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If you love fresh eggs? WHY not get a few chickens? Chickens are an easy start into hobby farming or backyard farming. They are easy to care for, don’t take up a lot of space, don’t cost a lot of money and they love to eat insects.
Some cities are now allowing people to own a few (usually under 5) chickens in their backyards, but always check your municipality first. Also it is always best to check with your neighbours too. Sometimes free/cheaper eggs will help convince the neighbours! But I wouldn’t get a rooster in the city. (Neighbours will kill you, they are very loud!)
I live in a rural area of Ontario, Canada and I am allowed to have up to 300 layer chickens with no issues. We are also only allowed to raise 300 meat chickens/year. Not a concern for us, we have 19 layers and that is enough right now.
We have had laying chickens for 16 years now. We can’t imagine not having our own eggs. I honestly don’t even know where the eggs are in the grocery store! We love how our eggs taste, look and we know our chickens are free ranged. Seriously the eggs at the grocery store have a white yucky film over the yoke…eew and the yokes are not even yellow!
Some Terminology is needed:
- Day old’s are just that, born the day you pick them up.
- Ready to lay are chickens that are 19 to 20 weeks old (depending on breed)
- Hens are female chickens- the egg layers
- Roosters or Cocks are male chickens and they are noisy all day not just in morning. (You don’t need them for eggs only to fertilize eggs, if you want to incubate your own eggs)
- Layers are chickens that live to lay eggs; almost daily
- Meat birds or broilers are birds that are bred to grow really fast for eating
- Dual purpose are chickens that don’t lay as much as a layer and don’t grow as fast as a meat bird but can be used for both layer; than as a meat bird
- Heat lamp is a special light fixture on a chain/rope (allows for raising/lowering the level of light/heat) that holds a incandescent (red or clear) light bulb that gives off heat to keep the chicks or waterers warm enough not to freeze
You need to decide on whether to buy “ready to lay” or buy “day old’s” and raise them. It also depends on how available laying chickens or chicks are. You can order chicks to be delivered by mail, but of course it is harder to do that with full size chickens.
One thing to note is chickens start laying around 20-22 weeks old. So if you want the experience for the kids (of course) it won’t be cheaper to raise from “day old’s” because 20 weeks of food is expensive in small quantities. As is the electricity needed to operate a heat lamp until the chickens have all their feathers and the weather is warm enough. But it will be cute and more fun than buying “ready to lay” chickens.
Chickens need to be housed for protection from harsh wind, cold, snow and of course predators. It doesn’t need to be fancy, just big enough to provide comfortable area to roost (sleep), for the cold days and for boxes to lay eggs in. An old shed or part of one, a large dog house of sorts, anything that will shelter chickens safely and can fit a waterer and a food container can be used. You can purchase an already made coop, retrofit a shed or make your own, like we did. Ideally you want a small door just for chickens that can close and lock at night and also a man-door or opening so that you can clean out your coop because you will need too at least 2-3 times a year depending on the number of chickens.
A coup typically needs enough room for the chickens to move around, room for food/water and ideally enough room for the chickens to roost above the ground (a cross beam/ladder off the floor), and of course layer boxes for the eggs. A coop that is 8′ by 12′ can house 25-30 chickens if they have access to outside space too. A vent or window is also a good idea if using a structure strictly for chickens as it gets really hot in summer and can get very smelly in winter.
The Perch or Roost
Chickens have a natural instinct to roost in a tree at night. Of course we want them to roost safely and locked up within our coups. So to encourage chickens to roost in the coup, we need to provide them with one. It can be a beam (2″x 4″), ladder or thick dowels. Chickens like to wrap their toes around it so a rounded edge not sharp metal works best and not a smooth round pipe. (they can’t grip it) Ideally a roost should be above the ground about 2 feet and should be about 2 inches wide and allow about 8 inches per bird. Remember to space the roosts (like an angled ladder) if more than one is needed because the chickens naturally poo while perched and another bird won’t sit below for obvious reasons!!
1 layer box can be used by 4-5 chickens but if you only have 5 chickens; at least 3 boxes would be ideal because chickens like to follow each other. We had our boxes within our coop for years which meant we had to step into the coup to collect the eggs. The coup floor is full of poo, therefore rubber boots were a must every time. I came up with a new idea, one where the boxes are on the outside of the coup/shed with openings inside for the chickens and I just open the hinged lid to collect the eggs! Great for days when I am in “regular” shoes like when I come home from work or in sandals. This is one of many tricks we have learned over the years!
A hen wants to lay her egg in a private and safe area. An ideal egg box would be about 10″ wide by 10-12″ high and 10-12″ deep. Our boxes are about 18″ off the ground with a ledge/curb for the hens to jump up to and shuffle back and forth to find the perfect unoccupied nest. The curb is also to prevent eggs from being accidentally knocked out by another hen when getting comfortable. On the outside of the coup, we have a slopped lid that is hinged to the coup wall that covers the boxes fully. This allows rain and snow to slide off so we can open the lid and collect the eggs from the top. (And clean too) I prefer wood chips as bedding material in the nests (for easier cleaning). I also have artificial grass tiles (from the dollar store) as a base between my wood box floor and the wood chips. I love this! It makes cleaning so much easier. I can just lift out the grass mat and shake or rinse with the hose. I don’t stick them just lay them down. And a few times a year I just swap them out completely!
A fenced in area may be a good idea if you want to use your backyard for other things too. Chickens will eat the grass down to nothing, they will dig, scratch, poo everywhere and will destroy gardens if you let them. Some people like a moving fully enclosed fenced box that they can move around so that they don’t kill the grass but are contained and safe from predators. (Too much work for me!)
