It can be hard to get started with chickens when you don’t know whats required or what your in for. In this section I will help you work out if chicken keeping is right for you and your lifestyle. I'll take you through the practicalities of chicken keeping, to give you the confidence you need to get started straight away.
Chickens are a relatively low maintenance pet. But you will still need to invest some time to make sure they are well looked after, healthy and productive. And by spending the time upfront in planning and regular maintenance, you'll avoid lots of problems, save a tonne of time down the track and you'll find chickens are really very easy to look after.
To give you a clear idea of how much time it takes to look after chickens, I have broken it up into 3 phases:
- Setup phase: Time required before you get chickens, to get prepared and to setup the coop.
- Maintenance phase: Time required ongoing, to keep your coop clean and chickens healthy.
- Ad hoc / problem solving: This is the time taken to deal with problems as they come up
- Improvements: After the initial setup, you may want to make improvements or upgrade to a bigger coop.
1. Setup Phase
The time taken to get setup with backyard chickens can vary a lot, anywhere from 2 days to more than 6 months. You can buy a pre-made coop and be setup in a weekend, or make your own coop which could take many weeks or even months to build.
Its important to remember that its not a race. Enjoy the journey rather than just focusing on the destination. For example, setting up a chicken coop is the perfect project to work on with your kids.
Planning (1 to 2 weeks)
“If I had six hours to cut down a tree, I’d spend the first four sharpening the saw.” Abraham Lincoln
Investing time up front for planning will save you a tonne of time and problems down the track. It can be tempting to jump straight into chicken keeping, without any planning or preparation. I know, cause that's exactly what I did. But taking a little bit more time upfront, will give you a much better and more rewarding end result.
As the first step of the planning process, its important to learn the basics of chicken keeping, so that you know what your doing. The problem is, you could spend weeks or even months filtering through thousands of forums and books to get the information and the confidence you need to get started. But you don’t have to worry about that. I’ve done the work for you and distilled everything you need to get started into this guide.
Once you've learnt the basics, the next step is to spend some time planning things out. For example, what type of coop do you want? Will you make the coop yourself or buy a pre-made one? Where will you put the coop? What breed of chickens will you get?
Setting up your backyard (1 day to 6 months)
If you intend to let your chickens roam around your backyard, then you'll need to make sure your garden is ready. The time it takes to prepare your backyard will depend on the how big it is and how much work it needs. If you need to put in fences and covers for garden beds, this all takes time. On the other hand, if you already have an area that's well fenced in, then you might not need to do much at all.
Setting up your chicken coop (1 day to 6 months)
The type of coop you want will make a big difference to the amount of time required.
Pre-made (1-2 hours): You can buy coops that are already made and assembled. You just need to get the coop into your backyard, into position and your done. Transport can be a challenge, which might also restrict the size of coop you can get.
Built for you (1-2 hours): If you don't have much time, you can pay someone to build a coop for you. Its a more expensive option, but the outcome is a custom built coop that you can enjoy for many years.
Ready to assemble coop (4-5 hours): An easy option is to buy a coop that comes in parts and just needs to be assembled. Depending on the size, they usually only take a few hours to put together.
Do It Yourself - DIY (2 days to 6 months): Making your own coop will take more time but can be a lot more rewarding. The time it takes to build a coop will depend on how experienced you are and how complex the design is.
2. Maintenance Phase
If you've done the work upfront in the setup phase, on-going maintenance doesn't take much time at all.
Daily (5-10 minutes a day): The daily routine for chickens is super quick. It basically involves checking in on your chickens each morning and night to collect the eggs, make sure they look healthy and safe and have plenty of food and water.
Weekly / Monthly (2-3 hours): These are jobs that need to be done each week, month or every few months. This includes managing chicken manure in the coop, topping up on food supplies, worming, health checks and cleaning the coop. Overall, it should only take you 2-4 hours each month for a small backyard flock.
3. Ad hoc / problem solving
These are jobs that pop up from time to time and that are not part of any routine. This includes things such as coop repairs, sick hens, broody hens, dealing with pests and predators and repairing damaged gardens. With a well planned setup and regular maintenance, these problems can be avoided or at least kept to a minimum.
