Introduction: Urban Farming: Raising Backyard Chickens
We have raised urban chickens since 2009. I've always wanted to raise chickens since hatching some chicks in elementary school. It's been fun, rewarding and a bit challenging at times. We keep our chickens as pets and for their eggs. I put together this instructable to help anyone else who is thinking of doing the same thing. Hopefully, you can learn from our experiences. Before you start, I recommend checking your city ordinances. We live in San Francisco. I was surprised to find out that we are allowed to have four hens or combination of small animals (no roosters allowed) without permits. Additionally, any structure for the chickens must be 20 feet from any door, window or human habitat. Once you know what you are allowed to do, the fun starts. Our chickens have been very low maintenance pets, providing us eggs and companionship in your yard. Aside from the start-up costs (Coop/Run/Supplies), maintaining chickens is cheap compared to other pets. You get fresh eggs and chicken manure to help your urban garden. Extra eggs help with gifting or bartering with your neighbors. If you are thinking about getting chickens, I highly recommend it.
Step 1: Chicks, Breeds and Care
- Getting your chicks: This is one of the most exciting things to do. They are so cute and cuddly. We didn't use mail order for our chicks. We wanted a variety of chicks and since we could only have four, we would not meet the minimum order. If you have a few people interested, then it may make sense. We got our chicks locally in Sonoma. You have the benefit of picking the chicks you want out of a larger group. The two feed stores we visit regularly are Rivertown in Petaluma and Frizelle Enos in Penngrove. During the spring season, feed stores will usually have a few rounds of new chicks arriving every week. It is worth calling your local store to see when the breeds you want may be available. A benefit of getting chicks from a feed store is most of the time, they will have been vaccinated already. When getting your chicks, please note that they are very social creatures and do better in groups. They don't do well as solitary animals. Although our chickens are of different breeds, they always stick together.
- Breeds: We chose docile and quiet breeds that were good egg layers for our urban setting. I'll only comment on the breeds that we have raised and have experience with. There are many other great egg laying breeds.
- Cochin: Cochin's are distinguished by their feathered feet. They lay medium sized light brown eggs. Our barred cochin was our favorite hen. She was the most mild mannered and always came over to hang out with us. She enjoyed sitting on our laps. I have a friend who has also commented that their most friendly hen was Cochin. We would definitely get another one.
- Gold Sex Link:They are named this way since the females will always be gold. You are certain that your chick will not grow up as a Rooster. Our gold sex link is on the small side. She is very nimble and pretty smart. She always comes out to see what treats we have. A good producer of extra large light brown eggs, although the shells are thin. We would consider this breed again.
- Cuckoo Marans: They look similar to Barred Rocks. They lay medium sized brown eggs with strong shells. Our Cuckoos are named Loco and Moco. Since she was a pullet, Loco would always tried to scratch at the food container. She looked silly doing this so she was named Loco. They have been good producers and get along with well with the flock. We would consider this breed again.
- Wyandotte: We have a gold laced Wyandotte. Her feathers are really beautiful for a chicken. She was a decent producer, but only laid for three years. Now, she is freeloader. She always hides when she is molting, almost like she is shy of her looks. I would be on the fence for getting another Wyandotte.
- Welsummer: Welsummers are golden in color. I am told the the Kellogs Corn Flakes Rooster was patterned after a Welsummer rooster. They lay beautiful large dark brown eggs with strong shells. Our Welsummer started small, but became big, very loud and bossy. I could hear her all day long. There were times when we considered making chicken soup out of her since she was just plain mean to the other chickens. She was always pecking at the other hens. We will avoid this breed in the future.
Step 2: Pullets and Preparing the Coop and Run
This is the "teenage" stage for chickens. They start to look gangly and slightly awkward. They grow quite quickly and start to explore more. After about two weeks, they will need large accommodations. We moved our chickens into a large box (one that our washing machine came in). We had to put netting over the top to prevent them from flying out and escaping. They are capable of jumping and flying up to the top edge of the box. They will also flap their wings a lot. We moved our chickens into the garage since they were stirring up all of the dust from the shavings. When they start to look like small hens and have their feathers, they are almost ready for the outside. For us, this happened between 2-3 months. This is the time to consider buying or building their coop and run. Recently, I even saw coop and run supplies sold at the Home Depot for a decent price. The feed stores also sell coops. This is worth considering unless you are dead set on making your own. Sometimes, your space will help dictate what you do. We have built two runs and coops. Our first coop was built from a toddler doll house from Red Envelope on super sale. We added wainscot paneling for the walls, windows and plastic roof. It was painted red. The run was built out of redwood and plastic chicken wire. The run was built low profile, but it was too small for me to move around in comfortably. Our second coop and run was built out of redwood and hardware cloth. I moved to this since it is much more sturdy. The chicken wire sags considerably more, but it is easier to work with. It used a fence and preexisting small structure for three of the walls. This run was built taller, so I could move around in it.
Coop: the structure where the hens lay their eggs and sleep at night.
- Area needed: It is recommended to have between 2 to 4 square feet per hen for the coop.
- Nesting Box: For our hens, we made space for 2 nesting boxes. If two are in use, the other hens will wait their turn to use the box. These should be placed in a quiet location to the side of the entrance of the coop. so chickens coming in and out won't disturb the egg laying chickens. The hens need peace and quiet to lay their eggs. An egg laying space that is 12" x 12" is sufficient. You will also want the nesting box in a location that provides easy access for egg retrieval.
