Rachel worked as a farm manager for three years in Pennsylvania and now has her own farmstead in Minnesota.
Raising and Keeping Chickens
If you want to start raising chickens for eggs or meat, there are some basic things you’ll need to consider, and also some things you’ll need to learn.
Before we get started, take a moment to think about a couple of things:
1) Your time: Do you have the time to care for chickens? I would suggest that you give yourself at least two hours per day to care for your birds: One hour in the morning, and one in the evening. Some days you won’t need this much time; other days, you’ll need more.
2) Purpose: Do you want chickens for eggs, meat, or both?
3) Making money: Are you hoping to turn a profit raising chickens by selling eggs, meat, or both?
4) The law: Do you live somewhere that only allows hens (female chickens) to be kept? If there are no laws or ordinances preventing you from keeping roosters (male chickens), do you want to keep one or more?
5) Predation: What types of other animals live in your area? Are there foxes, coyotes, raccoons, or a lot of stray dogs and cats?
Raising chickens is a very rewarding use of your time. When I wrote this article, I hadn't had to buy eggs from the store in two years!
I hope that this article will supply you with what you need to know to make the right choices about keeping chickens. And for those of you who haven’t yet considered keeping a few chickens for personal use, I hope I can inspire you to give it a try.
Where to Buy Chickens
Local hatcheries are my first choice for baby, so that the birds don't have to be shipped. However, shipping is safe for them.
You can order chicks over the internet from hatcheries that will ship day-old chicks to you. Coordinate with your post office for picking up the chicks when they arrive.
Online buy/sell forums like Craigslist and Marketplace can be great resources for finding adult hens and young birds that others don't want. This route can save you the trouble of brooding!
Choosing the Right Breed of Chicken
The breed or breeds of chicken that you choose to keep should be determined by what you want chickens for in the first place.
CHICKENS FOR EGGS:
If you’re interested solely in eggs, then you want to select egg-laying chicken breeds. In brief, some of the best egg-layers are Leghorns, Rhode Island Reds, and Americaunas. And when I say “best,” I am considering how frequently the chickens lay, as well as how quickly they reach maturity and begin laying.
CHICKENS FOR MEAT:
If you want chickens just for meat you will want to select breeds that are known to grow large and meaty, and do it relatively quickly. Some of these include the Cornish, the Orpington (including the “buff”), the Plymouth Rock, and the Delaware. The Cornish Cross, a hybrid version of the Cornish, is by far the fastest growing, largest chicken breed, but it is not necessarily a bird for beginners. Cornish Cross flocks see a higher percentage of losses before slaughter time, and the enormous growth rate of the birds actually makes it difficult for them to walk. I don’t personally keep Cornish Crosses, partly because they present challenges that I don’t have time to deal with, and partly because I feel bad for them.
An alternative meat bird to the Cornish cross are the various types of "Rangers". I've raised Red and Rainbow Rangers with great success. They go from baby chick to chicken dinner in about 11 weeks on my homestead.
What if you want to keep chickens for eggs and meat? There’s a bird for that, too, and it’s called dual-purpose. Basically, a dual-purpose chicken is pretty good at laying eggs and producing meat, but not spectacular at doing either. Despite their lack of perfection in one specific area, they are probably the best chickens for people who want backyard flocks for eggs and meat.
Some dual-purpose chicken breeds include the Barred Rock, the Rhode Island Red, the Auracana, and the Brahma. I also believe that Americaunas make good dual-purpose birds due to their large eggs and large size, though for some reason the breed hasn’t made it onto any list of dual-purpose chickens that I’ve seen.
THE MIXED FLOCK:
When it comes to livestock animals and farming in general (even backyard farming), I’m always going to recommend that you diversify. I think the best flock of chickens is a mixed one that includes excellent egg-layers, big meaty birds, and dual-purpose birds that are more likely to “go broody” and hatch eggs. If you live in an area where roosters are not allowed, then unfortunately you will not have the option of hatching eggs and replenishing your flock naturally; you also won’t have to worry about keeping the types of chickens that will sit eggs.
