Hey y'all! We are going to skip the pleasantries and get cut right to the chase -- eggs cost way too much! I'm in California, so egg prices here are going to be extreme outliers in terms of price (I've seen them as high as $11.99 for a dozen of store brand eggs), but overall egg prices have risen roughly 60% since this time last year (Dec 2021-Dec 2022), and 11% in just the last month (Nov 2022-Dec 2022 (US Bureau of Labor Statistics). And on top of universal cost increases for the basic necessities, panic, or at the very least extreme concern is starting to set in for many people, families, and communities. Over the past few years, the systems we've grown and been conditioned to trust are showing us their mile long cracks, instabilities, and blinding insufficiencies. On the flip side, the desire (albeit fueled by concern and panic) to learn something old (shoutout to The Honeystead for that line) -- gardening, canning, sewing, candle making, etc and tap in with our roots -- familial and communal, to go back to a time when we relied on one another and did so with pride is on the rise!
Before we started our 'Stead journey in 2020 I was obsessed with the idea of keeping chickens, like even as kid I wanted to keep chickens in the backyard (my parents swiftly, and consistently said no) so when we bought our home in Jacksonville, AR and it came with an old dog run I knew this was my chance! I poured over blogs, YouTube videos (Jessica Sowards at Roots & Refuge, her chicken keeping videos were my bible!), books -- anything I could get my hands on. I forgot how the topic came up, but I told my waxer at the time that I wanted to keep chickens and when I tell you she sprung into action, she sprung into action! She tapped into her resources (she kept guineas) and helped me secure my first flock. She was also a huge wealth of knowledge! Truly a blessing beyond measure.
Once I had the ladies - Destiny Chickens, I knew that I was never going back, and that my years long hope was meant to be fulfilled in a time such as this, and when it came time for us to move back to California (in 2021 -- gotta love the military) I put a lot of emphasis on researching our new city and their chicken laws because the 'Stead just aint the 'Stead without a flock of hens.
(If you are wondering what we did with Destiny Chickens, we gave them and the coop to one of my husband's old Air Force friends who got stationed at LRAFB right before we moved.)
Anywho, I feel like I am getting relatively off topic so let's get back into gear. I am going to share with you how easy (like 1...2...3) it is to keep a backyard chicken flock. I am going to pull from my experience in semi urban, Jacksonville, Arkansas (¼ acre backyard), and my experiences now in very urban Stockton, California (not a ¼ acre backyard).
(Hey! Really quick, while I love that you are using my experiences and knowledge to aid your research, please do not take my word as final law. Do you own research that is specific to your location, family needs, and desires)
#1: Check Your City Laws, Ordinances, and Potential Neighborhood Covenants/HOA
If keeping backyard chickens is permissible in your city/town/area, be mindful of any associated restrictions pertaining to number of chickens allowed, and coop location. In Jacksonville for example, I was limited to 6 hens in my backyard (I only had 4), and the structure (coop) had to be 100 ft from the my nearest neighbor. I'll be honest, I never measured, and thankfully my neighbors were cool with the free eggs they received on a weekly basis, but I'm pretty confident that I was within regs. In Stockton, I am limited to 4 hens, and have the same 100ft clearance rule. Again, did not measure, however my neighbors are cool about it. Also, I am not the only house on the block with chickens so the block knows what's up. In both locations, roosters are not allowed which is typical in residential and urban areas. You can find your regulations on your city clerk website or you can Google "Can I keep backyard chickens in (insert location)"
#2: Location, Location, Location -- Where to Place Your Coop
Keeping any regulations in mind, location of your coop is super important! In Jacksonville, the coop was in an old dog run on the side of our house. This side of the house got a fair amount of shade in the summer and was safe from any runoff water from like the rain or even the water hose. The dog run was also HUGE so there was a ton of space for both the hen house and run space. I'll get more into this in the next tip, but chickens do require at least 4 square feet of space in the coop & 8 square feet of run space per bird to remain comfortable and not stressed (stressed out chickens means no eggs and possible fights (to the death) within the flock. In Stockton, the coop is placed ever so perfectly in the front of our courtyard (it's not as big as it sounds), just off of the main garden space (perfect for compost reasons) and underneath the eucalyptus tree so the ladies are shaded all year long which is perfect in the summer because it gets really hot here. They do benefit from late morning and evening sun though.
