A hen is a regular source of delicious, healthful eggs throughout her laying life. She will gladly accept your kitchen scraps, reducing household waste. She improves your soil with free fertilizer. Then, at the end of her laying career, that same hen provides a satisfying meal and plenty of nourishing bone broth.
Keeping chickens can seem overwhelming. In reality though, chickens are not difficult to raise and care for, and the rewards far outweigh the work. In fact, you may be surprised at just how easy it is! Follow these simple steps to quickly start your own flock.
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Don’t get bogged down with the wide variety of options. Start simply, using this quick start guide. As you gain experience and confidence, you may wish to delve deeper into your area of interest- whether it be breeding and maintaining a pure heritage breed flock, producing or mixing your own supplemental feed, or something else entirely.
Identify your egg goal.
How many eggs would you like to use or share per week? Not all chicken breeds lay an egg every single day, all year around. The high heat of summer and the cold of winter can both slow egg laying dramatically. One hen may produce 6-7 eggs per week, but she could also produce just three or four, or even less, just depending on the breed, season and circumstances.
That being said, chickens do require space, supplemental feed, time, and care- so you should be realistic rather than overzealous. Many families start with between three and six hens. Our first flock was comprised of six hens.
It’s also worth considering here what your egg quality goal will be. Are you just looking for a better option than standard supermarket eggs, or do you want to produce pastured, soy-free eggs? Not sure what the difference is or why it matters? Check out my article here.
Identify your space.
Your chickens are going to need to live somewhere, and the number of chickens you purchase will be determined in part by the amount of space you plan to allocate to them.
If you plan to produce pastured eggs, your chickens will need plenty of grassy area on which to live and roam freely.
The Certified Humane standards for pasture-raised chickens require a minimum of 108 square feet per bird, rotated regularly (source). If you don’t have enough space to “pasture” your birds, you can still produce free range eggs. The Certified Humane standards for free range chickens require a minimum of two square feet per bird (source). The more green space you can allocate each bird, the happier the bird will be and the better the eggs.
When planning your space, be aware that chickens kept in an enclosed coop yard will quickly scratch and peck the grassy area bare. If your coop/yard is moveable, such as with a chicken tractor, you will need to move it regularly to give the hens fresh grass and foraging area.
Another option is to build or buy a stationary coop and provide a larger fenced chicken yard area surrounding the coop. Keep in mind that the fenced area, if it is not regularly moved or sufficiently large, will become bare in the same way an enclosed chicken yard will.
Some people without a lot of room to move their chickens around partially solve the issue by letting their chickens out to roam the lawn or garden in search of bugs and grass- if you do this in the evening, chickens will usually return to their coop to roost by sunset. Be mindful of your vegetable garden, neighbors and dogs before doing this!
We don’t move the coop- rather, we fence a large area around our chicken tractor, and leave the yard door open all the time. We rotate the chickens to a different field when the grassy area starts to look picked over- this happens more frequently in the fall and winter.
We prefer single-spike electronet fencing from Premier 1. If you buy electronet fencing, you will need an electric energizer or solar energizer, connecting wires, additional supports/corner posts, switch to turn on and off, warning signs, and grounding kit. Premier 1 will help you select your equipment, or you can actually buy a starter kit from them.
We keep a small coop contained within our largest fenced garden area for chicks, broody hens, or occasionally, for a bird requiring special care. This garden is fenced with a roll of wire mesh like this one. Simply roll it out in place, supported by T-post metal fence posts bought from your local home and garden store.
Build or buy a shelter and any extra fencing.
You actually need to consider two sheltered areas: Chicks need to be kept indoors in a protected, warm area until they are large enough and it is warm enough to move them to a protected area outside (6-12 weeks, depending on the timing, weather, and the quality of protection ).
Our first flock was small, so we used a tank similar to this one. This year, we bought a very large metal stock tank from our local Southern States. You will also need a waterer base and feeder base (attach a quart jar to each), some chick electrolytes such as these, a heat lamp with guard, infrared heat bulb, and pine shavings.
Second, you need to consider your outdoor area. At minimum, the shelter must have a nest box, roosting area, a shaded outdoor area, and a roofed area with plenty of ventilation. Here is an image of our first and largest coop.
The interior coop has a roosting area, and we have since also laid a branch across the top of the chicken yard area for roosting. The interior also has nest boxes (really just a row of walled-off sections) where the hens lay eggs.
If you plan to move very young chickens outside, ensure that your chicken yard has a mesh roof, and keep them inside that yard until they are more grown. This will help protect them. Rather than keeping our chicks inside our chicken tractor’s enclosed chicken yard, we let our chicks live on pasture at about 6 weeks old. It was warm outside, and we have electronet fencing- what could go wrong?
