How to Keep Chickens: Tips and Walkthrough
Keeping chickens for eggs can be a fun and rewarding hobby. Not only do laying hens give you fresh eggs, but they provide endless entertainment, pest management, and free fertilizer.
In this article, I’ll tell you everything you need to know about keeping chickens, including raising chicks, how to care for hens, and what chickens need to stay happy and healthy.
After my husband and I purchased our first home, one of the first things we did was build a coop and run. Keeping chickens and starting a backyard farm had always been a dream of ours, and we were excited to finally have the space to do so.
We bought our first bunch of chicks from a local hatchery and have since raised four batches of chicks over the last 7 years.
We know exactly how our chickens are treated, what they eat, and how healthy they are, which is important to us. Keeping chickens, as well as growing vegetables and berries, also helps us feel more connected to our food.
Plus, keeping chickens is relatively easy once you get the hang of it.
If you’re interested in keeping laying hens, keep the following pointers in mind.
If you’re uncomfortable handling and caring for animals, chickens aren’t the right choice for you.
Are you willing to rear chickens long-term?
First, it’s important to understand that chickens require consistent care and live relatively long lives if they’re healthy. My oldest hens are over 7 years old and are still very active.
Some breeds can live a decade or longer, so you should be ready to keep chickens for their entire lives. It’s a long-term commitment.
Do you have ample space and a safe environment?
You must be willing to provide a safe environment for your hens with space for them to roam around and partake in natural behaviors like scratching and dust bathing (more on that later).
You’ll also need funds for a coop, feed, and numerous other supplies.
Be prepared for your birds’ illnesses and injuries
Finally, although keeping chickens is enjoyable most of the time, chickens do get sick and can pass away unexpectedly.
Make sure you have a veterinarian in your area who treats chickens, though keep in mind that such specialists aren’t always easy to find. It’s also vital that you have the right tools on hand to treat illnesses and injuries.
Before you decide to keep chickens, it’s important to consider factors like budget, where you live, and your level of comfort handling animals.
If you’ve decided you want to keep chickens, you should have everything you need to raise chicks and hens before you acquire chicks or full-grown laying hens.
Don’t purchase chicks or laying hens before building or buying a coop and run that’s appropriately sized for the number of chickens in your flock.
Also, make sure chickens are permitted where you live. Certain residential areas have bans on backyard chickens or only allow you to keep hens, not roosters.
Pre-made chicken coops — especially large ones — can be very pricey. However, you may be able to find a used coop locally by asking around or searching community websites.
If you’re handy, consider turning an old shed into a coop. You can find cheap used sheds in great condition on sites like Craigslist, then easily create nesting boxes and a roost.
- Here’s a great how-to video on converting a shed into a coop.
- Here’s a site that gives you a basic coop design, with internal and external views.
Your coop needs nesting boxes (which provide a quiet, private space for hens to lay eggs), a place for all of your hens to roost off the floor, adequate ventilation, and secure doors and windows to keep out predators.
Plus, a droppings board under their roost keeps your coop much cleaner. This video explains what I mean.
Most chicken experts recommend 1 nesting box for every 3 hens. Currently, we have 5 nesting boxes for our 15 hens. We use straw in our boxes and pine shavings plus straw in the rest of our coop.
Hens use their coop to sleep and lay eggs. They also need shelter for harsh weather and protection from predators. According to McMurray Hatchery, a coop should provide around 4 square feet (0.4 square meters) of space per bird.
For example, if you have 10 chickens, plan on providing a coop that’s at least 4’×8’ (1.2×2.4 meters) in size. This is the general recommendation for chickens that have access to a larger run or are allowed to free range.
If you’re planning on having your chickens confined to a coop — which I don’t recommend — the coop should be much larger, providing at least 10 square feet (0.9 square meters) per bird.
Keep in mind
- Overcrowding creates many issues, including fighting. If you don’t have adequate room to provide hens with enough space to live a happy life, reconsider keeping chickens.
- If you’re planning to grow your flock over time, consider choosing a larger coop and run so that you’ll have room for future hens.
Lastly, the coop has to be secure. Predators are common no matter your location. Where I live, hawks and racoons are the main concern. We have heavy wire mesh over the windows and an automatic predator-proof door to keep our hens safe.
Chickens are happiest with adequate outdoor space to roam. A run attaches to your coop and should provide at least 10 square feet (0.9 square meters) of space per bird. Again, this is a general recommendation. The more space you can provide, the better.
In our region, hawks are an issue, so we recently created a run that’s completely covered with chicken wire. This protects our hens from avian predators and keeps the squirrels out of their feed.
Here are photos of our new run setup. Keep in mind that this is our third chicken run. We’ve learned what works best over the years.
