Think you want to keep some chickens on your small farm or homestead? Maybe you're looking for laying hens only or a combination of laying hens and birds for meat, but you're not sure you know how to care for them?
Chickens are a great species to start with on the farm. They are easy to care for, inexpensive, and rewarding. But before you place that order for baby chicks, are you ready to act the part of a mother hen for several weeks and give them the hourly attention they need?
Learn all you need to know about raising chickens, such as how to house them, the best breed to pick, the supplies you will need, and much more.
Pick Your Housing Arrangement
Will you let your chickens roam your fields or will you keep them confined in a coop or run? Your space limitations may determine the answer to this question. If you live in an urban or suburban setting, you probably want to keep the birds confined with a fenced run outside their coop for fresh air and sunshine.
Chickens will eat and scratch in flowers and garden plants, so you will need to be careful if you let the birds free range. If you want them to eat fresh grass and have room to roam but want to protect your crops and garden, you can build or buy a chicken tractor and use portable electric net fencing to enclose a perimeter around the tractor. Then every few days to a week, depending on how many hens and how much space you have, you move the portable fencing and chicken tractor to fresh ground.
Ongoing chicken care is fairly easy. Feeding, watering, gathering eggs, and periodically cleaning bedding are the main tasks. The key is to be sure you keep your schedule regular since hens cannot go very long without water.
A Coop and Chicken Supplies
There are many possibilities for chicken coops. They can be small and simple, made from salvaged material, massive and complex, or beautiful enough to exist in a city backyard. They can be purchased pre-made or built yourself. The important features are an adequate size, protection from predators, roosting poles, adequate ventilation, and nest boxes.
There are a few things you will need for your pullets (young hens) once they're out of the baby chick phase such as waterers, feeders, bedding/litter, feed, scratch, and grit. Remember that many of these items can be made from things you may already have. For example, it is easy to fashion a feeder out of a five-gallon bucket.
Choose the Best Breed for You
There are more than 200 varieties of chickens available today. There are many things to consider when determining the best breed for your flock. These factors include climate, breed temperaments, egg production levels, and whether you want a "dual-purpose" bird that is good for eggs and meat or purely an egg producer. There are some breeds that work out better for a smaller farm or homestead.
If you're planning to breed your flock and you want purity (you want to hatch purebred Buff Orpingtons, for example), you'll want to stick with a single breed or house each breed separately.
Raising Baby Chicks
Caring for baby chicks in the first few weeks is a time-intensive but fun process. Collect specific supplies before chicks arrive. You will need to keep them under a heat lamp, monitor their temperature, and make sure they have food and water. Each week, you will lower the temperature until they are comfortable in outdoor temperatures. And once they are acclimated, then you can remove the heat lamp and move them to the main coop. If raising day-old chicks sounds like too much work or is not logistically feasible for you, then you can purchase starter pullets.
Do You Need a Rooster?
If you plan on hatching your own chicks, then yes, you will need a rooster. But, if you only want to keep chickens for egg production, then no, you will not need one. Hens can produce eggs without a rooster.
Roosters are feisty. As such, they are good flock protectors. If you need another level of flock protection, a rooster might provide just the level of predator protection you need.
Singh, Manpreet, Brian D. Fairchild, and Claudia Dunkley. Management Guide for the Backyard Flock. University of Georgia Extension Office.