How would you like to have the best eggs you’ve ever tasted for breakfast? And know that they’re not only delicious but healthy and fresh? You can! All you need is a little bit of space—and a few chickens.
While you may think “yuk,” raising chickens is fun, exciting—especially the first time they lay eggs for you!—and not very time-consuming. Expect to spend just a few minutes a day feeding your chickens and collecting their eggs…10 to 20 minutes a week tending to the coop…and perhaps an hour or two every month or so giving the coop a thorough cleaning. The time your chickens demand of you will pale next to the pleasant times they’ll provide as you watch them scratch around the yard—there is something calming about watching chickens.
Beware: Some regions ban or restrict keeping chickens, allow hens but ban roosters and may require registration of backyard flocks. Your town or city offices should be able to direct you to any local laws. The website The City Chicken lists many, but not all, regulations around the country.
I recommend starting with at least three chickens. Chickens are social animals and like company. You don’t need a rooster—hens lay eggs whether or not a rooster is present. As for space, a generous allowance would be three to four square feet per chicken inside a coop and eight to 10 square feet per chicken outside, depending on breed and size.
An easy way to start is to buy a ready-made coop, which will come with all the amenities a chicken needs, including ventilation, perches for night-time sleeping, and nest boxes where the hens will lay their eggs. Sidecar nests are handy because the chickens can access them from the inside while you can collect the eggs from the outside. Prefab coops come in a variety of sizes and will generally specify how many hens they are designed to house. Google “chicken coops” and you will find all manner of cool coops and kits. Prices start at around $150.
Scatter “litter” in the nests and over the coop’s floor to absorb moisture and manure. Good litter choices include chopped straw, particularly wheat straw, or wood shavings, especially pine. Lawn clippings are fine, too, as long as they are well dried before they’re used and the grass wasn’t treated with herbicides or pesticides. Litter should be at least a few inches deep to absorb manure and moisture, and should be cleaned out and replaced as often as needed to keep it fresh. Dedicating one pair of boots or shoes that you wear only in and around your chicken coop and yard can help avoid spreading any illnesses.
Helpful: Fence in and cover the area where the chickens will be outside—to protect your hens from wandering dogs and other predators such as hawks, owls, foxes, coyotes, raccoons and opossums.
Consider your climate when you build a coop…
If you live in a very cold area, the coop should be insulated but still provide ventilation (put a sheet of Styrofoam under the roof). A cold-weather coop should not be much larger than three square feet per bird so that the chickens’ body heat can provide sufficient warmth in winter. Installing a heater is a bad idea, as it prevents chickens from becoming properly acclimated to variations in the weather.
If you live in a hot area, the roof should be light-colored to reflect sunlight.
Chickens’ pecking and scratching can damage grass. Position the chicken coop in an out-of-the-way part of your property or move the coop around the yard frequently to give previously used areas time to recover.
The safest way to acquire chickens is to purchase chicks from a hatchery and raise them yourself. That greatly reduces the odds that your chickens will be exposed to disease. But raising chicks requires significant effort and warm, safe facilities designed specifically for this purpose. It also means that you must wait four or five months for your first eggs.
An easier option is to purchase mature hens from a known and reputable source. Ask others who raise chickens in your area which bird sources they trust or ask a local feed/farm-supply store for recommendations. Networking at a local county fair can provide chicken sources as well. Purchasing from a National Poultry Improvement Program (NPIP) certified flock will ensure that the birds are disease-free.
Check the chickens for signs of good health before you buy—bright eyes, smooth and shiny feathers, clean legs and a bright comb. Egg production declines sharply when hens pass age three or four, so check for signs of youth, too—smooth legs, soft muscles, a somewhat flexible breastbone and thin, almost translucent skin. A hen lays well to the age of three, and then gradually tapers off. A healthy chicken lives about 12 years, by which time she’s laying few eggs. A hen that is well cared for can live 20 years or more, by which time she’ll likely no longer lay at all. Have a plan for what to do with your hens after their egg-laying days are over—you can keep them as pets…or eat them.
Expect to pay $3 to $5 for pullets—female chicks—or $5 to $25 or even more for mature hens, depending on age, breed and local availability.
Select a docile, friendly breed. These breeds include Ameraucana and Araucana, which lay eggs with light blue shells…Delaware and Plymouth Rock, which lay eggs with brown shells…Brahma and Cochin, large breeds with feathered legs, that are also brown-egg layers…Houdan and Polish, calm white-egg layers that have a topknot of puffy feathers on their heads
If your yard is small, consider a bantam version of one of the breeds above. These diminutive breeds are about one-quarter the size of a typical hen and weigh just two pounds or even less. Their eggs are small, too, but just as tasty as larger eggs.
Different breeds lay eggs at different rates. Ask when you purchase a chicken what to expect. Most hatchery websites include this information in each breed description. Since an egg takes 25 hours to develop, chickens typically lay one egg per day—with the best hens laying about 250 eggs in a year, taking a day off now and then and a few months off for the annual molt (renewal of plumage). They do best when fed a complete layer ration that is at least 16% protein, with an additional calcium supplement (such as crushed oyster shells) during egg-laying months, and offered plenty of water. Hens usually molt in the fall and then don’t start laying again until spring, when daylight increases. To induce laying during winter, put a lightbulb in the coop and set it on a timer to provide at least 14 hours of light (including natural daylight) per day. Allow at least eight hours of darkness during the night. Hens, like the rest of us, need their beauty rest, too.