When I first decided to build a chicken coop and raise a few egg laying chickens in my backyard, I never imagined how much I would enjoy having them. Being more self sufficient by raising some of our own food was my purpose, but it being so enjoyable was a side benefit that I never expected.
To raise backyard chickens you really only need a few things. First, a basic chicken coop and run with enough room, ventilation and warmth for the amount of chickens you have. Second, a good feeding and watering system that will keep the food and water clean and help minimize waste. And finally, a basic knowledge of the nutritional needs of the types of chickens you are raising.
In this article I am not only going to walk you through the basics of how to raise backyard chickens, but also interject the things that I have learned through my experience of raising them. I was raised on a ranch where we had horses and cattle, but chickens was just something we never raised. So I learned the whole chicken raising thing as an adult living in a city suburb just like many of you are doing right now.
Choosing The Chicken Breed
One wonderful thing about chickens is that there are such a huge variety to choose from. In deciding which breed to get the first thing you want to as yourself is why you want chickens in the first place? Are you looking for egg production, and if so how many? Or are you looking to raise chickens for meat?
There are chickens that have been bred to lay an egg every single day, like the White Leghorn or the Lohmann Brown, but some of these breeds are scrawny and tough and not very good for meat. And then there are chickens like the Cornish Cross who grow so fast they sometimes have leg problems. But they are full grown and ready to process and put in the freezer at about 8 to 9 weeks from hatching.
Many people that are raising chickens in their backyard opt for what are called dual purpose chicken breeds. These are breeds that lay eggs often, maybe not quite as much as a White Leghorn, but they are also big enough with a good flavor that you can raise them eat them as well. Some very popular dual purpose chicken breeds are the Bresse, and the Australorp.
Another thing to consider is your weather. There are some breeds that are better for very cold weather such as Plymouth Rocks and Dominiques. Very cold weather chickens often not only have plentiful warm feathers, but also a very small comb on top of their head to prevent frostbite.
Some chickens that do better in hot weather are chicken breeds such as the New Hampshire Reds and the Brahma chicken. And interestingly enough there are some breeds that do very well both in hot weather and cold weather such as the Rhode Island Red chicken.
Choosing (Or Designing) The Coop
Before you purchase a single chicken, be sure to have your coup and set up for them ready. This is important and you will make better decisions. There are a few really great chicken coops that you can purchase pre-made. My favorite one (quick disclaimer – I have not personally owned this one yet, but most likely will) is the Eglu brand shown in the image to the left.
What I like about these is that they are easy to move around the yard and keep clean. From my research they are not perfect, but they are the ones I like out of what I have found online. Check out the price of the Omlet Eglu Cube Chicken Coop here on Amazon.
What I did was build my own chicken coop out of lumber and plywood purchased from Home Depot. I built the whole thing for around $100. It functioned great the only thing I don’t like about it is that the toxicity of the chicken waste along with the steady foot traffic, kills all the grass under the coop. And so the ground just turns into mud. The bigger your run is the less of a problem this is however.
Chickens love to eat spiders and bugs, and they are very healthy for them. So I really liked having them roam my backyard for part of the day. It also improves the quality of the eggs making them darker yellow with more protein and better taste.
Also in the summers I raise Cornish Cross chickens for meat, and keep them in a chicken tractor that I move around the yard. This way the chickens have fresh grass all the time and they don’t ruin the grass because I move them once a day. My next chicken coup for my egg layers I want to have wheels on so that I can move them around the yard as well. I will still let them out part of the day too, but it will keep the coop from ruining one spot in my yard.
Building A Portable Chicken Coop
If I decide to build my next chicken coup it will be portable, meaning that it will have wheels and I will be able to move it. This picture on the left is a coop I found on this website BackYardChickens.com. She has the pictures and everything on that link of how she designed and built it. So if you like the design, well there you go!
There are some other mobile or portable designs out there people have posted online. My only worry on this one is how heavy it might actually be. But I think two people should be fine moving it. Also I think a coup like this could be built our of lighter lumber than 2 x 4s which would help on the weight.
Building A Stationary Chicken Coop
If having your coop portable is not as big of a deal as it is to me there are many great designs out there on the web; both pre-made kits and actual plans. Here is one source on that same website BackYardChickens.com that shows a lot of stationary chicken coop designs. The main thing you want to make sure is that you can get to the feeders, waterers and eggs, without stepping in chicken poop. I learned that the hard way the first time I designed an outside run around my coop lol.
