Yard Chickens 101
If you’ve ever had an egg from a backyard chicken, then the idea of adding yard chickens to your property is probably pretty prevalent and persistent. Especially compared to those that have never experienced one of these eggs.
Because if you’ve had a homegrown egg, then you know the difference between those eggs and store-bought eggs. The yolk isn’t yellow like the sun, but instead, it has an orange hue like the color of a sun that’s setting. The orange color is the result of a chicken that’s foraged on a variety of plants and insects. As for its value in the kitchen, the orange-ish yokes tend to show more fluff and vibrance in texture. Some say these eggs pack more flavor, while the USDA says the nutritional value is the same despite the color of the yoke.
Nonetheless, the egg yolk — that indelible orange yolk — is a powerful motive for many. Others are motivated by the convenience of having eggs in their own backyard, while some just want an outdoor chore for their kids: a flock to nurture and eggs to gather.
Pick a Breed
Purchasing chicks is cheaper than acquiring mature birds, but that means they won’t start laying for around six months. Photo: Sandu Stefan/Pixabay
Once you’ve committed to adding yard chickens to your property, you must answer this: Are you looking for egg production, meat or both? Hens will lay eggs regardless of whether there’s a rooster present or not, and all you need is a handful of birds to create a brood.
If you’re only wanting eggs, we recommend the Rhode Island Red, which can reach about 6.5 pounds and produces quality brown eggs. The breed has a good temperament and will lay up to 300 eggs a year. Perfect for a beginner. The Black Australorp is another dependable producer that’s lightweight. A breed that is good for both eggs and meat is the Silver Laced Wyandottes. It’s a bigger bird, but still produces quality eggs.
Where you live is also an important consideration. In warmer climates, Rhode Island Reds will do well, as will a Leghorn, a hardy bird that has been raised in hot temperatures, serving as both an egg and meat bird. For colder climates, you can’t go wrong with an Australorp, as their heavy feather plume protects them. The Plymouth Rock breed, a brown egg layer, is well suited for cold climates too.
It’s also worth noting that you can buy chickens in assortments, like the mixed packages Tractor Supply offers. If you’re not as worried about getting a perfect fit between the breed and your environment, purchasing an assorted mix may be the way to go. It’s also a fun way to get children engaged. They’ll naturally be curious about what breeds they’ve ended up with, and they’ll keep track of the baby chicks as they age, watching for each bird to show features unique to specific breed types.
Purchasing chicks is cheaper than acquiring mature birds, but that means they won’t start laying for around six months. The adults, however, will lay immediately. Chicks raised together will likely get along better, rather than collecting full-grown chickens from different flocks.
Buying a Chicken Coop
You might consider buying a ready-made chicken coop, but building a chicken run yourself. Photo: Prairie Homestead
Regardless of where your property is located, predators are ever present. Not only will critters like coyotes or raccoons eat your chickens’ eggs, they feast on the birds too. A chicken coop will protect chickens and eggs from predators, as well as shield them from the elements outside.
If you choose to purchase a ready-made coop, small ones are readily available and priced well. Take a trip to your local hardware store — local or commercial — and browse the selection. A quick Google search offers a variety of coops ranging from just under $250 up to nearly $1,800. Some of the chicken coops available for purchase are raised with runs built underneath the hen houses.
Building a Chicken Run
As an alternative, you could purchase a coop, and build the run yourself. The run allows for access to insects and grasses, aiding in the coveted orange yolk, while not allowing chickens to be truly free-range. The two primary materials you’d need to build your own run are 2x4s and chicken wire.
Here’s a DIY option that won’t break the bank.
Free Range Chickens and No Chicken Run
Of course, with a rural property and plenty of acreages, the chicken coop alone may be enough if you choose to allow the chickens to roam free during the daylight hours.
The upside of this approach? You have chickens getting the most diverse offering of nutrients in their diet, which aids in the quality of the eggs and/or meat. And it’s a soothing scene to look out the window and watch the chickens go freely about their days, abiding by nature and its unhurried indifference to time.
