Believe it or not, more and more chickens are popping up in the cities. Urban farming is booming as a means to live greener and leaner lives – not only do city chickens provide fresh eggs, they offer free fertilizer, bug and weed control, and – if you’re up for it – a tasty chicken dinner.
While not every municipality is supportive of chicken farming, many cities are passing laws to support small-scale coops. Check with your city to learn its rules, and read on to get the details on raising your own brood of hens.
Considerations Before Purchasing Chickens
Before you even consider heading to the feed store to pick up a few chicks, you need to make a crucial decision: Do you want to buy full-grown hens, young chicks, or fertilized eggs you hatch yourself? There are benefits and drawbacks to each choice, so consider your situation and needs before making a purchase.
Several factors to consider before becoming an urban farmer include:
- Your city’s ordinances
- How soon you want fresh eggs
- How much available time you have
- The bond you want to create with your chickens
- Which breed of chicken is best for you
City Ordinances: Is It a Hen or a Rooster?
The first thing to consider is your city’s rules and regulations, usually found in the ordinance section of the city’s website. Most cities don’t allow roosters to be kept as pets because they’re considered a noisy nuisance – you’d be hard-pressed to find neighbors supportive of all that early morning crowing. Besides, the only reason you’d want a rooster is if you want it to fertilize the eggs your hens lay, or if you want a rooster to offer protection for your flock. For the purposes of egg-laying alone, a rooster is unnecessary.
When you hatch your own eggs or buy very young chicks, it’s almost impossible to know the sex of the birds. If you’re not allowed to have roosters in your area, it would be a shame to end up with a coop full of male birds that you have to give away. In the case of strict city ordinances, your best bet is to purchase grown hens or young birds that have already been sexed.
How Soon Do You Want Eggs?
Hens generally don’t start laying eggs until they’re between four and five months old. If you want to hatch your own eggs or buy young chicks, you need to be aware that you’ll be waiting awhile before tasting your first batch of farm-fresh eggs. If you want fresh eggs by the weekend, buy hens that have already started laying.
How Much Work Are You Willing to Do?
While chickens of all ages tend to be low-hassle pets, the younger your chicks are when you buy them, the more work they require. Hatching fertilized eggs requires an incubator, and newly hatched chicks need to be kept in a brooder with a carefully monitored temperature. While newborn chicks don’t need to be monitored all that closely, you should plan on checking them regularly, just to be sure they have sufficient food, water, and clean bedding.
Chicks also need special “chick crumble” and starter feed, which can be found at your local feed store – and if you want your chicks to be personable, playtime is a must. This is pretty low-key activity: Simply pick them up, pet them, and carry them around. It doesn’t take much effort, but it does require some time.
While the entire process of hatching and caring for young chicks is rather simple, it’s natural to feel nervous the first time around, so expect it to take up more of your time. Set aside time in the morning and evening to check your eggs or chicks, and don’t hesitate to take a few trips to the local feed store to ask the staff questions.
If you’d rather pass up the extra hassle, just purchase older birds in the two- to three-month age-range. By doing so, you can skip the incubator and brooder altogether and move them right into a coop.
How Important Is Your Bond?
While hatching eggs and purchasing young chicks is a little more work, it also comes with a reward. Chickens have fabulous personalities and make great pets, especially when they’re raised from a very young age. Newly hatched chicks actually imprint on those who are around when they hatch, becoming very attached. This is a great experience for adults and children alike, so if you’re amenable to the work and don’t mind the risk of hatching roosters, it might be the best way to go.
What Type of Breed?
There are hundreds of breeds of chickens, so choosing the right one for you and your family is important. Breeds vary by size, color, temperament, egg-laying ability, egg color, and purpose (meat-producing, egg-producing, or ornamental). Based on your preferences, do some research and choose a breed that’s best for you. My Pet Chicken has a great list of some of the most popular breeds broken down by egg-laying ability.
Several breeds to consider include:
- Plymouth Rock: Lays about four eggs per week and grows up to 9.5 pounds, making it an excellent dual-purpose egg and meat bird.
- Rhode Island Red: An active and vocal bird that’s also a prolific egg-layer, usually laying about five brown eggs per week.
- Australorp: Good for eggs and meat, these sweet and docile birds lay about 200 eggs per year and don’t seem to mind being confined.
- Orpingtons: Excellent birds for families with children, Orpingtons love humans and even enjoy being picked up and carried around. They’re also known as “layers,” laying about three brown eggs per week.
