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FAQ About Raising Backyard Chickens

Chicken Coop at Living Homegrown

As an urban homesteader who owns city chickens, I get asked a lot of questions about the care and maintenance of my flock. I’ve noticed that I get the same questions over and over, so I thought today’s post should address some of those questions.

Here we go…

1 – How much coop space should I have?

Now if you ask my “diva” chicken Charlotte this question, she will tell you that each chicken should have:

  • 1,000 square feet per chicken
  • Their own unlimited stash of meal worms
  • A personal “chicken” massage therapist

But the truth is, that for chickens that free range out in the garden during the day, you only need about 3-4 square feet in the coop/run area for each bird. They will really be spending most of their time outside the coop and only using the inside area for the nesting boxes in the day and roosts at night.

So for 4 chickens that free range, you only need a coop/run area that measures about: 4 by 4 feet (16 square ft). But it is always best to give them as much space as you can.

For chickens that will be inside the run all the time (never free ranging), you need to bump that number up to 10 square feet per bird. So now those 4 chickens need a coop/run that is 6 x 7 feet (42 square feet). It is always best if you can give them a little outdoor time each day to look for bugs and get fresh air. But if that is not possible, look at how much space you have and only get the number of birds you can accommodate. Having too many birds in too small of a space can cause health problems.

2 – How many nesting boxes do I need?

Trust me, the hens can share. You don’t need a box for each bird. And even if you did, you would find that they would probably all use the same box anyway. I find that one nesting box for every three hens works great.

3 – Do I need a Rooster to get eggs from the hens?

Some of you probably think this a silly question. But no question is silly! In fact, I get asked this question all the time.

“Hazel” the Blue Silkie Rooster

The answer is NO, you do NOT need a rooster to get eggs. In fact, most ordinances don’t allow roosters within city limits due to the noise. (They crow all day long – not just in the morning.) A hen ovulates (and lays an egg) whether she is fertilized by a rooster or not. So no rooster is required to cause the ovulation. You only need a rooster if you want to hatch the eggs.

If you accidentally get a rooster, I discuss having a rooster plan HERE.

4 – When do the hens start laying eggs?

For most breeds, you can expect to start getting eggs when the hens are about 5-6 months old. The first few eggs can be a little funky – small, misshapen, double yolkers and even this double shelled egg I got once. It can take a few months for their juvenile bodies to adjust to adulthood.

5 – How many eggs can I expect?

Some breeds are better layers than others. But in general, a chicken will lay an egg every 24-48 hours IF they are receiving 12-14 hours of daylight per day.

The daylight triggers a photo-receptive gland near the eye and that causes ovulation. So in the winter months (when the days are shorter), your hen’s egg production will slow down or might stop all together for a few months. To keep production going, you can add artificial light inside your coop to extend the number of “daylight” hours. Personally, I let the hens rest naturally, but many of my friends use artificial light with no ill effects.

Some breeds are like clockwork and will consistently give you 1 egg per day. Other breeds will lay just a few times per week. After 2-3 years, a hen’s egg production slows down and she eventually stops laying.

6 – How long do chickens live?

On average, most backyard chickens live to be around 8 years old. I have heard of some living much longer. Your chickens will be well cared for, so they should have a long, happy life.

The important thing to remember is that they will only lay eggs consistently the first few years. If you are keeping them as a pet, you will not be getting eggs from them for the last few years of their life. You may want to add a few newer chickens to your flock every 3-4 years to keep your egg production up.

7 – What about mites and lice?

Mites and lice happen, so always keep an eye on your birds – look for bald spots and sores. Here is a good article with photos.

Most mites and lice come from the wild birds visiting your backyard. The wild birds come to nibble on the chicken food and leave a few parasites behind. Keeping wild birds out of the feeding area helps. Overcrowding makes it worse, so for the health of your birds keep your flock numbers manageable.

Chickens will naturally give themselves dust baths to prevent parasite infestations. You will see them do this when out in the dirt areas of your garden. To aid them even further, you can add a dust box to their coop. Keep it filled with a mixture of course sand and food grade diatomaceous earth (Here is a source). Be careful not to add too much diatomaceous earth (only a cup or so) as it creates a fine powder that can cause respiratory problems. Some people also add wood ash to the mix, but I have not tried that.

