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How to Raise Chickens Cheaply – Small Budget? No Problem.

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This is a guest post by my friend, CJ Harrington.

leghorn chicken

How to raise chickens cheaply?

That's what I needed to figure out. I got the idea to raise chickens while unemployed for several months. Times got a little tight (to say the least!) and I thought that if I had a coop and a garden at least my family and I would have just a little more in the pantry. So I set out to learn as much as I could before spending any little cash. Here are a few lessons learned…..

Build an Inexpensive Chicken Coop

Before dropping a lot of cash on one of those fancy chicken tractors you see in the back of poultry magazines, keep in mind you can spend your cash a little wiser. It depends on your living situation of course. If you are a city dweller, then you might have to put a lot more into your chicken operation than us country folks. City folks have zoning regulations and neighbors to deal with – problems I didn’t have to deal with. My thoughts contained here are more for those of us who have a little space between us and the neighbors.

Chickens need a place to get out of the wind and rain and a dry and safe space to roost at night and somewhere to lay eggs. Keep these very simple requirements in mind when building a coop.  I have seen coops built out of an old truck cap, pallets and plastic sheeting, old yard sheds, etc. You are only limited (out in the country) by your imagination.

As for my coop, I had a friend who had an old camping trailer. He wanted the frame for an ice shanty and was going to rip off the camper and junk it. I asked him for the camper body and helped him cut the bolts off… and I was on my way to raising chickens!

After cutting the bolts, we towed the camper into place and proceeded to “slide” it off the frame. It turned out to be an interesting time but we got it done.

repurposed trailer coop

Choose Coop Placement Carefully

This brings me to my first lesson: Location, location, location! My Wife had a few “rules” that I had to follow to stay in her good graces.

Rule #1: she wanted it out of sight.

Rule #2” she didn’t want to smell it!

Very valid points! I wanted it close enough to the house so I could easily go out to tend to the birds. I have a detached garage situated across the yard from the house, out near the gardens. We agreed that that was the best place for a coop. Far enough for her and close enough for me! Once the coop was in place, it was time for the next decision.

Should You Let the Chickens Free Range or Keep Them in a Run?

Having chickens free ranging is great. It gives the place a “country” look and they will eat bugs out in the yard. Keep in mind, they will also eat your young plants in the garden, flower beds, get out on any roads nearby, wander over to the neighbors, etc.

I also took into consideration that I live very close to a highway in a heavily wooded area. My chance of losing birds to coyotes, hawks, coons and cars was very high. I chose to build a run for my flock and not spend money feeding the local wildlife or seeing my investment flattened on the road.

For my run, I looked around for anything that might work before spending any money on something fancy. I was lucky enough to have an old dog kennel set up behind my house sitting empty. I used the chain link panels to construct a run behind the coop. I even had enough panels to construct a top for my run to keep the hawks and coons out. (The “dog coop” would also make a perfect pig shelter, but that’s another story!)

Now that the coop was in place, the camper gutted, it was time for some work to make it easier on the birds and myself. First, I built nesting boxes out of existing shelves inside the coop. Then I used saplings to build a roost inside the coop.

chicken coop interior

Then I built an interior wire wall and door into the laying area thus creating a space to store feed and supplies.

coop partition

The camper windows allow me to control ventilation and I added a passive roof vent (the Restore $3.00).

I buried wire around the coop and run to keep out tunneling varmints. Once all this was done, it was time to get birds!

What Breed of Chicken is Best?

What breed you get is your personal decision. Why are you keeping chickens? Meat? Eggs? Both? What climate?

I chose White Leghorns. Why? Because they are cold tolerant (it gets cold in Northern Wisconsin!) and they are EGG LAYING MACHINES!

This is where I made my first mistake. I ordered too many! I ordered 14 hens and one rooster. I got 14 hens and 2 roosters shipped to me. I was not ready for the sheer amount of eggs they could lay!

Now, I know what you are thinking: “Great, I can sell the extra eggs and make money!”. All I will say is, don’t even think about it. There are a TON of people trying to sell eggs. Competition is fierce! The thought of making money raising chickens is a pipe dream conjured up by writers at Mother Earth News or Backwoods Home magazines. On good months, you might break even. Most months you won’t!

