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7 Best Chicken Tips for First Time Chicken Owners

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Chickens are all the rage these days, and while I'm usually not big fan of “trends,” I happen to think this is a good one! There is a lot of chicken raising information out there and it can definitely be overwhelming at first. While I don't claim to be the final authority of all things chicken, I've kept a flock for several years now and want to share my seven best chicken tips for simplifying your chicken keeping.

Get your flock started with the best chicken tips - How to buy chickens, "must have" items for your coop and run, chicken feeding and watering.

7 Best Chicken Tips for First Time Chicken Owners

1. Start with chicks or mature birds instead of eggs

I know it seems like it might be fun to incubate and hatch your first batch of chickens from eggs, but it's much simpler to start with a healthy bunch of chicks and go from there. While hatching your own is definitely something you may wish to consider in the future, allow yourself to become accustomed to the inner workings of chicken health and behavior before taking on the sometimes frustrating world of egg incubation.

Most local feed stores receive chick orders in the spring, so watch store flyers carefully to determine when they'll arrive in your area. If this isn't an option where you live, you can also mail order chicks from places online like Murray McMurray Hatchery. (Check out Getting Started with Meat Chickens for detailed information on how to welcome your chicks home.)

Another option is to purchase mature hens who are already laying for your first flock. While this works some of the time, you often end up with the “culls” from other people's flocks, so be careful of what you are buying.

Get your flock started with the best chicken tips - How to buy chickens, "must have" items for your coop and run, chicken feeding and watering.

2. Choose dual-purpose chicken breeds

Chickens are usually categorized into two varieties: meat breeds and laying breeds. If you aren't quite sure which route you wish to go, choose a breed that is known to lay a decent number of eggs, but also has adequate meat production in case you end up with extra rooster or a hen that doesn't lay. Personally, my favorite breeds are Rhode Island Reds, New Hampshire Reds, Barred Rocks, and Araucanas. Dual purpose chickens also seem to be hardier and more self-sufficient than other more “specialized” breeds. (Check out Best Chicken Breeds for the Homestead for a comparison of different breeds.)

3. You don't have to go crazy with your coop

I've seen some wild chicken coops lately! Some of them are fancier than my actual house, and it's hard to tell if they were intended for a human or a bird. If having a fancy coop is holding you back from getting a flock of your own- don't let it. Chickens don't require a 5-star resort to be happy.

Chickens must have:

  • protection from predators
  • a place to roost
  • nesting boxes (for layers)
  • room to move around

You can easily meet these needs by modifying an existing building (small barn, shed, or even a doghouse) or building a small chicken tractor. Check out the Backyard Poultry board on Pinterest for chicken coop and tractor inspiration.

4. Stay as natural as possible

As the interest in chicken keeping grows, so do the gimmicks. You can make your chicken adventure as simple or as complicated as you would like. A few ways I keep my chickens as natural as I can:

  • Free range your chickens when at all possible, which cuts down on feed bills and provides them with a diet more like nature intended. (Plus, they LOVE it! Just be cautious of potential predators.)
  • Avoid using chemicals or special “washes” to disinfect the coop. Instead I use a natural, homemade solution.
  • Feed chickens crushed egg shells to help to supplement their calcium intake.
  • Give chickens an assortment of  kitchen scraps, which helps to provide them with extra nutrients. It also keeps that much more waste from hitting my garbage can.
  • Don't leave lights on them year around to force them into laying. Since chickens were designed to take a break from laying, I prefer to allow them to do so – which also helps to reduce the amount of electricity I use. (However, I DO provide heat lamps whenever our temperatures drop.)
  • Go homemade whenever possible. I've avoided purchasing the expensive chicken equipment at the feed store by creating my own feeders and chick waterers out of repurposed items. We also made our nesting boxes and roosts from scrap lumber.
Get your flock started with the best chicken tips - How to buy chickens, "must have" items for your coop and run, chicken feeding and watering.

5. Establish a routine with your chickens

Some people seem to think of their chickens as dogs and spend countless hours doting on them. I personally don't have that luxury, since I'm running an entire homestead, with many other animals. Since my chickens are actually one of the lower maintenance aspects of my homestead, it's easy to “forget” about them sometimes… I've found that things run the smoothest when I establish a daily routine for filling feeders, waterers, freshening the bedding, and collecting eggs. That way, the poor girls don't get pushed to the back burner. 🙂

6. Keep things clean

This goes along with the previous point of establishing a routine. Dirty nesting boxes equal dirty eggs which equals the dilemma of whether or not you should wash your eggs.

An ounce of prevention goes a long way – it only takes a minute or two to clean boxes and replace bedding if you do it each day. If you wait until the end of the week, you'll have a much bigger task, plus lots of dirty eggs. The same goes for the floor of your coop – if you are using the deep litter method, take a minute or two to turn the bedding each time you are in the coop.

