We’ve recently had a lot of people asking for advice to get started raising chickens. We have had chickens here at the Garcia home for years, and we love it! We have made mistakes, learned more efficient ways to do things, and learned from other veteran chicken owners. Here are some of our top tips for starting with chickens!
Before you can raise chickens, you’ll need somewhere to put them. There are a lot of options out there! Will you build a coop, or buy one already made? If you’re anything like me, you’ll be scouring Pinterest for ideas. Either way, here are some things to keep in mind for your chicken coop:
How much space do you have?
Obviously you’ll need to consider how much space you have available in your yard for raising chickens. But also, your coop must have enough space for how many chickens you plan to house. So the first step is to know how many chickens you want! Remember, not every hen will be laying at the same time, they will have seasons when they lay more or less. So if you want 6 eggs a day, at least 8-10 hens is a good start. A chicken coop includes nesting boxes, an enclosed area for roosting/sleeping, and a run. You’ll need at least one nesting box per 5 hens, and at least 2-3 square feet per chicken in the coop. A run is the area you provide for the chickens to live happily during the day, where they can eat, drink, run around, take dust baths, all those chicken things they do. In this area, you’ll need at least 8-10 square feet per chicken. The more space per chicken, the better! There will be more fighting, more mess, and you’ll have a harder time keeping the chickens healthy if they have a smaller area.
When you choose your coop, consider safety from predators! You may have hawks during the day, or even local dogs or cats. At night o’possums and raccoons may try to get in. Foxes, coyotes, snakes… it’s important to protect your flock from all these things! During the night chickens are not on the defense and are especially vulnerable. Raccoons have been known to get their little hands through chicken wire and kill chickens, and some animals can dig under the coop to get to them. We used hardware cloth instead of cheaper chicken wire, because it is more durable and has smaller holes. You’ll also want to make sure nothing can dig its way in by putting something around the outside of the coop, or underneath it. You can also leave a light or radio on around the coop at night to discourage predators from even coming around!
Chickens like to roost up high at night, so having a bar for them to hop up and sit on is a great idea! You can include some in their run, but during the day they are more interested in being on the ground.
You will need to have easy access into your coop for cleaning, as well as egg collection. You probably don’t want to climb into the coop every day to gather eggs, so having outside access to your nesting boxes is very helpful!
Usually people use some kind of wood shavings inside the coop. Sometimes people use straw, but this can mold more easily and would need changed out more frequently. It probably comes down to what you have access to! You can purchase large, compact bedding at stores like Rural King and Tractor Supply. They go farther than it looks like they would! We have a local lumber company that collects their wood shavings and sawdust in one area, and they let people come collect whatever they have! We bring the truck (with a bed cover) and a snow shovel and fill it up! Some people bring empty feed bags and fill them with shavings – they’re a little more durable than plastic trash bags or something like that.
Now that you have somewhere to put them, where do you get the chickens?? The easiest thing to do would be visiting a local Rural King or Tractor Supply that carries baby chicks. During the spring and into the summer, these places usually get new chicks weekly, and you can choose from several different kinds! Just do a little research to be sure you’re getting what you want – some chickens are better for meat, some are better for eggs, and some can go either way.
You can also order your brand new chicks online! What?? I’ve had several friends who have had good experiences with this. They are shipped within hours of hatching, and arrive within 48 hours. Chicks can go the first 48 hours without eating or drinking! And places that sell them online should have a guarantee, so that if anything happens during shipping they will replace the birds.
Some people raising chickens prefer to skip the whole baby chick experience and get hens that are already laying! This is a little more difficult. Few places sell fully grown chickens. You may have some luck checking local bulletin boards or talking to friends with chickens. Sometimes people need to downsize or get rid of chickens for one reason or another, and may be willing to give or sell you some. If you can’t find any full grown chickens, remember that baby chicks grow quickly! They usually begin laying within three months! I will say, the actual chickens are easily the cheapest part of this venture.
As you are raising chickens, you can purchase 50 pound bags of feed at places like Rural King and Tractor Supply. There may be places you can buy things in bulk and mix it yourself, especially if you live in a rural area where there is more demand for these things. Make sure to get Layer Feed if you have hens that are laying eggs, this helps provide for the nutritional requirements they have. You can also mix it with some scratch grain, and it gives them a little more variety.
Can you feed your chickens table scraps?
Most definitely! They will love it! The first year we had chickens, part of cleaning up after a meal included googling if chickens could eat certain things. Usually the answer was yes! We have free range chickens, so we also consider what could be harmful if the dog gets into it. So no grapes! We also found through trial and error what they just weren’t into. Because our chickens are free range, they don’t bother with anything green – they have plenty of that! But others who stay in a coop may love it.
Raising Chickens Free Range
Whether you keep your chickens in an enclosed coop and run or let them free range all day depends on your space and preferences. Obviously if you live in town or have neighbors nearby, free ranging your chickens will probably not be an option.
If you are able to, what are the benefits? Happy chickens, for one! They have free access to scratch around and eat bugs, greens, whatever they find. They will eat small rocks, as birds need to do occasionally, and find dry places to take dust baths. All without you lifting a finger!
