The Straight Poop on Backyard Hens
They're right for me
Are they right for you?
Know what you’re getting into
There was a time when every household had hens for meat and eggs. Keeping poultry became less practical for many city dwellers, then it simply went out of vogue. Strict community laws were enacted to keep poultry out of neighborhoods, as they were considered a nuisance by some. They’re coming back now, and coming back strong. I meet people regularly who have, or plan to get backyard hens. I’m always happy to share my experience, and advise as much as I can. People have so many questions, and with my excitement, I jump right in! There’s a lot to think about though. It’s not all adorable hens, delicious eggs, hen therapy, nutrient rich poo for you compost, and the cool pet factor - that’s just the “glamorous” side of owning hens. There are laws, predator threats, chores, start-up costs, and egg production vs. life expectancy to consider. I may sound blunt, but this is a serious set of issues to strongly consider before getting your own flock.
Why do you want them?
My girls are for eggs only. My daughter says I’m seasoning them from the inside, as they get lots of great food, including large amounts of clippings from my prolific herb garden. I know they’d be delicious, but I’m just not that kind of farmer/chef… yet. It’s important to think about this for yourself - hens gobble up food and space, living much longer than they are actually producing eggs. The details depend on the breed, but say you’ve got a hen that lays for 3 years, but lives for 10 - what are you going to do? If you plan to eat them, probably the best idea, they’ll taste mighty good! Hens will sometimes simply just flop over and be dead for no known reason. While that’s sad, if it’s timely, that could work out in your favor once you get over the loss. Abandoning a no-longer-laying hen in the neighborhood or the wild isn’t nice, but I guess if you’re near a wild area you could be feeding the fox, wolf, or other wild animal in local population and call it the circle of life. That has it’s drawbacks too - particularly, I would avoid drawing those animals back to your living hens or anyone else’s property with the expectation of another delicious chicken dinner. There are a few people out there with the ability and desire to take ”retired” hens, but those nice folks are solving a problem that you are helping create by requiring them in the first place, so that’s not the best plan either. Do you want to let them grow old and live a nice long life and having a natural death with you? That’s my plan. I’m hoping my habitat is big enough for several years of the natural lifecycle plan for them. I’m 2.5 years in, and I’ve had 2 die - one from a predator named Pepper, my dog. This story will come out at another time. The other was unknown causes, as Beauty mysteriously died on the 4th of July. I’ve added 4 more this year, bringing me to 7. I’ll let you know how this all develops with time. That’s what these pages are for after all.
Know the law.
Laws are different everywhere, but in my case, I’ve got lots of options because I have an acre of property. I don’t really have any restrictions unless my hens are a nuisance to my neighbors, and without a noisy rooster, that’s not likely. Legally, roosters will be welcome in fewer backyards, but hens are often welcome if you follow the law. I found the laws easy to find with a quick Google search (county, state, poultry laws).
What age are you going to start with?
Are you going to get chicks, pullets, or fully grown hens? Chicks take checking in on at least every few hours, maintaining their temperature, and daily changing of their litter/shavings. You have a better chance at a personal relationship if you get them this young, so if that’s important to you, be ready to put in the time. Pullets are teenagers and certainly the easiest route to go. Pullets will also be the most expensive since the work of raising them is done, and they are getting ready to lay (about 5 months old for the 1st egg). Or you can get fully grown hens.
What breeds do you want?
My highest priority is that my hens are winter hearty. After that, I want friendly birds - no fighting. Good layers and interesting looking birds are fun, but I just go with diversity/availability once the 1st two criteria are checked off. I have/had Plymouth/Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, Red Sexlinks, and Ameraucanas, and Leghorns. I have had no problems with them getting along, and all but the Ameraucanas are really good layers. The Ameraucanas lay blue/green eggs though - so they get a pass because when they pay up, they are so special.
How will you protect against the predators?
Predator threats can be minimized with proper planning. I will certainly write about this in another post, but in a nutshell, know that hens rely on you (and a rooster if you have one) entirely for their safety in confinement. Their habitat needs to be a fortress because they've got nowhere else to go if some nasty/hungry beast gets in. My home backs to a wooded park that is some 550 acres, and is home to plenty of foxes, birds of prey, raccoon, and then there is my own Pepper. Your entire flock could be wiped out in one bloody night, so this is an important one.
What’s it cost to get this off the ground?
Coops can be purchased completely built, as kits, you can get building plans, or just wing it like I did - well, there was a lot of research before the “winging” began. Coops (The coop is the entire habitat) will cost between a few hundred dollars and a couple thousand dollars, and size does matter depending on the size of your flock. I built my coop on a pretty tight budget, and it really only cost me about $500 to get completely established: a 5’ square hen house and a 15’ x 20’ run, I bought my girls as chicks, waterer, feeder, 4x4s and corregated roofing. There are loads of ways to keep costs down with food by supplementing their crumble or pellets with kitchen scraps, bugs, grass, and such. I love projects, so I made my own heated waterer and a few other solutions too.
The chores aren’t bad at all, but they are constant. In a nutshell, every day you need to make sure they have water (I refill 2-3 times a week depending on the season), check on their food (I refill 2 times a week), and collect their eggs. I walk around the habitat every week or so to make sure nobody is trying to break into the coop! Depending on a few variables, poop clearing chores could be weekly or monthly, or even less. I use the deep mulch method, which is working really well for me, and requires deep cleaning 2-3 times a year. I love putting in my time with those girls, making sure they’re entertained, happy, healthy, and making me terrific breakfasts. I get great pleasure from those days when I work with them for a few hours, but plan for a well deserved and required shower afterwards.
But is it worth it?
I find it all so worth it. My family and friends do too. Nobody complains when they need to step up because hens don’t really require all that much, and we all get awesome eggs and cool pets. What’s not to love? If it seems worth it to you, my periodic hen postings may continue to be of interest to you, and I hope you will stay tuned as I share my story of my life with hens.