I’m a big fan of the backyard chicken movement. I think anything that brings people closer to their food is an inherently good thing. I think having chickens around for chemical-free pest control is good for the environment. I love that laws are becoming more accommodating for those who want to keep chickens in their back yards. Backyard chickens are a really good way for city-dwelling folks to become a little more self-sustaining without picking up and moving to the country.
This is meant to be a shallow overview of the things you’ll need to set yourself up for backyard chickens. A lot of this information can be found online (and my resources are peppered throughout–click those links!) while some of it is personal experience.
Before you do anything, you must find out the local ordinances concerning chickens in your area. Also, if you rent, discuss chicken ownership with your landlord. If chickens aren’t legal, don’t get them. Remember that chickens are living creatures, and if you get them despite knowing they’re illegal in your area, you’re taking on a personal risk as well as putting those animals at risk, which is not good. The guidelines below pertain mostly to hens (especially laying hens), since they’re the most common type of chicken kept as backyard livestock. Most cities that I know of don’t allow roosters because they are too noisy!
When you first bring your chicks home, you will need items specific to the care of chicks, as opposed to grown chickens. Here is a great resource with information about raising baby chicks.
You will need:
-Housing: a galvanized steel cattle trough, a plastic storage bin, or a chick brooder, either store-bought or home-made.
-Bedding: pine shavings work well for this. If the bedding is flat or slick (like bare plastic or newspaper), the chicks can actually injure themselves easily and die.
-Food & water dishes: We use this for food and this for water. Both screw on to mason jars. You want different feeders and waterers for chicks than you do for chickens. These are small and easy for the chicks to eat and drink from.
-Food: Chicks require a different food than adult chickens. You can find “chick crumbles” or “chick starter feed” at the feed or farm store. It comes in two types, medicated and regular (un-medicated). Here is some information about the reasoning behind medicated feed. Chick crumbles are appropriate for chicks only, not adult chickens.
-Grit: Chicks need a specific type of grit; a small type that is appropriate for their little gizzards. You can purchase “chick grit” at the farm store, or you can give them a clump of grass or dandelions, roots and all, with dirt on the roots. The dirt on the roots will provide them with grit until they’re big enough to go outside on their own. Just make sure that any plant matter you give them has not been treated with pesticides or chemical fertilizers.
-A lamp: new chicks get chilly easily. You’ll need a heat lamp that can clamp on to the brooder. Be extremely careful with any fire-hazardous materials! The chicks’ brooder needs to be kept at about 90-95 degrees F during the first week and you can decrease the temperature by 5 degrees each coming week. You will notice that the chicks will replace their baby fuzz with real feathers. Once their real feathers come in, around 5-8 weeks, they don’t need the lamp any more.
-A thermometer: Hang one in the brooder so you can keep an eye on the temperature.
-Caution:It is important to socialize your chicks so that they become friendly hens, but you don’t want to over-handle them. Chicks are really fragile and can easily become sick, plus, they often carry salmonella. Make sure to wash your hands before and after handling the chicks and never touch them to your face. This keeps both you and the chicks healthy.
While your chicks are becoming chickens in the brooder, you can prepare for their adult life.
To care for adult hens, you will need:
Housing — Coop: Your chickens need both indoor and outdoor space. Prefabricated chicken coops can be found at most farm stores (we have one because we found it on sale), but many people choose to build their own. Recycled building materials are particularly popular for chicken coops. Charming coops can be constructed out of shipping pallets, old windows, and mismatched wood. Some coops, called chicken tractors, are equipped with wheels–this allows you to move the coop from place to place in your yard, so your chickens can fertilize the soil! Personally, I love the ramshackle look of coops made of whatever you have on hand, and of course this makes them incredibly affordable. Make sure to create the coop with the number of chickens you want in mind. According to the smart folks at BackYard Chickens, each hen needs 2-3 square feet of space inside the coop. Remember to include nesting boxes for the hens to lay their eggs in, and roosting bars (chickens like to sleep while perched up on branches or dowel rods). Be mindful, when planning your coop, of how you plan to clean it. A lot of coops have one entire wall that is hinged like a door to make cleaning easy. My in-laws have a coop with a man-sized door on one side, so that they can get inside it to clean and maintain it. Make sure that there are no holes for predators to enter. Make sure that the coop has ventilation (we have panels of chicken wire at the top of each wall) and that daylight can enter it.
