What you need to know about raising backyard chickens

May 24 | Guest post by Rachel B.

Backyard chickens are all the rage now. With the downturn in the economy and the recent egg recalls, people are flocking (pun intended) to local feed stores to get their own fluffballs with beaks and legs in hopes of supplying themselves with omelets from their own backyard.

Before you make the leap into backyard poultry raising, there are some questions you need to ask yourself:

Is it legal?

Many cities allow people to have small backyard flocks of hens. However, there are just as many communities that don't abide chickens. If you belong to a Home Owners Association, chances are your bylaws state you cannot have chickens. Always check. If you want chickens and live in an area they're not zoned for, you can work on changing the rules. Find like minds in your community and take the subject before the city council or homeowners association. Get it on their agenda. Educate them about the benefits of raising chickens at home.

Our Chicken Coop
Photo by furtwangl. Used under Creative Commons license.

Will my neighbors be OK with them?

It's important to find out what your neighbors think; after all, they know where you live. Now's the time to ask them what they think, discuss their concerns, and offer up bribes eggs.

Where do I get chickens?

There are several places you can find chicks. The best places are feed stores that get their chicks from reputable hatcheries and online hatcheries such as McMurray Hatchery. Adult hens are often on Craigslist and sometimes in animal shelters. Adults are more expensive, so I usually go with chicks — though they take more work. When purchasing your chicks, make sure that they have been vaccinated for Marek's disease.

What about roosters?

You do not need a rooster. Hens produce eggs regardless of whether there is a rooster or not — they just won't be fertilized. Fertilized eggs aren't any more nutritious, so unless you're planning on producing your own chicks, there isn't a reason for getting a rooster. Furthermore, many communities don't allow backyard roosters because they're so noisy.

How do I know all the chicks I buy are hens?

When ordering chicks, you'll want to get pullets instead of straight run. Sexing of chicks is 90% accurate, so there is a chance that you may end up with a rooster. With the newfound popularity of backyard flocks, local animal shelters are now seeing an influx of roosters. As a responsible chicken owner you need to plan ahead: instead of dropping off unplanned roosters at the shelter or setting them free, find a farmer who is willing to take it or put it in a soup pot when it just begins to crow.

What do I do when the hens stop laying?

This is similar to the unplanned rooster problem. Hens live up to 12 years, but only really produce eggs between six months old and two years old. Then their egg production usually drops significantly. If you want to keep the eggs coming you'll need new hens — and a plan for the old hens. We don't have the space or money for hens that aren't producing so ours go into the stew pot, though old laying hens are tough and must be cooked for a long time to be edible. This isn't something everyone is willing to do. You can also keep old hens and live with less eggs or find someone that will take them. It's a bad plan, however, to take them to shelters that have limited resources. Doing so gives chicken owners a bad rap.

Our Chicken Coop
Photo by furtwangl. Used under Creative Commons license.

How much room do I need?

You definitely need to know if you have enough room. Most cities require a chicken coop be at least 20' from any occupied residences. You also need to make sure that you can provide 2-3 square feet per hen in the coop with an additional 4-5 square feet per hen for the outdoor run. More space is always better, especially if you plan on introducing more birds at a later date.

Backyardchickens.com is a fantastic resource for all chicken owners, so give it a look for more information when you're planning your flock.

  1. My In-laws got chickens a few months ago and they are so darn cute! My husband and I help take care of them, but living in the city we're relegated to just visits. Although if there's a "no livestock" law in your area, most places will let it slide if you only have two or three and they're ornamental.

    0 agree
  2. Another way to sex your chics is to hold them upside down by their feet. If they try to come up and peck you then they are male, if they just hang there then they are female.

    1 agrees
    • I used to work on a chicken research farm and can tell you that's an old wives tale ;) The most reliable way to sex a chicken is vent sexing. But since most of us are not middle aged Korean men trained since childhood in this method, that does the average chicken farmer no good.

