When I decided to start raising chickens I spent an entire year learning about chicken farming including how to build a coop ourselves. I’m so glad I did!
I almost decided to spontaneously go and get the chicks and figure it out as we went. That would have been a disaster! I had no idea how fast they grow and how much you really do need to know, especially with baby chicks. Even with a year to plan we were running out of time to finish our coop before the chickens were too big for the brooder.
If you’re hoping to add chickens to your homestead (whatever that looks like) there are some important things to consider before running to the feed store to grab baby chicks (or even older hens).
Raising Chickens: Before getting your chickens
If you’re going to start with baby chicks you have to be prepared. Those little buggers grow FAST! If you’re getting older hens (more on making this choice below) then you’ll still need to be prepared.
Your chickens need somewhere to live out of the rain, wind, snow, etc. They grow fast so you need to have this worked out from the beginning. If you have a barn or a shed you can easily convert, you’re good. keep in mind that your chickens need 4 sq ft of space each inside the coop AND 10 sq ft of run space (an enclosed outdoor area) minimum. If you don’t already have a barn, you’ll need to build or buy a coop. You have a few options.
Chicken coop kits and prebuilts
If you aren’t a handy person or just simply have more money than time to invest, you may want to buy your coop. Chicken coop kits are convenient and you can pick whatever style works for you. You may even save some money buying a kit over buying materials to build your own coop. You can also find coops on craigslist from local crafters which are beautiful but a little more expensive.
DIY chicken coops
We built our own chicken coop based on plans I created. We wanted 4 chickens but made a coop big enough for 6 (and that was a good thing because our first order of chicks required a 6 bird minimum). If you’re looking for inspiration or plans for your own coop check out this list of 55 DIY coops.
This is another possibility for those of you wanting just a few birds or that live in a more temperate climate. Basically, a chicken tractor is a chicken coop on wheels that you can move around. This is a really great choice for urban or suburban farmers because you can continually give your chickens access to new space without actually letting them out. You can also build them yourself.
Nesting boxes are a safe place for your chickens to lay their eggs. You need nesting boxes as soon as your chickens begin to lay eggs. The general rule of thumb is that you need 1 nesting box for every 3-5 chickens. However, I’ve had 6 chickens all lay in the same box with just a random egg here and there in the other box. They will practically stand in line to use the box that other eggs are in!
Our nesting boxes are made out of scrap wood. You can use just about anything, from plastic totes to old milk crates. Don’t forget to line them with soft bedding.
In order to keep your chickens healthy and happy in their coop you must have a way of dealing with their droppings. Bedding is material that you lay down on the floor to absorb moisture. Straw, sand, or wood shavings are the most popular choices.
Straw has been used traditionally as bedding because it’s easy to find and transport. I prefer not to use straw because It may have caused one of my chickens to get an impacted crop, but many people use it without issues.
Sand is becoming more and more attractive as a bedding choice. Sand has been proven to be better than pine shavings at reducing moisture in the coop, as well as reducing bacterial and fugal counts. I’ve also heard that it can keep the chickens feet cleaner, and cleaner feet means cleaner eggs.
I currently use pine shavings and they work great. I sprinkle some on top of the old bedding and it absorbs moisture and smells. I also use the deep litter method which means that I leave the old litter to decompose in the coop (with fresh litter on top to absorb moisture and smells). Deep litter helps keep the coop warm in the winter too!
If you’re starting with baby chicks, once you have a coop available (or a plan to build one quickly) you can work on getting the brooder setup.
A brooder is a place where baby chicks stay warm and grow. You can go as simple as a cardboard box or as complicated as you want. We’ve always used large cardboard boxes and cut and taped them together to make them bigger as needed. We also place some plastic mesh over the top so they don’t fly out. I’ve heard of watermelon crates from the grocery store working well.
You’ll also need a brooder light or heater. I like the Ecoglow because there’s no risk of fire, unlike heat lamps and bulbs. I also like that the chicks can self regulate their heat (by going under when cold and coming out when warm). With heat lamps the brooder box may get too cold or too warm. I prefer a low stress setup so the Ecoglow is what I use and recommend.
When planning your brooder, find a place that is not going to be too cold. Even with the heater your chicks might get too cold if they are in a place that drops below 50-60 degrees.
