Keeping backyard chickens has long been an interest of mine. I’ve never actually gone through with it, partly because I just don’t have the time, partly because the homeowners association would veto it in a heartbeat, and mostly because I have a very reliable, reasonably priced source of pastured, bug-eating chickens and chicken eggs. Nevertheless, I love the idea of stepping outside my back door, greeting the flock of chickens (perhaps by name), and coming back in with an armful of fresh eggs. It’s admittedly a romantic, possibly naive vision, especially without the flecks of manure obscuring it. In any case, I’m drawn to the idea of it, so I’ve researched this growing trend and will share with you my findings in this not-so authoritative guide. Hopefully the general information, links, and leads will inspire you to dig deeper. And if you have any experience raising chickens I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment board.
The backyard chicken movement is growing, paralleling the burgeoning trend toward real/slow food/farmers’ markets and, in some respects, the Primal/paleo/ancestral movements. To me, this is unequivocally welcome news, because it suggests that people from all different backgrounds and proclivities are stumbling toward the same basic goal: freedom from the industrial food culture. That might mean whittling down “grocery store” to a four-letter word and camping out twelve hours before the farmer’s market opens on release day of the new golden beet crop. It might mean eschewing all the industrial agents altogether, like we Primals like to do. Or it might mean raising chickens in your backyard. So, why are more and more homeowners turning to backyard chicken farming?
Well, the most obvious way to attain freedom from the industrial food scene is to produce your food yourself. Gardening takes care of fruit and vegetables, but what about animal products? Cows, sheep, and goats are too big and cumbersome for most yards, while chickens are small, relatively quiet, willing to eat just about anything, and they can produce a steady stream of eggs. So – here’s my quick and dirty armchair guide to backyard chicken farming with an emphasis on egg laying. I’m not going to get too detailed because, well, I’m not qualified. I’ll fill in the blanks with links to people who are qualified, though.
To get started, you need some chickens. If you start with chicks, which run about five dollars apiece on average (more for rarer breeds), you’ll need to raise them in a climate-controlled brooder for 5-8 weeks, or until they develop feathers. You’re trying to replace their mother’s warm embrace, so you have to keep the chicks warm. Start at 95 degrees F for the first week, then reduce 5 degrees each week thereafter. Make sure your chicks aren’t cowering in the corner (it’s too hot) or huddling together directly under the lamp (it’s too cold) and keep their bedding and food clean and dry. Order chicks online or search for local suppliers on Craigslist. You might also try asking around at local poultry farms through Eat Wild or at the farmers’ market. Cost: $10-20 for two chicks.
Another, easier option – especially for beginners – is to start with full-sized hens. This way you can let them outside and start feeding normal feed immediately, and you should start getting eggs soon. Most hens I’ve seen run about $20-25. You can usually find both hens and chicks on Craigslist. If I were starting out, I’d go this route. Cost: $40-50 for two hens.
You also need a coop, even if your chickens are going to range free. They are natural roosters and prefer having a piece of shelter to call home. Besides, even the most developed city has raccoons and cats, either of which will make short work of your chickens if they can reach them. Coops can be expensive commercial products, DIY projects, Craigslist finds, or something cobbled together on the fly. You can even convert an old dog house into a serviceable coop. Whatever you choose, pick a coop that you’ll be willing to keep clean. If you buy a coop new, it’ll run between $400 and $1000. If you buy it used, you could get one for $100 to $400, maybe. DIY could be super cheap to the point of being almost free, or you could drop close to $700 and make something great.
Unless you want to run a two-chicken CAFO, you’ll also want to provide some safe outdoor space. That can mean sticking the coop in your backyard and giving the chickens the run of the yard, or it might mean putting together a chicken run enclosed on all sides (top included) with chicken wire. Free ranging chickens left to their own devices will eat bugs, weeds, and often gardens. If you’ve got enough room, you can use the chicken paddock method, which involves a stationary coop with a mobile chicken run. Once the chickens have exhausted a section of grass, move the chicken run to a new section of grass.
You could also make your own chicken tractor, a mobile containment unit that keeps them in, keeps predators out, and allows you to choose where your chickens forage. Once they’ve picked a spot clean, simply move the unit to a fresh area of grass. Joel Salatin does this on a massive scale to let his flocks forage without robbing the land of nutrients. Doing it with a few backyard chickens should be even easier, albeit on a smaller scale. Try making one from common wooden pallets.
You’ll also need to feed and water your birds, which deserves its own section. Waterers run inexpensive, and feed can be served in a little bowl. Just don’t let the food get wet.
Overall, how much you spend depends on how much you want to spend. You can go all out and drop about a thousand bucks, or you can repurpose common items, dig around on Craigslist, and build stuff yourself and spend just a few hundred, or even less.
The common chicken descends from the omnivorous red junglefowl – a wild bird from the jungles of Asia that fed on bugs, snakes, fruit, seeds, greenery, and small rodents – and yet we expect it to thrive on stale corn, soy, and grain spiked with mineral supplements, antibiotics, and vegetable oil waste. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if those vegetarian chickens did better on animal byproducts! Anyway, here’s your chance to escape the tyranny of vegetarian-fed chickens.