When will I get to harvest eggs or meat?
Depending on the breed of chicken, egg production can start anywhere between 3 months of age and 6 months of age. Heritage breeds and dual-purpose breeds generally take longer to mature in terms of laying than other breeds. Leghorns, for instance, begin to lay much sooner than Dominiques.
As far as meat harvesting goes, Cornish Cross chickens are ready in about 48 days (astounding, as far as I'm concerned!). Most other meat breeds will be up to weight in 3 months. Some birds won't be ready for 5 months.
It's best to do some research on the breeds of chicken you have chosen to keep for meat, and look specifically for information about what the mature weight of the bird should be. Young roosters (cockerels) that you don't intend to keep can be butchered basically anytime. The meat will still be tender and good for roasting and frying as long as the chicken is one-year-old or less. Old laying hens will make great stew and soup birds even after they're four-years-old.
Brooder at my cabin
Caring for Chicks
If you've purchased your baby chicks from a local hatchery, you just need to get them home and into the brooder.
When ordering chicks over the internet, you'll need to take care of a couple of things before they arrive. Typically, the hatchery will notify you of the expected shipping date. You should contact your post office and let them know that you are expecting an order of baby chicks. Some postal workers have experience with this sort of thing, and others don't. If the post office will bring the chicks to your house, you should make sure you are there when they arrive. If the post office can hold them for you and let you come pick them up, this is even better. Expect the chicks within 1 to 2 days after the shipping date, and don't leave them waiting in the post office or on your door step.
The baby chicks get enough nutrients and hydration from the yolk that they consumed while still in the egg. They are fine for up to 72 hours after hatching, but the sooner you get them started on feed and water, the better.
When you finally get your baby chicks, you’ll soon find that you have a lot of work ahead of you before you can harvest either eggs or meat.
Brooder for Chicks
You will need a brooder, which is basically just a small space for the baby chicks to live in that will be kept warm with the use of a lamp. The temperature should be around 90 degrees. Some websites will recommend that you employ very strategical temperature control techniques, including lowering the temperature by five degrees every week, down to 80 for some number of weeks, etc. I am here to tell you that the baby chicks themselves will let you know whether they are too hot or too cold. Cold chicks will huddle together; you should warm the brooder up for them. Chicks that are too hot will appear stressed and won’t want to go anywhere near one another; you should lower the temperature.
The brooder can be anything that will contain the chicks and hold heat to some degree. I’ve used wooden boxes, shoe boxes lined with paper towels, and plastic containers lined with paper towels. Save yourself the trouble and money, and don’t go purchasing something that is billed as a chicken brooder. If you use a shoe box, you’ll have to change the paper towels out every couple of days, but the good news is that shoe boxes are pretty much free.
The surface of the brooder (what the chicks stand on) should not be slippery, or be allowed to get slippery. A slippery surface can cause the chicks to develop splay-leggedness, which is a difficult condition to correct and to look at.
Feed for Chicks
Chicks should be offered free-choice medicated chick starter or chick grower. Using a medicated feed during the first 4 to 6 weeks of life is actually pretty important, as baby chickens are particularly prone to an infection called coccidiosis. Most chick starters will include a coccidiostat (a medicine that prevents coccidiosis), but you should make sure.
Adult chickens usually will not be susceptible to coccidiosis unless they are otherwise unhealthy, so you can discontinue the medicated feed once the young birds feather out (lose their fluff and grow some feathers), or after 6 weeks.
Little chicken waterers are a must for baby chicks. You really can’t just use a bowl, as the birds will either drown in it or die because they’ll get themselves wet and cold. Feed stores and chicken hatcheries sell dozens of different types of water dispensers designed specifically for chicks. The birds should be able to get their little beaks in there, and not much else. Once the babies feather out you can switch to a larger waterer – and you’ll probably want to, as it gets tiresome refilling those little waterers three times a day.
Shelter for Chickens
Unfortunately, chickens don’t have much in the way of natual defense against predators, so if you live in an area that has foxes, raccoons, skunks, weasels, opossoms, coyotes, or stray dogs and cats running around, you’re going to have to provide a shelter for the birds to roost in at night, and a fence to keep them safe during the day.
