Raising chickens is one of the easiest things you can do to increase your self-reliance. In addition to providing eggs and meat, chickens also fertilize your lawn and garden, and they are also entertaining. Talk about pets with benefits!
Before you make an impulse buy at the local farm supply store and bring home a few fluff-balls, you should do a little research. Think about why you really want chickens. Do you only want eggs? Or do you want to raise enough chickens to provide your family with meat for a year? Where will they live? Are you ready to make a commitment of up to 10 years, or are you willing to put old hens into a stew pot?
This beginner’s guide to raising chickens will help you ask yourself all the right questions, and it will also give you a realistic idea of what to expect as a chicken owner.
Table of Contents
Reasons for Raising Chickens
“Always begin with the end in mind,” is great advice when starting any new venture, and it applies to raising chicken as well. Do you want eggs or meat or both? This should be the first decision you make because it will help you choose the right breeds.
When we bought our first chickens, we were vegetarians who only wanted eggs. We had no plans to start eating chicken, but all that changed when we wound up with too many roosters, and they started fighting. Luckily we had heritage breed chickens, which are excellent dual-purpose chickens. The hen are good layers, and the young cockerels make a delicious chicken dinner.
Raising Chickens for Eggs
This is probably the most common reason that most people raise backyard chickens. They want fresh eggs from happy hens. And like any family pet, they can also teach your children valuable lessons in personal responsibility and caring for pets.
Eggs from free-range hens will also have darker yellow yolks, and many people say they taste better than store-bought eggs.
Before buying your first pullets (baby hens), determine how many eggs your family uses in a week. Then choose a breed (or breeds) that will produce about the right number of eggs.
Keep in mind that when you see estimates of how many eggs a breed lays, they are referring to the hen’s peak laying years. They start to slow down dramatically after age 3. We process our laying hens at that point because their production drops too low for us to be able to sell our eggs profitably.
But if you don’t plan to turn your hens into meat, are you okay with continuing to feed and care for them until they reach 10 years or older and are no longer laying?
How many eggs does a chicken lay?
This varies tremendously from one breed to another. Modern hybrids have been created for maximum egg production, but I’m not a fan because most of them are not very hardy. They tend to have a slender body type and don’t do well in extremes of heat and cold. Many people are attracted to them, however, by the promise of 280 eggs per year or more.
Dual-purpose chickens, which are usually heritage breeds, usually lay closer to 200 eggs per year, while some ornamental breeds can lay half that many.
Unless you are artificially lighting their hen house 365 days a year, however, the majority of those eggs will be laid in spring followed by summer, then with production decreasing in the fall, and very few or no eggs in the shortest days of winter.
We are happy to have a small number of eggs in winter because we know that once the days start getting longer in early March, the hens will all be laying 6 to 7 eggs per week for at least a couple of months before the hot weather of summer slows them down a bit.
How many hens do you need?
- If you use a dozen eggs per week or less, you can go with bantam chickens, which are smaller and lay eggs about half the weight of a large chicken egg. They are also not great layers, usually not laying more than 3-4 eggs per week during the spring and summer, so you could have four to six bantam hens. Or you could get some of the more ornamental breeds that have never been selectively bred for increased egg production.
- If you seriously want one to two dozen eggs per week, you can go with some of the standard size heritage breeds that lay medium or large eggs. Assuming about 5 eggs per hen per week, you would need five hens for about two dozen eggs.
Raising Meat Chickens
You have a couple of different options if you want to raise chickens for meat. You can start with day-old hybrid meat chickens, often called Cornish-cross by hatcheries because the Cornish breed was one that was used in the creation of the hybrid. This will give you the most meat in the shortest amount of time. Modern meat hybrid chicks grow to a dressed weight of 4 pounds by six to eight weeks of age.
Some people, however, prefer the flavor of heritage chickens, even though they will take about 4 months to grow to processing weight. They also will have a smaller breast than the modern meat hybrids, so if your favorite meat is breast meat, you might want to go with the Cornish cross.
