Fresh omelets made from eggs laid in your own backyard? Um, yes please! Raising chickens for eggs has a number of benefits for families, plus the added bonus of the picturesque sight of hens scratching and the meditative *cluck-cluck* floating from out back. Whether you wish to keep egg-laying flocks or adopt a rooster and hatch your own chicks, keeping chickens has many benefits for families of young children.
Why Raise Chickens Anyway?
Raising animals teaches children about the responsibility of caring for living creatures (gentle handling, regular feeding and cleaning). This, in turn, teaches kindness and how their actions have consequences for, in their case, dependent little creatures like chicks. Raising chickens also has the added benefit of showing children how our lives can be slowed down, more minimalistic, and even (relatively) self-sufficient. Not to mention that you also receive free fertilizer for your garden and fresh eggs for your kitchen. Before you get chickens the question you need to ask yourself is the same as for any other animal in your care: Are you willing to put in the time and effort to keep them safe and healthy? Once you decide that you are, getting started is the fun part!
The Basics of a Chicken Coop
Before you bring your chickens home, make sure you have a safe place for them. They will need protection from the elements as well as from potential predators; such as dogs, cats, foxes, hawks, racoons, and others, depending on where you live. It’s best to place it in the most raised section of your yard to prevent flooding during heavy rain. Choose strong chicken wire from a hardware store to enclose your coop and buy enough to build it at least six feet high (to deter climbing and jumping predators), and to dig 12-18 inches into the ground (to deter digging predators). You can find a easy to understand guide here, free plans here, and drool-worthy examples here.
At a minimum, here’s your checklist:
- A covered area to protect chickens from the heat, cold, wind, and rain.
- A roosting area – use ladders and salvaged branches.
- A nesting area – use wooden boxes at floor level (this lets the baby chicks walk out with Mama hen once they are mature enough).
- Good ventilation.
- A latched door to prevent accidental escapes.
Should You Get a Rooster?
If you live in an urban area, your local council may have already made this decision for you through a ban on roosters. If this is not the case; however, it is helpful to consider the size of your backyard. To introduce a rooster, you need the space and inclination to keep a minimum of five hens, but ideally closer to ten. This is because your rooster will regularly proposition your hens; and fewer hens means the rooster will give more attention to each, which can be stressful for them.
The final question to ask yourself when deciding whether to have a rooster is how involved you wish to be with egg and flock management.
Eggs and Chicks
Hens lay eggs consistently, when healthy, regardless of a rooster’s presence – typically one egg every 24-27 hours. The only difference between eggs is that those laid by hens not accompanied by a rooster will not be fertilized. Fertilized eggs, of course, have the potential to hatch and increase your flock.
This increase in flock is something your family will need to consider. While chicks are adorable at first (and children simply melt for them), they will soon grow into adult birds you will need to keep or find new homes for. Multiple roosters can be kept together while young, but once they grow they will eventually fight for leadership. Unless you have a lot of land and are planning to separate male birds and use them for meat (which is a whole different story!) it’s best to find homes for the roosters born to your hens.
Collecting and Storing Hatching Eggs
If you have a rooster and are interested in hatching chicks, you’ll soon be collecting and storing hatching eggs. This is the practice of collecting eggs and placing them at one time under a broody hen, the idea being to ensure that a hen sits on a comfortable number of eggs (called a clutch) in order to successfully hatch them all at the same time. Too large a clutch results in some eggs inevitably being exposed to the cold or accidentally broken while Mama turns them. A clutch of 10 eggs is generally a good amount.
When collecting fertilized eggs:
- Keep your nesting boxes very clean (bacteria can contaminate a clutch) and remove any eggs laid there at least daily, although preferably twice a day.
- Store your collected eggs out of direct sunlight and in a place that is neither too dry nor too humid. (Between 10º-15º C / 50º-60º F). Keep them in an unused egg carton, pointed end down (this keeps the yoke suspended) and ideally for no more than a week.
