Backyard Chickens: The Basics

This article is not meant as expert advice. This is my experience with chickens which is limited, however, we have successfully raised chickens as "pets." Also, be sure to check local zoning ordinances to ensure you are able to legally have chickens. 

The world is in a little bit of turmoil at the moment, we are currently in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic which includes shelter-in-place/stay at home order for most of the country. One thing I started noticing quickly as this pandemic started to unfold was the amount of homesteading supplies that started becoming unavailable/limited or out-of-stock. The only conclusion I can make is that people are about to start growing their own gardens, raising chickens, etc. Fortunately, I planned the garden and our flock this year prior to this outbreak. There are still lots of places for resources if you need them and I will definitely share them in another post.

I will say, raising chickens is not as easy in the beginning as some make it out to be. There is a lot of work that goes into properly caring for the chicks. Your main job in the early stages is keeping them alive and keeping their enclosure, food & water source clean.

Why raise your own chickens?

Raising your family’s own food is very rewarding. You are in control of what materials are used & there is a sense of pride that comes naturally when you are eating food you created with your own hands and hard work! Cage-free eggs from the store are nothing compared to home-grown eggs.

Note: Raising your own chickens doesn’t make for free eggs. You do have costs for feed, equipment, and a coop. We did the math on our chickens and it came out to about $3 per dozen when they were younger and eating more feed and about $1 per dozen as they got older.  You can feed them table scraps and let them free-range, but they do need some feed to supplement your snacks.

Another great part of raising chickens is the lessons your kids will learn. They can do almost every part of taking care of them (depending on age) and will learn a lot of great lessons with the daily chores of filling feed and water and gathering eggs!

What do I need to care for my backyard chickens?

Obtain your baby chicks (peeps) from a local farmer, hatchery, Tractor Supply or Southern States store. As with any living creature you bring home, you will need a few more supplies.

At minimum you’ll need the following:

  • A large container to live in, we use a larger galvanized watering trough

  • Warming light

  • Waterer

  • Feeder

  • Chick feed, we use Nutrena Grower Starter

  • Bedding, pine shavings or pine straw

For the first few weeks the chicks can’t fly, so leave the box open to enjoy their cuteness. Once they start trying to perch on the top of your box (or escaping) put something over the top to keep them inside. We have used multiple things but be sure not to cut off air supply!

One thing you need to realize is that they can’t live outside for a while. They can be in the garage, but to release them into an outdoor coop or even free-range them when they are small puts them at too much risk. They need to stay warm under the light, plus they are so small that any larger animal can carry them off.

What do I do with my chicks as they get older?

When they get big enough and the weather is warmer you can start preparing to move them outside into their coop. We built our first coop but this time around I wanted something easier to clean & access nesting boxes. We purchased one and had it delivered. We got one from last year that had been marked down and again, fortunately, we purchased in February because they are harder to find right now. There are lots of plans out there for how to build your own coop if you are capable of doing that.

While allowing your chickens to free-range is ideal, not everyone has that luxury. In our area of Northern Virginia, we have lots of coyotes, foxes, and other predators. We have to keep ours in an enclosed area but we do allow them to free-range some during the day each week.

How can I save money raising my backyard chickens?

When your chickens are really young, it’s best to stick to the medicated feed that you buy at the store. It has all the nutrients that your chicks need at this stage.

When they are older, you can give them any table scraps (except raw meat and potato peels), and that will help cut the cost of feeding them.  Letting your chickens free-range will also help cut feed costs and also help your yard or garden. Just remember that they can’t distinguish between the leftover tomatoes from last night and the ones growing in your garden. You will still need to provide some feed and possibly oyster shells to make sure they are getting enough food.

When do the eggs come?

Your chickens won’t start laying eggs till they are at least 16 weeks old and that also depends on the breed. This is where the bulk of the “cost” of your eggs come in.

Look for most birds to lay every 2 days at first and work into laying daily. An average backyard chicken will lay for around 5 years.  They do lay less as they age, but you’ve got a long life of eggs out of each bird.

How can I learn more?

One of my absolute favorite blogs & chicken experts is The Chicken Chick. She does Facebook lives very often and has a very informative blog. On her FB lives, she does Q&A so you can ask her anything you need help with!

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