines, steroids, and other medicines just to simply keep the chickens alive… that’s the chickens you should be worried about eating.  If you are interested in learning about raising meat chickens or how to process chickens (yes… the chicken breasts don’t just magically arrive at the supermarket), then check out our video on raising Cornish Cross Chickens below.

If you liked this article, check out some of our other backyard homesteading posts! Click here!

Happy Homesteading!

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