Improvements are not required, but there is no doubt that you will end up making some upgrades and improvements to your coop over time. This could be a bigger coop for more chickens, experimenting with different types of natural food, new equipment or working on your backyard to better incorporate chickens. Chicken keeping is addictive and I can't promise you won't end up spending way more time pampering your pet chickens.
A good egg laying hen will lay 200 to 300 eggs a year. But one of the realities of backyard chickens is that hens lay less eggs as they get older. Hens are in their peak during the first few years and then egg production gradually declines from there. Thats why commercial egg layers are slaughtered and replaced after around 2 years to maintain a high production rate.
With backyard chickens, hens are kept as family pets, just as much as they are kept for their eggs. This means that you end up with an over supply of eggs in the first few years and then have a major shortage when egg laying starts to drop off. And if you already have the maximum number of hens allowed in your backyard, you won't be able to top your egg supply by getting more chickens.
Thats why its important to be aware of and plan for a decline in eggs as your hens get older. The best way to do this (without slaughtering your chickens) is to keep a rolling stock. This involves starting out with just enough hens to meet your needs and then adding new hens when the quantity of eggs starts to drop as your hens gets older.
Here is an example of how a rolling stock works:
Total capacity of hens for your backyard: 7 hens (this will vary based on local laws)
You might start with 3 hens. Assuming they lay about 200 eggs in the first year, that will give you around a dozen eggs per week.
After 3 years you might only be getting 6 to 8 eggs per week. You can now get 2 more hens which should now bring you back up to more than a dozen eggs per week.
After another 2 to 3 years you can add another 2 hens. At this point you will have 7 hens. This should continue to give you around a dozen per week.
Hens generally live for around 8 - 10 years, which will make room for more hens over time.
Chickens are relatively cheap pets but there are some setup costs involved. The up side is that once you have set up, they don't cost much to look after and you can generally recover your costs within a year.
As a rough guide, a decent setup for 3-4 chickens will cost around $500. However you can easily spend way more than this ($1000's), or next to nothing if you make a coop using recycled materials. Once your setup, chickens cost about $30 a month ($360 a year) for upkeep. Its also smart to budget a little extra ($100) for ad hoc issues that need to be resolved.
Summary of costs and value received
Setup costs: $500
Maintenance costs: $360 per year ($30 per month)
Ad hoc costs: $100 per year
Eggs: $650 per year
Manure: $160 per year
Bug & weed control: $100 per year
Total: $910 per year
Time taken to recover setup costs
$500 setup: 1.1 years
$1000 setup: 2.2 years
In the sections below I have broken this down further to give you a better understanding of the costs involved. But before I get stuck into the detail, I think it's important to put things into perspective and to challenge any preconceived mindsets about spending money on backyard chickens.
When your thinking about the costs of getting started with chickens, compare it to your attitude towards spending money on a kitchen. A decked out kitchen full of cooking utensils often costs ten’s of thousands of dollars. All this to enable you to cook your own meals at home. You could try to work out if a kitchen is a good investment compared to buying take out every day. But we don’t, because its hard to compare a home cooked meal to take out.
- A home cooked meal is generally better for you and you know exactly what your getting.
- Its convenient to quickly whip up a meal or snack
- People also get lots of enjoyment from cooking and creating meals for their family and friends.
All these things make logical sense, but are intangible and difficult to put a value on.
In some ways, I think chicken keeping is the same. How do you put a value on the health and wellbeing of your family. Or the enjoyment you get from watching your chickens roam around the backyard. You can worry about how much it's going to cost you and try and figure out if it makes financial sense compared to store bought eggs. But the problem is, its not that simple and eggs are only part of the story. There are lots of benefits that you simply can’t put a price on.
So how much is it going to cost me?
Even though it’s not all about "financial return", its still important to understand the costs involved before you jump in a get started with chickens. And as it turns out, even if you just factor in the value of things that can be measured, the numbers stack up pretty well.
