Cost of a dozen organic, pasture-raised eggs? Up to $8. The same number of eggs from a flock of your own backyard chickens—plus the fun that accompanies caring for your new feathered friends with your kids? Priceless. (And, in real terms, likely several bucks cheaper, once you recoup the relatively low start-up costs.) It’s hard to deny that chicken-keeping is having a major moment. And for good reason: Eating eggs from your own hens is one way to live a little more sustainably, and also helps you forge deeper connections with your food. Plus, it offers up a goldmine of opportunities to teach kids about biology, life cycles, and caring for animals, says Ashley English, author of Keeping Chickens. Think it might work for your family? Here are a few things to consider before getting started.
PLAY BY THE RULES
Regulations vary from one city to the next. So before you begin, make sure backyard chickens are permit- ted in your town, and find out whether you need to register for a license or pay any fees. And give your neighbors a heads-up. It’s not mandatory, but it is the nice thing to do.
LEARN FROM A PRO
There’s no arguing that how-to books are valuable. But if the world of chicken-keeping is unfamiliar territory, getting some in-person advice before you bring your chicks home is a smart idea. Take a class at a community college, or find an egg seller at the farmers’ market and ask to visit their farm or homestead. “You’ll get additional details, like how to handle a bird if you need to administer medication, or why it’s important to monitor the birds with your dog around,” says English.
For a family of first- timers, that’s a flock of three to four chickens. It’ll be big enough to supply you with plenty of eggs, but still small enough to manage, says Maria Muscarella of Lefer, North Carolina, whose original six- chicken flock is now up to 19. Start with just a few chickens and you can always add to your brood later.
All chickens need food, water, and a coop—the cost of which can vary widely, depending on your budget. “I’ve seen beautiful coops that cost $700, but our neighbor cobbled together her own coop using just two-by-fours,” says English. Expect to spend around $150 for a DIY coop and a few chicks. “The cost is greatest at the onset, but after that, it’s just chicken feed,” she says.
KEEP IT CLEAN
Stay on top of hygiene by cleaning up drop- pings daily, and your chicken coop will be a healthy, safe space for your birds and your family. Otherwise, it could start to smell, and possibly even attract vermin, says English. Muscarella suggests opting for sand over straw bedding or shavings, which is easier to clean, and enlisting your kids to help out (her 4-year-old son, Leif, loves to scoop the poop). Just make sure everyone washes their hands with hot, soapy water once you’re done.
EXPECT LOTS OF EGGS
It’s common for a hen to lay one egg per day, but the yield can vary depending on the season, since daylight is what signals to chickens’ pituitary glands that it’s time to lay eggs. That means more in the summer and fewer—or none at all—in the winter, though you can prompt your hen to lay eggs in the colder months with artificial lighting, English says.
- It’s important to check on laws and permits for your area before building your coop. Find a list of ordinances by state at backyardchickens.com.
- Trying to decide what kind of birds to buy? Chickenbreedslist.com breaks down 60 types of chickens by description, temperament, care, and species history.
- At mypetchicken.com, started by a husband-and- wife team, you can buy everything you’ll need for your hatchlings, like organic feed and egg incubators