Since we also raise our own beef, pork, lamb, goat, and turkey, we usually assume we’ll eat about one chicken per week, so every summer we raise 50 chickens for meat. We butcher them ourselves over the course of two to four weeks and freeze them for eating throughout the year.
It is also possible that some chickens will wind up in the stew pot, even if you had not originally planned to do that. Sometimes you keep a rooster so that you can get fertilized eggs for hatching, and the rooster turns out to be a jerk. Here’s a story one of my readers wrote about their decision to turn an unruly rooster into dinner.
If you are thinking of selling chicken meat, check out my post on poultry processing options.
Best Backyard Chicken Breeds
Personally I’m a huge fan of heritage breeds of chickens. Although you can get more meat faster from Cornish-cross hybrids, and you can get more eggs from modern egg-laying hybrids, I love the dual-purpose nature of most heritage chickens, as well as their hardiness.
I’ve known lots of people through the years who’ve had the modern egg-laying hybrids, and when we get sweltering humid temperatures in the 90s, quite a few have had hens just drop dead in the heat. Since they are bred for production and to be in a controlled environment, no one factored in their ability to withstand high temperatures and humidity (or not) when selectively breeding them.
If you decide you want the fast-growing Cornish-cross meat hybrids, be aware that you cannot let them eat as much as they want, or they will die. They will literally eat themselves to death. Every hatchery I’ve seen that sells them tells you to remove their feed for 12 hours overnight every day starting at day 3. We didn’t do this with our first batch, and we had a dead chick on day 6. And if you live at a high altitude, they are even less hardy.
What is a dual purpose chicken?
Historically, our ancestors had the chicken breeds that we now refer to as heritage chickens. Hens laid eggs, and about once a year, usually in spring or summer, hens would get the urge to start a family.
They’d hide their eggs, and when they had enough, they’d sit on them for 21 days until the chicks hatched. Then the Mama Hen would keep them warm and teach them the ropes of being a chicken. After a few months, the farmer would be able to tell which ones were males, and they’d turn them into dinner. They’d keep the females as future layers. And the cycle would start over again.
This is basically how we do things on our farm. However, since very few hens get broody these days, we use an incubator to hatch our replacement layers and future dinner entrees.
How much do chickens cost?
The cost of chickens is deceptively low. You can buy day-old chicks for only a few dollars plus shipping, if you are ordering them from an online hatchery. Or if you walk into your local farm supply store in spring, you don’t even have to pay for shipping.
However, you should also factor in the cost of housing and fencing, if you don’t already have something appropriate for them, as well as the cost of feeding them.
Raising Chickens for Beginners: Things to Consider
Before you buy your first chicks, there are a few things to consider, such as
- Do you have a local source for purchasing chicken feed?
- Do you have time to care for chickens?
- Are you willing to make a 10-year commitment to owning chickens, or are you willing to turn old hens into stew meat?
- Do you have space for a chicken yard, or can the chickens free range?
- Do you have a chicken coop, or can you buy or build one?
- How will you keep your chickens safe from predators?
The following information will help you figure out the answers to these questions, but first find out if it is legal for you to keep chickens in your yard. Some rural residents are surprised to learn that chickens are prohibited in their area, while some city dwellers are equally surprised to find that they can legally keep chickens. In other words, there is no logic to whether or not an area allows chickens. I’ve even heard of some subdivisions where horses are allowed but no other livestock! You need to call your city or country and find out.
Check out this story from one of my readers who lives in Chicago and has a backyard flock of layers.
Caring for Chickens
If you can take care of a house cat, then you can care for chickens. They need feed and water daily, and then you have to deal with their poop.
If you have chickens in a bottomless, moveable pen, often called a “chicken tractor,” Mother Nature takes care of the poop for you because the chickens are basically fertilizing your grass. You move it daily so that the poop doesn’t build up and the chickens don’t kill the grass.
If you have a more traditional chicken coop, you’ll have litter in there, and you’ll have to clean out the coop on a regular basis, depending upon how fast it gets dirty (which depends on how many chickens you have per square foot).