Of course, if you don’t have a lot of predators in your area, you can forgo the run and let them free range — meaning letting them explore your property freely. However, they still need to have access to the coop so that they can lay and shelter from predators at night.
You’ll also want an area with dry dirt where your chickens can dust bath or roll around in dirt. This is a natural behavior that helps keep your chickens healthy.
Our chickens have dust bath spots all over our property. However, if you plan to keep your chickens in a run, you’ll need to create a dust bath for them. This article tells you everything you need to know about dust bathing.
In addition to a safe coop and space to roam, chickens need feed, water, and a source of calcium.
We use Scratch and Peck feed for our chicks, pullets, and hens. Chickens have different nutrient needs depending on their age, so make sure you purchase the appropriate feed. We throw our feed on the ground, but you can purchase a poultry feeder if you prefer.
Chickens need consistent access to clean drinking water. We keep our poultry drinker in the run, which the hens can access at all times. If you live in a cold climate, you’ll need to invest in a heated poultry drinker to keep the water from freezing in the winter.
Laying hens also need access to a source of calcium to maintain healthy bones and lay eggs with strong shells. You should give your hens crushed oyster shells on a regular basis.
Furthermore, chickens confined to a coop or run need access to grit. As chickens can’t break down their food on their own, they rely on grit — or small pieces of rock and stone — to break down their food in their gizzard.
Our hens free range on a daily basis and find plenty of natural grit on our property. However, if your hens are confined to a run or coop, you must provide the grit. You can spread it throughout your run or put it in a feeder.
Keep in mind
Chicks need grit too, but in a much smaller size. Here’s the chick grit I’ve used in the past.
You’ll also want to prepare a chicken first aid kit. Here’s a great breakdown of some of the most important items to have on hand.
Chickens require a secure coop, space to roam, feed, clean water, and a few other necessities to thrive.
After you have everything you need to keep happy and healthy hens, you’ll need to decide whether you want to purchase chicks or fully grown hens.
You can also hatch your own eggs, but this requires more effort and special equipment.
My recommendation is to raise chicks. It’s a relatively simple process that lets you interact with chicks from a young age, which makes them more likely to grow up to be friendly and easy to handle.
Of course, you can purchase pullets (young chickens) or fully grown laying hens if you’d rather skip the chick-raising process.
Chicks are adorable, and raising them is very rewarding. We’ve purchased a few batches from local businesses, as well as McMurray Hatchery.
Hatcheries ship chicks the day after they hatch. Even though it’s possible to lose one or more chicks during shipping, we never have.
However, we’ve lost a few chicks to illness and disease. Keeping your chicks in a safe, healthy environment will minimize the chances of them falling ill, but sometimes chick death isn’t preventable.
When purchasing chicks, you can choose sexed or unsexed chicks. I recommend sexed chicks, which means that they’ve been separated according to sex. Roosters aren’t allowed where I live, so I can only have hens.
Keep in mind
Although choosing sexed female chicks minimizes your chances of getting a rooster, it’s not a perfect process. We’ve had to re-home three roosters over the years. Contrary to popular belief, hens don’t need a rooster to produce eggs.
Once your chicks arrive, they’ll need to be kept in a warm, safe place. We raise ours in our basement in a large plastic storage bin topped with chicken wire. Chicks need:
- a heat source
- constant access to food and clean water
- soft bedding
- protection from predators
Chicks also love finely chopped greens like kale!
This video tells you everything you need to know in order to raise chicks and covers necessities like heat lamps, feed, grit, and water. Here’s another helpful video on how to set up a brooder for baby chicks.
Please watch these videos and educate yourself before purchasing chicks! There’s a lot to learn about raising healthy chicks, and I can’t cover all of the information you need to know in this article.
Chicks are very delicate and need to be handled with care. Be sure to teach family members, including children, how to appropriately handle chicks.
Once chicks are fully feathered (usually around 6 weeks), you can move them outside to their coop as long as temperatures allow. We usually get our new chicks in the spring — April or May — so the weather is warm when they’re ready to move outside.
Chickens usually begin laying eggs at around 6 months old, so be patient!
You can either raise chicks or purchase laying hens. If you decide to raise chicks, they need a safe, warm environment with supplemental heat, clean water, chick grit, and food.
I suggest doing your research before purchasing chicks or laying hens.
Some hens are much friendlier and more outgoing than others, and some are more equipped to handle cold or extreme heat.
Plus, certain breeds are much more likely to go broody — or want to hatch their eggs. This means that they’ll sit on eggs for hours, which isn’t ideal unless you want to hatch out chicks.
Keep in mind
If you don’t have a rooster, you won’t have fertile eggs and your hens won’t be able to hatch chicks, no matter how long they sit on their eggs.
