Skip to content

The Homesteader's Chronicle

Home » Chickens: The Ultimate Guide

Chickens: The Ultimate Guide

Kayla McVey
Latest posts by Kayla McVey (see all)
Chickens standing together

Why Have Chickens?

Chickens are not only a fun way to get into homesteading but they also provide pest control (despite bringing in other pests), eggs, meat, and plenty of entertainment. These funny little critters can be a big boost of confidence with diving into the homesteading lifestyle. There’s plenty to be learned with having chickens and they’re an easy way to not only teach yourself discipline and responsibility, but also your children. Chickens are a wonderful asset to keeping your yard healthy and their manure is perfect for your garden. Add it to a compost pile and keep moving! Chickens are relatively low-maintenance animals with big personalities!

baby chicks with hen

Chickens 101

What do I need to get started?

Chicken Coop

A coop is the first thing you need BEFORE you even consider getting chickens. Chickens need AT MINIMUM 4 square feet per bird assuming you also have a run in the coop or allow them to free range. Chickens need space to comfortably sleep and a spot they feel comfortable to lay their eggs. Laying boxes are an easy answer but you’re probably going to find eggs in the most random spots you would never think to look. They may or may not use the boxes. Chickens are odd little birds. Consider how many birds you realistically plan to own when building to avoid having to rebuild later. Building a coop that can safely house ten chickens and then buying twenty is only going to cause issues like disease and fighting. Be sure to heavily predator proof the coop with tightly meshed wires. If the chickens are off the ground, ensure that they can’t be pulled through any wiring by snakes, opossums, racoons, or other animals. Keep in mind that if there isn’t a deep enough barrier within the ground, animals will also dig under the coop (foxes, dogs, etc.) and rampage your entire flock. Take cleaning into consideration when building a chicken coop as well. If you’re partially handicapped in any way, build the coop to suit your and your chicken’s needs. 

You get cold. You also don’t have feathers. Putting a heat lamp in a chicken coop can actually make chickens sick and make them more susceptible to hypothermia. Build a coop that is insulated well, keep down hay for them to sleep on, and rest easy knowing that your chickens will be perfectly fine. Use pine wood shavings and keep their bedding at least 2” thick. This gives eggs a soft place to land and keeps the coop cleaner.

Give your coop a deep clean at least twice a year and maintain your coop otherwise. Pine shavings not only keep the coop smelling fresh but they also are easy to remove. Clean chickens are happy chickens. 

Chicken Run

A chicken run is an extension of the chicken coop that allows the chickens to roam at their leisure. Chickens need AT MINIMUM 10 square feet per bird. Ideally they’d have much more space than this or be allowed to freely roam while supervised, assuming predators are an issue. We have an overabundance of hawks, opossums, racoons, foxes, and dogs in our area. Predators are a very prominent issue around here. Supply your chickens with an area for dust baths in their runs, assuming they don’t have the ability to do so outside of their run area. This is a very normal and healthy behavior for chickens. Don’t be alarmed or annoyed by the spots they create in your yard. Dust baths are very necessary for chickens to stay healthy and happy. 

Storage Space

Create a space in a shed, shop, garage, or wherever to store chicken supplies. A metal trash can to store feed, oyster shells, and treats will keep rodents away. Chickens need hay to lay in and rest on. If this is left out in the open, it will absolutely mold due to rain. 

Food, Water, and the rest.

Chickens have various nutrient needs at different stages in their lives. Chicks and pullets require different feed than hens and roosters. Chicks need starter that is at least 20% protein. Hens used for egg laying are going to need different feed as opposed to chickens used for meat. Laying hens need at least 16% protein and added calcium to their diets to ensure that they maintain their health and produce strong, nutrient dense eggs. 

Chickens need a consistently available and clean source of water. These are easily found at your local cooperative store, Tractor Supply, and I think Walmart even has them. To give a visual, it’s a tray that has an upside down jar attached to it and water trickles out as it’s drunk. If you live somewhere water frequently freezes, buy a heated waterer but ensure it doesn’t get too hot. 

Everyone loves to feed animals treats and snacks. Doting on animals is a normal thing to do but providing a well balanced and complete diet is important in raising chickens. Wait till hens produce their first eggs before giving treats and don’t exceed more than two tablespoons of treats per day, per chicken. In moderation – chickens love and can safely eat blueberries, watermelon, lettuce, kale, broccoli, carrots, cucumbers, pumpkin, and strawberries just to name a few! If chickens are free-range, they’ll find their favorite snacks. Don’t be surprised if you find them snacking on a few plants in your garden. When feeding chickens table scraps, be mindful of what’s inside. We have a list below of what not to give your chickens.