A good rule of thumb for the size of the shelter is that each chicken should have two square feet. Now, if you're going to be pasturing or free-ranging your birds, you can go down to one square foot of space per chicken - just use your better judgement and don't overcrowd them.
If you have a lot of hawks or other birds of prey in your area, you may need to employ some techniques for keeping them away, too. You can hang netting over your chicken fence, or use chicken wire to cover it.
For protecting your chickens from birds of prey, you can also use what I call the I Don’t Need This CD or DVD Anymore Technique: Take your old CDs or DVDs (we all have some) and hang them right around the area where your chickens live. Sunlight will reflect off of the discs and discourage flying predators from coming near enough to steal your birds.
If you feel that electric fence is in order, the most affordable option is to forego a traditional fence and instead run one or two charged wires around the area where your chickens will be kept. Keep the height of the chickens in mind, but don't forget about keeping predators out. Imagine the average height of a dog's or a fox's nose, and set the wire(s) there. Animals generally inspect things with their noses first, and if they run into a charged wire they're not likely to come snooping around again.
Chicken Feed and General Chicken Care
What type of feed you offer your chickens will be somewhat affected by what type of chicken you're raising, and what the conditions you're raising them in.
Chickens kept for egg production should be fed a free-choice layer pellet or layer mash. These feeds are formulated specifically for egg-laying chickens, and should provide complete nutrition.
Meat chickens generally require a feed higher in protein than a layer feed. Feed for large meat birds should contain 16%-20% protein, depending somewhat on the variety of chicken and on how much grazing and foraging the chicken has access to.
Pasturing your chickens will produce eggs that have dark, almost orange yolks. The meat will be delicious and healthier than meat from chickens that are fed solely on grains. Chickens also love to eat worms and insects, which are a great source of protein. The more pasture you can give to your chickens, the healthier they will be and the better their "products" will taste.
Clean, fresh drinking water should be offered free-choice at all times, of course.
GENERAL CHICKEN CARE:
Chickens that don't get outdoors much should be offered free-choice grit, which is basically a bunch of small, ground-up stones. These little stones hang out in the chicken's crop (the chamber before the stomach) and help digest food. Chickens on pasture or free-range will generally take care of getting grit on their own.
If you have chickens that fly, it's never a bad idea to clip their wings. To do this well, simply use a pair of scissors and cut the wing feathers so that you remove the diagonal line that the feathers make and create a straight line instead.
The coop or shelter that the chickens live in should be scraped clean of manure before a thick layer of it can form on the floor. How often this needs to be done will depend on how large the structure is and how many birds you're keeping in it. My rule of thumb for cleaning the chicken coop is based on air quality - when I start to dislike being in there to feed, change water, and collect eggs, it's time to clean the coop.
Chicken Health Concerns
One easy way to measure the health of your chickens is to look at their combs (the crown-like appendage on their heads). These should be bright red. If the once-red comb on your chicken is suddenly dull, you can reasonably suspect that the chicken is either unwell or is lacking something in her diet. Make sure that the chicken feed is offered free-choice, that water is always available, and that the bird is not injured or ill in some way.
Sick chickens will often have nasal discharge or will sort of cough. You may even notice a very runny manure stuck to their behinds. A sick chicken won't likely be interested in eating or drinking, and may even have trouble standing up. Usually, by the time the chicken shows signs of illness, it's way too late to do anything about it.
Sick chickens should be removed from the rest of the flock. My honest advice is that sick chickens should be culled - and I mean humanely killed and disposed of promptly. I say this from experience: nine times out of ten, a chicken that appears ill is actually very ill, and despite your best intentions he or she will probably die. I've tried to quarantine and nurse sick chickens back to health, only to be disappointed when I found the chicken dead as a door nail 24 hours later. It's best not to further expose the rest of the flock. Do not butcher and eat a chicken that you suspect is sick.
I guess the "good news" about sick chickens is that they generally won't even show you that they're sick - you might just find a dead chicken in your coop in the morning, and never really know why the chicken died.
