How to Raise Backyard Chickens
You've decided to raise backyard chickens. But where do you begin? Keeping chickens in your yard is a rewarding pursuit, but before you get started, let's take a look at some of the basics of keeping chickens.
Choosing Your Chickens
The world of chickens is a vast place filled with birds of many breeds, colors, and sizes, but you can narrow things down by asking yourself a few questions. Are you looking for a breed that is known to be a productive egg layer? Are you looking for colorful eggs? Would you prefer bantam chickens or full-sized chickens? Are you interested in raising rare-breed chickens like Nankin or Campine?1 The answers to these questions can help you determine what type of chickens will best suit your situation.
Chickens need shelter for protection against the weather and predators. You'll want to build your coop in a dry location, ideally near a water source. A coop can be elaborate, like a prefabricated coop complete with an attractive paint job and finishing touches. You could choose to design and build a coop of your own, or even convert an existing structure like a shed or a playhouse. If you do build or convert your own coop, you'll want to make sure that it's properly ventilated for chickens and that there is enough space per hen for the size of the flock you intend to raise. Bigger is better, but each chicken should have at least three to four square feet of space inside. You might want to plan for a larger coop in case your flock grows in the future.
In addition to shelter, your birds will also need roosts inside to rest on, because chickens prefer being up off the ground at night (an instinct to protect them from predators). You'll want about one foot of horizontal roosting space per chicken, and you'll want to avoid placing the roosts over the nesting areas. You can use wooden perches on your roosts, or you could use a heated perch.
Planning to raise chickens for eggs? If so, you'll probably want to include some nest boxes in the coop. They're an excellent way to help keep the eggs clean and safe since the boxes encourage the hens to keep their eggs off the floor. You won't need a nest box for every hen as they'll be able to share. And one box might be enough for every three or four chickens. Nest boxes that are 12" x 12" x 12" should work well. A heated nest box pad is also an option.
A run is a fenced area attached to the coop. It provides the hens with a large area to peck and graze and enjoy the outdoors while still being confined and somewhat protected. For a run, allow for at least 10 square feet of room for each chicken.
A chicken tractor isn't a tractor in the sense of farm machinery. A chicken tractor is simply a semi-portable outdoor run where chickens can safely spend time during the day.2 Once they've worn down an area, you can simply slide or tow the chicken tractor onto a new patch of yard and let the process continue. (You might think of this as "rotational grazing.")
As with all livestock, your chickens must have 24/7 access to clean, fresh water. This means regular checks and refills multiple times a day. You'll also need a method to keep the water from freezing if you have cold winters. No-roost, no-spill waterers can simplify your daily chores.
Your chickens will explore their run and look for things to eat outdoors. In a small backyard setting, they still depend on you to provide feed for their overall nutritional needs. A "layer feed" is one option for full-grown hens producing eggs. You'll also find starter feeds and grower feeds for chicks if you raise them.
Chickens love to roll around in the dirt. It keeps them happy, and it's also how they control parasites. You'll need to provide a sandy spot in the ground or possibly build a dust-bathing box.3
It can be a lot of fun to raise chickens in your yard, and it can be a great experience for the whole family. Have fun!
- 2019 Conservation Priority List. The Livestock Conservancy, https://livestockconservancy.org/index.php/heritage/internal/conservation-priority-list#Chickens
- Johnson, Daniel and Samantha Johnson. "Pasture Your Poultry with This DIY Chicken Tractor." HobbyFarms.com, https://www.hobbyfarms.com/diy-chicken-tractor/
- Johnson, Daniel. "DIY Dust Bath for Your Chickens." HobbyFarms.com, https://www.hobbyfarms.com/diy-dust-bath-for-your-chickens/