I was lucky enough to have a local feed mill sell my eggs for me – but it's hit-and-miss some months. During the winter, egg production drops like a rock but feed consumption goes up. During the summer, feed consumption goes down but egg production goes up. You will either have so many eggs that you just can't get rid of them, or so few any steady customers you do have will not get eggs year round. It’s just part of raising chickens!

Now, when I ordered my flock, I ordered pullets (8weeks old). Due to some miscommunication at the feed mill, I got 1 week old chicks.

This leads me to my next point:

Be flexible!

The day comes, and I get the call that my birds are in. I was surprised to find baby chicks and not pullets! Now what??? I wasn’t set up for chicks! Well, I took them anyway. They are animals and you can’t send them back to the hatchery.

When I got home, I made an impromptu brooder out of a cardboard box and a heat lamp. I had to set it up in the living room for the first 2 weeks. Then the noise and smell prompted me to move them to the coop. It was getting warm enough outside and with the help of the heat lamp in one corner of the coop the chicks would be fine.

I was a few weeks behind schedule but I was raising chickens!

How Much Time and Effort Does it Take to Raise Chickens?

People ask me: “How much time out of your day do you spend taking care of your birds?” My answer: not a whole lot. I set aside about 10 minutes in the morning to feed them, check their water and adjust ventilation for the day. In the evening, I do the same. It’s not a lot of work keeping chickens. You will fall into a routine. I find that I have a summer and winter routine. It takes a little longer in the winter but it’s not a lot of trouble at all. In the summer, I spend a lot of time in the garden so I look in on them more, especially during hot spells. They are very easy to take care of!

Another point I want to make. If you are gathering eggs, please do so EVERY DAY! I hear of people buying “farm fresh eggs” only to crack them open to find a developing chick inside! GROSS! Who wants to see that when cooking breakfast? That tells me that some people are not gathering eggs every day and getting them in a refrigerator soon enough. It’s a sign of laziness on the part of the chicken farmer!

Winter Care for Chickens

During the winter, the waterers WILL freeze. It’s a fact of life here in the North. I got a second waterer and keep it in the house. I fill it with warm water and bring it out to the coop in the morning and swap out the waterer from last night. I do this every 12 hours. A heated waterer is nice and I will get some for next winter but it’s not necessary to get started.

I also create a draft shield to stop that blast of cold air from hitting the birds when I open the coop door. I staple up some feeds bags on the wire wall next to the door to protect the birds. Also, give the flock some scratch in the evening inside the coop, they will love it and it will help keep them warm on cold nights.

I also leave a red light on inside the coop 24/7 to help keep down incidents of picking. Chickens get “Cabin Fever” just like we do in the winter so give them something to do. Scratch blocks in the coop work well, as does enclosing the run in plastic sheeting so they can still get out side even on cold snowy days. Throw in a head of cabbage once a week or a bale of hay into the run so they can pick it apart during the winter.

It’s important to still have good ventilation during the winter as well. I close the windows on the north side of the coop but keep a window open for air intake between the coop and garage. I put down extra bedding on the coop floor and stuff the nest boxes thicker during the cold months as well.

Create a “dust bath” for your chickens. I did this by taking a cat litter box and filling with a mixture of 1 part play sand, 1 part sifted (cold!) ashes from the wood stove and 1 part food grade DE. It helps them clean themselves.

Summer Care for Chickens

During the summer, I keep all the windows open. During the day, I leave the outside door open. The camper has a screen door so I leave that closed allowing air flow but no varmint access. I keep a closer eye on the water, they will drink a lot more in the heat of summer and I like to keep the dust bath full as well. I take the plastic sheeting off the run and replace it with a tarp on top will help keep the sun off of the birds and give them a dry place to sit when its raining. I cut my grass and bag the clippings. Then I dump the clippings into the run. The chickens love it! As long as you don’t spray your lawn for weeds, it’s okay.

