I read an article from the New York Times yesterday that people aren’t only panic buying toilet paper, they’re hoarding chickens. Real, live chickens, y’all.
And while that’s fantastic news if you look at it from the standpoint of people taking control of their food and becoming more self sufficient. It’s not so fantastic to think that people may be buying them not at all knowing what they’re getting into.
I wrote this post about a year after taking on chickens for eggs on our homestead, and while we were prepared… so many aren’t, even when it’s a planned purchase.
So, I decided to rework it and let folks know… it’s more than fluffy butts and fresh eggs when it comes to raising chickens and you need to be prepared.
Not that it isn’t worthwhile, it definitely is, but there are a few things you should know before entering the world of chickens….
The Truth About Chickens
1. They’re social.
You can’t have just one chicken. Sure, there are random people that have some strange pet chicken running around in a diaper in their kitchen, but that’s not the norm.
Chickens need to socialize, they need, well… other chickens. And, of course, two is always better than one. But, let’s be honest here, you want at least 3 and that is being generous.
Most hatcheries have gotten to where they will ship chicks at a minimum of 3, but they often throw in a few extras. Feed stores in our area have a 5 to 6 chick minimum purchase. Some will let you mix ducks and turkeys to meet that quota, others won’t.
So, just realize, you’re going to get a few chickens, not one. And, chicken math? It’s a thing. Before you know it, you’ll be wanting all of the chickens and you need to talk yourself out of it before you crowd up the coop.
2. They need a coop.
A coop doesn’t have to be fancy, it doesn’t have to be expensive, but it has to provide them with a safe place to sleep at night, nest and lay eggs, and get out of the elements.
Each chicken will need a minimum of 2-3 square foot of floor space inside the coop. Of course, the more space, the happier they’re going to be.
You can purchase a pre-fabricated chicken coop from a place like tractor supply and it will do… for a while. But, know they aren’t very well constructed and probably won’t last over a year or two.
We opted to build our own… almost completely for free. And our coop is big. We managed to get a lot of free lumber from a local business so the only money in our coop are the door handles and hinges, the windows, and the roofing (much of which we already had laying around).
There are tons of DIY coop ideas you can find online and even if you’re not very building inclined, they’re pretty easy to piece together, step by step.
3. They need a place to stretch.
They need to get out of the coop. Generally, if you’re making an enclosed run area for your birds, you’ll want 8 to 10 square foot of ground per bird.
If you want to free range them, that’s fine. But, there are pros and cons to free ranging chickens.
Realize if you do choose to free range, they will leave droppings all over the place and you’ll want to make sure you’ve got your garden fenced in and covered up like Fort Knox or they’ll be dining on your lettuce and beans in no time.
We keep our chickens in an enclosed run most of the time, occasionally letting them out to free range on nice days. We have hawks, eagles, fox, and other predators that will take them in seconds so it’s easier to keep them safe in a run.
A simple chicken wire fence, electric chicken netting, or even just some deer netting will do. Again, it doesn’t need to be fancy, it simply has to work. If you have a small coop, you can make the run mobile and let them forage on different areas of the property so they aren’t killing all of the grass, too.
4. They’re defenseless.
So many chicken predators in the world. Even your dog and barn cat can go rogue and attack, or worse kill, your chickens.
Like I mentioned, foxes, hawks, eagles, coyotes… even opossums, mink, and raccoons will get to your birds (or their eggs). This is why we only free range for limited times when we are out to herd them back to safety if necessary.
If you have a rooster, that actually does his job, it will help protect your flock… but only marginally. We have guinea fowl and have watched the hen fight off a fox before. Livestock guardians can also help protect your flock.
But whether you utilize other animals or a fence, or just a keen eye, know that your birds are pretty much defenseless and will succumb to the claw or tooth of a predator before you can blink.
5. Nothing in life is free.
I went to the store a while back… chicken eggs for 50 cents a dozen. 50 cents! And I often think that this gives people that are just getting into chickens the idea that raising them is inexpensive.
Chicken feed is costly and even if you free range them and have great foragers, you’re going to have to feed them. Fodder is an optional supplement for when the grass is dormant, but feed of some capacity is going to be on your list more often than not.
Your coop and your run (assuming you make one) will cost you a little bit… even if mainly in the form of sweat equity. But feed is an ongoing cost.
Organic, whole grain, soy and corn free feed costs us around 70 cents a pound. This averages out to about $3.50 a dozen for eggs during the laying season (we don’t not supplement light in our winter coop, so we don’t yield near as many eggs in the winter).
Even cheap, pelleted, non organic feed from the feed store (which, in our experience yields less eggs) comes out to a cost of about $2.00 a dozen.
And, that’s a conversation for another day, but what you feed them makes a difference, in my experience anyway. The cheap feed has resulted in more health problems (becoming egg bound and prolapsed vents) and less eggs. The more expensive feed leaves us with a healthy flock, nicely shelled eggs and more production. Our two and three year old hens are still laying almost daily.
6. The best things in life take hard work and dedication.
While it’s well worth the work and investment you have to put in, caring for chickens takes work.
Your hens will reward you with their fun antics (we don’t even need TV when we have chickens running around the yard) and fresh, healthy eggs right in your own back yard in the spring, summer and into fall.
Chickens will even lay in the winter if you supplement them, but they do require 12 hours of light a day and will produce more having 14-16 hours of light.
But, you’re going to have wood shavings (or straw or hay) full of chicken manure to shovel out and put in the compost (even using deep litter).
I love my chickens, but coop cleaning day is not my favorite. But, worth it….
You’ll also have to get creative to keep them frostbite free and keep their water thawed in the winter.
Also consider if you’re going on vacation and enjoy taking trips… someone needs to care for your birds while you’re away. We can usually get a neighbor or my dad to come out and care for them, but look into your local FFA or 4-H program for sitters as well.
You need someone who is reliable and knows what they’re doing. Don’t rely on a bucket full of water and an automatic door for your birds. They can wind up out of water and an automatic door could potentially trap them outside.
And chickens will be productive for a while and you need to figure out what you will do once they are costing more to keep than they are providing you in eggs. It’s all about what your end goal is… be prepared for that.
7. They’ll be worth it.
Of course they will be. But, everyone should know that they require work, they cost money, and you need to sometimes make hard choices on what to do once they’ve outlived their egg laying purposes.
That’s what this life is all about, though. Sacrifices, sweat equity, and of course… some tears.
But, knowing where your food comes from, knowing that your chickens are healthy, happy, and eating good food? Far outweighs everything else.
This is what we need in our world. More self reliance. More knowing exactly where our food comes from and who raised it. And while it’s far from a cheaper option… it costs far less in the end to eat healthy food than overproduced stuff.