Another example of a stationary one for a backyard that I like is this plan I found on DIY Chicken Coops website. What I like about this design is that the coop itself is on stilts and so the ground under it won’t get trampled.
Then if you put an electric netting fence around the outside, or if the backyard is fenced, then you can let the chickens out once in a while to feast on bugs. (Just be sure to not spray poison on your weeds or bugs if you are going to be letting your chickens out. Not only will that be harmful to them, but the poison will get into the meat and the eggs as well.
Meat Chicken Tractor
When you first buy your meat chicks you will be keeping them in something called a brooder. We will talk more about the brooder later. Depending on the weather, once your meat chicks are four to five weeks old you will move them outside into something called a Chicken Tractor (see image on the left). This is a chicken coop that is light weight that you can move around easily. You can get the plans to this and other chicken tractors here.
Meat chicks pretty much eat 24/7. It is amazing how much they eat. And therefore they poop a lot as well. So they will be pretty hard on any ground you have them on. So with a tractor you can move them to a fresh part of the yard every day so they don’t destroy any one part. Plus the best growing chickens, like the Cornish Cross are so heavy they won’t be climbing up into regular coops or jumping up on a roost, so tractors like these are perfect.
When & How To Buy Your Chickens
Egg Laying Chickens
I have bought chickens that were already grown adults laying eggs, and I have purchased baby chicks. An adult bird will cost more than a baby chick. The problem with buying adult chickens is that you have to trust that the birds are as young as the person is telling you. Since chickens only lay eggs for between 5 to 7 years typically, the older a chicken is the less it is worth.
The down side to buying baby chicks is they are more fragile when young, and it takes 6 months or so before they start laying eggs. I would not recommend buying fertilized eggs and hatching them in an incubator, especially if you are new. Fertilized eggs are not that much cheaper than chicks, and not all of them hatch. Plus you have the expense of the incubator and the effort of turning the eggs until they hatch.
My recommendation would be to buy your chickens as baby chicks. There are companies that will ship live chicks to you, and most farm supply stores sell baby chicks locally in the spring and summer. The only way I would buy adult birds are if you know and trust the person selling them so that you know that they are young and just started laying.
With meat chickens you buy them as chicks. There are companies around the country that will ship live chicks to you, but in my opinion it is just easier to buy them at the local farm feed store. They normally sell Cornish Cross which are totally awesome meat birds and you can pick the ones you want, pay for them, and be on your way! Again don’t buy these until you have your brooder set up first.
Raising Chicks – The Brooder Box
First let me show you a short video of myself raising 30 Rhode Island Red chicks in a simple brooder box:
When you first get your baby chicks you need to get them quickly into your brooder box. You can click on this link to check out the price for the Heated Box Poultry Brooder Box I show in the image on the left on Amazon! You can make your own brooder box out of some wood, chicken wire and heat lamps. I have done that and they work great. The advantage to the pre-made versions is they are much easier to keep clean and you waste a lot less food. And they are reusable!
Start the brooder temperature at approximately 95°F (35°C) and reduce it by about 5°F (3°C) each week until the brooder temperature is the same as the ambient temperature. With a pre-made brooder box this is really easy. You simply adjust the thermostat. With a homemade type you will need to put a thermostat in the brooder pen and raise the lamp each time when you want to lower the temperature at chick level.
You can tell if your temperature is too low if the chicks are huddling around the heat lamp. And you can tell if it is too warm if they are staying far away from it. But use a thermostat so that you know you have it correct. This is a matter of life or death for the chicks.
You will also lay down some wood shavings for bedding and put feeders and a water supply in with the chicks at all times. Be sure to clean out the pen, water and food frequently so that the chicks stay happy and healthy. Once you get the chicks adjusted to the ambient temperature outside, and they are at least four to five weeks old, you can move them from the brooder box to the yard chicken tractor, or coop, depending on if they are meat or egg laying chickens. The chicks will be excited about the grass and fresh new area!
Meat Chickens – Weeks 5 to 8 (or 9)
From weeks 5 to processing time taking care of the Cornish Cross meat chickens is pretty darn easy. You keep them in plenty of water and food, and you move them to a fresh spot of ground each day. As you can see in this example of a chicken tractor it is important that they also have shade, ventilation and a place out of the wind.