7. Get a heated water bowl (for cold climate flocks)

Generally I'm the type of person who prefers the non-electric method of dealing with problems. However, when it comes to dealing with chicken water, a heated dog bowl has been invaluable! If you live in a cold climate like me, shallow chicken buckets or pans freeze quickly, and you'll be outside every couple hours breaking ice and refilling. Save yourself some time and headache by splurging for a plug-in dog bowl. It's a great investment and my girls definitely appreciate it. (During warm weather, on demand waterers, which basically work like drip pet waterers on a larger scale, may be easier to keep clean than standard waterers, but they are prone to freezing.)

As you can see, chickens can be as easy or as complicated as you choose to make them. If you have the time and energy, then by all means, build a Victorian-style coop and mix them up gourmet treats. 🙂 However, if you are a full-time homesteader like me, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised at the benefits chickens will add your homestead, without a lot of extra work.

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Jill Winger

This is a guest post from Jill Winger at The Prairie Homestead. Jill is a homesteader and prairie-dweller who loves to inspire others to return to their roots, learn new skills, and embark on their own homestead journey.

Originally posted in 2012, updated in 2017.

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41 Comments

  1. Great post! Makes me miss my ‘little ladies’! We had 5 hens last year for the first time. My husband built a simple coop for them, and they had free range in our fenced backyard (we live right in the heart of the city for now). It was so much fun having them, and a great learning experience for all of us! Our 3 daughters loved them, and didn’t even complain about taking care of the coop! 🙂 But, when it got cold, and because we’re hoping to sell our house soon, we butchered them in November. 🙁 We can’t wait ’til the day when we can have chickens again! 🙂

  2. Good advice. I have both the NH Reds and Blacks, they are really good layers, 24 hens = 18 to 21 eggs a day. Another thing you can do when changing out little, is to just break off the leaves of the straw and put them in the coop, let them spread it around, saves time and gives them something to do. I have a heater for my waterer, as we get pretty cold, though this winter has been quite mild. I also give my girls crushed eggs shells, saves on buying oyster shells. As spring approaches they will get to free range, but for now we still have snow on the ground, so I keep them in the yard. I look forward to them helping me weed and getting the grasshoppers. We were given an old, old sheep herders shed and we turned that into a coop, DH made their nests, and 2 x 4 make up their roosts. Visit my blog to see their digs. I have also considered putting in a grain growing bed in their run, thus letting them have greens even if I can’t let them out, which I did see via your pintrest http://pinterest.com/pin/71424344060055228/

  3. I LOVE my girls! My advice, make your coop bigger than you think you think you need. They like the room and once you get some chickens, you will probably want more!!!!

    1. I agree with you 100%. You can start out small if you want but 2 chickens turn into 3 and 3 turn into 4. The next thing you know you have a yard full of chickens and a coup the size of a buick. LOL.

      We love our chickens and so do the girls

      ~~Samantha

  4. I’ve heard conflicting reports on feeding chickens eggshells. Some folks think they will develop a taste for them and start eating their own eggs. What have you experienced with this?

  5. We’ve had chickens (eggs & meat) for years and love them. Well, not love them in squeeze ’em & hug ’em & love ’em forever kind of way. More in a get in my belly kind of way.

    We love Light Brahmas the best but Buff Orps & good ol’ Easter Eggers come in tied for a close second. We also have several other dual-purpose breeds. They all interbreed to produce great dual purpose offspring. We used to have BR and RIR but didn’t care for them.

    We use the deep litter method and built an open-air chicken house (http://speedkin.com/2010/12/08/the-new-fresh-air-chicken-coop-2/). We live in northern Missouri where it gets pretty darn cold and haven’t lost a bird to the cold yet. No supplemental heat.

    We don’t use additional light in the winter, preferring to give them a break. We do need to get something figured out for heated water, though! Good grief, it’s been a major pain every winter. We’ve looked at all of the options but just never committed to anything yet.

    1. I use a black ceramic infrared heat emmiter to heat chicken house by ayalight can order on Amazon – only comes in 100 and 150 watt depending on size of coup- I have a large coop so I use two 150 watt bulbs- that way girls get a break from laying – I use heated dog water bowls in winter and ice ones in summer- my chicken area is large and we. Buried strong 6 ft wire fence 8 inches underground also need to put wire under gate

  6. I must recommend the website http://www.backyardchickens.com Their beginners info (Learning Center) and forum pages are indispensable.

    To the person who asked about eggshells: no, it’s not a problem giving them back their eggshells if you crush them up. We grind ours in a mortar and pestle so they can eat it more easily. Just don’t give them any raw eggs to eat because that WILL teach them to be egg-eaters.

