“I need help from a chicken guru.” I got a question from someone who wanted to started a flock. I’m not a guru. I’m not even a real farmer. But, I’ve had chickens for eight years, and most survived. If I calculate chicken survival rates as baseball percentage, I’m all-star.
Before you jump into chickens, you need to examine your motivation for getting them. Once you decide they’re for you not part of the larger “off the grid” fad, then we can get you set up with the right size and type of flock. Not all chickens are created equal. There are meat, egg, and heritage breed birds.
I’m seeing a lot of people jump into chickenkeeping because of the pandemic, inflation, and a couple empty shelves near their homes. Those aren’t bad reasons, but there are a few things to know. Chickens can live a decade. Most won’t, especially if you eat them, but if you’re a no-kill person, that’s a long time. In my experience, “fad owners” are done with the hobby in a couple years.
Home-raised poultry and eggs are reliable sources of food. During the quarantine, egg shelves sold out around here. Even after the pandemic, poultry farmers have been dealing with labor shortages and flock decimation due to the bird flu. So, supplies and prices are still inconsistent. Omelets and fried chicken aren’t the budget meals they used to be. Still, raising chickens can save you a trip to the grocery store, and, if you raise your dinner, you know where it comes from–your back yard, not a large industrial complex.
Even if you’re okay with chickens going into crock pots, keeping a small backyard flock won’t save you money. In order to break even, you’ll need to expand a little, sell some eggs, learn to hatch chicks, and put in the work. You probably won’t be able to sell meat birds, because of a whole host of regulations about how they must be butchered, by whom, and in what conditions. Chances are you’re not going to build a USDA-certified facility and you probably don’t have one near you to drive your twenty birds in. Officials usually overlook local egg coolers at the end of driveways around here, but meat sales are a whole different level of regulation.
There’s a reason small farms are on the decline–it’s tough to break even, there are a lot of regulations, and you don’t get a day off. But, if you like chickens, and don’t really care if your new agrohobby costs you a few bucks, and don’t mind shoveling chicken poop, this could be for you.
WHAT TYPE OF CHICKEN PERSON ARE YOU?
Before you buy a chick or hatch an egg, you need to decide what type of chicken person you are. There are three basic types and a couple hybrids in between: egg chicken people, meat chicken people, and pet chicken people.
They’re easy to tell apart on chicken forums. Meat bird people never name their chickens and they have very big freezers. They’re the first to tell the egg and pet folks to “cull them” if a chicken has bumble foot (a disease) or stops laying eggs. It’s not that they’re insensitive, but these chicken keepers recognize the economics and consider chickens part of the culinary cycle of life. They may be kind to their flock but there’s no emotional attachment here.
Chicken pet people always name their chickens. Some have house chickens with chicken diapers. Their chickens almost always have an instagram. These people get really angry when told to eat their roosters (more on roosters in a minute) or cull members of their flock–if there’s nothing on your Netflix list, you can pull up some popcorn and watch pet and meat owners argue on the forums.
Egg people range from hybrid egg-meat chicken keepers with either “dual purpose” birds (chickens that lay a lot of eggs but also serve as meat birds). There are also people who raise “rainbow layers,” which is a mixed flock of breeds chosen for the color of their eggs. We usually see white and brown eggs in the store but eggs can range from bright baby blue to green, dark brown, and even olive. All of the eggs taste the same, but it’s a pretty cool thing to see a carton of mixed-color eggs. In general–but not always–these flocks aren’t the most productive. Some egg chickens lay an egg a day for years, and others lay fewer. It’s not enough to decide you’ll be keeping chickens for eggs. You also need to know if you want hard-core productivity or are gunning for pretty eggs.
Within the egg-only group there are subgroups–egg people who only want chickens in the laying stage, and people who “feed the freeloaders,” and will keep chickens alive through their retirement to the end of their life.
