Admit it. You’ve been tempted to get chickens. They’re cute, you get fresh eggs—what’s not to like? But there’s a major intimidation factor, since it’s not like you can just swing by your neighborhood pet store to pick up chicks and supplies. That’s where Robert and Hannah Litt of Portland’s Urban Farm Store come in. They wrote the book—literally—on raising backyard chickens. Robert talked to us here at TakePart about his advice for chicken newbies.
As told to Max Follmer
Raising backyard chickens isn’t very difficult once you get everything set up. Essentially, you need to provide them with a place to live in your yard, which includes a coop—or the house the chickens will live in—and a run, which is a fenced-in area that will contain them in the part of the yard you want to give over to the chickens. Both will also provide protection from predators—the run from daytime predators, and the coop from nighttime predators. And it’s where they’ll go to sleep and lay their eggs. I tell people to start planning by looking at their yard, by figuring out if they have the space for this, and also to check with their city or other municipality to make sure that it’s legal.
The typical flock is three chickens—they are social animals; you can’t just have one—and the minimum space for three chickens is a coop that would be about a three-foot cube, with a four-foot by eight-foot run. Now that’s a very small run; I would much rather see something on the order of 10 feet by 10 feet for a run. But that coop size would be ample, as they’re just going in there to sleep and lay their eggs. But anything smaller than that and you’ll be cleaning it out all the time.
There are about 150 breeds of chickens and about 50 of them are commonly available. And it’s fun to do a lot of research and decide what criteria you want to use to evaluate them. There are a larger variety of chicks available than started birds. I say that a typical flock is three birds, and that’s a good number to start with. But another important consideration is that their egg-laying does drop off as they get older, so some people do rotate in some new chickens every two or three years. Pretty soon it’s easy to have a flock of five to six birds before you know it, and each chicken lives about four to six years. You really want to build your run and coop as big as you can afford to do, because you may be adding more birds and needing more space.
I don’t usually suggest that people buy just one breed to begin with. With three chickens you have the opportunity to have three different breeds; they don’t really care. That first group will be tightly bonded just because of their age and having grown up together and it allows you to experience the differences between the birds, possibly different egg colors, and certainly different feather colors so you can tell them apart—which is nice if you intend to name them.
The top three that I would suggest would be the Rhode Island Red, the Barred Plymouth Rock, and the Americana. Those three are all good egg layers—the Rhode Island Red and Barred Plymouth Rock being excellent layers. And being heritage breeds that have been around for a long time and have an interesting history. The Americana lays a green egg—usually a light army green color—which is just so interesting in the box of eggs. And all three of those are easy to tame to be pets if you want to handle them from an early age; they’re used to people. The other thing about the Barred Rock is that it matures earlier. So, while usually you’re waiting until the chickens are about six months old before they’re laying eggs, with the Barred Plymouth Rock they’ll be producing eggs at five months or maybe four months. That’s important if you’re primarily into raising chickens for the eggs.
With chicks, you brood them indoors for two months, about six to eight weeks. And then they go outside. When they’re first hatched they need temperatures of about 95 degrees, so you usually provide supplemental heat for them. I don’t recommend brooding them outside unless it holds a relatively steady temperature. [Editor’s note: Robert and Hannah offer detailed instructions for brooding chicks in their book.]
Only in the coldest parts of the country will you need supplemental [outdoor] heat for adult chickens. They’re hearty in a coop overnight, and they’ll huddle together for warmth. The temperature can go down to 15 to 20 degrees without any concern. In many parts of the country it will get below that and you’ll have to provide them with a supplemental heat source. It could be a mat underneath them—there are some mats made for keeping dogs warm in the kennel—or you can use a heat lamp set up safely and securely in a large coop while they’re on a roost sleeping. That’s where they really need the heat. When they go into sleep their metabolism really slows down and that’s when they’re most in danger of getting frostbite or other injury or death from cold.
