Backyard Chickens 101: Getting Started With Laying Hens

Backyard chickens have exploded in popularity. Raising laying hens is a great way to strengthen our relationship to our food and an ideal activity for people locked at home due to the pandemic.

Laying hens make great companions for children, who will likely want to name the birds and bring them tasty treats. Chickens require relatively little daily maintenance and just a little knowledge to get started.

Man feeding chickens in hen house

Preparations for your laying hens

clean water

Chickens need regular access to water. Indeed, the lack of water can create a dramatic drop in egg production and is harmful to their health.

Provide the hens with fresh water daily and clean the canister to ensure it is free of debris or dirt. If your hens put dirt in it, raise it on a block or platform to keep the water clean.

chicken feed

Their diet consists mainly of seeds, plants and animal proteins. Many chicken farmers supply pellets or bulk feed, which cost around $20 for a 50-pound bag or a little more for organic feed.

A chicken eats about a pound and a half of food per week. They tend to eat more in winter than in summer because they burn more calories to stay warm in cold weather. Consider buying organic foods, which should be free of pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and genetically modified ingredients.

Although the chicken feed is a good staple, it is ideal to provide as much roughage as possible with access to the outdoors. Let your hens forage for some of their food. Consider fermenting or at least sprouting the food to increase its digestibility. Make sure your chickens are getting enough calcium and grit by providing crushed oyster shells, granite grit, and even crushed eggshells in a separate container from the food.

Many household food scraps are fine for chickens but avoid dried beans, moldy foods, highly processed foods, citrus fruits, and uncooked potatoes. Hens generally have enough common sense to avoid harmful foods – with the exception of junk food, so keep that away from them.

The henhouse

Most chicken farmers have an enclosed coop to protect the hens from the elements and predators at night. A chicken coop should contain nesting boxes, perches, bedding and a light for the winter months (to help maintain egg production).

If you’re a do-it-yourselfer and have materials on hand, consider building a DIY chicken coop from salvaged materials. Other options include searching Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace for a used chicken coop or buying a kit from a local farm supply store.

Boy feeding hens and chicks in the yard
Although the chicken feed is a good staple, be sure to provide access to the outdoors so your hens can forage for some of their food.

Chicken coop sizing

It is recommended to have at least 2-3 square feet in the coop per bird and at least 8-10 square feet of outdoor space each. Avoid overcrowding as it can promote disease and aggressive behaviors like feather picking. Provide as much outdoor space as possible for the hens to forage and explore. In the fall, after the gardening season is over, let the chickens help clear your beds of unwanted seeds, insects, and damaged produce while spreading soil-enhancing manure.

When sizing the coop, consider how many chickens you want or can handle. Keep in mind that there may be local ordinances that limit the number of chickens you can have in your yard. In many areas, there is a limit of around six hens and roosters are prohibited. Also, the ideal hen to rooster ratio is 12 to 1. Beware of having too many roosters as this can damage the hens.

The number of eggs you get will depend on the age of the hens, their general health, breed, and other factors. Some will lay one egg per day while others will provide one or two per week. A typical hen lays two eggs every three days. In northern regions, egg production can drop dramatically during the winter months without artificial light in the barn. Laying hens are most productive for the first two years, although some experts say much older chickens can still provide an abundant supply.

Keep predators away

It is strongly recommended that you build a chicken coop that safely locks the chickens in for the night.

Dogs, foxes, coyotes, hawks, skunks, possums, minks, cats, rats, owls, and raccoons can eat eggs, feed themselves, and even chickens. Store feed safely to avoid attracting unwanted wildlife near the coop. One of the benefits of having roosters is that they can help protect the flock.

cooperative bedding

Line the coop and nesting boxes with bedding material, such as wood shavings or straw.

Used litter can be composted for a season or two and then applied to garden beds to augment the soil. Keep bedding dry to avoid moisture and odor problems. Change bedding as needed, depending on type and thickness.

Starting your flock of chickens

Selecting a breed

Consider the breed of laying hen you want, based on your climate, color, size and quantity of eggs desired, temperament of the bird, noise level, and appearance. There are a variety of ways to start.

You can get fertilized eggs and hatch them using an egg incubator or even a broody hen. You can buy chicks and raise them in a brooder with a lamp for warmth. Similarly, you can buy pullets old enough to live without a brooder. Keep in mind that chicks need starter feed, a higher protein version of chicken feed. Pullets usually start laying between 16 and 24 weeks.

Buy the chicks

There are many ways to buy chickens including through a local hardware store, farm supply store, Facebook Marketplace, hatchery, Craigslist, mail order, or from a local farm. The price varies greatly depending on the breed and age of the bird. Purchasing fertilized eggs may be the cheapest way to start if you already have an incubator and brooder or dedicated broody hen.

Once you’ve covered all the basics, there are lots of other fun things to explore, including how to boost egg production and source local foods. Stay tuned for future articles with helpful backyard chicken ideas and tips.