I receive lots of questions on Instagram @pennypenningtonweeks about how to care for backyard chickens. I love each and every question, because I’ve asked them all myself at one time or another.
Bill and I moved to the farm in 2010. When we moved here there were 3 chicken coops. Two new coops built into what we call the new barn and an older coop down by the blue barn. So we had plenty of room for chickens and Bill got to work filling up our coops.
Bill had grown up tending chickens and was active as a youth in 4-H and the FFA. He was also an Agricultural Education teacher in Illinois for several years. I, on the other hand, had never taken care of chickens. I grew up in town and was in FHA not FFA. So the questions began…. (Bill has been very patient).
After 10 years, I’ve learned quite a bit about chickens. I’m not sure that I will ever catch up to Bill. So, I’ll also give him a chance to respond to each question before pressing the publish button.
So, let’s get started. Below you will find a list of the some of the most frequently asked questions about how to care for backyard chickens that are sent to me in DMs on Instagram.
How to Care for Backyard Chickens
I would love to start raising backyard chickens. But, sadly, I don’t know the least thing about caring for chickens.
Penny: Chickens are a great starter animal for hobby farms and backyard enthusiasts. You’ll need a predator safe coop, so I would start there. Begin by thinking about space available and how many chickens you would like. Before jumping in, you will also need to make sure you have time to check on your flock morning and night—to provide food, water and other basic care. You’ll also need to check on local regulations regarding poultry ownership.
Bill: Compared to a puppy or a kitten, chickens are CHEAP. Most feed stores carry day-old chicks in the spring, and they cost less than $5 each. You can also order chicks from hatcheries, but many of them will require you to buy at least 15. Most Walmart Supercenters now carry chicken feed in their pet food section. I agree with Penny, aggressive dogs, opossums, snakes and raccoons are enemies of the domestic chicken. When thinking about a structure, think about keeping these varmints out and not how to keep your chickens in.
What is the hardest part about raising chicks?
Penny: I personally think the hardest thing is figuring out which breed to get and how many. They’re all so cute! As far as caring for your chicks, it is not difficult. They need food, water and heat. They also need to be safe from predators which is a bit more difficult. A secure coop is key.
Bill: The hardest part is waiting for them to lay! A pullet, female chicken that has yet to lay an egg, will need to be about 6 months old before she will start laying. You feed, feed, feed, and wait, wait, wait, before she will make you breakfast.
How many chickens should I have? Is just one or two ok?
Penny: Chickens are social animals and the pecking order is a real thing. Be sure to start with at least three chickens.
Bill: Many municipalities will limit the number of chickens you can have in your backyard, check that first if you live in town. There are ups and downs of egg production, so think about getting an egg every other day from each hen. Penny has eggs everyday for breakfast so she puts lots of pressure on the girls to produce.
Do you really need a rooster?
Penny: Love this question. It was one of the first lessons Bill taught me. You don’t need a rooster. Please don’t tell Max, our rooster, but the hens will lay eggs without a rooster being part of the flock.
Bill: If you live in town you probably do not want a rooster, many ordinances prohibit roosters. That’s funny to me, neighborhoods put up with dogs barking all night but can not stand the sound of a rooster crowing. If you want to hatch your own eggs many hatcheries and breeders will ship hatching (fertile) eggs. We have done this several times and had good percentages of chicks hatching. FYI, the USPS ships baby chicks and hatching eggs.
Do chickens get sick?
Penny: Chickens are generally healthy animals. Coccidiosis is the most common illness you will encounter. Feed your chicks a medicated starter feed to help control for coccidiosis. Bill occasionally deals with bumblefoot, as well.
Bill: If your dog or cat gets sick you can’t leave the vet office without a hit to your budget. If a chicken gets sick (and you were not attached), you are out about $10. We had a couple of chickens get bumblefoot, a sore on the bottom of their feet. Now we make sure they have something soft, dirt, wood chips or straw, to walk on instead of concrete.
Are the fancy breeds more difficult in any way? Like health, space required, etc.?
Penny: The fancy or heritage breeds are not any more difficult to care for than more standard breeds. Breeds do have different temperaments, and some are better layers. So, you will need to decide what is the right balance for you. Our New Hampshire chickens (our rooster and hens) have a great temperament but don’t lay daily. I think they’re beautiful and I love the light brown eggs the hens lay.
Bill: There are some breeds which go broody more often than others. We had Barnevelders, beautiful chickens, lovely dispositions, but every one of the hens wanted to sit on and hatch eggs—we call that going “broody”. When they go broody, they stop laying and want to sit on a clutch of eggs. And, then you have to go to the store to buy eggs. It is unusual for any of the egg laying hybrids (Cinnamon Queens, Golden Comets, Black or Red Sex Links, ISA Browns, etc.) to go broody. Another consideration is size. I like our New Hampshire chickens who are hefty enough that while they can fly a bit, they can’t get off the ground high enough to scale a four foot fence.
What should I feed my chickens? Where can I buy feed?
Penny: There are lots of options for purchasing feed. Your local feed stores will carry what you need. You can also buy feed at large chain stores like Tractor Supply, Atwoods and even Walmart.
Bill: I agree with Penny, buy a complete feed, it has everything your chickens need for their growth and development. Usually you will need a starter-grower feed for about the first 8 weeks. It is a little higher in protein. Then switch to a layer feed. Scratch grains and mealworms are snacks and you should keep them to a minimum. Like our own diets, those are high in carbs and your girls need protein to make eggs.
How do I prevent rats when I have backyard chickens?
Penny: Frank, our cat, is charged with taking care of our rats. I recommend that you have as many barn cats as it takes!
Bill: Keep your feed in sealed containers so rats do not have access. And, like Penny said, a good barn cat will help.
How are you going to introduce the chicks to the older hens?
Penny: This is a great question! It is very important to keep the chicks safe from the hens. We will keep the new chicks in a separate coop until they are fully grown.
Bill: We have separate areas for growing chickens and laying hens. If you have limited space consider keeping a few hens for 3 or 4 years and then repopulating with new chicks.
How do you protect your backyard chickens from foxes and other predators?
Penny: We worry mostly about predators in overnight. To keep your chickens safe you must have a coop that prevents predators from getting inside. We also let our chickens free-range during the day when we’re working in the garden. Predators typically will not come around if we’re in sight.
Bill: There are lots of woods around us and bobcats and coyotes are not shy about sneaking an easy meal. If we aren’t out in the barn, our chickens are confined to their runs. My neighbor who has chickens told me that one day he saw a coyote run through the chicken yard, and grab a chicken without breaking stride.
What do you do with the chickens when the temperatures fall below freezing?
Penny: Chickens are hardy and can handle cold temps, their feathers work great and a heat lamp is not recommended. They will eat more when it is cold to help keep their bodies warm. So be sure to provide plenty of food and water. Bill uses a water heater to prevent the water from freezing. Also, you will need to winterize the coop. Be sure there are no drafts, there is plenty of dry bedding, and the coop is ventilated.
Bill: Everything I read on this subject says not to heat the coop. Provide clean water and a place for the chickens to get out the wind and they will be ok.
Ask Bill and me a question…
I hope we have helped answer some of your basic questions about how to care for backyard chickens. I truly enjoy having chickens and I love having fresh eggs daily. Drop me a comment below and let me know what other questions you have about your flock or future flock.