Complete Beginners’ Guide to Raising Chickens

woman feeding her chickens in their chicken coop
Learn everything you need to know about starting your first chicken coop! In this article, you’ll learn about planning a chicken coop, choosing a flock, and caring for your birds. There are a lot of moving parts that go into raising a happy, healthy, productive flock of hens. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the information out there, but luckily, chickens actually aren’t that complicated. After all, humans have been raising them for thousands of years, so caring for them can’t be rocket science. In this article, we’ll go over some of the most important things to know to help you prepare to take on your first flock. Chicken Coops Having the right chicken coop is the best way to ensure the health and safety of your flock. A good coop will keep your girls safe from predators, help prevent the spread of parasites and respiratory diseases, give them a place to sleep and lay their eggs, and shelter them from the weather. There is a wide variety of coops available to buy online, either as prefabricated pieces or ready-made kits. Alternatively, you can use chicken coop plans and build the coop yourself. Whichever route you choose, the key features of your coop will be the same.
  • Perches - These are where your birds will sleep every night. To make them appealing, make sure they are the highest available surface in the coop - chickens feel safest from predators when they sleep high off the ground. Plan for about 8-10 inches per bird.
  • Nesting boxes - Nesting boxes are where your hens will lay their eggs every day. They don’t have to be literal boxes, but they should be large, comfy, and easy for you to access; many coop designs have small outer doors that open directly into the nesting boxes. You should have at least one nesting box per three hens, but err on the side of more, not fewer, in case one of your hens goes broody.
  • Vents - A good ventilation system will provide your birds with the circulating, fresh air they need to keep them safe from respiratory infections, which are common among chickens. Sufficient ventilation will also stop your coop from overheating in the summer. Every coop should have at least one pair of vents near the roof that stay open all year, allowing fresh air to circulate above the perches, so the birds don’t get too cold in winter. Depending on how hot it gets in your region, you can add as many other closeable vents as you need.
  • Protection - Coops also protect your birds from predation. To do this, they need to be sturdily built and frequently checked for warping or cracks. It’s also a good idea to clear away any brush or long grasses near the coop that might provide a hiding place.
Chicken Coop Runs The run is the fenced-in outdoor space where your chickens will likely spend most of their time. Some chicken keepers, especially in urban areas, aren’t able to have an outdoor run, and that’s ok. You can still raise happy and healthy birds this way, as long as their coop is big enough that they can still get exercise, and they have toys or other stimulants to occupy their minds. Other keepers choose not to have a run at all, preferring to let their birds free range. This is a great option if you live in an area without too many natural predators. If you are able to have a run, you should plan for about 10 square feet of space per bird, but bigger is usually better. You also don’t need to strip your run of plant life. Research the plants that are growing there to make sure none of them are toxic to chickens, but otherwise, your girls will be happy to munch on and explore them, and the plants will also attract bugs for them to eat. Make sure your run has strong fencing on all sides to keep out predators. Chicken wire is fine for the upper portions, but the bottom foot (at least) should be reinforced with finer hardware mesh. This mesh should also be buried at least six inches underground to keep out burrowers. The Age of Your Chickens The age your birds are when you get them will have a major impact on their relationship with you. The younger they are when you get them, the better you’ll be able to bond with them and forge a stronger, more pet-like relationship. One option is to order eggs and hatch them yourself. This can be great fun, but it also requires buying an incubator, carefully monitoring it, committing to turning the eggs multiple times a day, and accepting that you won’t have a 100% hatch rate. You’ll also have no way of knowing if you’ll be hatching roosters or hens. A better option for first timers is to buy chicks, which many hatcheries actually ship directly to your door, usually with some kind of live arrival guarantee. Once you have your chicks, you will have to set up an indoor enclosure with a heat plate for a few months until they’re ready to go in the coop. During this time, they’ll also need extra monitoring and will not lay eggs. However, raising from chicks is the best way to have adult birds who are actively attached to you. If you’re more interested in production than personality, you can also buy pullets - adolescents who are just on the cusp of starting to lay. This is the best option if you want birds who are clearly livestock and not pets. You also won’t need to invest in any specialized equipment or feed, as the pullets can move into the coop and eat layer feed right away. Another option that might be available in your area is adopting adult rescue hens. These are usually “spent” hens from industrial farms who are past their prime, but still able to lay. They’ll be cheaper than prime chicks or pullets. Chicken Feed What you feed your chickens is largely a matter of choice, so long as they’re getting the nutrients and variety they need. The basic staple of a healthy hen diet is a layer feed, usually one that’s about 16% protein or more. In addition to this, you may choose to give active layers extra calcium carbonate, which they can use to help develop strong, healthy eggshells. Most chicken keepers do this by putting out oyster shells where the hens can free feed, so they can choose to eat as much as they need. Another important element of their diet is grit. Grit refers to small bits of dirt or rocks that essentially function as a bird’s teeth, helping to grind up their food in their stomachs. If your birds free range, they’ll be able to pick up dirt on their own as they forage. If they have a small run or don’t get outside much, you may choose to provide grit in much the same way as calcium carbonate. Chicken keeping is a lot of work, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. Hopefully, armed with this information, you now feel ready to reap all the benefits of a wonderful flock of happy, healthy birds!