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The Complete Guide to Raising Backyard Chickens

Words by: Kate MacLean of Longest Acres Farm

Raising backyard chickens is a joy that everyone should experience. It may be hard work, but chicken keeping comes with countless benefits for your home, your family, and even your neighbors. It's a labor of love that doesn't require a vast stretch of space, or even a large backyard; in fact, chicken keeping has become popular in urban and suburban spaces in recent years, proving that anyone with passion and care to give can turn it into a hobby. Whether you've already toyed with the idea of a backyard flock or haven't yet considered it, use this series as your starter kit. It's a complete guide to nearly all aspects of raising backyard chickens, and will help you navigate everything from chicken breeds to common predators. With information comes empowerment, so read on to dive into the world of chicken keeping.

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1. Why Raise Backyard Chickens?

There are so many reasons to raise backyard chickens—just ask the more than 13 million Americans who have taken on the hobby. Your backyard flock won’t just produce delicious eggs for you. It will also help with waste management, produce compost for your garden or potted plants, act as a natural form of pest control, build confidence, and serve as an educational tool for kids, if you have any. For these reasons and more, chicken keeping is a hobby worth considering.

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2. Understanding Local Laws For Raising Backyard Chickens

Once you've decided that raising a backyard flock fits into your lifestyle, the next step is seeking out and understanding local laws. State laws vary greatly and change frequently these days, so this process will require some research at your local town or city hall. Here, administrators can walk you through exactly what is and is not permitted in your town, down to the neighborhood level. This step is crucial, and the only way to ensure that your future flock won't get you into any trouble (legal or otherwise).

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3. How to Choose Backyard Chicken Breeds

When it comes to choosing chicken breeds, there are many, many options to consider. Your lifestyle, egg needs, and the size of your land will all determine whether a flock of reliable and consistent Rhode Island Reds or heirloom-egg-laying Araucanas is the best choice for your backyard. Consult this list of breeds ranging from exotic to hardy and you're guaranteed to find the type of chicken that's right for you.

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4. Sourcing Chickens from a Hatchery

Most chicken keepers choose to raise their flock from the chick stage, but some prefer to purchase fully grown adult chickens. No matter what you choose, it's important to carefully consider the source of your new flock. Before making that decision, you'll need to weigh the pros and cons of purchasing from a hatchery, via mail at your local hardware store, or at a nearby farm.

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5. How to Raise Chicks in a Brooder

Things happen in the flash of an eye once your chicks have arrived home, so setting up a brooder (a warm, safe space for your chicks to live until they grow their adult feathers) ahead of time is the most important step you can take to ensure that these fluff-covered babies grow up strong and healthy. This guide details everything you need to do in preparation for your chicks, starting with brooder setup before chick delivery day.

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6. A Beginner's Guide to Chicken Coops

Like a brooder, a chicken coop must provide some essential elements for your new feathered friends, including shelter, warmth, food, and water. Always keeping safety top of mind, you'll need to consider size and space, whether or not to add a chicken run, and how to protect your grass and gardens when building and setting up your chicken coop.

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7. Caring for Your Backyard Flock

Once your chickens have settled into their new home, your job is to care for them as they grow, ensuring that they have everything they need to remain healthy, keep laying, and exhibit natural social behaviors. This guide explores amenities like waterers, heat sources, and other tools and accessories that will help your flock transition from season to season.

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8. 20 Common Chicken Predators and How to Protect Your Flock From Them

Chickens are vulnerable creatures and have garnered quite the list of predators, ranging from soaring hawks and ravens to land-creeping weasels and foxes. This guide includes a list of the 20 most common predators to look out for, plus advice for keeping your flock safe from harm by installing fencing, adding a rooster or two, and securing even the smallest holes in your coop.

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9. Guide to the Perfect Nest Box

A nest box is an essential part of any chicken coop: it's a safe, private, cozy space where your hens can lay their eggs in peace each day. Experienced egg collectors know the frustration of finding eggs under the porch, in the flower pot, and buried in the garden, and while the occasional rogue egg is inevitable, putting some thought and care into creating an nest box is a good way to keep ground eggs to a minimum.

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10. The Importance of Letting Your Backyard Chickens Graze

Chickens are natural grazers and foragers, and much of their diet should consist of fresh greens and insects from the outdoors. This guide outlines the benefits of free ranging your flock, the importance of letting your backyard chickens follow their instincts, and the mitigable risks that free ranging chickens can face.

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11. What to Feed Backyard Chickens

Though your backyard chickens will get a good portion of their nutrients from forage and greens, even free range flocks need access to feed in order to remain healthy and productive. Consider fermenting your chickens' feed for added nutritional value, and take a look at these dos and don'ts before treating your flock to that juicy watermelon or orange rind.

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12. Tips for Keeping Free Range Chickens in Winter

Whether you live in the snowy north or the temperate south, it's entirely possible to keep your free range flock safe, warm, and laying during the winter season. This can be done by adding a heat lamp, white light bulbs, or solarizing your chicken coop; it's simply a matter of deciding which heat and light sources are safest for your flock.

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13. How to Prevent and Treat Common Chicken Ailments

Even free roaming chickens can fall ill or get hurt from time to time, but with this list of common ailments and their remedies, you can keep your backyard flock as healthy as possible. Knowing the ins and outs of prevention and treatment for chickens is key, and being prepared is the smartest thing you can do for your backyard flock.