  7. Thanks to everyone for chiming in. My friend, Deb, left a couple of comments on the Facebook page I thought I would share here:

    “Ameraucauna, not Araucana. Araucaunas are rumpless and have eartufts. Ameraucaunas were developed from Araucaunas because of a lethal gene in the Araucaunas which results in lowered chick survival. (Deb and her family raise show birds so they are very attentive to the details of breed identification.)

    Washing eggs: I have yet to have anyone complain that I washed the eggs, or complain because they did not last long enough. If you are using them for hatching, then for sure, do NOT WASH them. But true to form, even there, there is controversy. Some do not want to put dirty eggs into their incubators and risk contamination from batch to batch, and they actually do a rinse with something like an iodine wash! Washing your eggs or not is pretty much a personal decision. Now, my eggs may not last three months, but then I want them eaten LONG before that anyway!”

    As for the eggshell/no eggshells question, my mom always fed her chickens the eggshells, as well as oyster shells. She did no special prep work on the shells, simply chucking them into an empty coffee can and crushing them down, and then dumping them out to the chickens when the can was full. Of course, this was around 20 years ago, when we didn’t have quite so many pathogens to content with for livestock.

    Diane – I’m pining for Light Brahmas, too. 🙂

    1. Good day. do you had a feeding program for native chickens. for example a new hatched egg. how many grams of chick starter will i gave to the chicks day.

      example only
      1 chick = 10 grams og starter for 1-2 weeks

      and for succeeding weeks?

      1. Feed consumption with vary greatly depending on breed, conditions and available forage. Nutrena feeds gives the following rough guidelines:

        Feeding Amounts for Newly Hatched Birds:

        Layer Chicks: 9-10 lbs per bird in the first 10 weeks
        Broiler Chicks (based on Cornish Game Birds): 8-9 lbs per bird in the first 6 weeks
        Turkeys: 72 lbs per bird in the first 12 weeks
        Geese: 53 lbs per bird in the first 8 weeks
        Ducks: 22 lbs per bird in the first 8 weeks
        Gamebirds: 9 lbs per bird in the first 8 weeks
        Feeding Amounts for Laying Birds:

        Chickens: 1.5 lbs per bird per week
        Turkeys: 4 – 5 lbs per bird per week
        Geese: 3 lbs per bird per week
        Gamebirds: 1 – 1.5 lbs per bird per week

        There’s a converter at this website – http://www.metric-conversions.org/weight/ to convert pounds to kilograms/grams.

    2. We are hoping to get light brahmas too. Are dad is considering it, but I hope all this is useful. ???? From what I’ve heard, this is great advice. ????????

      1. My lt. Bramas were pretty but the leg feathers would get big chunks of snow caked on them and I would have to pull it off, also mud sticks to those leg feathers. I will never have another chicken with leg feathers.

  8. So glad to hear that you have found that the heated dog bowls work well for you too! We priced the heated metal waterer base AND the metal waterer and it would have been close to 90 bucks! Compare that to our lovely dog bowl at just $15 🙂 That choice was easy for us. We have 50 chickens and 5 ducks and it works great for them – they (surprisingly) don’t make a huge mess!

  9. I cannot wait till we move and can have chickens…I will keep this post in my favorites! Thank you for taking the time to share your tips for those of us just beginning!!

  10. My problem as far as #6 goes is that my ladies love to go out and play/stand in any mud they can find after a rain. So for a day or two after a good storm, they come back into the coop with their feet caked in mud, get in the nestbox, roll the eggs around…then lay. So all the eggs in that box end up with muddy streaks all over them. I’d either throw away nearly 30 eggs, or wash them. I just wet a clean rag and run it over the egg. All our eggs are sold/consumed within a week of being laid so I’m not too concerned with the bacteria portion.

    Great article!

  11. We love our chickie girls!! And I’m so glad they just started laying again now that it’s warmer! They’ve had quite a traumatic start to life though. We started with 6 – one died right away and then we lost 3 to raccoons. Our two girls who are left though, are best of friends, ornery enough to drive off any predators (although they are much better protected now) and really really really good layers.

    I have a question though, if anyone has an answer- I built our coop – it has 4 nesting boxes (for future birds too) and a roost. It’s working fine, except that they roost and poop in the nesting boxes. AFTER I built the coop, I read that if the nesting boxes are lower than the roost, they won’t poop in them. So, my mistake there.
    Since then I’ve seen some people have nesting boxes that are totally separate from the coop- my question is- if I remove the boxes from the existing coop will they go lay in the new boxes? How can I convince them to lay in there? Are there any downsides to having nesting boxes separate from the coop? Any thoughts?