In general, you want to keep the chickens in an area that is shaded because they are susceptible to high heat and humidity. Additionally, if you are concerned about predator pressure (raccoons, neighborhood cats, coyotes, stray dogs, owls) keep the coop in an area that is close to the house and possibly under some kind of lights -- for predators though the coop design is more important than the physical location. Since I also garden and compost, I positioned the coop in area that is easily accessible to both the garden (for direct amending and tossing in scraps), and the compost (for easy transport).
#3: The Coop
The coop, or where the hens live is super important when considering keeping backyard chickens (or any chickens for that matter). And actually, did you know the coop is not actually where the chickens sleep? The hen house = where the chickens sleep, and the run = where they play, chill, eat, etc. Hen house + run = coop.
"Hen house + run = coop"
Both of our hen houses were DIY. When I started making steps to keeping chickens in Arkansas, we did not have the money to buy a hen house, and in Stockton, although we had the money to purchase a hen house, I really liked the idea of DIYing again. In Jacksoville our coop was made from on old shipping crate that we enclosed with plywood and some doors. And in Stockton, we actually found a converted playhouse in on Facebook marketplace, and built the run out of scrap wood we already had in the garage (full details on IG). But let's go over some hen house must haves
Hen House Must Haves
#1 - Roost bars
You know how smaller birds perch, well chickens roost. Matter of fact, that's how they
sleep, so your hen house needs to have enough roost space for all of your hens to comfortably roost. Remember, chickens need at least 4 sqft of hen house space. In Jacksonville, we had one roost bar inside of the hen house and place it at the highest point inside and a roost space inside the run (an old branch from a tree). Because this is where the chickens will sleep (aka shit everywhere), it is important to have the roost bars away from their food, water, and nest box(es).
#2 - Nest Box(es)
Nest boxes are where the hens will lay their eggs (ideally). In Jacksonville I had one next box (that they never used), and in Stockton I actually have 3 which for 4 chickens is way too many. They do use all three though -- it's strange. From my past research, the ideal number of next boxes is about 1 box per 3 birds, so if you have 6 birds, you would want to have 2 nest boxes. Location of the nest box within the hen house is important because chickens will not lay eggs where it is dirty, so make sure your boxes are either away from the roost bar(s), or like mine, are shielded from the inevitable poops. I like to put straw and herbs (lavender, mint, and lemongrass) in my nest box because it gives the hens something scratch at and create a nest. The herbs also add a nice smell, help the chickens relax, and keep away flies.
#3 - Ventilation/Screened Windows
The #1 concern of people wanting to keep chickens in the city, urban, or suburban areas is the smell. I love my hens, but yes, sometimes they smell. One way to prevent that (other than routine changing or adding to the bedding) is to make sure than your hen house has sufficient ventilation. In both Jacksonville and Stockton, I added windows to each wall of the hen house. The windows were screened of course with ¼" hardware cloth. Also, if your run is covered or enclosed, use hardware cloth for optimal ventilation and safety from predators.
#4 - Access to the run
Chickens like and benefit from the maximum amount of space you can give them, which means after sunrise they don't like to stay in the house. Whether it is an automatic coop door, a manual door, or an open door (inside of an enclosed run), giving your chickens the space and opportunity to reach their run is super important! In Jacksonville I had to open the door every morning (and close it every night) because their run space was not predator proof enough for my liking, but here in Stockton their run is properly enclosed and directly attached to their hen house so I leave it open for them to come and go as needed.
Whew! Now onto the run. The run is pretty simple, as I mentioned the run is basically the chickens outdoor space. I enclosed mine with ¼" hardware all around and covered the topic with shade cloth -- shade + ventilation + protection from aerial predators. In Jacksonville the run was kind of enclosed because the coop itself was an old fenced in dog run that I topped with shade cloth. Inside of the run I always go with straw because the chickens love to scratch at and break it down. When it starts looking sparse, I scoop it out, add it to the compost (great carbon) and add a new bag. I purchase straw from my local feed store for $5 a bag. I've seen people use woodchips, sand, and even leave it just bare dirt, so you have options. In Jacksonville, the base of our run was actually concrete which made cleaning super easy because I could scoop all of the straw out and house down the floor if necessary. Honestly, the run is the chicken's space so I don't do a lot to it outside of the straw and bricks to elevate their food and water (because poop).
Because my current run isn't super big, I do give the ladies a chance to free range in the yard. At least, one hour every day before sunset. On the weekends, I give them more time because I can be out there with them. I do have dogs so I make sure all poop is picked up and they are not allowed outside when the chickens are out of their coop.
