If you’re considering adding chickens to your backyard, you’ll first need to contact your city’s planning department or zoning board, as well as the health board. Many cities allow a certain number of hens, but no roosters. Others still have very specific rules about how the chickens are kept. And some others ban chickens altogether.
What They Produce
Backyard chickens give fresh eggs that taste better than anything you can buy in a store. How many eggs you’ll get each day depends upon several things:
- The ages of the hens
- The types of hens
- The time of year
Age: Hens begin laying at about 20 weeks of age. Hens in their ‘teens generally stop laying eggs. After this time, some people eat their hens, while others keep them as pets.
Type: Some types of hens lay more eggs than others. (Check out this chicken breed chart at Backyard Chickens for more info.) On average, though, you can expect 3 hens to produce 2 eggs each day.
Time of Year: Hens produce fewer eggs in the winter. However, if you want to keep their production the same as in the warmer months, you can set up a bright lamp in the hen house.
What They Need: Food
Most backyard hens get chicken feed. How much is difficult to determine, but according to the University of California-Davis, 10 laying hens need 8 to 24 lbs. of feed per week. Hens also eat more in the colder months. Many families also give their hens kitchen scraps, and if you allow the hens to free range at least some of the time, they will eat bugs and grass, too.
In addition, hens need a ready supply of fresh water.
What They Need: Shelter
Hens need a decent chicken coop, which is the most costly part of putting hens in your backyard. Lower quality hen houses for 2 to 4 hens are available for about $300 - $500. More attractive and better quality houses can run into the thousands. Hen houses can also be built from inexpensive, cast off materials, but remember the house must keep the hens warm and safe from predators (including dogs, cats, raccoons, and opossums). When determining how big the hen house should be, use this rule of thumb: Hens generally need at least 2 to 4 sq. feet of space each.
For easier cleanup, consider laying vinyl on the floor. Once the chicken manure is scooped out (and saved for fertilizing the garden!), the floor can be hosed off. If your winters are cold, you will probably also need a heating lamp.
In addition to the hen house, the chickens need a run. It should be entirely fenced off, so predators can’t get to the hens. Each hen needs about 5 sq. foot of run space.
Alternatively, you can let your chickens free range, but they will be more prone to attacks by predators and they may make a mess of your yard. (Not only will chickens eat plants, but all their scratching can lead to the removal of ground covers like grass.)
If you use automatic feeders and waterers, hens require a medium amount of care. The run and (especially) the hen house will need cleaning regularly, and someone should collect eggs once or twice a day. Most hens are sociable, so while it’s not mandatory to handle them, they generally like it. Handling also keeps them tame.
The Kid Factor
Kids can definitely help care for chickens. Even toddlers can help spray chicken feed, if supervised. Watering is another good job for kids. A child as young as 5 can learn to collect eggs. And almost all kids love handling and playing with chickens.
The Neighbor Factor
Hens aren’t noisy and shouldn’t bother neighbors. Roosters, on the other hand, cause quite a racket. (And yes, they do crow in the early morning.) If the hen house and run aren’t cleaned regularly, they can stink, too.
Although chickens are not dirty animals, they do walk around in their manure (one excellent reason to clean the hen house floor frequently). Therefore, teach your children to always wash their hands with soap and water after handling chickens. Young children who still put their hands in their mouths should only handle chickens under close supervision.
There is a lot of debate about whether eggs should be washed before being eaten, but it doesn’t hurt to run the eggs under warm water just before cooking them. (Don’t wash them, then store them, however, since this removes their natural antibacterial coating. Also, don’t submerge eggs in ice water. This actually makes any bacteria on the surface of the eggshell seep into the egg.) Additionally, you can reduce the chances of manure on eggs if you clean the nests every day. The USDA recommends cooking all eggs thoroughly; if you like them runny, you run a risk of food poisoning, whether the eggs are store bought or not.
Hens don’t typically peck to be aggressive, but if you wear something shiny, they will peck at it. They may also try to peck freckles or eyeballs, so teach children to keep hens away from their faces.