Raising Chickens: It Really CAN Be All It’s Cracked Up to Be
by Joanna Miller
I began raising chickens for eggs and meat in 2014. By 2019, I had developed a routine of what I ordered when. I had a set time of year for when I would order chicks. In 2020, when I set out to order my late-summer batch of birds, I realized I would have to wait more than a month later than usual. Every hatchery I looked at had sold out.
When I went to our local hardware store to talk to the employees about their chick sales, they confirmed what the New York Times had written in the article America Stress-Bought All the Baby Chickens. People were snatching up chicks as fast as they could in the midst of lockdown. They turned to baby chicks last year for the same reasons they turned to gardening and home cooking. A combination of boredom, irregular stocking of grocery stores, and the need for activities to keep children busy led to massive amounts of people buying baby chicks.
While in general, I think any project that brings people closer to the natural world is a good thing, chickens are a responsibility. I am concerned about how many people bought baby birds without doing the necessary research.
Are you interested in starting your own little home flock?
If you are considering raising chickens, here are some things worth keeping in mind. For a good overview of maintaining healthy birds in general, I strongly recommend Gail Damerow’s Chicken Health Handbook. She has useful, detailed information on bird health and some handy charts that can help troubleshoot various issues. It’s a great resource to have on hand.
Depending on your climate, you will probably need to keep chicks inside most of the time until their adult feathers come in, at about five weeks. That may change if you have a larger quantity of birds. But in general, I’ll assume people will start with a little backyard flock of four to six birds.
Before you buy chicks, go to the hardware store where chicks are sold and look at how they set up the areas where they keep the birds. The stores near me usually have a round watering tank, with wood shavings in the bottom and a heat lamp.
Decide what works best for you and set it up before you buy the chicks
Cages can work well, but the round watering tank has some specific advantages. The solid sides keep heat in, and the round shape makes it impossible for a baby bird to wedge itself in a corner. Of course, if you also have a pet cat inside your house, as I do, you’ll need to cover the top. I have a chicken wire piece I’ve cut to the correct size and placed that over the top so my cat can’t start any trouble.
Be sure you are diligent about keeping the babies warm. In the past, I’ve placed a birdcage inside a huge cardboard box to help retain heat, which worked well. I cut the top off the box to observe the birds easily. That also helps airflow and prevents fires from the heat lamp. Having the sides of the box surround the cage helped keep the birds warm. Here’s some more information on raising baby chicks on a budget.
Where will you keep them when they get old enough to go outside?
You will need to plan where you will keep them outside when they are old enough. How you design your outdoor coop depends significantly on your climate and your predator load. Where I live, the birds of prey are so plentiful and aggressive that you must have a completely enclosed chicken run. One of my friends keeps birds in town and had part of his run knocked in at the top during a storm. Hawks grabbed every one of his chickens within the day.
Farm supply stores often sell chicken coops. Or, if you’re a little handy, you can always build one yourself. There are plenty of free plans posted online. Here is a guide that I found straightforward and easy to navigate: Chicken Coop Plans. Daisy has a plan from her California homestead where she used an old swingset as the basis of her coop.
Choosing to run lights in the winter is a personal preference. I never have. My little homestead only has 100 Amps, and I need to save my electricity for my house and freezers. Additional eggs in the wintertime aren’t worth it to me. Many people do put a light in the coop, and the birds will produce more eggs if they have that extra light. The hormones that stimulate eggs are triggered by light, not heat. Even if it’s quite cold, birds can still produce eggs if they have artificial light.
Where can I find more information about raising animals in my area?
Online forums can be beneficial in finding out what’s appropriate for raising animals in your area. Facebook used to be an excellent place for this, but after PETA bought stock in Facebook in 2019, they made it impossible to buy or sell animals. Many people posting about homesteading projects related to animal husbandry found themselves booted from Facebook due to violating “community standards.” (I left Facebook last year.)
Many people have shifted to MeWe to discuss animals and much more. The Organic Prepper recently made the move to MeWe to share informative posts on prepping, current events, survival skills, and more. Daisy also has a group called Prep Club on MeWe and a forum on her own platform for sharing information and asking questions. More experienced homesteaders can buy and sell; if you’re looking to get some information, you can observe and ask questions. If you don’t want to use social media, I would strongly suggest trying to see what people in your area do regarding housing and predator protection.
