Is Raising Backyard Chickens Right for You?
No matter where you live, chances are you have that one friend who keeps backyard chickens--or desperately wants to. And who can blame them? You get fresh eggs (they really do taste better), you can use it to teach your kids all sorts of stuff, and--if you're like most people--you'll get drawn in by the unique personality of each bird.
Before you even think about raising chickens, be sure you check your local laws and your HOA covenant. The last thing you need is to invest all the time and money to start your flock only to find out your birds are contraband. So, you think the hobby is right for you? How do you get started?
We asked Meredith Epstein, a long-time backyard chicken keeper for some tips.
Before you get started, it's important to learn as much as you can about keeping chickens. Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens and Fresh Eggs Daily are great resources.
Choose the right breed.
It really depends on what you want. If you want an egg every day and a very indestructible bird, you probably want to go with some type of cross, like a Red Sex Link. They're also really smart and can figure things out, for example, they'll come running for treats. If you're looking for something docile that's a good pet, you might want to go with a Silky, which are the little furball ones. They're really gentle and let you pick them up and hold them. Another good choice is the Brahma, which is actually a meat breed. They’re huge, beautiful birds that are really loving and very gentle. And if you want something that really stands out, you can get a whole bunch of different heritage breeds, which will also give you a mixture of egg colors and sizes.
Make them a safe home.
Your chickens will need a coop and a run (totally enclosed roaming space). Both should be predator-proof yet well ventilated. You can build your own or buy one already made. If you let your chickens range in the yard, consider electric poultry netting that can be powered by a small solar cell for an extra layer of protection. Be wary of raccoons, foxes, coyotes, hawks, weasels, snakes (they eat eggs, not chickens), and your neighbors’ dogs and cats.
Get your chickens.
There are a couple of different ways you can get your chicks. There are a lot of large hatcheries in the U.S. that do mail order chicks. You get about a dozen, but you'll typically get a few that will arrive dead because you're shipping a live animal through the mail. Instead, in the spring, you can usually find them at a farm supply store, like Tractor Supply. Some local farms will also sell chicks. But if you're looking for a rare heritage breed, you're probably better off going to a local fair. Or, here in Maryland, there's the semiannual poultry swap, where people come to sell and trade all sorts of birds.
Do your chores.
A day in the life of a backyard chicken keeper you get up at sunrise to let them out of the coop and give them food and water and just make sure everyone looks alright. If you let them out to range in the afternoon, you'll keep an eye on them. They will put themselves away before dark, and you close them in. Collect eggs at least once a day. That’s pretty much it for daily chores. Once a week you should clean their coop out. A variety of health issues need to be dealt with as they come up, but keeping the area clean will help with prevention.
Keep them healthy.
A lot of keeping chickens healthy is prevention and sanitation. If an animal gets sick, you can certainly choose to seek out veterinarian care. But you have to find a vet that treats exotic animals, including livestock, and those are few and far between. We do a weekly mini check up on each chicken to monitor their health so that we can catch issues early on. We check them over to make sure everything looks good and we weigh them. Each bird takes about two minutes.
Meredith is a lecturer and advisor in Agricultural Business Management and Sustainable Agriculture. She's been keeping backyard chickens since 2008. You can follow her #chickensofcasabella on her Instagram account @djlittlefarmer.