I’m an egg chicken person with a few retired chickens. Our first flock was supposed to be “dual purpose”. It was nine black sex link chickens–high-production layers that also serve as meat birds. I said I’d have no part in executing my birds, but I understood that people (not me) eat meat. Over time, I kept cooking other meat and my chickens lived. Unless you’re raising a bunch of meat birds, it’s much more trouble to butcher chickens than it is to get wings on sale for a buck. “Grill, don’t kill” was my motto.
And, I liked my chickens. They have personalities. After a while the meat eaters in my family forgot the chickens were also supposed to be food. I’ve kept egg chickens ever since.
Here are the a few things I’ve learned about chickens. I hope this helps to get you started.
ITEM 1: DECIDE ON SCOPE AND SCALE
What kind of chicken person are you? Do you want a few eggs and a country backyard or are you trying to raise your own fried chicken? Or both? Before you start, you should have a rough idea about how many chickens you want, then stick to that.
A lot of people talk about “chicken math.” Chicken math is the premise that people start with one chicken and end up getting fifty in a year or two. This is a bad idea. Before you realize you’ve gone overboard, you’ll start squeezing birds into coops that are too small for them and they’ll be unhealthy. It’s similar to overplanting a garden. Every year I have more seedlings than I can fit, and instead of planting the healthiest and composting the rest, I say, “I can fit one…more…tomato….” In two months, my garden’s a mess.
Chickens are different. Tomatoes don’t poop. Chickens do. I’m not saying you can’t do a test run and then get more chickens. I’ve expanded operations twice. What I’m saying is really research this and have a rough idea of your magic number ahead of time and stick to it, plus or minus 15%. The major cost with chickens is in the setup. Planning that size and structure correctly will save you construction costs down the road.
I started with nine egg layers. One turned out to be a rooster. We gave him to a local farmer who gave us two prized hens. Those died and we lost a few of the originals over the next five years. We then added six to the flock, lost one to a hawk, and this year just got five more. It’s a small, rotating flock, designed to keep me in eggs (someone will always be egg laying age) but not too big, because I want to keep the old hens comfortably, too.
I have space for about sixteen birds. Planning for slightly more chickens gives me the flexibility to stagger the flock and safely add in sub-flocks every few years.
After deciding how many chickens you want, you need to decide whether you’re getting egg or meat birds. If you want both, you’ll need two zones to optimize their feed and care.
Next, decide if you’re hatching your own chicks or buying chicks or pullets. If you’re hatching your chicks, you’ll need a few more things–a source of fertile eggs, lights, incubating and hatching equipment, and a warm, secure place to keep the chicks until they’re ready to go in the coop.
The average life of a meat chicken is about seven weeks. You can “harvest” them later, but that’ll cost you more money in feed. Meat birds get feed that’s 22-24% protein in the beginning, then drops to 20% for “finishing.” That’s the time period when you’re fattening them up for your roaster.
There are several types of meat birds you can get. The fastest, “broilers,” mature in about seven to eight weeks. Broilers aren’t a breed, they’re a category, bred for speed to market or table. Because these birds are intended for quick processing, they’re genetically designed to give as much meat as possible. One thing you should never do is commit to getting meat birds, then fall in love with them and decide they’ll be pets, keepers, or egg birds. They’ll have health problems.
If you think you might chicken out and transition your meat birds to egg birds, get dual purpose chicks. Some good ones:
- Orpingtons. These are a British breed bred in the late 1800’s for meat and eggs. They come in a few colors, including “buff” (yellow) and “lavender” (greyish). They’repretty friendly birds, on the large side.
- Sex links: These are offspring of two pure-breed hybrid. My black sex links are a cross between Rhode Island Red and Barred Rock chickens, bred for strong egg-laying capabilities. But, they can also be raised as meat birds. They’re mostly black but some have a great deal of gold, and others are tinted green in the sun.
- Rhode Island White. This is a breed developed in Rhode Island. It lays fewer eggs but is a good egg layer in winter, when most other chickens stop laying for a while.
