My husband and I have been backyard chicken owners for about 4 years now and we absolutely love it. However, I have learned a few things along the way that I wish I had known before we started this adventure. (My husband, on the other hand, would definitely have taken the time to learn these things had I not just come home with them one day.) There are lots of small things that make owning chickens a little easier than it already is. Here is a list of 8 things I wish I had known before I had started.
1. Build or purchase a nice coop first. No really.
As I mentioned earlier, my method of planning for the arrival of our baby chicks was to come home with them in a box one day. My wonderful husband didn’t complain too much. I’d been dropping hints I wanted them for a while. We kept them in a couple of tall storage containers in the basement under a heat lamp while they were little. We used two so we could swap them to a clean one and take the other one outside to hose it out and dry it off every day. We leisurely looked at various plans for pretty little coops online. Then one day, before we had even decided what coop to build, the tiny adorable fluff balls were able to escape their storage containers and leave presents of tiny
adorable chicken poop all over our basement. Fun surprise after work one day! That weekend we went to the hardware store and got materials to build ourselves the tiniest, least adorable chicken coop ever. It was waterproof. That was about the best I could say about it. There was a run, that was tall enough for them according to the research I did online, but it was so low to the ground that it felt pretty mean to keep them in there. Also, it was not easy to let them in and out of it. It was cozy on the inside but difficult to clean out and heavy to open the top to pull out the eggs. Also, it was really dark in there and hard for young chickens to hop in and out of. By the end of the summer, we had all had enough of that coop! We ended up going to the hardware store and buying a kit for the tiniest garden shed they had. It’s perfect! We did have to modify it a bit to make it a suitable place for the chickens to live, but it was cheaper than a pre-made coop and definitely sturdier. My husband and his father added lift up doors to each side so that we can easily retrieve the eggs and my father created a pulley system for us so we could install an easy-to-use door between the run and the back of the shed. The run is 6 feet tall and 12ft x 12ft. We used black plastic encased wire deer fencing to enclose it so that predators could not rip through it. We also laid the fencing down for a few feet all the way around the ground on the inside so that nothing could dig its way underneath.
2. The more you handle them as chicks, the friendlier they will be.
There is one chicken that was so cute as a baby chick I constantly snuggled her. She is now my shadow every time I’m working in the yard. I can pick her up without difficulty. There is another chicken, who didn’t get held as often and she is our Houdini when it comes to avoiding all humans.
3. Chickens are dirty. Food and water techniques.
Chickens have literally no concept of cleanliness. Their idea of a bath is to roll in the dust. They will poop in their water and they regularly choose to drink muddy ground water over their fresh water. But, it’s really important to prevent as much of these dirty habits as possible because healthy chickens in a healthy environment = less germy eggs. We give our chickens fresh water daily and it’s definitely preferable to use a covered hanging water container to keep them from pooping in it. Tip: using two is even better in the cold weather – you can trade them out daily to prevent using dangerous water heaters and leave the alternate to thaw in the warm house or basement.
4. Free ranging with the Pavlov’s chickens technique.
Letting your chickens out of the coop is helpful for a lot of reasons, and they are adorable running around the yard. We’ve found that happier chickens lay more eggs. They also keep the bugs way down in your yard and the scratching is good for aerating your yard (this is probably not for you if you have one of those remarkably manicured, perfectly green yards). We live in an area that has a large population of deer and and even larger population of deer ticks. We have a child and a dog and a wooded lot so these deer and ticks really like our property. In the few years we have had the chickens the difference in tick bites for any of us is dramatically decreased. There have been entire years without a tick bite. Before the chickens, there was a summer my husband ended up with about 5 ticks, two requiring antibiotics.
The hard part about free-ranging is training them to go back to their coop. The first summer we had chickens, I had to coax them off the roof multiple times. They like to roost up high to sleep and our roof seemed like a great idea to them. Chickens are really dumb in a lot of ways, but really really smart when it comes to food. The fastest way to get them in their coop is to get their attention with food and throw it in their run then step back and let them go after it. I have a small bell hung on the side of my coop. I ring it whenever I throw a treat in their run. Now, they run over just at the sound of the bell so I don’t have to chase them toward the coop for them to find the treat.
5. Use the deep litter method.
Cleaning out the coop doesn’t have to be hard!! This tip is really helpful if you live in a climate with winter. We clean out our coop twice a year, but it still doesn’t smell bad or have obvious piles of poop. We use Koop Klean to bed their coop and fill their egg boxes. It smells amaaazzzing and composts really well if you like to compost. Every few days I add another layer to cover any mess they have made. The combination of the deep layer of bedding and slowly decomposing manure that is hidden in the layers provides a source of warmth and insulation in the coop, which is great in the winter months. In the spring and fall all we do is scoop out the bedding into the compost pile and hose off the inside of the coop. We also installed removable egg boxes so that we can take them off and clean them out. It’s a few hours twice a year and we have warm, happy chickens in a sweet smelling coop and excellent compost.
6. Chicken wire is a misnomer.
Chicken wire is only good for keeping chickens in, not keeping them safe. Chicken wire is too weak to prevent any hungry predators from ripping right through it to get to your chickens. It is not suitable for a run. We used deer fencing for our run and no animals have been able to break in despite multiple attempts. It’s important, if you’re going to have young chickens in the run to line the bottom few feet with actual chicken wire to prevent them from squeezing out the larger openings in the deer fencing. Unfortunately, we learned this lesson the hard, very sad, way.
7. Treats, lights, and egg production.
I recently had a baby – he’s 13 months old now, but when he was very young I let a lot of things slide because … newborn… One of the things I let slide, was saving the ends of the fruits and veggies to give my chickens. Egg production plummeted. I recently got my act together and started feeding the chickens their daily treats and we get about 30% more eggs on a weekly basis.
The other factor that majorly affects egg production is light. It’s worth the money to invest in a light for the coop and a timer to keep it lit at regular hours. In the winter egg production can feel like it stops, but if you can provide them with 12-15 hours of light (in combination with daylight) you will have plenty of eggs.
8. Everyone loves chickens.
The first thing my one year old says every morning? “Chickeee” He then points to the window you can see the coop from. We open the blinds and he waves hello and blows them kisses. He spends hours outside chasing them and sleeps really well because of all that exercise. That’s pretty much the reaction the chickens get from everyone. Maybe not exactly… but they do seem to make everyone happy. You’re probably going to want more.
The hardest part of owning backyard chickens is getting yourself set up, after that it’s pretty smooth sailing. In the summer you can even leave them without babysitters provided you leave them with plenty of food and water making them an extremely hassle-free kind of pet. I can’t imagine not having these friendly weird little birds running around now, and I’m pretty sure my son would never forgive me if we stopped keeping them.
P.S. Fresh eggs? Delicious.