If you’ve decided to hatch your own eggs, there are two things you need to do: Find a supplier of fertilized eggs, and purchase an egg incubator. Your local feed store is a great resource for all things “chicken,” so ask the staff whether they source fertilized eggs or if they know of local farmers who do. Sourcing your eggs from a local source is preferred, as you can visit the location, see the hens and eggs, and take control of the transportation from farm-to-city yourself.
Before bringing fertilized eggs home, you need to purchase an egg incubator. Incubators are a controlled environment perfect for hatching eggs, and they generally cost around $100. Look on eBay or Craigslist for second-hand incubators if $100 is beyond your budget.
Eggs take 21 days to gestate post-lay, so depending on when you purchase your eggs, you could have up to three weeks to care for the eggs before they hatch. Caring for fertilized eggs involves checking the temperature and humidity of the incubator a couple times a day and turning the eggs an odd number of times throughout the day (usually three times), to ensure the growing chick maintains normal movement within the egg. Egg turning stops on day 18 of the gestation period, and the incubator should remain closed during this time.
The temperature and humidity of the incubator need to be closely monitored. If you have a forced-air incubator, maintain the temperature at roughly 99 degrees. If you have a still air incubator, the temperature should be slightly higher – between 101 and 102 degrees. Humidity for the first 18 days should be kept at 45% to 50%, then it should be increased to 65% for the last few days. If your incubator doesn’t have a humidity reader, purchase a hygrometer – you can find digital versions online for under $25.
On the day of the hatch, there’s little you need to do, other than check on the eggs and young chicks, transferring the chicks to a brooder within a day of their hatching. Keep in mind that egg fertility is rarely 100%. Most egg fertility ranges from 50% to 95%, so it’s a good idea to purchase a greater number of fertilized eggs than you actually want chickens.
The First 60 Days
Whether you’ve hatched your own eggs or you’ve purchased young chicks, the first 60 days require slightly different care than that of full-grown hens.
1. Set up Your Brooder
Brooders are small enclosed spaces with access to a temperature-controlled heat lamp. While it’s possible to make your own, you can purchase a brooder for less than $100. Make sure you set it up in a safe space, such as a shed or a garage, keeping the chicks away from potential predators, such as cats and hawks.
Line the bottom of the brooder with pine shavings or corn cob bedding, and provide the chicks with a chick waterer and starter feed purchased from your local feed store. Check the water and food daily, replacing as needed, and clean and replace the bedding at least once per week. Chicks are tiny little things, so they don’t eat a huge amount of food. Most backyard chicken owners can expect one bag of chick crumbles to last them the entire two months the chicks are in the brooder.
Assuming you’re raising laying hens, you should keep the chicks on a 20% protein medicated chick starter up until 18 weeks. At 18 weeks you can switch to a non-medicated crumble, and when hens reach 22 weeks or begin laying, you can start feeding crumble with a 16% to 18% protein content.
If you’re raising hens for their meat content, put them on a diet of higher-protein crumbles, preferably in the 22% to 24% range. Stop feeding them medicated feed at least two weeks before you butcher them.
Between the initial purchase of chick crumbles, waterer, and bedding, you can expect to spend about $35 to outfit your brooder.
2. Adjust the Temperature
From the point of hatching, the temperature of the brooder should begin at 90 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Each week, reduce the temperature by five degrees until you reach 65 degrees or room temperature, whichever is greater.
3. Make Time for Play Time
The first two months are the best time to bond with your chicks. Pet and play with them, picking them up and acclimating them to human interaction. Do this several times a day. Chickens are diurnal, so they are up and about during the day, and they sleep at night.
Set aside a few minutes throughout the day to spend time with your young chicks, preferably when you check on their water and feed. Chickens are also social animals, so raising several chicks at once is a good idea, as they can keep each other company even when you’re not around.
Moving Your Chickens to a Coop
Once your chicks are two months old, they’re ready to be moved to a chicken coop. Generally speaking, chickens kept inside a hen house should have three to four square feet per chicken, while those kept in an outside run should have 10 square feet per chicken.
Like brooders, it’s completely possible to make your own chicken coop. The most important components are good air flow, a low roost where hens can sleep sheltered from the elements, removable perches, private laying boxes (about 12 inches square, one for every four hens), and removable dropping boards underneath the perches for easier cleaning.