      So that leaves us average joes with feather sexing. When the chick is still very young, only a few days, you gently spread one of their wings. If the top and bottom line of feathers are basically the same length, it's a male. If the feathers are very different lengths, it's a female. There's some more that goes into it such as the breed of chicken, but that's the basics!

      1 agrees
  3. I found hens to be great pets growing up (hens, not the roosters… roosters can be very territorial) so I would suggest if people have the room or the desire to just keep hens until they pass away. They are the only bird that I have ever enjoyed having as a pet.

    5 agree
  4. Are there businesses who could kill and prepare (for cooking) your chickens? I don't have the stomach for killing, just eating.

    1 agrees
    • Usually a local butcher will do the dirty work.

      0 agree
      • I wonder if you could donate to food banks after the butcher… I don't think I'd have the heart to eat the chickens…

        0 agree
        • Food banks will not take meat unless it's from a USDA inspected slaughterhouse unfortunately.

          0 agree
      • Also, ask your friends. They may surprise you with their willingness to butcher a bird, especially if you promise them a share.

        0 agree
  5. My friend's mother raises chickens but they kept on mysteriously dying. Any more suggestions on keeping them healthy?

    1 agrees
    • Chickens will very easily eat things they shouldn't, and can choke or get bad bacteria and die quickly. You might want to check with your local poultry vet (they usually do house visits) to check the area for any issues, or to test your chickens. It could be something they are eating, or it could be something they picked up from the supplier.

      1 agrees
  6. My husband's family used to raise chickens and my friend lived in a co-op that collectively had some chickens. Two other things to consider:

    1) Other Animals – If you have dogs or cats that share the backyard, your chickens may have very short lives. Also, be aware of any neighbors with pets who share a property line with you. Make sure all fences between properties are in good condition, but also know that you could be treated to lots and lots of barking if a neighbor's dog doesn't take kindly to the new additions.

    2) Waste and Flies
    Like any farm animal, chickens are not exactly clean. They produce quite a bit of waste, which will attract flies. Lots of flies if there are a good number of chickens and you live somewhere warm. If your yard is not very big, it may become more the chickens' yard than one you want to use for bbqs and the like because of cleanliness issues.

    I'm sorry if I sound like a spoil sport, but I just figured that people would want to know about these issues beforehand. I'm pretty sure no one wants to come home to a yard full of chicken corpses, like my husband's family did one time.

    0 agree
    • Crystal, thanks! After it posted I realized I totally should have talked more about housing. Yes! Predator proof housing is a must. And keeping everything clean is important too.

      0 agree
      • I want chickens, but we have foxes in our neighborhood!

        I'm also worried about leaving the chickens when I go travel. How do you arrange for your chickens' care while you are out of town?

        0 agree
        • We have 7 chooks and a big population of foxes. Foxes will mostly only come at night so we lock our chooks up at sundown and release then when we get up in the morning. It's a chance we take. When going away we have a neighbour do it for us and they get any eggs that are layed or we try to get a house sitter. I have a friend who's grandmother takes hers in her coupe when she goes away. You might be able to find a pet sitting service who would do it for you if you have no other options.

          0 agree
  7. I literally sent a reader question in about chickens two minutes ago, and then came to see what's going on over here and… CHICKENS! So excited to hear chicken experiences. We're going to set up a coop next spring and I want to be armed with as much info as possible. I have a couple of specific questions.

    1. How smelly is the smell?
    2. How fancy do I need to get with chicken accessories? It seems like there are SUPER chicken supplies and then cheaper ones… does it matter?
    3. How often could I let them scratch through the yard without them killing everything?

    0 agree
    • 1. We have had up to 32 chickens at one time – and yes we live in the city but haven't had any smell issues. We use what's called "deep litter" for our livestock. We simply layer bedding over waste. The bedding is about 8" thick right now. The high nitrogen of the manure mixed with the carbon of the straw (the bedding we use) makes the perfect compost so it doesn't smell at all and we only clean out the coop/barn once a year. Bonus is that the aerobic activity keeps the coop warm in the winter. We also have a large yard for them (they share a 700 sf yard with 4 pygmy goats) so it helps keep the manure from getting concentrated.

