Keeping chickens – a guide to keeping hens in your backyard
Find out what’s involved in keeping chickens and enjoy a constant supply of freshly laid eggs straight from your garden
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Keeping chickens is rising in popularity as more people embrace the delight of a daily delivery of fresh eggs from their own happy home hens.
The perception for many of a rural idyll includes the sight and sound of contented clucking chickens scratching around in the backyard outside the kitchen window.
But keeping chickens is not just for country dwellers and you can keep hens in urban areas, too – just check there are no restrictions regarding keeping poultry in the state or area where you live.
Reserve an area for a chicken coop and run as part of your backyard ideas, and follow this guide to join the ever expanding flock of chicken keepers.
Keeping chickens for beginners
Before you squawk 'keeping chickens isn't for me – I know nothing about poultry!' think again. There is a wealth of useful advice and training available for the beginner chicken keeper to the more experienced hen mother.
Among the many well seasoned eggsperts who are happy to impart their advice to the chicken keeping community is 5th generation chicken keeper Lisa Steele of Fresh Eggs Daily (opens in new tab).
She can't expound the many benefits of keeping chickens enough. 'Chickens are so relaxing and entertaining to watch that you'll likely find yourself spending a lot more time with them than you anticipated!' she says.
Keeping chickens as pets is becoming more and more popular. 'People realise that chickens can make just as good pets as other animals; they are equally as affectionate and characterful as cats and dogs, and of course have the USP that they lay eggs,' says Jane Howorth MBE, founder of the British Hen Welfare Trust (opens in new tab) (BHWT), which also advises beginner chicken keepers.
What are the rules for having chickens?
First things first – before you fly off to buy your brood of hens, check that keeping chickens is permitted in your neighborhood.
There may be restrictions on keeping poultry in certain areas and municipalities, such as the number of hens allowed in a backyard, or if you are permitted roosters as part of your foray into backyard farming.
Municipal laws in a state might specify how far a chicken coop needs to be from a neighbor's boundary, while some cities might also require you to hold a permit.
But don't let a bit of box ticking and form filling ruffle your feathers – all the effort will be worth it when you start to enjoy your home laid egg bounty.
Where is the best place to buy chickens?
For the best place to buy chickens, 'checking your local feed store is usually the easiest place to get started with baby chicks,' explains Lisa Steele.
'Most feed stores will begin selling chicks early in the spring, with breeds tailored to your local climate. Alternatively, a hatchery will ship your chick order anywhere in the country. Hatcheries are also known to have a wider variety of breed options, but local farms might sell older chicks, known as pullets, closer to the age when they start laying – which is around five months old,' Lisa adds.
Where you buy your feathered flock might also depend on whether you prefer a particular breed.
'Some people buy hybrids – full-sized chickens, which are a mixture of breeds – from a supplier – these are easy ‘starter chickens’, bred to be hardy, placid and good layers,' says Clare Taylor – Chicken Whisperer (opens in new tab), who provides advice and courses on keeping chickens.
'Others will be attracted to the pretty plumage and varying sizes of pure breeds; these are available from some general suppliers these days, but are usually sourced from specialist breeders,' Clare adds.
What about rehoming ex-commercial chickens?
It is possible to adopt or rehome ex-commercial chickens – also known as battery chickens.
There are many battery hen rescue groups across the states, and United Poultry Concerns (opens in new tab) has a list of farmed animal sanctuaries across the US and worldwide.
In the UK there are a numbered of registered chicken rehoming charities. ‘We would encourage everyone to adopt ex-commercial chickens rather than shop. Every year the BHWT saves 60,000 hens from slaughter and rehome them as family pets,’ explains Jane Howorth.
'By adopting a hen, you have the power to literally save their life, and there’s nothing like the warm, fuzzy feeling of watching your slightly bedraggled and feather-bare hen transform into a fluffy, curious pet.
'Two words we hear over and again in relation to keeping ex-commercial hens is ‘life-enriching’, because they really are a joy to have around,' Jane adds.
Clare Taylor does sound a note of caution, however: 'Ex-commercial chickens can need a lot more care and possibly have health concerns, so might be better suited to a more experienced chicken keeper.'
How much space do you need for keeping chickens?
Whatever space you have, it is vital to make sure that it is well fenced and secure from predators, day and night.
Create an area of your backyard which you can put aside as a permanent site for the coop and run. Provide enough space to reduce unhealthy behaviour or bullying and stress in the flock.
The chickens will need a coop to sleep in. "The coop should have at least 8 inches (25cm) of roosting or perch space per chicken, and 3-4 square feet of floor space,' advises Lisa.
'Outside, ex-caged birds need a minimum of 10 square foot (1 sq meter) per bird, while ex-free range hens need 10 square foot (2 sq m) per bird, plus the ability to free range each day,’ explains Jane.
Another factor to consider is that the 'run also needs to be big enough for you to get into to clean each week,' advises Clare Taylor.
Ultimately the more space you can provide for the chickens to roam, the better. They will have an eggcellent time and appreciate any opportunity they can get to run around and play.
How many chickens should I start with?
‘We recommend starting with a minimum of three hens; they’re social creatures and like to flock together,' explains Jane Howorth.
Lisa Steele is of the opinion that 'a good starter flock consists of 5-6 hens. They will lay enough eggs for a family of four. A flock of that size will be perfectly happy in a coop that measures 4 feet x 6 feet and a run that measures 6 feet x 10 feet.'
What coop or equipment do you need for keeping chickens?
You don't need a lot of equipment for keeping chickens, but you will need the following basics:
- A chicken coop and run – the most important, and probably expensive, items.
- A feeder.
- Water container.
- Heat lamp if you have baby chicks to provide them with warmth for about the first 8 weeks.
