Love backyard chickens? If you are thinking about getting hens, there are some important things to consider first to make sure you are ready for the commitment and provide a good home for these beloved egg-layers for many years to come.
This checklist comes from a lifelong chicken-keeper with a wealth of experience to share with us.
For more ideas for hen houses, see City Chicken Coop Tour.
Images in this post are provided with permission from Quarto Book Publishing USA who also provided a review copy of Gardening with Chickens by Lisa Steele.
Should You Have Hens?
I love chickens. And even though it is legal and possible where I live, I have never become a hen-keeper. And, as much as I love the idea, I know it is not realistic for us.
When I speak with friends who have adopted hens, the things they say they never anticpated are the amount of care required, the costs, and how long-living hens can be. Not that this is bad, but these are things we don’t often consider when we first fall in love with the idea of having a flock forgaing in our gardens or envision the fun of watching chicks hatch under warm lights in a box on the kitchen table.
Plus, unlike other pets that live in our homes, hens need their own quarters—both a hen house and a safe, scratching play ground—and that means knowing you can provide what they need not just today but for years to come. In sickness and in health. In heat waves and snowstorms. And everything in between. They may just lay eggs for a few years, but many live on for another 10 years or so. This can get complicated when you are moving home or need time away.
Hen-keeping in urban settings has become trendy in recent years and this is probably why we are seeing an increase in the number of chickens surrendered to animal shelters. At some point the reality sets in and you realize you may not be able to sustain the hen-keeper’s lifestyle. We already have a massive problem with unwanted dogs, cats, rabbits, guinnea pigs, and more. There are no resources available to add hens to the list.
With any adoption, the important thing is to make a fully-informed decision and get some real, hands-on experience first. Do you like chicken cuddles? Could you deal with an impacted egg? If it works out, fabulous. If not, that’s fine too. I adore hens and find plenty of ways to get my fix without having them at home.
Chicken Expert Lisa Steele
Lisa Steele, author of Gardening with Chickens
7 Things to Consider Before Getting Hens
Lisa Steele is the author of the new book—already a bestseller!—Gardening with Chickens, and she provided this helpful list.
A few chickens add whimsy, entertainment, and baskets full of delicious, fresh eggs to any backyard, but before you dive in and start a flock of your own there are a few things to consider:
1. Check your local zoning laws
Just because you live in a rural area, don’t assume you are automatically allowed to keep chickens, and conversely, just because you live within city limits, don’t assume you can’t start up a small flock. More urban areas are permitting a limited number of hens (usually no roosters), so contact your municipality to find out the laws where you live. Be sure to get them in writing in case you are challenged in the future, and if you don’t like the laws, work to change them before you buy a single chicken. Nothing is more heartbreaking when a family has to rehome their flock because they didn’t follow the rules.
2. Consider your neighbors
Even if you are allowed roosters where you are, consider your neighbors. Not everyone wants to live next door to a barnyard, and remember that roosters don’t only crow at sunup. They crow all day long, every day. Unless you’re going to be breeding, keeping a hens-only flock might be best.
3. Determine how many chickens you want/need
Regardless of how many chickens you are allowed, you need to think about how many you actually need. A hen will lay 4-5 eggs a week, so calculate how many eggs your family eats and then back into the number of chickens are required to lay enough eggs. Unless you’re planning on selling the eggs (in which case you’ll need to check your state Egg Laws regarding egg handling and washing, as well as any business license you’ll need), you likely don’t need more than 5-6 chickens to supply your family with plenty of eggs.
4. Can you afford them?
Chickens need daily feed and fresh water. A bag of feed can cost anywhere from $15-30 or more, depending on the brand you choose and if you are planning on feeding organically. Each chicken will eat about half a cup of feed a day, so depending on how many chickens you have, a bag will last either days or weeks. In addition to feed, chickens need supplements like calcium and grit, and also a safe place to live – coops and pens cost money, even if you plan on building your own. If you plan on selling eggs, you might be able to subsidize a bit of the cost, but in most areas, even organic eggs don’t command a high enough price to pay for feed.
5. Where will they live?
Before you even buy chicks, you will need to figure out where they will live as adult hens. Chickens are extremely vulnerable to predators, including family or neighbors’ dogs, so they need a secure pen and safe coop to sleep in. Building a coop is generally less expensive than buying one, but lumber and fencing aren’t cheap. You will want to plan on at least 3-4 square feet of coop floor space per hen and a minimum of 10 square feet of pen space per hen. Not a huge amount of space, but still something to consider. Your town may also have rules about how close the coop can be to your property lines, and you may need a building permit if the coop is over a certain size.
6. Where will you get them?
You can purchase chicks locally at a farm store, order them online from a breeder or hatchery or even purchase them from a swap. You can buy day old chicks or pullets (older birds almost ready to start laying). For the friendliest, healthiest flock, consider buying day old chicks from a reputable source – either a feed store or hatchery/breeder.
7. Time requirement
Chickens need to be fed every day and provided with clean water. Eggs need to be collected at least once a day, and the flock needs to be locked up before dark. Consider the time these chores will take (normally less than 30 minutes a day) and be sure you’re ready to spend the time on a daily basis. In addition to the daily chores, a coop needs to be cleaned on a regular basis, feeders and waterers need to be scrubbed. Trips to the feed store to buy feed, treats and bedding (straw or shavings) also need to be figured into the time devoted to your flock. Also, think about what you’ll do for family vacations or trips out of town, even just for one night. Someone will need to come and care for the chickens. Local 4-H groups, a neighbor or family member might be willing to stand in – especially if you let them take home all the eggs they collect.
Chickens only lay eggs regularly for 2-3 years and then production greatly drops off, but a well-cared for chicken can easily live to be ten or twelve years old, so be prepared for a flock of non-laying hens that still need to be fed and protected. Chickens, like other animals, are a commitment for life
Thank you, Lisa, for providing this list. If you are considering getting hens, this should help you determine if it’s a realistic plan or not. If it is something to pursue, the next step is learn all you can about hens and get to know some in-person. Find a local hen-keeper who is willing to show you what it’s like with hands-on experience. I’ve had friends who realized they really weren’t chicken people after their first cuddle with a hen, and others who knew from that moment onward that it was the beginning of a life-long love affair.
Gardening with Chickens
Gardening with Chickens by Lisa Steele
Welcome to a world where chickens and gardens coexist
Join Lisa Steele, chicken-keeper extraordinaire and founder of Fresh Eggs Daily, on a unique journey through the garden. Start by planning your garden and learning strategies and tips for keeping your plants safe while they grow. Plant with purpose, choosing from a dozen plans for theme gardens such as Orange Egg Yolks or Nesting Box Herbs. Or choose a design that’s filled with edibles – sharing the bounty with your family and your feathered friends. Then comes the fun part: enjoy the harvest, even let the chickens graze!
Lisa’s friendly writing, together with inspirational photos and illustrations, will have you rolling up your sleeves and reaching for your gardening tools. Lisa also covers a range of topics just for chicken-keepers, including:
- Chickens and composting
- Using chickens to aerate and till
- Coop window boxes
- Plants to avoid when you have chickens
- Lists of the most valuable crops and herbs
- Advice on how to harvest and use many of the plants
Whether you’re an experienced chicken keeper, master gardener, or just getting into these two wonderful hobbies, Gardening with Chickens is an indispensable guide for a harmonious homestead.