- Jersey Giants. These are big birds that also lay eggs.
- …and many, many more.
The average egg-laying career of a layer hen is 3-5 years. After that, it’s “retired” and you can either feed them out of gratitude for all the omelets, or “cull them.” That’s the nice way of saying “kill and eat them.” Rainbow egg layers and heritage breeds are specialty chickens bred for looks or for the color of their eggs. They’re usually not meat birds, because why would you pay top dollar for a chicken then eat it in a couple months? But, some of these breeds don’t lay as much as production layers.
You can expect your egg chicken to lay around 250 eggs a year, depending on the breed. Some are bred for egg color and others for hard-core production
- Americaunas lay blue eggs
- Rhode Island Reds
- Easter Eggers lay brown, pink, blue, and green eggs, but generally fewer per year.
- Sex links (black, red, gold) can lay over 300 eggs a year.
- Death Layer: reported to lay every day long past the age of most other layers. It’s a German breed that’s hundreds of years old. The name comes from the fact they lay an egg a day until they die.
ITEM 2: BUILD AND SECURE THE COOP AND RUN
The hen in the picture is dead. She squeezed out through a gap at the peak of the chicken run’s sun cover. It was a small gap, and I saw it, but failed to recognize it as a threat. Someone in the woods ate her. Soon after, her buddy–the second hen our farmer friend traded my son for the rooster–got bullied by the rest of the flock and died.
A few years later, a hawk got in through an even smaller gap and decapitated one hen and injured a few more before I noticed it was in there too late. I got him out before anyone else died, but it was sad. It could’ve been much worse. I read reports in the chicken group all the time where people lose their entire flock in one day when a fox or possum gets in. A chicken hawk can snatch one of your free rangers right in front of you, too.
Build a chicken Fort Knox.
Your coop and your run have to be the right size, but they also have to be secure. You need to know what the biggest threats are in your area and protect from them.
Foxes, dig. To be perfectly safe, you should bury hardware cloth (metal fence) under the coop, at least six inches to a foot, curving out. This way, diggers will hit the cloth up to three feet away from your coop and run. This is a lot of work and best to do on the initial build, but it’ll secure your coop the best. Foxes are really smart and they’ll wipe out a coop. If you see signs of a fox, double down on your security.
Possums. climb or fly into the coop. If these are a risk, you can’t have any gaps in the sides or top of your run and coop area. Tarps are good for a start, but I’ve lost chickens to tarp holes. One little chicken got out, and one big hawk got in.
Skunks can squeeze in, and often eat eggs. You can keep skunks out by foxproofing the coop.
Snakes eat eggs and small chicks. You will not be able to keep snakes out completely unless you’ve got half-inch hardware cloth enclosing your run. That can be a bit of a construction project. Most snakes won’t bother your chickens. For every one that does, ten are out there eating the rats and mice that are getting into your chicken food. Don’t worry about snakes too much.
Your security to do list
Inspect your coop and run on a regular basis. Think like a hawk, a fox, and a rat–things that squeeze in, dig, and infect. Do this regularly, because chickens dig holes and scatter food around. The dust bath holes can weaken the permeter if you haven’t dug in hardware cloth. And, the food mess can attract rats.
I’m currently fighting a groundhog who’s tunneled from my garden to the run. Groundhogs aren’t threats to chickens, but it’s tunneling in and around the coop, which is making one leg unstable. Also, leaving a six-inch tunnel unchecked gives an access point to from the secured run to the unsecured yard. This is an issue.
Do a quick check daily when checking food and water. Do a more complete check once a week or so. Look at the run, the top, the coop, and the whole area. Fix things immediately. I also check every couple hours if it snows. I have a tarp over part of the run–snow sometimes weighs it down. I check the trough heater in the water bucket at least twice a day when it’s below freezing–once in a while the outlet trips and turns off the trough heater. If the water’s frozen, the chickens will die.
