This article is titled “Backyard Chickens for Beginners” for a reason. We hope to help you make decisions about chicken feed, chicken coops, keeping chickens in winter and a few other housekeeping items. Even at a beginner’s level, you can learn quality techniques for keeping a happy, healthy flock.
Table of Contents
Don’t let the fear of not knowing everything about backyard chickens keep you from diving into chicken keeping. The best way to take care of your flock is just to learn a little bit more every month than you knew before about poultry. This article is meant to give you the basic information you’ll need to be successful with backyard chickens, while also referring you to many other useful poultry resources. So, let’s start with at the beginning.
Backyard Chickens Breeds
One of the first things you might ask is, “What kind of chickens should you keep?” I say, keep them all! Each breed has something to recommend it, but maybe you don’t have space to try them all at once. In that case, here are a few to consider:
- 10 Best Chicken Breeds for Beginners – written by Backyard Chicken Project, which is a fantastic site for chicken keepers. I usually search my chicken questions there first.
- If you live in a city, Timber Creek Farm can help you review the 12 Quietest Chickens. We don’t want to irritate our neighbors, of course!
- The Homesteading Hippy outlines 13 Child-Friendly Chicken Breeds if you’re homesteading with your family. Chickens are a perfect homestead livestock for children to tend because of their size and manageability.
- If you’d like to raise meat chickens (broilers) specifically, Farmish Kind of Life has a podcast entitled Choosing the Best Meat Chickens for Your Homestead that can help you decide.
Breeds that Will Hatch Their Own Chicks
If you’d like your hens to sit on eggs and hatch their own chicks (this is called “going broody”, the breeds most likely to do that are:
- Buff Orpington
- Buff Plymouth Rocks
- Bantams – here’s our article on Why You Might Want to Keep Silkies
Broody Hen Care
Here’s a quick read from The Organic Goat Lady, Do Hens Need a Rooster to Lay Eggs. The answer is no, but…
In chapter 4 of The Do It Yourself Homestead there’s a section on raising your own chicks. In the section, there’s a shaded side bar on broody hen care. This whole section on poultry might be of use to, particularly the end parts under:
- Action Items
- Books to Read
Here are some ideas for preparing for baby chicks. Even if this isn’t something you’ll be doing right away, it’s good to know what’s involved when you’re dealing with baby anything. The younger the animal, the quicker things can go south when something is wrong. Especially if you’re not prepared.
- 5 Things Baby Chicks Need by A Farmish Kind of Life. (I love Amy’s writing – she’s so down to earth!) You’ll notice that Janet’s article is linked in the first section.
- Here are 6 Easy Brooder Ideas from Timber Creek Farm. Brooders are simply containers for baby chicks. If you have a mother hen with the babies, all the better! A hen can fit into any of these ideas as long as they’re large enough to accommodate her.
- You’ll need to know How to Hatch Eggs in an Incubator from us here at Homestead Lady.
Nutrition and General Health for Backyard Chickens
Thee next question you might ask is, “What do I feed my backyard chickens to keep the healthy?” Your first thought might be the pre-mixed layer ration you can find at the feed store. That’s certainly a good place to start, but here are some other things to think about.
Feed Questions to Ask
If you’ve heard people suggest feeding your chickens dog food or whole corn, I suggest you read the following articles. Cast off food from your pantry can be consumed by your flock, but it’s important to keep their balanced nutrition in mind. You want your flock to put on healthy weight, not just weight.
The following are some links you may want to read to get some new or further ideas about how you might like to tweak your flock’s feeding.
- Here’s a great article by Timber Creek Farm full of things to think about as regards your flock’s feeding – How Much Food Does a Chicken Need? One of her books, 50 DIY Projects for Chicken Keepers, shows how to sprout feed, FYI.
- Feeding Chickens Dog Food, by Chicken Keeping Secrets. This is a very short article in answer to a reader’s question. The author raises some good points, one being to compare nutritional value of chicken and dog food by looking at ingredients. If you’re buying pre-mixed chicken food, read the labels well.
For example, if you have concerns about the origin of some ingredients in the feed, you can ask the feed store manager or the person in charge of stocking the shelves. You may also need to contact the company directly or go on their website to get a clear answer. Some questions I ask are:
- What is the source of the crude protein?
- Is the corn genetically modified?
- Is there soy in the feed?
- Are their animal parts in the feed? If so, what kinds?
Mixing Your Own Grain
If you’d like to learn to mix your own grain, here are some things to think about. In Diane Schivera’s very fine article for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association she notes:
“Whole grains are more nutritious than ground, since oxidation occurs after grinding, reducing nutritional content; and the longer the ground grain sits around, the greater the loss.”
However, she also points out that,
“No grain is ideal. …Of the small grains that are available, wheat can slow digestion but is a good substitute for and is higher in protein than corn; barley is less palatable; oats have less energy and are fibrous; rye inhibits growth; millet is a good energy substitute but is low is protein.”
In short, grain ration should not be solely relied upon. A mixture of greens, bugs and even appropriate kitchen scraps will help keep chickens healthy and happy. Access to quality pasture or grass full of insects and natural grit is essential to
However, should you wish to mix your own whole grain ration, there are several to chose from:
- Pampered Chicken Mama has an Organic Homemade Chicken Feed that won’t break the bank.
