Thinking of Keeping Chickens? Here’s What You Need to Know.

THIS is it, the time of year people start getting chickens. So for everyone out there who has been thinking about maybe getting chickens but isn’t really sure of what’s involved … this post is for YOU.

Spring, specifically Easter is the time everyone who has ever thought about getting chickens thinks about it … again.  It’s exactly when I got my chickens one decade ago.  They were an Easter present.  And I did not know a single thing about chickens other than the fact that I’d always wanted them.

I’ve had several different small flocks of chickens since my first bunch. I started off with what were the chicken equivalent of mutts with some Rhode Island Red, Ameraucana and possibly a bit of actual dog in them. Cuddles was known for coming when I called her and jumping up in my lap. In fact, if you aren’t familiar with Cuddles or keeping chickens, you should really read this post about her first.

I’m down to 2 chickens right now; my Black Copper Marans Josephine, and my Blue Copper Marans Mabel. Both are geriatric at the age of 7 and I’m going to let them live out their lives before I get a new flock and start from scratch again.  

If you want chickens or just GOT chickens, you probably have some of the same questions I did a decade ago.

 

Keeping Chickens: What You Need to Know


What do chickens eat?

Chickens eat chicken food.  You’ll be able to buy it at a local farm store.  Yes.  You probably really do have a local farm store.  The feed costs around $15 for a bag of regular feed or $22 for organic feed.  A 24kg bag will feed 4 chickens for around a month. 

You can stretch that feed by fermenting it. Fermenting chicken feed is no big deal, it’s just adding water to it and allowing it to sit a few days until it ferments. I have a whole post on doing it here. The result is full of good bacteria and nutrition that’s more easily absorbed due to all kinds of very sciency stuff. It’ll make sense if you read the post. 

Chickens will also eat good food scraps from salads, vegetable peelings, fruit, nuts, leftover mashed potatoes and on and on.  They’re carnivores so they’ll also dive right into meat.  It’s why they love to hunt bugs and mice.  Yes.  Chickens are excellent mousers.


Can I get just one chicken to see if I like it?

No. Chickens are very social creatures and one chicken would be painfully lonely.  Starting with 2 chickens is even a bad idea in case one of them dies.  Plan to start with 3 or 4 chickens for a happy, happy flock.


How soon before I get eggs from my chickens?

You’ll be waiting a long time to get one from your rooster, but young hens (pullets) will start to lay when they’re 4-6 months old depending on the breed. If you want eggs immediately then buy 4-6 month old pullets instead of cute little chicks. The disadvantage to this is you haven’t hand raised them so they might not be as friendly and cuddly as one you’ve raised from day one.


Will a chicken always lay eggs?

The older a chicken gets, the fewer eggs it will lay per year.

Chickens are born with a certain number of egg yolks in them ready to be turned into full fledged eggs.  For the first year they lay almost nonstop (depending on the breed because some breeds lay a lot more.)  By the third year of laying a chicken will lay less and less every year. 

By the time she was 8, Cheez Whiz only laid a couple of eggs a month at the most.  My current 7 year old chickens are each laying an egg every other day  but that’s unusual and will likely slow down to a few a month once spring is over.

 

Farm fresh eggs written on small chalkboard sitting beside a straw lined basket of eggs outside on a picnic table.

Do I need a rooster for my hens to lay eggs?

Nope. Hens are like ladies. They walk around with hundreds of eggs inside of them all the time regardless of whether there’s a man around. The rooster only fertilizes the egg so the hen can have chicks.  No rooster = no fertilized eggs = no chicks.


Where does one get chickens?

A lot of towns have farm animal auctions.  Also, if you live anywhere near a farm, chances are they have chicks, chickens or fertilized eggs  for sale. Google it.  Craigslist it. Kijiji it.

You can also mail order day old chicks from hatcheries. This is one of the easiest and most popular ways to get chicks but you won’t be getting show quality chickens.  You know the pretty pictures of chickens you see of certain breeds on Pinterest?  Hatcheries generally don’t provide that type of representation of the breed.