Keep an extra on hand
I have an extra one of everything I need for my chickens. It’s come in handy. Whether it’s an extra waterer, trough heater, bit of fencing, or repair wire, I can fix what I need to without it being a major big deal. This came in handy during the pandemic when the local feed store had supply issues.
ITEM 3: RUN THE NUMBERS
You’re not going to save money on your chickens for a very long time, and then, only if you do something at scale and sell some eggs. The buildout will cost more than the savings on eggs. But, your eggs will be better, they’ll seem free, and you’ll have them on hand all summer long. If money’s an issue, do your calculations ahead of time.
My initial costs:
- Coop: $400. It’s nice. I got it from a local farmer’s co-op store. You can build your coop for less, but the wood and materials will still run a few hundred dollars.
- Fence for the run: plan on a couple to a few hundred dollars for this. I used two panel-fence dog kennels. You can often find these on Marketplace if you’ve got a pickup truck.
- A waterer: You can buy the standard chicken waterer, but I recommend making one out of a five-gallon food-grade bucket and some side-mount chicken nipples. This took me five minutes–I drilled six holes with an 11/32″ drill bit and screwed in the nipples. I made two–a good thing because one sprung a leak the other day and I had to make a new one. Cost: $7 for the nipples, $5 for the bucket, and I got a Leaktite screw-on lid for $7. $19 total
- Something to hold food. I have a hanging feeder, but am looking for better rat proof options. The initial feeder was about $25.
- A bucket-safe “stock tank” heater. This one goes under a bucket I prefer the type I can dangle into the water bucket in the winter. It keeps the bucket just above freezing. You need to look at this carefully because they are all rated as trough waterers, generally for cattle and horses, but only some are safe for a plastic bucket. That cost about $45.
- Feed: It’s gone up recently. The best way to save feed is to also buy a metal garbage can to hold it. This keeps moisture and rats out of your extras.
- Flake or pine shavings. This is about $5 a bail at the farm store. I lay this inside the nesting boxes and coop. It helps keep the area clean and comfortable and makes it super easy to clean the coop–the pine shavings catch all the poop. I can then open the door and use a hoe to slide the dirty bedding into a large rubbermaid bin, which I dump into the compost pile.
- Calcium for egg layers. I get crushed oyster shell. If chickens don’t have enough calcium, they can have problems with their eggs. Often, calcium deficiency is the reason they’ll start eating eggs–for the calcium in the shell.
My running costs are about $25 a month on feed and flake. Sometimes I get treats (mealworms–$28 for five pounds, lasts a long time) but usually treats are my veggie and fruit peels and cuttings from the kitchen, as well as some day-old bread.
ITEM 4: CYCLES
Egg laying depends on light. If you want eggs all year you’ll need to supplement light in the coop to compensate for shorter winter days. In summer, you’ll get tons more eggs. This means you have to learn to gift, store, or sell eggs. In winter, when you want eggs, they’ll be in short supply unless you plan ahead. I make quiche and frittatas, slice them in serving-sized wedges, and freeze those on a cookie sheet. Then, I seal them up so I can take one when I’m hungry. For raw eggs: I can crack them into ice cube trays, freeze them in bags, and thaw a few in a mason jar overnight. They can be scrambled or used in baking. Boiled eggs last a long time, too. They can also be peeled, crumbled, and frozen and later thawed for salads.
There’s a ton of unsafe methods of egg preservation out there–things everyone did a hundred years ago, but science has declared questionable today. It’s like playing Russian roulette. I err on the side of food science. If a master canner, food preservationist, or food scientist hasn’t blessed the method, I don’t do it.
Meat birds can be raised all year, but they’re cyclical, too. Plan backwards from when you want to harvest them. Meat birds only live a couple months, so it’s a very time-sensitive operation. If you keep some too long, they’ll flop over because their little legs aren’t bred for the weight they’ll put on. Some also have heart issues. It’s unkind to keep them past their healthy point. You need to make sure you have the freezer space, or that you’re in a position to pressure can and preserve the meat.