[Speaking of food and water: for 4 chickens I spend about $20 a month on feed. I do give them garden and kitchen scraps pretty regularly, as well as their eggshells (crushed of course, but those are just supplements to their regular feed. As for water, I spend $0 a month because I give them the collected rain water from our 60 gallon barrel.]
Oh! I almost forgot to add, bedding! In the past I used pine shavings, but I am making the transition to hemp because it is safer for the chickens (as well as myself) and is more absorbent. I follow the deep liter method (add bedding on top of old bedding), but if you did not use the deep liter method hemp bedding allows you longer time in between cleanings. Right now I have straw because the ladies scratched it out of the nest boxes...
Oooo chile! Stretch break! Now for the last tip.
All hens lay eggs, however when thinking about egg production, some breeds out lay others and if your goal is to have the maximum amount of eggs you definitely want to research breeds. Researching breeds is also important if you want certain color eggs, or a variety of egg colors. Additionally, some breeds are nicer and more docile (kid-friendly) than others. I am no expert, but I will tell you about the breeds I have had the most success with in terms of egg production and friendliness.
1) Marans - both Chickoletta from Jacksonville, and Ginger from Stockton are marans. If you are looking for those deep brown, chocolate eggs -- marans are the way to go! Chickoletta was the HHIC (head hen in charge) in Jacksonville, and was definitely my favorite from that flock. Ginger on the other hand...don't get me wrong she is great, but she doesn't like anyone -- humans or chickens. She doesn't like to free range with the other ladies, consistently has a side eye, and does not like snuggles. Egg production is great! Chickoletta was a very regular layer and Ginger is no different.
2) Orpingtons - both Goldie and Ms. Monroe are Orpingtons (Goldie is a Buff Orpington, and Ms. Monroe is a Lavender Orpington). Amazing personalities! Very docile, love snuggles, and are absolutely gorgeous! Goldie was my eldest hen in Jacksonville and definitely gave off Big Mama vibes. While she wasn't at the top of the pecking order, the other hens gave her the respect she was due. Ms. Monroe however is the HHIC of my Stockton flock and it was evident from the moment I brought her home. Orpington eggs are what I like to call pink eggs -- super light brown that they look pink. Goldie's egg was brown speckled, Ms. Monroe's is a flat pink. Orpingtons are very hardy and are great, consistent egg layers.
3) Silkies - a lot of people like Silkies, especially in urban city areas because they are smaller than other breeds. I am ambivalent to Silkies. Aunt Viv was a Silky and she was
great layer, but was kind of bitch. For better Silky reviews consider la_silkies on IG.
Like I mentioned, breed reviews are not my ministry, especially for those I do not have first hand experience with, so definitely do your own research to decide which breeds are best for your needs and your family. But here's a picture of my current flock and their eggs!
If you made it this far, congrats to you! You are clearly committed to your chicken keeping dreams. Keeping chickens in the city or in the suburbs is a lot easier than you're probably thinking, but your trepidation or hesitation is valuable because that means you care about the well being of the animals and want to make sure that you know everything there is to know in order to keep them safe and happy. I do caution though, please do not get caught up the commodity of keeping backyard chickens. You do not need a super fancy or expensive coop to keep happy chickens. Nor do you need a high tech hands off feeding and watering system. If you want a super fancy or expensive coop, or hands off feed and watering system -- have at it, but don't forget the basics: safety, shade, space, feed, and water. I didn't mention time commitment because in my opinion chickens are fairly hands off (you do need to feed them and change their water daily), also I did not start any of my flocks from chicks -- that's a different process, but I do treat my chickens as an extension of the garden. I talk to and spend time with them everyday. I even play music for them (check out my IG for that video -- Ms. Monroe is a great dancer!)
If after all of this you decide, chickens aren't for me. That's totally fine and I really appreciate your honesty. However, consider purchasing your eggs directly from a local farmer at the farmers market, or find someone in your neighborhood (or surrounding neighbors) that keep chickens and is willing to share with you. At this point their eggs might be cheaper, and even if they cost the same, at least you are getting higher quality eggs as opposed to what you can get in the store.
If you have any questions definitely leave a comment, and follow me on Instagram for daily chicken and garden content. Thanks again for using my knowledge and experience as a part of your research. Happy Planting and (hopefully) Happy Chicken Keeping!
Ciao & Cheers!