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Raising Laying Hens: What You Need to Know

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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, that 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 feet 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 a 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 feet 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, foxes, 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.

As 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.

It’s not.

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 the feed is an ongoing cost.

Organic, whole grain, soy, and corn-free feed cost us around 70 cents a pound. This averages out to about $3.50 a dozen for eggs during the laying season (we don’t supplement light in our winter coop, so we don’t yield nearly as many eggs in the winter).


Even cheap, pelleted, non-organic feed from the feed store (which, in our experience yields fewer 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 fewer 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 take 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 backyard 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 the 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.

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Becoming Self-Sufficient - Soul Healing Adventures

Sunday 30th of January 2022

[…] Get some¬†backyard chickens. […]

Lisa

Friday 12th of October 2018

Hi all. I live in Kaikoura New Zealand and have 6 Chickens, 4 lambs, 2 calves,3 sheep,2 dogs and a cat. We have 5 acres and have been living in our caravan for 7 months while our house gets built. I have had chickens for about 6 years now and on my second lot. They are wonderful and keep us in eggs most of the year....we dont have the cold weather like you...cold to us yes, but only to around -2 or 3 so lucky. One thing lately is I had a clucky hen that sat in the nest on and off foe a while so in the spring I got 2 fertile eggs from a friend and put them under her. She hatched them and they are now almost a year old. However one is white while the others are brown shavers. She is quite bullied and it makes me a bit sad. Even to the point of having to feed put feed else where so she gets some. Anyone else have this problem? Theres something to be said in the saying 'pecking order'......maybe its the colour of her feathers?

Danielle McCoy

Monday 15th of October 2018

It's not generally the color of the feathers, it's just chickens. I highly recommend a segregation pen within your run. You need to find your bullies and segregate them from the flock. This will change the pecking order while they're not able to run with the rest of the ladies. Reintroduce each bird from the segregation pen on separate days waiting about 3 days before you add them back in. It should help, but you'll have to find the offenders first.

April

Sunday 25th of March 2018

Great Artical. Thank you. Enjoying networking with you a fellow farmer and blogger

Danielle McCoy

Monday 26th of March 2018

Thank you, April!

Connie Zhude

Friday 5th of January 2018

Truth...all of the above! In this very cold weather you MUST go out several times a day and check for eggs, or they will be frozen. My husband used to take care of the hens, but we discovered they trigger his asthma. So I have the job a nd LOVE it!!! I have been through various ways to dispense feed. Found the best way for me has been a hanging feeder with a 3 gallon pan underneath that catches the majority of the feed they throw around. I can then put that back into the feeder. I have electricity to the coop, as it is in one corner of the goat barn. I use a heated large, dog watering bowl and have a heat lamp. It has helped A LOT! As you said, thawing out water at -20 is NOT fun!! 2 tablespoons of organic vinegar with 'the mother' in a gallon of water. My hens were not laying at all and had finished molting After talking with another person, I added a feather fixer, scratch grains and oyster shells to my feed, making it an equal amount of the laying mash, scratch grains and feather fixer...a hand full of the oyster shells. It has helped immensely and I am getting an average of 6-8 eggs a day. I have 14 hens, at the moment. I also 'treat' them daily and they now expect me to bring them something, meeting me at the door every AM...clucking loudly!! LOL!! Canned corn, homemade treats, scrambled eggs (if I miss some eggs and they freeze, scramble them and feed them back to them), plain popcorn, fruit and green veggies in the warmer months.. I keep them busy by giving them something to do during the winter. I saved some plastic bottles and put 2 holes in them, about 1-1/2 inch from the bottom. I fill them with shelled sunflower seeds and hang them in the coop during the winter. They quickly learned to peck at them, knocking the seeds onto the ground. Working for their treats! Gotta keep the girls happy!

Danielle McCoy

Monday 8th of January 2018

Hi, Connie. Those are all great tips! We also feed our hens any frozen eggs, scrambled, back to them. Give them cabbages hanging in the coop to peck at in this frozen weather is fun, too. Chickens really are a treat, but like all other things, they require work! I might have to try the shelled sunflower seeds. Right now we have a huge block of seeds and corn that I made that they're enjoying pecking at. ;)

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