How to Raise Happy Chickens

Look no further! Here are the answers to all your questions about raising healthy backyard chickens.

Backyards have gone to the birds! Everyone from A-list celebs (we're looking at you, Jennifer Garner and Lady Gaga) to city slickers has taken to raising hens in the name of having farm-fresh eggs at the ready.  If you've been thinking about joining the chicken-keeping contingency, there's no need to wing it.  Before you get started, check out some DIY chicken coop ideas or you can consider chicken coops you can buy right now.  Then outfit your coop with all the necessary accessories from our chicken coop buying guide.  You should also do some homework about the different types of chicken breeds  Once you've studied up on all that, check out these helpful tips from a panel of grade-A poultry experts.  Here, they answer some of your most pressing questions about raising chickens, from time commitment and costs to safely and, yes, even how to get those pretty blue eggs.

I HEAR "CHICKEN" & THINK "FARM". DO I REALLY HAVE ENOUGH ROOM TO RAISE CHICKENS IN MY BACKYARD?

The short answer: probably so! Chickens are relatively small birds, in turn requiring relatively little space.  "You should plan to provide four square feet per chicken in the besting coop (also called a henhouse), plus 10 square feet per chicken in their enclose run," says Country Living veterinarian Dr.Tricia Earley.  For a flock of, say, six chickens, that translates to a 6'-by-4' nesting coop plus a 6'-by-10' run.  (See below for more scoop on chicken coops.) In reality, he amount of room is rarely the deal breaker for backyard chickens.  The bigger question is if they are permitted in your neighborhood.  Before you get started, our experts advise you to check with your homeowners' association or municipality to confirm it's allowed.  Surprisingly, many suburban and urban areas only have restrictions on the number of hens allowed or on the possession of roosters.

HOW HARD IS IT TO RAISE CHICKENS & WHAT DOES A DAY IN THE LIFE OF CHICKEN CARE REALLY LOOK LIKE?

Raising chickens is not hard, but chicken expert and author Lisa Steele (@fresheggsdaily) says, "As with any pet or livestock, chickens are a serious time commitment and require daily attention." But, again and again, owners say there's also a "hen zen" that comes with keeping chickens.  Part routine, part respite, starting and ending the day with some fresh air and labor can confer a kind of self-care.  In other words, the health benefits go way beyond fresh eggs.

WHAT DO CHICKENS EAT & DRINK?

While your eggs may soon be homegrown, your chicken's diet shouldn't be.  "A commercially prepared layer mash has been formulated by a poultry science nutritionist and will have the appropriate amount of calcium, calories, and protein to keep a hen healthy and ensure a good thick eggshell," says veterinarian Dr.Victoria Drouet. While occasional treats are fine (mealworms or watermelon will get them clucking!), 90 percent of a chicken's diet should come from store-bought goods.  Plenty of fresh water is also vital and, because eggs are mostly composed of H2O, directly tied to egg production.  Add a splash of apple cider vinegar a few times a week to prevent bacteria.

HOW MUCH DOES IT COST TO RAISE CHICKENS?

Chickens' needs are simple and somewhat inexpensive, especially when you factor in the return you see on those eggs!  But they do require a small investment up front.  Female chicks typically cost between $4 to $7 each.  (You can get them for even less if you order an "assorted" flock instead of a specific breed.) A 50-pound bag of quality chicken feed costs approximately $25, which a flock of six will go through in about a month.  Your biggest cost will be that coveted chicken coop, which can ring in for as little as $100 for a simple mail-order kit to upwards of $10,000 for a designer look.  And just like any other beloved pet, don't forget the occasional trip to the vet.

LEGHORNS, SILKIES, RHODE ISLAND REDS...WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ALL THOSE CHICKEN BREEDS?

From egg production (spoiler alert: No chicken lays eggs every day) to regal plumage, these nine breeds are among the most prized varieties of back yard hens.
- Araucana
- Australorp
- Buff Orpington
- White Leghorn
- Marans
- Plymouth Rock
- Rhode Island Red
- Silkie
- Sussex
 

WHERE SHOULD I PURCHASE MY CHICKENS?