Also, be certain that the coop is free from potential hazards, such as nails and loose boards, and is predator-proof. It’s a good idea for coops to be wrapped 360-degrees with wire cage to prevent raccoons, rats, or cats from finding a way to break in. Some predators are particularly enterprising – raccoons can even open doors and lids when given the opportunity – so be sure to include latching locks on all doors and openings
The truth is, buying a pre-made coop isn’t cheap. Most cost at least $200, and in some cases, well over $1,000. If you’re not comfortable making a coop from scratch, look into chicken coop designs and coop kits to make the process a little easier, and hopefully more affordable. While the equipment and supplies necessary to make a chicken coop from a design or coop kit won’t be cheap (and depend on the design), you can at least save on the labor expenses you’d be paying someone else to fashion a coop.
To find coop kits or designs, start by doing a quick Internet search. This helps you to decide which type of design or kit you want to purchase. Then, check with your local feed store or your local Craigslist site to see if anyone in your area sells coop kits or builds coops. A local carpenter may offer you a better deal than an online retailer. The total cost of building a coop varies significantly based on the size, features, and amenities, but you can still expect to spend at least a few hundred dollars.
One other thing to consider when purchasing or making your chicken coop is whether to make it a mobile coop. Mobile coops have wheels and a bar that allow you to move the coop from place to place within your yard.
Mobile coops have several advantages: First, it allows you to park the coop in the shade when it’s hot out or in the sun when it’s cool. Second, chickens have a way of tearing up grass while simultaneously fertilizing the land. By moving your coop around, you can take advantage of the free fertilizer while avoiding the destruction that occurs with a group of pecking, scratching birds.
Care and Maintenance
Caring for your adult chickens is surprisingly simple:
- Provide Clean Bedding. The hen house should include untreated pine shavings, straw, or sawdust as flooring and bedding.
- Offer Sufficient Food. Laying hens should be provided with approximately 100 grams of fresh chicken feed every day – chicken feed is a nutrient-controlled food providing at least 16% protein to ensure healthy birds and healthy eggs. Put it in a covered feeder and replace as necessary. For laying hens, choose a protein-rich food to help produce protein-rich eggs. Your local feed store should be able to help you pick out an appropriate mix. While it’s tempting to skip the commercial chicken feed and opt to feed your chickens a diet of table scraps, it’s ill-advised. Because of the balanced nutritional content of commercial feed, you should rely on it as the primary food source, sticking to table scraps as treats.
- Give Access to Clean Water. Purchasing a one- or three-gallon waterer is a great option for hassle-free care. Just check it daily and replace as needed.
- Supply Grit. This grit is held in the gizzard and helps break down grains. Simply place a bowl of sand in the coop to do the trick.
- Feed Them Treats. Chickens love treats, such as table scraps, bugs, cracked corn, and milo. As crazy as it sounds, they even love chicken and eggs. Collect your table scraps and give them to your chickens – just avoid feeding them onions or garlic, which can flavor their eggs. Also, raw potatoes, avocado, and chocolate are toxic, so keep them away from your birds.
- Check for Dampness. Check your chicken feed for dampness, and if it’s wet or damp, throw it out. Damp food can grow toxic mold.
- Give Them Calcium. Laying hens need a source of calcium in their diet. Crushed oyster shells or crushed limestone are good options that are generally available at feed stores, but feel free to crush and recycle your own egg shells.
- Keep It Clean. Clean the coop thoroughly at least once a week, removing perches and dropping boards, disinfecting them well. Stick with an all-natural cleaner – a mix of white vinegar and water works well. Replace all flooring and bedding after the coop has been cleaned.
- Offer Exercise. Chickens love roaming around, so give them access to a chicken run or let them out of their coop from time to time. Just be aware that roaming chickens are a temptation to birds of prey and cats – they’ll be safer if you keep them in a covered run.
- Watch Them Carefully. Note your hens’ habits to make sure they’re eating, drinking, and interacting as usual. Birds huddling together may be cold, while those breathing heavily may be hot. If a bird appears hen-pecked and has lost feathers, you may need to remove it temporarily from the flock to allow it to heal before returning it to the coop.
The cost of setting up a small flock of 3 to 10 urban chickens isn’t cheap – you can expect it to cost about $700 if you make your own chicken coop – but in many cases, the benefits outweigh the costs. Once your hens start laying eggs, the average cost to feed and care for a flock of 10 birds is only about $4 per week. Consider the eggs (and possibly the chicken meat) you’ll enjoy with your family, the option to start a side business selling eggs, and the camaraderie of feathered friends, and it’s no wonder more people are taking up urban farming.
Have you considered raising chickens? What additional tips would you suggest?