    Thank you so much for this article – its a great one!

      1. I do have space… I will give that a try. Also, I only have 2 laying girls right now, so I can also focus on getting the younger girls to lay in the separate boxes when it’s time. They’re still inside with us. 🙂 Thank you Laurie!!

  12. Do you have to have a rooster in order for hens to produce eggs? Will chicken’s fly over my fence if I get them? (Forgive my ignorance)If I just wanted 2 laying hens is this okay..

    1. Kathy – that’s a common question. 🙂 No, you don’t need a rooster to produce eggs, and many municipalities that allow chickens don’t allow roosters, because they tend to be much more vocal. For some reason 5am wakeup calls are not always popular with the neighbors. 😉

  13. Great tips you’ve shared here in your article. You are right about choosing designs for chicken coops. I almost succumb into the temptation of choosing coop designs which are not only costly to build but also too big for starters of 3-4 chickens. I’ll take your word for choosing dual breeds. who I’d also like to add that when planning for the design of the nesting boxes, it will be better if we can access the nesting boxes from the outside too. This way we can gather eggs, without enter the coop thereby leaving your chickens at peace who might still want some “quiet” moments among themselves.

  14. My girls have been in the out side coop for two weeks I haven’t put anything in the nesting boxes yet. When should I ?

  15. I gather bagged leaves in the city for fall,to put into chicken house to keep them warm. Of course, I put them into the rabbits cages to find them gone. Rabbits were eating them. They do help keep the draft in the houses warm and can be put back outside when you need a clean bag to put back into the chicken house. It helps the city people get rid of leaves and helps the cost of buying straw at six dollars a bale. Just fill your truck up with bagged leaves and they will help save you money.

    1. Unfortunately there is a modest risk with leaves gathered from random locations because of all the nasty chemicals people on their yards. That said, if you can get safe leaves, they make great bedding. We filled our coop and our greenhouse with leaves from a friend’s yard last fall, and over the course of the winter the duckies helped break them down and load them with manure so they were a great addition to the garden and greenhouse this spring.

  16. I had chicken a number of years ago, but don’t have any at this time. I like the methodology there using on the back to eden utube videos as well. Some good insight here also. I had a chicken run that went aprox 100 feet layed out in a square and inside the enclosure had a garden. The end result was the chicken run circled the garden area and I was able to dive in over top of culverts used as part of the run. It was a very good way to keep things out of the garden and chicken manuer went to the garden. There is a plan for such on line and was once published by readers digest. I recommend if anyone out there has a space where they would like to raise chickens and do some gardening as well. I do plan on doing this again in my retirement years if possible. Like the heated water bowl idea;would have solved one of the problems I had with water freezing in the winter.

  17. I hang my waterer in the coop in winter and hang my red heat lamp above it to keep from freezing.

  18. I agree with the advice except the heat lamp when your temperatures drop. Chickens run a body temperatures of 105- 107*, if you heat your coop they will not make as much of the inner coat of feathers, the down, power can go out then * Bam* you lose birds to freezeing temperatures. People in Alaska don’t heat their coops either. You can build a insulated coop for you winter time temperatures, all vents lower closeable for winter and all other venting above the roosts, allowing moist air to escape keeping frost bite away from your flock. Picking cold tolerant birds is important, buckeyes..a bird with a small comb. If you must provide heat for another reason stay away from heat lamps, barns , coops and birds are lost every year to these. Much safer are radient heater plates that can be used hanging standing upright heat side facing to the flock, or on legs for brooders.

  19. Quick question. I bought fall chicks and they go in the coop in about a week. It will be mid 60’s during the day and lower 50’s at night … will the heated water bowl help keep them warm enough?

    1. I have not tried a heated water dish to keep chicks warm, but I would not recommend it. They may be tempted to crawl in to keep warm and drown.

      The article “How Long Do Chicks Need a Heat Lamp?” provides the following recommendations:

      Chick Age Temperature Considerations
      0-7 Days 95°F Now is not the time to let babies
      stay outside the brooder more than
      a couple minutes.
      Week 2 90°F Babies start flying very early! Be sure the
      heat lamp is secure and can’t be reached.
      Week 3 85°F Chicks can make short trips outside,
      if the weather is nice and warm.
      Week 4 80°F Let chicks enjoy more time outside, but
      keep a close eye on them.
      Week 5 75°F Is your house 75°F? Turn off the heat lamp.
      Week 6 70°F Start acclimating the chickens, letting them
      spend all day outside unless weather is
      cold and rainy.
      After 6 Weeks Ready for Outside! Fully feathered chicks can endure 30°F and
      lower. Acclimate them before putting outside
      for good. Be sure coops are draft-free.

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