With egg and meat prices rocketing through the roof, you, like many others, may be considering raising some chickens of your own. Raising these endearing little animals is as rewarding as it is tasty, but knowing where to start can be a struggle – especially if you’ve never raised chickens before. This quick-start guide is not meant to be comprehensive, but it will give you a great starting point to raising your first flock and knowing where to find more information. Full disclosure: I’ve never actually raised chickens before, myself. My family owned a flock when I was little, but I’ve only gotten to experience chicken ownership second-hand since then, despite my desire to become a poultry veterinarian. This is a guide built by reading numerous books, blogs, articles, the education from a bachelor’s in animal science, and conferring with experienced chicken owners. If I’m being perfectly honest, I think for the healthiest chickens you should also do a lot of reading before getting any chickens, too, but I’m not your dad. I can’t tell you what to do.
Looking at keeping older birds? No worries, I have an article for that, too! Scootch on by to How to Raise Chickens 2.
Step 1: Can I have chickens?
It’s genuinely surprising how many places allow chickens. There are three levels of law that you should look at to find out if chickens are allowed in your own backyard: County, city, and HOA or covenant. At the county level, you’ll usually find general requirements for chicken ownership. This would be things like how many chickens you’re allowed to have per acre, animal health regulations, and general zoning laws. If you’re outside the city, this may be all you need. At a city level, you’ll find more specific zoning laws, noise and nuisance ordinances, and sometimes more detailed animal health regulations. Then, many properties either have a covenant that specifies what animals are or are not allowed on the deeded land, or an HOA that regulates what is or isn’t allowed in a neighborhood. These often have regulations regarding chickens and other livestock.
Keep in mind that roosters may not be allowed where hens are due to the amount of noise they make – but don’t worry, your flock can still be delightfully productive without a rooster so long as you’re not planning on incubating chicks. Further, keep in mind that laws about the sale of eggs, slaughter of chickens, and preparation of chicken as meat are different than the laws about maintenance of an egg-laying flock. Double check the laws and regulations for these things if you have bigger plans for your flock than just enjoying their delicious eggs.
To find out what your local laws and regulations are, you can ask your local library, call your county or city clerk, or reach out to your local extension office. Your local extension office will also have wonderful information on raising and caring for your flock, growing lovely fruits and vegetables, making your yard native pollinator friendly, and a host of other fantastic information. Just keep in mind – missing information isn’t a go-ahead to keep chickens, it’s a go-ahead to propose ordinances around chickens. Otherwise you risk someone proposing stricter ordinances than you’d like, and maybe having to give up your flock just after you get them.
Step 2: What chickens should I get? How many?
There are an almost overwhelming number of chicken breeds out there. There are fluffy ones, skinny ones, ones bred for laying eggs, others for high quality meat, and some that are just for show! What chickens will best fit your lifestyle depend on what chicken products you’re interested in, what your local laws and regulations allow, what your climate allows, and what’s available in your area.
For egg-laying chickens, usually called “layers,” a few of the most popular beginner breeds are: Australorp, Rhode Island Red, and New Hampshire. Keep in mind that egg production tends to slow down in the winter because of reduced sunlight. If you’re in a more northern climate, you may enjoy Rhode Island White or White Leghorn chickens for their improved winter egg production.
For meat chickens, usually called “Broilers”, a few of the most popular beginner breeds are: Delaware, Bresse, and Orpington. Broiler chickens are usually slaughtered at between 6-14 weeks, depending on which breed you end up with. The commercial broiler breeds like cornish crosses will develop earliest, whereas giant breeds like Jersey giants will develop the latest. Another breed I love to dork out over is the red dorking, which has fantastic meat quality, lovely eggs, and a very fun history to read up on. This one is my boss’s favorite breed. My favorite, and the favorite of many of my friends, is the orpington.
