Is your dream waking up to the sound of clucking and just nipping outside to collect a couple of eggs for breakfast, still warm from the chicken coop?
For many people who want to reduce food miles, and who are working towards a life of self-sufficiency, raising chickens can certainly improve your credentials. “The most reliable source of food we have is what we produce at home,” says Richard Griffiths of the British Poultry Council, and nowadays with prices soaring, keeping chickens seems like a very attractive option.
However, before you spend a lot of money buying hens, an expensive chicken coop, and the feed you must realise that rising at dawn every day is actually part of the deal!
Read on for helpful considerations from a seasoned backyard chicken owner to help you decide if poultry farming is for you.
What You Need to Consider
In the UK, in most areas (apart from inner-city urban areas), you can have up to 50 chickens (for egg production) before you need to get a licence from DEFRA. However, your lease or mortgage documents may stipulate no live pets so check this first of all.
Another factor is the noise and odour that may occur with a large flock, particularly if you have a rooster.
In the US, every state has different regulations so check this before you go even one step further.
If you want to raise chickens for meat, there are further regulations to consider too. At the moment, due to avian bird flu, no chickens should be running around outside so you will need to keep informed.
Eggs, meat, or chicks?
The best-selling breed in the UK is the Sussex, followed closely by the Rhode Island Red but there are other popular breeds such as Leghorn, Orpington, and Barred Plymouth Rock. The variety of chicken you choose will determine the colour, size, and shape of your eggs. Most hens lay from spring through to autumn but the Icelandic and Brahma breeds start to produce eggs in the autumn, laying eggs in the colder season.
So if you want a continuous supply, choose your hens carefully, based on timing and quantity of eggs. The chart at the end of this article will help you to decide. Most chickens lay for about 3 years, and then the number of eggs reduces over time. If you want meat, consider buying a dual-purpose bird, that is, one that produces eggs first, then becomes meat. For small chicks, you need a lot of time, a warm nesting area, and a helpful Mother Hen.
Where will your hens live?
Coops or enclosures come in various shapes, sizes, and prices. On an unlimited budget, there are excellent, safe coops with wire enclosures so that your chicks go indoors at night and have the run of the garden during the day. They like to dig and pick at grass so that area will be stripped bare. There are coops you can move around the garden easily and your lawn mowing days have come to an end!
If you want real self-sufficiency, then build your own. Use any available materials, such as leftover building bricks, old doors, window frames, wood, and chicken wire with a small patch of grass. You need to allow a nesting area for each bird indoors, so they get used to laying eggs in the same place for the first weeks when you introduce them.
For chicks, you also need to think about insulation and warmth in winter, when they are born. How many chickens you keep will depend on the space available and the size of your enclosure. A good measure is to allow at least 2-3 square feet per chicken in the enclosed space and be generous with the outside space too. Allow 8-9 feet per bird so they can run around freely.
Safety from predators
The enclosure needs to be secure from predators like foxes (and raccoons if they inhabit your area), who can destroy a whole flock in an hour, causing great distress not only to the birds but also to your family and your profits, so make sure it is sturdy and secure. I advise fitting the wire underground, weighing it down with a plank or stones, and then covering this with earth again.
This will discourage foxes from digging under the wire to find a way through. However, if you plan on moving the enclosure regularly, this is an arduous task. My chickens stay in a large permanent outdoor area with branches to perch on, weeds to feed on, and plenty of worms, caterpillars, and insects.
Feeding Your Chickens
The food you feed your chickens must contain the essential nutrients, especially when they are young and growing. Commercially-produced feed helps egg production and 16% protein and some calcium is essential for egg production. If no eggs are produced, it may be that the chicken is a late starter, or that you need to supplement with treats, greens, weeds, and kitchen scraps.
My birds always enjoy any extra sweetcorn grown on my allotment and they adore pecking at pumpkin remains too. If budget is a concern, then you may decide to choose smaller birds, that eat less. Bantam chickens are bred to be smaller than full-size chickens and may suit an urban backyard well.
Bedding needs to be changed regularly to remove droppings, and to avoid disease. Can you provide hay or straw yourself? Most hens like to rearrange the bedding material into a circular shape resembling a nest, that fits their body size. Each hen gets used to its own space although if there is a new hen, it may find some difficulty getting established inside the coop. Some coops provide individual nesting areas that can be adjusted. Soft material encourages the hen to sit to lay eggs and if you decide to have chicks, then they will need smaller spaces to cuddle up together.
Daily fresh water is essential so make sure you factor this in if the coop/enclosure is a distance from a water source. You can buy specialized water containers in DIY stores or just use a container like a basin and keep it filled up in hot weather. It will need regular cleaning, as chickens frequently drop waste on it.
In some wild areas, chickens can drink from a pond but remember if chickens are free-range, they will gobble up everything in their path. So a route to a pond is fine but I would be reluctant to allow chickens to run wild over a large area because there will be droppings everywhere and very little left of any precious plants.
Rise and shine!
Somebody has to let these chickens out every morning and lock them up again at night so your social life can be restricted at those hours. Whenever you plan on taking holidays (or even get delayed at work), you will need somebody to take over all the jobs you normally do. Remember that chickens need your time. In summer, nobody minds waking up at the crack of dawn, to allow the birds out.