Cats are not a problem at all for a full-grown chicken. When they’re chicks, they’re certainly endangered by a cat in the house. By the time they’re three months old, they’ve got enough size and savvy to intimidate a cat. But they’re always in danger from dogs. It depends on the personality of your dog. If you have any doubts at all about it, you need to keep them away from your dogs when they’re in the house and outside. Chickens are just really stimulating to a dog. If you have dogs it’s best to make a setup where they can be completely separated at all times.
Assuming the chickens go outside at two months, you’re usually seeing eggs about four months later; they typically start laying at six months. The important caveat being that their egg laying is very much tied to the season and seasonal variation in day or night length. So if you move them outside in late summer, that six months of age landmark hits when the days are already getting shorter. They will sometimes hold off on producing eggs until early the following spring, so maybe late February or something like that. Some people will start their birds late in October so they can take that period they are needing to mature and have it overlap the period the weather would inhibit their ability to start laying. If you start them in the spring, you maybe only get a couple months of laying in before the weather starts to reduce their laying.
Really the day-to-day chores are pretty minimal. I liken it to being about as difficult as a cat. You’re putting out food for them each morning, you’re checking their water and then just letting them out of their coop. They’re pretty much on their own all day; they don’t need a lot of supervision as long as everything is safe for them. Then in the afternoon or evening you come back and collect the eggs and make sure they’re in their coop.
On about a weekly basis most people do the deep litter method, which is where they add a little bit more litter—something like pine shavings into their coop. The idea is to stay ahead of the accumulation of waste product. Every week or ten days you add another half-inch layer. But then eventually you are going to need to completely clean out that coop. Maybe every two months. You scrape out all the old shavings, compost them, and then replace them with a new base layer about two to three inches thick.
We do recommend that people use hand sanitizers after handling the chickens and they don’t put the chickens and chicks to their mouths or faces—you really need to supervise children for that reason. And it’s a good idea not to go into anyone else’s coop and then come back to your own, especially wearing the same shoes.
It’s a fun hobby; kids certainly seem to enjoy it a lot. There’s a lot to learn. From a sustainability point of view it cuts down food miles significantly. And the eggs are a great source of high-quality protein. It provides a type of food from your own yard that normally you can’t get. You may be growing a vegetable garden and you’ve got some carbs and some greens taken care of, and some amount of protein perhaps. But it’s really unique in its ability to produce a source of high-quality protein for your diet, without having to kill anything. It’s not like you’re raising rabbits in your backyard and then you have to harvest them. Raising backyard chickens also ties into all of the other systems; the composting, the vegetable growing, the egg production become integrated with chickens at the center of it.
10 Essential Beginners’ Tips for Raising Backyard Chickens
1. Check with your city or other municipality to make sure it’s legal to raise chickens in your backyard.
2. Figure out if you’ve got the space: a minimum coop size is three feet, but you’ll need an additional enclosed run of at least four feet by eight feet—although 10X10 is better!
3. Choose your chickens: Three birds is an ideal starter flock size. They’re social and need to have company. Rhode Island Red, Barred Plymouth Rock, and the Americana are great for beginners.
4. Keep your pets away! Cats are only really a threat to baby chicks, but dogs are likely to be aggressive no matter how old your chickens get.
5. If you’re starting with chicks, set up their space to brood: Baby chicks need a heat source of about 95 degrees, and will be inside for about six to eight weeks.
6. Fully grown chickens can stay outdoors year round, but will need additional heat if the temperature drops below about 15-20 degrees.
7. Mature chickens will start laying eggs at about six months—but laying is impacted by the seasons. Chickens that mature as the days are getting shorter may not start laying until early the following spring.
8. Day-to-day chores are minimal, but you’ll need to clean out the coop about once every two months, keep the chickens stocked with food and water every day, and add a new layer of litter every week.
9. Always use hand sanitizers after handling chickens, and avoid bringing them near your mouth or face.
10. Never visit another coop and then walk back into yours—especially wearing the same shoes. You could spread diseases to your flock.
Interview edited and condensed.