Introduction: Raise Backyard Chickens!
Backyard flocks are becoming more and more common, and with good reason. They're a fun connection to the "idealistic, sell everything, and start a farm" thoughts many daydream about, but are significantly less work. They can be a source of food for doomsday preppers, or serve as semi-wild pets (just don't kiss them). Understand however that raising chickens will likely not save you money on eggs. While the eggs are arguably healthier from a backyard flock, they'll probably end up costing more than the grocery store. .
In particular some of our other motivations included:
- The adventure of raising animals
- Contributing in a small way to our self sufficiency
- Control over what we're consuming (no antibiotics, organic, etc.)
- Bypassing health/ethical issues that commercial chicken farms have
- A hands-on project to share with our daughter
In this guide I aim give a high level summary of our process for getting chickens set up. It's not intended to be the sole reference to raise chickens, but contains our process and some lessons learned. I'll say this several times, but much of our choices are is specific to our situation (climate, yard, city codes...) so doing research before you jump in is very important.
With that, let's start with some of the constraints we considered.
Step 1: Due Diligence
Chickens are low maintenance, but they can live up to 5-6 years so keep that in mind before pulling the trigger.
Our climate is somewhat unique here in Phoenix. It's hot and very dry, so my coop was designed with ventilation in mind, not so much weatherproofing. Your situation will be different, so read message boards and other sources for great information and people in your area with chickens. Backyard Chickens is an excellent website that I consider the gold standard for getting feedback.
Another great resource was the book A Chicken in Every Yard. It's tailored towards small flock owners, as a lot of other resources can be targeted towards flocks of hundred. It gives lots of great descriptions of breed types, coop construction, behavioral and flock issues, it's just a solid primer
You'll also need to check your county and city ordinances. There are often rules of flock size, minimum distance to neighbors, some even require you to appear before the health department for annual approval. Research this ahead of time as it may be a non-starter.
Our city allows 5 hens, and our backyard is big enough that their coop meets the minimum distance requirement.
Step 2: Baby Chicks
With your planning done, now the fun begins!
In January 2015 we purchased 4 chicks from a feed store nearby that had breeds we wanted. They were all within 3 weeks of the same age (1-4 weeks old), although our Americana looked huge in comparison (why we named her Brienne from Game of Thrones). Tongue in cheek names are not required, but highly recommended.
Our breeds (and names) are:
- Americana (Brianne)
- Maran (Sorkaktani)
- Speckled Sussex (Pippen)
- Australorp (Mootle)
Different breeds have different personalities, egg yield (and color!) and potential health problems. Some are also better suited for certain climates over others, so we recommend researching ahead of time or talking to local chicken owners.
For the first month we kept our little chicks in an DIY incubator. It's just a safe place with a heating lamp to keep them warm. They have a small feeder and waterer, but honestly it was a pain because they would kick bedding into the feeders contently. With chicks, it's really important to keep their environment clean (and poop out of their water!) because they're extra susceptible to disease at that age. We were glad when they were old enough (~10 weeks) to go outside full time. In the short term we'd let them wander during the day to start getting used to the yard.
Starter feed is given to the chickens untill they're ~8 weeks old. Some contain medication to prevent a common disease in their youth, but if the chicks are vaccinated, this probably isn't necessary. There's organic and conventional options for both.
In this first month I built the coop, which I've broken out in the next steps. You'll find thousands of designs online, so don't feel limited that this is the only variation.
Step 3: Coup Design and Philosophy
Your chicken accommodations will have two parts, a coop and a run.
When it gets dark, chicken’s metabolism slows down and they become lethargic. They lose any ability to fend off predators, so the coop is designed to be a secure place for them to sleep at night. We used heavier duty hardware cloth for this enclosure.
The chicken run is the larger pen area where they can range relatively safely during the day. This was fenced off with just chicken wire, and the size depends on your flock. We built it big enough that they could be in the run full time while we're out of town, but most of the time they have free access to the whole backyard.
My area does not have predators (foxes, raccoons, coyotes…) that would require us to lock them in every night. However the run was still useful if we wanted to leave our backyard gate open and not have chickens wandering the streets.
All this is to say when you're designing your chicken hotel, keep your needed level of security in mind.
I drew up my design based around 2x2 redwood posts, and standard 5 foot roll of chicken wire.
Step 4: Coup Construction: Cut and Prep
Using my drawings, I cut my posts to length, taking care to label each segment with painters tape. The walls will be constructed by floating cedar fence panels in dados. For through dados I used a dado stack in the table saw, and stopped dados I made on my router table.
All the fence panels were planned to ½”, which made the router and dado stack easy to match up.
As much as you can, batch out your activities so you only have to set the fence once.
All my post joints are butt joints so pocket screws are the perfect solution here. They're plenty sturdy and make it come together fast.
Step 5: Coup Construction: Assemble and Add Panels
For the assembly using pocket screws, I made a quick 90 degree jig to help keep me square. This isn’t fine furniture so I didn’t stress about making it perfect.
As the frame comes together I would then measure and cut the fence panels to fit in the dados. Some squeeze clamps help hold everything tight while it’s screwed down.
I found that it was better to get your frame together, and then measure and cut the fence panels as things don’t always match up perfectly with your plans.