Weak Eggshell Problems
If you experience problems with weak egg shells, try offering some oyster shell to the birds. Oyster shell, which is high in calcium, can generally be purchased from feed supply stores, or ordered over the internet.
If you continue to have a problem with cracked egg shells in your chicken coop or egg boxes, try putting straw or old newspaper in the areas where the chickens have decided to lay. At times I have thought I had an egg shell weakness problem, but really I had a wooden egg box hardness problem.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2012 Rachel Koski Nielsen
Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on June 25, 2016:
Free range chickens in my experience anyway are never as big and meaty as the ones in the grocery store, but they've been tastier at least!
Richard Lindsay from California on April 23, 2016:
I use to raise a lot of chickens, but they were always to skinny to eat. The only thing they were good for was a few eggs. So now I just have a few free range chickens to keep the bugs down.
Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on March 05, 2016:
I butcher and stew them!
M. Victor Kilgore on February 24, 2016:
Nice hub...from a fellow chicken fan.
Paul Edmondson from Burlingame, CA on November 08, 2014:
What do you do with your chickens at the end of their laying careers? I'm looking for specifics. Thanks.
Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on July 23, 2013:
Anonymous - Thanks for the info!
anonymous on July 22, 2013:
If you are considering the Little Giant 9200 Still Air Incubator here is what to eecpxt: To begin with, it's styrofoam. It looks much like one of those disposable ice chests you buy at the supercenter. It requires careful handling as not to crack it and thereby ruin it. Be sure to put paper down under it as there are holes on the bottom for water overflow and if water does leak out it will cause the unit to stick to some surfaces and increase risk of breakage.Eggs must be turned 3x daily and it is so easy to get off schedule or forget it so, go ahead and get the turner. Believe me, it makes a world of difference. There is a thermometer and a stand included in the basic kit, but you can't see it through the windows if you have an automatic turner. Solve this problem by clipping the thermometer on the stand SIDEWAYS instead of up and down. They don't mention this in the instruction pamphlet that comes with the unit and it causes a lot of head scratching when you are setting up.My first hatching with this unit was a little disappointing less than 20% success. More head scratching resulted in purchasing the forced air fan for the unit and the next hatch went up to 40%. It seems to be very necessary.There are two air vents on the unit but the instructions only say to open one vent three days before hatching time. So why are there two vents? Trial and error again taught me that one vent should be open the entire hatch time and the second then 3 days before hatch time.All in all it is a servicable unit for small hatchings, and works as well as any other in it's price range. Purchased separately at a Farm Supply Store, this unit will run around $135.00. I have seen them go much cheaper on ebay even with shipping costs. The instruction pamphlet in the box is fairly general and doesn't address a lot of questions, but there is a website you can go to for advice.UM ..AH
Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on February 24, 2013:
Hi John-Rose! Glad to hear you are considering chickens and rabbits for meat. I haven't done rabbits myself, but it's something I'd like to get into very small-scale. I've cleaned and cooked squirrels and groundhogs and would be comfortable doing up a rabbit. Hopefully you'll get to do your chickens soon!
John-Rose from USA on November 04, 2012:
I have been wanting to raise chickens for their eggs or rabits for their meat for some time. My better half doesn't want anything to do with the chickens yet, but I'm going to keep this hub handy for when she does, because it is full of knowledge.
Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on October 03, 2012:
Rajan, thanks for your comment. I love getting endorsement from other people who are experienced with livestock. I agree with your suggestions about the layer mash, and about the lighting. I would imagine that Deborah has the birds outside (?) during the day; if not, lighting would certainly help! Thanks for adding your expertise :) And thanks for the votes and shares.
Rajan Singh Jolly from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on October 03, 2012:
Rachel, this is an awesome hub. You got the details laid out to the last step. Very well laid out and explained in a simple language. Being an ex poultry breeder I appreciate this wonderful guide that is a must read for anyone wanting to have a clear cut idea of what chicken farming entails.
