Backyard chicken keeping is trending. As people turn towards homesteading, self-sustaining, and do it yourself natural approaches to their food, chickens are the first creature on their lists. Since chickens were first domesticated in China over 10,000 years ago they have provided humans with a the perfect combination of meat, eggs, and companionship.
In keeping up with the trends, not everyone considers every aspect of chicken keeping before making the leap. I would highly recommend a few hens in your backyard, but there are a some basics to cover before you have feathered friends looking up to you for food and shelter.
Shelter – What a Chicken Needs
We have gone through two renditions of coops at our home and probably will make another in the next year. The first thing I mention, because I overlooked it, is making your coop easy to clean. A coop needs a good clean every 1-2 weeks in the summer months, less often when things freeze in the winter. It’s a lot easier to clean a coop that you can stand upright and move around in.
Our first coop, pictured at the top, was well designed for around 4 chickens. Chickens don’t need a lot of space for nesting and sleeping – they need a roost to sleep on which is large enough for them all to fit on, and they need 1-2 boxes per 4-6 chickens, because not everyone lays their eggs at the same time. They do, however, need a good deal of space to scratch, peck, and play during the day.
The second coop is currently shared with our geese and is very functional for a group of 6 or so chickens. Our reason to build a new one is more space-based than anything else. In the winter months your chickens won’t go outside very much, especially not if there is any snow on the ground. Ours are free range during the day, and if yours stay in an enclosure they will need plenty of space to stretch their legs and things like logs, brush, and swings to keep them amused. Chickens can also fly about four feet in the air (depending on the breed), so make sure your fence is tall enough.
There are many natural enemies of the chicken. Anything from a weasel to a wolf will find a hen to be a tasty snack. Your first defense is a secure coop that is locked up consistently every night. I have always found that owning a dog is helpful to keep smaller pests thinking twice about approaching your house. Coop placement close to the house is also a good deterrent. Remember that most chicken predators either burrow in or come from above, so a simple surrounding fence is not usually enough. Bury your wiring and cover your run, lock your doors, and remove the delicious smelling chicken food at night. And it’s always a good idea to invest in a trail cam or two so that you know what creatures you are dealing with.
Myths About Eggs
The most common misconception about egg laying chickens is that hens won’t lay without a rooster. Hens will lay exactly the same amount of eggs whether there is a rooster in their flock or not.
Chickens do lay throughout the year. In fact, if you get chicks in May or June they will start laying around December, and continue to lay more and more as the winter progresses. As your chickens get older, there is a difference in production between winter and summer but they do not stop laying entirely in the winter. A light will help to increase your winter egg production – and it will also help to keep your coop warm.
You will also see a wide variety of egg color, size, shape, and amount based on what breeds you select. If a lot of farm fresh eggs are important to you, make sure to select breeds known for good egg production.
– And the silliest of egg myths – white eggs are just as good as brown eggs, which are just as good as blue or green or olive eggs.
Seasons Come & Go
When you build your coop remember that it won’t always be spring! Account for keeping them warm in the winter and don’t put it further from your house than you’d be willing to shovel out in a snowstorm. Chickens can get frostbite (KY jelly helps with this) and they need fresh open water at all times, so purchase a heated waterer unless you will be around to check on them regularly.
Pecking Orders, and Fatality
Chickens die, sometimes suddenly, sometimes many at a time, often inexplicably. New chicks sent through the mail are prone to a condition called “pasty butt” which you can cure, but sometimes by the time they arrive to you it is too late. I always order 3-4 more chicks than I need because that’s about the fatality rate on mail order birds. Older birds can develop a wide variety of ailments, and a predator attack can wipe out your whole flock overnight.
Another thing to be aware of is that if a chicken starts getting sick and isn’t separated immediately, it is not unusual for her coop-mates to eat her alive. Chickens adhere to an exacting standard of “survival of the fittest”.
Even when your chickens are not exhibiting cannibalistic tendencies, they still have a strict pecking order. Someone will be the queen of your coop, and others will be, literally, hen pecked. In essence, do not expect a pastoral scene with these animals, they are much more like a Real Housewives show. Sometimes they will resort to cannibalism without the victim showing any signs of weakness.
Having said this, I have found roosters to be not as destructive as you might fear. All of my chickens are smaller breeds (bantams) and most are breeds known for their docile behavior (cochins & silkies), so this may be part of the reason that having three or four roosters to five or six hens has not caused me any difficulties. Each boy has the girls he hangs out with and they don’t fight with each other at all. You definitely need more hens than roosters, however, and the main thing to consider when getting a rooster is if you want to hear them crowing at 4am every morning for 365 days of the year.
Chickens also molt about once a year, usually in summer or early autumn. If it’s starting to get colder you have to make sure that your molting hen stays warm, and it is a good idea to feed them extra protein at this time. Separating them from the flock may be necessary.
Chickens do some weird things. They can be easily trained to flock from all corners of your property with a single call, provided every time you make the call you offer them a treat. The ideal chicken treat is dried mealworms, they go crazy for them. But they will also gobble up most leftovers from your kitchen with excitement. Chickens cannot eat raw potato, avocados, chocolate, or dairy products. If you feed your chickens eggs or egg shells – which are actually very good for them – make sure that you scramble them and break the shells because they can make the connection and start eating them out of the nesting box. I supplement my layer feed with cracked corn, oyster shells, and garlic powder which will help to keep egg shells strong and your chickens feathers shiny with health.
Oh and if you want your garden and your chickens to coexist in harmony – that’s not going to happen. Chickens love dust bathing until they’ve uprooted young plants, and devouring tomatoes fresh from the vine.
All of this said – enjoy! Chickens may have a lot of quirks but they are definitely the easiest of farm animals to keep. They are completely rewarding and have hilarious and distinct personalities. Each day with them is something fun. They give you delicious, incomparable eggs, you can raise them for ultimate meat trace ability, they are inexpensive pets which get along great with kids, eat ticks, and will keep you entertained with their antics.