Thinking About Backyard Chickens? 4 Things You Should Know First

Follow these tips and you'll have fresh eggs year-round.

Published June 9, 2021.

Since the pandemic made our world a little smaller, some people have turned to homesteading as a way to spend the time and become self-sufficient. Part of that includes raising hens. 

“People having chickens in their backyard has gotten a whole lot more popular,” said Dianna Bourassa, assistant professor and extension specialist in poultry science at Auburn University College of Agriculture

Orders for chicks skyrocketed last year, but before you jump online with visions of eggs dancing in your eyes, we consulted with Bourassa and Katy Riley, farm manager at Bogastow Farm Project in Millis, Massachusetts, about a few basic things you need to know.

1. Three Is a Magic Number

No one wants a lonely hen, so Riley suggests starting with three hens. “Having a minimum of three is nice,” she says. “Every town and neighborhood will have a maximum number you can have.” 

2. Breed Matters

When pickin’ your chickens, Riley and Bourassa suggest avoiding flighty birds such as White Leghorns, especially if you have curious kids. Riley also suggests thinking twice about another common laying breed, Rhode Island Reds, unless you’re channeling your inner Stanley Yelnatz IV

“Rhode Island Reds loooove digging holes,” she says. “Rhode Island Reds can dig holes chicken-deep every day. Like, there are holes everywhere.”

Friendly, less hole-enthusiastic alternatives include Buff Orpingtons, Barred Rocks, and the delightfully named Easter Eggers. “I like the Easter Egger varieties because they’re hardy,” Riley says. “And you also get the fun green eggs, blue eggs, and eggs in all different shades.”

3. Save Your Sleep—Say No to a Rooster

Unless you want chicks or you need a really effective alarm clock, roosters are more trouble than they’re worth. “You don’t need a rooster,” says Riley. “If you have too few hens and a rooster, he will pay too much attention to them and literally wear the feathers off their back. And if you have too many hens and one rooster, he won’t protect them.” Save your hens (and your sleep schedule) and just say no.

4. Gear Up

A basic hen starter kit should include a well-ventilated shelter, solid protection from predators, and good bedding (Riley likes a mix of pine shavings and food-grade diatomaceous earth) to ensure easy cleanup after hens do their, ahem, business. 

While some people put a light in the coop to encourage laying year-round (hens’ egg-laying cycles are dictated by daylight), Riley suggests letting them have a break from everyday laying during the winter months.

“I tend to let mine take winter off because I find they are a lot happier and healthier in the spring,” she said. “They get to relax a bit.”

Food-wise, hens are omnivores and will eat bugs, seeds, food scraps, and even their own eggs if one breaks. Riley likes to feed her hens a non-GMO mixed feed and says a mix from a feed store that has 12 to 13 percent protein should do the trick.

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