All of these chicken breeds can also be dual purpose – that is, they make wonderful broilers as well as layers. There are many places that offer chicks in many different breeds for pick-up or to arrive by mail. You can even order hatchable eggs and older chickens, depending on your needs. Many hatcheries offer to vaccinate chicks before you receive them, which I cannot recommend enough. First, over 20% of all poultry deaths are caused by one disease that has a vaccine. It’s called Marek’s Disease, and it’s a horrible, terrible way to die. One single injection will prevent your sweet little chicken from dying from this disease. Second, the coccidiosis vaccine will prevent you from having to buy medicated feed, which will help medications against coccidiosis from becoming ineffective in the future. Also, just as a fun fact, vaccinated animals can still qualify as organic, but not those with medicated feed. Your local poultry veterinarian will have more information on which vaccines to get for your area, since some diseases are in some areas but not others. We also recommend looking up several articles on these and other breeds, their health habits, space requirements, and etc., before making any definite decisions.
Step 3: What do these chickens need?
There are three stages to raising chickens: Starting, growing, and maintenance or adult. Starting is the most intensive part of a chicken’s life, so I’ve written this article just for that stage.
For starting you will need: chicks, of course! You’ll also need a brooder, which consists of a pen, heat source, and bedding, as well as a feeder, some starter feed, starter grit, and a waterer. Please, please, please, set up your brooder before you get chicks. They can’t make their own heat, so they will die if you don’t have your brooder set up on the first day they come home!
a.) A pen: You want your pen to be round so that your chicks don’t get crowded into corners and stepped on by their flockmates. Expandable pens are best because they can grow as your chicks grow. They only need about seven square inches per chick to begin with for most chicken breeds, but you may need a larger pen to move the chicks into once they’re a little bigger. In general, you want it to have enough space so the chicks can run back and forth between the warm and cool parts of the pen, so they can stay nice and comfortable, as well as a pen with enough air flow. One of my favorite bloggers, Randy, of Randy’s chicken blog, uses a bin meant for under-bed storage and then a kiddie pool.
b.) A heat source: You’ll want a heat source because chicks aren’t able to make enough of their own heat until they’re about 6 weeks old, and even then only if outside temperatures are right. Your chicks will need to be kept at 95 degrees Fahrenheit for the first week of their lives, then 5 degrees less for each week older they grow with a minimum of 55 degrees at the end of their brooding period. Their internal temperature should be about 106 degrees Fahrenheit! The best heat source is an adjustable heat plate, which the chicks crawl under to enjoy the heat radiating from above. It somewhat mimics a hen, which is nice, as well as being one of the safest options in terms of burns and starting fires thanks to their sturdy feet and more precise distribution of heat. If you find your chicks crowding under the plate constantly, it’s too cold. If you find them crowded away from the plate or trying to hover nearby without going under, it’s either too hot or too close to the ground. If you find you must go with a lamp, however, red-bulbed lamps are recommended since these have been shown to reduce aggression in young chicks. Heating pads or space heaters aren’t recommended because these can be too intense for chicks, causing burns on their little feet and bodies.
a. A chain or rope: If you find yourself using a heat lamp anyway, for whatever reason, you’ll need to hang it by a chain or rope rather than its cord so you don’t accidentally start a fire. If you’re hanging the lamp by a flammable rope, make sure it doesn’t rest on the lamp or its housing where it gets hot. Also, make sure the lamp isn’t too close to anything flammable as it hangs, and check its surroundings after a while to make sure nothing is getting too hot.
c.) Quality bedding: There are many good options for bedding. Pine shavings (not cedar, pine!), straw or chopped hay, paper towels, coarse sand, and hemp beddings are all commercially available. When choosing a bedding, it’s important to choose something that you won’t mind the chicks nibbling on. Fine sands should be avoided because they can clog your chicks’ noses. Cedar should be avoided because it has some pretty toxic components that the chicks can’t breathe or eat without harm. Newspaper has mixed reviews – many people find plain newspaper too slippery for the babies and pulped newspaper appears to be a little too delicious for the amount of ink and lack of nutrition it contains, so it’s better to avoid delivering current events to your chicks’ feet. Similarly, straw may turn out to be too delicious to your chicks and result in a food traffic jam in their crop, so use caution and closely monitor your chickens with straws and hays, even into adulthood.