- Bedding – such as chopped straw or shavings.
- Nutritional supplements.
The chicken coop must be watertight and have good ventilation.
‘You need a robust coop, which comes apart for cleaning, plus a run – either attached or a walk-in run with the coop in it. Don’t be tempted to take on a second hand wooden coop as this may come with red mites,’ advises Clare.
There are many types of coop on the market, or if you're handy with woodworking tools, you could have a go at making your own. It should have at least one nesting box for each 3-4 hens, as this is where they will lay their eggs.
'The coop and run need to be predator-proof, which means the pen fencing should be sunk into the ground and no larger than 1" welded wire – chicken wire won't keep chickens safe from dogs, foxes, or raccoons despite its name,' advises Lisa Steele.
Bear in mind that chickens can fly up to 10 feet high so the fencing needs to be tall enough, too.
'The windows and vents in the coop need to be covered with ¼-½ inch welded wire to keep even the smallest of predators out. A good rule of thumb when it comes to the wall area of your coop is that ⅕ of each wall should be vented via window or wall vent,' advises Lisa Steele.
'The closures of your coop should be padlock style or secured with a carabiner or locking eye hook as raccoons can lift bolts and turn knobs,' she adds.
What should chickens be fed?
‘Chickens have fairly specific nutritional needs and there are many good feeds on the market. It's important not to feed chicken kitchen scraps and animal by-products,’ says Clare.
‘The average hen needs around 100 – 120g of food per day,’ adds Jane.
Lisa Steele advises the following feed and diet supplements for different ages of chicken:
- Baby chicks should be fed "chick starter" feed for the first eight weeks, then switched to a slightly lower protein grower feed until they are almost of laying age, usually around 18 weeks.
- Then they should be fed a layer feed that has elevated levels of calcium, which is necessary for strong eggshells.
- Along with feed, chickens will benefit from a supplemental calcium source, such as crushed eggshells, oyster shells, and grit. While grit is nothing more than coarse dirt and small pebbles, chickens use the stones to grind up the food they eat because they don't have teeth.
- Supplementing chickens' diet with things like probiotics, sea kelp, garlic, brewers yeast, and flax will encourage healthier chickens and more nutritious eggs.
- Chickens also love fermented feed, sprouted grains, and a large variety of seeds and nuts, dried grubs, crickets, and mealworms.
'Just like other animals, and humans, hens thrive on a well-balanced diet and should only be given nutritional treats specifically designed for them,' says Jane.
How time consuming is keeping chickens?
Keeping chickens is not too time consuming.
You can choose to spend as much time as you like with your chicken flock. But '15 minutes daily to feed them, give them fresh water and check they’re OK,' should be sufficient advises Clare.
On top of that, 'allow an hour each week for cleaning out, mite-proofing their coop, sanitising their run, plus quarterly mite and worm treatments,' adds Clare.
Lisa walks us through an average day in the care of chickens.
'The morning routine should only take about ten minutes. First, let your flock out of the coop, providing feed and freshwater, check for eggs, and tidy up the coop. Next, do a mid-morning egg check and give them a snack. Do one last egg check in the late afternoon, topping off the feed and water and tucking them into their coop at dusk so they'll be safe until morning,' she explains.
There are also clever aids to help those people who work longer hours, such automatic coop doors that let the chickens out at sunrise and close them into the coop at dusk.
Are chickens difficult to keep?
'Chickens aren't difficult to keep once you have your morning and evening routine down,' says Lisa Steele.
As with most animals, they require time each day to attend to their health and hygiene requirements.
The most challenging aspect of keeping chickens is keeping them safe from predators, so it's important to know what types of predators you might be dealing with in your area.
'Common predators include your neighbor's dog, foxes and – depending where you live – raccoons, coyotes, weasels, opossums, skunks, bears, and bobcats,' Lisa says.
However, ground predators are not your only issue. 'Hawks, owls, and eagles can also be a risk to your flock. Ensuring your pen is secure is the best defence against predators,' Lisa adds.
Are chickens expensive to keep?
Chickens are not overly expensive to keep. The upfront costs of starting your flock are not high, and ongoing expenses can be around 20 dollars a month for about a dozen hens.
Building or buying a chicken coop is the part that can get expensive, though.
'A "starter" coop or coop kit can cost several hundreds of dollars, while larger, more elaborate "walk-in" style coops range into the thousands,' says Lisa.
Ultimately, you can lavish as much money as you like on your feathered friends, 'but there’s a basic level of equipment that you require to keep them healthy and safe,' says Clare.
'Unless you are keeping hundreds of birds, you are highly unlikely to break even in terms of egg production, but the average backyard chicken keeper chooses to keep some hens as a lifestyle choice rather than a money-making venture,' Clare adds.
Do chickens need heat in the winter?
Chickens do not need heat in winter, advises Lisa Steele. 'You won't need electricity for your chicken coop, but running a fan for your flock isn't a bad idea if you encounter extreme summer heat,' she says.
Rachel is senior content editor, and writes and commissions gardening content for homesandgardens.com, Homes & Gardens magazine, and its sister titles Period Living Magazine and Country Homes & Interiors. She has written for lifestyle magazines for many years, with a particular focus on gardening, historic houses and arts and crafts, but started out her journalism career in BBC radio, where she enjoyed reporting on and writing programme scripts for all manner of stories. Rachel then moved into regional lifestyle magazines, where the topics she wrote about, and people she interviewed, were as varied and eclectic as they were on radio. Always harboring a passion for homes and gardens, she jumped at the opportunity to work on The English Home and The English Garden magazines for a number of years, before joining the Period Living team, then the wider Homes & Gardens team, specializing in gardens.
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