      2. Chickens don't care for style. We use a galvanized feeder like the one pictured above. We do have an automatic waterer though. This is the one investment that I highly recommend because they can drink quite a bit of water, especially in the summer. With as many chickens as we have, it's impossible to keep up with water otherwise. For 3 chickens a regular waterer is fine though. Otherwise, everything else we have is handmade or we've gotten for free.

      3. Ours have a pretty large yard so we limit them to coming out in the garden only in the winter and only when supervised when they can't destroy everything – because they will. Our winters are mild with no snow though. You can use what's called a chicken tractor which is a floorless structure that has an enclosed coop that can be moved around your yard day to day.

      0 agree
    • An alternative to deep litter is to clean the coop out every couple of days and replace the bedding with fresh straw, then compost the old.

      But as long as you're doing something to keep it clean the smell should be minimal. I'd say less than your average cats litter box.

      0 agree
      • I also read somewhere that you can reduce the smell if you buy feed without molasses. Is this true?

        0 agree
      • Throwing scratch around helps too – the chickens rummage through the litter to eat the scratch and it keeps it from settling and getting nasty.

        0 agree
    • The best thing to do is to alternate their run area – so the ground has time to recuperate and re-grow some vegetation.

      0 agree
  8. My dad has kept on my 7 year old silky cross bantam because she is a GREAT brood hen and mama chook. They make great pets too, and can live quite peacefully with rabbits.

    0 agree
    • Oh, this! Old hens make great brooders if you want to raise your own chicks, and you can buy prefertilized eggs from the supplier if you don't want to bother with roosters. They also make great pest killers and love mosquitoes and other obnoxious bugs.

      0 agree
  9. Two things I'd add to this:

    1) Predators. You will need to shut the chickens up at night and potentially at least fenced in during the day. I know a well made fence about 6 foot high and about 1/2 a foot underground combined with a solid coop will keep foxes out but I'm not sure what extra precautions might be needed for wolves, coyotes, birds of prey etc.

    2) Chickens scratch. They're also omnivores and will at least try to eat anything smaller than them that doesn't fight back or run away fast enough. If you happen to like your yard/garden and are planning on keeping more than a couple of chickens it's probably best to fence off an area for them and say goodbye to any small plants in there.

    That said they are great pets.

    1 agrees
  10. Great article! My husband and I are hoping to raise an alpaca or two in the future, but chickens might be a good start to the farm route. (Why yes, I am a knitter who dreams of growing her own wool, how did you know?)

    My sister and her husband have a small farm outside Baltimore, and they're very passionate about heritage breeds. Basically, there are a lot of livestock breeds that are facing extinction. Several organizations are working to preserve these breeds. The pioneer organization is the American Livestock Breeds Conservatory. My sister also recommends Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, which has great resources and information for people in all states. (I don't have any specific information about similar movements abroad, but I've heard of similar movements in the UK.)

    1 agrees
  11. I'm actually going to advise against ordering through McMurray. Over the past few years, their customer service and reputation have REALLY taken a nosedive. Last Fall, I ordered their meat and egg special, which consisted of something like 10 layers and 15 meat birds, and within just a few days of receiving them about 10 of the meat birds and 3 of the layers died. According to other reviews, this is a common occurrence when ordering from them (some people have reported ordering a flock and they've all shown up dead), and McMurray's doesn't offer a refund for the dead chicks.

    0 agree
  12. We raised chickens growing up, and my mom has a small flock now at her house. We have had all sorts of living arrangements for them, but what works best is a coop that can be closed up at night to keep them contained (this is inside the pen it self) and a pen with tall sides and a top to keep out birds of prey and other varmints (coyotes, foxes, dogs and cats). Also, a trick we learned a long time ago is to order your chicks early Spring or late Fall. Remember if you aren't picking them up directly from a farm, your chicks are getting mailed to you, and are very susceptible to cold and heat. We have lost a few packages of chicks because they got too hot in transit in the middle of the summer (which, by the way, is when suppliers offer their sales).