d.) A fan: This really depends on where you’re keeping your chicks. If there’s plenty of ventilation, you may actually need to enclose the chicks’ environment a little more to better retain heat and air moisture. Drafty areas tend to chill chicks and pull moisture out of the air, and just like any other baby a little bit of humidity can go a long way. On the other hand, if you don’t have much air movement at all, ammonia and moisture can build up to dangerous levels. In this case, it’s best to have a gentle fan blowing through the chicks’ area to reduce harmful vapors and keep their environment from getting too moist, which can lead to problems like mold.
e.) Feeders: There’s many kinds of feeder on the market. The best feeder will depend on how many chicks you have, and how much time you want to put into cleaning up and sanitizing the dish. Hanging feeders require the least cleanup, since chicks have a harder time climbing into them to knock them over, kick out the feed, and shovel their bedding in. However, when chicks are very small these aren’t recommended because they won’t be able to reach their food, especially tiny breeds like bantams. Ground feeders require more clean-up, but they’re a must for young chicks that aren’t old enough to reach a hanging feeder yet. Things that are red colored also instinctively drive chickens to peck, so if you have a picky eater or are trying to get the chicks to grow quickly, such as in the case of broilers, consider getting a red feeder.
f.) Food: This is somewhere I actually feel confident speaking, being a nutritionist and all. There are a lot of considerations you can make with starter feed – and ultimately it all comes down to providing the best health for your new chicks. If you’re vaccinating for coccidiosis, you’ll want to avoid medicated feeds so that the vaccine can work. I recommend a feed that does not list corn or soy as the first ingredient, contains a meat ingredient such as fish meal or black soldier flies, and that has at least 16% protein, between 3-6% fat, and between 3-6% fiber. Ideally, you want 20-22% protein, as the chicks are doing a ton of growing during this stage in ways that are super protein intense, such as growing a whole new set of feathers while also sprouting upwards themselves. I’d also recommend avoiding treats until they’re about a month old – big chunks can be too hard to digest for these little guys. Once you do start giving treats, though, try to avoid feeding more than 10% of their daily calories in treats, or it might unbalance their nutrition, leading to problems like pasty butt or ragged feathers. I also recommend crumble feed over mash – it’s harder for them to pick all the vitamins out of their food with a crumble. However, for very small breeds like bantams, a mash might be best simply because they’re so teensy. At some point I’ll write a nice article about how to formulate your own feeds, too, but because chicks basically need a super complicated flour for the first few weeks, I’ll always recommend a commercial starter feed over one that’s home-made.
g.) Grit: You may have noticed that chickens don’t have teeth. I know. Your world is shattered with this revelation. They make up for not having teeth by swallowing little rocks that hang out in a big muscular pouch called a gizzard. These rocks mash around in the pouch with the chicken’s food, essentially chewing it before it passes onto the stomach. Starter chicks will need starter chick sized grit if you’re feeding them anything chunkier than a starter feed. If their grit is too large, it will block the flow of food through their system. If they don’t have grit and you try to feed them a treat, it has a good chance of getting stuck in the same way.