The chickens still need to be looked after when Jack Frost is decorating your garden, so make sure your wellies and warm coat live right next to the back door. Try to interest children in cleaning out the coop and providing water and food. Teenagers may enjoy selling eggs as a business idea.
If your flock includes a rooster, you will certainly not need that alarm clock because everybody in the closest streets will hear it. A rooster is not essential if you only want eggs or pets, but if you plan on raising chicks, you will need one to visit. An alternative is to buy chicks from a supplier and raise them from an early age.
Pecking order and learning about common illnesses
The meaning of “hen-pecked” is so obvious in a chicken coop. Some breeds tend to dominate while others are more gentle (or smaller) and usually end up getting the last pickings of the food or treats.
The largest hen usually has the first choice of food, treats, and the sunniest position in the garden as well as the best nesting area. Pecking happens physically so you need to keep an eye on your birds. If you spot bald spots or bleeding areas, other hens may literally be pecking them.
I often scatter the first food in one spot and then drop a little extra to the hens lower down the pecking order, waiting patiently for their turn.
There are some obvious signs that a chicken is ill. Diarrhoea and worms are common, leg mites may find chicken legs and there may be an issue with thorns in feet, due to scratching the earth and in bushes. The cold can give chickens frostbite and this causes the comb and wattles of your chickens to turn black.
The wattles, (the red flaps below the beak) are often indicators of bad health and when a new hen is introduced, the others tend to peck at the wattles so they may bleed. Learn to spread a layer of Vaseline on any new chicken to protect the comb and wattles and to keep a close eye until the order has been settled. Make sure there is a vet with knowledge of poultry nearby because many vets are used to cat and dog problems but may have less experience with claw infections.
As you gain more experience you can avoid many common problems simply by checking for worms and insect pests, dealing with diarrhoea, and reacting promptly.
If you plan on raising and selling young chicks, you may need two separate enclosures for roosters and hens and you need to make sure the chicks can keep warm too. So factor in an enclosure with insulation, or some heating for chicks or choose breeds that can handle the UK winter chill. Local schools can be an excellent market for new chicks as they like to teach children about looking after animals.
Best Selling Chicken Coops
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- Anti-Rust & Stable: PawGiant chicken coop has anti-rust coating on each wire, which effectively prolongs the service life and reduces wear, corrosion and fading during use. The chicken run comes with 20 6-inch long anchors nailed into the ground for a firm grip on the ground when used outdoors, enhancing the stability of the chicken cage and keeping it in place even in high winds.
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Last update on 2023-07-25 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
8 chicken Varieties
Dual-purpose birds supply eggs but can also be eaten. Sussex is a good variety for meat that also lay eggs throughout the winter. You can have brown, cream, yellow and white eggs from different breeds and these can be fun for individualized presents.
Silkies have wonderfully-soft, feathery foliage but their meat (and bones) is black, which may surprise guests on the dinner plate! Silkies produce small eggs and about 160 per year while a Leghorn variety will usually provide over 250.
The average life of a chicken ranges from 4-10 years and they will probably only lay eggs for 2-3 years so Sussex and Dorking could be eaten after their egg-laying days are over.
However, in my experience, nobody in the family fancies a pet for dinner so you may need to sell these or allow them to retire in peace, while producing the odd egg from time to time.
8 varieties of chickens to consider.
|Breed||Character||Eggs per year|
|Egg size and colour||Climate preferred||Meat||Pets|
|Very gentle birds who get pecked often and never retaliate.||130-150|
months. Slow to start laying.
|Medium- large, brown||Great for cold climates.||Yes. Dual-purpose.||Yes. Really gentle and enjoy being held.|
|Docile, curious, confident.|
Lay through the winter
|Hardy in most areas in the UK.||Yes. When they stop laying, they tend to put on weight for meat.||Good family pet.|
|Friendly but extremely noisy. Can also be aggressive.||230-250||Large white.||Any.||Not ideal. “Scrawny” is one breeder’s description.||Not for the faint-hearted!|
|Rhode Island Red||Noisy but docile. Rooster – aggressive||250-300.|
One of the best layers.
|Brown||Any.||Yes.||Yes, but not the rooster.|
|Gentle, docile hens.||200-280.||Large brown.||Any.||Yes.||Yes. Great pets.|
|(Barred) Plymouth Rock||Gentle. Clucks quietly.||200.||Large brown.||Any.||Yes. Dual-purpose.||Excellent pets who like cuddles.|
|Calm and friendly.||160||Small white or cream.||Lay in cold weather.||Unusual. Black meat and bones.||Yes. Fantastic fluffy pet.|
|Calm and friendly. Excellent in free-range conditions. Small size.||100-180 but start laying as early as 4 months.||Small cream or white.||Lay in cold weather.||No.||Love being held and stroked. Come to ask for treats.|
- Get friends to save egg boxes and give them a discount on egg prices if they bring their own packaging. Start saving your egg boxes now!
- For readers with teenagers, having chickens can be an attractive way for them to start selling eggs to friends and neighbours for pocket money. Encourage children and teenagers to change the water, clean the coop, and sell eggs. In the UK, this could also be an excellent project for the Duke of Edinburgh award.