A fenced in coup with access to multiple green areas is the perfect healthy way to house your chickens. We don’t use the fenced in coup method now, as we have quite a bit of space and our kids are well teenagers. So we are not worried about accidental “step ins” or “slide into’s”. (Yes our boys when young always seemed to find the biggest pile of chicken poo and often tripped and fell right into it!)
However when we first started out with our chickens, we did have one fenced in area. (Seen in the above picture) It was eaten and scratched down to the dirt that it was either hard or it was so muddy. I would have to walk through daily to feed, water, open/close the chickens and of course to collect the eggs! The chickens were always flying out for the green grass and making a mess. So we moved our little coup within a fenced-in area into our goat pen. We had the small area divided into 2 sections with 2 little doors opening up into each pen. This worked so well for our small flock that I highly recommend it now for beginners. See Collage of pictures showing this below.
A Small enclosed “green” area for your chickens, requires some set up but once going, it is so easy to maintain.
- Pick your chicken area
- Set up/build coup in middle of area
- Divide outside area into 2-4 spaces
- Fence the outside area and the area between spaces (or use movable cattle fencing/construction fencing between spaces) As long as the chickens can’t get through it and it is tall enough.
- Put 2-4 little closing chicken size doors that open into each fenced off section (We used a homemade pulley system)
- 1 section will have your man-door and ideally your egg boxes and a gate or other easy access for you to enter.
Once all set up, add the chickens! Open only 1 door to one yard at a time. By rotating the chickens among the 2-4 areas, you are able to maintain the green vegetation and give it time to regrow thus preventing brown dirt and muddy patches!
The easiest way to make sure your chickens get all the proper nutrients to not only survive but to lay an egg regularly is to buy feed from a feed supply. Chicks need different nutrients (Chick starter) and therefore different feed than mature laying birds (Layer pellets or crumble) and when the chickens are between the chick stage and the mature laying stage (teenagers) they too need a different food (Grower).
Chickens love treats too. We give our chickens food scraps; pretty much anything not meat based. We just dump it out in the outside area of pen. They will pick through it and leave what they don’t want. You can buy “Scratch Grain” too, but remember neither food scraps or scratch grain have enough protein to maintain a healthy egg production. Moderation is the key with both; It’s like desert for the chickens!
BE WORN there are some things you don’t want to give your layers:
- Beets – large amounts can turn eggs pink (did this)
- Garlic – large amounts can make eggs taste garlicky (friend did this)
- Onions – Same as garlic.. onion taste
- Anything else that might flavor or colour the eggs badly!
Feeders and Waterers
There are so many commercial kinds of both. It’s really up to you, what works for you and you chickens. Remember as chicks grow both their food/water needs to be raised up for easier access and to maintain cleanliness.
Here are a few things to consider:
- How often you are able to fill them up?
- Do they hold enough food/water?
- Can you carry the food/water easily to the coup?
- Can 5 birds drink/eat at the same time?
- Do they discourage chickens from sitting or walking on top?
- Do they prevent or limit food waste?
We currently use a plastic 5 gallon waterer (that we manually fill and carry to coup) that we hang from the ceiling in our coup. (An automatic waterer is on my wish list but for now ours works) This keeps the chickens from walking or pooing in it. We also hang it away from the roosts for the same reasons. For the food we made a box that sits on the outside of the coup, much like our egg boxes with a similar slopped lid. This box has a bottom landing for the food that is inside the coup wall up slightly from the floor (sealed very well). It works with gravity; we fill up the outside box (9 kg of feed) and the food falls to the landing as needed.
A hen will start laying around 20-22 weeks old. She will start with small eggs about every 3-4 days and sometimes missing the yoke. By the time the hen is about 24-30 weeks, the eggs will be of normal size and everyone will have a yoke! She will lay about 2 eggs every 3 days. When a hen is born she carries as many as 4000 ova (underdeveloped yolks) Each egg contains 1 ova which takes 24 hours from start to finish to become an complete egg ready to be laid. A hen cannot lay more eggs than the total amount of ova that she is born with, however few hens live long enough to lay more than 1000 eggs before they die.
Chickens usually molt for the first time around 18 months old. They will molt (old feathers fall out and new ones grow in) once a year usually in the fall. At this time a hen will either slow or stop producing eggs for up to 3 months as all her energy is used to grow replacement feathers. Usually after 1st molt a hen will lay bigger eggs but slightly fewer eggs.
Hens lay best when the temperature is between 8 degrees and 27 degrees Celsius. (45-80 degrees F) When temperature is warmer than above they tend to lay smaller eggs and thinner shells. Hens also need enough light-14 hours of daylight to lay eggs. So if you want all year round eggs from your hens, it’s best to install a light. A regular 60 watt light would suffice either on a timer for at least 14 hours or on all the time in the coup. If you get winter like we do, and want to keep your coup a bit warmer and stop the waterer from freezing? You can install a heat lamp above the waterer. We hang ours from the chain that comes with it just above the spout on the waterer. This is almost always enough heat to keep the water from freezing and take enough of the chill out of the coup. The chickens do have feathers after all!
There you have the basics of keeping backyard chickens or starting your 1st flock on your homestead. If you have any questions or need specific info in starting your flock or info about starting with day old chicks, I would be happy to help.
I would also love to hear from anyone who already has chickens and can offer up any other tips or tricks that you have learned. We can always improve.
I can be reached here with comments or by email firstname.lastname@example.org