h.) Waterer and water: The biggest consideration with a waterer is making sure it doesn’t get knocked over, and that it can’t soak your chicks. Wet chicks are cold chicks, and cold chicks are sick chicks. While you can use very shallow (less than one inch of water), heavy baking dishes and the like for this, they aren’t the best option because they allow the chicks to hop into the water, dragging their poopy little feed through it and making it super gross, super fast. Nipple style bottles, the kind that look a little like hamster bottles, are generally the best option for keeping things clean and dry, but may be hard for chicks to figure out. If you choose this option, press their beaks to the nipple to give them an idea of what to do and give the chicks a couple days to adjust to the new watering system before having them rely on it entirely. You may actually need to press their beaks to the nipple a couple of times – if they didn’t swallow, they didn’t understand. Gravity fed waterers usually limit a chick’s ability to jump into the water while leaving it open to them, and can often be hung on enclosure walls as they grow larger and more messy. Just keep in mind a good chick waterer will usually be too small for older chickens, and will still need to be sanitized much more often than a nipple bottle. As for the water itself, cleanliness is the most important part of preventing illness. If it’s not as clean as the hose-water you sip on when you’re out in the garden, it’s not clean enough for your chickens. You might also consider adding a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar per gallon of water every now and again to help their digestion and help keep the water free from bacteria, though it certainly isn’t necessary to their good health. Some people have even reported their birds have tummy troubles when kept on a vinegar/water mix for too long, so take the arguments in favor of constant use with a grain of salt.
i.) Vaccines and a good vet: Hello, I am here once again to tell you how gosh darn important it is to vaccinate your chickens. Most chicken diseases are airborne and spread by wild birds, so even under the most sanitary conditions possible your birds can still be exposed to illnesses from a whiff of wild birds passing by. This makes these illnesses very hard to avoid.
- First off, a lot of large-scale producers lobby against having backyard chickens in a 50 mile radius of their facilities because they pose such a huge biosecurity risk since people, y’know, can’t even seem to get them vaccinated. More vaccinated chickens means more trust from industry means more relaxed regulations on having your own chickens.
- Over 20% of all backyard chicken deaths are from a disease that has a vaccine. It’s called Mareck’s disease and it’s a horrible, terrible way to die. Don’t do that to your chickens, get them vaccinated. Even if you plan to cull sick chickens instead of pursuing treatment, get them vaccinated. Suffering is suffering regardless of the species, and we should all aim to give even the livestock we eat just one bad day. Plus, you’ll see fewer losses this way. It’s just all-around good animal management, and it really doesn’t cost that much extra.
- As an added note – I’ll be doing a larger post on Marek’s later, but birds, once infected, carry and shed the disease for life. Once an environment is exposed to the disease, it can also infect birds months to years later, which means if you have one positive case your coop and yard will be infected for a very, very long time. There is no cure for this disease once they catch it, so vaccination is the only way to prevent this disease.
- Vaccinating against diseases means you have less of a chance of watching them suffer and die. I’m just gonna tap on that point again in case you missed it in the last bullet.
- And finally, vaccinating against diseases like coccidia means the medications for that disease stay effective for a much longer time, because the disease can’t adapt to fight back against a medication it isn’t exposed to.
Other than vaccines, your veterinarian will be an invaluable source of information on what to do if your chick gets pasty butt (which is when feathers around their vent get gooped up with diarrhea) or if they have any issues moving around. Diarrhea and foot/leg problems are some of the most common and deadly in chicks, so it’s important to keep an eye out for them. They can also be caused by a variety of ailments, so it’s important to know what’s causing the issue before treating it, which your vet will have the best knowledge and resources for treating the issue, given their doctorate in medicine and all.
Knowing your vet also helps a whole heck of a lot when your chickens get old, should you choose to keep them that long. These goofy little critters can live to be ten, so it’s pretty likely they’ll get sick at least once in their lives. Knowing who to call when that happens is invaluable. Of course, not every area has a poultry vet – call around and see what you can find, even if they’re three hours away. Since COVID wrecked the entire world, a lot more veterinarians do telehealth video chats for folks who can’t make an in-person visit.
Chicks can be moved outside to their teenage and adult house as soon as 6 weeks so long as outside temperatures are above 65 degrees Fahrenheit, at which point they will be considered growers or broilers. Keep in mind that this is not a comprehensive guide by any means – there are plenty of other considerations to raising chicks and keeping chickens that haven’t been discussed here, and you should definitely also check out the broiler/layer guide here before you get your chicks. Six weeks will pass way faster than you expect! Below, you’ll find a list of books and media I’ve enjoyed that dive deeper into those considerations, and hope you’ll enjoy, too.
