Working Chickens, Part 2: Counting Hens
Why Do You Want Chickens?
It’s really important to consider why you want to keep chickens before you talk about how many you need. If your purpose is just for the pleasure of watching their antics, then one or two is more than enough. Pest control? Same. You don’t need many chooks to keep pests at bay; that is, of course, depending on the size of your garden. However, if you want working chickens that provide eggs, compost, and tilling services, you’ll need to figure out what size flock fits your purpose and space.
In flock management, numbers really do matter. You need to make sure you have the right number of birds, as well as the correct amount of space per bird. Too many birds in too small of a space means endlessly cleaning poop and a big, muddy, stinky, mess of a chicken run. Too few means you’ll be working more than your chickens.
Counting Hens – The Formulas in Word Form
I am going to share with you my “formulas” for deciding on the correct number of chickens to keep. Now, keep in mind that I am not good at math. I love math and the order that it can bring to my life, nevertheless numbers can sometimes make my head go fuzzy and my eyes go crossed. If you are the same, please don’t stop reading! I’ll try my best to make it clear, and there’s a lot of flexibility here. If you love numbers and are good at them, please don’t hesitate to make my formulas more precise. These formulas are meant to be a starting point, and you can take them anywhere you want to go.
You can either start with the number of eggs you consume or the amount of space you have. Space wasn’t a consideration for us, so we started by thinking about how many eggs we eat each week. My family of four goes through about 1-2 dozen eggs per week, though that fluctuates. When choosing a breed (which I won’t talk about here) consider how many eggs a week each bird will lay. One of our Black Australorp hens produces about 5-6 eggs per week. By that math, we will need 2 to 4 hens to meet our egg needs. Unfortunately, it’s never really that simple. So, to cover for times when chickens are molting or broody, I recommend doubling that number.
The next thing to think about is how much space you need for your chickens vs. how much space you have to keep them in. They need about 2-4 square feet per hen in the coop if they have plenty of run, or 8-10 square feet if you will be keeping them cooped up a lot. If you ask me, our coop is a little on the small side, but the hens do have plenty of run/paddock, so they do alright.
The Formulas In Math-like Form
In mathematical notation, the formulas look something a little like this:
• #eggs consumed per week / #eggs per week laid by your choice of breed = #of hens needed. (Multiply your answer by two make sure you’re covered when hens are broody or molting.)
• #of hens x 2-4 square feet = coop square footage (if there’s plenty of run)
• #of hens x 8-10 square feet = coop square footage (if there’s not a lot of run)
How Much Total Space?
As far as runs and paddock space goes, you’ll need 4-10 square feet of runs per chicken. Some larger breeds may need more, while bantams could probably do with less. What I have noticed is that if you keep too many birds in too small of a space, they will keep nearly anything from growing. That can be a problem if you are trying to grow forage for them.
The amount of space you need will greatly depend on what you have, how many eggs you want, and what your hens will lay, so you will need to do a little experimenting on your own. Hopefully this helps give you a launching point.
Other Things to Consider
Don’t forget to consider broodiness when looking at the different chicken breeds. Some breeds don’t go broody very often, and others go broody at the drop of a hat. When a hen is broody, she isn’t laying eggs!
Hens also wont lay after they are a certain number of years old, or when they are very young, or when they are molting.
Another thing to think about is the number of paddocks you have. Later in this series, I’ll be discussing how to create a paddock system, but it bears saying now that you can fit a larger flock into a smaller space if you rotate your birds in the proper amount of paddocks in a timely manner.
If you have a limited amount of space and a large egg need, you can do some things to optimize your space. You can also keep the chickens you can, and supplement your egg need by buying eggs elsewhere. There’s no shame in that!
Here at Haven Homestead, we have about twelve hens and one rooster. Some of our hens are old, some are newly hatched this year, and others are at prime laying age. As long as the entire flock isn’t molting, we usually get around a dozen eggs each week.
That’s it for Part 2. Now go and figure out how many chickens fit your need. Do you have any other tips or comments? Leave us a note below.
Stay tuned for more on the following:
Designing Roosts, Coops, and Nesting Boxes
Having Dust Baths, Grit and Other Necessities
Keeping Them Watered
Using Chickens to Till and Fertilize
Roosters and Hatching Chicks
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