But if you just want eggs you might not care.  Keep in mind if you order from a hatchery there’s always going to be a minimum order of many chicks. They need to travel in groups to keep each other warm during shipping.

For show quality chickens that are perfect examples of their breeds, you should get your chicks from a chicken farmer who shows their chickens or whose hobby is breeding for perfection.

Two, 5 day old yellow chicks in a small wood crate. Pretty much the cutest thing in the world.

How can I tell if the chicks I got are boys or girls?

That’s a tricky one. Some chicks you can tell immediately because they’re what’s described as autosexing. That means they’re an obviously visible characteristic that lets you know immediately if it’s a boy or a girl. A boy chick might have a dot on its head and a girl chick a stripe on its back for example (as with the case with Cream Crested Legbars.) You can read this post here on how I sex my chicks.


Where do the chickens live in the winter?

Jamaica. Or Florida maybe depending on flight prices.

Mainly though they just live in the very same coop they live in the rest of the year. Chickens are covered in feathers just like other birds that live outside all year are.  They’re very good at keeping warm, not nearly as good at cooling down. 

So if you’re worried about the weather taking a toll on your chickens, you should be more worried about the heat than the cold. It’s also more important to keep a coop dry than it is to keep it warm. Dampness can kill a chicken and create respiratory illnesses. 

How do you keep a coop dry?  Make sure you clean out the poop and make sure your coop has a lot of open venting. Yes. Even in the middle of winter the coop should have open venting for moisture to escape.

Chickens also don’t like to get drafts so make sure the coop venting is well above where they roost at night. Bottom line, look into what breeds will do the best in whatever weather you have. Some breeds are better with the heat and some are better with the cold.

This post explains exactly how I winterize my chicken coop for my cold Canadian winters.

What if you’re not home to put them in the coop at night? Won’t predators eat them?  Yes. Yes they will. But there’s an easy (and frankly life changing) solution to that. Installing an automatic coop door the way I show you to in this post will save you ALL kinds of worry.


How often do you need to clean a chicken coop?

I clean the inside of their coop where they sleep twice a week and for the rest of my coop and chicken run I use the deep litter method.  This is where you leave all the poop, give it a rake once a week and add more bedding on top.  I clean out the entire thing 3 or 4 times a year, transferring everything to my compost bin and then starting over in the run with a new 5″ layer or straw or pine shavings.


What am I supposed to do with all that poop and bedding? 

Like I said earlier, the poop and bedding goes straight into a compost bin. Sometimes I just mound it up and lay a tarp over it.  The poop and straw is a perfect combination of materials for compost and making compost FAST.  I do hot composting which produces fully ready compost in one month.  You can read about how to hot compost here.

Backside, fluffy butt of an orange chicken as it scratches at the top of a compost pile.

Do chickens stink?

Sometimes.  But mainly no, especially if you just have a small backyard flock and not a ginormous chicken barn.  No worse than dogs or kids.  And if you do what I say regarding coop maintenance then neither  you nor your neighbours will ever smell your chicken coop.


Are chickens loud?

Sometimes. But not for long periods of time.  When they lay an egg they’ll sometimes squawk around for a while and it can get LOUD.  But it doesn’t last long.  Sometimes they’ll get upset at each other or something they perceive as danger and will get loud but other than that they’re quiet. Mainly chickens just make cooing sounds no louder than a cat purring.

Beauty shot of a black Ameraucana pullet.

Do chickens get sick? 

Oh boy. Yes, they do.  Chickens get a variety of ailments. Some I’ve experienced with my flocks and some I haven’t. Common problems with chickens are Bumblefoot, prolapsed vents, respiratory problems and mites.  Personally my flock has experienced Egg Yolk Peritonitis, Fly Strike, general bloody wounds, mites infestations and sour crop.  If you’re serious about getting chickens read this post about The Life and Death of Cuddles.  Yes.  This is chicken husbandry.


What else do I need to know?