- The Prairie Homestead has a Homemade Chicken Feed that uses non-GMO corn.
Fermenting and Sprouting
As Ann from A Farm Girl in the Making explains in her article The Benefits of Fermented Food,
“What makes fermentation awesome for poultry? In a nutshell when fermented feed is consumed it provides natural probiotics to the body, packed full of good bacteria and yeast. Lacto-fermentated foods and feed is able to be consumed by all living creatures; including dogs, cats, and even ruminants.”
Also, here are a few articles on fermenting and sprouting chicken food:
- The Benefits of Fermented Feed, by A Farm Girl in the Making – read the whole article, if you’re new to fermenting.
- The Murano Chicken Farm can show you how to start fermenting your chicken feed here.
In order to ferment your chicken feed, you will first be soaking it in water – in fact, that’s the first step! There is another option for whole grain feed if you don’t want to ferment it, and that’s sprouting.
Here’s a little excerpt from our book, The Do It Yourself Homesteadthat explains a little about the benefits of sprouting,
“If you’re already soaking your grains, seeds and nuts and would like to increase the nutritional value of those soaked items, then learn how to sprout them. Here are some fun facts about the benefits of sprouting:
- One of the most important vitamins that’s produced during sprouting is Vita-min C. Humans can’t manufacture their own Vitamin C and so it’s really, important that we know where to find it in nature. Yay for sprouts that have it in spades!
- A whole host of other vitamins are created by sprouting, as well.
- Phytic acid, which inhibits the absorption of many important nutrients like calcium, is neutralized with soaking and sprouting.
- Half the battle with our food is to pack it full of nutrients. The other half of the battle is to eat food that allows our bodies to absorb those nutrients. Sprouting enables both actions: provision of nutrients and absorption of nutrients.”
To learn more about sprouting, visit these links:
- Here’s an article by The 104 Homestead that includes a video on a set up for sprouting that might be more your speed.
- Here’s a step by step written breakdown of a similar system from Attainable Sustainable.
Abundant Permaculture with Justin Rhodes will also be helpful to you to explore as you have time. He offers a quick and free video course on getting started with chickens. As a permaculturist, he teaches us how to approach every homestead project holistically so that it involves many, if not all, of the parts of our homesteads. If you want to sign up for his newsletter, you can get access to his free video training and e-book on getting started with chickens. He covers feed, housing, chicks, fencing, everything.
Chicken Coops & Security
Let’s say you’ve read this article from Backyard Chicken Project with 10 Free Backyard Chicken Coops.
Or, this one from Lovely Greens giving us Advice on Building a Permanent Chicken Coop.
That’s a wonderful beginning, however, don’t stress too much about the first one. The chicken coop you start out with may not be the same coop you’re using a year down the road. You will probably change and tweak your coop several times. One reason to do this is predators.
There are a thousand ways to set up a chicken coop. If you get the Justin Rhodes information, he can really help you as you consider expanding your coop or creating a portable coop. The purpose of enclosing them in a portable coop (instead of letting them free range) is:
- to keep them safe
- or keep them from hiding their eggs around your property
- and keep them from pooping on your porch! (Ask me how I know.)
Here are few things to consider about bedding material, cleaning, etc.
- The 104 Homestead is a big fan of sand on the coop floor and she tells you why.
- I’m giving you two videos for building a chicken run. This first one is tall enough to walk inside and clean. It’s a little long (about 30 minutes), but I like watching him build it and hear his reasoning for what he’s doing. You may not have a tractor with a post hole digger attachment, but you can buy a manual post hole digger at the hardware store (like the one he uses to finish). We love ours and couldn’t live without it. It’s hard on the arms, FYI. You may want to buy a tamping tool, too – ours is a square metal plate with a vertical handle and it stands about four feet high. His is a little different for tamping down into the hole. Either way, they really help. He’s using a pneumatic stapler to attach the hardware cloth and they’re fantastic, but using a regular staple gun works, too. Just remember to schedule some rest stops for your hands.
- Here’s a chicken run that’s made of PVC pipe. We just built a PVC movable coop and love how light it is. We didn’t glue our pipes, either – we did use screws, though. If you decide you want to go this route, feel free to ask questions in the comments.
Predators of Backyard Chickens
The first thing to do is to identify the predators you have in your area. If you are sure you already know them, great! If not, do some light research with the depart of wildlife to be aware of which predatory animals you’re dealing with. Remember that not all of them will be visible to you. (Either they’re super-fast or they hunt at night.)
- Community Chickens has an easy to read article on the Top 10 Chicken Predators that includes suggestions for how to protect against them from community members.
- The Backyard Chicken Project has an indispensable article called 24 Features on a Predator Proof Chicken Coop.
Hardware cloth is always recommended over chicken wire on the coop because of strength and durability. Hardware cloth is more expensive than something like chicken wire, but it’s worth every penny. A raccoon can rip through chicken wire!
