So you want to keep chickens but perhaps aren't sure where to start? Well first thing first...have you checked with your local zoning board or HOA if you have one? If yes and your approved, then let's move on!
The internet is a wonderful tool with lots of free information right at your finger tips. I do recommend doing some research if you haven't already. You can find great information about specific breeds for example. You might not know that some breeds do much better in heat or cold then others do. If you are interested in raising them for meat there are specific breeds for that as well. Some are good for both egg and meat, they are dual purpose hens. Maybe you would like some more as little pets and are not interested in their eggs. There are some that fit that description like Bantams or Silkies. Then there are ornamental breeds. Breeds that lay pastel eggs. These are are some things you may not have thought about and should consider before getting chickens.
You might also consider whether you want roosters or not. Many people think you must have a rooster in order to have eggs. Nope. Roosters only fertilize the eggs, they are not required to get eggs. Next do you want to raise chicks or but them as pullets (young hens that are just about to start egg laying). I have done both and I must say that raising them as chicks is so rewarding and fun. If you don't have the time to deal with taking care of chicks then I suggest going with started pullets. You can either buy them locally (feed stores, paper listings, or Craigslist are excellent places to look) or you can buy them from hatcheries online. Note though that if you want pullets and plan to buy them through hatcheries you will be limited as to what breeds you can get.
Once you have decided what kind of chickens you want and whether you want chicks or pullets. Next comes the coop and run. A coop can be fancy or practical, cheap or expensive. It really is completely up to you and your budget. How small or large it is is important however and that all depends on how many hens you plan on keeping. Chickens need a minimum of 2 sq. ft per bird in the coop and at 8-10 sq.ft outside/run per bird. They spend most of there time outside so making sure they have enough room is very important for happy chickens. If you live in an area where you get a lot of heavy snow then you should consider increasing the sq. footage inside as well. The reason they need a certain amount of sq. feet is prevent pecking and bullying and make happy chickens. If you only have a small amount of space in which to keep them then don't consider more than a few hens. A 6x8 shed converted into a coop for instance can hold a much larger number of hens. Remember you must also consider outdoor space in what is called the run unless you plan on free ranging you chickens. More on free ranging later. Backyardchickens.com has some wonderful photos of coops (some even give how they built them) from folks from all over the country. You can also buy books or go to the library for ideas. My first coop design came from there. It was called the playhouse coop. I only had 3 hens at the time, the coop and run were all under one roof. It worked for the time being but when it rained the inside area was only big enough for them to roost for the night and lay there eggs. Something else to consider. Yes, they were covered but it still would get plenty wet inside depending on the wind. Also you might want to think ahead..chickens are very addictive...trust me! I always heard build bigger because you will want more. Yup! You will and unless due to restrictions you will get more...it is only a mater of time! 3 years later I added 6 more to my 3 (sadly by the time the coop was done one of my hens suddenly died) and guess what that meant? Right...I needed a bigger coop and run. This time I thought ahead and made sure it would be big enough to add more if I wanted or rather if my hubby would let me! lol
(Check out my future post on coops and runs with more details on what to consider)
Once you decide on your coop/run design, what are you going to use for bedding? Well I think the most popular and widely used is pine shavings. I have used it for 3 years and it does the job. However I have since switched to sand both inside and out and what a difference it has made! I will never go back to shavings again. Sand is much cleaner and easier to use. A kitty litter scoop and you quickly sift the poop right up. The sand also helps to dry it up making it easy to sift and not waste bedding. Sand also greatly helps at keeping the smell down as well. The chickens also seem to like it. I think it is cool and in summer the hens spend much of there time there. As for how often to clean your coop...well that depends on how big it is and how many hens you have. I clean mine out once a week but you may have to do it sooner or you may get away with a little longer. A clean coop is the best thing for healthy happy hens. I recommend at least once a week. I have an 8x10 coop and 8 hens..I could get away with 2 weeks but I like to try to make sure I do it once a week.
Food and water requirements. Laying hens need laying pellets or crumbles found at any local Feed & Seed store. They are usually sold in 50lb bags. Laying hens need a complete laying food for proper egg production and contain everything they need like calcium which is necessary for shell development. If free ranging you hens most of their protein and nutrients will come from the bugs and grass they eat but you still need to provide them a laying feed. You may also want to supply crushed oyster shells where they can get some when they need it. The oyster shells have the calcium they need. If you notice your hens shells are thin try giving them a little oyster shell and that should do the trick. Another thing you may want to provide your hens with is crushed granite. Since chickens don't have teeth they store small pebbles in their crops and at night when they have settled in for the night those pebbles help grind the food. If they are free ranged they will most likey find these on their own. Water is extremely important and they need a lot of water for good egg production. Chickens do drink a lot of water and this must be checked daily. Be sure to provide them fresh clean drinking water. In winter check it to see if it is frozen and in summer especially if you live in areas such as South Carolina with our hot humid summers you need to check twice a day. Our summers are so hot and those poor "girls" are panting and holding their wings out....they are not happy campers. I like to fill there waterer with lots of ice cubes everyday and every afternoon. I like to keep a 3 gal. waterer in the coop and a smaller one outside. In summer their water evaporates quickly plus the chickens are drinking much more water so check often!
Chickens are fantastic garbage disposals. They will eat almost anything you give them. They will love you for it too! When I open the backdoor or call them...girls!...they come a running to see what yummy treats I have for them. There are some things you should avoid giving them and that is meat products, onion and garlic. You also shouldn't give them moldy or bad food.
I almost forgot about nest boxes! This is pretty important...all those lovely eggs need to be layed somewhere! You need about 1 12x12 box for every 3 hens. However, they will most likely try and use the same box as everyone else. I have 4 for my 8 hens to which only 6 are laying and they use 2 boxes and even then most use the same box. I have even seen two in a box! They are funny that way. They will most of the time either wait till the one is done or cluck telling them to hurry up and get out cause she wants her turn, even though there are 3 other boxes. Go figure! Though I have sand in the run I use wheat straw to line their nests. I check for eggs a couple times a day as they don't all lay in the morning. I store the eggs in the fridge after collecting them.
That is about it! Keeping chickens is very easy and they require little. Keeping there feed and water containers clean and providing clean water and food (depending on the size of your feed container and amount of hens you might might only have to fill it up once a week), clean coop and run (I also rake this out every 2 or 3 weeks) and that is all. Then just enjoy them and love them! Most like to be held and enjoy being with you. Some of mine like to follow me around as I garden. If you have further questions leave a comment and I will try to be sure to answer your questions.