Chickens were the first animals we got when we moved out of suburbia and into the country. They don't call them the "gateway" farm animal for no reason; they're addictive. Once you get one chicken, you'll want more—it's a fierce cycle that inspired us to start our regenerative ranch.
If you've ever wanted to homestead and raise your own food, chickens are a great way to start. They don’t require a large upfront cost, and the benefit of getting eggs and meat makes them a dual-purpose animal. If you're planning to get chickens, whether for eggs or meat, here are eight things you need to start raising them.
Food, Grit, and Water The quality of the food you are feeding your chickens will translate into the quality of eggs and meat you get out of them. I recommend a non-genetically modified or organic chicken feed that has a minimum protein level of 18%. This is easy to find at any local farm store. You can also feed your chickens some of your kitchen scraps. You'll be surprised at how much they eat commonly scrapped food like watermelon rinds.
Chickens also need grit. Grit are tiny rocks that help the chicken digest their food. There are two different types: soluble like oyster shells, which gives them a calcium boost, and insoluble such as granite, which helps them break down their food. These can be mixed into their feed or put in a separate bowl for them to seek out themselves.
Fresh water is super important as well. I recommend getting a larger waterer so you don't have to fill it every day.
Coop Of course, your chickens need a home. Depending on how adventurous you are, you can either buy a pre-made chicken coop or build one yourself. There are many different types of chicken coops out there, but make sure it has enough space for your chickens, regardless of if you buy or build. A minimum of 3 square feet per chicken is best.
Nesting Boxes Nesting boxes are where your chickens will lay their eggs. Chickens like their nesting boxes raised off the ground and with some sort of comfy bedding on the bottom—try straw or pine shavings. They like a private and cozy spot. If you're buying a coop, it will likely come with nesting boxes built in. But if you're building one, milk crates work great as nesting boxes.
Perches Perches are where your chickens roost, or sleep at night, making them another essential element of the coop. Chickens like to be off the ground when sleeping at night and perches made of wood or branches provide the perfect bed. If you're buying a coop, they will also likely be built-in, but if you're building one, 2x2s create an easy and effective roost. Wood is a great material to use because it has grip and is warmer in the winter than metal.
Run Fencing This is perhaps the greatest debate when raising chickens. A run, which is usually attached to the coop, allows the chickens to get out onto grass. These runs are largely stationary and are usually very small. If you do get a coop like this, I recommend either putting up some electric netting or opening the door every morning and letting them free-range. The likelihood of this working out at your home will depend on the severity of your predator situation. The beauty of having a net or free-ranging your chickens is that they eat new grass, grubs, and bugs every few days.
Time While day-to-day chores don't take a whole lot of time, coop cleaning and fence rotation might require some extra minutes. The general “10 minutes-a-day chicken chores” include opening the coop, checking the chickens, refreshing feed and water, collecting eggs, and closing their coop door for the night. It's not much, but you need to be aware on the frontend that these aren't houseplants you can casually take care of.
Expectations Raising chickens is pretty easy, but just like raising animals of any kind, there can be bad days. Set some goals and expectations by creating a timeline for when you should start getting eggs or harvesting your birds for meat.
If you are starting with chicks, a general rule of thumb is harvesting them for meat after 8 to 16 weeks, depending on the breed. Eggs won't get laid for 14 to 18 weeks, also depending on the breed. If you get chickens secondhand that are already laying, give them about a week to settle into their new home before expecting any eggs. And as a reminder, hens lay eggs whether or not a rooster is present.
Chickens You can't start raising chickens without chickens, obviously. Depending on whether you are raising chickens for meat, eggs, or both, there are some optimal breeds you should know about. Red Sex Links and Rhode Island Reds are great egg-laying birds, and White Rocks and Freedom Rangers some great meat birds. Some good dual-purpose birds include Wyandottes and Orpingtons.