8 – How do you treat those parasites if I get them?

I really like Poultry Protector because it is an all natural, non-toxic spray that uses enzymes to control the parasites. You can spray it directly on the birds and also inside of the coop (nesting boxes, etc). The liquid easily gets into all the nooks and crannies of the coop.

The only bad thing about this product is that the chickens absolutely hate being sprayed.

Hope that helps! If you have your own FAQ or chicken keeping tips, please add them in the comments. I would love to hear them!

 This post was part of a blog series called the 31 Days of Living Homegrown

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About the Author:

Theresa Loe is the founder of Living Homegrown® and the Canning Academy® and is the Co-Executive Producer & Canning Expert on the national PBS gardening series, Growing A Greener World®. Theresa homesteads on just 1/10th of an acre in Los Angeles with her husband, two teenage boys and several disorderly but totally adorable chickens. Learn more about Living Homegrown here and about the Canning Academy here.

37 Comments:

  • Lisa says:

    Really great article! I especially loved Charlotte’s suggestions! Seriously tho, informative and entertaining. This blog is a great resource that I really enjoy.
    Lisa
    Fresh Eggs Daily
    http://www.fresh-eggs-daily.com

  • hope says:

    I have a question that I have had the hardest time finding answers to, and thought maybe you could help point me in the right direction…. We live in a city in the suburbs, but in an older neighborhood where each family has an acre around their home, no HOA, etc. I have been trying to find out if we could keep a few hens in our back yard garden, but am not getting any direct answers from city officials or anything. Do you think you can help?

    • theresa says:

      Hi Hope,

      I always tell people to check with city hall. But if they don’t seem to know, then I would bet there is no ordinance. That doesn’t mean you are free and clear. It just means that until someone complains or decides to take action against a chicken owner, there is no precedence about it.

      I’m not sure where else you can check. You might pose the question to the forum over at Backyardchickens.com. They might know where you can look.

      In the meantime, I would check with my neighbors to be sure they wouldn’t mind (offer free eggs and dispel fears). Then you might be just fine!

      Theresa

  • Jenna Kern says:

    This is some really useful information. My husband and I are small town chickens owners and run the blog http://www.kernschickenfarm.com and will be referring our readers to this article. I’m sure they will find it just as useful as I did. Also you have a great looking coop. Very Cute!

  • Amy says:

    What a great post. Thanks for sharing I found you at twitter!

  • TeresaR says:

    I love your chicken set up! I wish ours were half as aesthetic, but I’ll take what I can get. LOL!

    • theresa says:

      Thanks Teresa! I am actually expanding the run portion this next month. I hate that I can’t walk into it for cleaning. I will be posting photos of what I come with…whenever I can get to it of course!

  • Patrick says:

    Do chickens need alot of grass and leaves.
    Should I have different types of chickens seperated .
    Shoul I keep my rooster seperated from the hens.
    Thanks for the tips.

    • theresa says:

      Your chickens will be fine with just a high quality chicken food. But they love to eat grass and greens and if you have it for them, it is a nice addition. But it is not manditory if the feed is a good quality with the proper ratio of protein, calcium, etc.

      You do not need to keep your chicken breeds separated. With roosters, you would only keep the rooster away from the hens if you did not want them to have sex. But that would make for a very unhappy rooster. 🙂 So no, you do not need to keep the rooster away unless he is a mean rooster who picks on the hens too much.

  • I’ve got four hens in a chicken tractor. The hutch portion has three nesting boxes and a roost pole near the ceiling. However, one of the girls insists on sitting in one of the boxes at night. She is not otherwise broody in any way. The problem is that one of the boxes is always full of poop in the morning and needs cleaning out before they lay. We’ve tried running her off at night but she returns later. Except for completely closing off the boxes just before they roost (would require a major re-design), does anyone have any quick-fix suggestions?

