Learning how to raise chickens is a fulfilling and relatively simple way to be more self-reliant and be in closer connection to your food, whether you have a city yard or a country farm! There are tons of great resources out there for chicken rearing, but here in this article I’ll give you a run-down on the basics of chickens and how to get started with your own flock.
How to Raise Chickens: History/Region of Origin
The Red Jungle Fowl, hailing from Southeast Asia, is the predecessor of modern domestic chickens. By 3200 BCE domesticated fowl were being kept in Asia, especially in India. Chickens did not arrive in Europe until 700 BCE. Theories state that the first chickens were probably kept not for meat nor eggs but for cockfighting.
How to Raise Chickens: Terminology
Hen: Female chicken
Rooster: Male chicken
Broody: When a chicken sits on her eggs to incubate them for hatching
Cloaca/vent: The single opening for reproduction and waste matter
How to Raise Chickens: Purposes
-Pest control in the garden and yard
-Turning the soil in garden beds: After the harvest, let the chickens scratch and eat potential pests and give their manure to the land. Come spring, the manure will have decomposed and added nitrogen to the bed, increasing fertility.
-Compost from bedding and manure: Chicken manure is very “hot” and could burn plants if applied directly, but if composted and allowed to decompose it makes a wonderful fertilizer.
How to Raise Chickens: Considerations Before Acquiring Chickens
-Time Commitment: Most chickens need to be let out of their coop in the morning and closed in the evening to avoid predation. Are you ready to be home every morning and evening? This level of commitment can be lessened through specific types of enclosures. See “Shelter”.
-Space: Chickens do not need a ton of space, but they do need at least a run or chicken yard where they can stretch and scratch the ground and shelter. Urban chickens are completely do-able as long as you have a little corner of land!
How to Raise Chickens: Chick Purchasing Considerations
-Mail-order Chicks: When purchasing through a hatchery or farm, ensure someone will be home when the chicks arrive. With the mail-carrier still present, ensure you have the correct number of birds and that they are all alive. The mail carrier will give you a slip to send to the hatchery if not all is well. Ordering from a farm or hatchery (or driving out to one) often gives you more breed selection than the feed store.
-Feed store Chicks: Ensure chick enclosure is clean and dry with full, clean food and water containers. Consider researching where the birds are coming from and if you are okay with the ethical practices of that farm. Chicks should be active, have clear eyes and nose with no discharge, and the vent should be clean with no build up.
How to Raise Chickens: Breeds
Because there are so many breeds and crosses of chicken, I will cover the types of breeds and their general characteristics, pros, and cons. Many pros and cons may be reconsidered based on the desired purpose of the bird.
Breed can be narrowed down much more easily once the desired type is identified.
Conventional Meat Breeds
Breeds bred to grow as fast as possible with as much meat as possible.
-Less expensive than organic free-range chicken meat from the store!
-Bred to grow fast and efficiently turn feed into meat
-Have large breasts and thighs and easy-to-pluck feathers.
-Placid demeanor, bred not to move around much and waste calories.
-Health problems related to rapid growth can occur (sores on the breast from laying down, sores on feet from not moving around to dislodge dirt and manure.)
-Very dependent on their caretakers for feed and protection; they have very little natural instinct to stay safe or to forage.
-Usually do not have the capability of reproduction and do not have long life expectancy beyond the butcher date because their intent is for meat.
-Must be butchered all at once when they are at the appropriate age because health can decline quickly
-Must be separated from young egg layers because they grow so much faster and could harm smaller chicks
Common Meat Breeds:
-Cornish Cross (reaching tender broiler weight of 4lbs in only 7-8 weeks)
-Red Ranger Broiler (reaching 7 pounds in 80 days).
Dual-Purpose Chickens for Meat and Eggs
Birds that are bred to lay eggs well and have enough meat to be worth eating. They “don’t lay quite as well as a laying breed and aren’t quite as fast growing as a meat breed, but they lay better than a meat breed and grow plumper faster than a laying breed” (from The Backyard Homestead –Carleen Madigan). They tend to be larger, thus more meat than egg laying breeds.
-Well suited to a small-scale system or homestead because birds who don’t produce anymore are still suitable to eat
-Require less high-protein grain than meat birds
-Young roosters that need to be culled from the flock have more meat than slower growing egg-layers
-One system works for all the birds, you do not have to keep a meat bird system and an egg layer system
-More hardy than super quick growing meat breeds
-Not as fast growing as meat breeds
-Don’t have as much meat as meat breeds
-Don’t lay as much as egg laying breeds
Common dual-purpose breeds:
Wyandottes, Buff Orpingtons, Barred Rocks, Black Australorps, and White Rocks
From The Livestock Conservancy: “Breeds that were carefully selected and bred over time to develop traits that made them well-adapted to the local environment and they thrived under farming practices and cultural conditions that are very different from those found in modern agriculture.” And thus can work well for a homestead. You can find heritage breeds for any purpose: meat, eggs, or dual-purpose
-Preservation of genetic diversity
-More self-sufficient than many breeds, especially for free range systems
-Maternal instinct (purposely bred out of many popular egg-layer breeds)
-Lower chick mortality rates
-Not prone to disability related to rapid growth
-Slower to mature
-Potentially more difficult to come by for purchase
-Broodiness can make it more difficult to collect eggs or decrease egg production
-Predator awareness can make them more “wild” and skittish
-Less appropriate for systems with less space
A Few Heritage Breeds:
-Jersey Giant (11-13 pounds), which also produces good eggs
-The Dorking, which is kind and good with children and makes an excellent mother
-Buckeye (9lbs), which is very well adapted to cold weather and prefers to forage instead of being confined.