Chickens aren’t an accessory. If you never even thought about having chickens before the great chicken rage of the past decade they might not be for you.  Or they might!  You have to give it careful consideration and know that they’re living creatures that you’re committing to taking care of. Take these next few things into consideration …


What You Need to Know About Owning Backyard Chickens

  • If you go on vacation you’ll need a chicken sitter.
  • You’ll need to feed, make sure their water is clean, and give them a quick health check every day.
  • You will touch chicken poop.
  • You will need to build or buy a coop to keep them save from predators and the elements.
  • Even with a coop much of your time will be spent worrying about predators.
  • You will become addicted to chickens.  You will want more and more chickens.
  • You’ll discover some chickens are cuddly and want to sit on your lap all day while you pet them.
  • You’ll discover some chickens want nothing to do with you and may even bite.
  • Eventually they will die and it will be very, very sad.

You now know a tiny bit about what it’s like to own backyard chickens. Give it the thought it deserves. Now if you’ll excuse me I have a couple of eggs to gather.

 

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Thinking of Keeping Chickens? Here\'s What You Need to Know.

99 Comments

  1. Tisha says:

    We got into a discussion at my last book club meeting about chickens and whether or not you need a rooster to help produce eggs. I was able to say, well I know where I can find that very answer! I had just seen this post a few days before but didn’t really read it, just sort of skimmed and marked it for reading later, ya know, when I convince the hubby that we need chickens. Anyway, thanks Karen! This will come in handy if(when) that day comes

  2. Maria says:

    I came back today to read this again because one of my chicks which arrived yesterday is dying right now. I cannot express the sadness I feel for some thing I’ve only had for 36 hours. I cannot express the wonder I felt to realize that yesterday they had zero feathers and today they have their wing feathers. It was amazing. And I am very sad. How contradictory is that?

  3. Jacquie says:

    You are hilarious! Count me in as another fan & follower. Cheers but no chickens for me! :)

  4. Jill V. says:

    Oh Karen, thank you SO much for this.

    I will be forwarding it on to all my fiends who think parenting chickens is child’s play!

    You are brilliant!

    xo
    Jill

    PS – I will be getting my own one day soon!

  5. Barbie says:

    My family had chickens growing up…I had to collect the eggs everyday and the rooster was a bully! We have thought about having chickens again. However we have a predator somewhere in our neighborhood…not sure if it’s a big coyote or big dog….but have watched the neighbors heartbreak to many times to even consider it now!! But I love reading your chicken posts and watching the video’s you do of them. :)

  6. Marion says:

    I have been using these chicken posts as leverage as to why my husband should buy me chickens!!!! I’ve wanted them for years (I grew up with chickens) and cannot wait until the day we stop renting and buy a house. I honestly think the first thing I’m going to do after moving in will be to build a chicken coop. Great post on what it takes to raise and keep them! (and a huge thank you!!!)

  7. Sandy says:

    I love my chickens and you did a great job on this post. They are work but so worth it.

  8. Kristin says:

    I have had my chooks for two years now. I lost two: one to fatty liver (too many carbohydrates, i.e. scratch, in the diet), one to a possum (I forgot to close the coop one night. I caught the critter the next night with my bare hands and relocated him. He was huge.)

    I love them. They are actually remarkably beautiful. I have five: An Exchequer Leghorn, a Rhode Island Red, an Andalusian Blue, an Ameraucana, and a Black French Copper Marans. I let them free range all day, every day, in my fairly spacious back yard, then lock them up at night. They love earwigs and clover. And they steal the cat food. They love yogurt mixed with ground flax seed.

    They poop everywhere, but most of my yard is grass or mowed weeds, so it benefits from the poop. I kind of wish they didn’t poop on my newly created brick patio (made by me!) but they can’t help it. And it rinses off pretty easily, depending on the quality of the poop. Sometimes it seems they have been eating tar.

    For the person worried about day-old eggs: According to the egg producers industry, an egg can remain at room temperature for SEVEN MONTHS without going bad, if it is not washed. the coating a hen deposits on her egg as she lays it seals it from bacteria in some way. I wouldn’t try this out or anything, but it makes me feel perfectly OK about eating an egg that was in the coop all day.

