Ultimate Guide to Raising Backyard Chickens
Ready to get started raising chickens in the city, and call yourself an urban chicken farmer? Here's what you need to know to get started with your own flock of backyard chickens. Make sure you read through the whole guide, we've thrown in a lot of raising chicken tips. These tips include specifics on what your chickens will need to be a healthy and produce the most eggs.
We started with a very large flock of 25 chickens. Needless to say, we learned a lot. Here's the ultimate guide to getting started with tips on how to check city ordinances, chicken needs, and how to select a chicken coop.
Step 1: Check City Ordinances
Before you buy your coop and chickens, check with your city ordinances to see if your town has any restrictions. There has been a lot of urban chicken advocacy with the local foods movement; so many towns are becoming accepting of chickens within city limits.
Check for these limitations with your city:
Size of Flock
Roosters Many times roosters are not allowed because they are the ones to make noise. A hen is pretty quiet unless there is a predator or she lets out a cackle as she or another hen lays an egg.
Coop Restrictions Some cities may limit the size of chicken coop, the appearance, require a permit, or limit the location (within 15 feet of your property line.)
Step 2: Know the Basic Needs of Chickens
First off, here's what you need to know about the basics of what chickens need.
Shelter and Protection
Chickens are quick to be picked off by predators. Hawks, owls, skunks, foxes, coyotes, raccoons, and dogs are common chicken predators. While coyotes may not be common in your neighborhood, dogs and raccoons can easily sneak into the backyard and kill chickens.
A coop needs to be secure to provide a place for chickens to escape these predators. This safe place can also include underneath the coop, which provides shelter from overhead. We've seen a red-tailed hawk swoop into our chicken run. The chickens that didn’t have time to run into the coop gathered underneath. Raccoons can reach into the coop through windows, so make sure your windows are covered with chicken wire or screen small enough to keep their arms out. A raised coop off the ground on a frame offers protection from animals that approach low, like dogs and skunks.
Beyond predators, chickens need protection from the climate. Chickens are pretty versatile in regards to climate. In summer months, they spread their wings, pant, dust in the cool dirt, and find shade to lower their body temperature. In winter months, they will huddle together for warmth. They don't like rain, and will take cover as it starts.
Food and Water
Chickens, too, need fresh water at all times. There are a variety of waterers for chicks and chickens, and will depend on your size flock as to what kind of waterer you'll need. With larger flocks it’s convenient to have a 3-5 gallon waterer that automatically refills the watering tray. If you live in a cooler climate, you might want to invest in a heated waterer or a heated mat. Regardless what kind of waterer you choose, make sure they’re easy to clean. Chickens will poop in their water. In fact, they'll poop everywhere.
Chickens eat laying feed. It can be in pellets or scratch. Pellets go into feeders and scratch is thrown out for chickens, often twice a day. We use pellets in an automatic feeder because it saves us time. Chickens can also eat your vegetarian food scraps. Unfortunate for your compost pile, but the chickens love fresh food and garden scraps. Some chicken farmers offer oyster shells for their chickens. Oyster shells are rich in calcium and make for harder eggshells.
Note about food and water for chicks: Chicks will require a smaller waterer and starter feed. The smaller waterers are inexpensive, so it's okay if you do not use them long. If you try to use a larger waterer, they can get wet, lowering their body temperature to an unsafe level for them. There's a reason for chick accessories.
Step 3: Things to Consider when Selecting a Coop Size of Coop
According to Virginia Extension’s Small Scale Poultry Housing requirements, here's what chickens should have based on size:
Bantam Chickens (small sized chickens): 1 square foot per bird for inside coop/ 4 square feet per bird in outside run
Laying Chickens (medium sized chickens): 1.5 square feet per bird for inside coop/ 8 square feet per bird in outside run
Large Chickens: 2 square feet per bird for inside coop/ 10 square feet per bird in outside run
Again, check your city ordinances because they may have requirements on chicken coops. Some backyard chicken farmers will argue they need more coop space. What chicken farmers know is that chickens like their space. Crowded chickens make unhappy chickens, and they can start pecking each other.