As it turns out, plenty! Hawks began to stalk our pastured area, where the little birds frolicked like tasty morsels on a buffet. To make matters worse, the chicks were small enough and fast enough to get through the fencing without getting shocked. A smart barn cat discovered this and made a home for herself and her brand new litter of kittens within shopping distance of our chicken yard.
We lost five of the 17 specialty-breed chicks we bought this spring before we figured it out. We locked the birds into the chicken tractor’s enclosed yard, filled the enclosed yard with cut grass and found worms, and waited a few more weeks before setting them free again.
Option 1: Your locally owned hardware and garden store or Southern States may have baby chicks available in the spring. It’s typically first-come, first-served, and you can only select from the breeds which they decide to order. In addition, you’re limited to buying the chicks during just a few weeks out of the year. If your needs coincide with the store’s offerings, this is a very simple solution!
Option 2: You can also look up local breeders in your area- Google and Craig’s List will probably pull up a few results near you.
I recently bought six point-of-laying birds from a breeder who co-organizes the Heritage Poultry Cooperative. Point-of-laying (POL) means that the hens have been raised the approximately 20 weeks it usually takes to start laying eggs. This is quite a bit more expensive than buying chicks, but can still be a good value due to the immediate egg production! The key is to find a seller locally, as shipping laying hens can be extremely expensive.
Bottom line- If you’re interested in doing a bit of coordinating, you may be able to find some interesting breeds, birds already laying eggs, or new chicks born in summer or fall (not just the spring).
Option 3: You can order your chicks online. Chickens are born having absorbed enough nutrients to last two, possibly three full days and can safely be transported during this time. Since they are shipped to the local stores for future purchasing, it makes sense that they could be safely shipped directly to the consumer instead.
We actually did this for the first time recently, and it was a big success! We wanted multi-colored egg layers, and couldn’t find the right breeds nearby.
We chose to work with www.MyPetChicken.com – they have a wide variety of chicks, are available for (many) questions over the phone. I needed a bit of hand-holding in the process, since I was nervous about buying chicks over the internet, and they were both patient and experienced. Most importantly, the chicks arrived in healthy, happy condition and are now robust juveniles.
Care for your chickens.
As mentioned above, the chicks should remain in your chosen brooder with plenty of starter crumbles (we buy Scratch & Peck brand starter crumbles) and water until they are large enough and it is warm enough for them to go outside full time.
No matter what, make sure they have plenty of fresh water to drink.We use an automatic waterer similar to this one. As the birds drink, the water refills itself via a hose run from an outdoor faucet. Another option is to hang a large, lidded bucket (such as this one) in a shaded area, fitted with chicken nipples. You can also buy one ready made. Just be sure to check and refill the water level regularly!
Chickens need supplemental feed, even if you plan to raise your birds on pasture. We provide free-choice feed using an automatic feeder we built out of PVC pipe.
We fill it a couple of times a week, and expect the chickens to forage for the bulk of their remaining meals. If you prefer to purchase one pre-made, here is a similar item.
Pre-mixed chicken feed generally comes with three different levels of protein content, blended to meet the needs of the bird during three different life stages.
- Chick starter feed is typically a very small crumble, and contains the right balance of protein to help the bird grow strong and healthy. We buy Scratch & Peck brand starter crumbles.
- When the bird is about eight weeks old, switch to grower feed. Some producers, such as Modesto Milling, make a crumble that is appropriate for both chicks and growing hens. We have been buying this for about a year when it is available. Otherwise, I like Scratch & Peck Grower crumbles.
- Finally, when the hens are of laying age, provide layer pellets. We have used Scratch & Peck layer mash before, and still do on occasion. More recently we have been buying Modesto Milling pellets.
Chickens give themselves dust baths naturally. Our chickens have created several “bathing” areas on bare ground patches.
We also provide a dust box attached to our coop. It’s filled with diatomaceous earth and dirt; however, our chickens prefer to make their own bath directly in the ground.
It’s a good idea to provide your chickens with some sort of dust box or plenty of bare, loose dirt. You can buy a dust box mix or mix it up yourself. If you don’t want to build a box, consider buying a low-walled, heavy duty tote.
But what about a rooster?
A rooster is an excellent source of protection for your laying flock. A rooster also ensures fertile eggs- that is, eggs that will hatch. However, hens will produce non-fertile eggs on her own- no rooster required! If you live in an area that prohibits chickens, you may wish to inquire whether this would prohibit relatively quiet, unobtrusive hens without a rooster. Just be sure to provide added safety measures for the hens (such as a fully enclosed wire mesh yard).
Getting started with chickens doesn’t need to be daunting, or difficult! Follow the above steps and take good care of your hens and soon you will have a healthy, happy chicken flock and plenty of eggs.