6 things to know before deciding to raise backyard chickens
Getting your eggs at the store might be easier, but keeping chickens is definitely fun.
With egg prices rising and concerns over food security increasing, some folks have taken a step toward self-sufficiency and opted to raise chickens in their backyards. Whether for meat or solely for eggs, having your own coop may be a great solution if you’ve been struggling to find ingredients for your breakfast omelet.
But tending a flock requires work, time, space, and above all, shouldering the responsibility of caring for the health and well-being of animals. It’s no joke. That’s why it’s important to know exactly what you’re getting yourself into before you welcome chickens into your life.
You’re making a commitment
This might sound obvious, but it can be easy to forget that having a weekly supply of delicious eggs actually entails caring for chickens—and yes, that’s plural.
“People see the adorable coops on social media and the cute fluffy chickens and it’s something they automatically want. But chicken keeping is work,” says Nikki Husted, author of the upcoming book Chicken Keeping Pure and Simple: A Fun, Friendly Guide to Backyard Chicken Keeping.
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Husted, who’s also known to her almost 250,000 TikTok followers as @purelychickens, explains that there’s a learning curve to raising birds where you’ll be constantly troubleshooting and adjusting your caretaking techniques. The process can quickly become frustrating, which may be why some folks trying it for the first time at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic ended up giving up their chickens or even abandoning them.
This is why it’s important to do thorough research before you set off on this new adventure. But don’t be discouraged: they’re very much worth it and not only for the food.
“[Chickens] provide so much more than just eggs,” says Husted. “Not only do they give us laughs and companionship, but they have helped [me and my husband] teach our children about kindness and respect for animals.”
Chickens are low maintenance
If you have ever lived with a dog, you know what taking care of a high-maintenance creature is. Keeping a flock in your backyard is not like that.
“Chicken upkeep doesn’t take much time at all,” says Lisa Steele, author of The Fresh Eggs Daily Cookbook and fifth-generation chicken keeper.
Once you’ve perfected your routine, it should only take about 10 minutes each morning and night to let the chickens in and out, feed them, and check for eggs. That’s it. This should be pretty easy if you’re working from home, but as long as you provide your birds with enough food and water, as well as a safe coop and run, there’s no need to have anyone supervising the flock during the day, she says.
If you need to go somewhere for work, Husted recommends using large gravity feeders and five-gallon waterers. That way you won’t have to worry about your chickens starving if you run late at night.
But you will have to worry about temperature in the colder months. “Eggs tend to freeze in the winter if you don’t collect them in a timely manner,” she explains. If that happens, the egg can crack, making it vulnerable to germs, and it’s as good as gone.
You can raise chickens on a budget
Financially speaking, the biggest investment you’ll make is setting up the coop and chicken run. Depending on the size of your flock and the aesthetics you want to go for, buying a coop can cost anywhere between $150 and thousands of dollars. But you can buy a house for your chickens second-hand, upgrade an existing building or shed, or build one from scratch—just make sure you meet all the requirements for a healthy environment for your birds. If you opt for the DIY option, you can design your own to fit your needs and space or follow one of the myriad plans available online.
For the coop, you’ll need to consider 3 to 4 square feet per chicken. This is especially important in the colder months when they’ll spend most of their time indoors, or if there’s not a large area for the run. And don’t forget about furniture. Yes, chicken furniture. Steele recommends a minimum of 8 inches of roosting bar per hen (they perch on it to sleep), and one nesting box for every 3 to 4 hens to lay their eggs. Keeping your flock entertained and stimulated is also a good idea, as bored birds can start pecking their roommates. For this, consider making your own chicken swing out of branches and rope.
All the sources we consulted for this story recommend getting a coop that can house more chicks than you actually plan on buying. If your flock outgrows its shelter or you end up purchasing more chickens, you’ll have to upgrade your setup, and that’s not only annoying, but can also get expensive.
As for chicks, Steele says they can cost between $4 and $15 each depending on the breed. But high demand for the hobby has slightly increased prices in the past two years and made some varieties harder to find.
The main other expense you’ll have is chicken feed. Amy Barkley, livestock and beginning farm specialist with Cornell University Cooperative Extension, explains that hens will eat about 1/3 pound of feed per day, which equates to a yearly cost of about $50 per bird. This calculation is based on 50-pound bags of feed, which Barkley says you should be able to find for around $20. But prices will vary depending on where you are and what kind of food you get—you’ll find varieties like GMO-free or organic can be slightly more expensive than generic. Steele says you can also reduce your feed bill by sharing some kitchen and garden scraps with the flock or allowing them to forage for grass, weeds, and bugs in the yard.
