So you’ve decided you want to get chickens? You may be wondering what exactly you are getting yourself into and what you need to have before you bring them home. Never fear, for here is a list of things to get your hands on and set up to make them feel at home.
If you are starting with chicks, you will need a basic setup until they are big enough to go out into their permanent home. To keep chicks, you will need the following items.
You will need some sort of container or small building or enclosure to house your brood. We personally use an old horse trough to house our chicks (up to 25) from when they hatch to about 8 weeks old or so. You can use something as simple as a box or you can build a special brooding house for your chicks if you want to get fancy. You just need something that will keep drafts out and will keep the chicks protected and secure.
Chicks need something on the floor beneath them. In our experience, pine shavings work best. They are cheap, easy for the chicks to kick around, and do a good job of soaking up droppings and any water that escapes the waterer. It’s not a good idea to use plain newspaper for chicks, as they may develop a condition called spraddle legs because the newspaper is too slippery for them.
3. Heat Lamp
If you are bringing your chicks from the feed store or getting them in the mail, their mama’s aren’t going to be around to keep them warm. Thus, you need a heat lamp (250 watt). Situate the heat lamp above the chicks, away from anything flammable. Soon after hatching, temperature for the chicks should be 95 degrees Fahrenheit and should decrease by 5 degrees per week until the chicks are fully feathered. You may want to have the heat lamp off to the side or on one end of the chicks’ housing so that they can move closer or further away, depending on how warm they are. You don’t want the chicks to get cold, but you also don’t want to cook them! We’ve not stressed about keeping the exact recommended temperature and just had our heat lamp to the side and let the chicks decide where they are most comfortable. If they are huddled together at the warmest spot in the brooder, that is a sign that they are cold and need the lamp lowered a bit and vice versa.
4. Food Dish
Feeding chicks is easy with the feeders that screw onto a standard mason jar. Simply fill the jar with food, screw the lid on, flip over and give it to the chicks. As the chicks get older and eat more, be sure to check the food level periodically and refill as needed. You may instead opt for one of the long feeders with little ovals to help keep chicks from walking in their food, kick it around, and defecate in it.
The classic mason-jar waterer will work just fine as the first waterer for your chicks. Larger versions are available for bigger birds or larger broods. I like to set the water dish on top of a piece of wood or a flat rock or something along those lines to raise it above the level of the floor and have less risk of contamination.
We do not recommend using a trough or other open water dish, as the chicks will go into it and get wet, chilled, and quite possibly die.
6. Food and Water
Obviously, you need to give your chicks food and water. Chick starter can be purchased at the feed store(medicated or not is your choice); water should be clean. Food and water dishes should be cleaned periodically to prevent disease.
For Adult Chickens
Once your chicks have grown to an age, size and maturity that they have their adult feathers and can generally keep warm on their own, you can move them out to their permanent residence. A good place to keep chickens will provide the following:
These are the basic items you will need to keep a flock of chickens, no matter what the size.
1. A Safe Home: The Chicken Coop
A safe chicken coop is one that will keep the chickens protected from the weather and from predators. Make sure there is a place for the chickens to get out of the winter blizzards, as well as a place for them to cool off in the heat of summer. Don’t rely on a tiny chicken tractor for more birds than it is designed for. Pay attention to the guidelines given with most chicken coop plans or pre-made purchased kits and abide by them. The more space per bird, the happier the chickens.
Make sure your chicken coop is secure and that predators (including owls and hawks) and rodents cannot get in. Rodents will spread disease, eat the food and create more of a mess in your coop. Predators can be sneaky and reach through standard chicken wire and kill your birds. Use hardware cloth or solid wood or metal to build your coop or when repurposing an old building into a coop.
2. A Safe Run
While the ideal setup would be for your birds to free range every day, the reality for most folks is that they have to leave the homestead at some point in the day. When you leave, you want to make sure your chickens will be safe from predators. Instead of leaving your chickens inside their coop all day long, it is good to have a safe enclosed space that they can run around in during the day. Ideally, the run should be completely enclosed to keep out all predators. In a pinch, a secure fenced-in area will usually suffice to keep out stray dogs and other daytime predators(unless you have a hawk around). Snow fence is a fairly inexpensive deterrent to hawks and can be fairly easily tied across fences to keep predatory birds out and give the chickens some shade cover.
3. Food Dishes
You will want to have a good food dish that will allow all of your birds equal access to the food. This can be as simple as a purchased poultry feeder or you may want to create a sort of trough on your own to pour the food into each morning. Whatever you use, be sure to keep it clean so as to not spread disease.
