You've dreamt about it. You've been pinning all the pins. You have got serious chicken fever. I hear you! Four years ago I was in the same place, my friend. The more I learned about these fluffy cuties, the more I fell in love. These amazing creature recycle our food scraps into delicious eggs, fertilize our yard better than any store-bought chemical, keep tick populations at bay, and provide us endless entertainment. So I put together a post that truly cuts to the chase of what you need to know to raise backyard chickens. We cover the basics, but I include tips that you may not have found thus far in your search. So read on my fellow chicken lover!
Please note: The links below are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you end up clicking and purchasing an item. I worked hard to find my trusted favorites and I want to share them with you so you don't have to deal with all the crappy junk I had to go through. Nuff said.
Can you own chickens where you live?
The very first step towards getting your first flock is to see if it is legal to own chickens where you live. Check your city’s municipal codes to be 100% sure that you can own poultry. Some cities require a simple written “ok” from your neighbors while others require that you register and license the birds. Call your county clerk if you are having trouble maneuvering the information available to you. Remember, just because your city says it’s against the law doesn’t mean it’s a dead end. Laws can be changed, and with chicken keeping in particular, many cities have changed their codes thanks to a small group of passionate wannabe chicken tenders.
What breed of chicken is best?
You’ll want to start with at least three hens. Chickens are social creatures and need friends too! You can purchase laying hens off of Craigslist or start with chicks. The major plus of starting with chicks is they’ll always consider you mama hen and be forever used to your presence. The downside is all the work that comes with raising baby chicks. If you feel up to the challenge, check out more info on raising chicks at this link. When purchasing grownup hens, be absolutely sure they are friendly and used to human interaction. Pick them up, hold them, and ask the owner about their temperament.
When deciding what breed of chicken to go with, consider your climate first and foremost. Select breeds that do well with high temps if you live in hot areas with mild winters. If you live in a location that gets plenty of snow during the winter months, choose a breed that is hardy and can withstand cold temperatures. Next, you’ll want to research egg productivity. Some hens lay once every three days, while some will give you breakfast once a day. Do your due diligence before you settle on a particular breed.
In Wisconsin, our favorite breed hands-down is the Wyandotte. You can read more about why I adore this heritage breed at this link.
How should I house my chickens?
As for housing, chickens need a quiet secluded place to lay eggs and a safe sheltered place to roost at night. Consider converting an old shed into a chicken coop or building a mobile chicken tractor. There are so many options for creating a cozy space for your future hens, as long as they are able to be locked up tight at night and have a nesting box to lay eggs, you can’t go wrong.
If you go with a stationary coop, you’ll need to consider what kind of bedding you’d like on the floor. Sand and deep litter are the main options. Sand creates a giant litter box and is too much work to keep clean in my book. If you like a pristinely clean chicken coop though, be my guest. Deep litter is a great way to keep maintenance low and create nutritious compost for your garden.
To implement the deep litter method, you’ll need lots of carbon-based material, like straw, pine shavings, or dried leaves. We opt for straw with our hens. Lay out a layer of carbon material at least 4” deep. As the chickens roost and poop at night, their droppings will accumulate. Once a week add another 4” of carbon on top the heavily manured area. The rule of thumb is if it smells, add more carbon. Once a month, clean out the roost area completely and pile the manured straw somewhere it can fully decompose. In about 10 weeks you will have perfect compost for your yard or garden. We also sprinkle 1 cup of diatomaceous earth (DE) around the floor of the coop once a month to keep pests at bay. DE is a dusty natural substance, basically pulverized fossils, that has a severe drying effect on the exoskeleton of bugs, ultimately killing them. Be sure to wear gloves when handling DE because it can dry your skin out. The drying qualities can cause respiratory issues in humans also, so don't directly breath in the dust when you are working with it and feel free to wear a dust mask if you are concerned.
Where should I let my hens go?
Next, be sure to provide a chicken “run” for your hens. A chicken run is an outdoor area that is fenced off and protected. This area also needs to provide shade from the hot afternoon sun for your girls, whether that’s a mature tree or an awning depends on your specific yard.
It’s true that a free-range chicken is the happiest kind of chicken. Before you left chickens wander free, you’ll need to set some boundaries. Specifically, perimeter boundaries like a fence to keep neighbors’ dogs and other stalking predators away. This goes both ways though because chickens are escape artists. Check the perimeter for holes that a chicken could squeeze through and patch them up.
Chickens will eat whatever they find, knowing this, it’s best to keep them away from vegetable gardens! Be sure to protect gardens with chicken-proof fencing.
A good way to keep munching and escaping to a minimum is to let chickens out two hours before bedtime. They will forage until the sun goes down and then willingly put themselves to bed.