ITEM 5: CHICKEN HEIRARCHY
Chickens have personalities. Some are mean. There is a pecking order. They will bully.
My first group was all the same variety so it was tough to see the personalities–Loud Chicken, Mean Chicken, Egg Eater, Green chicken (it had green hue in the sun), Gold chicken–they all had a place in the flock. I just didn’t realize it because I didn’t spend enough time hanging out since they were “dual purpose chickens” and I didn’t want to bond with them. Later, when I did, I got to know each by personality.
The more you learn about chicken behavior early into your chicken career, the less stress you’ll have when you realize some of the odd things they do.
Integrating chickens: You can’t just dump new chickens into an existing flock safely. There’s a pecking order and they really do peck. Chicks can get hurt. Integrate them slowly, while watching. It’s best to integrate pullets that are big enough to fend for themselves in a flock, and integrate a group into another group so they’ll have friends at their back.
Egg eaters and cannibalism: This seems odd, doesn’t it? Chickens will eat dead flockmates and smash and eat their own eggs. The best way to keep this from happening is to be present. Check eggs often, keep laying space clean, and keep food and water fresh. The less cranky a chicken is, the less they’ll do these things. However, once an egg eater, usually always an egg eater. We had a terrible one, and since all the chickens looked alike, we couldn’t identify the right one.
You can train a chicken. They’re easy to train. They know who feeds them. They’ll usually come when you call if you’re the treat giver.
They are slobs. Try to clean up after them as well as you can, and keep the inside of the coop dry, especially in winter.
ITEM 6: LAWS
I see people rehoming chickens all the time because their local zoning ordinances don’t allow them to have chickens but they got them anyway. All it takes is one unhappy neighbor and your chicken days are over. You could even get fined.
Some places are changing their views on chickens. You might not be able to “raise” chickens but you could have some pet chickens. There are areas that allow a certain amount of hens depending on the size of your land, but no roosters. Other places don’t have rules, so you can pretty much do what you want.
I am in a space like that. I can have roosters but I have a couple neighbors close enough to hear, so I want to be polite.
More people are getting backyard flocks this year. Ordinances are changing to allow a hens in many urban and suburban towns that didn’t accept them before. People want to source their food better, and Covid shocked people into wanting to produce their own food. Still, there are a few things even smart people forget when they get their first chickens:
Chickens are birds. This may seem obvious, but if you’ve never owned a bird, you may not know birds poop automatically. For chickens, the poop falls where they stand thanks to gravity. They don’t have a sphincter–the muscle that controls the bowels. For this reason, I don’t recommend inside chickens.
Many people want to treat their chickens like cats and dogs. Chickens can be trained and they’ll imprint to you if you handle them from birth. They’re safe to hold, and they’re cute but that brings me to my second chicken fact–the reason I won’t have a house chicken.
Chickens carry funguses and bacteria like histoplasmosis, salmonella, avian flu, campylobacter, and E-coli. These can be in their poop and on their feathers. I would certainly not have my young children cuddling the chickens, and if they did, I’d teach food and farm safety–hand washing, and keeping hands away from the eyes and mouth. I have a slide-on pair of shoes I use when I go into the chicken run. I slide them off at the door and wear my house shoes. Even if you generally wear the same shoes inside and outside, you should not do this with chicken coop shoes–you’ve been walking on a layer of chicken poop. Those pathogens need to stay outside!
50% of all chickens are roosters. Again, this is math, not rocket science. But, a lot of people go to their local store and buy their first “straight run” (non sexed) birds then are surprised when their neighbors hate them. Roosters are loud. We had to give ours away. Even if you can have roosters, they sometimes get mean. Be aware of this if you have roosters and small children.
There are two types of chickens, egg layers and meat birds. We discussed this. Many people get any bird they see. When in doubt, go for combo birds or egg layers.