City Chicks: Keeping Micro-flocks of Chickens as Garden Helpers, Compost Makers, Bio-recyclers, and Local Food Producer, by Pat Foreman
This book takes a no-fuss, no-muss, to-the-point approach in teaching you about chickens and how to care for a flock in an urban setting. It’s shockingly comprehensive and a fantastic place to start your journey, with the added bonus of tips on convincing your community to allow chickens.
The Small Scale Poultry Flock, by Harvey Ussery
This is a super-comprehensive guide to raising poultry, from incubating your own eggs to processing your chickens, this is for both the homesteader looking to increase production in the garden and the flock and small scale farmers looking to increase efficiency while making a tidy profit.
Chicken Tractor: The Permaculture Guide to Happy Hens and Healthy Soil by Andrew W. Lee and Patricia Foreman
Learn how to use mobile chicken pens to feed your chickens and utilize their potential as natural pest control, fertilizer, and food source.
Feeding Pasture Raised Poultry, by Jeff Mattocks
This is a perfect beginner guide to understanding what should go into a pastured feed and why, with special consideration to keeping birds healthy.
The Chicken Health Handbook, 2nd Edition: A Complete Guide to Maximizing Flock Health and Dealing with Disease by Gail Damerow
This guide to keeping your chickens healthy is a favorite of my long-time-chicken-raising-poultry-specializing friend and is shockingly beginner friendly while still being reasonably comprehensive.
Look, I know this guy’s stuff is tempting but… He advocates against medicating or vaccinating chickens, treating them less like living creatures and more like objects that don’t have the capacity to suffer. Chickens feel pain. Chickens feel loss. Chickens deserve the best we can reasonably give them, just like our pets and we ourselves do. He has some good ideas on pasture rotation, but so does virtually anyone else doing pastured poultry. If you pick up one of his books, proceed with extreme caution.
Pastured Poultry Talk, by Mike Badger
Not only does this podcast have a multi-part guide to raising and processing your own pastured poultry that you can listen to on your morning commute, it also delves into all sorts of other current events and issues in the poultry community and best management practices to help.
Hey, if you wanna read something super dense and dry for fun, I’m not gonna stop you. In fact, I’ll just excitedly chirp facts at you and point to the best parts of the chapter, because I’ve read these from front to back. I’m a nerd, I’m aware.
Basic Animal Nutrition and Feeding, Fifth Edition, By Wilson G. Pond, David C. Church, Kevin R. Pond, and Patricia A. Schoknecht
This is a wonderful resource for anyone just starting to get into nutrition, with broad overviews that are still technical enough to be useful for actually creating formulations.
Nutrient Requirements of Poultry: Ninth Revised Edition, By The National Research Council’s Subcommittee on Poultry Nutrition
Not gonna lie, I find this one mostly useless. There’s a few gems hidden in here, like how to feed quail, but for the most part the information contained in these pages is either dated or a little too vague to be helpful. That having been said, it’s free on the NRC website and you can still use it to pretty good effect if you have no other resources.
I know, I know, this isn’t a book. But holy cow, the stuff you can find on here these days! Did you know fresh bamboo leaves are an effective broiler and layer feed? I didn’t! Google Scholar is the best!
This Study on back-yard bird deaths
I know it’s morbid, but I don’t want to seem like I’m pulling that over-20-percent-of-birds-die-from-Marek’s statistic out of my butt. So… Here you go! Enjoy!
Cadmus KJ, Mete A, Harris M, et al. Causes of mortality in backyard poultry in eight states in the United States. Journal of Veterinary Diagnostic Investigation. 2019;31(3):318-326. doi:10.1177/1040638719848718