Raising Backyard Chickens

by Anna West

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There’s no doubt about it: over the last couple years, the popularity of having “pet chickens” and urban farms has been on the rise. Whether this is just a trend or people becoming more health conscious and realizing they can get their own delicious eggs at home, we are seeing more and more backyard garden boxes and chicken coops popping up where you’d least expect them. Having fresh eggs to make breakfast with each morning sounds great, but before you take the plunge and start your own urban/suburban mini farm, be sure to familiarize yourself with exactly what it takes to raise chickens in your backyard. How’s the weather? Do you have enough space? With the right conditions, raising your own chickens for eggs can be an extremely rewarding process.

Before You Get Chickens

From my experience, mental preparation and research before you ever bring the chickens home are just as important as the physical supplies you purchase for setup. I admit, when I decided to bring three chicks home, I not only didn’t mentally prepare, I also didn’t investigate the laws/ordinances in our area, something I now know is very important. Depending on where you live, the rules and regulations behind owning chickens may be very lenient, or they may be very strict. I would say my neighborhood fell somewhere in the middle. We have a very old HOA that does not allow chickens, but the city we live in does allow chickens in residential zones.

One major factor I didn’t know to investigate beforehand was the placement of the coop. We had custom-built an amazing coop for our chickens, but we placed it along a fence that we share with our neighbors. Our city requires the coop to be a certain distance from a property line and a certain distance from a main residence. Thankfully, we had the space to move the coop to a place where it was appropriate, but if our yard was any smaller that wouldn’t have been the case. I highly recommend checking out these rules before making the decision to get chickens!

The terrain of your yard is also something to consider before bringing your chicks home. Are you going to keep them in the coop? Or let them roam free in the yard? We chose to let ours free roam (and deal with the mess everyday), but we have a natural landscape in the back that lends itself nicely to having chickens. Chickens like to scratch the ground and search for bugs so if your yard is mostly paved, giving them space where they can dig might be harder to find.

Another important thing to consider before getting your chickens is breed. We were given our chickens by a relative so did not have much of a choice on breed, but I did look up the breed beforehand and saw that they are a smaller, friendly breed of chicken. Some chicken breeds are known not to be friendly, and others grow to be quite large! Depending on what you are looking for, looking into the breed prior to getting your chicks the same way you would look into getting a dog is something I highly recommend as well. The breed also determines when the chickens start to lay eggs. Some breeds are as quick as 5 to 6 months; others can take up to a year. Finally, chicks or chickens? As I mentioned, we got our chickens from a family member, so we brought them home at only 1 week old. This was fun, and they were very cute, but there is a lot of extra work that goes into raising chickens from chicks versus getting chickens that are already old enough to be outside.

The Chick Phase

If you do decide to bring your chickens home as chicks, they need to be kept inside at a controlled temperature for six weeks. Again, enjoying them during their cute, fluffy age is great, but having chicks in your garage or your home for 6 weeks is a big commitment. Our chicks started trying to fly out of the pen and were running around the garage at 4 weeks; at 6 weeks, we were desperate to get them outside.

Supplies

As far as pets go, I believe chickens require the smallest amount of supplies compared to a typical house cat or dog. You’ll need to make that initial investment, but once you’re all set up, chickens are inexpensive to maintain. If you choose to bring your chickens home as young chicks (under 6 weeks), you’ll need an indoor area where they can stay and keep warm. This requires a pen, shavings, food dispenser, food, water, and heating light. (Not so bad.) For the food dispenser, make sure you get something with a lid and small holes they can eat out of. Chickens are messy by nature, and they tend to like to sit (and do other things) in their food dish. For their food, chicks eat a special grain until they’re 6 months old. We asked our local feed store about it, and they were easily able to point us in the right direction. If you do choose to bring home chicks, they need to be inside for the first 6 weeks, after that they are able to live outside comfortably. Once the chicks go outside, the only major addition to the necessary supplies is a coop. Yes, this is the biggest purchase you will make for your chickens, but also the most fun! We chose to build a custom coop, but there are plenty of prefabricated new and used coops available online, many at a discount.

The “Teenage” Chicken

Each breed is different, but for us, this phase with our Ameraucanas was quite interesting. The teenage years, as we started calling them, only totaled a couple months, but they were the most trying on us thus far. First, with almost any breed, it’s impossible to tell if you have a rooster in the bunch until about 8 to 10 weeks. During those first 8 to 10 weeks, your chickens will naturally begin to work out their own pecking order. During this time, and as soon as we put them outside, our chickens started making a lot more noise and not getting along as seamlessly as they had inside. Every other day we were convinced that one or the other was a rooster, but we found out this confusion is totally normal and is simply your chickens working out who is dominant.

Nesting

Again, when your chickens begin to lay eggs will vary depending on the breed. Our breed of Ameraucanas were projected to start laying eggs around 6 months, which is why at barely 5 months, we were concerned about why our chickens were adamantly trying to come back into our house. We tried everything to keep them outside and, for our neighbors’ sake, we ended up letting them go back in the garage to keep them quiet. After a day or two of our dominant chicken making a constant ruckus, we discovered our first egg! We finally understood all the noisy racket, but we we still wondered why they wanted to lay eggs in the garage when they had a very nice coop outside. We finally realized our chickens wanted some privacy, so we added some dividers to their coop, and they were finally happy to remain there. Chickens lay different colored eggs, depending on their breed, and I recently read that a chicken will lay the exact same color egg its whole life. Our Ameraucanas are known as the “Easter egg” chicken—they lay eggs in pretty shades of blue and green.

So there you have it—a beginner’s tips on raising chickens in a suburban area. Overall, raising our backyard chickens has been an easy and pleasant experience, and we’ve enjoyed the benefit of having fresh eggs. If you’re looking to try it out for yourself, I highly recommend it … but do your research first!

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