We are focusing on eating whole, healthy foods that are not contaminated by GMOs or chemicals that while allowed in the United States are not proven healthy and are linked to diseases. The best way that we can do that is to raise our own food, and we love backyard farming, but what about meat and eggs? That’s where chickens come into play! My family first started raising chickens back when I was in grade school, and while cleaning out the chicken coop was never my favorite chore, the supply of fresh eggs is definitely something that I love. While backyard chickens are fairly trendy right now, the truth is that for the smart, prepared backyard farmer, backyard chickens are easy.
There has been some serious backlash against the idea of people raising backyard chickens recently because of the huge numbers of chickens that are being dropped off at animal shelters and humane societies. At a single sanctuary, there have been over 5,000 chickens dropped off in the first part of this year. Not everyone is fit to be a chicken keeper, but if you do your research ahead of time, have realistic expectations of the time, cost, and effort of keeping chickens, and understand the hard parts of the practice, you’ll find that backyard chickens are easy.
Just about everyone knows that chickens require a coop, food, and water – just like any other animal, but with chickens there are few other items that you’ll need to consider. With the help of Gretchen Anderson, author of The Backyard Chicken Fight, and Tobi Kosanke from Crazy K Farm (a non-profit organization that provides shelter and rehoming for rescued, abused, abandoned, and homeless poultry and other livestock), we’ve compiled this list of facts that you need to know about backyard chickens:
- Chickens need space.
A good rule of thumb is: 4-square feet per bird in the coop and 8-square feet per bird in the run. The more space they have, the happier they will be.
- Chickens need care.
Like any other animal you keep, you need to take care of your chickens. Unlike dogs, they are more labor intensive in their care – you need to make sure they have food, water, shelter that is not accessible by predators, and a clean coop. Consider the time requirements that it will take to do all of these tasks and collect eggs before you commit to raising chicks. If one of your hens becomes ill, you’ll also need to take her to the vet and possibly give her medication if her illness requires it.
- Backyard chickens are not the cheap option for eggs or meat.
New coopmasters should understand that you will put in more money for your backyard eggs than if you bought eggs from the store and certainly if you were to slaughter the chicken the cost of dinner would be enormous compared to that of a store bought chicken.
- Plan your purchase.
When you’re considering backyard chickens, make sure you plan ahead for costs – a purchased coop can cost up to hundreds of dollars (but there are ways to make them yourself if you’re into DIY). Chicken feed can be expensive, and non-GMO feed can cost three times as much. We recommend that you visit the NonGMO Shopping Guide to find a GMO-free chicken feed. The veterinary expenses of chickens can also be pricey – some backyard coopmasters are now purchasing pet health insurance to help defray the costs. Tobi reported that she is paying $12 a month for insurance on each chicken in her flock.
- Chicks must mature before they lay eggs.
When you are planning to buy chicks, don’t forget to add in the time that it will take for them to be ready to lay eggs – mark out five months on your calendar. While some breeds like Rhode Island Reds and Leghorns mature earlier and will start to lay in their fourth month, others like a Brahma or a Welsummer will take all five months and then some! Once chickens begin to lay, they will produce an egg every 24-to-26 hours during the first three years of life. They’ll take off a day or two, but you can mostly count on lots of eggs during their first 36 months of life. After that, they slowly taper off. Also, keep in mind they don’t lay eggs when they go into a moult (that’s when they lose their feathers and grow new plumage).
- Chickens will not lay eggs forever.
The average life span for a chicken is 13-to-15 years. They’ll continue to lay eggs – though sporadically. You’ll need to have an exit strategy for each chicken in your flock. When your hens stop laying or stop laying as often, you may want to replace her with a younger bird – especially if your city or town ordinance says you can only have a small number of chickens. Most people do not want to keep paying for the feed and care of chickens that are not producing. So what will you do? One option is to use the bird for meat or to prepare stock, you’ll need to consider what options you have and what you feel comfortable doing with your bird. Many people consider their chickens pets and would have a very hard time using a bird for meat or stock that they have named!
- Chickens need space.
Now that you are armed with these tips about chickens, you can see that with foresight and planning backyard chickens are easy! The hardest part is to plan ahead – once you know your options and costs, you can allocate the funds your coop and chickens will need, buy supplies, and chickens. The rewards of backyard chickens are amazing – you are able to choose what food they eat so that you’ll know what is in your eggs and meat, and you’ll have the freshest eggs around!