- Roosts: We rounded the edges of two 2x4's. The chickens roost together at night on this. These were set about 24" inches above the floor of the coop. As long as there is space, the chickens can jump that high without any issues.
- Openings/Windows: In our first coop, we installed small windows by the roosts. The chickens actually used these windows to see what was going on. Our seconds coop has a large window in one side. The entrance openings were about foot wide by 16" tall. Our coops open up into the run.
Run: the structure where hens have room to roam and spread their wings.
- Area needed: It is recommended to have between 10-15 square feet per hen for the run.
- Water: We use a plastic container waterer and automatic drinking cups. Both water sources are elevated at about 12" so they don't get dirty. The chickens will scratch around the run and anything kept at ground level will be filled with dirt. To save on time, we use a large, 5 gallon, Little Giant waterer. It sits on an upside down planter to get it off the ground. This will last for weeks. It will need to be cleaned out once in awhile. To supplement, we also have the automatic drinking cup. This has a small, yellow activator that fills the cup when the chickens put their beaks into the cup. This needs a pressure regulator as well as a tube running from your faucet to the coop.
- Feed: We use a galvanized, 12 lb hanging feeder. It is hung 12 inches above the ground for the same reason as the water. I have a piece of rope looped through one of the supports. An S-Hook helps you easily hang it or remove it for filling.
- Door: I installed a self-closing hinge so that the door will always swing shut on its own. Our chickens always want to make it into the yard and feast on our garden, so this is a nice feature. We also installed a simple latch to keep the door locked.
- Access to bare ground/dirt: Our hens spend considerable time digging small holes and dusting themselves with dirt. I think that this helps with cleaning themselves. Make sure that you provide space or opportunity to do this.
Step 3: Hens and Waiting for Your First Eggs
Our hens were about 5 months old before they started laying eggs.
- Feed: We feed our hens with organic laying pellets. A 50 pound bag is the way to go to get the best price. These cost around $25-$30 for a 50 pound bag. If you go non-organic, it will be about half the price. These are usually offered in crumble or pellet form. Personally, I find the pellet form easier to deal with. A 50# bag lasts us 2 months for 4 hens. I also feed our hens plenty of greens, so if you don't, they will probably eat a little more feed.
- Scratch: Buy the 50 pound bags for better pricing.
- Oyster Shell (helps strengthen egg shells) I buy a pound or two and mix it into the scratch.
- Bugs: From the garden: Worms, slugs, anything you can catch. They also love meal worms, but I find these to be exorbitantly priced compared to the feed and scratch.
- Greens: Our chickens love kale. They will fight over it like it is candy. See the video. I will give the chickens all the greens from our garden that have too many holes or slightly discolored. They will eat almost any greens you would eat. Hopefully some of these nutrients will make it into their eggs.
- Diary (Yogurt, Sour Cream, Milk, Cheese) I only give these to the chickens when we have too much. Instead of throwing it out before it goes bad, give it to the chickens, they will eat it.
- Generally, don't give the chickens anything you wouldn't eat, such as spoiled food.
- Avocado skin or pits
- Green potato skins
- Leaves of Rhubarb, Tomato or Potato Plants
- Ornamental plants
- Before our chickens started laying, we placed several of the plastic easter eggs in the egg laying area. It was very exciting getting out first egg. Once our chickens started laying, they averaged about 1 egg per day. In late fall to early winter, they will molt. They shed their old feathers and grow new ones. During this time, there is no egg laying. Usually some time in the early spring they start to lay again. With each year, they will lay less eggs. Our Wyandotte only produced for three years. Generally, you will find the your eggs have firmer white and yolks than store bought eggs.
- Cleaning: If you keep your coop clean, then the eggs will be relatively clean. Even if they are dirty, you can clean it by scratching it with your fingernail or using a fine grit sandpaper. Do not wash your eggs. They have a protective layer that will be removed with washing. This layer helps keep the eggs for fresher longer.
- Storing: If you will use your eggs within a few days, you can store them at room temperature. Otherwise, store them in the refrigerator. Our eggs have been usable for weeks when they are stored in the refrigerator.
- Our coop is filled with shavings. You can buy big bags of shavings at any feed store. They cost under $7 for a very large bag (6.5 cubic ft). About every three months, we will remove 1/2 the shavings and add new shavings. The mixture of shavings and chicken manure is put into the compost pile for use later in our garden.
- Rats and Mice: These critters are attracted to the free food available in the coop. They will find ways to dig into the coop and eat the food. Our rats usually come out around sunset when the chickens have gone into the coop to roost. With the rats and mice also come their bugs.
- Fleas: We learned the hard way about fleas from chickens. Ours came into the house on our clothes and there were many bites until we learned to control them. The recommended, natural method is to puff diatomaceous earth onto the chickens and coop. Diatomaceous earth is a chalk-like material that is made up of the tiny skeletons of diatoms. You can get a 5 pound bag for several dollars. I purchased a puffer for about $10. You should puff into all areas of the coop where fleas and bugs could hide. I hear that the diatoms kill the bugs by getting into the joints of their exoskeletons, preventing them from moving freely. At any rate, it is harmful to breath it in. So, I puff the coop and leave the yard for a few minutes until the dust settles.