Chickens live a long time, unless they are meat chickens, in which case they live about seven weeks. Egg chickens start laying at about 5 or 6 months of age and stop laying anywhere from age 5-7. Most chickens slow down laying in the winter. Prolific egg-laying breeds can lay an egg a day almost all year.
Chickens don’t have teeth. They swallow food whole and it gets ground up in the gizzard, a strong muscle that grinds and mixes the food with digestive juices and stones–that’s why you see chickens eating small stones and rocks. This helps them digest.
“ARE CHICKENS FOR ME?”
After considering the laws, the expenses, and the lifestyle of chicken keeping, you can now decide. Here’s a handy TL;DR checklist to help you. I wish you luck in your chicken journey.
Can I have them?
Go check your zoning laws and town ordinances, now!
Do chickens fit with my lifestyle?
Chickens are the easiest of the farm animals–they’re pretty much entry-level creatures which may lead you on the road to wanting a goat or potbellied pig. But, they still require care. The good news is you can take a day off–you should collect the eggs daily, but if you went overnight for a weekend away, nothing bad will happen to your chickens. Chickens give you a little bit of freedom that others don’t give.
Can I care for them?
Chickens can go to the vet but you won’t want to pay that price unless you have a flock-wide problem or a beloved pet chicken. There’s a learning curve. I had to learn to diagnose weird behaviors like cannibal-egg chickens, chickens pecking each other, mites, and learn how to treat treating pecking wounds.
Also, different types of chickens need different food–there’s chick food, layer food, and finishing food for meat birds. This isn’t rocket science, but you have to know little things like when to give oyster shells (calcium), what scraps they can eat, and how to change their diets as they grow.
Do I have a chicken sitter?
You’ll need one for vacations or any long period you can’t be with your birds. This is a big deal. Lots of people say they’ll help you out but don’t do it correctly. It’s a specialty pet sitter.
Do I want to lose my lawn or build a run?
Lots of people want to free range chickens since they provide “natural fertilizer” and eat ticks. But what they don’t tell you is they eat pretty much everything–they can destroy a lawn or patch of grass in no time.
When I expanded the chicken coop run to add to my flock, they destroyed all the fresh grass day one. If you’re The Lawn Ranger, you’re going to need a dedicated chicken run or a “chicken tractor,” a mobile pen that you move often.
Am I looking to save money on food?
You may think having chickens will save on your budget but there’s a setup cost. Over time, I’ve bought two dog kennels worth of fence panels, wire, mesh, the coop itself. It probably cost about $1500 altogether. Then, there’s the cost of food and care. Chicken food is about $13 for a fifty-pound bag, way cheaper than dog food, but it’s an offset against the price of eggs. I use a couple bags of food and a $7-10 bag of flakes (wood chips for the nesting area) per month.
The question to ask myself is this… do I eat $30 worth of eggs a month? Even on a heavy egg salad and omelet month, I use about 4-6 dozen eggs per month. At grocery store prices (~$2.99) that’s about $17.97 and if I say $3-4 farm-raised prices, it’s $18-24 a month. So, I’m not making my money back. It’s fine, but know that.
Are chickens good for self-reliance?
Yes. We’ve already discussed the cost of eggs. This year, it was tough to find eggs as shelves cleared. This has only happened once in my lifetime with the pandemic, but eggs were rationed items during the War when Victory Gardens pulled many of our grandparents through. They’re nice to have at my doorstep and the quality is so far above store egg quality, I can’t even compare.
The bottom line is that you should only have chickens if you want them, understand the costs and the care, and have a space that allows them. You also have to know what your responsibilities will be and the type of chickens you want. Chickens are amazing, but they do take some work.
I am glad the pandemic brought some positive attention to chicken keeping, but I encourage you to do your homework and research the logistics, breeds, and the time commitment before you jump in. And, if you decide “yes,” then have fun!