- Box of some sort (cardboard, wood, plastic tote)
- Plastic mesh for the top
- Food and water
- Heat lamp or Ecoglow (may be cheaper on their site)
Food and water
Chicks need different food from laying hens. Chick crumbles, also called starter or starter and grower is a nutritionally whole feed without added calcium. Stick with organic to avoid GMO corn and soy. Some chick food is medicated and some is not. The point of medicated feed is to ward off coccidiosis. Many backyard and small scale chicken farmers skip the medicated feed with the understanding that coccidiosis is more of a problem in crowded and large operations. If you choose to skip the medicated feed be sure to keep the brooder very clean and dry.
When your Chickens are 16-18 weeks old (or if you opted for pullets instead of chicks) you should begin giving them layer feed, which has added calcium they need to build eggshells.
Chicks (and hens) need lots of fresh water. They also like to poop in the water a lot! You might wonder why you need a fancy feeder or waterer when you have a cat dish that would work just as well. When your chicks dump the food half the time and poop in the water the other half you’ll know! There are some DIY choices though if you don’t want to buy them.
Also take a look at the feeder and waterers we made in our coop building post.
- Chick feeder
- Chick waterer
- Hen feeder (or toss food on the ground for them to scratch)
- Hen waterer
- Organic starter/grower feed (start with a 50 pound bag for 4 or more chicks)
- Organic Layer pellets
Get your Chicks or Pullets
You have many choices to make when deciding to start your backyard flock. I know this can feel overwhelming but you don’t have to know exactly what you want. It’s just good to know there are choices and if presented with one, which choice is best for you.
One choice you have to make is baby chicks or pullets (egg laying age).
Benefits of baby chicks
- They are so cute!
- You get to watch them grow.
- You can pick from a variety of breeds.
- You can socialize them early. If you handle them early you are more likely to be able to handle them later.
- Did I mention they are so cute! (and great for a homeschooling lesson)
Benefits of Pullets (older chickens)
- You get eggs right away
- You know they are indeed hens and not roosters
- Less startup cost (brooder setup, feed while they are growing, etc.)
- They are less needy and delicate
I have always gotten chicks, partly because I have small kids that love them, but also because they are so easy to find.
Hatchery vs. local breeder vs. local homesteader
You also have to decide whether to get your chickens from a hatchery (at the feed store or in the mail) or if you want to find someone local who hatched their own chicks.
Benefits of hatchery chicks
- Easy to find, easy to order
- Heritage breeds available
- You can be about 90% sure you are getting hens (other places sell a mix of both)
Benefits of local breeder
- You support the local economy (though they are hard to find)
- highest quality heritage breeds
Benefits of local homesteader
- Support a fellow homesteader
- May be organic, unmedicated, etc.
- May be a more sustainable and ethical business practice (less likely to kill oversupply)
I have always gotten my chickens from a hatchery at my local feed store. I can’t say this is the best way to do it and I often feel bad about the poor animal treatment I’m supporting. The thing is, finding local chicks or pullets is actually very difficult! Ideally I would find someone locally who has healthy chickens to get chicks from in the future. I also would love to have a self sustaining flock, where I can let a broody hen do her thing and hatch some youngins!
When choosing chicken breeds you have to take into account the climate you live in as well as what you want (eggs, meat, both?). Up here in NH the winters are cold so I stick with cold hardy chickens. I’ve had Ameraucanas, Buff Orpingtons, Black Austrolorps, Rhode Island Reds, and Rainbows (though I don’t recommend the rainbow because it’s a hybrid). Other cold hardy breeds include:
- Easter Egger
- Jersey Giant
- New Hampshire Red
- Plymouth Rock
Generally speaking, you’ll notice it’s difficult to find chickens that aren’t suited to your climate unless you order online and have them shipped. Your local feed store and your local homesteader are likely to have chickens that are going to survive and thrive in your climate.
I’ve also found that choosing a breed is a matter of getting them and seeing if you like their temperament (or how often they lay, etc.)
- Make sure you have housing squared away before getting your chickens (4 sq ft interior and 10 sq ft exterior per bird.
- Be sure you have the right feed and proper waterer.
- Build a brooder if needed.
- Use bedding to keep the coop clean and chickens healthy.
- Choose your chickens.