Do NOT feed chickens:

  • Undercooked or dried beans
  • Avocado skins and pits
  • Rhubarbs
  • Foods with high salt content
  • Chocolate
  • Citrus
  • Fruit pits and seeds
  • Green tomatoes and potatoes
  • Onions
  • Old peanuts
  • Spinach
  • Moldy or expired food

Frequent Questions

How to Predator Proof Your Chicken Coop:

  • Have an elevated coop that is at minimum 12” off the ground.
  • Forget about chicken wire. Chicken wire was designed for chickens only, not predators. Use hardware cloth in place of chicken wire. This prevents chickens being pulled through the wire. 
  • Underground Barrier – make a barrier of hardwire cloth to prevent animals that burrow or dig from making their way into the chicken coop. It needs to be substantially deep – 12” or more. 
  • Check your coop at dusk for predators before you close the door at night. This includes snakes – they’re there for the eggs and chicks. Wear gloves and you’ll be just fine. 
  • Remove chicken feed at night to keep rodents away.
  • Flock Guardians – donkeys, roosters, and livestock guardian dogs are just a few. 
  • Complex locks – raccoons are smart, be smarter

How many chickens do I need?

Chickens are very social creatures that need interaction to stay happy and healthy. You need to start with at least 3 chickens but 6 is probably a safe number. This ensures that illness and predators don’t wipe out the entire flock. Chickens produce the most eggs in the first two years of their lives. Flocks will need to be replaced every few years if you’re using eggs for strictly laying. 

What do I do if my chickens start eating eggs?

How it happens: usually by accident or nutrient deficiency. Chickens need an ample amount of protein (16% protein content)  and calcium. When they’re deficient, they sometimes turn to eating their eggs to combat it. By feeding your chickens a well balanced and complete diet, this is usually easily avoided. The other way this happens is by accident. If an egg gets broken by accident, chickens are 110% going to check it out. They’re curious creatures. If they figure out they like the taste, they’re going to continue to eat the eggs they find. 

How to avoid it: Clean up any dropped eggs to prevent curiosity. Provide ample enrichment to prevent boredom eating. Feed cooked eggs only – great snack! Collect eggs daily, sometimes twice! Keep nesting boxes clean and well stocked with padding like hay. 

How to stop it: Clean up any broken eggs that chickens have begun eating, including any bedding it’s on. Add ceramic or wooden eggs to nesting boxes or even golf balls to confuse them. If that fails then take an egg, drain its contents, and add spicy mustard to deter them even further. This will taste bad to the chickens and hopefully stop the issue. Do this for a few weeks. If all else fails (freezer camp for them, if they don’t stop) or you haven’t figured out who is eating the eggs, get roll out trays. They may have to get used to laying on top of the trays but it will keep them from having access to the eggs. 

pullet chickens

Chicks vs. Pullets

When it comes to deciding between raising chicks or buying pullets, goals come into consideration. Do you want or need eggs almost immediately? Or, are you willing to wait around six months before reaping the benefit of your work? Buying sexed chicks gives you the opportunity to have them imprint on you and to grow a manageable, friendly flock. When buying pullets, it will take some work but a relationship can eventually be established with your growing flock. Transporting chicks is easier than transporting pullets due to weight retention and dehydration. Chicks spend the first 48 hours of their lives absorbing the remainder of the yolk. Chicks do require much more care and supervision, however. Especially for the first 5 weeks. We’ll get into that more later.

Pullets are going to be a bit more flighty at first and possibly harder to handle. They’ll need to be given more patience while getting acclimated to you and your environment. Pullets may not always be locally available, unlike chicks usually are. Pullets are typically around 6-8 months old. If they’re not producing as soon as you bring them home, they likely will soon or they could simply be stressed. Keep a close eye on them and talk to your vet if you think something is wrong.

Chicks do need to be kept indoors for the first 5 weeks of their lives. They need to be checked at least 5 times a day. Chicks need a temperature controlled climate to avoid getting chilled for the first two weeks of their lives. They’ll need to be kept inside in an open storage bin or a temperature controlled room. Put puppy pads down and change them regularly to keep their environment clean. As stated earlier, chicks do imprint on the first person to give them care. They’re cute and fun to handle. Remember that they are a large commitment, however. 