It’s been a year now and I will say that it’s been worth it! I have learned so much and continue to do so. You will get advice from EVERYONE! Keep in mind, there are a lot of so-called “experts” out there who will try to tell you that you are doing it wrong. All I can say is when you get some advice, research it yourself. The internet is a great tool for this or better yet, get to know the folks at your local feed mill. Go to “small animal swaps” and get out a meet others in the chicken business.

If you want, send me an e-mail: Bronc6@hotmail.com with any questions. Put “Chickens” in the subject line. I am NOT an expert but I might be able to answer questions or point you in the right direction. (You can also leave a comment below.)

This is a guest post by my friend, CJ Harrington, who is busy building his homestead with his lovely wife up in northern Wisconsin.

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raise chickens cheaply

Originally published 7/14/2012, updated 12/29/15.

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74 Comments

  1. My family and I live in the middle of the city and were able to build our chicken coop completely out of salvaged wood from off the side of the road- the only cost was for the chicken wire.
    It is so much fun having chickens! We have 11 and are yet to find out how many roosters/hens we have (we know we have at least one rooster that we’re going to eat) and the hens are due to start laying in about a month. I’m so excited to finally have fresh, delicious eggs!
    Great article. Thanks!

  2. Hi, very informative, I bought my first baby chickens in March 2012. They were about 6 weeks old, bought fancy feathered feet chickens. I had bad luck, did not know what I was doing, had them in a pen, without a top. It took about 2 weeks for some kind of critter to get 10 in one night! Needless to say a big lesson learned. Had a top the next night, still have the four left from that batch. Added 4 bantam hens and 3 bantam roosters. In May I added 9 more Fancy Feathered Feet chickens, had one bantam hen set, now raising 7 babies, now another hen went on the nest last Wednesday. I now have 29 chickens total. My have I had lots of fun with them growing up. The bantam babies will take food from the big chickens and run. My heart doctor told to to raise me some chickens and a garden, and that is what I am doing. I have not had any chickens in 52 years, I have learned a lot the last few months.

    1. Myra, my Doctor told me that I should reduce stress. Although the chickens and garden are some work, I feel the is NOTHING more relaxing!

    2. I have only 5 chickens and I am a newbie, but I love my girls and find them fun to watch. They have their coop and a run, but not been able to let them run free until I fence the yard, They are not laying yet, but soon. Your post is very helpful, thank you. I try every helpful idea I find to make the girls happy, healthy and safe..

  3. We use cheap feeding by sprouting grains which is all natural and costs 1/10 th to feed them. Sprouts are good for us because they are nutrient dense and they are great for the birds -filled with chlorophyll and all the nutrients needed. We found info on MyBackAchers.com the sprouting book.

  4. Excellent advice. I’ve raised cattle, but chickens, no experience whatsoever. After reading this, I know I could. Thanks.

  5. I wish I could have chickens, but I don’t have enough property (gotta have a half acre in Cherokee county GA) AND I have a pretty vigilant HOA. Oh well, I’ll just have to be content with my vegetable garden. 🙂

    1. A half acre is more then enough room. Most cities allow a few chickens but some have restrictions about having roosters. The rooster (male) is the one that crows and the hens are silent…

      1. If your chickens have ever laid an egg, you’ll know they’re not silent!! They have a call to announce an egg. My mom (who lives in suburbia, but just outside of of city limits) has never had a rooster for long, but used to get accused of it all the time, just because of how noisy her girls got.

        [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

      2. Careful feeding grass clippings – make sure they’re short! If they’re long, your chickens will get impacted crops. Not fun.

        [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

    2. Have you thought about raising JUMBO COTURNIX QUAIL? Check out info on the internet, I got interested in them when trying to find a way t to off set my chicken expenses.

  6. I don’t own chickens (yet) but I wonder….would it be financially smart to butcher the chickens each fall so that you’re not feeding them all winter, and then get new chicks early enough each spring so that they’re laying by the time your hens (that you butchered) would’ve started laying again?

    Seems like this might be the best of both worlds. You’d get eggs, you’d get meat, and you wouldn’t be feeding chickens all winter with no return. What do you think?

