My advice to chicken beginners

I’m no expert, but since I tend to be vocal about how much I like keeping chickens, people sometimes ask me questions. A friend of mine’s neighbor is interested in getting chickens, and wanted to know how much it cost, how much space they might need, and how much of a time commitment it was. This was my response. He was so happy with it he suggested I post it somewhere, so here it is. You may disagree with me, as this is the internet, that’s what people do. Have fun with that. Anyway, here’s my first advice column.

dear chickie

Dear Chickie,

A few days ago, our neighbors proposed the idea of raising chickens in our yard. As our town allows such a thing, we want to figure out what it takes to do this, so I’m asking you, our resident poultry farming expert, for any advice you may have. We want to find out how much space we need for say 3-4 hens (we don’t want to keep them constantly “cooped” up), how much effort is required to feed/clean/etc., and a rough ballpark of cost.

 Your friend,

Bawking in Belmont


Dear Bawking in Belmont,

On days I don’t let them out, I spend maybe 10-15 minutes in the morning with the chickens, and then maybe another 5-10 in the evening. Mornings I open the coop door to let them out into the enclosed run attached to the coop, fill their food and water if they need it, and then throw fresh pine shavings on the night’s poops. (On Saturday I scoop all that out, which takes another 10 minutes. Some coops have a removable board under the roosts, so you can scrape that off instead of adding more bedding. There are multiple ways to do it). At night I collect the eggs and then close up the door to the coop. I really only need to do that in the winter to keep them out of a draft. My coop and run are fairly secure. Chickens generally require less time than a dog, maybe about the same as a cat. When I let them out I prefer to be out there with them to keep an eye on them, but it’s usually when I’d be out in the yard anyway. Yardwork, AMIRITE?
The main cost is really the initial cost of the coop. If 3-4 is the amount you’re going for, you’re in luck, because the cut off between “kind of expensive” and “wicked expensive” coops is at 5 chickens. Under 5 you have cheaper options, over 5, it gets pricey, due to the size coop you need. I started with 6, not realizing this, which is why I built my own coop, which was a bit of an ordeal. You could get something like this for less than mine cost to build. (The hardware cloth you need to keep out predators is expensive. Chicken wire keeps chickens in, but it is really easy for varmints to chew through, so you need hardware cloth.) That website has a lot of options. I would suggest something with a built in run so they can get outside of the coop whether you’re around or not. The rest of the costs aren’t so bad. Food is like $15 for 50 pounds, and that lasts me over a month. Bedding is $7 a bale, and that also lasts over a month. You might need other things here and there, but they aren’t too bad. Scratch lasts a long time because you don’t give them that much. Oyster shells to give them calcium are expensive up front (I think like $25 for a big bag) but they last a really long time because you only give them a little bit. Then a feeder and a waterer are maybe $10-20 depending on what you get. I would recommend a plastic waterer so you can put unfiltered apple cider vinegar in the water to ward off vent gleet, among other things. It’s good for them, but the metal waterers are bad to mix with vinegar. You’ll need a different feeder & waterer for chicks (smaller ones) and a heat lamp, but that all comes out to under $25, if I remember right.
How much space do you have? My friend in Brooklyn has 3 chickens in a coop like the one in the link above, and they never leave it and are perfectly happy. A yard for them to run around in is good, but mine often stay in the same general area that’s not very large, so they don’t need a ton of room, depending on the chickens. I recommend not letting them out unsupervised for too long because of predators. Hawks especially, but also dogs. Dogs kill more chickens than anything else, because no one suspects them. If you have a fenced yard, that’s good, though it doesn’t save you from hawks, but it limits roaming.
Does this help? I also recommend this site.
They’re who I go to when I have questions. They have forums that are helpful, but the learning center spells a lot out for you. You can also research breeds there, which is helpful, since it gets both cold and hot in MA, so you want hardy ones.
Bawk and roll,

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