This comprehensive week by week guide will walk you through raising backyard chickens.
Ever since we moved into our latest home, we thought about raising backyard chickens. The baby chicks are so cute during springtime; chickens eat bugs, and who can pass up fresh, organically grown eggs? But it’s a long way from thinking about having chickens in the backyard to actually raising them in a healthy and protected way.
We have learned a few things along the way from our own four chickens, Lulu, Liza, Libby & Loren. Nick and I watched a bunch of chicken related videos and talked to several chicken farmers since we brought our chicks home. Raising backyard chickens is exciting, a lot of fun and filled with many milestones – from bringing cute little baby chicks to your home to celebrating your first fresh egg. Welcome to raising chickens!
Before Getting Chickens
Not every neighborhood allows chickens so be sure to talk to your neighbors and city representatives to find out about local laws and ordinances. Think about where you want to keep your adult chickens. Each chicken will need about 2 sq. ft. of indoor space, and 5-10 sq. ft. of outdoor space, once they are full-grown.
The number of birds in your chicken flock hinges on your local ordinance. Start out small with a flock of 4 to 6 chicks. You can always introduce more chicks later on, once you get the hang of it.
8 questions you should ask yourself before getting chickens:
- How many chickens can I comfortably keep in my backyard?
- Do I only want hens, or do I also want a rooster to raise baby chicks?
- Is a rooster even allowed in my neighborhood?
- Do I need a permit to raise chickens and/or to build a coop?
- Are there any rules on where the coop can be built?
- What is my budget for chicks, the coop, feed, etc.?
- Who will feed/water the chickens and collect the eggs?
- What will happen to the chickens if I change my mind later on?
A Word Of Warning – Chickens Are Not Pets
There are hundreds of backyard chicken breeds. Some have fancy, colorful feathers while others can produce a large amount of eggs every year. They all have one thing in common. They are farm animals and the coop will be stinky.
Here are some popular chicken breed choices.
Baby chicks are super cute and you have probably seen pictures of gorgeous chickens with beautiful, silky plumage posing on pillows or videos of a flock of chickens strutting around a well-kempt backyard. Do not be fooled!
Chickens eat a lot of food and they end up pooping everywhere.
As the chicks get older, they get more adventurous and will explore every nook and cranny of your backyard, your flowerbed and will poop on your stoop. Moreover, they can fly, just not very high or very far.
Getting Your Backyard Chicks
Make sure you purchase chicks from a credible US hatchery or a farm supply store that vaccinates chicks on their first day for Marek’s disease and coccidiosis. You can learn more about Marek’s disease from Gail Damerik on her hatchery blog.
Ms. Damerow has been keeping chickens for nearly 50 years and has written several books about them. On the day you are getting your chicks ask questions about the breed, the chicks gender and at what age you should switch to a layer feed.
Here is a checklist of things you will need for your baby chicks:
- A safe, clean, draft-free, temperature controlled room
- Heat lamp & 25 watt light bulb
- Pine wood shavings
- Starter feed (non-medicated for vaccinated chicks)
Prepare yourself and your family by setting up your chick brooder at least one day in advance.
Disinfect all plastic materials prior to use with a mixture of 10% bleach and 90% water. Rinse well and let air dry. Place your brooder in a warm, draft-free area near an electrical outlet. We used a large plastic bin as our brooder, we lined it with paper towels and it worked very well for our baby chicks. You can also use a large cardboard box or cordon off an area in a small room.
Add wood shavings (not cedar) to the floor of your brooder to keep the area dry and odor free. Remove wet and soiled bedding daily. Unless the room you use is very warm, assemble a small heat lamp about 20 inches above the bedding in the center of the brooder.
The temperature inside the brooder should be around 90 – 95 degrees F on day one. Provide starter feed on a paper towel and water in a small dish. We added a packet of probiotics to the water for the first week.
WEEK 1 – Welcome Home Chicks
Be sure to wash your hands with soap and water, and handle your baby chicks gently. You can build a bond with your chicks by holding and petting them each day. Spending time together can imprint chicks and helps them to form family-friendly personalities. Give your chicks names and talk to them so they get used to your voices.
The three most important elements of raising baby chickens are:
Make sure your room is warm and the heat lamp is set up properly. Your brooder should be at around 95 degrees at chick level. We didn’t use a thermometer ourselves, as long as the brooder feels nice, cozy and warm, your chicks will be happy and chirpy.
Your chicks need to be taught how to drink and where to find their water source. The first thing to do when you place your chicks into the brooder is gently dip their beaks into the water dish. Monitor your little flock to make sure all of them are drinking within the first couple of hours.
Provide a starter feed when raising backyard chickens with at least 18% protein.
Place the feed on a paper towel or small, shallow dish. A yogurt lid works well for the first day. Introduce a chick feeder on day 2 and remove the dish as soon as they learn to eat from it. Your chicks will be messy.
