Do you want to raise chickens in your backyard? Well now is the time to start planning. We love having backyard chickens.
Baby chicks are available in stores like Farm & Fleet and Tracker Supply (both are a feed store) starting in March & April. At least in the Chicagoland area.
You can purchase chicks online but since we can only have a small number of chickens, I prefer farm supply stores as the best place to get them. I can pick them out, check they have bright eyes, and look healthy.
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Considering Backyard Chickens?
When I decided I wanted to have chickens more than 10 years ago, I thought I was going to have an uphill battle on my hands to convince “Handy“.
I did all my research and had a PowerPoint presentation, the whole 9 yards.
Turns out all I had to do was broach the subject and he was all in.
Before I knew it he was building the Taj Mahal of chicken coops. I got our blueprints from Heather Bullard but he modified them quite a bit.
Things you Need to Know to Start Raising Hens
First things first!
You need to first check with your city or village and find out their local regulations regarding a backyard flock
Our village didn’t have any local ordinances so I had to go to the board to ask permission. Luckily for me, “Handy” who is currently our Village President was a trustee at the time so I got his vote!
I actually got everyone’s vote and they adopted the ordinance that was already in place for our county. There is a restriction on the number of chickens we can have. Our local government allows a maximum of 7 adult chickens. Hens only and no rooster. We can only have them for the purpose of laying eggs. We can’t sell our eggs or slaughter our chickens. Which we had no intention of doing.
Our coop also needed to be 5 feet off of our property line.
What Kind of Hens do you Want?
You need to do your research about chicken breeds and decide what kind you want to have. Here was my criteria:
- I wanted different breeds of hens
- I wanted different colored eggs (green/blue/brown/peach/white)
- It’s important for us in Illinois to choose hens that can survive in the cold winter months (yes, they stay outside all year long)
- Friendly temperament was also a big consideration
- Definitely wanted Good Egg Layers
- Some backyard chicken owners can use their chickens for things other than egg-laying, then you might consider dual-purpose breeds. There are breeds that are not only egg layers but also meat birds.
We are on our 4th batch of hens and we have had all of the following at some point. We loved them all but we especially loved the buff Orpingtons because they were super friendly and interactive with us, however, because they were so sweet they both were victims of raccoons.
- Rhode Island Red
- Barred Rock
- Ameraucana – Often called Easter Eggers (They lay the blue and green eggs)
- Buff Orpington
- Plymouth Rock
Do You Start with Baby Chicks?
I strongly suggest getting your chicks as babies. We brought teenagers into our flock once and it was a disaster. The older chickens picked on them (henpecked and pecking order are real things) and one of them actually became very aggressive. We ended up having to rehome all of them except for one.
We bought all the rest of our chickens as day-old chicks and they lived in our house until they were ready to go outside. They were in a galvanized tub with pine shavings bedding and a heat lamp. This was our set-up of choice but you can actually just use a large cardboard box. We had this in our laundry room.
In the first week, they need a lot of attention. Don’t be surprised if some of them don’t make it. We started out with 8 chicks in our very first batch and we only had 7 that moved out to the coop in the spring.
You have to monitor the heat lamp and temperature. They need plenty of clean cold water and access to chick starter food. We have only fed our chicken organic food right from the start.
We didn’t really touch them the first day or so as they need to get acclimated and I also added electrolytes to their fresh clean water to help with the stress. After they perk up, we started holding them for a little bit every day. We wanted them to become used to us.
It didn’t take long for them to outgrow the galvanized tub and “Handy” made them a larger cage that we put in our dining room. They were still under heat lamps until they feathered out. They were about 8 weeks when we put them into the coop.
Do You have a safe place for your hens to live in your backyard?
Probably one of the most important things about raising chickens in your backyard is having a secure place for them to live.
While our first babies were growing, “Handy” was busy making their coop. It is a sturdy structure with room for all of them to be locked into at night. Chickens need about 3-5 square feet of space per bird in the coop. You also need nesting boxes. Ideally, you have one for every 4-5 hens. We have two for our 6 adult hens.
He modified the original blueprints to be sturdier in general. He also made a base for it out of 2″ x 6″‘s and added 1/2″ x 1/2″ galvanized wire to the complete underside of the base. This part is important as we have minks and other small animals who can burrow into the ground and get into the coop if it’s not protected.
