Backyard Chickens 101

  • No, you do not need a rooster for hens to lay eggs.
  • Yes, chickens stay outside all winter long in an unheated coop. 
  • No, you do not need a lot of space to humanely raise chickens. 
  • No, chickens do not smell or attract unwanted pests.

These are the answers to questions my wife, Kim, and I routinely field when we announce (as we do with annoying frequency) that we raise chickens. The other most common question people ask is: Chickens? Are you nuts?

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Maybe, but our decision to raise chickens is probably the sanest thing we’ve done in a while. Backyard chickens provide a steady harvest of fresh eggs from hens you know were fed right and treated well. Chickens are silly, social animals that brighten even the gloomiest of days. And, we quickly learned, they are easier to care for than the family dogs.

Last spring, our hometown of Cleveland Heights passed sustainable new zoning rules that make it permissible for homeowners to keep up to four hens (no roosters). The City of Cleveland expressly made the practice legal about four years ago. As for whether it’s legal to do so where you live, check with City Hall.

Chickens 101

All I knew about chickens before I got started was that eggs are great fried, scrambled and over-easy. So before buying a single peep, I purchased and studied Raising Chickens for Dummies and Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens. I immersed myself in popular websites like BackyardChickens.com and MyPetChicken.com. And I went to the North Union Farmers Market at Shaker Square and bombarded the chicken folks with a million questions.

What Breed And How Many

There are literally dozens of different chicken breeds, with common breeds competing with fancy rare varieties for your attention. But once you eliminate the breeds inappropriate for typical circumstances, the selection process becomes less complicated.

Chickens are categorized as egg layers, meat birds and something called dual-purpose. Egg layers are bred to provide a consistent supply of eggs—up to a half-dozen per week per hen—for about three years, when they begin to slow down. While dual purpose chickens produce fewer eggs than the layers, they tend to include the brown-egg-laying heirloom breeds (as opposed to hybrids) that so many within the sustainability movement seek out.

Whichever breed or breeds you decide upon, make sure they’re very cold hardy (assuming you live in or around Northeast Ohio).

Hens don’t start laying eggs until they reach 5 to 7 months. That’s why breeders offer started pullets, chickens that are just a few weeks shy of egg-laying maturity. Based on advice from multiple sources, we chose to go the baby-chick route. Chicks reared together from Day Two not only get along better with each other; they develop stronger bonds with their “parents.”

The number of chickens you buy likely will depend on the legislation in your area and the size of your coop. Raising four chickens is not much more difficult than raising two—and chickens are social animals—so consider buying more as opposed to less.

Where To Buy

In spring, chicks are available at farm supply stores, garden centers and even farmers markets. The more the chicks get passed around from breeder to point of sale, the more chances there are to mislabel a breed, gender or age, all of which are nearly impossible to tell by looking at a young chick. We bought four day-old chicks directly from Meyer Hatchery (they also ship via USPS): two Barred Plymouth Rocks and two Golden Buffs. We named them Mild, Buffalo, Barbecue and Spicy.

Rearing Chicks

Chicks are pretty low-maintenance, given the proper setup. In addition to commercial feed, water and bedding, baby chicks need warm, consistent heat. Immediately upon arrival at home, the chicks need to be placed in a brooder, a fancy name for a very warm box. For the first week, the temperature in the box needs to be a steady 95°F.. This is achieved using a 250-watt bulb and reflector positioned over the open-topped box. A remote thermometer probe—not unlike the kind used to cook a chicken, coincidentally enough—placed in the box helps monitor the temperature.

Each week, the temperature in the box is reduced by 5°, achieved simply by raising the heat lamp or lowering the box. This is done until the temperature drops to 70°, at which time the chicks are mature enough to live at room temp (assuming it’s not much below 60°).

Chicks grow fast—really fast. Not only should you have a second, larger box with higher walls (we snagged an empty appliance box on the side of the road) ready by week four or five, but you also better have your coop and site well in the planning and building stages.

Choose A Site

Most urban chicken legislation mandates that coops be situated a certain distance from homes and property lines. Make sure you know and follow the zoning restrictions so you aren’t forced to move your coop to new location.

Coops and runs should be in the driest part of your yard (“Madder than a wet hen” is a saying for a reason). If you can’t avoid a bad spot, build up the base and add plenty of gravel to facilitate drainage.

While not necessary, it’s helpful to be near a power source— the back side of a garage, say—so you can run an extension cord to the coop. A handy heated water fount prevents the chicks’ water from constantly freezing during winter. And if you’re weird like us, power allows you to install a “coop cam,” which provides a 24/7 live feed of your happy hens.

Choose A Home

By the age of a month and a half to 2 months, your girls will be ready to move from brooder to coop, so you better be too. Of all the decisions we had to make throughout the process, settling on a coop was without question the most complicated. At a minimum, chickens need to stay dry and safe from predators. But they also need good ventilation, room to flap about and nesting boxes, where they will lay their eggs.

If you’re handy, consider building your own coop—just don’t wait until after you buy your chicks to get started. Otherwise, you can purchase a kit or pre-built model; there’s no shortage of options these days as the urban chicken trend continues to escalate.

Daily And Weekly Chores

Until they start laying eggs, chickens can be left alone for days, really. Their gravity-fed feeder contains more than enough food to last a week, and same goes for the water fount. But that doesn’t mean they should be ignored on any day. A tipped-over water fount can dehydrate hens in no time or create a frozen mess in winter. When the hens begin laying, the eggs need to be collected daily.

We open the door to the run most days, giving them access to fresh air. In nice weather—and when we are around to supervise—the birds are free to roam a larger fenced-in area of the yard. Each night at sundown, the birds literally put themselves to bed, making their way through the run, into the coop and onto their perch. All we do is lock the door behind them. Every week or so, the food and water dispensers should be cleaned and refilled, regardless of their size. I try to replace the pine bedding every week, but if it goes two weeks, it’s not a crime. Also, the more time your gals spend out of the coop, the less often the bedding needs to be changed. Keeping chickens means you’re in the poop-management business. If you don’t have a good composting system, start one.

Hopefully by the time you read this, we will have enjoyed our first harvest of hen fruit.