    1. Jamie – egg production doesn’t stop entirely during winter, it only slows down. While I haven’t made a detailed economic comparison, slaughtering the birds in fall seems like you’re really unnecessarily cutting short the productive life of the chicken. That’s only a few months of eggs per bird.

      When my mother’s mother used to raise large flocks of layers (she had a big barn with over 100 birds), she would rotate out the previous years layers when the current birds started laying, not before. Grandma lived through the Depression and was very frugal, so I’m guessing she watched the numbers closely and that was what made the most financial sense for her.

  7. @ Jamie… chickens take about 12 weeks to start laying. If you butcher them each fall, then like was stated before, you would be cutting short the life of a productive bird. Wintering over a flock isn’t much work and the feed costs aren’t extreme. I would think that it would cost more feeding a flock for 12 weeks, getting up to laying age, then feeding year round due to the fact that you start out chickens on a “starter” blend of feed which costs more. Besides, while you are feeding your “new” flock for 12 weeks, you aren’t getting ANY eggs. If you choose the right breed, wintering over is not a problem….

  8. What is food grade DE and where do you get it? Can you use just the sand and wood ashes? Also how often do you need to give chickens grit? Thanks for your very interesting blog.

    1. You could use just sand and ashes. I add the DE because it repels mites. I feed my flock grit in a separate feeder.I just fill it when it gets low…

  9. @ Paula, Food Grade DE is Diamascus (sp?) Earth. You can get it at most farm supply stores. I add it to the dust bath because it helps repel mites on the chickens. Yes, you can use just wood ash and sand but I add the DE for repelling mites as well…

  10. We have 6 chickens. 2 blonde, 2 redheads & 2 freckled and they are about 1 1/2 years old, they run free most days, we keep a light on at night. We have are not getting the egg production this year that we got last fall and erly spring, is there something can provide them to encourage them to lay?

    1. As chickens get older, they will naturally lay less. At that point most people I know turn them into soup, and if they’ve planned correctly, have a fresh flock to replace them. My grandmother used to raise huge laying flocks (100+ birds) and replace them annually.

    2. Well Carrie,

      Most breeds are “in their prime” for about 2 years. After that, egg production drops. Now, this time of year, it could be the weather. Keep the light on for them. I give mine a handful of scratch grains in the evening. It helps them keep up their body heat during the night as they digest it. Also, try giving them some type of greens. I will put a bale of hay (not straw) in their run and let them pick it apart of throw a head of cabbage in the coop once a week. They will benefit from the extra protein. If nothing works, just let them be…they will lay. Weather is a BIG factor for me in the cold North. Sometimes I have days with no eggs at all!

    3. One thing or two to improve chickens egg laying is to provide clean clear water for them and to feed them certain grains and seeds for minerals and protein. Certain vegetables for vitamins they need. I make my own chicken feed for my 20 or more free range chickens. It is cheaper and healthier than the processed factory made is. I mix 50 lb. bags of barley, wheat, rye, oats together ( $10-$12 each) that I get from our local feed store. Then I add as big of a bag that I can get of black oiled sunflower seeds($6-$10) found in the garden area and a container of flax seed ($14) if you can afford it, found in the grocery area from Wall Mart. They share a 1 lb. (16 oz) of my mix a day. My hens layed eggs almost every day from spring until fall. They slowed down in the winter but started early the next spring. Pumpkins are a great way of giving them their vitamins to be healthy and strong. My son came home with a small pumpkin from school one day in the fall so I saved the seeds and mix them into a empty garden bed. The seeds had the rest of fall to germinate and for the roots to grow all winter long. So by early spring I saw lots of pumpkin plants starting to grow a beautiful pumpkin patch. I also saved some of the black oiled sun flower seeds and grew them to. You can also sprout or fodder the different grains during winter for greens. Maybe you can grow the healthy herbs and flowers they love. You can find the list of those from others on Pinterest.

  11. I wouldn’t rule out selling eggs. I have 16 sweet hens (Rhode Island Reds) and can’t keep up with the demand at $3/dozen. We keep the money in a box and use it to buy food and bedding. It must depend on where you live.