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14. Raising Backyard Chickens Around Children

It's entirely possible to raise young children and chickens in tandem, but safety should always come first. This guide includes the precautions you should take as a parent when introducing children to your backyard flock. These are simple safety measures - hand washing, keeping your coop chore footwear out of the house, etc. - but crucial nonetheless, especially when kids are involved.

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15. The Best Way to Properly Store Freshly Laid Eggs

You've put in all the hard work, and now it's time to enjoy the bounty: an endless supply of fresh eggs. Storing the eggs from your backyard flock couldn't be easier, and isn't much more complicated than storing a carton of Pete and Gerry's Organic Eggs in your fridge after a trip to the grocery store. Just follow a few simple steps to keep the fruits of your (and your hens') labor as fresh as possible.

A note from Pete and Gerry's: For generations, our family of farmers at Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs has been dedicated to revolutionizing the way eggs are produced in the United States. We believe that consumers deserve better eggs from happier chickens living on small farms run by fairly paid farmers, and that’s what we have dedicated our business to. We also believe deeply in the transparency and verification of our standards, which is why we became a Certified B Corporation in 2013. It’s also why our farms meet the rigorous Certified Humane Free Range and USDA Certified Organic standards. We take the welfare of our hens, the sustainability of our farms, and health and happiness of our partner farmers and consumers very seriously. The resulting eggs are ones that stand out in the supermarket; they remind consumers of the eggs from their childhood farms and excursions abroad in Europe. And we're happy to be second best. In fact, we believe that everyone deserves a chance to raise hens right in their backyard and experience the joys that come with raising and growing food at home. Kate MacLean of Longest Acres Farm is here to tell you how.

Kate MacLean lives and works on 120 acres of land known as Longest Acres Farm in Chelsea, VT with her husband Nick, son Leland, and daughter Amelia. As an ex-city-dweller, she gained valuable experience working on friends' and neighbors' farms before making the move to rural Vermont with her family in search of a fulfilling, self-sustaining way of life.

Her breadth of experience in farming and raising countless varieties of chickens and other livestock on Longest Acres Farm not only makes Kate an expert in her field, but an advocate for home grown food and self-sustainability.

COMMENTS

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Karla McCusker

July 04, 2020

My husband just gave the go ahead to put up a chicken coop in our yard. Can you tell me if it’s too late to get chicks? Do I need to buy adult hens right now? I’d prefer babies.

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[email protected]

July 06, 2020

Hi Karla, how exciting! It's really up to your own preference as to whether you would prefer to raise them up from chicks or purchase them as older chickens closer to laying age. It also depends on what is still available for purchase from where you are sourcing your chickens from. In terms of timing, now should still be a good time to start out your flock. Hope this helps!

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Katrina

June 26, 2020

We purchased 2 hens three weeks ago. They are very happy and healthy. I spoil them when it comes to there feed, grains, water and a comfy clean coop! On the second day I had the girls they blessed me with one egg......nothing since! Any tips on getting my girls to lay eggs? I'm hoping I didn't get lied to about there age. I was told they are 11 months old. Is there anyway to tell a chickens age?

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[email protected]

June 26, 2020

How exciting, Katrina! We are here for you on this new adventure of yours. Sometimes it's tricky to tell exactly what might be causing them to not lay. It could be age or a variety of environmental factors, such as changes in temperature or light. As long as you continue providing them with food, water, shade, and a comfortable loving environment, we don't doubt they'll be laying again in no time!

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Robin Symons

June 12, 2020

My daughter and her husband have had chickens for years. But where the chickens lived the barn had to come down because a storm. The chickens are a mess. He built a temporary coop until the barn/coop is built. He built a temporary coop. The chickens will eat and drink there but not go in to sleep/ roost. They have never had this problem. (The chickens are on the deck at night....it's a disgusting mess in the morning... ) Do you have any suggestions on how to get the chickens in the coop for the night?

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[email protected]

June 15, 2020

Hi Robin, thank you for reaching out to us. Sometimes change can be difficult, especially if your chickens are not used to their new (temporary) home. Some things you might try to encourage them to go in at night is to turn on a dim light just before dusk so they are drawn in to roost. It's important it's not too bright, otherwise this could prevent them from roosting. You could also encourage them with some food. Sounds like you keep plenty of food and fresh water accessible to them in their coop already, but making sure of this will give them further reason to go in. Finally, ensuring there is plenty of space for all of the chickens in the coop and that the doors are easy for them to get in and out of, should help encourage their return as well. Other than that, it might just take them a little time and encouragement to adjust to their new living conditions. Hopefully, when the barn is restored, they will be eager to get back to their old routine. We hope this helps and wish you all the best with your backyard flock!

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Renate Reisel

May 22, 2020

Good information we just picked up 4 chickens and I need to get information if the need now has or Wood chips

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[email protected]

May 26, 2020

Hi Renate! We are so excited for you to begin raising your own little flock and are here to help you navigate along the way.

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Samara

April 29, 2020

Does your chicken have to have a fenced backyard how do you keep them from running away when you let them out of there coop

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[email protected]

April 30, 2020

Hi there! We do have a large fenced in area for the chickens to roam around in that keeps them from wandering off to far and, even more importantly, keeps the predators away from our girls.

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