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.
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.
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.
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.
You may also find useful:
- What to Feed Chickens – Do’s and Don’ts for a Healthy Chicken Diet
- Chickenpalooza! An Awesome List of Homestead Chicken Resources
- How to Raise Chickens Cheaply – Tips for Raising Chickens on a Budget
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.