Additionally, he added 2″ x 4″ stakes to each corner, and all of the bases and stakes were buried in the ground. The base was then filled with sand. “Handy” also added leaded glass windows and a fancier copula to the top.
We also have a pretty large enclosed run area that is fenced 6 ft., high with chicken wire that surrounds the enclosed coop. Every day we let them out to roam about in this fenced area during the day.
We let them free range in the yard later in the day (when it’s nice). If we let them out too early they stray further from our house and we can’t keep an eye on them.
However, as soon as it starts to get a little dark, they make their way home and put themselves to bed in their coop with no help from us.
Inside the coop, we have a large feeder that hangs from a hook, and we have a large galvanized water fount that hangs from a hook in the summer but sits on a heater base in the winter so it doesn’t freeze.
We have electricity in our coop. It’s needed for the heater base and we also provide them with a ceramic heat coil that is on a thermostat for when it gets too cold.
Currently, Handy is working on a PVC pipe contraption for both a new food and water system for our ladies. We need something that has easy access. Now that we are older, we want an easier way to feed them and give them fresh water daily.
We have wildlife where we live that would love to have our hens for dinner. So far we’ve only had an issue with raccoons but there are coyotes, hawks, and eagles also in our area. When they are out free-ranging, we keep a pretty close eye on them.
What do You Feed Hens?
As I mentioned earlier, we feed the baby chicks starter food and they get that until they are old enough and it’s warm enough to go outside. When they are about two weeks old you should also introduce chick grit or oyster shells to them. We don’t supply grit to our older birds because they have sand in the bottom of the coop and they pick and eat that and don’t even seem to touch the grit. Chickens don’t have teeth so they need this to help them with digestion.
Once they are older and out in the coop, they need food and fresh water to live. They are fed organic chicken feed sometimes called layer feed. We also supplement them with kitchen scraps. We give them just about any kind of fruit and vegetables but not too much. Their main source of nutrition should be their chicken feed.
In the summer they get more produce because of our vegetable garden and the availability. They love corn, melons, cabbage, and berries. We also occasionally give them a suet bar and we also give them dried mealworms as a treat. Those are actually our tricks for getting them back in the coop before they are ready to be put away if we have to leave or we need them safe for some reason. When they hear the bag shake, they come running.
Keeping a Clean Coop
It’s really important to keep your coop clean. This deters the spread of disease. We change the wood shavings on a regular basis and a couple of times a year the whole coop gets a power wash and we remove the sand from the bottom and replace it.
We have had our coop for a long time now and occasionally it needs some work. “Handy” replaced the doors this past summer as they were starting to rot.
We’ve also had to paint it a few times.
Are Fresh Eggs Better?
If you’ve never eaten an egg fresh from a chicken, you haven’t really eaten an egg. The yolks are not yellow, they are golden and they taste like butter! There is absolutely nothing like a fresh egg from your hens.
Even organic and grass-fed eggs from the store aren’t as good or as fresh.
Your chickens won’t start egg production until they are about 6 months old so don’t get concerned if you’re not seeing eggs right away.
When our hens were just old enough it coincided with the time of year when chickens typically start to slow down production. This is when we get double-yolk eggs as well as an egg inside of an egg (yes that has happened). After the first winter (at least for us), they really start laying regularly.
Our little ladies lay about an egg a day in the warmer months. Their production slows down when it gets darker earlier and as they get older.
We hadn’t had an egg from our girls since probably November but they are starting to lay again. In the summer if it’s really hot they can slow down production too but we typically have so many eggs from our current flock of 5 that we give them away to all of our neighbors.
You can leave un-washed eggs out on the counter until you need to use them. Once you wash them, the natural protective coating comes off of them, and then they need to be refrigerated.
Is it Worth it to Have Chickens?
They aren’t cheaper than buying eggs from the store but they are definitely tastier than anything you can get from the grocery store.
We also enjoy the heck out of having them and they fit right in with our gardens and little urban farm. They add something so special to our backyard.
While my explanation of what it takes to raise chickens, may seem difficult it is harder on the front end but once you have the coop built or installed, they are pretty easy to maintain. Probably the hardest part is, just like any pet, you need someone to watch them when you go out of town. However, we always have someone who is happy to open and close the coop in exchange for all the fresh eggs.
Do you want to raise chickens in your backyard? We find it such a fulfilling hobby and I think if you are contemplating – go for it. If you have kids, what a great lesson at home for so many things. The possibilities are endless.
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