As a rough guide, a basic setup with 4 hens will cost about $500:
- Coop: $200
- Backyard / Run: $100
- Feeder and waterer: $100
- Point of lay hens: $100
Here is a bit more of a break down of each of these costs:
The cost of a chicken coop depends on what your looking for and how big and fancy it is. If your on a budget, its possible to build your own coop for virtually nothing using recycled materials. On the other end of the scale, you can easily spend thousands on a custom built coop with all the bells and whistles. As a rough guide, $200 is the starting point for an average 4 hen coop.
Aside from the chicken coop, you’ll need about $100 for a feeder and a waterer. You can save some money by making your own, or spend a lot more than this for something with all the bells and whistles.
Backyard / Run ($100)
Aside from the coop, your chickens will need some space to run around outside. This can either be an extension of your chicken coop (a chicken run) or your backyard. At a starting point, $100 should cover the cost of a basic chicken run or some fencing to section off your yard. From there you can spend a lot more on fencing and landscaping your yard, depending on how much work needs to be done and how much you want to spend.
Four point of lay hens should cost you about $100 ( or $25 each). But the price will vary a lot depending on the breed and where you're buying them from. If your trying to do things cheaply, then keep an eye out for people giving away their hens. You just need to make sure you know how old they are and keep in mind how many years of egg laying they have left in them. I got my first two hens together with a second hand coop and they are still laying eggs four years later.
Upkeep and maintenance costs ($360 per year)
Routine upkeep and maintenance will cost around $30 a month or $360 per year, for 4 hens. This covers the cost of chicken feed, worming medication, and bedding material for the coop.
Ad hoc / problem solving costs ($100 per year)
As well as regular upkeep costs, you need to budget for additional unplanned costs that can pop up from time to time. This covers things like coop repairs, sick hens, repairing damage to your garden and dealing with rats or predators. As a rough guide you should allow for an additional $100 per year for this.
What do you get in return
So what do you get in return from your hens? Based on the benefits that can be easily measured, you get about $900 worth of value back from your hens each year.
Bug & weed control:
$650 per year
$160 per year
$100 per year
$910 per year
If you buy hens that are good egg layers, you will get at least 200 eggs a year from each hen (this is being conservative).
4 hens x 200 eggs per year = 800 eggs (65 cartons)
At $10 a carton x 65 = $650
You might wonder how I came up with $10 carton, especially when you can get eggs much cheaper from the supermarket. The point is, eggs from backyard chickens are way better than any eggs you can get from the supermarket. Because of this, I have added a premium to factor in their extra value. And if you happen to find a local farmer who sells real free range eggs - that's a pretty reasonable price to pay.
Another benefit you get from chickens is manure.
40kg per hen / per year x 4 hens = 160kg manure
$1 per kg (Dynamic lifter)
= $160 worth of manure
Bug and weed control ($160)
Organic bug and weed killers: $160
Other benefits (can't be easily valued)
Then there are all the other benefits which I haven’t included, because they are hard to put a value on:
- Family Pet
- Garden helpers
- More sustainable (waste, energy and emissions, food miles)
Time taken to recover setup costs
Setup costs are recovered in a pretty short amount of time. It depends on how much you spend and the number of chickens you have. To give you a rough idea, the time taken to recover setup costs of $500 and $1000 are provided below based on 4 chickens.
Calculation: Value per year ($910) - maintenance costs ($360) - ad hoc costs ($100) = $450. Setup costs ($500) / $450 = 1.1 years
Calculation: Value per year ($910) - maintenance costs ($360) - ad hoc costs ($100) = $450. Setup costs ($1000) / $450 = 2.2 years
Something you need to think about before you get chickens, is who will look after them when your away? Do you travel all the time for work? Do you take regular family holidays? You don't want to get stuck in a situation where you need to go away but are worried about who will look after your chickens. By thinking about this up front, you will have a plan when the situation comes up.
How long can chickens left alone for?
When planning for trips away, the first question is how long you can leave your chickens alone for? Some people might say that you can't leave them alone for even a single night. But I think this is overly cautious and not practical. And it really depends on your setup. My general guide is that they should be fine for up to 3 days with the right equipment and preparation. Any longer than that and you will need someone to check on them and do some basic maintenance.