The downside can be summed up like this: the idea of free-roaming chickens isn’t always as appealing as the reality of free-roaming chickens. For one, if you have ornate brickwork, porches, patios or anything you’d like to keep free of chicken poop, forget about it. The chickens go everywhere and poop often.
Also, after a while, it’s not unusual for chickens to stop roosting in their coop at night when other options abound. Sometimes they choose new roosting sites, like your outdoor grill, patio table or raised flower beds. That’s cute, until these areas are also shellacked with pasty bird poop. Thirdly, free-range chickens lay eggs anywhere they like. So you’re often on a daily egg hunt, which isn’t quite as fun as the traditional Easter egg hunts — these daily hunts occasionally turn up some very rotten eggs that can go undiscovered for far too long.
Building a Chicken Coop
There are endless resources available online, for free, to guide you through building your own chicken coop. Building plans for the sketched coop above can be downloaded at Our Town Plans.
Others prefer building a chicken coop themselves. The DIY route usually saves on the dollars spent. And there’s value in the intangibles. Your fingerprint is on the project, and you can build the exact coop you want. Not to mention that a farm project like building a chicken coop is the kind of work many landowners have in mind when they consider owning a rural property in the first place. Working alongside your children and teaching them the little things like how to square up a 2X4 or drive a nail make landownership meaningful and worthwhile.
There are endless resources available online, for free, that can guide you through the process. The general rule of thumb for square footage per chicken is two to three square feet inside the coop for each bird and four to five square feet per bird in the chicken run.
Many governmental agencies provide robust plans for building chicken coops and fact-based recommendations for your flocks’ care. Yet quality content on state and federal agency websites isn’t always as easy to find. So we’ve curated a few resources that cover everything from actual chicken-coop building plans to quick tips that can help you avoid common mistakes made when raising and caring for your chickens.
Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection provide resources from “Should I Raise a Small Poultry Flock,” to documents on laying flocks and meat birds. But they offer building plans for coops too and, unlike other mainstream resources, the plans were designed for specific needs:
We also like how these plans are old-school. All three were designed in 1975. They’re a bit more complicated than what you might find elsewhere, but they’re also well-envisioned, roomy and solid in structure.
Finally, if you’d like to vet a few building plans against common chicken-coop recommendations for optimal features and ventilation requirements, take a look at Oregon State’s document on “Backyard Chicken Coop Design.” This downloadable PDF covers protection, nest boxes, size, ventilation, roosting poles and coop maintenance.
Taking Care of Your Flock
Taking care of farm animals, including a flock of chickens, gives purpose to a child’s daily routine.
Once you’ve decided if you’d like to let your chickens roam free or limit their roaming to a chicken run, you’ll need to supplement their diet of insects and vegetation with protein. In order to stay healthy and produce quality eggs, chickens require around 15-20 percent protein in their diet, which is available in commercially produced chicken food. Toss in your vegetable scraps, as well, as a treat. Keep water canisters full, especially in the hottest part of the year.
Young hens will produce eggs more frequently than a five-year-old bird (they can live up to a decade). In colder climates, while a frozen egg is still useable, if it’s cracked, discard it as bacteria could have contaminated the inside. In the summer, check for eggs at least twice a day so that they aren’t spoiled by the heat.
Making these daily treks to the chicken coop to check for eggs is another instructive and fulfilling task for children. It sure beats the standard, inside chores like making the bed or scrubbing the toilets. And taking care of farm animals, including a flock of chickens, gives purpose to a child’s daily routine. There’s something about feeding and watering the birds and gathering the eggs that validates to a child what he or she is capable of. It cuts out the noise of peers and school and introduces children to their own confidence, independence and self assurance.
Of course, it should be said, these daily tasks aren’t just helpful for young people. Farm life and the outdoors in general are good for the body, mind and spirit. And as a matter of fact, trekking out to a property’s chicken coop is good for just about anybody, young and old alike.
If you’re reading this, and you’re living in a densely populated area or suburb, be sure to check local regulations. Some municipalities or neighborhoods may not allow you to own chickens, while some will if your property is large enough. You can bet most will ban roosters for obvious reasons. Call your county or city government office and inquire about any regulations before building a flock.