    For sure protect your hens from raccoons. Them’s some real bastards. They will reach right through chicken wire and remove a hen–shudder–piece by grisly piece, while the dismembered hen screams. Spring latches, a bottom barrier to the coop, and hardware cloth seem to foil them.

    I actually think getting chickens was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Seriously. Entertainment, beauty and breakfast rolled into one somewhat poopy package.

  9. Diane says:

    One thing I always wonder, once laid and sitting outside in the heat especially, how long are the eggs still good? It icks me out if I think the egg has been sitting out for 24 hours or more.

    • Karen says:

      Diane – If you have chickens you make a habit of checking the nesting box at least twice a day if not more so it’s never an issue. You have to check on your chickens at least that many times a day anyway. Not to worry anyway, the eggs are best kept on the counter and not in the fridge anyway. ~ karen!

      • Caroline says:

        What’s this about keeping eggs on counter? I figured frig/fresh. So what are the pros and cons?

      • Karen says:

        Hi Caroline. Regular store bought eggs can’t remain on the counter. They *have* to be refrigerated. Here’s all about eggs and which ones need refrigeration and which ones don’t. https://www.theartofdoingstuff.com/an-eggducation/ ~ karen!

      • Caroline says:

        Thanks for the info, Karen.
        Here’s a thing I learned for helping chickens to continue laying in the winter. 1. Make sure they have 12 – 14 hrs of light. 2. Feed them a probiotic diet (all yr, actually). 3. Give them organic whole corn. That ramps up their metabolism to digest. 4. This tip came from a friend who raised hundreds; add red pepper flakes daily ( about 1/4 tsp.) to their mash. I cook up some Jiffy Mix and give them half of it. Organic it ain’t, but I comfort myself in thinking that EVERYTHING else I feed them is.
        I won’t mind feedback and/or correction if anyone has info to the contrary cuz I love those little buggers.

  10. Leona says:

    Best article ever.

  11. Crybrug says:

    Thank you for sharing this. You answered a few of my questions. I think for now I will just keep to the wild chickens roaming the streets in my little podunk town. Maybe I can convince then to keep roaming free and lay a few eggs for me. I mean I do give then “free” seeds in my yard.

    Man can they get loud! Must be the rooster chasing the hens.

  12. Chipmunk says:

    I REALLY want to have chickens but I’m afraid the HOA Nazis would find me out and make me get rid of them. All it would take would be a little bit of ruckus when an egg got laid.
    These, after all, are the people that made me scrape the “moss” on my mailbox post, which was really some interesting lichens. I’m waiting for them to complain about the lichens growing on the trees in my yard. I suspect non dog/cat pets would really disturb them…

  13. Corinna Mulligan says:

    Brampton only allows 2 chickens. I have to get only 2. :(

    • Karen says:

      Corinna – That’s a really stupid number! If one dies, you’re in trouble, and 2 chickens versus 4 chickens is nothing. Oh well. I guess you’re lucky they allow them at all. ~ karen!

    • Darla Ragland says:

      I’d have to get one of a different breed. If anyone wants to know why you have three just say the odd one just showed up one day. “I’m waiting for someone to report it missing”! I can’t just kill someone else’s chicken…

  14. Cat says:

    You kind of touched on it, but keeping chickens is expensive. More expensive than the most expensive chicken eggs I can buy ($7.00 a dozen for extra-large blue organic free-range small-farm farmer’s market eggs). This may eventually balance out (more likely if you keep more than a small backyard can sustain), but anyone who says “cheap eggs” are the reason they keep chickens is either lying to you or to themselves.
    Also, they will eat your garden if you give them half a chance in the spring and they will get drunk on rotten fruit if you’re not careful in the fall.
    Oh and “pecking order” is a thing. Chickens are bullies and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it, there will always be one chicken that all the others will be “mean” to. If you can’t handle having a chicken that always looks ragged and pecked at, you can’t handle having chickens.

