The Chicken Checklist

Have you ever thought about getting chickens? It's one of the easiest hobby farm animals to raise. Not only are they easy to manage, but you can even put them to work eating bugs and weeds, not to mention getting eggs.

If your local ordinances allow it, and many do now, you can start out simply and cheaply. 

Let's start with housing. The average indoor space per chicken is 2 x 3 foot which equals 6 square feet. We'll assume you'll want to start small, so if you start with five birds, they'll need 30 square feet, or a 5 x 6 foot coop.

For their outside run, (if they're not allowed to forage) you'll want to give them a little exercise space outside their coop.

We have a LOT of coyotes, raccoons, and hawks constantly hunting for a free meal so we no longer allow our birds to forage. (More's the pity.) We built an aviary, protecting them on all sides including the top. Most suburban property owners won't have the predators we do so you might be able to let them forage during the day and put them up at night.

That said, they'll gladly put themselves up at night if you keep them penned up for a few weeks after you get them. Once they know the coop is home, they'll always go back.

I don't recommend the enclosures sold at Tractor Supply or big box stores. They're just too flimsy for long term use. It won't stop a determined predator either.

If you can't build your own, recycle. I've seen people make chicken coops out of old children's playhouses, battered gazebos, even old trampolines (by fencing the underside of the trampoline). 

My very first coop was a rickety, old outbuilding that hadn't been used in 25 years. We opened up one side and tacked wire fencing for light and ventilation. We kept seven chickens in there and they were quite happy. 

Our winters are mild. For colder regions you'll want to build a coop with more insulation value. Just don't forget the ventilation. It's very important.

Food. I would love to let mine forage, but because of my predator problem that's not feasible. Instead, I gather all the weeds I've pulled and give them huge buckets of juicy greens. I know which are their favorites so I seek those out first.

The next easiest way to feed them is commercial chicken food. Any feed store clerk can tell you what to feed depending on age or purpose. Egg layers and meat birds have different protein requirements.

Chickens are omnivorous. I often give them scraps. If I have leftover grease from a roast, I'll ladle it over their dry feed and they gobble it up like candy. It's only given as an occasional treat. It's not like we have roast every other day. LOL!

Do not feed anything from the nightshade family--particularly the leafy portions. Also no rhubarb leaves, avocado, or citrus. 

Lastly, always make sure they have fresh water. 

Breed: I have raised so many different breeds and I've learned one thing. No matter what the breed is known for, whether it's docility or egg production, each bird is an individual. I've had buff orpingtons, considered to be gentle giants, yet most of mine were bullies and ate far more than they produced. They are beautiful though, so if you like divas...

Read up, decide what traits are important to you and start from there. Just be aware that they're all unique and won't necessarily follow every detail in the book.

If you're a beginner wanting to learn the ropes, start with bantams, Australorps, or Ameraucanas. All three are easy going birds in my experience.

If you want big egg production go with White Leghorn, Rhode Island Reds, Sussex, New Hampshire Reds, or Ameraucanas.

If you want excellent foragers go with Plymouth Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, Wyandottes, Sussex, and Leghorns.

About Eggs: Some breeds are better than others for high production of eggs. If this is your main reason for keeping chickens, go for the high producers. Remember too that you have to help. Egg layers need more calcium to make those eggs. Good layers will give you one egg every other day.

The best eggs I ever got were from chickens that were allowed to forage or those who ate my hand-pulled weeds and every grub or grasshopper I encountered.

If you want to make a chicken your friend, give them grasshoppers, grubs, mealworms, and earthworms. They will come running every time they see you.

I guarantee you that any egg produced from your chickens will be far better tasting than any you buy in the store.

Egg laying life: For the best production, most people keep hens for about 3 years. I've kept them longer on occasion. Older birds lay larger eggs, but they're not as prolific as they once were. 

Noise: Chickens are relatively quiet. Only the rooster crows and usually only to tell other roosters he's the big cheese in town. You don't need a rooster to get eggs. You only need him if you want fertile eggs for incubating. Roosters are also good for protecting his hens, especially if you let them forage. He always keeps a watchful eye for danger.

Smell: Manure happens, but that's a good thing. If it's getting ripe in the coop you've let it stay dirty too long. Keep it clean. Not only will the eggs stay clean, but your chickens will be healthier too. I used to use hay in the chicken coop, but I've switched to pine chips. It seems to stay cleaner longer and it's easier to sweep up. 

Shovel it up and toss it in the compost pile. Don't use fresh chicken manure in the garden. Let it age a year before using.

Harvesting: If you're just raising chickens for pets, you'll probably never cull them. But egg layers have a prime production life and you might think about replacing them every 3 years. Meat chickens have an even shorter life. You'll want to harvest them at 3-4 months.

If you bought chicks, chances are you'll have more roosters than you want. It's never smart to keep more than one rooster. They generally fight or make a racket. Here again, you'll have to cull the unwanted birds.

From my experience, killing a chicken is not hard, but plucking it is tedious. There are numerous YouTube videos on how to kill and pluck a chicken. Word of warning, unless you culled him at a young age, he might be too tough to eat. Still, they always make excellent broth.

Entertainment: Watch them long enough and you can pick up personality traits from each chicken. You'll end up with favorites too.

Chickens truly are the easiest and most adaptable animals to raise whether you have a backyard or acreage. They're useful. They're funny. And they're the gateway drug to other farm animals. For a beginner, there's nothing easier or more entertaining.


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B.E. Sanderson said…
Excellent post, Maria! Thank you. I think we've decided not to dip into the whole animal thing. Living beings require a full time commitment. If we neglect a garden, no harm no foul, but neglecting animals is cruel. Still, if we ever did decide to make that commitment, this post is an excellent source. =o)
Jackie said…
Maria our chickens were Mutts all except one Rhode Island Red Rooster Mom got free from an elderly neighbor.

That boy was the biggest softie around, literally and figuratively, as he was a pet as well as a good source of fertilization for Mom's multitude of hens.
Maria Zannini said…
BE: That's true. My family never seems to understand that we're tied to our farm animals. It's not easy to find a caretaker.

Chickens are the least trouble though. We have automatic water for them and we can leave them for several days without worry.
Maria Zannini said…
Jackie: Our first chicken was a rooster we found wandering our neighborhood (in the city!). I think he might've been for cockfighting, but he was always a nice little bird.

Our hens came from a poultry farm. They get rid of all their layers after their first year. I got six for a dollar a piece.

I learned about chickens from them. They were nice birds.
Jenny Schwartz said…
Maria, your post reminded me of the scrap bucket we had as a kid. It was an adjustment in life post-chickens to have to just bin food. All those yummy scraps the chickens would race up to gobble :)
Maria Zannini said…
Jenny: I think of the dogs the same way. LOL! If I'm tired of roast beef or ham, they're happy to take it off my hands.
Gwen Gardner said…
We inherited chickens once. Loved the eggs but hated cleaning up the poop ;)
On another note, our daughter had a rooster named Chocolate Milk (she was very young LOL) which was kept at her uncle's place. The meanest rooster ever. Every time he went to get the eggs he had to take a trashcan lid for protection. It was actually hilarious :)
Maria Zannini said…
Gwen: I've had only one mean rooster in my life. He was not long for this world with that attitude.
Mike Keyton said…
Maria, I’ve resigned myself to never keeping chickens
Maria Zannini said…
Mike: My motto is the less you own, the less things own you. Goes for chickens too.