Enrichment Activities for Chickens

  • Perching – add multiple perches in the coop for them to hop around. This is an added layer of protection for your chickens!
  • Chicken swing – put the swing in a safe spot and ensure that it’s thick enough for them to not fall off.
  • A chicken pinata – a dog toy with multiple holes that can be cut to insert a vegetable for the chickens to peck at and eat. Hang it from the perch or ceiling of the coop!
  • Dust bathing – helps them stay clean, keep a regulated temperature, and is fun for them. They’ll need a thick, loose layer of dirt to roll around in. 
  • Dog Puzzles – just add chicken treats and try to stick to the more simple ones. 
  • Play music for auditory enrichment – especially if your chickens don’t free range.
  • A mirror (maybe one that doesn’t break easily)
  • Let your chickens in the garden! They’ll eat lots of little pests and they’re extremely beneficial for your garden. 

How to Care for Chicks

Temperatures for Chicks

The first week of their life the air temperature needs to be 95 degrees. Remember that under normal circumstances, they’d be under their mother. The second week will be around 90 degrees. Reduce heat by 5 degrees each week until they’re ready to be put outside. Avoid heat lamps, unless you’d prefer a house fire… then go ahead, I guess. Use a brooder plate and leave a red light source on to allow the chicks the ability to find it at night. White light will prevent them from resting well and red light prevents them pecking each other. Happy chicks explore. If they are avoiding your heat source, either turn it down or pull it further away from them. If they’re huddled together, then turn the source up or bring it closer. 

Chick Starter

Chicks gotta eat! Chick Starter is a well-rounded feed to give to chicks for up to the first 10 weeks of their lives. DuMor makes a starter that is 20% protein. It’s unmedicated so you still may need to vaccinate your chicks. But, it is a complete feed so there’s no need to supplement. Chicks need a complete diet to ensure that they grow properly.

Chick Care

Provide netting over the top of the coop to prevent the chicks from flying out. Pay close attention to your chicks to avoid them getting chilled. Look at their undersides to ensure that their vents aren’t caked with fecal matter. This is a life threatening situation that needs to be addressed immediately. Do so by keeping them near a heat source, taking a damp paper towel, and gently wipe away the fecal matter. If that doesn’t work then dip the chick in warm water, wipe again, and if wiping doesn’t move the fecal matter – GENTLY use tweezers. After the chick is fully clean, blow dry it on warm, return it to a clean coop, and thoroughly sanitize your hands. Don’t handle chicks that have been “pasted up” very much to allow their bodies to fully recover. Avoid allowing children to handle any sick chicks due to stressing their little bodies. Over-stressed chicks may take a turn for the worse.

If you see an umbilical cord still attached to a chick, LEAVE IT ALONE. IT WILL FALL OFF.

Ensure that the chicks have access to clean water and food around the clock. Depriving them of food and water will only result in death or excessive dehydration. 

Bringing Chicks Home

Communicate with your post office to see if you need to pick up your chicks or if they’re going to be delivered directly to your door. Ensure that you pick up your chicks as soon as you possibly can. They’ll be hungry, thirsty, and probably cold. Don’t expect all of your chicks to make it. Don’t worry that your other chicks have some mysterious disease. The ones that pass likely just didn’t handle the stress of travel well. Take your children into consideration before you open up your sweet little box of babies. It may not go as well as you expect it to. Don’t tell them how many are supposed to be coming. All expected chicks may not… arrive. Have your coop ready before ordering chicks or bringing them home from a random Tractor Supply run. Not having proper equipment to care for animals calls for unnecessary and selfish stress on them. Happy animals should come before your personal wants. 

chickens on a homestead

Chicken First Aid

When to Worry

Paying close attention to your flock means having the ability to spot illness early on. 

Some symptoms that your chickens may be sick are: 

  • Abnormal Stool – wormy, odd shape or color
  • Weak, not moving
  • Isolating itself
  • Not eating or drinking
  • Abrupt stop or significant decrease in laying (possibly egg bound)
  • Standing oddly

Common Illnesses in Chickens

Bronchitis – presents itself as a normal cold. Discharge from eyes or nose and the chicken will likely have labored breathing. Isolate the chicken and give antibiotics.

Marek’s Disease – presents as tumors, paralysis, and oddly shaped pupils. It’s highly contagious. Ensure your chicks are vaccinated, the coop is entirely disinfected, and intervene early. The disease is fatal and transmitted to other chickens via dander. 

