Raising backyard chickens is rewarding, fun, but like anything, it can have a few challenges. Here is my ultimate guide on how to raise and care for chickens. You’ll get all of my pros, cons and the cost breakdown to help you budget! Don’t forget to check out how to make an easy raised garden bed and how to start a frugal urban garden.
Our homesteading journey has been long and slow.
It started in 2009 or so when we lived in a townhouse in coastal California. Our backyard was essentially a 10’ x 10’ sandbox, but I built a raised bed for zucchini and planted tomatoes in big pots. The zucchini flopped, and the tomatoes were just so-so, but I loved having control over the food we ate.
Fast forward to 2016, when we moved to an HOA-ruled subdivision outside Atlanta. We had ¼ acre of hilly property to work with, and all I really wanted was chickens.
We had no idea what we were doing, but we took the plunge and bought baby chicks… 2 ½ months before we moved to a 30-acre farm!
Those baby chicks found their way to a friend in the same neighborhood, and we started a new flock on our farm outside Greenville, SC.
If you’re a beginner and interested in raising chickens in the backyard, this tutorial is for you!
Raising Chickens for Beginners
There are clear advantages to raising chickens for eggs in your backyard, but there are disadvantages too, and you should know what you’re getting yourself into before you begin.
Advantages of Raising Chickens for Eggs in Your Backyard
- They’re cute.
- They give you eggs.
- They’re easy to care for, even when you’re out of town.
- They have personalities, just like typical house pets.
Disadvantages of Keeping Chickens
- They poop often.
- You have to clean out their coop and nesting boxes regularly.
- They require a little extra work in cold weather.
- They can be noisy (not any noisier than a dog barking, but they’re not silent).
- Sometimes you accidentally get a rooster.
How many chickens should a beginner start with?
We originally started with four chickens because that was the minimum purchase required at Tractor Supply. That turned out to be perfect for our family of four living in an HOA neighborhood.
When we moved to our homestead, we bought 30 chicks. Our goal was to feed ourselves as well as sell eggs to the community.
If you want a consistent supply of eggs, I’d say 1 chicken for each 1-2 people in your home.
Different breeds will lay a different number of eggs each year, so that’s a variable too. White Leghorn, Rhode Island Red, and Ameraucana lay the most eggs in a given year.
What do you need to raise backyard chickens?
At the most basic level, chickens only need 3 things:
- Shelter (chicks may need an optional heat lamp)
As with anything, you have two sides: what “they” recommend and what actual backyard chicken owners are doing. I’ll share what I’m doing and why, along with some of the widespread recommendations, so you can make your own decisions.
Food for Raising Baby Chickens
Baby chicks need specific nutrient ratios, so you want to start with a grower feed for poultry. Organic and non-GMO will be the most expensive, and conventional will be the most affordable. On average, each baby chick goes through about 1 pound of feed per week until they’re 16 weeks old.
Baby chicks do really well with feeders like this one because it prevents them from making messes with the food.
Food for Taking Care of Chickens
Once the baby chick reaches 16 weeks old, you can switch to a layer feed. (This article is a great explanation of the difference between grower and layer feed.)
Again, organic and non-GMO will be the most expensive, and conventional will be the most affordable. If you’re ONLY feeding the chickens layer feed, each chicken needs about 1 pound per day.
You can offset the cost of feed by feeding the chickens kitchen scraps. Some say don’t feed them nightshades, some homesteaders feed their chickens everything but bones.
We give our chickens everything but bones and chicken. For some reason, it doesn’t feel quite right to feed the chickens chicken… although we do give them crushed eggshells! (They need this for calcium to produce eggs.)
If you have just a few chickens in a small coop (we’ll talk about shelter in a minute), long flat feeders like this one, or hanging feeders like this one, do well.
If you have several chickens in a large coop, long flat feeders secured to the coop are best. This prevents the chickens from pushing the feeder around and wasting feed.
Chickens can get feisty at feeding time, so we’ve also poured the feed into several small piles on the ground to keep everyone happy. (If you go this route and pour the feed onto the ground, a feeder wouldn’t be necessary.)
All chickens – baby and adult – need a supply of fresh water.
You can purchase a simple chicken waterer like this one (small with nipples), or a really big one (large size with nipples) if you have a large flock. Or you can give them a shallow bucket like this one.
To keep costs down, re-use what you already have or seek used supplies. There are always homesteaders and farmers looking to downsize.
Also, heads up, it’s normal for chickens to poop in their food and water.