    0 agree
  13. For anyone that lives around Raleigh, NC, every year there is a tour you can do of coops in the city. They show you how to set one up in your yard, how to care for the chickens, etc. I highly recommend going on the tour. Here is the website: http://www.tourdcoop.com

    Also the ag extension at NCSU will happily help you with any chicken questions you may have :)

    0 agree
  14. I have three in my backyard flock and they have been great- two hens and a rooster. I grew up on a farm so the I enjoy the rooster and like the protection he provides for the ladies (he just scared off the neighborhood hawk yesterday), but I also realize they are not ideal for every situation. For those looking to get into raising chickens I would recommend checking out backyardchickens.com– it is a great source of information for people with small flocks. They have everything from a wide range of coop designs (with photos), to blogs about bird health, to suggestions of vendors for any chicken purchase.
    I have always had chickens and enjoy them–I am glad they are catching on!

    0 agree
    • I also really enjoy the sound of roosters. We've got several neighbors that just recently got roosters. I quickly realized though that not everyone thinks like I do. Our neighbor behind us, who is VERY tolerant of what we're doing was complaining to me the other day about the roosters and how obnoxious they are. I think if we had a rooster she wouldn't be so tolerant of us. :)

      0 agree
  15. I also forgot to mention if you would like a rooster, getting the right breed is important. They vary so much in attitude and especially noise level, which is usually the biggest issue with homeowners! Our first rooster crowed maybe two or three times in the morning and was done. Our new boy talks all day long and crows at EVERYTHING. Both have great temperaments, but you really need to like hearing chickens to be able to deal with the latest one. Not a big deal for me, but if I lived where neighbors could hear him all the time I would have to get rid of him or be hated by everyone.

    0 agree
  16. There was a pretty detailed post on backyard chickens over at I, Asshole just the day before this one. She is always entertaining and covers a few things not mentioned here.

    0 agree
  17. I must point out that sexing chickens may be 90% accurate, but in my experience MOST places selling chickens don't bother and claim that they check them. No guarantee, right? We bought 6 chickens our first round and 2 of them were roosters. Many people I have talked to have had the same experience, and I am sorry, but there is no way that it is 90% effective when around 40% of the time the chick you got is a rooster. That's natural gender division.

    0 agree
    • A lot of farms will pack the females with males "packing peanuts." Though if you're only ordering six there's no excuse for that. Were you ordering as chicks or pullets?

      0 agree
      • Chicks. Lesson learned though – the next batch we bought were pullets.

        0 agree
      • Yes, you must make sure you're ordering sexed chicks (aka pullets) when getting them. It's important to get them from reputable places. Reputable hatcheries generally will not ship less than 25 chicks at a time, so I'm assuming you got yours through a feed store. IME, feed stores do not have the specialized experience to sex chicks, so if they said they did, most likely they are lying.

        Since we started raising chickens we've had over 50 hens and only one of them ever turned out to be a rooster.

        0 agree
        • It is my understanding that pullets are like teenage chickens.

          I did get them at a feed store that insisted that they were all female chicks – which they lied about since they definitely did not check them.

          I wish we could keep more chickens (friends and family LOVE fresh eggs!), but unfortunately with our space and resources we're limited.

          0 agree
          • Pullets are just female chicks that haven't started laying yet.

            0 agree
  18. I would also like to add that ending up with a rooster is a pretty big deal, and not just because they are obnoxiously loud, but because they can become vicious after reaching maturity and could brutally attack and potentially kill your hens (and especially other roosters!). As a vegetarian, it was a complete heartache – we ended up giving them to a farmer figuring "don't ask, don't tell". There's no way to find a good home for them – in our rural area there are many many ads on Craigslist for roosters – there are simply too many of them.

    A good idea is to buy sex-links, they are bred so that male and female chicks are different colors. DEFINITELY the way to go when buying chicks.

    0 agree
    • They are not all vicious. I have friends that have multiple roosters and they are all very nice birds.

      0 agree
      • Caveat: They have the potential to be vicious. (even when raised since chick as pets that are held regularly). This could be have to do with breed though. The possibility of this should be something people consider when getting chicks or choosing to keep roosters.