When prepping for your setup, choose knowledge over convenience
Ordering everything online has become very common. However, if you are a newbie, I strongly recommend physically going to a farm store to talk to others and observe their setup. I grew up in the suburbs of a major metropolitan area and would have had to drive for at least half an hour to get to a farm supply store. I know ordering online is so much easier. But there’s no substitute for a conversation with an experienced person.
And if you take up the time of a sales clerk asking a lot of questions, you should probably spend some money at their store. If you try to do something worthwhile, like raise your own food, most people will respond to that and be helpful. Remember, it is essential to ask questions before buying animals that become a responsibility.
What about feeding my chickens and cleaning the coop?
You have many options when it comes to chicken feed. Plan for your animals the way you would plan for yourself, and always keep at least a few weeks’ supplies on hand. I try to re-stock while I still have a month’s worth of feed. Again, what kind you buy is mostly a matter of personal preference. Farm supply stores often carry a few different types, but if you are set on a specific kind of feed (organic, soy-free, vegetarian, GMO-free), you may have to do some digging. I have been ordering the same organic soy-free feed for years and know my feed producer. If you have a small number of birds, you may not need to have a direct relationship with the feed producer.
When it comes to cleaning the coop, you may want to build a compost area if you do not already have one. Chickens and gardening go well together as hobbies and help each other become less wasteful. Chickens will eat any bruised, bug-infested, or otherwise inedible produce from your garden. After at least six months of composting, decomposed manure and bedding make an excellent soil amendment for your vegetables.
What will you do when your chickens no longer lay eggs?
No one likes to think about it, but you need to decide what you will do when your chickens no longer lay eggs. Will you keep it as a pet? Chicken feed is not free. Or do you like chicken soup enough to learn how to turn your former egg-layer into a meal?
Keeping pets is a personal decision. I happen to love chicken soup. Some friends taught me how to process chickens. There are also some great YouTube videos out there on how to process chickens. Many of the videos involve expensive equipment that you need if you’re processing dozens or hundreds of birds. But if you are only processing one or two old egg layers, you probably only need a few very sharp knives (essential for killing a bird quickly and humanely) and a pot big enough for scalding the bird afterward to loosen up the feathers.
I can’t overstate the importance of sharp knives for processing chickens
When I first learned about processing chickens, I went to the hunting section of a sporting goods store, thinking they would have the best knives for processing animals. But when I started talking to the clerk, he told me that I should go to a culinary store (like Williams-Sonoma) to get the best knives for processing chicken.
For me, the most essential knife is the big, heavy, sharp knife you use to dispatch the chicken. A sharp, heavy knife will cut deeply and cleanly, severing the carotid and giving the bird a rapid death. I use a Wusthof chef’s knife for this, and I get it sharpened once or twice a year at my local hardware store, depending on how many birds I process that year. I also keep a small (6-inch) knife for the actual gutting. If you buy a knife from a store like Williams-Sonoma, they will often sharpen it for free once a year. I don’t live incredibly close to a Williams-Sonoma, so I pay the $5 to my local hardware store. Of course, if you are good at sharpening knives, you can do it yourself, but I do not possess that skill.
Backyard chickens can provide food, entertainment, and educational value
But, remember, they are a commitment.
If you want to get a little more hands-on about raising your food, chickens are an excellent introductory animal. More experienced homesteaders often joke that chickens are the gateway drug of homesteading. They certainly were for me. I started raising chickens as a little side-gig. Soon I found that I needed livestock guardian dogs to protect the chickens and then found out I needed hooved animals to keep the dogs happy. All I can do is laugh at myself sometimes.
I love chickens, and you may find that you do too. Just do your homework first before deciding whether or not they’re right for your home.
Are you thinking of raising chickens?
Are you planning to raise chickens yourself? Have you started already and have valuable information for others? Drop it in the comment section below. We would love your input.
About Joanna Miller
Joanna has been homeschooling three children since 2012. In 2014, she moved to the High Plains of Colorado. She and her children began a little homestead, gardening and raising chickens for eggs and meat. One animal led to another, and these days they have livestock guardian dogs, chickens, geese, ducks, alpacas, goats, pigs, and one very spoiled cat.