Ideally, your chickens would have daily access to all the bugs, wild seeds, grass, and forage they can handle, but it’s rare that a backyard can provide all that for even a single chicken, let alone several. That’s where modern ingenuity and modern table scraps come in. Since chickens love bugs and your yard can’t sate their appetite, why not produce your own? Here’s a sustainable way to produce mealworms indefinitely, perfect for those potentially cold and bare winter months. You can also toss scraps and compost to your chickens. Bones, meat (including organs), veggies, greens, yogurt, grass clippings (watch the chemicals), weeds – it’s pretty much all fair game, and since your kitchen scraps will undoubtedly be of the healthy, Primal variety, you’ll be improving the taste, quality, and nutrition of the eggs your chickens lay. In fact, eggs from pastured chickens given access to greens, grass, and bugs contain 2/3 more vitamin A, two times more omega-3, three times more vitamin E, and seven times more beta-carotene than eggs from battery farms. I mean, the difference in taste alone is astonishing, and I bet the satisfaction of producing your own eggs would add another layer of enjoyment.
An added benefit to getting them hooked on bugs: they can keep your car’s grill clean after long road trips!
I would avoid standard commercial chicken feed that uses stuff like “poultry feed fat,” which is just recycled vegetable oil from restaurants. It might be worth it to spring for an organic feed, or even a soy-free, corn-free, GMO-free organic feed (though even that one seems to have vegetable oil). Another option is to mix your own feed using seeds, legumes and grains. Don’t worry about the grains in a hen’s diet, beyond perhaps corn, soy, and wheat; these animals are actually built to digest seeds and grains (in addition to bugs and greens), as opposed to cows. Here’s a recipe, but hens are flexible. Be sure to add grit (which chickens use in their gizzards to grind up grains, seeds, and bugs) and a mineral source, like oyster shell or even ground up egg shell (never leave the shell whole or halved, or else your chickens might start associating their eggs with food).
Before you start buying chicks, constructing coops, and stockpiling feed, check your local city ordinances regarding backyard chickens. From my cursory research, it’s usually allowed, with a few restrictions, but it can’t hurt to check. Or, you could flout the laws and do it anyway. If you go this route, I’d advise against keeping a rooster. Hens might scratch, peck, and cluck, but they won’t wake up the entire neighborhood at the crack of dawn with an ear-splitting cry. Ask your neighbors for permission before you do it (according to a recent article on illegal chicken farming in Philly, anti-chicken ordinances are rarely enforced unless a neighbor complains), keep a handle on the waste (don’t let smell become an issue), and avoid roosters.
This is a great, quick resource for checking city ordinances. And here’s another one. They both rely on reader submissions, however, so they aren’t complete. If your city isn’t there, trying searching “YOUR CITY chicken ordinance.”
Scofflaws: resources exist for you, too. Jane Richardson wrote a great article on how to get your city to allow backyard chickens. Here’s a blog by a South Salt Lake City underground chicken farmer detailing his horrible crimes against the state that threaten the safety and stability of society. And then there’s the Dayton Underground Chicken network.
When it comes to how much manure chickens produce, I’ve heard several different figures. First, from Urban Chickens Network: six chickens produce about four pounds of manure each week. I’ve also heard it described thusly: five chickens produce about as much waste as a medium-sized dog. Either way, it’s not a huge amount of waste. Also, chicken poop can be an effective fertilizer. In fact, I’d advise against simply tossing the manure. Repurpose it. Use it in your garden. If you don’t have one, post the manure on Craigslist.
When it comes to fresh, “hot” manure high in nitrogen, use it sparingly on your garden. If you allow manure to compost for several months, you can use it more liberally. For more detailed tips and tricks on using backyard chicken manure as fertilizer, read this thread full of folks who have been doing exactly that for years.
Hobby chicken farming appears to be a low-maintenance pursuit. Oh, sure, you’ve got the initial labor of setting up the coop/run, procuring the birds, buying/mixing the feed, and taking the plunge, but everything after is fairly simple. You distribute feed, change the water, clean the manure every few days, move the chicken tractor if you’re using one. For the most part, though, a few chickens in your backyard aren’t much work. I suspect it’ll be such a novelty that the work doesn’t even feel like work. Add to your flock and things might change.
From what I gather, it’s best to look at your backyard chicken experiment as a hobby – at least initially. These are interesting, somewhat fearsome looking creatures with funny personalities who like to eat everything. Oh, and they also lay eggs from time to time. Just don’t expect an egg a day out of every chicken, because you aren’t a full-time chicken farmer running a finely oiled operation consisting of feathery egg dispensers on the perfect feed mix. You’re just a guy or a gal having fun and trying something new. If things work out, and you get the hang of this chicken farming stuff, you can always buy more chickens and refine your process, but for now, just see what happens. Have fun watching your chickens try to eat an entire sardine or go crazy over some feeder crickets and enjoy the eggs when they come.
Backyard Chickens – Premier online resource. Great, active forums. Check out their 101 section.
Breed Chart - Dozens of breeds listed with temperaments, personalities, and egg-laying tendencies.
Starting a Small Flock of Chickens – A quick, basic guide.
Raising Chickens 2.0 – Beyond the coop.
Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens – Very thorough and very well regarded.
Minnie Rose Lovegreen’s Recipe for Raising Chickens: The Main Thing is To Keep Them Happy - Hmm, to this married man, this sounds awfully familiar.
Victory Chicken – Live in New York City and need some help getting started? The people at Victory Chicken have you covered.
So, how’d I do? Do you feel like you have enough information to get started? Did I provide sufficient links and resources for further research? If you’re already a chicken farmer, tell us all about it in the comment section. If you decide to try it out, come back later and tell us how it went. Hope to hear from you, and thanks for reading!