    • Karen says:

      Cat – Having 4 chickens I’ve never really found them to be expensive. Other than their housing of course. Aside from that there’s just a very small bit of money for feed and straw. Maybe $30 a month. What is it you’re spending so much money on? Just curious. ~ karen

      • Susan says:

        Feeding chickens conventionally is not expensive, but many backyard keepers have chickens in order to eat truly organic eggs. My experience has been that it is difficult to impossible to do this economically at the backyard scale. I started keeping chickens to see if I could turn it into a money-making venture someday (and because certified organic, pastured eggs run $7.50/doz here), so I’ve kept meticulous records of both materials/feed and labor from the beginning. I’m in the Pittsburgh, PA area, and conventional feed costs $18/50-lb bag. True organic feed (not conventional look-alikes that just haven’t been sprayed, but real grains that you can identify by sight) is $36/50-lb bag – twice as much as conventional! I’ve been able to bring the feed cost down somewhat by fermenting the feed (which makes the nutrients more bioavailable, so the chickens don’t eat as much) and by buying the grains individually and mixing them myself with appropriate supplements, but those both add a little to the labor costs. So far, my calculations indicate that I will need to have 100-300 hens at once to gain enough economy of scale to make this an economically worthwhile endeavor (at least in this area), which would require much more space and some additional infrastructure. This year I am going to experiment with feeding them solely from compost (per Karl Hammer of the Vermont Compost Company), to see if it can be cost-effective at a smaller scale. I am also going to experiment with increasing my $5/dozen price, but since my eggs are neither pastured nor certified organic, I don’t expect to be able to go much higher. Much to my dismay, I will have to rehome my birds, disappoint my customer base, and go back to buying my eggs from someone else if I can’t make this work this year. But for anyone using conventional feed, chickens aren’t expensive.

    • Meredith says:

      Maybe it depends on where you live? I have 16 hens and one rooster that are free range on my two acre property and maybe I go through a bag of organic feed in a month? They eat stuff outside all day long. And yes, they will destroy a garden but so will a host of other varmints, so you have to have a fence. Which also keeps out chickens. Even with spoiling my flock with mealworms and other store bought chicken treats, I would never consider it expensive. And I sell the eggs so end up making $60-70/month off them.

  15. Cookie says:

    Karen, You answered the only question left to me after searching the internet and subscribing to hen blogs for over a year now. I am so grateful to know how you can avoid a draft yet still provide plenty of ventilation, expecially in winter. That was always confusing to me! To me, ventilation was a draft!!

    • Karen says:

      Cookie – Good! Glad to be of help. Also, I lower the hen’s roost in the winter so it’s well below the vent. In the summer, when they actually like to catch a little breeze, and stare out the vent, I raise their roost up again. ~ karen!

  16. Stacey says:

    Can’t wait. Coop is built, ready and waiting. There is a bird sale at the end of the month that I am hoping will allow me to bring some home!

  17. Leslie says:

    Thanks Karen! I’m sharing this with my facebook chicken coop group.

  18. Shauna says:

    One of my Easter Eggers laid her first egg yesterday. She’s growing into a woman – I’m so proud:) It was a pretty, very little, robin’s egg blue (aka Tiffany Blue – so fancy) egg.

    My son and I were very excited, jumping up and down. My husband’s first response was, “ew”! WTH? boys are so weird.

    • Karen says:

      LOL. Congratulations on your egg! Isn’t it exciting to get a colour? Imagine my surprise when Cheez Whiz laid a blue egg and I had NO idea that was even a possibility. She’s supposed to be a Rhode Island Red, LOL. I thought someone was playing a joke on me. ~ karen!

  19. Rory says:

    I would recommend using sand in the coop. It acts like kitty litter. You just scoop up the poop (no need for a paint scraper). Also, with a nipple watering system, you don’t need to change the water very often. This frees up your time to go on vacation without a sitter. Great post!

    • Karen says:

      Rory – I’ve tried that sort of watering system but my chickens just try to bite the nipple off. They do get some water from it, but they didn’t really seem to get the hang of it. ~ karen!

  20. Laura Bee says:

    Great info Karen. We had chickens when I was a kid. But we had a few dozen – more poop! But the eggs are what I miss.

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