    • brad says:

      Kill the problem hen

      • Pat says:

        Frigg, that’s a little extreme for a poor little hen who just likes to sleep on a nest! How about putting something over or in the nests at night until she gets the message? Or just going in each night and moving her to the perch?

  • Mary Ellen says:

    How do I keep the chickens warm in the cold and rainy weather? Also do chickens get colds if the get wet?. Thanks for your help. Mary Ellen

    • theresa says:

      The answer sort of depends upon where you are and just how cold are we talking? If we are talking about 40 degrees and rain, the hens will huddle together and keep each other warm. But if we are talking weeks of snow or below 20 degrees for extended periods of time, then you may need to keep the hens warm with a heater or lamp. Exactly what you need depends upon the size of your coop, the insulation and ventilation of your coop and the number of hens you have. (3 hens will freeze but 15 hens generate a lot of heat on their own) Also, certain breeds are build for cold weather and others are not. So I wish I could give you an easy answer, but it is complicated. Chickens can get wet and will not get colds. They can catch viruses but it is not from getting wet.

  • WMc says:

    Dwayne – We had the same problem but remedied it by taping a heavy paper bag over the nesting boxes at dusk. Tape just the top and let it hang over the opening; the hens don’t seem to see well at dusk and cannot find the hole, and it can be folded back in the morning. They will be forced to roost in a more appropriate spot. When they get accustomed to the new roosting spot you can remove the bag completely.

  • denver says:

    you need to replace your layers every two or three years so use her in the pot and get a couple new hens problem solved. also try more than one roost pole

  • Liz says:

    Awesome article for the new chicken parents out there. I tell people to go into it whole heart & be prepared because you are going to love your girls. I have 8 plus my female turkey. I get consistent double yokers off my Barred Rock, Midnight. It’s totally true that the girls all share one nesting location. We have a small hen house with a run & a large fenced, covered dog run with a dog house. We had to get the dog run for our huge turkey Andy. I can go out one morning & find 8 egg in the same nest & 2 are bantams. To get really yellow yokes I feed them either store bought greens or I pick dandlions for them. They love the “weeds” the best & they are so packed with vitamins. We’ll happy chicken keeping.

  • Jessica says:

    We just purchased our first chicks and we are trying to figure out how much space we need in the coop and run. Our chickens will be in the coop and run at all times because we are in the city and don’t have a fenced yard at this time. My question is when you say 10 square feet of coop/run space per chicken, do you mean total space between both. Or 4 square feet each in the coop alone and 10 square feet each in the run alone? A lot of the pre made coops don’t have that much run space so it makes me wonder if they would be sufficient or if it would be better to build our own. Lots to learn! Thanks in advance for the help!

  • L M says:

    I only have one roosting bar in my coop, four chickens. Whenever I close the coop at night, I notice that one of the chickens sleeps under the roosting bar, instead of on it. How do I fix this problem? Another roosting bar?

    • theresa says:

      Hi LM,
      That is a good question and I am not sure of the answer on that one. I have one chicken that never used a roosting bar. I just let her sleep in her box. Never thought much of it. It could be that the chicken is at the bottom of the peeking order. (Mine is) If you do add another roosting bar, I would add it lower than the first one.

  • Shab says:

    Hello plz can someone help me guid me with chickens I have two hens I love to keep them but I don’t have a garden I kept them in the balcony in so worried about they walking in the grass is it ok can they live ?

  • Jack says:

    What chicken food do you recommend?
    Do you recommend putting down hay or can they just rome on rocks & grasss?
    How big should the coop be?
    How do I build the nesting boxes?
    What do chickens like to do?

    • theresa says:

      Hi Jack,

      Here is an episode of our PBS TV show that answers some of these questions for you: http://www.growingagreenerworld.com/episode311/

      My favorite chicken food is: scratch and peck feed because it is organic. But it can be hard to find. Here is a link to their website: https://www.scratchandpeck.com/product-category/organic-chicken-feed/

      Chickens will nest in any “box” – it just needs to be a size that can comfortably hold your largest chicken. They will share boxes. (You don’t need one for each chicken – just one for every 3-4 chickens.)

