So, you want to keep a few hens for fresh eggs. No biggie, right? Wrong! Here are some things to ask yourself before you bring home those fluffy little chicks…
Are chickens allowed in your area?
Do you have a barn or coop and room for a pen?
Are there numerous predators in your area?
Can you afford to buy chickens, bedding, feed, etc?
Will they be pets or livestock?
What will you do with old laying hens?
Who will care for them if you go on vacation?
Will you take them to a veterinary clinic if they are sick or injured?
Why do you really want chickens?
Some of these questions may seem obvious. But let’s go through them in a bit more detail…
Are Chickens Allowed in Your Area?
If you live in the country, this might seem like a no brainer. However, if your property is zoned residential, there may be regulations about keeping livestock. Some folks like to ‘fly under the wire’ and bring home a flock even if they aren’t legally allowed to have poultry. If you do this (and I’m not suggesting that you do) make sure you have somewhere to take them if neighbors complain or you are served with a notice that your chickens are in violation of the property codes.
On the other hand, some towns and cities are now allowing a certain number of chickens in backyard coops. Roosters are usually not included and the number of hens you may keep varies by area. Find out if you need to purchase a permit and maybe ask the neighbors how they feel before you jump in. Some neighbors object and could make your life miserable, even if you are legally allowed to keep chickens. Only you can decide if this is reason to pass on the poultry.
Do You Have Room for Chickens? Are There Predators in Your Area?
Your flock will need room to stretch their wings. A secure coop with ventilation should be in place before you bring home any poultry. Make sure there is shade during the heat of the day (especially if you live in a hot climate) and they won’t be in a cold and windy location during winter. If you can have as many chickens as you want, make sure you provide space for your flock to grow. Somehow the flock seems to expand over time and building bigger than you think you need is better in the long run.
Your chickens will also need room to roam around in safety during the day. If hawks and other raptors are a problem in your area, plan a pen that is enclosed from flying predators. If burrowing animals are a concern (such as oppossums and weasels) bury the fencing a foot or more below the ground level or enclose the pen completely with hardware cloth. A floor of hardware cloth will keep critters from burrowing into the pen. Chicken wire may keep chickens in, but it won’t keep predators out.
Can You Afford Chickens?
Be sure you have the cash to ‘shell out’ for chickens. Many people expect the cost will be minimal and their poultry will pay for themselves with eggs and, maybe, meat. Unfortunately that is usually not the case. Eggs and chicken are pretty inexpensive at the grocery store compared to the cost of raising your own. If you are able to grow most of the chicken feed yourself, you might beat the store’s cost. But if ‘free eggs’ is what you want…you may be disappointed! On the other hand, it may be worth the cost to have your own humanely raised eggs and meat.
Many people are surprised to learn that it takes around 4 to 6 months before your day old chicks are old enough to start laying eggs. Once a hen starts laying, she will typically produce 4-6 eggs a week until the age of about 18 months. At that point she will go into her first molt and the egg production will stop for 2-4 months. When she starts laying again, the eggs will be larger but there will be fewer of them. Each year there will be another molting process and afterwards the egg production will decrease until the hen finally stops laying altogether.
When calculating costs, be sure to include:
- food and water containers
- heat lamps
- brooders & incubators
- veterinary bills
Will Your Chickens be Pets or Livestock? What Will You do with Old Laying Hens?
This is a personal decision for each chicken enthusiast. Be aware that you may very well start out with the intention of eating your old laying hens when egg production declines. But who will process the chickens? Do you have any experience with butchering? And will you be able to actually kill your hens when the time comes?
For many people, their chickens end up as pets even if they started out as livestock. It’s fun to watch them scratch in their pen and their antics can be quite comical. You might start naming them Ethel and Harriet, and before you know it they’ll have their own monogrammed food dishes and chicken ‘nappies’. They’ll be standing at your screen door looking for treats and your friends will think you’re nuts. It is extremely difficult to turn your pets into soup. So be realistic when making these decisions and be prepared to feed old hens into their retirement years if you can’t bear to eat them.
Who Will Care for Your Hens When You Go On Vacation?
You would probably like to go on well deserved vacation now and then. If you have friends and neighbors who also keep chickens, it is wonderful to work out arrangements with them for chicken sitting. Be sure that you are willing to take care of their chickens too. If you’re always asking someone else to care for your flock, but you never return the favor, you’ll wear out your welcome pretty quick. Most folks would like to keep the eggs collected while they are chicken sitting and you might want to pay for the services or bring back gifts from your travels. Make sure before you bring home your chickens that you have at least 2 or 3 neighbors or friends who are willing and able to step in and care for your flock while you are away. If they don’t have chickens, take a half dozen eggs to them now and then even when they’re not chicken sitting to sweeten the deal.
Will You Take Chickens to a Veterinarian if They are Sick or Injured?
You might think that this is a silly idea before you get chickens. Perhaps your plans involve a hatchet and stew pot if one of your hens is sick or injured. But if you really did name them Ethel and Harriet, that might change things. It is perfectly fine to make the decision to put them down, but will you be able to do it? If not, do you have someone close by who can do this for you? Or will you be running your chicken to the emergency clinic at 9pm when an owl attacks? If this sounds like the option you’ll choose, be prepared to pay a pretty penny for that visit. And find out if you have a veterinarian in your area that is familiar with treating birds. Many small animal clinics are prepared for cats and dogs, but not poultry.
It’s also important to have a cage or enclosure for quarantine for sick birds. Separate them as soon as there is any sign of illness to prevent exposure to your healthy chickens. Oral antibiotics are a good thing to have on hand, as well as parasite treatments, and a general first aid kid. Do some research on common diseases, parasites and injuries ahead of time so you aren’t caught completely off guard if something does happen. And let the rest of your family know what your plans are in case there’s a chicken emergency in the future. You don’t want young children to panic over an injured bird, especially if you do decide that you’ll take matters into your own hands and put the unfortunate animal down at home.
Why Do You Want Chickens?
Be honest with yourself. What are your reasons for wanting to keep chickens? If you wish to have eggs and meat from humanely raised poultry, that is an excellent reason for keeping them. Perhaps you’ve always enjoyed pets and you know that a few hens would be a relaxing and fun project. This is another great reason to keep them. If you just moved out to the country and a little flock of chickens just seems like the icing on the cake, you might be right. Whatever your reasons, just be honest about how much time, energy and money you can afford to spend on your new flock. Don’t overdo it and order dozens of birds for your first endeavor. Start out small and build from there. It isn’t fair to your flock, your family, or to yourself to bring home more poultry than you have time for or money to properly care for.