"Buying chicks online is a safe way to bring hens home," says chicken expert and author Kathey Shea Mormino (@thechickenchick).  But she advises to only purchase from a hatchery certified by the National Poultry Improvement Plan, such as mcmurrayhatchery.com.  Local farm-supply stores, such as Tractor Supply Co, also often have chicks available seasonally, although usually with fewer breed varieties.  Psst: Hens don't start producing eggs until they are approximately 20-24 weeks old.  If you don't want to wait that long, consider a "started pullet," which is a hen that's 15 to 22 weeks old.  Once accustomed to her new surroundings, she'll begin laying eggs very soon..

WAIT, DON'T I NEED A ROOSTER?

No! "It's a common misconception that you need a rooster in order for a hen to lay eggs," says chicken expert and author Melissa Caughey (@tillysnest).  The truth is that a male is needed only if you want eggs fertilized to then hatch as baby chicks.  In fact, while the thought of waking up to a country call may sound charming, having a rooster in a backyard flock is generally not recommended because they can become aggressive to hens and people.  Be aware that determining the sex of a baby chick is difficult and mistakes can be made.  Want to get rid of an accidental fella? Contact a poultry science department at your local college.

WHAT DOES A CHICKEN COOP NEED TO FUNCTION PROPERLY? (BESIDES A COPPER CUPOLA, OBVIOUSLY.)

Whether you flock toward a rustic red barn or a French chateau, these are the six key elements needed for a safe and happy henhouse.

  • Nesting Box
Hens crave privacy and darkness when laying eggs, so plan for at least one nesting box for every four or five hens.  A box that measures 14'W by 14"H x 12"D will give even a big gal plenty of room.  Add a door along the exterior wall of each box for easier egg collection.
  • Box Bedding
An inexpensive, soft material such as hay or pin shavings offers a comfortable spot and easier cleaning.  To keep things extra fresh, mix in a bedding blend such as The Chicken Chick's "Spruce the Coop Herbal Fusion" or Fresh Egg Daily's "Coop Confetti".
  • Roosting Bar
Chickens prefer to sleep high off the ground.  Give them a perch to catch those ZZZs with a wooden roasting bar. (Wood is preferable to plastic or metal as they are usually too slippery for the birds to properly grip.)
  • Dropping Board
This catchall term refers to a board, pan, or box placed below the roosting bar to collect and contain manure, making daily cleanups easier.
  • Hanging Feeder & Waterer
Keep both off the ground to preserve freshness, and place inside the coop to keep out other unwanted animals.
  • Enclosed Run
Give your girls a spot to stretch their legs while staying protected from predators.  Use hardware cloth or metal screening with at least a 1.2mm gauge to ensure strength and durability. 

CAN MY KIDS GET SICK FROM PLAYING WITH CHICKENS?

Chickens can harbor dangerous bacteria such as salmonella and E.coli, so "washing your hands thoroughly or using an alcohol-based gel after all contact with poultry or eggs is the best way to protect yourself," says veterinarian Dr. Victoria Drouet.

I HAVE A DOG. AND A CAT. CAN MY CHICKENS SAFELY COEXIST WITH THEM?

Family pets and a gaggle of hens may first seem at odds, but there's hope.  To ensure things get off on the right paw, try supervised visits, preferably with your dog or cat on a leash, for the first few weeks.  Take note: If your pet shows strong aggression during the first encounter, it will likely stay that way.

WHAT ABOUT THE EGGS? HOW LONG DO THEY STAY FRESH, AND DO HEY HAVE TO BE REFRIDGERATED?

While it is best practice to collect them daily, eggs have a natural biofilm that keeps them from outdoors for several weeks.  This holds true if they are displayed in a pretty bowl on your counter, too.  Once the egg is washed, however, it should be refrigerated right away.

Countryliving.com
By Caroline Collins McKenzie, April 13 2020