- Turn them twice a day. (You’ll see Mama do this naturally – she knows she can’t let that yoke stick to the shell.)
- When a hen shows signs of going broody – such as fluffing up her feathers, obsessively staying in the nesting box, and pecking if you bother her – place the eggs under her at nighttime, when she’s a little calmer.
- She will now incubate them for around 21 days and care for her hatchlings another four to six weeks.
- If a broody hen goes off her clutch you can try slipping the eggs under another broody. If this fails, using an incubator is another option.
Keeping Egg-laying, Free-range Chickens
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Two eggs in the coop today…one in the cat's house. I'll be looking for more egg stashes tomorrow 🙃 On a different note…first speckled brown egg 👌🏼 . . . . #fresheggs #fresheggsdaily #chickeneggs #chickens #chickensofinstagram #insidethecoop #mychickencoop #nestingbox #backyardflock #backyardchickens #🐓 #🥚
Don’t want to hatch chicks? No problem – you can easily keep a flock of egg-laying hens, without a rooster, to enjoy their eggs and company. To prepare for their arrival use the checklist above, including the nesting boxes: Though there won’t be any chicks your hens still need a safe place to lay in; even if you occasionally find eggs under bushes or behind pot plants! Check for eggs at least once a day, making a ritual of going egg-collecting with the kids in the morning and afternoon. Kids love carefully picking up still-warm eggs and carrying them gently back home in a basket. Later, the lessons in slow, healthy living continue in the kitchen as your children help cook with their own free-range eggs!
Feeding and Healthy Chicken Behavior
Happy, healthy chickens need to scratch in the dirt, search for food, roost, and dust bathe. Your flock will need to be fed around three times per day – a job little hands can easily help with, and adore doing! Show your kids how to scatter chicken feed throughout your garden in the morning, and explain that your chickens will find the food as they explore and scratch for bugs and insects. You can also keep a feeder and water dispenser in their enclosure to ensure they never run out of food and water. The cost of chicken feed depends on your flock’s age and nutritional needs, if your flock is free-range, and whether their feed is medicated, non-medicated, or organic. Expect to pay between $10.00 – $30.00 for a 50 pound sack. This is a good financial guide to keeping chickens.
Signs of Illness
A healthy chicken is active, with glossy, smooth feathers and clear eyes and nostrils. Call the vet if one of your flock has droopy wings, difficulty breathing, diarrhea, or if you see discharge coming from its eyes or nose, or a change in the color of their comb (the crest on a the head of poultry) and wattle (the fleshy part below their beaks). An easy way to keep on top of your hens’ health is to incorporate a health watch into your daily feeding ritual, and teach your kids which signs to watch out for.
Extra Tips for Chicken-parents:
- If you need to introduce a new hen to your flock, add her to the henhouse at night while the others are roosting. This way, when the other hens wake up in the morning they’ll accept the newcomer as if she had always been there.
- Hens are only likely to peck tiny fingers when sitting on their eggs or out with their chicks. Families new to keeping chickens will be looking for docile, friendly, generally non-fussy breeds. Good breeds for beginners are Buff Orpingtons, Rhode Island Reds, and Plymouth Rocks.
- If your laying hens start pecking at their eggs, they need extra calcium in their diet. To solve this, add crushed eggshells to their feed (you can make a habit of doing this every now and then to avoid calcium deficiency). The extra calcium will produce harder eggshells in the future which means laying hens are less likely to break them accidentally while turning them.
- Producing eggs requires a lot of energy and protein. Feathers are 80% protein and hens will often eat moulted feathers off the ground. Don’t worry if you see this!
While some planning and preparation is required, the benefits of raising backyard chickens is sure to be worth it. Remember, you can always start small and increase your flock as you feel more comfortable. In the meantime, know that the backyard memories and lessons your children obtain will be as delicious as the fresh eggs your flock gives your family in return.