Everything You Need to Know to Start Raising Your Backyard Chickens

Updated: Mar 18, 2021

When we got our first chickens, we lived in a tiny apartment on a main road and had what Ben called a "300-square-foot homestead" in our backyard. Biodynamic farming, the methods of Rudolf Steiner, and food independence was something that had always interested us, but it was more of a far-off dream and something we saw ourselves doing "down the road." Like so many others, for us, COVID changed that.

COVID was, like any disease, an alarm that sounded about what is not working in the collective. In the body, if you ignore initial symptoms, they become pain. We've been ignoring the signs & symptoms of an at-risk society, and 2020 was our hard-stop pain signal. It revealed to so many the cracks in our healthcare system and our food systems, whose fault lines have been widening for so many years now. Last year, it was just harder to ignore.

Hopefully by now, you have either jumped on the self-sustainability train, or at the very least the local ecosystems train, or if not, you might want to start looking at some other trains to get on, because the modern-America train isn't headed anywhere good.

Okay, I promise I'm going to get back on track now. Chickens. Right.

We were already growing as much of our own food as our tiny backyard would hold, which was more of a hobby of mine than anything - but chickens felt like a first real step in sustainable, substantial food independence. Ben and I are big advocates of meat & eggs in a healthy diet, and I mean, how hard could it be, right?

What we have learned is, raising chickens is pretty much as easy or as hard as you make it. We now have 20 laying hens and have added some guineas and ducks to our flock, too. Here's some of the most important things we learned along the way. Hopefully they help you to get your backyard flock started, even if you only have 300-square-feet of space!

1) Infrastructure first. This is the hardest lesson we have learned with every animal we've raised, but despite being forewarned by other farmers, we made the rookie mistake and didn't heed their advice at the time. Now we understand the importance of having the infrastructure before you have the animals. This means a decent-size brooder that is easy to clean out and has both cool areas (away from heat source) and warm areas (under the heat source), as well as a coop for when the chickens outgrow their brooder (and this happens way faster than you think. Seriously, get the coop before you get the chicks). Having a food and watering system that works well, is easy to clean, and doesn't need to be refilled too frequently will also save you a lot of time and headaches. We let our chickens free-range on our land, but if you plan on doing that you've got to be ready for the possibility of losing a few to hawks or other predators. If that isn't the plan, make sure you also have a run, chicken tractor, or some other fencing for them to be outdoors (even during winter months). The general rule is 2-3 square feet per chicken in a coop - with about half as many nesting boxes as laying hens needed.

2) Wintering chickens. This also relates to infrastructure. Interestingly, chickens are extremely hardy, and most breeds do not need any type of heat source in the winter as long as their coop is draft-free and dry, with plenty of bedding (this also goes for pretty much any animal). Our chickens easily survived this winter's below-zero temperatures without complaint, and their coop was not well insulated. That brings us to another hot tip for homesteaders in the northeast: if you're lacking a coop, in a pinch, chickens can be wintered in a small greenhouse, like we did. As long as there aren't any holes or tears and they have space to perch, they should be fine. When temps are warmer in spring and fall, make sure they go out all day while the greenhouse is too toasty.

3) Saving Baby Chicks. It's sad, but inevitable - you're going to lose a couple of baby chicks, especially if you start with a ton to begin with. But there are some things you can do to avoid it. Number one, get your chicks from a reliable, local source. We were recommended Hoover's Hatchery, which (ordering online) has a great policy about replacing baby chicks that die within 48 hours, but unfortunately one shipment we got from them had a lot of weak chicks in it that passed within the first week. Make sure your chicks don't get too hot or too cold (meaning they have heat, but can escape it). They should also have plenty of room to spread out & their brooder should be cleaned frequently. Their food should be starter crumbles, not pellets, which can get impacted in their crop. If a chick looks weak, stops eating, or is standing still, have a secondary brooder set up to separate her into. Weak chicks (or really, all chicks) can be given a little bit of molasses mixed into their water to help them gain strength. We even once healed a chick from leg dysplasia: this sometimes happens when a surface is too slippery and a chick's legs become too widened for her to walk. After some internet researching, we figured out how to tape her legs back together with medical tape to make a sort of brace situation. We left this on for about a week (watching obsessively and picking her upright every time she fell on her face) before taking them off and - we were shocked - it worked!

For both meat and egg production, we chose three different varieties of birds: Rhode Island Reds (which are bantams, and much smaller!), Buff Orpingtons, and Barred Rocks - we've also added two Green Layers and their fluffy little heads. It's important to us that our birds are completely "free range" pastured, foraging for their food mostly, and supplemented with organic feed and food scraps. After one full year, we are now getting over a dozen eggs every week - and on average, 4-5 eggs every day.

Hopefully this helps you get started on raising your own backyard flock! If you have more questions about raising chickens, drop them below! We'd love to know.


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