Another factor to consider is the productivity of the breed. Some are highly productive egg layers, producing five or more eggs per week, while others lay much less frequently. Egg production slows during the winter months and declines with age.
When I choose chicken breeds, I look for ones on the larger side (because of our hawk problem), productive egg layers, easy to handle, cold-hardy, and friendly.
Here are some of my favorite chicken breeds that I’ve raised over the years:
- Orpingtons. These are larger, cold-hardy birds with a friendly personality. They’re also productive egg layers. I have buff Orpingtons and a lavender Orpington named Oprah who’s my favorite chicken.
- Easter Eggers. These birds are hybrids or “mutts” that lay beautiful blue and green eggs. They are very smart and friendly, in addition to being heat tolerant and cold-hardy.
- Golden Comets. The two Golden Comets I got last year might be the friendliest birds I’ve ever had. They’re highly productive egg layers. Yet, since they’re bred for commercial egg production, they have a short lifespan and are susceptible to reproductive tract issues.
- Marans. Marans are sweet, large birds that are good egg layers. They lay dark brown eggs and are cold hardy.
- Wyandottes. I currently have a Golden Laced Wyandotte and a Silver Laced Wyandotte. They are beautiful, curious, cold-hardy, and good egg layers.
These are just some of the many chicken breeds I’ve kept over the years. I’m getting a new batch of chicks this spring and can’t wait to raise some new breeds, including Swedish Flower Hens and Buff Brahmas.
There are many breeds to choose from, especially if you’re purchasing from a large hatchery, so be sure to take your time and choose the best breeds based on factors like your preferences and climate.
This comprehensive chicken guide from Michigan State University is a great place to start.
Orpingtons, Golden Comets, Easter Eggers, Marans, and Wyandottes are a few of my favorite chicken breeds.
As you’ve probably gathered from this article, there’s a lot to know about keeping chickens.
Like all hobbies, you’ll learn as you go along. Here are a few tips and lessons I’ve learned over the years that might be helpful for new chicken owners:
- Invest in an automatic, predator-proof door. This will make your life much easier. We use this product, which opens and closes automatically at sunrise and sunset.
- Overestimate space requirements. The more space chickens have to roam, the better. If possible, make a large run with plenty of room for exploring. Ample space will make your chickens happier and less prone to fighting.
- Enrich their environment. Chickens love to explore and perch on things. We dragged a huge apple tree branch into our run for our chickens to hide under and perch on.
- Keep their coop clean. This is important. Although you can use the deep litter method (explained in this video), we prefer to clean our coop regularly by emptying the droppings board underneath their roosts and refreshing their bedding when needed.
- Provide fresh, clean water and feed. We feed our chickens twice a day, but if you have a covered run you can leave food out in feeders. Clean their water source regularly to prevent illness.
- Go easy on scraps. We give our chickens a lot of healthy table scraps and veggies from our garden. However, you shouldn’t feed chickens foods high in sodium and sugar. Here’s a list of foods that chickens can’t eat.
- Create a storage space. We sectioned off a part of our shed/coop to make into a storage room for straw, feed, and other necessities. Use a large metal trash can with a tight-fitting lid to protect the feed from rodents.
- Find a local vet who treats chickens. It’s important to locate a local veterinarian who treats chickens, as your birds can get injured or become sick.
- Don’t heat your coop. Chickens don’t need supplemental heat. In fact, heating a coop can make chickens sick. It gets well below 20℉ (-6℃) during winter nights where I live, and my hens are perfectly fine. Keep in mind that I have cold-hardy breeds.
- Let your chickens free range. Let your chickens roam if you have the room — and if it’s safe, of course. Chickens love being able to scratch on grass, eat pests like ticks, and dust bathe.
- Consider a larger run. If you don’t have enough space to let your chickens roam free, that’s okay! Just make sure they have a larger run to keep them happy.
The importance of hygiene
Chickens carry bacteria that can make people sick, which is why it’s important to practice proper hygiene methods when handling and caring for chickens.
You can learn more about the types of bacteria chickens carry and how to reduce your risk of illness from backyard chickens here.
These are just a few helpful tips for those new to — or interested in — keeping chickens.
To learn more, connect with someone who has experience raising chickens, or join an online group for chicken owners.
Helpful tips for new chicken owners include investing in an automatic door, finding a local vet who treats chickens, giving your birds ample space to roam, and avoiding heated coops.
If you’re interested in keeping chickens, this article should help you learn what you need and what to expect.
Just remember to take it one step at a time. Once you get the basics down, keeping chickens is surprisingly simple — and fun!
Just one thing
Try this today: If you’re interested in learning about the superior health benefits of eggs that you raise yourself (versus those you buy in the supermarket), check out our article on the subject here.