“The cost to keep chickens is relatively low, but the reality is that it’s still probably cheaper to purchase eggs from the store,” says Barkley. If you find that’s the case for you, you may want to reconsider your flock-keeping endeavors—and that is absolutely fine.
Not all chickens are the same
We’ve already hinted at it, but just like dogs and cats, there is a long list of chicken breeds—some have been bred for meat, while others specialize in laying eggs. There’s a wide variety of birds in this second group, but Barkley recommends beginners stick to what are known as “standard breeds.”
“Breeds in this category are large-sized chickens that will lay well and are easy to manage,” she explains. These include Plymouth Rocks, Rhode Island and New Hampshire Reds, Orpingtons, Ameraucanas, and Leghorns.
Then there’s the question of how to start: should you get chicks or fully grown hens? There are pros and cons to both approaches. With chicks, there are fewer things in the world cuter than a baby yellow fluff, they’re inexpensive, and raising them from a younger age will make it easier for them to get used to you. Familiarity will prevent you from sharing your property with some very aggressive tenants.
On the downside, you’ll have to wait between 5 and 6 months before your chicks are old enough to lay eggs, and they need more equipment and care than older birds, including heat lamps, brooders, and chick dust. And then there’s the wild card factor: telling a chick’s sex is tricky, so even if you buy females, there’s still a 10 percent chance that you’ll end up with a rooster instead of a hen, says Barkley. That can easily become a problem, not only because they can be more aggressive than hens, but because some urban areas don’t allow keeping roosters because of noise concerns.
If you want to make sure your flock comprises egg-laying hens only, you can get ready-to-lay birds. But it’ll cost you—they can go for $20 to $50 each, more than three times as much as a chick from the most expensive breeds. Also, adult hens are more set in their ways, so you may get more than one less-than-loving peck every time you enter the coop.
You’ll need to beware of predators
“Everything wants to eat chicken!” Steele says. No matter where you live, there’s always going to be a long list of creatures you’ll need to protect your birds from. These include foxes, coyotes, weasels, raccoons, bears, bobcats, skunks, hawks, eagles, owls, snakes, and rats, but the number one backyard chicken killer, according to Steele, is dogs.
If you have a pupper, getting them to peacefully coexist with your flock is not impossible, but it’ll highly depend on their breed, as some are genetically wired to hunt fowl. Knowing your pooch’s limits and slowly introducing them to your birds in a supervised environment will be key to helping them get along. Just keep in mind that it may never happen. In that case, providing a secure shelter and run for your flock is essential to protecting them.
Other than a proper roof, The Happy Chicken Coop, a website dedicated to providing information about backyard chicken keeping, suggests using wire mesh with openings no larger than a ½ inch for the bottom 3 feet of the fence around your run.
“If you have a building that has a dirt floor, line the perimeter with cinder blocks or bury hardware cloth 12 inches below the ground to keep baddies from digging under the walls,” Barkley says.
You may have to get a permit
Living in a rural area generally grants you the freedom to raise as many chickens and roosters as you want within your property lines, but that is definitely not the case in cities and many suburban areas.
Some counties and municipalities have people apply for permits, fill out applications, or pay a fee to set up a chicken coop on their property. They may also have specific requirements as to how big it can be and where it can be located. Sometimes they’ll even send inspectors to make sure everything’s in order.
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To save yourself money and trouble, check the requirements for keeping chickens in your area. You’ll usually find that information in your state’s or city’s health code or by asking the wildlife or parks department. Barkley also recommends reaching out to your local university’s extension office. In New York City, for example, the city’s regulations allow people to have hens, not roosters, in all five boroughs without a permit, but the coop and run have to be at least 25 feet away from the nearest building.
If you live in a communal building or have close neighbors, informing them about your plans ahead of time can also help preserve the peace. Steele says that even if you only keep hens, they’ll still make noise, especially after laying, so you’ll need to be prepared if that becomes a problem. But the promise of fresh eggs delivered to their door may be enough to convince your neighbors. It might be a small price to pay to keep everyone happy. Especially your chickens.