Provide a consistent light source. Your chicks need about 18 – 22 hours of light for proper growing for the first week. Then you can reduce light to natural day length throughout the rest of the growing period.
WEEK 2: Keep Your Chicks Growing Strong
Your little chicks are growing a little bit every day. They are getting more and more social and can provide hours of entertainment. They are a lot of fun to play with and their little squeaks and peeps are adorable.
Listen to your chicks: when everything is good and they are happy you will hear soft cheeping. A chick that is stressed out will have a shrill, high pitched or very rapid cheep. This is a call for help and you should investigate for any problems.
Their brooder temperature should be around 90 degrees F now. Make sure to provide them with fresh feed and cool water daily. Remove any soiled or wet litter.
WEEK 3: Preparing The Coop
You might already have a coop for the chickens in your backyard from a previous owner. If not, now is the time to start building and/or getting the coop ready for your chicks.
There are several different coop design options available. This should be based on the type of structure you want, the available space and the breed of chickens you choose.
3 Favorite Coop Designs:
- Chicken Tractors – They are best suited for a small flock of chickens that live in a big yard. This coop is built on two wheels and can be moved around.
- Chicken Wagons – This is a large moveable coop with four wheels. The wagon is ideal for a large flock and can be easily moved to another area.
- Chicken Coops – Stationary coops with or without a chicken run are the most common. They work well in most backyards since they can be custom built and require minimal space.
Coop location, location, location… Be sure to place your chicken coop near a window so you can keep an eye on your flock when they’re playing in the yard. Think of it as chicken TV!
Backyard Chicken Coop Considerations
- Space – Each chicken needs to have at least 4 feet of indoor space and around 6 – 12 feet of outdoor space to thrive.
- Ventilation – Your coop needs to have windows and/or ventilation holes so the chicks have fresh air during all seasons. Air movement is very important because of ammonia build up from the chicken poop.
- Access – Keep your own body size in mind when choosing to purchase or building a coop. You need to be able to fit in order to clean out the coop on a regular basis.
- Food & Water – Before introducing your chicks to the coop, designate an area for their food and water. It should be easily accessible, protected from rain and off the ground.
- Roosts – Egg laying chickens sleep off the ground so provide a place for them to roost. A 2×4, a wood railing or tree branch all work well.
- Nests – Provide a 1-foot cube for every two to three hens for laying eggs. The nests should be off the ground and in the darkest corner of the coop. Consider an outdoor access door for easy egg collection.
- Predators – Use ½ x ½ inch galvanized wire and/or hardware cloth to cover all the openings of your coop. We also covered the bottom of our coop with a wire mesh to deter predators from tunneling into the coop. Cover up the wire flooring with a layer of dirt. Try to keep your chickens safe at night as best you can.
WEEKS 4 – 5 – Your Chickens are Teenagers
Ideally your chicks should stay in the brooder until they are about 6 weeks old, but if the weather is warm and dry you can transition them into their coop a little earlier. Keep playing with and talk to your chickens so they get used to being around you and hearing your voice.
Watch your chickens change.
During this time, you will see several changes in your chicks. They are starting to grow primary feathers and a pecking order is being developed. The chicks’ fluff is slowly disappearing, by the end of six weeks they will be fully feathered, and their wattles and combs are starting to grow.
Your chickens will need more food and are getting taller. You might need to provide them with a larger feeder and raise it off the ground by placing it on a wooden block.
Chickens are messy eaters, adjust the height of your feeder to the height of the birds back.
As you chicks get older, they will develop a pecking order to regulate who gets to eat and drink first. This is normal chicken behavior but watch out for excessive pecking. This might indicate a more serious problem.
Bigger chickens make bigger messes, so be diligent about cleaning their brooder regularly. Chicks that are sick will be lethargic and might not eat or have diarrhea or poopy bottom. or pasty butt. Check out this article from Southland Organics to learn about pasty butt from poultry specialist Alyssa.
Healthy chicks will eat and drink often and play as a group.
WEEKS – 6 – 8 – Your Chicks are ready for the Coop
Your chicken are getting too big for the brooder and need to be transitioned to the coop. Most chicks can regulate their body temperature by this time and don’t need the extra heat source any longer. As long as the outside temperature is above 65 degrees F, they are good to move outside.
It is a good idea to move the brooder inside the coop for a few hours so your chicks can take in their new surroundings. After a while you can take them out of the brooder one by one and show them where their water and feed is. Then let them explore on their own inside the coop.
If you let your chicken free range at this point, always keep an eye on them, they are too little to defend themselves at this age.
Coop Sanitation For Backyard Chickens
Sanitation is still very important during this time as well. Remove dirty and wet litter daily. Disinfect the feeder and waterer weekly. Occasionally you want to clear out all the wood shavings and sanitize the coop with warm water and an appropriate cleanser.
WEEKS – 9 – 14 – Chicken Training Time
Your chickens will be very inquisitive, and they are getting braver every day. You will start to learn their different personalities, likes and dislikes. Continue to spend quality time with your chickens and help them grow strong and be comfortable.
