This is the age of the urban garden. As more people become attracted to the benefits and joy of growing their own crops, it’s not surprising that urban farming continues to rise in popularity. People are raising bees, chickens, even fish in their backyards on a quarter acre or less of land while using stacked planters, raised beds, and all sorts of creative means to ensure crop production.
I first encountered urban homesteading via a documentary on Netflix one lazy Saturday afternoon. I’m a little bit of a documentary nut, so I was curious about what people were doing in their urban backyards. Little did I know that one exposure to urban farming would stick with me and become a continuing subject of fascination.
I began researching backyard chickens after seeing several websites dedicated to the phenomenon, leading me to articles written by the Boston Globe and the Smithsonian before finally buying a few books on the subject, including The Chicken Whisperer’s Guide to Keeping Chickens. I suggest conducting research of your own and not relying on just any one source for information.
From the Beginning
The first thing you’ll need to decide is the type of chicken you want. This may seem like a simple endeavor, but trust me, the chicken breeds are relatively endless and you want to have a couple considerations when choosing your breed.
How are you going to use your chickens? Meat, eggs, both? Or do you want to use them to keep pests out of the backyard? Almost every poultry hatchery site you visit will have some information on their breeds and divide them into four parts:
- Meat: Meat chickens are typically big breasted beauties and grow to be the largest. The hatchery you consider might even label these chickens as “fry-pan specials” or “broiler chickens.” The jokes are in poor taste (Get it, taste?) but it does make identifying them fairly easy.
- Eggs: Egg-laying chickens can be of any size and are typically sorted by the size and color of their eggs, etc. You’ll want chickens with a calm temperament because you’re going to be interacting with them a lot. Another way these types of chickens are labeled is by calling them “layers.”
- Dual Purpose: These types of chicken are a mix between meat and egg birds and vary in size and temperament. So, read their personality description if you’re planning to interact with them.
- Show: These are probably my favorite because they’re so darn weird. Some of these birds look strange and have ornate feathers, crests, or coloring that separates them from the average yard chicken. These beauties are ideal for pet chickens and will still lay eggs of varying sizes if you want them to contribute in some other way.
I chose a good dual purpose bird called a Buff Orpington; buff is just the color. They also come in other colors like black. I made this selection based on their cold hardiness; I didn’t want them to get chilled in the winter, and for their sweet personalities, because I’m the one who likes to play with chickens.
How many chickens do you want? A lot of online hatcheries ship in quantities of 15, so if you don’t want 15 chickens, it might be a good idea to look into more local options. A few places you can look is Craigslist (it has a little of everything), local livestock auctions, or an online hatchery with small quantity options like Meyer Hatchery. Keep in mind: shipping costs of live poultry can get pretty expensive, so be prepared for sticker shock.
Are you going to treat your chickens with traditional medicated food, unmedicated food or organic food? There are positives and negatives to each. I chose to go with organic food because it created less of a mess for me to clean up and I like the idea of giving my chickens non-GMO food since I like to eat organic myself.
- Medicated Feed: Medicated Feed has antibiotics in the food and will keep your chicks from getting most bacterial infections and other illnesses that sometimes plague chicken populations. They will also grow larger as an unintended side effect. The downside? You’ll be eating the products of the chicks, i.e., meat or eggs, and, therefore, will also consume the remnants of said medications.
- Non-Medicated Feed: Lacking the antibiotics of the medicated feed, this type is probably the least expensive chicken food on the market and has all the nutrition that the chickens will need to thrive in a backyard setting. You may have to treat for illnesses, though. Medication can often be purchased via your local veterinarian, feed store or the Internet. The downside? GMO food does tend to make chickens produce more feces and it smells worse than anything your nostrils have whiffed thus far. Trust me, most corpses are less fragrant than this stuff.
- Organic Feed: My personal choice for chickens. The organic feed has the same nutritional value as the non-medicated feed, but with no GMO food included. It produces the least amount of waste and the chickens really seem to like it. The downside? It can get pricey, especially as the chickens grow and you have to buy larger bags.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide what’s best for your feathery family. The chickens don’t like having their food changed on a whim and they will sometimes go on hunger strikes if it’s not what they’re used to.
Getting Ready for the Big Arrival
Your chicks are on the way and now you’ve got to get their space ready. You’re not going to be able to put them outside for several weeks, so I suggest using a spare room or bathroom. (Note about the bathroom: keep the toilet lid shut. You don’t want them to escape and accidently flutter into the toilet.)
Once you’ve designated their space, you’ll need to get the brooder ready. (Brooder is a fancy word for chick nursery.) There’s several options for this as well:
- Build one yourself. This may seem complicated, but don’t worry, it’s not. I used a simple storage container, rectangular in shape so the chicks could escape the heat if they needed to, a standard heat lamp like this one, a bulb for said lamp, and little feeders for food and water. Get creative. The chicks aren’t going to judge you.
If you get your chicks from a hatchery that ships them to your house, your priority when opening the package is to check and see that they’re alright. Most hatcheries will replace dead or injured chicks if they are DOA, just contact them as soon as possible if this has happened. Your next priority is to warm them up. They’ll be tired, thirsty and cold, but the temperature will need to be fixed right away.
One by one, take them out of the box and gently place them in the brooder under the heat lamp. Chicks will huddle together in a cute fluff pile when they’re cold. When they’re warm, they’ll move away from the lamp on their own to explore their enclosure.
Now the Fun Begins!
As your chickens grow, they need to be inside for about seven weeks, sometimes more or less depending on the breed. Here are the biggest tips:
- Replenish the food daily. Growing chicks eat like it’s going out of style. If they get waste in the food dish, clean it out. Like children, chicks will put anything they’re curious about in their mouths.
- Providing fresh water is the most important task you will have to deal with. Twice a day, you should empty their water container, wash it off in the sink, and then refill it. Chickens do not like hot water and, unfortunately, due to the closeness with the heat lamp, it will become warm throughout the day. Rule of thumb: if it’s too warm for you to drink, it’s too warm for them.
- Your nose will be the biggest indicator on when you need to clean out the brooder. If it smells like ammonia and waste, guess what? It’s time. The frequency of cleaning will also depend on the bedding. I used newspapers and never had a problem, but some people have reported that their chicks had issues with the slickness of the material. You can always go with a chicken-safe bedding if you have any doubts. I cleaned my brooder every other day.
- Picking them up at least once a day will help them adapt to your voice, touch, and movement. Sometimes they won’t like it, but do it anyway. Otherwise, you’ll end up chasing them around and scaring them when you want to catch them.
At seven weeks, my little fluff balls had grown into real chickens. It was time to move them out of the nest, so to speak. I have to admit to being a little reluctant. I sincerely doubted my neighbors would’ve appreciated wandering chickens in their yards. As an owner, I was responsible for making sure they were safe and secure as to not bother my neighbors or tempt the local wildlife.
I had two options: buy an already-made chicken coop and assemble it or build a coop from scratch. Coop designs can be bought or drawn up on your own if you’re handy enough. There are plenty of inspiration and sources to draw from if you are the building type.
Due to time constraints and my unwillingness to sit down and figure out a plan, I ended up buying a pre-made chicken coop and constructing the fence around it. I’m very happy with the results and so are my chickens! I’m looking forward to getting some eggs.
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