Breed of Chickens and Size of Flock
You'll want to consider how many chickens you want. If the goal is raising chickens for egg production, remember that chickens will lay about an egg a day. We started with 25 chicks, thinking we would lose a few. We didn't and we spent a lot of time giving away eggs. A flock of 4 chickens can supply a family with enough eggs! There's no need to go big with a chicken flock, it just means more to feed.
There is a huge variety with chicken breeds. You'll need to know if you want egg layers or meat birds/egg layers. Also, there is a smaller chicken, called Bantams, which are fun chickens to raise too. Also, consider if you want white, brown, or rainbow colored eggs.
Common backyard breeds include Rhode Islands, Orpingtons, Barred Rocks, and Leghorns. Check with the American Poultry Association for a full list of chicken breeds.
Setting Up the Coop
You can build your own coop or renovate an existing garden shed. But, the easiest type of chicken coop is one that comes preassembled like the Fully Assembled Amish Chicken Coop.
Consider where the chicken coop will be located. Does the city require the coop to be within 15 feet of your property line? Do you want the coop near the garden? Do make sure the coop is in a well drained area so it's not damp in the coop or the chickens are standing in water while outside the coop.
Consider your climate when selecting a chicken coop. If you get a lot of rain or snow, you may want to a raised chicken coop instead of a chicken tractor. The raised coop not only gets them off the damp ground, but also allows dry ground underneath the coop from rain or snow. If you live in a warmer climate, make sure the coop you choose has great ventilation.
Chickens, generally, will not hang out in the coop. They go into the coop to lay eggs, drink and eat, and to roost at night. The outside run is an important feature to the coop. If you have a garden, you'll want a chicken run so the chickens don't eat your garden produce and plants. They love pea plants, so unless you plant some for them, you'll want a chicken run.
Chicken tractors or portable coops, like the Mobile Chicken Coop with Pen and Wheels, come with an attached chicken run. Building a chicken run isn't a big deal and you can even buy portable chicken fences.
Cleaning the Coop
Something you might not want to think about is cleaning the coop!
Make sure the coop is easily accessible to clean. This includes the nesting boxes. We know what it is like to clean a chicken coop, so we made sure we carried coops that are easy to clean. Accessible doors are important, and they keep you from leaning into the coop. Trust us, this will be important and often not considered when building your own coop or renovating a garden shed. You will not really want to climb inside it to clean it out. Some of our models, like the Small Backyard Chicken Coop, have a removable droppings tray where the chicken poop is scraped off into your poop compost pile.
The coop will need light. Chickens lay based on daylight. On shorter winter days chickens often slow down or don't lay eggs at all. To lengthen the daylight hours, some chicken farmers will hang a light in the coop. An easier way is to make sure the coop has windows to allow daylight into the chickens.
Know what type of chicken coop you'll want. Do you want one that can move around your yard, or do you want a stand alone chicken coop? Both have their advantages. The next step in the guide will give you the details on different types of coop.
Step 4: Know the Types of Chicken Coops
There are two main types of chicken coops: portable or movable coops and stand alone coops.
Movable or Portable Chicken Coops
The movable coops are sometimes called chicken arks or chicken tractors. Backyard chicken farmers that are gardeners or interested in permaculture will like this design. The bottomless chicken run is attached to the coop, and the chickens always have fresh ground. Every few weeks you can easily pick up the coop by the handles and drag the coop a few feet. The chicken run never has to be cleaned.
Here's another big plus for the movable chicken coops: there's no moving poop around to fertilize gardens. During off gardening season, let the coop sit on your gardening beds. Then when the coop is moved the bed has already been fertilized. Also, they scratch up the soil and eat bugs and weed seeds.
On a larger scale, permaculture farmers will let chickens into the maintenance cycle on their pastures. The chickens eat the weed seeds and bugs from cow manure. Then the cow manure and chicken manure fertilize the pasture grass for high quality pastures. You can do the same thing on a smaller scale on your urban farm with a movable chicken coop. Movable chicken coops can even fertilize your lawn, not just gardens!
If you’re looking for a chicken tractor, here are our movable coops: Small A Frame Chicken Coop Large A Frame Chicken Coop Mobile Chicken Coop with Pen and Wheels
Stand Alone Coops
Stand alone coops can sit on the ground, but typically sit on a frame. Raising a coop adds for more protection from predators and shelter underneath from the weather. Also, raising the coop helps with its durability since just the frame is in contact with the soil and will prevent rot.