Allow your chickens to explore outside of the coop and train them to return to the coop by offering small treats or by using verbal cues. Try to maintain a routine with when and for how long you let your chickens roam around your backyard.
Offer a dust bath to help prevent external parasites such as mites and lice. Chickens often dig a shallow hole and loosen the dirt to cover themselves.
DIY Chicken Dust Bath
- Use a container that is about 12” deep
- Combine an equal amount of sand, wood ash and soil
- Add a small amount of diatomaceous earth
- Watch your birds roll around in the bath to clean themselves
Backyard Chickens Poop Everywhere
Your chickens will control insects in your backyard and provide natural fertilizer. Just keep in mind that your chickens will forage and poop just about anywhere. If you don’t want them on your deck, in your flower bed or vegetable garden, then you need to put up a fence to keep them out.
WEEKS 15 – 17 – Getting Ready For Eggs
Now is the time to slowly transition your chicks from the starter feed to layer feed to help with the egg production. The feed you select can impact the nutrition profile of a hen’s eggs. We have tried several different brands of layer feed and Purina Layena Crumbles is the one our girls like best. They have been consistently producing one egg per hen for several months now.
Egg laying for your backyard chickens is controlled by many things.
Day length or hours of day light are key to getting hens ready for laying eggs. If needed, you can increase their day length to 16 hours of light by supplementing light with a 40-watt light bulb. Set the light bulb on a timer, if necessary. Check out this solar light bulb with remote.
Continue to clean out your backyard chicken coop regularly. A stinky coop will not only annoy your neighbors but will also attract unwanted predators.
A quick word about Roosters
Roosters are not needed for hens to lay eggs. You only need a rooster if you want to fertilize eggs to raise your own chicks. Learn more about roosters and how to introduce a rooster to your flock from Jen Davis on the Pets on Mom website.
WEEK 18 – Your Chickens Are All Grown Up
Welcome to adulthood, your hens are getting ready to lay their first eggs. Your chickens should be only on layer feed by now. It is important to transition them slowly to prevent digestive upset.
Teach your hens to lay their eggs in the nesting boxes.
To get our own girls started we placed a green plastic egg in one of the nesting boxes. After a hen starts to lay an egg, it’s her tendency to lay in the same spot going forward. All four of our backyard chickens routinely lay their eggs in the same nesting box. This makes for easy egg collecting.
It’s time to watch for your first egg. Don’t get discouraged, it might take a few extra days, depending on the weather conditions, their stress levels, overall health, etc. Just like children, no backyard chicken is the same.
The first egg your young chicken lays might be soft to the touch, irregular or have no yolk or even a double yolk. No worries! After a week or so, egg production should become consistent with peek egg performance at about 30 weeks of age.
Enjoy your daily treasure hunt and collect eggs frequently, if possible, 1 – 2 times a day.
You can expect about six eggs per chicken per week as it takes about 25 hours to produce an egg. Your hens are now channeling a lot of their nutrients into their egg production. Continue feeding layer feed and provide baked egg shells or oyster shells. Watch this short video on how to make baked egg shells for your backyard chickens.
Collect eggs frequently, at least once a day. This helps to keep the eggs clean and lessens the opportunity for hens to learn the bad habit of egg eating.
Do NOT wash your eggs!
Washing eggs removes the protective cuticle, which is a natural barrier. If you do wash your eggs, do it quickly and use only water. Fresh eggs can be stored on a counter for several days. Refrigerated eggs can last up to 30 days or more.
Tips For Mature Hens
Raising backyard chickens will provide you with many hours of fun. Watching your own chickens run around the yard like miniature raptors never gets old! But not only will your hens make you smile, they will also make you breakfast.
You can expect about one egg each day per hen for around 5 years or so.
The chicken breed, housing, weather, day light, parasite load and nutrition can all affect your chickens rate of egg laying. Feed them a complete layer feed, provide plenty of fresh water and offer occasional treats like mealworms, scratch grains and even table scabs. Just remember that treats should always be less than 10% of their daily food intake.
Your birds will spend a lot of time inside their coop, especially during fall and winter. Be sure to offer a comfortable space that is cleaned out on a regular basis. Provide a ladder, a chicken swing and coop toys to prevent boredom, a branch to roost on, a dust bath to keep them clean and a place for them to peck.
A quick word about Molting Chickens
Around 18 month your chickens will likely go through their first molt. Your hens will take a break from egg laying and lose their old feather in preparation for new ones. Molting usually happens in the fall or early winter and will last about 8 – 12 weeks.
Molting chickens need a feed that is high in protein levels to promote feather regrowth. Do not give your chickens added calcium while there are molting, this will prolong the process.
Raising backyard chickens is fun and rewarding!
Always be observant of your flock and learn to understand their personalities and mannerism. This way you will notice a change in their behavior right away if something is not right.
Do you have or are you thinking of raising chickens? Leave us a comment below, we would love to hear from you.