Grit Blogs > Backyard Poultry with the Chicken Whisperer

Getting Started with Backyard Poultry

By Andy G. Schneider aka The Chicken Whisperer

Tags: chickens, getting started,

A photo of the Chicken WhispererIf you’re thinking about getting started with backyard poultry you’re not alone. Thousands of people across the country are starting their very own backyard flock and you can too!

There are many advantages of having your very own backyard flock, and you no longer have to live on a farm to enjoy these benefits. Chickens provide families with fresh, nutritious eggs. Chicken manure is a valuable addition to your compost bin and adds needed nutrients to your garden’s soil. Chickens also help reduce your household food waste, because they eat a variety of table scraps. They also eat insects helping to reduce your backyard insect population. While it may be surprising to some, chickens make great pets!  In fact, they are amusing to watch and bring enjoyment to the whole family!

The first thing most people think of when starting a backyard flock is the loud crow of a rooster at daybreak every morning. Well, I have good news for you. You don’t need a rooster to have fresh, nutritious eggs. You only need a rooster if you want little baby chicks running around the backyard.  In fact, the hens may actually lay better if there is no rooster around to disrupt their routine.

The second thing people think of when starting a backyard flock is the odor. Yes, chickens can stink if not properly taken care of, just like any other animal including dogs, cats, rabbits, and hamsters. Proper maintenance can significantly reduce, and even eliminate the odor caused by keeping backyard poultry. It all comes down to responsible pet ownership. Now that we disproved the top two myths regarding the keeping of backyard poultry, let’s get started!

So what’s the first step before you start your journey of keeping backyard poultry? First, you need to check your local laws to see if keeping backyard poultry is allowed. You will not only need to check the county and city laws, but also your neighborhood covenants if you have a homeowners association. Many cities across the country are changing their laws to allow their residents to keep a few hens in their backyard. If backyard poultry is allowed, you then need to spend some time reading and researching what cost and care requirements you should expect when keeping backyard poultry. Then, you need to decide if you’re going to hatch your own baby chicks, purchase them from a local farm or breeder, or order them from one of the many national hatcheries. This will determine what equipment you will need to get started.

Hatching baby chicks from an incubator is fun and educational for the whole family. I highly recommend it for anyone with children. Though hatching eggs from an incubator has its occasional challenges, it’s well worth it.

Just as we try to buy our fresh produce locally, buying your fertilized hatching eggs, or baby chicks locally can become a fun day trip. The wealth of information you can get from the local farmer or breeder can be priceless and may also save you time and money.

Many purchase day old baby chicks from hatcheries all across the nation. They are delivered directly to your local post office for pick up. The baby chicks can survive up to three days from the nutrition they receive while inside the egg before they hatch. This allows shipment to almost all locations across the country. One advantage from ordering your day old baby chicks from a national hatchery is they will sex the baby chicks for you. If you don’t want any roosters, you want to purchase pullets, female chicks, rather than cockerels, male chicks.

Once you have your baby chicks they will need a special home for the first few weeks called a brooder. The main purpose of a brooder is to keep the baby chicks warm and dry. Brooders can easily be made from almost anything. Many use an old cardboard box, while some use their bathtub. I prefer a 45 gallon Rubbermaid bin for the average homeowner, but the GQF Poultry Box Brooder is a gem! Baby chicks also require a heat source in the brooder. A light bulb or heat lamp can provide sufficient heat.  An important note is to allow the baby chicks to self regulate their temperature as needed by providing them with enough space in the brooder to move close to or away from the heat source. There are many choices for brooder bedding, but cedar shavings should NEVER be used.

Depending on the temperature the chicks will be ready to go outside at around six weeks old. This brings us to our next topic, the chicken coop. Just like a brooder, a chicken coop can be as simple or as extravagant as you want it to be. I have kept many chickens using just a large breed plastic dog house. Though coops designed for chickens are more user friendly, the design of the coop should not make much difference in the number of eggs you get from your backyard flock. The coop and run need to provide  a fresh supply of water, dry source of food, shelter, and protection from predators.

Chickens have many predators. I always tell people that there will always be something that will love your chickens more than you do. You will need to protect your chickens from predators that come from above and below. The more common predators you will encounter from above include hawks and owls. Any type of netting across the top of your coop, and run area can solve this problem easily. Predators from ground level or below include raccoons, opossums, weasels, foxes, and even neighborhood dogs and cats. Hardware cloth attached around and below the coop works well for some, but a good strong fence buried about a foot deep is another option to deter digging predators. Some even burry old roofing tin about a foot deep around the chicken pen to keep digging predators out.

Once you have your coop and run established keeping backyard poultry can be fun and rewarding with minimal work. Owner’s responsibilities include keeping a constant supply of feed and water, gathering eggs daily, and cleaning the coop and run as needed.

If you have ever thought about starting a backyard flock of chickens there is no better time than the present to join thousands of others that are enjoying the benefits of keeping a small backyard flock.

Please visit the Backyard Poultry with the Chicken Whisperer blog often because I will be starting an educational series called “Chicks are Easy”. This also happens to be the title of my book I hope to release this fall. I just hope the title does not make the book find it’s way into the “Relationships” section of the book store! Thanks for stopping by!

Chicken Whisperer

7/28/2015 7:16:50 AM

We are new to having poultry and only have 1 acre of land. But we life on family land so none of our neighbors have fencing. My problem is our chickens and ducks keep going in my neighbor's beautiful yard. He put up a fence 2ft tall. We are putting up a 3ft tall fence also. I don't know how to stop them. We wouldn't have food some days if it wasn't for these birds. I dont want to be forced to get rid of them. Our run isn't big enough for 30 birds. I would love to move one day to a place with more space..... and less neighbors. Any and all advice welcome! ..... we would put up a taller fence but it's not in the budget currently.

