With so many new folks visiting from blog hops these days, I thought I would take a moment to talk about getting started with backyard chickens in what may be a suburban or city lot. In responding to a commenter yesterday, I considered how I would do things differently if I was not tucked away in the woods.
If you are considering getting chickens, the fall is a great time to begin your preparations. You have time to get your plan together and build your coop before chick season this spring!
Part 1: What You Need
The primary reason most people keep chickens is for eggs. For eggs, you need hens, not roosters. Female chickens lay eggs without a rooster just as human women ovulate whether or not there is a male around. In a suburban or city lot, it is likely that roosters will cause more problems than they solve. Roosters crow and can be aggressive. That aggression is positively channeled when free ranging and they become the natural defenders of the flock, but it is not likely to be very useful in the backyard setting. If you would like your eggs to be fertilized but have opted not to keep a rooster, you could look for someone locally to bring their rooster for a visit or simply purchase fertilized eggs of a desired breed, keeping in mind that approximately half of the resulting chicks will be male. Sometimes hens can be quite noisy, such as when one is laying an egg or lost, but they will most certainly be silent at night.
Depending on the breed, age, condition, and time of year, a hen will lay anywhere from 0 to 7 eggs per week. Laying is dependent on day length, so you will get more eggs in spring and summer and much fewer in fall and winter. If you have a breed that lays well (e.g. Leghorn), you can plan on 5 or 6 eggs per week per hen during the warm months and perhaps 2 to 3 in the darker months of the year. If your breed is more ornamental or a meat type (e.g. Silkie, Jersey Giant), expect 3 or 4 eggs per week in warm months and 0 to 2 in dark months. Two or three hens per member of the household should work.Hens lay eggs of different sizes. Egg-laying types will generally lay extra-large, large, or medium eggs. Ornamental and meat types will generally lay medium eggs. Chickens come in two main sizes: large fowl, often abbreviated LF, and bantam. Bantams are not a breed; they are a size. These small birds lay small eggs, sometimes quite prolifically (e.g. Hamburg, Dutch Bantams). To use their little eggs in recipes, consider that 2 tablespoons of beaten eggs equals one large egg.
Hens will lay fewer eggs as they age. Their first two years are their most productive, but hens can live to be 6-12 years old. You will need to decide what you want to do with birds who are no longer productive. One option is to sell them at a year to a year and a half old when they still have a good year of laying left. You can keep them as pets and increase your coop space for more hens for eggs, find them a new home with a soft-hearted person in the country with plenty of space and feed, or be willing to give them to someone who will eat them. Older hens are not very good to eat excepting, perhaps, for stewing or ground meat. Unpleasant, this is one of the things you need to consider as you plan your flock.
Before getting any chickens or buying any equipment, you need to find out what is legal in your area. Be sure to check county and city laws as well as any zoning, covenants, or ordinances in your neighborhood.
Part 2: What They Need
Every chicken will need at least 4 square feet of floor space within their coop. (Square footage calculations are simple: length times width, so a 4’ by 2’ coop equals 8 square feet. If measurements are given in inches, first divide each measure by 12 and then multiply together.) If you don’t want to clean your coop or add new bedding a few times a week, 5 or 6 square feet per chicken is better. Any premade coop you buy will far overrate the number of chickens which can safely live inside, basing their numbers off of the industrial 1 square foot per chicken. You will need to calculate the proper allowance yourself.
Chickens will get up and go to bed with the sun, so you will need to let them out at an early hour in the morning and be there to close them in at dusk. You could buy an automatic chicken door for about $200 or hire a neighbor for when you are not home.
Have about one nest box for every four hens, although they may all use the same one or two anyway. You don’t need to spend much; a plastic milk crate or a cardboard box replaced periodically works just fine. Have a pop door (chicken-sized door) and a human or clean-out door, unless you want the chickens to use the big door. Make sure that both close and lock securely, remembering that raccoons are about as smart as a 3-year old and as strong as a 5-year old.
Install a roost about 2” wide with rounded corners. (I used a banister from a hardware store.) It should be at least a foot, preferably 18”, from the wall and at least 18”, preferably 2’, from the roof. There will be a lot of droppings beneath the roost. Some people create a small floor, called a poop board, which sits beneath the roost to collect droppings and is easily removable to clean each day. Some people, especially in hotter climates, use a few inches of sand in the coop and scoop out droppings with a rake or cat litter scoop.