There are chicken coop plans on the Internet. But, unless you have a lot of spare time and a truck to buy the building materials, it's much easier to buy a preassembled chicken coop. You can find them in several styles, and built out of materials to complement your home.
Stand alone coops work well with free range chickens. If you have a garden, you'll want to set up a chicken run. The easiest is to stake temporary fencing or netting to keep them from free ranging your garden. If you use movable fencing, it's a good idea to let them into your garden area in the off season so they can naturally fertilize your gardening space. If you have a fenced in backyard, many urban chicken farmers just let them free range in the yard.
Step 5: What your Chicken Coop will Need
So, you know about how large a flock you want. And, you know if you want a movable coop or a stand alone coop. Now, here are a couple of items you want to make sure your coop has.
The coop needs access doors to the food, water, and nesting boxes. You'll want to make sure there is a door that allows you to easily get to the coop to clean it. A clean coop is essential for healthy birds. Here's a helpful resource on chicken health from the USDA.
We listed the space requirement in Step 3 of the guide. But, here is the breakdown small, medium, and large coops that will make it easy to shop our coops by the size of flock you are interested in raising.
Small Chicken Coops
Our selection of small chickens coops can house 2-5 chickens.
Small Backyard Chicken Coop houses 2-3 chickens.
Mobile Chicken Coop with Pen and Wheels houses 2-3 chickens.
Fully Assembled Amish Chicken Coop houses 3-4 chickens.
Small A Frame Chicken Coop houses 3-5 chickens.
Medium Chicken Coops
Our medium sized coops house 4-6 chickens.
Large Chicken Coops
Our larger chicken coops can house 5-15 chickens based on the model. These make great coops if you anticipate adding younger chickens to replenish laying chickens as they age out.
Large A Frame Chicken Coop houses 5-7 chickens.
Chicken Coop Hen House houses 8-10 chickens.
Fully Assembled Wooden Chicken Coop houses 12-15 chickens.
Chickens will naturally roost at night. As it gets close to dark, chickens will go into the coop and hop onto the perches for the night. Chickens will need about 6-10 inches of linear space per chicken to roost. Bantams will need about 6-8 inches. You'll notice in the winter months, the chickens will move in close together on the perches and in the summer they will need their space. Make sure there is enough linear space for them to spread out a bit in the summer to regulate their body temperature.
A 12x12 inch box is needed for a chicken to lay her eggs. There should be one nesting box per 4-5 chickens. Placing 1-2 inches of nesting material will help prevent eggs from breaking and help keep the boxes cleaner. Make sure your coop has ample nesting boxes. Overcrowding the hens in the boxes, can lead to more traffic and they can accidentally break their eggs.
Egg breakage can lead to chickens eating their own eggs. Once this starts, it's a hard habit to break. The best way to prevent chickens from eating their own eggs is to prevent them from breaking with plenty of nesting space and a cushion of nesting material like wood shavings.
A chicken ramp is essential to raised chicken coops. A common chicken injury for heavy or large breeds is leg damage from jumping in and out of the coop. Make sure a ramp provides them a way to walk rather than jumping.
Chicken coops should have proper ventilation, preferably at the top of the coop. Air circulation at the top of the coop allows for ventilation without drafts. Also, windows are helpful if they can close to prevent drafts.
Chickens need light within the coop. Their laying cycle depends on the length of the day. Don't be surprised if your chickens stop laying eggs during the short winter days. You can help chickens maintain laying eggs by making sure your coop has windows or hanging a light so they think the days are longer.
We've talked a great deal about the structure and properties of a chicken coop. But, keep in mind to make sure it is built from quality materials. Chickens will lay up to two to four years of age, so they are an investment. Your structure will need to last. Paint or stain on the chicken coop will protect it from weathering.
We've found our chickens became pets. They've gone down slides with children, they've attended picnics, and they've ridden in bike baskets. While some chickens may not come when called, they can easily be integrated as part of your backyard, fertilize your lawn and garden, and give you tons of eggs. You'll want their housing to protect them and last. It's an investment to your flock. Whether you build or buy a preassembled coop make sure you're going to want to look at it daily and it's going to last.
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