Housing — Outdoor Space: Each chicken will need 4-5 square feet of outdoor space. You’ll want to construct a fence using chicken wire. Depending on the predators found in your local area, you may need to dig a trench around the perimeter and bury 1-2 feet of chicken wire, to prevent creatures from digging under the fence to help themselves to a chicken dinner. In our area, chickens are commonly preyed upon by racoons, so we have our chicken pen totally enclosed, with both fencing and a roof of chicken wire.
Food: You will need a feeder. We have always used galvanized feeders like this one. Hanging feeders are a good idea, because you are able to hang them from the ceiling. This way, it is accessible to the chickens, but prevents them from scattering it everywhere with their feet as they like to do, and also keeps them from fouling it with their droppings. It can also help keep little pests from finding their way into the food. Here is a tutorial to build your own hanging feeder. As far as what the chickens eat, there are a variety of options. You can purchase bags of chicken feed at the farm store, which will provide the bulk of their diet. You want to find the type of food called pellets. You can supplement this with a bagged mix of grains (this type of feed is all seeds and grains, and should be given as a treat), food scraps and treats from the kitchen, as well as bugs you find. Make sure that you provide your chickens with oyster shells if they are laying eggs, to replenish the calcium they lose in the shells of their eggs. Also, save the shells from their eggs and let the hens “recycle” them by eating them. You might not need oyster shells if you use a layer pellet type feed, because some of these contain calcium. Check with your farm store to find out. Your chickens will also need access to grit, which is literally rocks and pebbles. They swallow these stones and keep them in their gizzard, and use the rocks to crush the food they eat because they don’t have teeth to chew it. Your chickens might be able to get grit from the soil in their outdoor pen area, but it is a good idea to provide the store-bought stuff in addition to whatever they find. They need to replenish the grit in their gizzard constantly, so make sure you always have it available for them.
Water: You must always provide your chickens with fresh, clean water. We use a waterer like this. Chickens are a little messy, so check the waterer every day to make sure that it is clear of bedding or feces, and rinse it out frequently.
Health problems: When you see chicks for $2.50 at the farm store, it makes them seem like a really affordable pet or livestock animal. But, as I like to say, “if you can’t afford the vet, you can’t afford the pet!” Chickens are pretty affordable to take care of, but if they get sick, they need health care just like any other pet. Read articles on common chicken health problems here, here, and here. Some of the articles I linked there have information (and a few graphic photos) about home care for health problems in chickens. If you are a new chicken owner, I do not advocate this, and suggest you garner advice from your local feed store folks or, better yet, visit a vet. Even a $2.50 animal deserves proper health care when it is sick. I think it is especially important to be respectful of animals that provide food for your family. If they make eggs for you, the least you can do is provide them with proper care!
Wing clipping: If you have a fenced yard, you may want to let your chickens stretch their legs outside of their pen. This allows the chickens to scratch for bugs (they are great pest control) and they aerate the soil and fertilize it with their droppings. If you choose to let your hens roam free from time to time, you will likely want to learn how to clip their wings. Chickens are not great at flying, but they can certainly propel themselves up and over a fence. Your neighbor will likely get tired of knocking on your front door with a hen tucked under their arm! Here and here are tutorials on wing-clipping. Here is a list of the pros and cons of clipping wings. We have always clipped the wings of our hens and have had zero problems. One article points out that clipping a hen’s wings strips her of her only defense–that is, flying away–but we haven’t had any problems with predators during the day. They usually come calling at night, when the hens are securely locked up in their pen. Take your specific situation into account when deciding whether or not to clip.