Step 6: Coup Construction: Nesting Box
The nesting box is where the Chickies like to lay eggs. The number of cubbies is dependent on your flock size, but for our four chickens, 2 spots were enough. The middle divider is just friction fit in two dados and is removable to make cleaning easier.
I built this to have easy access to eggs, which is why it is cantilevered off the main coop. There are many different designs, but I made it this way mostly for aesthetics.
Using a router and chisel I recessed the hinges so they sat nice and flush.
Step 7: Coup Construction: Wire It Up!
Using an obscene amount of staples I attached the hardware cloth and chicken wire to my coop and then trimmed to fit. More squeeze clamps helped bring it in line.
The chicken wire is for the area in the run below the coop, while hardware cloth encloses the actual coop.
Step 8: Coup Construction: Move It Outside
It’s at this point that I’m ready to bring it outside!
Attached to the wall using concrete anchors, and the floor is plywood with a laminate tile layer on top. I picked up some cheap tiles from the habitat restore, and they’ve done the job pretty well.
The run panels are just squares with chicken wire stapled on, so they were attached one at a time and went up pretty easy. Bury the bottoms a little bit so predators can't dig under the fence.
After it was secured to the wall I fit the doors to the coop, again recessing the hinges so they are pretty. This access is where you’ll clean out the bedding so the wide open doors are really nice.
The gate latch and carabineer was the best tamper proof lock that combination that I could come up with, but in the end the predators weren’t an issue for us.
Step 9: Coup Construction: Roof and Interior
The roof is somewhat a formality here in urban Arizona (no snow, no hawks, no rain). I simply added some thin veneer panels and pine edge banding to some plywood for looks. A few coats of polyurethane help protect it but again, we mostly just care about the sun.
Chickies like to be on perches, so I ran a bamboo rod across the length of the coop where it wouldn’t interfere with cleaning too much. The drum sander made a nice curve to support the perch.
Step 10: Coup Construction: Finish Out the Run
Final touches involve making a ramp to help the girls get inside. I attached some drip waterers to a bucket for water and a made a simple gravity pvc feeder. My pipes are just friction fit to make cleaning easier, but there's tons of other ideas online.
Chickens love to give themselves dust baths which help control fleas. If your yard is heavily grassed, consider putting a sandy area for them to dig. Our run was already dug out, so this wasn't a worry for us.
Step 11: Chicken Upkeep and First Eggs!
Your flock size will dictate your cleaning schedule, but here's what works well with our four.
- Daily or every other day: Collect eggs and check their water and food levels
- Once a week: Add a new top layer of pine bedding
- Once a month: Clean out coop entirely and replace with new bedding. Rake out the run if needed.
And that's really it. I wasn't lying when I said they were low maintenance.
At 8-10 weeks you'll change the type of feed from starter, to a layer formula. It's higher in calcium and helps keep them laying healthy eggs. Start by mixing both types 50/50 and then wean off the starter.
Around 4-6 months old is when they'll first start laying eggs and you may find them chilling in the nesting box a lot. Not an issue, just pick her up and check for eggs underneath.
Step 12: Enjoy Your Chickies!
Now that they're laying, all the hard work is done! It's time to enjoy your girls.
For some parting thoughts, here's some observations and general things we've noticed.
- Now that they're getting older, you may find some funny quirks. Normally chickens like to sleep on an elevated roost, but ours just dogpile in the corner. Weirdos.
- Chickens like to be petted on their breast, some more than others, but our Americana in particular likes to be picked up.
- Periodically chickens will go what's called "broody". They stop laying in an attempt to hatch their eggs (which isn't a possibility if you don't have a rooster!). Their production slows down or stops and just chill in the nesting box a lot. If this happened during our summers, we would make sure to take them out every so often and put her in front of the food and water. Usually lasts a few weeks but is no big deal.
- About annually they'll also molt where they'll lose a large amount of feathers. They generally won't lay for at least a couple weeks. Giving them a little extra protein and electrolytes can help them through this time.
- Sometimes the girls will get it in their head to hide eggs, so if you're short normal production a few days in a row, might be time to go on an scavenger egg hunt.
- Injuries and sickness are never fun but may happen. Last winter our Australorp became sick and we weren't able to nurse her back. It seemed that half her body became paralyzed and wasn't able to eat or feed herself. While sad, it as a mercy to put her down, and we used the technique in this video.
- There will be high production times with eggs, and some weeks where you're only getting a few. Great way to get some good will with neighbors, or a nice built in payment method if anyone checks on them while you're on vacation.
- Remember that they'll decimate a garden in no time, and will love to poop on your patio furniture.
- They will duck their head and sprint towards you if they think you have chicken treats. They'll go crazy over an apple core.
- They have pretty much entirely prevented us for getting any compost, because they eat all the scraps from the bin before it has a chance to rot.
- Our biggest chicken (the Maran) is the most "chicken" - she's scared of everything!
- Give eggs to neighbors and friends, or as payment for checking on them while you're on vacation.
We've loved our adventure of raising chickens, and highly recommend going for it if you've been nervous or intimidated by the thought.
Thanks for reading through! There's plenty more that I didn't mention in this guide, but is covered in other sources like the book I recommended. If you're serious about chickens, that book will give you everything you need to know to begin.