Litter for chickens is usually wood shavings (not wood chips used in landscaping) or chopped straw, which can all be put into your compost pile whenever you clean out the coop.
Depending upon how large your feeder and waterer are and how many chickens you have, you may only need to do those chores once a day. Even if you have a waterer that will hold more water than your chickens can consume in a day, I’d still recommend checking it to be sure that no one has pooped in it or moved it so that it’s off balance, which could cause all of the water to leak out.
Keep in mind that if a chicken ever gets sick, you may have a challenge finding a vet. Since chickens are considered “food animals” in the veterinary world, there isn’t much research on treating individual animals for diseases. Typically the answer is to cull a sick a chicken — and sometimes the entire flock if it has a very contagious disease. If you want to see a vet, look for an avian vet, which is one that specializes in birds.
Luckily chickens are very healthy birds, and it’s not that hard to prevent the top five causes of chicken death.
In terms of communicable diseases with chickens, it’s easy to keep your chickens healthy if you only purchase day-old chicks from certified disease-free hatcheries. Then keeping a closed flock is one of the best ways to insure your chickens stay healthy. There is an old veterinary saying that all health problems are bought and sold.
This is one of the best chicken health reference books, if you’d like to have a place to look for reliable information on chicken health.
How to Start Your Backyard Flock
Once you’ve decided it’s time to start your backyard flock, you’ll need to build or buy a coop, then build a run if your chickens won’t be free range. And finally you’ll need to buy all of the other little supplies before bringing home your first chicks.
Your Backyard Chicken Coop
How much space do chickens need? That depends on whether you want your chickens to simply survive or if you want them to be happy.
How do you know if your chickens are happy? Because they are not trying to kill each other. Every person who has ever come to me with a cannibalism problem has tried to keep too many chickens in an area that was too small.
Chickens that produce cheap eggs for grocery stores are kept in cages with less than 1 square foot per bird, and they are debeaked so that they can’t peck each other to death. Obviously, you want your chickens to have more room than that. Unfortunately there are a lot of pre-made coops that still don’t give chickens enough room.
Keep in mind that if your chickens are free range, the coop does not have to be as big as it should be if they only have a small run.
For example, we’ve had 80 chickens in a 240-square-foot chicken house, but the door was open every day, and they could run all over our yard, essentially giving them as much room as they wanted during the day.
On the flip side, when our daughter went off to college, she wanted chickens in her backyard, so we built her this chicken tractor, which worked well for four hens. It was 8 by 4 feet (32 square feet), which is 8 square feet per bird. Rather than letting the hens run around all over her backyard, she moved the pen daily.
Here is an example of a chicken coop that sits in one place and has a chicken run.
Inside the coop, you’ll need a roost where the chickens will spend the night. You should have about 12 to 18 inches per bird roost space to keep everyone happy.
You should also have a minimum of two nest boxes, regardless of how many hens you have because you never know when one will get the urge to lay when someone else is in the nest box. If you have more than 8 or 10 hens, you’ll need about one nest box for every 4-6 hens. (For more on this subject, check out our post on Chicken Nesting Boxes: Guide to Purchasing or DIY)
Does your coop need to be insulated? Not unless you live in northern Alaska or Canada or somewhere else equally cold where you see temperatures at -10 degrees Fahrenheit on a regular basis. In fact, many people kill their birds with kindness because if you insulate the coop, you will trap ammonia and humidity, which means lung problems and frozen combs and wattles. Here are more details about what chickens need in winter.
If you read that article and you’re thinking, “but what about ____? Do chickens need that in winter?” The answer is probably no. I wrote this article about all the things people have asked me about, which chickens do not need in winter.
If you have a farm and a few acres, and you plan to have a large flock, you may want to create a Henmobile, which is a chicken house on a trailer. I’ve even known people to turn an old camper into a portable hen house!
Here’s a video that shows you how a portable hen house works and how we move it.