Shelter for Raising Backyard Chickens
Baby chicks start in a brooder, which is essentially a box. They can easily fit through the chicken wire for several weeks after they’re born, and are too small to be protected by predators by anything other than “solid” walls. You’ll want to keep this box away from the elements, preferably somewhere indoors, for at least 8 weeks.
Baby chicks need heat, so depending on where you live and the season, you’ll want a heat lamp like this one (here’s the replacement bulb) to keep them warm. Put it at one end of the brooder (opposite of the food and water) so the chicks can come and go under the heat as they desire.
Our first flock of four chicks (from Tractor Supply) started in a cardboard box. We placed them in the garage near a hook, so we could hang the heating element on the hook. When the chicks outgrew this box, we upgraded to a longer box. They stayed in this box until they could fly out, which was around 12 weeks or so.
Teenage and adult chickens need a coop, which is a shelter that has protection from ground predators (i.e. fox, snakes, etc.), air predators (i.e. hawks, vultures), and shade to keep them cool in the summer.
If you decide to free-range chickens, the coop should be available to the chickens at all times. Do know though, that chickens can hop and fly… so keep this in mind if you’re free-ranging in your backyard. You may want to consider fencing in some of the area and creating a chicken-wire ceiling too.
Coops should include a clean place for the chickens to lay their eggs. This is called a nesting box and they typically look like this (here is the bedding) or a hanging option, but you don’t HAVE to buy a nesting box. You could easily build one out of scrap materials.
Finally, coops should include a roosting bar. This is where the chickens will “rest” during the day. If you don’t have a roosting bar, they will find a place to roost… which is usually on top of the food or water.
You have the option to build or buy a pre-made coop. If you want to buy a pre-made coop, we compared prices online (including new vs. used) and ended up with this version for our neighborhood home. It looked nice (to appease our neighbors) and it cost the same as buying used. The kids assembled it over one weekend.
On the farm, our coop is the equivalent of an animal stall, with nesting boxes, feeding trays, and roosting bars inside.
How to Raise Chickens in Winter
Most chicken breeds can handle cold winter temperatures, but it’s worth double-checking the cold and heat tolerance of the breed(s) before you purchase them. This is especially true if you live where there is extreme heat or extreme cold.
Some homesteaders take extra care of their chickens in the winter, out of desire or necessity, doing things like:
- Giving extra scratch (corn) at night so the chicken’s digestive system keeps them warm
- Adding extra bedding to the coop
- Adding a heat lamp
Chickens will huddle together for warmth in cooler temperatures, so as long as your coop offers protection from the elements, your chickens should be fine.
In our neighborhood, we placed our backyard coop in between our house and the neighbors, and close to a retaining wall. This gave protection from major storms and such. We didn’t add any extra bedding or give any extra feed, as the chicken breed was cold tolerant.
Our farm already had a coop when we bought it, but I still don’t add any extra bedding or give any extra feed. I also check the chickens daily, and there haven’t been any signs of them needing any additional protection.
Chickens can live a LONG time… 7-10 years! They consistently produce eggs for 2-3 years, and then become “old ladies.” Some homesteaders cull their chickens when they stop laying regularly (often because of the cost to keep them), while some homesteaders keep them as pets.
No! Chickens are born with a certain amount of eggs in their ovary, and mature chickens will lay eggs without a rooster. You DO need a rooster if you want fertilized eggs.
Does raising backyard chickens save you money?
I recently did the math with a reader, and here’s what we came up with. All prices are as of this posting and approximate.
The price of a dozen pastured eggs at Walmart is $6.42 per dozen.
Cost for Weeks 0-21:
- $18 (4 ISA Brown chicks)
- $0 (DIY brooder and coop using existing supplies)
- $33.76 (grower feed for weeks 0-16)
- $14.84 (layer feed for weeks 17-21)
Cost for Every Week 22+:
- $3.71 (layer feed)
ISA Brown chickens start laying around 22 weeks of age and each chicken lays about 6 eggs per week. With 4 hens, that’s 2 dozen eggs per week.
Starting at Week 22, and with each subsequent week, we stop buying eggs and now “save” the cost of 2 dozen pastured eggs – $12.84.
Subtract the cost of feed and every week you save $9.12 raising your own backyard chickens for eggs versus buying eggs at the store.
Note: I’m not including the cost of buying eggs for weeks 0-21, since quantity and quality will vary with each family. I’m also not including the cost of a brooder (since we used a box) or a coop (since you can build one with scraps). Your cost may go up if you choose to purchase these, but you can increase how much you save by feeding adult chickens kitchen scraps to offset the cost of feed.
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