One common mistake people make is if they get their chicks too early in the spring, or if the weather is particularly cold, they put them out into the tractor too early and some die from exposure. So use common sense. If the nights are warm and then you would most likely be fine starting them in the tractor at 4 weeks old. If in doubt then keep them in the brooder until week 5.
In this above video the people who designed this PVC Chicken Tractor show and example of it in actual use. I have never used this PVC version, but I plan on it in the future. I made mine out of wood, and it was significantly heavier. I am excited to try out this PVC version next time. Again, you can get the plans to this and other chicken tractors here.
Egg Laying Chickens – From Week 5 On
Chickens don’t typically start laying eggs until they are about six months old, give or take. So once you get them out in the coop, its a good time to see if you planned out your set up as good as you think you did or not. Make sure that you don’t have to walk through a poopy area when you feed or water them, or to get access to the nest boxes.
There is no big secret formula when feeding your chickens. You don’t have to go over the top with some state of the art feed that’s “guaranteed” to make your chickens produce eggs. The best thing to feed them is a diet of premium laying mash or pellet. Then it is important to supplement this with some occasional fresh fruit or vegetables (table scraps are best), meal worms and other healthy treats.
The very best treat for your chickens (if you have not sprayed for weeds or spiders in at least 1 year) is to let your chickens have at all or a part of your yard for part of the day. Then you don’t need to worry about things like meal worms. They will be feasting on yard and garden bugs and spiders! You will notice their eggs will get more yellow and tastier. Just don’t think about the source of the added protein lol!
Oyster Shells For Calcium
It is important to supplement your egg layers with calcium. If you don’t they will get deficient and their eggs will start to get too soft and break. The best source for this is to buy oyster shells from the farm feed store to supplement their diet. You can also order it online from places like Amazon. Here is an example on Amazon so you can check out the price. Oyster Shells.
Another good idea is to always save your old egg shells. Dry them out and crush them up and give them to your chickens as well. They won’t get enough calcium if you only give them your old egg shells, but it is beneficial when given in addition to the oyster shells.
Chickens, like all birds, need grit in their craw to help them grind up grains and other seeds that they eat. This is not the same thing as oyster shells. Grit is crushed granite rock. And you can get it in your local farm feed store. If you let them free range in your yard part of the day, if you have small rocks this sized already in your yard, you may not need this. But if not it is pretty inexpensive online or at the feed store.
Check out the price of Poultry Grit online.
Once Your Hens Start Laying
This is a picture of a chicken in an Eglu Chicken Coop Nest Box. Whether you purchase a pre-made chicken coop like the Eglu, or you build your own, it is important to always lock your chickens up in their coop at night. The most important reason is to keep them warm in the winter and safe from predators year round. Even if you are in the city there are often hawks, owls or even eagles that might pray on your chickens. I have even seen raccoons and heard of weasels in cities.
The other reason you want to keep them in tight quarters at night is so they stay in the habit of laying their eggs in the nesting boxes. Several times when I had my chickens safe in a large covered run, they started laying their eggs in the most odd places. If you miss one you will find it when it becomes a stinky mess later on. If you don’t want to have to go egg hunting, lock your hens in their coop at night.
Extend Laying Season
Chickens tend to lay less often when the daylight starts to get shorter in the fall and winter. You can trick your chicken’s biological clock so that they lay all year long if you put lights in your chicken coop that extend their light to summer time ranges.
What I always do is set my lights in my coop on a timer so that they come on just before dark and turn off about 9:30 pm each night. Then I also set them so they come on around 6 am, and turn off just after the sun comes up.
Cold Winters & Warm Summers
In the hot summers it is important that your chicken coops have plenty of ventilation. But in the winters you want your chicken coup sealed up tight. Also in the winter, if it gets well below freezing where you live, you may want to consider putting a heat source in your coop as well. Most of the time chickens don’t need it if they have a dry coop that will block out all the wind.
However I have seen some people put in a regular light bulb and leave it on during the colder parts of the day. And I have also seen people use a low wattage heat lamp if they had a really roomy interior coop with not many chickens. You don’t want to make it too hot for your chickens however, even in the winter. So use common sense here.
I think chickens are one of the most enjoyable pets to have around a home, even in a neighborhood. Not only do they provide food, but they are just enjoyable to have around. Even if your only interest is raising meat birds once a summer to fill up your freezer, I recommend having a few egg layers in your back yard as well. You can justify it because of the spiders and bugs they will eat. And if you are like me you will find you really enjoy having them around.
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