Getting Started: How Many Hens Are Right for You

Reader Contribution by Corinne Gompf and Heritage Harvest Farm
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Elizabeth B. writes: I have always wanted backyard chickens after having a favorite hen as a child. How much space do you think I need minimum and what’s a good number to start with if I just want eggs and companionship? How can I be sure to get hens and where do you get them? Do you order them?

Great questions, Elizabeth! It’s great to hear of your interest in starting a backyard flock. I completely understand your attachment to your favorite hen. We feel the same way about our rooster, Big Papa. He’s four years old, and we hope he lives forever! I asked my daughter, Emery, how many she thought you should start out with, and her response was 50! Keep in mind, she’s six years old, and at the most, we had 250 layers for egg sales at farmers’ markets. So, 50 hens wouldn’t be that many for us.

Seriously, whenever someone asks me about getting started, I always recommend one hen per person in your family, or two per person if you want to buy heritage or fancy breeds that may not lay every day, or you want to share or sell a few dozens to friends, family, or neighbors. We are a family of four, and we currently have nine laying hens and a rooster. I have enough eggs for us to use (I bake a lot), and my friend Julie trades meat for our eggs. If you are single, I would still recommend a minimum of three hens for your starter flock because of their social nature and they like to roost at night in a group.

As for space, chickens really do not need a lot of space, nor do they need a fancy-pantsy coop. There are small garden sheds or large dog kennels that could be converted into a coop and would comfortably house a small flock. I’ve even seen wooden swingsets that crafty homesteaders have turned into chicken coops. A simple online search will help you determine what will work for you. All your layers will need is protection from predators and weather, a roosting bar, a few nesting boxes, and access to water and feed. Whether or not you allow them to free range is up to you. Honestly, it is not necessary to allow layers outside, and they will lay eggs while kept in their coops, but confinement is not ideal for small flocks.

And I purchase my chicks from a number of places, including: online hatcheries, local hatcheries, and farm-supply stores. I’m not that picky as to where I purchase my chicks. However, when I buy online, my hatchery of choice is not more than an hour away. This is important because of shipping time. I know that once my order is hatched,  I will need to pick up my chicks at the post office the next day. So, I don’t want to recommend an online hatchery for you, but instead, search for hatcheries close to where you live. Most likely, the hatchery will deliever to your local post office, so once you get a notification that your order is on its way, give them a holler to let them know. The guys in the mail room (especially Jeff) are always happy to give me a call when my peepers are there.

When you order your chicks online, there will be an option for male, female, or straight run. This is how you know your order will be all hens, and the hatchery will likely charge a little more per chick to sort them for you. Select female if you only want hens, or you can take your chances and select straight run. This means that the hatchery will not sex your chickens, and you’ll likely end up with males and females.

I will advise you to try an online hatchery if you are interested in a fancy or heritage breed. If you have never had chickens before, what you find at farm-supply store is a great introduction into poultry raising, and they are most likely females. But, with a few breeds, you can tell by the feather color if they are females. Golden Buff (also called Red Sex Link) chicks, for example, are yellow if they are female. Just keep in mind that the stores usually only carry live poultry in the spring and early summer, and hatcheries may take the coldest months off. You can find availability charts on the hatcheries’ Web sites. And, if you find a hatchery you like, check out its social media page. Many times, over-hatch sales are posted online, and you can get a sweet deal on chicks.

You can expect to spend $3 – $4 per chick for what I would call regular chickens (Buffs, Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rocks, etc), and $5 – $8 per chick for the fancy breeds, plus shipping. You can usually save money buy purchasing in bulk, but for a small homesteader, you’re not likely to need large quantities. But keep that in mind if you want to start raising broilers (meat chickens). You can raise enough broilers to feed your family in eight weeks, filling your freezer by the end of the summer. My rule is to raise one broiler for each week of the year, but I order 75 chicks to account for loss during production.

Keep in mind the other costs for starting a flock, such as waterers, feeders, chick starter feed, heat lamp/brooder, and a coop. Sometimes you can find used poultry supplies online, but be sure to thoroughly sanitized before use.

Elizabeth, I hope this helps you get your flock started. Would love to hear if you made the plunge to purchase chicks and see your set-up. If you, or any other readers, have more questions, leave a comment below.   

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