As Americans grow more curious as to where their food comes from, many are opting to raise their own animals instead of relying on industrial farming and production. This has led many to build their own chicken coops and raise a brood right in their own backyard. In most cases, people find that the work of creating a space for and caring for the chickens is well worth the reward of knowing that they were raised happily, sustainably and free of any hormones or pesticides.
But what does keeping your own brood entail? And are you willing to put in the work? Here are a few tips to get you started and make the whole process a little easier — and successful!
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1. Consider Cost
Before you decide to keep chickens, you must first determine whether you can afford to do so. To begin your own chicken coop, you’ll need eggs, chicks, a brooding box, a coop, feed and more depending on your situation. This can cost up to a few thousand dollars if you plan to keep about a dozen chickens. And the most costly part will likely be brood box and coop construction. Save a few hundred dollars on labor by learning how to construct the coop yourself.
After the initial cost of establishing and constructing space for your brood, the monthly cost of upkeep should be offset by the return on eggs, manure and compost. For instance, a brood of four hens will need about 25 pounds of feed and one bale of straw each month. This might cost about $20. The hens should then produce 90 to 120 eggs, three cubic feet of compost and roughly 16 pounds of manure, all of which you can sell for a net profit of $41 to $56 per month.
2. Prepare And Commit
If you decide that the return of keeping chickens is worth the investment, you’ll still have to verify that your local laws permit you to build a coop on your property. Some laws limit the number of hens you can keep and others disallow free-ranging chickens, as is often the case in cities. Your local policymakers might also require your coop to pass local building regulations before you can begin housing chickens in it.
Once you understand your neighborhood’s regulations, you must build your coop in compliance with the laws. Moreover, you’ll have to commit to keeping it clean and well-maintained. So, if you have to leave town, make sure there’s someone who can keep a close eye on your chickens and maintain the coop while you’re away. It’s usually best to find and designate a person to do this before you commit to keeping chickens. Otherwise, you may be stuck at home taking care of your hens if you can’t find a chicken-sitter.
3. Choose Brood Size
Now that your mind’s made up, the next step will be to choose how many chickens you’d like to keep. Of course, this may largely depend on your local ordinance’s laws. But, as a general rule of thumb, three to six birds is a good starting place. Chickens are highly sociable animals so having just one will make for a very lonely chicken, not to mention very few eggs! So a handful of hens is a good number.
You’ll also want to be choosy in regard to which kind of chickens you want in your coop. Roosters, for instance, don’t lay eggs and can be noisy and aggressive towards the hens. Aside from gender, you’ll want to select a breed — or breeds — that best matches your chicken-keeping goals. For example, if you plan to use the chickens for eggs, you may choose Araucana or Bleu Andalusian chickens. But, if you’re raising your chickens for meat, Brahma or Aseel breeds may be ideal.
4. Designate Space
Chickens need a decent amount of both sun and shade to maintain egg yields. The coop should also be able to protect them from harsh weather conditions like the winter cold or spring rains. A good place for a coop, then, might be at the base of a tree where there will be wind and rain protection but also plenty of sun and shade. You’ll also want to plan for each chicken to have two to three square feet of space within the coop and eight to 10 square feet outside in the run.
While proper space and shelter will keep your chickens healthy and happy, a good artificial light source will keep them laying eggs, even extending their laying season. Many farmers choose to hook up a lamp system within the coop when fall rolls around. Place the laps far away from beds and only use up to 40 watts on birds that are 20 weeks or older. Gradually increase the time the lights are on to 14 to 16 hours per day to increase egg production.
5. Design A Great Coop
After determining how much of your backyard you can designate towards building a chicken coop, you can begin building! The coop should consist of two areas — the shelter and the run. The shelter should have good ventilation and be completely enclosed to prevent any animals from coming in or out. You might also build your coop up off the ground to discourage rats or other critters from making a home beneath it. Regarding the run, you’ll have to build some sort of wire or mesh enclosure with a roof to keep the hens safe.
A small, dusty area is also imperative to keeping your chickens healthy and happy as they use the dirt to bathe. It also rids them of mites and lice. Additionally, you’ll have to create nesting boxes in which the hens will lay their eggs. Many farmers choose to make these boxes accessible from the outside to make egg collection easier. However, you’ll have to make sure the only way the chickens can access the boxes is from within the coop to keep them safe and prevent them from escaping.
6. Get Their Diet Right
Now, you might have a coop and chickens, but what about feeding them? What and how you feed your brood will largely depend upon whether you’re raising them for meat or eggs. If you’re keeping them for egg production, you’ll want to stick with crumbled pellets with high protein content while the chickens are small and still growing. However, once they reach adulthood and begin laying, you can switch them to a lower protein pellet feed and always keep food out and available to them.
if you’re raising your chickens for meat, raise baby chicks on the same high-protein crumbled feed. But, once they reach adulthood, you should switch them to a feed specifically for broiler chickens. Often, this feed is organic and non-GMO verified. They’re also relatively high in protein and free of pesticides and hormones so you can be sure you’re eating and selling clean, healthy chicken meat. Additionally, providing your chickens with a scratch block or pecking stone will keep them entertained and well-fed.
7. Keep The Pen Clean
Of course, once you have everything set up, it’s essential you keep the coop and run clean. Most recommend a monthly deep-clean and weekly maintanence cleanings. Weely cleanings should consist of replacing the newspaper, wood shavings or straw on the floor of the coop with new material. This regular upkeep might also include changing or refilling water troughs, scratch blocks and feeding stations and inspecting the coop for any damage or signs of intrusion.
Monthly cleaning will require a bit more work including disinfecting perches, walls and nesting boxes. During this process, you should consider sprinkling the ground with some diatomaceous earth, a fossilized alga that helps eradicate mites and lice. Purchase a kind ground between one-half to two millimeters per particle so the chickens may easily digest it. Eating the diatomaceous earth will help treat worms in the hens as well.
8. Know What’s Normal
With all this information in mind, you’ll be well on your way to keeping and raising your own chickens right in your backyard. With the right-sized coop and run, the proper feed, and great maintanence, you can provide an excellent environment in which your brood can grow, thrive and lay eggs. However, in order to ensure your chickens stay happy and healthy, you’ll want to know how a normal chicken looks and acts. This means spending some time with your hens and understanding how they normally act.
For instance, one chicken may be boisterous and mischevious on most days. However, if she begins to act sluggish or disinterested, you may have a sick hen. Check her skin for lice or mites and make sure her eyes are still bright and alert. Additionally, their combs should be a nice bright red and their feet should be free of scrapes and infection. Regular health checks can help keep your chickens happy and healthy and prevent illness in the future.
So, if you look into your coop and see a bunch of busily pecking, squawking, preening chickens, you likely have a satisfied brood. Even hens who peck at their mates to establish dominance are likely happy with their environment, albeit a little jealous of their bunkmates. And, with lots of care and a tiny bit of luck, your chickens will live happy lives and produce eggs — and meat — for you and others to enjoy.