A Few More:
- Here’s a podcast from The Frugal Chicken you can listen to while you’re weeding or exercising this week. Her topic is Keeping Chickens Safe from Predators. (BTW, if you ever run across a salty word on a video or podcast I recommend, my apologies. I know a lot of quality writers, but I don’t catch everything. Maat, from Frugal Chicken, is a tough bird herself who sometimes will let a pirate word escape.)
- The Frugal Farm Girl has a nice post on Keeping Chickens Safe and there’s a table of contents at the top, so you can skip to what interests you.
Livestock Guard Dogs
I don’t know much about dogs and I’m not really a dog person. However, I LOVE my Great Pyrenees. He’s a fantastically smart, loyal and amazing animal. He’s like a person in a dog suit. He guards the house, humans, barn, fences and animals. He hears everything!
He’s the sweetest, most loving dog to people and is even kind to other dogs. He doesn’t chase livestock (be careful of what breed you get – some are wired to chase birds!) and he’s protective of my youngest children. Having said that however, if he hears something out in the night, his bark will chill your blood.
Here are just two articles to read when you have time as you consider getting a guard animal:
- I haven’t read the book my friend Chris mentions in her article here, Livestock Guardians, but I’d like to! She talks about llamas in this article and her own experience with dogs.
- Here’s another article by Rural Living Today to help you consider whether or not you need a livestock guardian.
Livestock Guard Dogs (LGDs) are NOT a suitable security option if you’re keeping chickens in the city. LGDs bark a lot and usually at night because their bark is typically what will keep predators away. The sound of an LGD barking can be terrifying and makes you glad they’re on your side!
Your urban neighbors won’t appreciate your LGD doing it’s job. The up-side to that is that most urban areas don’t have a huge predators problem. In the city, the predators to be most aware of are:
- Rats and other Rodents
- Birds of Prey – like Hawks
Here are some ways to protect your livestock from predators.
- Tilly’s Nest just shows you how one family cleans their coop. I like to observe lots of methods because usually someone is doing something clever that I want to do, too.
- Here’s another fun one with City Chick – he’s using citrus vinegar as a cleaner.
- Here’s another article from Timber Creek Farm (what can I say, I like how Janet treats her animals!). A few quick takeaways from the article – clean out soiled bedding regularly, keep air circulating, use fresh herbs and use lime. (You can find a product at the feed store called Sweet PDZ that can be sprinkled around for freshness. It also deters flies.)
- If you have access to essential oils, here’s a recipe from the Fewell Homestead for a coop cleaning spray.
- Kids on a Farm have 6 different ideas on natural fly control in the coop. (FYI, your browser may warn you the site is unsafe, but it’s perfectly fine. They just didn’t pay for their https certificate.)
- Here’s how to Clean the Chicken Coop with Kids from us here at Homestead Lady.
Backyard Chickens in Winter
As you shore up against predators, remember that winter is its own kind of chicken-killer. Be sure to winterize your coop before the cold weather sets in. The cold is fine to a point, but the wind is brutal on birds, so be sure you have draft protection in your coop. Draft protection should also keep out rain and snow, which is good because wet areas can lead to unhealthy birds.
- Here’s a fine article on considering heat loss, heat retention, humidity and all things winter coop from Backyard Chickens. Incidentally, they have great forums if you like to chat with novice and experienced people online about chickens.
- Here’s a good one (though the font is small) from HenCam on Winter Care for Chickens. She likes to shovel her coop out in winter to eliminate dampness (her reason is below). I don’t. I keep adding organic bedding on top so there’s no dampness and pull it out in the spring. To each his own.
Here’s from her article:
“At the same time, it shouldn’t be at all damp. Manure contains a lot of water, and in the winter, when the coop is closed up, this can make the air unhealthy and the hens prone to respiratory illness. I keep my coops shoveled out weekly and bedded with fresh pine shavings.
“Also, good ventilation is a must – it’s best to have vents high near the roof.”
Books for Backyard Chickens Keepers
Janet, the author of the above article, also wrote a short, simple book called Chickens from Scratch that might appeal to you. It’s very easy reading, very sound advice and written by someone with a lot of experience. It’s not a fancy book with lots of color photos – she has other books like that, though (the one I mentioned at the top, for example). This one is just a get-in-there-and-get-it-done manual.
- For general chicken information try Backyard Poultry Naturally, by Alanna Moore, which will teach you how to raise up your backyard flock in more natural ways and has a whole section on allowing broody hens to hatch out chicks.
- Free Range Chicken Gardens, by Jessi Bloom, is a worthy title for those who would like to learn what to do when free ranging their hens, especially in urban settings.
- For chicken health try The Chicken Health Handbook, (or anything Gail Damerow has written about poultry) for trouble shooting and advice. Most treatment suggestions in this book will be conventional, while still being reliable.
- If you want a more natural reference, I can recommend The Accessible Pet, Equine and Livestock Herbal, by Katherine Drovdahl, which is a reasonably good resource. You’ll need to have a basic herb knowledge to use this book well, FYI.
In order to learn to use herbs confidently with animals, including your pets, I recommend this short course offered for free with your Herbarium membership from the Herbal Academy.