    1. That’s great that you can sell eggs to help cover your costs. It really does vary by location, but I think CJ wanted to make sure people didn’t expect to get rich quick off their chickens. 🙂

    2. Egg prices are region specific. I sell my Leghorn eggs for $1.50 a doz. Some areas get ALOT better prices!

  12. In the part about making them dust, you say a part DE, I am assuming that you dont mean a part of Delaware (where I live…lol) what does that mean? Also, we are wanting to start this spring, how many chicks would you recommend? I was thinking 2 or 3 females and 1 male?

    1. I would recommend NOT getting any males. They are not necessary for the production of eggs. Unless you plan on hatching your own in the future, I would stick with just hens. You would only be feeding another bird and not getting anything return for your investment…

  13. love your coop setup… yes chickens are economical they will eat scraps etc. I bought 5 when I started & never looked back, my coop was made on the cheap from pallets & I made a cheap incubator, raise my own & usually butcher the rooster surplus, & sell off a few of my chicks. I have reduced my grocery bill eating a lot of creative egg dishes, & chicken is abundant. Mix that with a bit of in season garden & you eat well. The cost to keep is balanced by the reduction in the grocery bill, and the savings is also in the gas not needing to run to town as often when you produce a portion of your food.

  14. If you give them some artificial light (fluorescent) in the coop or even use some solar lights (that you line paths with) out in the run, your egg production will increase during winter. That way, your feed will be ‘more justified’, as you will still be getting enough eggs to warrant the cost of feed. Just a thought!

    1. I do use an incandescent light in my coop during the winter months. I have noticed a stabilizing in my egg production as well. The added heat, although small, helps a bit as well. Another thing I do during the winter months is, I give my flock scratch in the evenings. This helps them generate body heat as they digest. Also, the high protein scratch also helps with egg production as well…

  15. CJ your blog is very informative thankyou for sharing these tips. During winter, I usually give my “gurlz’ corn in the evening, corn is something they can digest at night time and it keeps them warm the whole night. You can also try hanging a cabbage on a string inside the coop. These will keep them busy as they toy around and peck on the cabbage as well. Winter can become so boring at some point, thhe cabbage will make them happy. Make sure also that you have enough space for the chicken to roost. During winter they love fluffing their wings because it is a way to keep them warm.

  16. So on point with egg production and the inability to sell them. I have had similar issues trying to keep up with demand or finding the buyers and the girls stop laying. We lost over 100 birds this year to predators – hawks and raccoons mainly. It’s been rough.

  17. This has been a great info on starting to keep chickens. I plan to set up my coop and its surrounding yard this winter. By Spring I hope to be set to purchase my chicks. Still not sure which variety to go with. Best wishes.

    ken

  18. I was wondering why people but baby chicks instead of six month old. Don’t they start laying eggs around six or nine months? I’m fixing my pin and coop now and getting ready to buy some chickens for the first time, but I’m wondering what age is best. I’ll probably be able to buy some in January and I live in Lubbock Texas where it’s rarely in the teens in winter. It is usually in the forties and fifties during the day. I want to get them so that by the time they reach laying age it will be spring and they will lay at full capacity. Hope that makes sense.

  19. Also, I live outside city limits in a rural neighborhood. We have .8 access but it’s second off. The are where our chickens will be has three different sections. Or back yard, our garden, and their pin/run. Their pin is about forty by twenty. I don’t think I’m going to put a roof over it. If i put them in their coop at night why would they need a roof in their pin? Thanks for answering my questions! I enjoyed your article! 😉

  20. Sorry for the typos… Posting this again…. I live outside city limits in a rural neighborhood. We have .8 acres but it’s sectioned off. The area where our chickens will be has three different areas: Our back yard, our garden, and their pin/run. Their pin is about forty feet by twenty feet!! I haven’t decided if I’ll just let them free range all over the yard and garden and pin or rotate the spaces. The garden is about as big as their run and the yard is about twice as big as the run. At any rate I wasn’t planning on putting a roof over their run, because it is so big. why would they need a roof in their pin? Especially since I’m putting them in their coop at night which is sealed and locked up. I’m a beginner so i have no idea about these things! Thanks for answering my questions! I enjoyed your article! 😉

    1. Chickens can fly over short fences, so if that’s a concern, you should add a roof. If you have airborne predators, like chicken hawks, add a roof.