1/1/2011 1:25:05 AM

Every year we take part of our flock and they go into the garden area as soon as the plants come out of the ground they will stay there all winter long and will fertilize the garden as well as level out and rid the garden of grass then in the spring they will go back to thier coop and we will till the garden and plant then start all over in the fall and have never had to buy fertilizer yet. this will also work if you want to start a garden just fence in the area and they will get rid of most the grass as well as break up the first few 3-4 inches while they take their dust baths

bronze witch
9/7/2009 9:20:34 AM

Love your column - you've been such a help to us, building our first chicken coop. I have a question about winter care: is it harmful for the "girls" to go outside in the winter? At what temps should I keep them in? The coop is fairly dark; when I kept parrots, the decreased sunlight affected their breeding and laying patterns, so wouldn't keeping the hens shut up bring all laying to a halt? I hope to bring my ladies home in about a week; I can't wait to meet them!

john roane
9/1/2009 1:49:24 PM

Need plans for chicken coop to hold 10 - 12 hens.

ram das
8/15/2009 6:03:09 AM

I plan to start a coop with couple of chicks. I intend to build it under an existing deck about 90 cm high. Will it be necessary to cover the deck with something to avoid rain getting on to the ground. Chicken mesh on all sides and nest box are also planned. I shall much appreciate an answer. Ram

7/30/2009 4:14:49 PM

I have a question - recently we were adopted by a pair of guineas. The neighbors dog killed one, so I have one guinea running around my place. I believe it is a male. He poses in front of the shiny bumper of the truck. My question is right now he appears to be doing fine eating bugs, but what do I need to put out for him to eat this winter and how will I know he is eating it? Do I need to get other guineas to put with him? thanks, sgoldschmidt

kate cote
7/22/2009 6:11:41 PM

I was just wondering, any ideas on how to keep hens from eating their own eggs??

7/22/2009 10:42:08 AM

Clucking chickens scratching for food, taking dust baths, roosting or just meandering does the heart good. You can't help but feel all is right with the world watching chickens making their rounds. Another really cool thing about chickens is they have the carbon footprint of broccoli. That means they do not have a negative impact on the environment. Food in, Food out. Pretty darn 'eco' nomical. I wrote a little blog about the sustainable side of chickens.

chicken whisperer
6/13/2009 8:32:29 PM

Dear Backyard Poultry Buffs, Thank you so much for your nice comments. I'm sorry that it took so long for me to reply, but my schedule lately has been a little crazy. Due to the amazing success of the Saturday radio show I have now launched a weekday radio show as well. It will air Monday through Friday at 12:00pm EST. First, allow me answer the questions about the cedar shavings. It's my understanding that the odor from the cedar shavings though pleasant for us can be overpowering for small animals including baby chicks. Many claim it will give the small animals respiratory problems and that’s true, but the bigger problem is more deadly. There is a toxin in the odor that can get into the blood stream of the small animal. The liver will then work extra hard to filter out the toxin and the small animal will die from liver failure, not from the respiratory problems. Some studies claim the toxin exists in pine shavings as well, but not as much. I have used pine shavings many times in the past with no problems at all, but recommend only using kiln dried pine shavings instead of the raw shavings. Another alternative though more expensive is aspen shavings. As promised, I will continue my "Chicks are Easy" blog post very soon. In the mean time please listen to Backyard Poultry with the Chicken Whisperer Monday through Friday at 12:00pm EST and Saturdays at 9:00am EST. All shows are available for download if you miss them. Listen weekdays here: Listen saturdays here: Chicken Whisperer

5/25/2009 10:53:00 PM

Great read Chicken Whisperer! We have just purchased 4 cute Rhode Island Red chicks from our local C-A-L Ranch store. We have made a brooder for them from our water trough. We are using Red Cedar shavings for bedding. They seem fine but after reading your blog I am worried. Why is it not O.K. to use the Cedar shavings?

5/22/2009 10:26:47 AM

i was just wondering why to never use ceddar shavings as bedding?

the farm muse
5/5/2009 9:02:35 AM

Hello from Twitter! I am pleased to have at last found time to read your article. I have to say I am 100% behind the idea being a caring, educated and responsible producer/farmer. As a family heritage farm, we define who we are through the word RESPECT. We respect our land, our animals, our neighbors and ourselves. Your column has given a great foundation for anyone who wishes to begin backyard flocks....I would say your article is something to crow about! :)

the farm muse
5/5/2009 9:02:00 AM

Hello from Twitter! I am pleased to have at last found time to read your article. I have to say I am 100% behind the idea being a caring, educated and responsible producer/farmer. As a family heritage farm, we define who we are through the word RESPECT. We respect our land, our animals, our neighbors and ourselves. Your column has given a great foundation for anyone who wishes to begin backyard flocks....I would say your article is something to crow about! :)

phil wolf
5/4/2009 9:51:01 AM

Great blog Chicken Whisperer! Am looking forward to your new book. And, yes, my 5 Rhode Island Reds are easy and fun. They enjoyed a couple of hours in my freshly tilled garden yesterday before the rains came.

amy cowden
5/4/2009 8:48:04 AM

My family and I are just getting ready to start a flock of our own!! Thanks for the wonderful tips and I look forward to your next article in Grit magazine!!