It's easy to get stuck in the contemplation stage of the decision to get backyard chickens. Since we got ours there are a few people who have told me every six months or so they want to pick my brain about having chickens. The truth is, it's kind of like having a baby; you can research forever, but it's having the little tiny beings and keeping them alive that really teaches you what you need to know.
It's been a year since our hens started laying, and about a year and a half since we got our first chicks. I can say with confidence, having had cats, dogs, fish, birds, rodents, lizards, and snakes as pets over the course of my life that our chickens are the pet I most enjoy having.
I can't say we have quite the same emotional bond with our chickens that we had with our dog, but the difficulty to attachment ratio is way better on chickens. Dogs give more love, but they are exactly eighty thousand times more work. Chickens are the perfect easy pet, like, easier than fish. Especially because we have pet hair/dander allergies in our family, chickens have been the perfect way to make sure our kiddo still grows up loving and caring for pets.
Needless to say, we're chicken converts. Here's the basics of what we've learned so far:
1. Chickens need very little space, a pretty minimal setup, and not a lot of maintenance.
If your chickens are able to free range during the day, they only need 4 square feet of run space per chicken. If they aren't able to free range during the day, they need 10 square feet of run per chicken. We have three chickens, so our chickens technically only need a 3'x10' area. They sleep on a roost, which is really just a horizontal stick raised off the ground. You only need one nesting box (where they lay their eggs) per 3-4 birds. You can get a totally sufficient coop for a few backyard hens for $200ish from places like Tractor Supply. This article has a great overview of the basics of chicken coop components.
Our coop is half of our garden shed, which we framed in and walled off from the rest of the shed with chicken wire. We have a single roost, and one nesting box. We built an automatic feeder out of PVC like this one. We set them up with a five gallon bucket for water with poultry cups in the side of it.
We have a run for them made of regular fence posts and chicken wire, that they can access from their coop. They put themselves to bed at night. When we go away, we have someone check on them every two days, and they get paid with eggs!
We have a chicken tractor, which is just a portable small chicken run we can put them in during the day. From inside they can eat plants and bugs all over the yard. It's made from a $35 greenhouse frame, and chicken wire. This allows the chickens a varied diet while staying safe.
We practice the deep litter method of chicken bedding, so we get a big block of wood chips every few months, and once a week or so we make sure the chips are getting stirred around. Every six months we shovel out the whole coop and add the chips to our compost. The coop doesn't smell, and it doesn't attract flies.
2. Having chickens pays for itself.
The only real expenses of having the chickens are the wood chips and grain. Nine months out of the year when the ground isn't frozen solid, the chickens are out eating bugs and plants in the yard, and they go through a $15 bag of grain every three months or so. In the winter the same bag lasts a month and a half or two months. The wood chips are really a negligible cost, probably $20 a year.
We have three chickens, and every two days we get half a dozen of the freshest and most local, organic, free range eggs you could ask for. A dozen eggs of this quality costs $4-6 at the store, which means our chickens lay about $38 worth of eggs a month. In the winter egg production slows down a lot, but by keeping an incandescent lightbulb on during the day in the coop, they did keep laying. We did specifically choose breeds of chicken that are cold hardy layers.
3. Hand raising chicks is really worthwhile. (vs buying full grown or teenage birds, known as pullets)
Of our three chickens, we raised two by hand ourselves, and the other one came to us from another home. The two we raised are happy to have us pick them up, and will let our toddler pet them, and when they are allowed to free range in the yard will run to greet us. Our other chicken is considerably more skittish, and does not like us to pick her up. My kiddo thinks it's pretty hilarious watching us when we occasionally have to chase her from the chicken tractor back to the coop in the evening, but overall, the chickens we've had since they were babies are much friendlier.
Like with any animal, you should wash your hands after touching your chickens, and so should your children. With backyard hens who have clean and regularly monitored living conditions, the risk of contracting salmonella is extremely low.
We got our chicks at 10 days old, and we had them in a dog crate inside with a heat lamp for the first few weeks, we slowly weaned them off the heat lamp, and they moved outside once they had their adult feathers, which allow them to trap air next to their bodies and keep warm. This was honestly the messiest part of having chickens, because it needed to happen inside, but it was over pretty quickly, and the baby chicks were adorable.
4. There are predators to protect them from even in urban and suburban areas.
We lost two of our original chickens to a domestic dog attack, by a neighbor dog who snuck in under our fence. There are also hawks, which can get chickens even in the best fenced in yards. We've heard of foxes in our neighborhood as well. This is why we now choose to use the chicken tractor instead of having the chickens free range in the yard. I was heartbroken when we lost our two girls, and I definitely blamed myself for not understanding the predator risks in our residential neighborhood.
5. Winter wasn't as big of a deal as we thought it would be.
I do think the chickens probably got bored, but the cold itself wasn't that big of a challenge. The heat is actually much more dangerous for chickens. The biggest difficulty with winter was bringing them water everyday, because their usual waterer would freeze solid. This article has a lot of great tips for cold weather chicken care. My kiddo loved coming out to the coop with me on my back everyday to check on them, whatever the weather; it was a good way to make sure we both got outside everyday.
I hope this has given you the information you need to move out of the contemplation stage and on to getting set up with your own urban, suburban, or country backyard chickens! If you're not sure if you're allowed to have chickens in your area, check with your local zoning board.
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