      You may want to allow chickens in the garden before planting or after harvest for cleanup duties, but I wouldn’t put them in during the growing season because they dig and peck and generally are pretty destructive.

      There may be zoning restrictions that require you to keep your chickens caged. If not, please check with your neighbors and make sure it’s okay with them if the chickens wander a bit. (See prior mention of chickens being destructive.) I know I would be very upset if neighbor’s chickens trashed my flower or vegetable beds.

  21. Thanks for such a useful post! Plenty of cutsie, fluff articles out there. Not near enough real life ones such as yours though!

  22. This is some great information, and I appreciate your point that taking care of chickens isn’t difficult. My kids have been wanting some sort of pet for a while now, and my husband and I want to get something that is easy to take care of at first. We’ll definitely look into getting a few chickens to start out, and we’ll be sure they are taken care of. Thanks for the great post!

  23. Hi my hen laid her first egg three days ago. Then she just stopped, its been three days now. Is this normal or should i expect eggs soon. I’m not sure.

  24. Thank you, thank you and more thank yous to you, Sir CJ & Miss Laurie!! This article really cemented my desire to start a small poultry business back in the Philippines when the time we’ll settle there for good. I have a 700 m² idle lot back in our province and I think that’s more than enough space for a small backyard farming.

    This article AND ALL the comments in here gave me tips on how to do the chicken raising and all the bad things that might happen during the raising. Now, I am bookmarking your site so I can go back and read again if I miss some things. Again, my kisses to all of you!!

  25. wooow have really enjoyed reading this am 22 no job and I would like to continue with my schooling I was looking for a small business and I thought about chicken it can help me to solve my problem and thank you very much for such wonderful thought you have shared am going to put on practice

    1. Expand slowly, as you can afford. Too many farms go into huge debt that they can never repay by expanding too quickly. Ask around for materials that may be salvaged to provide shelter, but always put the health of your birds first. Avian flu is becoming more common, and stressed birds are more likely to get sick.

  26. The birch ladder is really really epic my dear, so orginal and so useful ! I`ll start crafting it this weekend if I manage to convince my hubby !

  27. Thanks,
    The article is informative and has given me a drive to introduce the habit of keeping chicks. I only face the problem of little space and the conditining for Dar es salaam is warmer than that of your place.

  28. I like your story it does give me an idea of what I’am planing to do.
    I’am planing to have a farm to feed chicken and sell eggs in the erea where I live and need more ideas.
    I’am interested to hear from other people how they look after their own farm and especially how to take care the chicken to lay nice eggs so that I can sell them for my income.
    I don’t have enough but I will start small first. I think I have enough space

  29. O.K. Chicken owners, I have a 12 year old chicken that lays 5 eggs a week except in the winter.Just today at 98 degrees plus humidity made it like 113 my precious chicken layed another brown egg! So let’s stop being negative and wanting to cull these young CHICKENS. PROTIEN, calcium, grit, no unhealthy snacks, occasional scrambled egg, and lock them up at dusk! You could have eggs for 12 years. Good luck!

  30. I am a newbie as an adult.
    10 chickens and 4 ducks. Using Rubbermaid shed and dog run with tarp
    with additional netting above, in case of our occasionally strong winds.
    At least the netting stays in place against predators.
    I am looking for cheap alternatives as I live on ssi.
    I continually get wood chips from tree service to help keep blackberries vines
    from overtaken back lot. I am trying to research to find if those wood chips
    can be used in my run and coop. I could change out more frequently for
    cleaning and composting. I did not like the sand in the coop as to wet from beginning.
    Wood chips abundance is my choice if safe for the girls.

    1. Typically most opt for some type of drier bedding, like dried wood shavings or leaves, but if wood chips is what you have and you are cleaning and composting regularly, I don’t think it would be an issue.

      The big thing you want to watch out for is mold or other issues with wet or very poopy bedding. Ammonia build up is a serious problem for flock health.

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