One point I'd like to make here regarding Deborah Neyens 20 week old hens not having started laying. As an off hand suggestion I think the grower mash should have been replaced by a layer mash earlier, say at about 16 -17 weeks, as well as introduction of some artificial lighting if the birds are of the right weight, to stimulate the laying process. Lighting is more important if the flock is coming into lay in the winter season as the decrease in total light and light intensity as well has a slowing down effect on sexual maturity.
Thanks to Bill for showing the way to your hub.
Voting this hub up, useful, awesome and sharing.
Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on October 01, 2012:
Faith Reaper - Thanks for the comment! I'm glad you stopped by - Bill is awesome for directing you to me!! - and I'm really glad you enjoyed the hub :)
Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on September 30, 2012:
agusfanani - Glad you found the information useful! I love to share what I know :)
agusfanani from Indonesia on September 27, 2012:
I've learned some important principles which are also applicable for other poultry. Thank you for sharing the lesson in this interesting, useful hub.
Faith Reaper from southern USA on September 27, 2012:
I got here via billybuc, and I am so glad I did. You have a wealth of knowledge that we all could learn from here, no doubt! Voted Way Up
In His Love, Faith Reaper
carol stanley from Arizona on September 26, 2012:
Yes Bill is the best and I am always appreciative when people read my hubs and make lovely comments.
Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on September 26, 2012:
Carol - Thanks for stopping by, I really appreciate it :) Bill is the best, isn't he? I'm really glad for every single person that enjoys my hubs.
carol stanley from Arizona on September 26, 2012:
Saw you on Billybuc tribute page. Even though I already follow you I came here to be sure I didn't miss anything. Thanks for always writing interesting hubs. Voted this up.
Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on September 25, 2012:
Metamorpheus - Thanks for the comment :) I should have mentioned that chickens love table scraps. Boiled veggies sound great! It's fun to watch them eat spaghetti.
Melbelle - Thanks for your comment :) Allergic to feathers? I haven't heard of that before! Maybe it's the dander? Anyway that's a shame. Chickens are a great choice for someone who wants to start producing their own food.
Bill - Oh cool!! Sounds awesome, can't wait to read it :)
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on September 25, 2012:
You are going to be featured in my hub either tomorrow or Thursday; just thought I'd give you a heads up. :)
melbelle from Southern United States on September 12, 2012:
This is very good info on raising chickens. I would love to do something like this and chickens would be ideal for me, except I am allergic to feathers. But really thorough hub on what it takes to get into the business of raising chickens for profit.
Metamorpheus on September 12, 2012:
Great hub! I voted it useful and interesting.
Chickens are such pleasant animals, and quite cheap to keep too. My grandfather used to feed them boiled vegetables peelings (which they love), so he didn't even need to buy chicken feed.
Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on September 11, 2012:
Hi Deborah! I think you had told me about your 3 chickens before, actually - I forgot, sorry! Your Barred will do best, and will probably lay very soon. My Barred girls born in Feb are laying pretty well now. If the birds are in a yard, maybe get them a little grit for good measure. Oyster shells help with their calcium needs. Otherwise, keep the food free choice (don't let them run out) and you should have eggs very soon! Any questions about "winterizing" your flock, you can send them my way :) Nice talking to you!
Deborah Neyens from Iowa on September 11, 2012:
I have a Barred Rock, Polish Crest, and one I'm not sure about. She may be a Golden Campine just based looking at pictures of different breeds. My sister-in-law got a mixed batch of chicks and gave me three. I don't know that any of hers have started laying, either. Hopefully the layer food will get them going. I put a big pan of it out for them this morning and they seemed to like it, until they started fighting over bugs and carrot tops, anyway.
I'll be very interested in your thoughts on keeping chickens in winter. I'm in Iowa and it can get pretty cold here. Not quite sure what I'm going to do with them yet. I think my husband is worried I'll bring them inside. : )
Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on September 11, 2012:
Deborah - Thanks for the comment! The layer ration should get them on the right track. What kind of chickens are they? I'm kind of surprised they haven't laid yet. Make sure there's enough protein in their diet - I've seen young pullets eat their own first few eggs.