The easiest way to deal with droppings in the coop is the deep litter method. Build your coop with a 4”-18” lip around the bottom (in front of doors, the pop door, etc.) to hold the litter in. Lay down 4”-6” inches of bedding material; pine shavings (not cedar, which has fumes toxic to chickens) are best, but dry leaves work well, too. Every few days or every week, depending on how densely occupied your coop is, lay down another half-inch or so. It will be bioactive and begin to break down. When you clean out the coop of all bedding either in spring and fall or once a year, leave some of the old bedding to inoculate the new with the beneficial microorganisms which have taken up residence. If your coop leaks or the bedding gets soaked by a rain, get the wet bedding out ASAP and put in fresh. Then fix your leak! Wet bedding = unhealthy conditions.
Every chicken will need at least 1 square foot of ventilation in the coop. If you buy a premade coop, you will almost certainly have to cut more holes. Their droppings contain both their fecal matter and urine and are very wet. Chickens do not sweat; they pant like a dog and their breath is also very moist. Droppings and moisture lead to ammonia which is damaging to chickens’ lungs at levels we cannot even smell, so fresh air is a must. Calculate the square footage of your ventilation the same way that you calculated the floor square footage above. Do not make little round holes: They add up to almost nil ventilation. (Calculate the square footage of a circle using πr2: Multiply the radius of the circle [half the diameter] times itself, then multiply that by 3.14. A 2” circle only provides 3.14 square inches of ventilation [1x1x3.14].) Make your ventilation above the level where your chickens will roost, perhaps under the eaves or at the peak of the roof, if it will be open in the winter. You want to have some way of closing down some of your vents in the winter so that there is no air movement but still adequate ventilation. One way to do that is to close down one side but leave the other open so that there is ventilation for hot, moist air but no cross breeze. Cover all windows and vents with hardware cloth, a wire mesh stronger than chicken wire, and mosquito netting to keep out predators and pests.
Every chicken will need at least 10 square feet of space outside the coop in a fenced backyard or run. Any planting or grass will be destroyed within weeks. Plan to purchase straw, store dry leaves, or lay down mulch every few days or weeks, depending on how heavily it is used, to cover the run floor especially when it becomes rainy and muddy.
Alternately, you could build a chicken tractor, a movable coop-and-run combination (above). This would need to be moved frequently and may not be an ideal coop size. A larger model on wheels might be preferable.
You will want to protect them from neighborhood dogs and other predators. The best way to do this is to make sure they are locked up in their coop each night. They will need to range within their run or a fenced-in backyard if they can’t be allowed to wander into your neighbors’ yards or if you have predators. Their fencing should be solid or sturdy: Chicken wire will keep them in, but it won’t keep animals out. Use hardware cloth (2” squares or smaller) or cover the bottom half of chicken wire runs with a layer of rabbit wire (thick wires close together on the bottom becoming further apart towards the top). If hawks or other aerial predators are an issue in your area, you can buy aviary netting to cover the top of the run. Alternately, you could sting fishing wire with shiny bits of ribbon above the run and move them around every few days to keep the hawks uneasy.
They will need food and water. A chicken eats approximately ¼ of a pound of food per day, so 7.5 pounds per chicken per month. If the feeding system allows for a lot of waste, they will go through more than that. A hanging feeder is an easy option that prevents waste. Similarly, watering with a small bucket with a chicken nipple on the bottom prevents water from being contaminated or spilled. Bring the waterer inside on nights below freezing to keep the water warm, and refill frequently on freezing days. If you have access to electricity, a single light bulb or a heated dog water dish can keep water unfrozen during cold days. You can feed your hens vegetables and weeds from your garden. They also love protein like bugs and even meat. Sunflower seeds and mealworms make great treats. Just keep in mind that veggies have less protein, and if they make up too much of their diet, egg production will drop.
Part 3: Why You Want Chickens
Chickens are social and beautiful to watch. Children can learn about where food comes from, life processes, and responsibility for animals. But keeping chickens is often about self-reliance and autonomy. When you keep chickens, you have control over a primary protein for your family. You know where it’s been, how the animal was treated, and what it is made of. Eggs are extraordinarily healthy. In their attempt to avoid fat and cholesterol, Americans have foregone vitamins like A, D, and E and omega 3 fatty acids which are in abundance in the egg from a healthy hen. If we avoided processed food and empty carbohydrates, we could instead enjoy rich eggs, real food that brings us real health.
For pictures of coops from around the world, check out my “Earthy Coops” Pintrest board.