Coccidiosis – a parasite that results in symptoms such as loose, bloody stool, diarrhea, and weight loss. It can be treated with antibiotics or with medicated starter feed for your chicks. A way to avoid this is by keeping the coop as clean as possible.  

Don’t forget that chickens molt once a year. During the molting season they cease laying eggs. It’s easy to worry that your chickens are extremely sick but if they seem to fine outside of losing their feathers, they’re probably just molting.

Wound Care in Chickens

Chickens are going to get hurt. It’s part of owning them. You might get lucky and catch a predator trying to get your hen before it’s too late. One way that works wonderfully, to treat wounds, is Vetricyn. It’s antibiotic free, thoroughly flushes wounds, and speeds up the healing process. This isn’t an ad; we promise we’re not sponsored. But, it can be used on all kinds of animals. Keep wounds clean and monitored closely. Consult a vet if the wound seems serious. 

Different Breeds of Chickens

We did the research on docile chickens that would be perfect for your personal flock. Having chickens and children doesn’t always mix well and bringing in chickens that already have an even temperament can make the situation a little easier to work into.

Here’s a list of docile breeds that we recommend:

  • Barred Rocks are excellent layers, do well in coops or free range, and mostly docile birds. 
  • Black Marans are also high producers with even temperaments. They can also be used as dual purpose birds. They produce very dark brown eggs. 
  • Cochins are wonderful mothers, extremely docile, and fare well as hardy, cold weather birds. 
  • Easter Eggers, known for their fun egg colors, are moderate layers. They’re used as dual purpose and do very well in backyard flocks.
  • Opringtons (my favorite), do well in the heat or cold. They’re high producers of brown eggs and come in Lavender, Buff, Black, Blue, and White. They’re sweet, curious chickens and good mamas. 
  • Olive Eggers produce light teal to dark mossy green eggs and are very friendly. 

Cost of Owning Chickens

Most people are within driving distance of a Tractor Supply so this is what we’ll use.

A 10ct. Of Female Sexed Buff Orpington Chicks is presently around $41.99 before taxes. 

One DuMor 50lb.bag of 20% Protein Chick Starter is $19.99 before taxes. 

One 18” Chick Reel Feeder is $6.99 before taxes.

One 2 Gallon Double Wall Poultry Drinker is $29.99 before taxes.

Cozy Products Flat Panel Chicken Heater (for the babies) is $49.99 before taxes.

Right now, we’re sitting at around $149 before tax. Not bad.

However, you still don’t have coop. 

I highly recommend building a coop instead of just buying one. The coop you buy may not suit your needs or how many chickens you decide to buy. They’re absurdly expensive and usually not well made. I assure you, as is, it will not keep predators out. This is where cost gets tricky. If you have equipment and wood at home, you can just build it yourself. Buying coops can cost anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to thousands of dollars. 

A chicken eats around 91 pounds of feed a year. 6 chickens will eat around 550 pounds. 

Producer’s Pride makes a layer feed that’s 13.99/bag. You’ll need around 14 bags a year for 6 chickens. Before tax, you’re at around $196. You’ll need a couple bags of oyster shells and treats to supplement with – we’ll just add another around $50 for that. 

One flake of pine shavings is around $8 per bag. We’ll add another $40 per year for that. This will vary person to person with how large the coop is.

So, minus the one time cost of the coop, we’re at:

Startup: $149

Food: $196

Supplements: $50

Bedding: $40

First year: around $435 plus your coop

Years after for 6 chickens: around $286/year. 

This doesn’t take medication or vet bills into consideration. You’re also probably going to want more than just 6 chickens, let’s be real. This is simply an estimation so it’s easier to talk your husband into buying you 20 chickens.

Find us on Facebook and Instagram!

Let us know all about your sweet, feathery friends in our facebook group or on Instagram, @thehomesteaderschronicle! We have a wide variety of articles available to you, along with a public Facebook group that we would love for you to join!We regularly post recipes, how-to guides, parenting advice, and more. There are also many more articles on The Homesteader’s Chronicle that are detailed guides on gardening, parenting, homesteading, and a vast array of other topics. The Homesteader’s Chronicle Facebook page is a valuable resource that can be easily shared and accessed. That’s where you come in! Posting questions or sharing your own homesteading journey gives the group the opportunity to grow and attract more members. We love when our followers join in on the conversation and it makes our days brighter when we see you guys get excited about things we share. Thank you for supporting us and we are so excited to see what 2024 has in store for us!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *