As people stayed home during COVID-19 quarantining last year, chicken hatcheries were flooded with orders from families who decided to try their hand at raising poultry.
Matt Yemma and his fiance Elodie Kremer are among those who made backyard chickens their pandemic project. The Norwalk, Connecticut, couple had already been discussing the possibility of adding chickens to their property, and when a stay-at-home order was issued, the timing felt right.
“It’s definitely work, but it’s definitely enjoyable,” Kremer says. Their flock includes 15 chickens and three ducks, and in the past year, the couple has had to contend with challenges ranging from mud to a rat infestation. Still, they say that with their high-stress jobs, raising chickens is a nice change of pace and something they have no plans to give up.
If you’re interested in learning how to raise backyard chickens yourself, here are 10 things you should know:
1. Your community might not allow backyard chickens.
2. Chickens can be obtained via mail order, rented or rescued.
3. You don’t need a rooster to get eggs.
4. Expect to spend hundreds on a coop and start-up supplies.
5. Chickens will eat table scraps but prepare to buy feed, too.
6. Wild animals will want to eat your chickens.
7. They will destroy your yard.
8. You can’t go on vacation and leave your chickens unattended.
9. Hens stop laying eggs as they get older.
10. You aren’t going to save money on eggs.
Your community might not allow backyard chickens.
Local ordinances vary significantly, with some municipalities outright banning chickens while others have minimum lot size requirements or cap the number of birds allowed. In many cases, roosters are prohibited.
Some communities even encourage urban and suburban flocks. For instance, Austin, Texas, goes so far as to offer rebates on chicken coops and holds free chicken-keeping classes.
People also need to check with their homeowners association before bringing home chicks, says Lauren Greenwood, founder of Austin-based AskMrFrisky.org, a nonprofit animal rescue and advocacy group. Many HOAs have their own rules about chickens, and these will trump local ordinances.
Chickens can be obtained via mail order, rented or rescued.
If you don’t have a farm supply store nearby, there are other ways to get chicks.
Bob Rogers of Lowell, Michigan, gets his chickens via mail order. His family has been keeping backyard chickens since 2013 and currently has a flock of 14 hens. Rogers orders his chicks from the Townline Poultry Farm in Zeeland, Michigan, where he pays about $2 per chick plus more for shipping. When the chicks arrive at his local post office, he receives a call to arrange for their pickup.
Another option is to rent chickens. Dianne Saxe, an environmental attorney and deputy leader of the Ontario Green Party in Canada, took that route when she learned she was in one of the wards designated for Toronto’s UrbanHensTO pilot program. For a CA$500 fee, a company supplied her with a coop, two chickens and feed.
Chickens can also be found on sites such as Craigslist or through animal rescues. “There’s now a huge market for rehoming chickens,” Greenwood says. These birds often come from people who learn they are not allowed on their property or who decide having a backyard flock is not for them.
You don’t need a rooster to get eggs.
It’s a common misconception that you need a rooster for hens to lay eggs, Rogers says. Hens will lay eggs without a rooster although their production may be a little higher with one around. A rooster is also needed if you’d like to eventually hatch your own baby chicks.
While roosters can also help protect a flock from predators, many communities prohibit them. Even where they are allowed, you may want to think twice about having one to “make sure your neighbors still like you,” according to Rogers. “They are very loud, and the neighbors hate them,” he says.
Expect to spend hundreds on a coop and start-up supplies.
Chickens aren’t necessarily cheap. Yemma and Kremer estimate they had $500 to $600 in start-up costs, which included heat lamps, bedding, feed and lumber to build a chicken run off an existing shed that was repurposed as a coop.
While you can learn how to build a chicken coop online, “unless you’re a real diva with a drill, it can be tough,” Greenwood says. Premade chicken coops can be purchased from farm supply stores and online retailers such as Chewy.com for several hundred dollars.
Chickens will eat table scraps but prepare to buy feed, too.
For the Rogers family, one perk of having chickens is that they eat a significant amount of table scraps which helps reduce waste in the household. However, chickens shouldn’t live off scraps alone since they need a certain amount of calcium to produce eggs with strong shells.
“We try to stick as much as possible to the feed because it has all the nutrients they need,” Kremer says. She and Yemma estimate they spend $15 a week for a 50-pound bag of feed, and they break even on that cost by selling farm fresh eggs. Rogers spends a similar amount with a 40-pound bag of feed selling for $17 in his area of Michigan.
Wild animals will want to eat your chickens.
When asked about the challenges of raising backyard chickens, Saxe says “keeping the chickens alive” is a chief concern. That’s a sentiment shared by other owners.
“Every predator out there wants to eat them,” Yemma says. Dogs, coyotes, raccoons, hawks and more have their eye on a chicken dinner.
That’s one reason some chicken owners choose not to give their chickens free range in the yard. Instead, they build runs where chickens are contained and can quickly retreat to the coop as needed. However, even that doesn’t deter all predators, and Greenwood suggests covering chicken wire with hardware cloth — which is a wire mesh — for added protection.
It isn’t only the chickens that pests are after. Yemma and Kremer dealt with a significant rat infestation when the rodents started tunneling underground and into the chicken run to feast on feed. An addition of a cat to the property took care of the problem, though.
They will destroy your yard.
Another reason to keep chickens contained is the damage they do to a yard, since they are constantly scratching and searching for bugs on the ground.
Saxe, who previously had chickens in the country, gave up her two city chickens after about five months. One difficulty she encountered was trying to move the coop regularly as suggested. With only two relatively small grassy areas available, there were not enough places to move the chickens so they wouldn’t destroy the yard. Plus, her coop had small wheels that dug up the ground every time it was pulled to a new location.
“We eventually gave up trying to move it,” Saxe says. Those with a large yard may have a different experience, but on a city lot, she found it difficult to keep both chickens and a green lawn.
You can’t go on vacation and leave your chickens unattended.
The pandemic was the perfect time to learn how to raise backyard chickens since many people were home all day, every day. That made it easy to take care of daily tasks such as collecting eggs, letting chickens out of the coop in the morning and enclosing them at night.
“They need (care) every day, whether it’s convenient or not,” Saxe says. Owners who are going away, even for short trips, will need to find someone to come and care for their chickens to ensure they are safe and fed.
Hens stop laying eggs as they get older.
Chickens can live six years or more, but they won’t lay eggs that entire time. “They only lay eggs really well for a couple years,” Rogers says. After about age 2 1/2, don’t expect many eggs, and they will eventually dry up completely.
For that reason, Rogers says to always ask how old a chicken is prior to accepting one offered through an online marketplace or classified ads site. Many people look to rehome chickens once they stop producing eggs, and new owners need to understand what they are getting.
As for the best backyard chickens for eggs, Yemma and Kremer say Rhode Island Reds are their most consistent layers. Some of the more ornamental backyard chicken breeds, such as Silkies, add character to a flock but don’t necessarily lay a lot of eggs.
You aren’t going to save money on eggs.
There are many reasons to get backyard chickens — Rogers, Yemma and Kremer all say they enjoy having a mini-farm on their property — but saving money should not be one of them.
“Don’t expect (chickens) to be a cheaper way to get food than buying it at the grocery store,” Saxe says. What’s more, eggs from backyard chickens don’t necessarily taste much different from those in the store, according to Saxe and Rogers, although others may disagree.
Still, there seems to be a consensus that there is something special about being able to collect eggs and eat food you helped raise. Plus, chickens have personalities and keeping them is a hobby enjoyed by people of all ages. “It really is a lot of fun,” Kremer says.
More from U.S. News
10 Things to Know Before You Keep Backyard Chickens originally appeared on usnews.com