-Visit https://livestockconservancy.org/ for full lists of heritage breeds and their qualities
Top Egg Layers
Some of the top egg layers include the Delaware, a heritage breed producing jumbo sized brown eggs; the Rhode Island Red, which lays more brown eggs than average and is tolerant to heat and cold in addition to being adaptable to a pen or free ranging; and the Leghorn, known as the best egg layer available, producing over 300 white eggs per year.
How to Raise Chickens: Shelter and Runs
-Chicks that are not being raised by a mother hen usually live inside the house/barn/garage for the first 6 weeks of life, until they have their first true feathers. This helps avoid predation. (I once watched a bear eat my teenage hens that I put outside too early!)
-Chicks that are being raised by a mother hen may still need to be separated (with the mother) from the rest of the flock so they don’t get harmed by older birds
-They need 6” of space per bird until they are two weeks old, when space must be increased.
-Continue to increase space until chicks are moved outside.
-The pen or brooder floor should have clean absorbent bedding such as wood shavings, newspapers, or straw.
-The bedding must be kept clean and dry with maintenance ranging from daily to every several days depending on the number of birds.
-One heat lamp per 25 chicks should be used to keep them warm until they develop their feathers. Overcrowding can lead to trampling and suffocation when they all try to get under the light.
-The heat lamp should be 85-90 degrees and can be reduced 5-10 degrees by hanging it higher each week until the brooder matches the ambient temperature. Also, if placed off to one side chicks can move to self regulate their temperature.
-Make sure light is low enough to be warm but not in a position where it can catch bedding or chicks on fire!
-A red light decreases chick’s ability to see blood and keeps pecking to a minimum
-It is possible to forgo a heat lamp if an electricity-free system is desired- but chicks would have to be kept indoors near a heat source or be raised by a hen
-Over-crowding leads to bullying, feather-plucking, stress, even cannibalism
-There are no ‘magic numbers’ for chicken spacing, because conditions can vary greatly depending in the situation, but here are some guidelines:
-Temperature (cold weather causes chickens to huddle together more)
-Manure (the larger the floor space the less manure needs to be managed)
-If food and water will be outside or inside (if kept outside, less manure/crowding because birds will be out more)
-Wind and rain proof construction
-Roosting bars (roosts), suspended poles of lumber or saplings which the chickens can at least partially wrap talons around. This is where they sleep.
-Wood shavings or pellets are preferable for coop floors (sand works great for yards)
-Nesting box(es) for laying hens
-Movable coops with attached yards allow chickens to graze on fresh grass and provide manure across a big swath of land
-Human-power required to move small chicken tractor or vehicle/horse power is required to move large tractors
-Some people use chicken tractors in the spring-summer-fall and more hardy quarters in the winter
Chicken Runs and Yards:
-The safest area for chickens to range is a yard/run fully covered with chicken wire to protect from aerial predators
-If the yard is completely secure, you do not have to close the chickens into the coop at night
-If there is any way for predators to enter the yard, strongly consider closing the door to the roost when the chickens go to bed at dusk, and let them back out in the morning. Light sensitive monitors or timers can be used to do this automatically without you
How to Raise Chickens: Feed
Formulated feed can be purchased and contains carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and protein. This chart can give you an idea of the amount that is needed in raising a chicken on store bought feed.
Additional Feed Possibilities
-Spent brewer’s grain
-If chickens are allowed to forage or free range, they should not need any supplemental vitamins or minerals except calcium, which all layers need for healthy egg production.
-Calcium can be provided with oyster shell or the chicken’s own eggs shells, so long as they are ground/crushed up to minimize cannibalizing their own eggs.
-Grit, little pebbles, tiny rocks, or sand is needed for chickens to grind down their food in their gizzards as they don't have teeth.
-Provide fresh, clean water daily.
How to Raise Chickens: Health
-Most health problems can be avoided by ensuring chickens have an adequate diet, enough space, and as stress-free of a life as possible (eliminating predators, including barking dogs).
-All new additions to the flock should be quarantined for a minimum of 2 weeks before adding them to the flock. (30-60 days is more ideal, especially for a larger farm with higher consequences.)
-At first signs of illness, consider isolating the sick bird until you can make sure the problem will not spread.
Signs of Disease:
-Abnormal feces: Milky clear, bloody, diarrhea
-Messy, unkempt feathers
-Discharge from mouth or nostrils
-Blisters or wounds
-Abnormal aggression (not previously witnessed)
-Lack of interest in eating or drinking
-Chickens will peck at the sight of blood and can severely harm each other. If a chicken is bleeding remove them from the flock! Once the blood has dried they can be returned.
-Chickens can be extremely hardy and resilient. With proper care they can heal from impressive wounds.
For bloody wounds:
I hope you found these considerations for how to raise chickens helpful and that they assist you in maintaining a healthy, happy and productive flock. Happy chicken raising!
The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Raising Small Animals – Carlotta Cooper
The Complete Encyclopedia of Chickens – Esther Verhoef and Aad Rijs
The Joy of Keeping Chickens – Jennifer Megyesi
Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens – Gail Damerow
The Backyard Homestead –Carleen Madigan
Learn about Permaculture Courses at Alderleaf
About the Author: Leah Houghton is an experienced outdoor educator. She wrote articles while teaching at Alderleaf. Learn more about Leah Houghton.