10 Easy Steps for Getting Started with Chickens
Updated: Mar 1
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Adding animals to your homestead can seem like a daunting task. If you don't water the garden, you don't get vegetables, but if you don't water the chicken, well...you know. But I'm here to tell you, if you have a little space, you can absolutely raise chickens with little effort. This post will tell you about raising chickens for eggs. If you raise chickens for meat that is an entirely different process.
1. Decide how many chickens you want.
Everything starts with how many chickens you want. We are a family of 2 and had 6 chickens, which gave us 2-3 eggs a day in the winter, and 5-6 eggs a day in the summer. We had just enough for the winter and enough to share with friends in the summer. Chicken breeds matter. We selected breeds for high egg production and good tolerance for cold. (Red Island Red, Plymouth Rock, Australorp)
Plymouth Rock were the friendliest and Australorp were the prettiest.
2. Build a coop. (or buy one)
For our first coop, we bought the red and blue one (below) for ~$200 from Tractor Supply. It was pretty sturdy and worked well, but probably wouldn't last through many moves.
Now (2022), coops are so much more expensive!! When we expanded to 11 chickens we built an inexpensive 4x4 coop out of pallets and T1-11 siding we had lying around. We used metal roofing panels. Even in freezing temps chickens were fine. It's not beautiful, but it's cheap, sturdy, and functions well. Make a chicken sized hole on the side that's inside the fenced area.
Yes, you can open and close the chickens in every night, but it's a lot of work, get an automatic door and save your sanity. I promise.
We didn't start with an automatic door, but ended up splurging on this door, and can't imagine living without it. This door is solid, but not flashy and without any fussy electronics. It opens and closes by daylight and I've had no issues with it even in our gray, cloudy climate. We also added a main door outside the chicken area, that we could access to clean and collect eggs. Always have a big door for cleaning.
You'll want a roosting bar about a foot off the ground, and a place for the chickens to lay eggs. You can use a rounded dowel or a scrap 1x2 board. We used both and the chickens use both happily. For nesting boxes, we got milk crates and zip tied a 1x board in front to keep the pine fluff in.
3. Make a fenced area.
If you buy a coop it will usually have a small fenced area right under the coop. and you let them free range in the yard, there will be a day that you'll want to have your chickens out of the coop, and in a fenced area. Chickens tend to be destructive, you may have predator encounters, and you want to have the option for a large enough fenced area that they can stay in it daily, if needed. Use a 4' wire fence, anything shorter and the chickens will find a way to hop over. As for predators, we have two dogs, and a fence around our property, so while we live in the country we've never had predator issues. If you're in a wooded area and have fewer defenses, you may want to create a more secure fencing solution. Try and find a protected area, like on the side of a building, or under trees, all of which will offer some protection against birds of prey and ground gremlins.
4. Set up food.
I love our food setup and highly recommend it. We used four feeders for 11 chickens, in a 55 gal drum to start. Unfortunately, that's a lot of chicken food and it started molding before the chickens could get through it. Then we used a 5 gal bucket which meant filling it up about every week. That's too much work. 😅 So the happy medium for 11 chickens is the 15 gal barrel. These can be harder to find, but set an alert on Facebook. (I don't recommend using a 55 gal and just filling it up less, the food in the middle will stay in the middle as you add more food on top, and it will eventually mold and taint a lot of good feed before you discover it.)
Any area chickens are in will turn into dirt over time. They will eat everything that grows. So while you may want them to forage, the space has to be relatively large to sustain 11 chickens and not get over foraged. Our 30x40' is not enough.
I'm experimenting with alternating days in the fenced area and days free. We use movable fencing, which is good for weekly moves but not something I want to move daily. I may try a tractor this summer so I can leave them out in the field overnight in specific areas that I need "cleaned".
5. Set up water.
For 11 chickens a 15 gal barrel is a good size for water and depending on your climate (we're western Oregon), we fill it about 3 times a year. We tried a 55 gal, and they got through <half in a year, but it did get algae deposits. A smaller barrel is easier to clean, and it should be cleaned a few times a year. Throw in a 1/4 cup of vinegar to help with algae. And for drinkers, we use nipples as they stay cleaner than the nipples+cups. Chickens get the hang of it quickly. I also went to the Dollar Store and got a few $1 oil pans, and they collect rainwater off the chicken roof and around the yard and it makes for a nice alternative source of water. During heat waves we freeze water and veggie scraps in the pans as a cooling treat.
6. Prep for chicks.
When you start chicken, you'll likely start with baby chicks. They are the most available and cheapest option. They'll need a few things for the first month, before they can safely go outside. For 6 chicks we used a plastic storage tote, covered with some chicken wire, a heat lamp, thermometer, pine shavings, a little Tupperware for water, and a feeder. If you have a mason jar, you don't need to buy the plastic jar they sell, masons will fit just fine. I don't recommend any of the chick waterers they sell, they get clogged with pine and poop and are no better than a container you have a round the house. A little tupperware is a lot easier to clean. They'll need to be at the correct temperature each week. The tote will be fine for 3 weeks, at which point they'll need a bigger pen. You can put them outside at 6 weeks in mild climates, but we didn't have the coop ready yet. We set them up in an empty garden bed on the garage floor with some chicken wire to keep them from flying out.
7. Clean the coop.
We clean the coop 2x a year, once in spring and once in early winter. I toss a handful of pine shavings every month, and once a week mix around the pine shavings in the coop. If it starts to smell, it needs more pine. With the poop you can make fertilizer tea or toss into the compost pile.
8. Maintain the outside.
Outside does not need fancy cleaning, they are chickens after all. But it can get muddy if you live in a wet climate, so adding bark chips (I get them for $20 through ChipDrop) will help them stay dry over winter and give them something fun to scratch through. Add a few logs for fun things to jump on, and a tarp to give them a dry place during long stretches of rain.
9. Add a compost bin.
We have a compost bin in our chicken run made from 3 pallets as a three sided cube (notice a trend?). Any food scraps go there, so the chickens can pick off what they like and the rest turns into compost. We add bark chips and grass clippings to it, which the chickens like to perch up on. We haven't gotten a lot of compost yet, the chickens eat most of what goes in there, but one day!
10. Enjoy your eggs.
If everything goes right you should get eggs at ~3 months. When we have too many, we hard-boil a bunch (4 minutes in the instant pot) and they make a great snack in a rush. We give them away and we sell them.