Have you ever considered raising your own backyard chickens? Today is #NationalFarmersDay, and in celebration of farmers everywhere and anyone who has ever had a spark for farming, we have a guide for everything a beginner needs to get started keeping chickens.
Chickens have been domesticated for most of human history, and remain a mainstay of many homesteads, farms, and even urban family homes around the world. They naturally fit into life with people. You can raise chickens for their eggs (and sometimes for meat), but they also happen to make wonderful pets and companions. Chickens are practical pets that simply make a lot of sense to have around. Despite all of the good things and history chickens have with people however, they do require some extensive care. While this shouldn’t come off as overwhelming for someone new, you should understand that chickens are needy. If their needs aren’t met, the chickens’ health and well-being fails drastically and they no longer become wonderful additions to a family… and not of their own fault.
Here’s the very basics of chicken care every new chicken keeper needs to know and understand before they jump into chicken keeping.
The first thing you need to consider is how you’ll shelter your chickens. Chickens need to live in a safe environment that’s designed and built specifically for them. Chicken coops need to serve several functions. They need to be able to keep the chickens sheltered from bad weather as rain and cold are two big enemies of chickens, as well as heat in some areas. Chicken coops need to be able to house chickens in a way that’s healthy and clean, with good ventilation. Plus, chicken coops also need to keep chickens safe from predators.
A chicken coop needs to keep the chicken dry and out of the wind. This means they need to be constructed sturdily. It needs to have a roof that doesn’t leak and walls that don’t let the wind blow right in. Lighting in a coop can sometimes offer comfort to chickens, especially to the young chicks. Heating chicken coops is generally unnecessary and can actually be detrimental to chicken health as well as being a big fire hazard. Chicken coops need to have basics inside for comfortable chicken living, such as a roost, nest boxes, and a place for food and water access.
The floor of the coop can be made of many materials and can be made to use lots of kinds of litter (there are lots of types of litter that chicken keepers use, such as wood shavings, sand, straw or hay, etc.), but the floor needs to be fresh and dry at all times no matter what litter is used. Surfaces in the coop can gather a lot of poop, so coop construction that discourages “poopable” areas other than the floor is ideal. For example, nest boxes should be made so that they are lower than the roost bar or platform (chickens like to roost in the highest spot possible) and they need to have slippery slanted roofs to discourage a chicken from not only pooping in the nests but also from pooping all over the tops of the boxes.
Ventilation is one problem that’s hard to solve- and many people confuse being out of drafts for good ventilation. Good ventilation means that the hot wet air naturally generated in the coop by the birds and their droppings can leave the coop easily. This is normally done with some sort of pipe or vents along the top of the coop so that the warm air naturally goes up and out of the pipe, and fresh air can circulate from a door or window in the coop naturally and passively without creating a wind in the coop. This can help your chickens avoid air quality problems which can make them sick, and frostbite issues in the cold temperatures of winter.
And finally the coop needs to be predator proof. There are all sorts of predators that want to eat chickens – from raccoons to hawks. Snakes like to eat eggs and baby chicks. Even the neighbor’s dog can be a serious threat. The coop should be well constructed with good locks and fencing that can’t be ripped apart or manipulated/mauled by a predator. Cracks and holes should be sealed if possible. A well fenced chicken yard is a good start to keeping out most predators and a covered and protected run keeps the chickens safe from aerial predatory birds.
The general rule on space per chicken is thus: For the coop you need 4 square feet per standard size bird and 2 square feet per bantam. In the run you need 8 square feet per standard sized chicken and 6 per bantam. And of course, the more room you can provide in their living quarters, the better.
Thankfully, feeding chickens and keeping their nutritional needs fulfilled is simpler than housing. There are lots of formulated chicken feed available that’s scientifically proven to provide all the basic necessities of chicken nutritional needs. You can find these feeds at any feed store. Supplementing this diet isn’t necessary but chickens do enjoy it. You can feed your chickens just about anything you eat yourself- in fact many chicken keepers use their chickens to recycle and use the kitchen scraps that they don’t want so food doesn’t go to waste. Garbage kitchen scraps turned into delicious eggs? Yes please! Other supplements such as scratch grains or plain cracked corn are also other additions to the regular pellet or mash ration that you can buy. Some even plant a part of their garden just for their chickens!
You may find yourself sampling different chicken feeds to find one your flock likes best. Chicks need a special food, and layers need another kind. Thankfully the info on what to feed and when is always printed right on the bag so you know what you’re feeding.
Feeders designed for chickens are readily available. Whatever way to choose to offer your feed to your flock is up to you, but the same rules apply to food- food has to be kept from getting poop in it, and it has to stay dry and fresh. And, it needs to be available to laying flocks at all times.
Water is also something that chickens need constant access to and it needs to be clean and fresh and always available. Chicken waters are easy to find. Some have to be heated to keep water from freezing solid in the winter. There are lots of DIY watering systems available to look at on the internet, as chicken keepers are never satisfied with watering systems. But, a basic bucket cleaned and filled daily works for most.
Disease and Overall Health
Unfortunately, chickens are prone to a lot of parasites and sickness, a lot like people and other pets are. Chickens also do things like eat their own eggs, or even cannibalize. Chickens need to stay engaged and mentally healthy, too. A clean living environment that is well ventilated and plenty of clean water and good food is a good start to helping keep sickness at bay. Having a large space to graze and peck at is necessary – keeping in mind the general requirements for minimum space needs will also help keep birds happy and healthy.
And, while chickens are needy, like any other pet, once their needs are met, they make wonderful additions to the family. They naturally fit in with most any human life. Chickens are wonderful backyard animals!
Cheryl D. Jones, shares gardening tips and landscape ideas through her blog, newsletters and her nursery’s website. Visit GreenwoodNursery.com for a full line of plants including trees, flowering shrubs, perennials, ornamental grasses and ground covers.
You can skip all the worry and purchase one of our ready to assemble chicken coop kits and enjoy. They are beautiful, functional, affordable, and are perfect for small backyard flocks of chickens.
Click here for a listing of plants safe for chicken gardens.
We hope this helps you get started with your backyard chicken endeavor! Get started keeping chickens with our easy to assemble chicken coops that are perfect for smaller spaces.