      Chickens like to scratch and search for food all day long and roll in the dirt (dust baths)

      There are many different things you can put down inside your coop. I currently use pine shavings but will be switching to sand soon.

  • michelle angle says:

    thank you for all your help. and why are you going to use sand?

  • Lisa says:

    Hi! I have a question about breeding chickens. I grew up raising laying hens, and last spring when I ordered chicks, I ordered a bunch of different breeds. and the chicks all came to me unsexed, as soon as I could tell the difference between hens and roosters I separated them into different coops. And now this spring I want to breed each hen to their same breed rooster. So my question is, does a hen and rooster only have to mate once in order for a hen to lay a clutch of eggs?

  • valerie says:

    I have four hens coming up to a year old! There are two roosting poles in the hen house but they all sleep in one of the nest boxes piled on top of each other!! Why is this?

  • Jessica says:

    I’m setting up a back yard coop, and was wondering if there was a certain size the nesting boxes should be? We are DIYing a lot of it and we’re going to use an old 8′ long shelf but the cubicles are kind of big. I’m wondering if there is such thing as TOO BIG when it comes to nesting boxes. Thanks(:
    -Jessica

  • Cathy Jennings says:

    Hi, we have a problem with our flock. We have 3 Rhode Island Reds and (had) 2 plymouth rock hens. We have a 6X6 coop and a 8X6 run (and they can go in the coop also. We feed organic scratch and peck layer feed, but also have a poultry block, feed vegetable scraps (we juice), and the birds usually get out 3 or 4 hours a day. 3 months ago the flock started picking on one of the Rocks and almost killed her. This was a day we had a children’s party and couldn’t let them out. This continued even though I installed “chicken toys” and “swings” and I finally gave the victim away. The problem seemed to be solved. Today however I was gone all day-had to take mom to the doctor- and when i went out tonight to put them up, they killed the other plymouth rock. Again another day they could not go out. Do I have particularly aggressive chickens? I can’t seem to find the ring leader because when i’m around-which is quite a bit- they all seem to get along. Any suggestions or do I just wait and see what happens, and if I’m down to one bird, I’ll know she is the ringleader and I should give her away and start over. Help!

  • Martina says:

    Do “free rage ” hens tend to lay more eggs opposed to cage kept hens? we have 3 hens in our back yard flock their run is 10X10 feet it is attached to the coop part that is about 4×3 foot in size so I think they have enough room they seem happy we have sand in the coop and the run is dirt and we just recently built a sand Box for them. My friend bought her hens at the same time as I got mine hers are free range mine are not , hers are laying eggs daily and mine have still not started laying they are almost 5 months old , I’m just wondering if by not letting them free range if it’s affected their egg laying ? We fed them laying pellets we give them grass clipping in the coop about once a week and we keep their area very clean and they get fresh water daily . Any pointers/ advice on what we can do or if we are doing anything wrong ? We can’t let ours free rage as our back yard is not enclosed and we have close neighbors 🙁 ! Any advice would be awesome ! Thank you in advance !!

  • Sue says:

    For people just starting with chickens, please remember to pick the birds suited for your climate. A chicken may be pretty or have colorful eggs, but if that bird will suffer in the cold/snow… Don’t get it.

    As a tip for cold weather, use a 2×6 in the coop for roosting. The birds will settle over their feet, keeping them warm and frost free.

  • Paul Daly says:

    What square footage would you recommend if you are using an open bottom chicken tractor and moving it every day? Seems like that’s a hybrid between letting them free range and keeping them inside.

  • Linda Hutchinson says:

    Do chickens crow in cold weather…in the winter w/temps below 30 degrees?

  • Michael says:

    I am glad I found your blog. I saw you on Create TV and was impressed. I have a small homestead and do a lot organically. I even raise my chickens organically from the time I get them. I am currently hatching eggs which is a first for me. I look forward to learning how to do canning.
    Be well.

  • Ellie says:

    Thank you for your helpful information! One question that I have that I can’t find an answer for is this. How much enclosed space -walks and roof – do my chickens need when the weather is cold, snowy or raining?

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