Are you preparing for chickens? I help people get started with their first chicken flocks all the time (crazy chicken-lady here!) and I want to share with you all the advice that I usually dish out in person.
One of the easiest commercial foods to replace is eggs; making chickens one of the first animal additions for any farm or homestead, whether it be rural or urban. Chickens are relatively cheap to feed and very easy to care for. They provide us with eggs, meat, and nitrogen-rich fertilizer. And chicken TV, of course.
There are some things that you should do to prepare before you bring home those little peeping balls of fluff.
Preparing for Chickens
Make sure that it’s okay to keep chickens where you live.
If you’re living in a city then you’ll have to follow the local laws regarding backyard chickens. More and more towns are allowing chickens to be kept in the backyard. However, there will likely be limits on the number of birds you can keep and most cities do not allow you to keep roosters.
If you’re in the country then you can pretty much keep as many chickens, including roosters, that you want. However, it’s still a good idea to check and make sure especially if you’re on smaller acreage.
Decide on the primary purpose for your chicken flock.
Defining the main purpose that you want your chickens to serve is a very important step to take before deciding on breeds.
- Will your chickens be livestock, pets, or maybe a bit of both? Basically, you need to decide if you will be eating or otherwise culling hens that no longer lay or will you be caring for them for the rest of their relatively long, non-productive lives? In our own flock the majority are livestock that will be culled with a handful of pets that will live out their natural lifespan.
- Do you want them to lay eggs, produce meat, brood eggs (make more chickens), or just for pets? A chicken can’t be excellent at everything! The best layers produce less meat and won’t go broody. The best pet chickens are often the most broody and better suited for producing meat than eggs.
Decide on a retirement plan for old hens.
At some point in every hen’s life she’ll stop producing a worthwhile amount of eggs. What’s your plan for your old hens? This is an especially important decision if you’re living somewhere where the number of chickens you can keep is limited. Plan for the retirement of each hen, whether that be them living out their natural lifespan or being turning into nutritious and flavorful broth.
Decide on what to do with extra roosters.
Sexing chicks is as much an art as a science. At best, sexing accuracy is roughly 95% which means that at some point you’re likely going to end up with a Henry instead of a Henrietta. What will you do with a rooster or even multiple roosters? This is especially important if you live somewhere where you can’t keep roosters or if you don’t have enough hens to maintain a healthy female-to-male ratio.
Some things to keep in mind if you have a rooster that you need to get rid of:
- Most people don’t want to pay money for a rooster.
- Most people who want your free rooster will be having him for dinner.
Decide on whether you’ll free-range or not.
The best chickens for free-ranging are highly alert, reactive, and excellent fliers. The best chickens for coop-and-run management are docile birds who will tolerate close quarters. There are chickens that fall in between that will do fine in either management style.
Choose the chicken breeds that you’re most interested in keeping.
There are many hundreds of chicken breeds plus different color or comb varieties of most of those breeds. It can be both overwhelming and fun picking out potential breeds to have in your flock.
Some things to keep in mind when choosing breeds:
- What purpose did you decide on for your chicken flock?
- Does your climate require a chicken that is cold or heat hardy?
- Will you be free-ranging your flock or will they spend most (or all) of their time in a coop and run?
Decide on how many to chickens to get for your flock.
If you’re just keeping a flock of chickens for pets then you can keep as many as you would like, but I would recommend no less than 3 chickens. They are social animals and need the company of other chickens to be happy.
For a flock that is being kept primarily for egg production look to keep 2 hens for every 1 person eating eggs AND plan to add new pullets to your flock each spring while retiring the oldest hens each fall.
For a flock that is being kept for meat production you have 2 options:
- Raise out enough broilers from a hatchery each year to meet your needs. These can be raised in multiple batches throughout the year or in one big batch. Most people raise between 50 – 100 for a year’s worth of meat.
- Raise and breed your own meat flock, keeping in mind that carcass size, quality, and growth rate will be very poor for at least 3 years (assuming you’re selecting for improvement each year) and will never match that of a commercial broiler (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing!). Start with at least 2 roosters and 12 hens and hatch their eggs heavily through the spring and summer.
Broody chickens are usually kept as a subflock within your flock. Breeds that go broody frequently typically make excellent pets or are one of the heavier breeds that are good for meat production.
Build your chicken coop and run.
Chickens require a minimum of 4 square feet in the coop per large fowl or 2 square feet per bantam. The run needs to have at least 10 square feet per large fowl or 5 square feet per bantam. These numbers are an absolute minimum and I would not suggest ever having higher stocking rates for any significant amount of time. Keeping chickens stocked too densely encourages the spread of disease and parasites and increases the chances of malnutrition and cannibalism.
My own stocking rate is usually 8-10 square feet in the coop per large fowl and 30 – 35 square feet in the run per large fowl.
Inside the coop you’ll need to provide at least 1 foot of roosting space per chicken and at least 1 nest box for every 5 hens. Don’t be surprised if your hens all use the same 1 or 2 nest boxes though!
Get your supplies.
For a small flock you’ll need a feeder and waterer, a first aid kit, feed, and oyster shells. For a larger flock you want to make sure that you have multiple feed and water stations setup so everyone in the flock can get food and water. This is especially true if you have multiple roosters in a flock as each rooster will have his own territory.
Read up on chicken terminology and common illnesses.
If one of your chickens gets ill or injured it’s important to be able to accurately describe the issue so that you can get help. You can learn chicken lingo here and my guide to common health problems here.
Order your chicks.
Most hatcheries and many breeders start accepting orders for the next year’s chicks in December. Ordering early allows you to have the best choice of shipping dates for the breed(s) you want. If I do order chicks I typically try to have my order figured out soon after Thanksgiving so it’s ready to go when hatcheries/breeders open up for ordering.