What should I feed my chicken?
Fresh food and clean water should be provided daily. You can purchase bags of organic feed from your local feed store or a big box store like Farm and Fleet. Chickens eat ¼ pound of feed everyday if you don’t provide them any other form of sustenance. If you are giving them food scraps, weeds greens (yes pull those weeds in the name of your chickens!), and letting them free range for a few hours every day - you can expect that number to go down.
We use a simple metal oil pan for our hens’ feed tray. Many claim you need oyster shells to supplement calcium for your hens, but you can feed your hens’ crushed eggshells back to them to supplement calcium in their diet for free. Just crush them up and put them in their feed tray.
There are many forms of chicken waterers, and the best I’ve found is the metal gravity-fed waterers that hang. You will need to refill your chicken’s water every day and scrub the waterer with soap once a week to keep scum away.
Chickens love treats. Feel free to feed them organic scratch grains, sunflower seeds, fresh worms, dried mealworms, greens, scrambled eggs, squash, etc. Hens are your personal garbage disposal, but there are limits. The items not to feed your hen include avocado peels and pits, citrus peels, raw potatoes or peels, coffee grounds, moldy or spoiled food, and chicken meat (because gross).
What does a chicken need to stay clean?
To keep mites, lice, and fleas at bay, provide your hens a spot to dust bath. Chickens typically don’t need to be cleaned with soap and water (unless they are sprayed by a skunk!). Instead, chickens like to roll around in the dirt to kick up small particles under their feathers, just like what the chickens are doing in the picture above.
The easiest way to give chickens a spot to dust bath is to set out a cat litter pan and fill it halfway up with 1 part fine particle sand, 1 part peat moss, and ½ cup of wood ashes.
They also preen their feathers. Hens achieve preening by stimulating an oil gland above their tail feathers that distributes a wax-like substance they then apply with their beaks all over themselves.
How do I keep my chickens healthy?
As for routine health care, there are a few preventative actions you can take. Once a month, put one crushed garlic clove and ¼ cup apple cider vinegar in their waterer. The garlic and ACV gives chickens a great boost to their immune system.
Fully clean out their coop once a month. Replace coop and nesting box bedding with fresh straw or shavings and spray down the walls with a solution of straight vinegar and 20 drops tea tree oil then wipe clean.
Use fresh herbs in their nesting boxes, like mints and rosemary to keep rodents and bugs away. Add chopped fresh herbs like basil, parsley, and mint to your hens’ feed tray once a week to give them a super boost of nutrients.
Observation is key to preventing serious health issues from claiming the life of your beloved birds. Every day spend a little time with your girls and see how they are doing. Hens acting lethargic, moving strangely, or not eating are signs that something is wrong. Take note of your hen’s symptoms and turn to a Google search or the Backyard Chicken Forums for a solid answer.
Once a month, take the time to do a more hands-on physical examination of your birds at night. When chickens go to roost they become zombies and it’s much easier to work with them.
First, check their vents (where the eggs come out!) to make sure they are pink and wet.
Next, examine their feet to be sure their scales are flush, clean, and free from scaly leg mites. If the scales are lifted and jagged, apply a thick layer of Healthy Jelly (a vaseline alternative) all over their feet every day for a week to suffocate the mites.
Then, check their feathers, especially the base of the feather shaft, to be sure they are free from lice eggs, which look like dandruff stuck to the feather. If they have lice, add ½ cup of diatomaceous earth (DE) to their dust bath.
Next, check the way their breathing sounds. If they are coughing or are having respiratory issues, dab some VetRx, which is like Vix Vapor Rub, on their beaks and the undersides of their wings to help their breathing.
Finally, check their overall body for cuts and wounds. If they have any cuts, spray Blu-Kote, which is like Neosporin, to help disinfect and heal the wound.
These four aforementioned products are the most basic vet-care items to have on hand for your hens. Don’t keep chickens without having them at the ready!
I hope this post helped you understand the nuts and bolts of chicken keeping. The best way to learn what you need for keeping chickens is to just start. Give yourself permission to finally buy your first flock and go for it!
Thanks for stopping by Green Willow Homestead! From chicken rearing to orchard planting, we've got our hands full and we love sharing what we've learned along the way. Follow along as we strive to live sustainably and turn these five acres from just property to a fully functioning small-scale homestead.
1. Joe Salatin
2. Rachel Carson
3. Wendell Berry
4. Temple Grandin
5. Sustainable Dish
6. Zero Waste Home
7. Allan Savory
Favorite Books of 2018
2. Bringing it to the Table
3. Holistic Management
4. The Small Scale Poultry Flock
5. In The Company of Women