4. Water Dishes
Water dishes are one of the hardest things to keep clean in a chicken coop. Hanging water dishes are ideal, though they can be heavy to haul around if you have one that’s more than a gallon or two. You may instead wish to use a simple heavy saucer that will not tip if a chicken stands on the edge to drink. This will need to be dumped, cleaned, and filled each day. Hanging waterers are not ideal if your water freezes, while the saucer type you can take outside and flip upside-down and pour hot water to get the ice block to come out and then easily refill.
It goes without saying that you will need to feed your birds. In most climates in the U.S., you will need to at least supplement your chickens’ diets with chicken food, even if you are free ranging them. Wintertime does not allow for much to forage from. You can purchase chicken feed for your chickens from the feed store or figure out how to make your own (the information is out there) or how to otherwise ensure that your chickens have enough to eat. If you are keeping your chickens for the benefit of their eggs, you should get a feed formulated for egg-layers. For chickens you are raising for meat, use the proper food for best results.
Water is essential to life. You don’t have to get fancy with the water. Just make sure the chickens have water available to them at all time, and that it is clean.
For the cleanliness of the coop, the health and well-being of the chickens, and your own sanity, it’s a good idea to have some sort of bedding on the floor of your chicken coop and in the nest boxes. Straw is a good thing and fairly easily obtainable, as is sawdust. Add a little bit each day to give your chickens some entertainment and to help soak up moisture from droppings and the like and reduce odors. The droppings and manure will break down and help warm the coop in the winter (sort of like a “hot” compost pile), and can be taken out when you clean the coop in the springtime.
8. Nest Boxes
Once your chickens have become established in their home and start laying eggs, you will need a place for them to lay. It is good to encourage a special place for them to lay, to help prevent accidently stepping on eggs on the floor of the coop or outside the coop. You can purchase nest boxes, build them from most any material (wood being the most obvious, but 5 gallon buckets on their sides also may come in handy), or use simple cardboard boxes and replace out as needed.
There may come a need for supplementing the basic setup with some other items. Following are a couple things that may or may not come up as you raise your chickens, and they are good to be aware of in case the need should arise.
Ideally, chickens should be getting a good varied diet including foraging outside in a reasonably protected area. Realizing that the ideal situation is not always the reality, it is good to be aware of these additional needs of chickens.
Otherwise known as dirt and rocks, grit is an important part of chicken digestion. Chickens will eat small rocks and pebbles to aid their gizzards in breaking down their food. Deprived of this simple thing, and they may start having digestive disorders. You don’t need to purchase special grit from a poultry supplier; you just need to provide access to some sort of little rocks for them to peck at now and then.
Calcium is very important, especially for egg laying hens. As a chicken gets older, she will lose much of the calcium in her body as she lays her eggs. It is important to help the chicken replenish her calcium stores in some way. You can either rinse off the egg shells laid by your chickens and grind them up in the blender and add it to the feed or in a little separate feeding container. Or, you can purchase oyster shell from the feed store for the hens to peck at and take when needed. Having this available may also help prevent egg pecking.
Yes, chicken vitamins do exist. These can come in handy if you have a bird that seems under the weather or if your flock seems to be struggling a bit with something lacking in their diet. One brand to look for is Quik Chik, a vitamin and electrolyte blend that is mixed in the chicken water.
Use only food grade diatomaceous earth for your chickens, and wear a respirator or use extreme caution when using it in an application that it could become airborne, as it can be bad for the lungs and irritating to the eyes. It can be sprinkled in the chicken food to help ward off/treat parasites. It can also be used on adult chickens, sprinkled around the chicken coop, to kill mites.
2. Light In Winter
In the winter months, when the sun is not out nearly so much as in other times of the year, some hens will stop laying their eggs. To alleviate this, you can install a light and have it on a few additional hours a day to extend the amount of time the chickens get light and hopefully help them to begin laying again. Consider hooking the light up to a timer for your convenience, and be sure it is situated away from anything flammable and that your birds cannot get near enough to it to burn themselves.
3. Heater For Winter Water
Another winter issue is with the chicken’s water freezing. You may want to consider installing a little water heater under the chicken waterer to prevent the water from freezing. Alternatively, you may want to simply go out and switch water more often in winter. While many chickens will eat snow, many are also afraid to go out into the snow, and they can suffer dehydration and even death. Don’t rely on them eating the snow, as they are not known for how smart they are.
I’ve enjoyed having our chickens around and how their eggs supplement our diets. I hope what I have shared has helped you to determine what you need to have chickens of your own, and that you will have success with your own brood. Feel free to share your experiences below!