Assess Your Chicken Yard
Chickens love to run around and catch bugs and dig in the dirt. There really is no such thing as too much room. But you do need to keep your chickens safe from passing cars and predators. If your yard is not fenced, you should consider some type of fencing to keep chickens from wandering into the road and to keep predators from getting a free lunch.
One of the first lessons we learned about chickens and gardens is that there needs to be a fence between the two. If your chickens are free range, then you need a fence around the garden. If you have a garden and are wondering how chickens can help or hinder your efforts, here is an article about gardening with chickens.
But chickens (and their manure) can provide a great contribution to your garden. Here’s a video that shows you how our chickens help us garden.
When and Where to Buy Chickens
Most people think of buying chicks in the spring, but there are some good reasons to get future layers in the fall.
I have purchased all of my chickens from certified disease-free hatcheries, which I highly recommend. If you start with healthy chicks, you will have very few health problems.
I don’t recommend buying hatching eggs through the mail because I know almost no one who has ever had a decent hatch rate with mailed eggs. In fact, I quit selling eggs through the mail many years ago because I had too many unhappy customers, and I knew the eggs were good because I was hatching them here. (For further info, see Buying Chicks: 8 Sources + Pro Tips!)
When you buy day-old chicks, you will need to keep them in a brooder for several weeks until they are fully feathered out and can control their body temperature. I heard a horrible story in 2020 of a many who purchased 300 chicks early in the pandemic and had no idea he needed to keep them in a brooder — obviously they all died.
If your brooder uses a heat lamp for warmth, be sure to read this article about heat lamp safety with chickens and other livestock.
Ready to Get Started Raising Backyard Chickens?
Just in case you need help naming your chickens, here’s a list of 500+ funny chicken names.
Feeding chickens is simpler than feeding dogs and cats because you just buy a prepared feed at the store. However, you won’t have nearly as many choices as you do for dog and cat food. If you have chicks, you’ll need a chick starter, which is usually 22-24% protein. Once your chicks grow up and start laying, you switch them to a layer feed, which is usually 16% protein.
Most people who try to raise chickens without a commercial layer feed wind up with very low egg production. However, I do know one person who has been successfully feeding his chickens without purchased feeds.
How long do eggs stay fresh?
If you wash them and refrigerate them, they will be “good” for months, but the air pocket will get bigger as the egg dehydrates (loses moisture through the shell, which is porous). If you don’t wash them and leave them at room temperature, they will only last a few weeks.
Do you need a rooster for hens to lay eggs?
Nope! Laying an egg is basically a chicken’s version of ovulating, which happens in all females regardless of whether or not a male is present. However, if you don’t have a rooster, the eggs won’t hatch because they have not been fertilized. If you want to be able to hatch your chicks, then you’ll need a rooster for about every 10 hens. If you have too many roosters, they will wind up fighting.
Do chickens lay eggs every day?
During the spring and summer, some hens do lay every day or almost every day. However, this can vary a lot depending upon breed. There are a lot of perfectly normal reasons why your hens may stop laying or less fewer eggs.
What’s the difference between chicken and duck eggs?
Duck eggs are bigger and yolkier. This article goes into more details about the differences between chicken and duck eggs.
Can I keep chickens and turkeys together?
A lot of people think that this combination is forbidden — end of story! But not so fast! I had actually never heard this when we got started, and since I had seen chickens and turkeys on my grandparents farm when I was a child, it never crossed my mind that there would be anything wrong with doing that.
Chickens and turkeys can often live together on the same farm without issue. However, if your chickens happen to have blackhead, which does not make them sick, then your turkeys could get it and die because the disease is often fatal to turkeys.
Can I keep chickens with goats?
Although goats and chickens get along fine, goats should not have access to chicken grain because too much can make them sick and even kill them. Here is a podcast episode I did about keeping chickens and goats together.
Want to learn more fun facts about chickens?
Check out these 8 fun facts about chickens!
What are the best books about caring for chickens?
This article lists my 9 favorite books about chickens.
Click here to visit our Amazon store, which includes lists of things chickens need, as well as our favorite chicken books!