        0 agree
  19. my family's experience: in march my dad brought home 15 chicks, they had been sexed and we were told there was a 6% chance that there was a rooster in the group. we thought we were pretty safe. as the "Chicken Ladies" (their collective name) grew we discovered that we had "Chicken Ladies – Plus One" Plus One became the rooster's name. he was the 6% :) well we loved our babies. dad turned an old shed into a coop, mom and i fed them oatmeal by hand, bread, and many other treats. Plus One was always noisy but neighbors never said a word to us. then one day dad came home from work, i was on a plane heading out of state, and he went to check on the Chicken Ladies – Plus One. the sight i tried very hard not to hear described was of blood, brutality, and violence. three Chicken Ladies survived, though because they play dead, it was not discovered til the next day.

    he didn't find any holes around the cage/coop area, inside or out. one spot where there had been digging, but it didn't appear the digger could have made it under the fence as there was no hole. raccoon? opossum? skunk? we trapped two skunks, so maybe. dogs? someone would have had to have let them into the coop, and out again. though 2 weeks ago he did walk out to be confronted with 2 neighborhood dogs throwing themselves against the fence. they haven't been back since, but perhaps they'd returned for more.

    the household still gets clenched stomachs and moist eyes when we talk about the Chicken Ladies and our loveable Plus One. it took almost a month before the startled darlings started laying eggs again. now they're laying about 3 each every couple of days. they still don't run to us like they used to for treats, but they are gingerly coming back around to excepting bread held out at arms length.

    so my "moral" of this story is… safety. even if you don't consider your chickens to be beloved pets as we do, you still don't want to see what happens to them if a wild animal or pissed off cowardly neighbor gets to them.

    oh and a side note: my dad says that the courts recently declared chickens to be house pets so HOAs shouldn't be able to tell you that you can't own them. hope he's right because i'm getting married and inheriting an HOA next month :/

    0 agree
  20. I am back after a few months of chicken owning and here are some things I wish I'd known from the outset.

    1. There is so much talk about how noisy roosters are, but let me tell you, the hens make plenty of noise themselves. They 'sing' in the morning which isn't too bad, but then when they lay they really do squawk. Something to keep in mind when you're planning where to set up your coop.

    2. I am surprised just how quickly they can overturn a garden. If you're considering getting chickens, make sure your plants are deep rooted and ready. If you're getting ready to plant a bunch of new stuff, you might want to wait a full year before getting chickens so they can't rip it all out. Another option is to build little fences around your precious plants.

    3. If you have kids and want to let your chickens roam AND want a lot of eggs, you might want to build a second coop/run for breeds that are high layers but not terribly friendly. It's hard to selectively let out the friendly hens, and many of the high-producing breeds are just not fun to hang around with in the yard because they will pester you and peck you.

    0 agree
  21. I just recently started to raise chickens. I now have four hens in my backyard and I think it is pretty awesome. My neighbors don't seem to have a problem with it as they come over from time to time to see them. I first learned about backyard chickens from http://kernschickensfarm.com/ which I found in a farm magazine.

    0 agree
  22. Sorry this is the correct link
    I just recently started to raise chickens. I now have four hens in my backyard and I think it is pretty awesome. My neighbors don't seem to have a problem with it as they come over from time to time to see them. I first learned about backyard chickens from http://kernschickenfarm.com/ which I found in a farm magazine.

    0 agree
  23. I just got 6 baby chicks yesterday and have been trying to find out as much information as I can about raising them and having backyard chickens. Any wise advise is welcome! I can't find much info about healthy and not healthy behavior.

    0 agree

Join the conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

No-drama comment policy

Part of what makes the Offbeat Empire different is our commitment to civil, constructive commenting. Make sure you're familiar with our no-drama comment policy.

Biz owners & wedding bloggers

Please just use your real name in your comment, not your business name or blog title. Our comments are not the place to pimp your website. If you want to promote your stuff on Offbeat Bride, join us as an advertiser instead.