Laying chickens are a great place to start your animal husbandry adventure. They are entertaining, relatively easy to keep, and flexible with space. I enjoy starting my day by saying good morning to my clutch of ladies and being gifted with an egg to scramble fresh. I am not an avian science expert, but the information in this section is based on more than 10 years of experience having chickens. My hope is to spark your interest in having your own backyard flock, and this information can help get you started.
There are many different ways to keep chickens, and there are so many resources out there that can support you. (Make sure to check the list of my favorite resources in the back of the book.) Chickens can live in small city backyards or free range in a large area. After the coop and run are set up, the cost of daily upkeep is relatively low. For me, the joy and food source our chickens provide are priceless.
A Day in the Life of a Chicken
We start our day by saying good morning to our ladies, check and make sure they look healthy, check their water and feed level and refill if necessary, feed them any food scraps we have, and collect their eggs. At this point, there’s the option of letting the chickens out into the yard to free range, but there’s also the constant risk of dogs and predators like raccoons. When evening comes around, we check to see if their feed or water needs refilling. We also check for any eggs that were laid since the morning, and then make sure everyone is in and close the coop for the night.
Once a month, we clean the coop. We clean the nesting boxes, add new straw, and shovel out from underneath. We clean out the waterer, rake the run, and then sprinkle a coop deodorizer all over the coop and run. All of these chores together take about an hour. the daily routine is sometimes thrown off if there’s a sick chicken or if something breaks and needs repair, which is inevitable. But for the most part, backyard chicken keeping is a quick and easy daily routine.
Preparing for Chickens
You will want to prepare and set everything up for your chickens before going out and getting them. the following information will cover general housing and maintenance.
Coops come in many different shapes and sizes, and are made from various materials. You can look around for scrap materials and build your own coop, buy one from a local feedstore, order a kit online and put it together yourself, or hire a carpenter for a custom build. The choice is up to you. It’s better for your birds to have more square footage inside the coop than less, but the rule of thumb is 4 square feet per bird.
The coop’s location should be considered before any building begins. Check out local rules and regulations to see how they will influence the location of the coop. Then, proximity to neighbors should be considered, as any neighborly conflicts can take the joy out of backyard chicken keeping. Even the cleanest of coops can smell, so you may want to put it somewhere where the smell won’t bother you or your neighbors—think downwind.
Pick a location that creates ease and convenience when collecting your eggs, checking on your ladies twice daily, and carrying the feed to fill their feeder. It helps to be close to a hose so you can install an automatic waterer, which saves you time and stress in the long run. Last, think about environmental factors like drainage and sun exposure. Work with what you have, and make a pro and con list for the location options before you start building.
A chicken’s day revolves around food. Once they start laying, your ladies need a wide range of food and a lot of it. They need to be healthy and filled with nutrients in order to provide you with nutritious eggs. Manufactured feed should be readily available to your flock. I use organic laying pellets, like Modesto Milling organic poultry layer pellets. For a healthy, happy chicken, you can also supplement their feed with oat hay, garden weeds, bugs from roaming outside, and some kitchen scraps. You can feed your chickens fruits, veggies, breads, yogurts, and cooked meat in small pieces. Do not feed your chickens anything moldy, avocado skin and pit, and rhubarb, or citrus.
To Free Range or Not to Free Range?
Chickens love to be let out to wander. It is not only great for their health and diet, but also stimulating to their brains. I find it helps overall well-being. The chickens will explore, look for bugs and grubs, scratch, and take dust baths, and it looks to me like they are truly loving their freedom. The downside I have found is it can make for a messy yard, they can get into your garden, they can poop wherever, and the chances of being attacked by a predator increase. A good compromise and trick I’ve learned is to let my flock out a couple hours before dusk. This way, they’ve most likely already laid their eggs in the nesting box, they don’t have too much time to make a big mess or get into trouble, and at dusk they’ll head back to their coop to roost for the night. As the head of your flock, the decision to let your chickens out is up to you, and you will find out what works by trial and error. I strongly recommend letting your chickens out several times a week. However, if their run is big enough and you decide not to let them out, make sure you supplement their store-bought feed with grit, greens, and crushed oyster shells for the chicken’s health and stimulation.
All photos by Sara Prince.