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Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

Start Right with Chickens: the Basics for Beginners.

By Frederick J. Dunn

Tags: chickens,

girl with barred chickens

Today, chickens are popping up in the most unlikely and unexpected parts of the country. City chickens are no longer rare and there are chicken-friendly cities all over the United States.

If you're considering keeping poultry, check zoning and local ordinances to see what restrictions, if any, there are on owning chickens. In the suburbs, expect limitations on quantity and sex — often there are “no rooster” regulations.

Next, consider why you want chickens. There are many purebred chicken varieties and hundreds of breeds. Each chicken breed was developed for a specific purpose, and it would be wise to select the breed that best suits your purposes.

In these difficult economic times, many people will choose chickens to provide fresh eggs with some regularity. Few white egg layers out-perform the Leghorn breed. The Rhode Island red would be a very good choice for brown eggs. There are many hybrid birds available, but personally, I stick with traditional purebred stock. Spend some time researching breeds and you're certain to find a good match for you. (Check the Mother Earth News Hatchery Finder to help you find the breed you're looking for.)

Consider the availability of feed rations in your area. If you want strictly organic feeds, a visit to the local feed mill will be important. Talk to the mix master and see if the mill offers organic mixes in the quantity you need. Commercial rations are more widely available and have a longer shelf life. If you're in an urban setting where chickens are not the norm, find out where horse owners get their feed, or ask your pet store to order it in for you.

If you start with day-old chicks, a wide variety of breeds is available through the mail. All the large hatcheries offer fliers or catalogs. Look for a hatchery with a long record of healthy stock. I recommend buying day-old chicks instead of purchasing mature chickens that are ready to start laying eggs. That way, you won't have to determine if the chickens are healthy before you buy them.

You will need a place to keep your chickens. A fancy coop is not necessarily better chicken housing. In northern climates, shelter is necessary to protect birds from the weather. In all areas, shelter is necessary to protect your birds from predators. Housing needs are also determined partly by the breeds you keep. A lightweight chicken, capable of flight, will require a covered run. Heavier breeds may not be able to clear a three-foot fence. The general rule for housing is to allow 4 square feet of floor space per chicken. There are many solutions for portable chicken housing. If you're handy, constructing your own coop will result in greater comfort for you and the birds. Often you can make use of an old tool or garden shed. (For an easy, affordable option anyone can make, see the Portable Chicken Mini-coop Plan.

If you'd like to learn more about raising chickens, check out the DVD, Regarding Chickens.

boy holding rooster
jennifer hall_2
4/19/2009 12:13:28 AM

I just bought two hens to put in the new coop my husband built. One is a RIR and the other a Golden Sexlink. We consistently get one egg a day and I have no idea which one is the more regular layer. How can I find out which one is the layer? Thanks, Jennifer (new chicken keeper)

3/5/2009 11:11:09 AM

I currently own a small flock of two hens and love them so much I decided to order 4 more from (they should be here the first week of April!). We live in a very urban part of new orleans, and chickens are certainly uncommon around here. But... I've just always wanted some! My husband built a fantastic barn-like coop and they have a very spacious run (plus my entire yard in the afternoons) to run around, scratchin' dirt and eatin' bugs. I would say they have an extremely happy life, and they have definitely added to ours ;). Jenny, as long as you keep the coop clean and change the bedding regularly (if you choose to use bedding; my coop has a mesh floor so the poop falls to the ground) you shouldn't have a problem with mites or lice. If you live in a densely wooded area you'll want to take more serious precautions, but, if you're living in an urban area like myself you should be ok as long as things are kept clean and outside influences (i.e. friend's dogs, neighborhood birds) are kept at distance. Chris, eggs will last outside until an entire "clutch" is laid. Temperature isn't your main concern necessarily; you'll want to collect eggs as soon as their laid otherwise the hen will continue to lay a clutch (which is just a bunch of eggs she intends to hatch), and once she has enough (this will take a week or more, depending on how often the bird lays) she'll go "broody", which means motherhood is setting in and she'll be dead-set on hatching those eggs, even if they're not fertile! So it's imperative to collect at least once a day, but don't worry about the heat getting to them :), they'll be ok as long as they're not in direct sunlight (which they shouldn't be if they're in a nest box).

2/4/2009 10:48:37 AM

I want to buy two hens from local friends who have an organic farm. I have been researching and planning for several weeks. But now I keep reading horror stories about mites and lice and them swarming all over people in great numbers, and that is really scaring me. Help!

2/1/2009 11:41:16 AM

How long will eggs last after they are laid? Will they go bad in warmer weatherif you do get to them within a few hours? Not only the shelf life in the refrig but in the chicken coop. I do know what is the time based on cold weather verse hot. I need to find out both conditions.