But the key word here is "should" because there are no guarantees. If you go away for a few days there is still a chance of something going wrong. Here are some of the main problems that you will need to think about:
- Running out of chicken feed because of the feeder capacity, a blocked feeder or feed that gets wet.
- Running out of water because of limited capacity or because the waterer is tipped over. A day without water in the heat is enough to cause problems.
- A build up of eggs in the egg laying box
- Predator attack
- A dead or sick chicken
How did I come up with 3 days?
- Capacity of food, water and egg laying boxes
- It is a short enough amount of time so that if anything does go wrong, its likely that it can be fixed when you return, before it causes any major problems.
Short trips (less than 3 days)
With short periods away, your chickens should be fine without anyone needing to check in on them, as long as your prepared. Some key things to consider when preparing:
- Use a reliable feeder with enough capacity. Reliable means it won't easily get clogged, will keep feed dry and is not likely to be knocked over.
- Use a reliable waterer with enough capacity. Water is one of the most critical things while your away. Its critical that the waterer doesn't get knocked over, jam up, freeze or dry up for any reason. Having more than one waterer is a good idea to make sure there is a backup if one of them fails.
- Setup a secure outside area which gives your chickens some space to flap around while secure from predators. A good chicken run connected to your coop will do the job.
- Make sure your egg laying boxes that are large enough to accomodate 3 days worth of eggs. Multiple egg laying boxes are a good idea for this reason.
- An automatic door opener can be handy but is also something that can fail if not reliable.
Longer trips (more than 3 days)
If your away from your chickens for more than 3 days, you will really need someone to check on them and do some basic maintenance. This could be:
- A neighbour, friend or family member - bribe them with free eggs or pocket money for kids. It also helps if you get people interested in your chickens before you go away. You could do this by giving away some eggs from time to time. The rule of reciprocity means people are more likely to return the favour when you have given them something in past.
- Find a hen sitter - check online classifieds or consider services such as www.airtasker.com
- Jointly owned chickens - Consider jointly owned chickens where you share the work and share the benefits. This makes it much more likely that there will always be someone around to look after the chickens.
Make sure you give your hen sitters good instructions and make the job easy for them:
- Keep things simple and stick to the essential tasks that need to be done
- Provide a schedule of when to check on them and a detailed checklist of things to do
- Do a walkthrough before you leave of exactly what needs to be done to avoid any confusion
- If you won't be easily contactable, provide an alternative contact to call if something goes wrong.
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What will you do if one of your chickens get sick? It might sound like a strange question because it goes without saying that you would take a sick dog or cat to the VET. But when it comes to backyard chickens, it's a little more complicated. Rightly or wrongly, most people have a different attitude towards chickens. People eat chickens every day, which might make it seem a bit ridiculous to spend a lot of money to take your sick chicken to the VET.
Backyard chickens are pets
But at the same time, most backyard chickens have names and are treated like pets, which can make the decision less clear. By thinking about this ahead of time, you'll at least know what to expect and have a plan for how you will deal with it.
Prevention is the best medicine
The first thing to point out is that prevention is the best medicine. If you provide a nutritious diet, keep the coop well maintained and keep your hens happy, then you should be able to avoid having too many problems.
But when the situation does arise and your faced with a sick hen, you have 3 options:
1. Pay for a VET
Would you be prepared to pay for a VET which is usually an expensive exercise? If you don’t want to deal with sick chickens yourself, then this is your only option. So before you rush out and get chickens, it's a good idea to know what your committing to. Talk to your local vet to get an idea of the costs you might be up for to treat a sick chicken or a least to get the vet to put it down for you so that it does not suffer.
2. Treating chickens yourself
To avoid expensive trips to the vet, you need to at least know the basics of chicken health. This involves learning how to identify and common problems that can be treated easily e.g. intestinal worms.
3. Put chickens down
It's cruel to let a sick chicken suffer, so at the very least you should be prepared to put the chicken down yourself if it comes to that. My thoughts on this are that anyone who eats chicken meat should be prepared to kill a chicken themselves. By being connected with the process of producing meat, you better appreciate the sacrifice that is made. The result is less food wasted and less mindless eating.