When you first get the chickens, they would need to stay in their coop for a few weeks so they recognize it as “home.” Then they will find their way back every night to sleep! You’ll just have to close the door. Easy peasy. Our chickens do get into the neighbor’s large yard, but they don’t mind! We talk with them and make sure they know if there’s ever a problem, we will quickly deal with it.
If you can’t free range your chickens, but want some of the benefits – check out the chicken tractor! It is a movable run for the chickens to spend the day in. It has shelter, predators can’t get to them, it keeps them out of unwanted areas, and they get the fresh grass and bugs they love! You simply move it around every day or two, so that one spot isn’t totally wiped out of all vegetation. It will actually improve your lawn if you move it daily! They will aerate the soil and fertilize it, and within a few days of moving them off the spot you should see more healthy grass! This is a great option for raising chickens.
The main benefit of raising chickens, for most people, is the eggs! Hopefully you have easy access to their nesting boxes, because you will want to collect them at least once a day. Some chickens consistently lay early in the mornings, while many lay throughout the day. Store the eggs in a cool, dry place.
It’s actually not necessary to refrigerate them at all if they don’t get wet and you eat them within a couple weeks! There is a protective layer around the shell that keeps what’s inside in and what’s outside out. If you wash the eggs after collecting them, however, you would need to refrigerate them. What if they’re not laying eggs in the nesting boxes you provide? You could be doing an Easter egg hunt every day. You can actually purchase fake eggs for just this reason! When they see one egg somewhere, they tend to think of it as a safe place to lay more eggs.
Deep liter method – if you’ve never heard of it, look it up! It means that inside your coop doesn’t ever, or very rarely, needs to be totally emptied and cleaned out. You would simply add bedding as needed. Wood chips and chicken droppings simply decompose as it gets buried by fresh bedding. There should never be a smell! If your coop smells bad, something is wrong. The biggest culprit there is water! If your bedding, feed, or chicken poop gets wet, it will smell horrible. With free range chickens, we keep the water outside the coop! They don’t really drink at night, and that’s the only time they’re in the coop. Otherwise, keep your water generally away from the food, because chickens get frantic as you’re feeding them and tend to make a mess.
There are many options when it comes to watering your flock, but most watering containers can be elevated on blocks or wood away from bedding, making it more difficult for the chickens to make a mess of it. You may see some people use straw for their coop – and this is always an option. Keep in mind that straw is more likely to mold, and may need changed out more often. If you successfully use the Deep Litter Method, you shouldn’t need to do any major cleaning very often! Wherever the chickens sleep, there may be piles of poop before long – so you will have to clean that area more often. And you may want to keep fresh bedding in your nesting area, so eggs are less likely to break before you gather them. Remember, any bedding or chicken droppings you remove from your coop make excellent compost! Just don’t put fresh chicken poop straight on your garden, as it is high in nitrogen and may burn your plants.
Compared to most farm animals, chickens are a walk in the park! They require little cleaning, help put table scraps to good use, and there is no need to vaccinate or medicate for things regularly! If you have plenty of space, provide appropriate food, water, and bedding, and gather the eggs in a timely manner, you should be set!
Sometimes birds are prone to mites and other such parasites. We keep diatomaceous earth on hand in case we have a problem with any bugs, but so far we haven’t needed it! Food grade diatomaceous earth will kill anything with an exoskeleton, but is harmless to anything else.
There are a variety of diseases and ailments that are rare, but possible with your birds. We have never found it necessary to buy any medicine or antibiotics, and prefer to keep it that way! Some people add things like oregano to the chicken’s feed or water, and this acts as a natural antibiotic and immune support.
Another thing that you may want to consider for your egg laying hens is supplementing with calcium. The egg laying process requires a lot of it. You can purchase crushed oyster shells online or wherever chicken supplies are sold, and add it to their feed. We simply save the egg shells as we use the eggs. I set them aside to dry, and later that day put them in a mason jar we keep by the sink. We use a wooden tool my husband made to crush them before we add more the next day. Then every few days we through it out with their feed or mixed with table scraps! We make sure to crush them and mix them with things so the chickens won’t begin seeing eggs as a food source. Some say that this could cause them to begin eating their own eggs! We’ve never had this problem, but it’s something to be careful for.
For whatever reason, occasionally something goes wrong in the egg making process, and a hen may get egg bound. The egg gets stuck somewhere, causing toxins to build up in her body. Within the past four years, this has only happened to us once! We noticed a hen walking funny, and this ended up being the issue. You can soak the hen’s vent in some warm water to help loosen things up, making sure to keep her away from the other chickens. After the egg was dislodged, our hen was still out of sorts for a while. Because chickens will attack sick or injured birds, even in their own flock, we kept her quarantined for a couple of weeks until she was back to normal! This is when it comes in handy to have a small quarantine coop, which could be as simple as a repurposed dog house. I hope this was helpful! Please comment with additional questions about raising chickens or tips of your own!
Need more information about raising chickens?
Check out this great resource from Justin Rhodes and Abundant Permaculture!
Want to grow your own eggs?