pastured poultry at Quinn's Irish Hill Farm, Freeville NY (Tompkins)
Image by Sandy Repp

Chickens protected by an electrified fence

Backyard Chickens

Small Scale Chicken Raising

Raising chickens for eggs has become more popular in recent years. Many people are interested in having a backyard flock to provide eggs for themselves and their family. Spring is a perfect time to get your flock started.

If you’re thinking about getting chickens, you should first see if it’s legal where you live. In many urban and suburban areas, raising chickens is not legal or if it is legal there may be restrictions on the number of chickens you can have or bans on roosters. If it is legal where you live, you need to realize how much attention they need. It is a lot more work than a vegetable garden. They need fresh food and water daily. Someone will also need to gather eggs every day and make sure that your flock always has a clean, dry shelter.

If you’ve decided to get chickens, first you need to decide how large you want your flock to be. In their first year of production, each hen will produce about two eggs every three days, or up to 15 dozen in the year. That number will go down as the chickens get older. Choose the number of hens that will meet your egg needs- do you need eggs just for yourself, are you planning to give some to friends and neighbors, do you want to have some to sell? You also need to consider how much space you have and what type of chicken coop you will be using. For a small operation you probably don’t want a rooster. Roosters are loud and aren’t necessary for hens to produce eggs.

To keep your chickens safe, they need to be kept in a confined space. The coop should be an enclosed, dry shelter with a fenced outdoor area. There are a wide range of coops you can use, from an old, watertight doghouse to a custom made hen house, but your coop needs to have sufficient floor space, protection from the weather and predators, ventilation without drafts, a place to roost and nest boxes for laying eggs. Remember that predation is the most common cause of mortality in small poultry flocks- make sure you use strong wire fencing for your outdoor area and bury it at least six inches underground so predators can’t dig under it. Low density housing results in less stress for your birds. You should have a minimum of 2.5 to 3.5 square feet per bird inside your coop and an additional 4 to 5 square feet in the fenced, outside area. The floor of the inside area should be covered with about 4 inches of moisture-absorbent litter like wood shavings. Dry sand is an ideal groundcover for the outside area.

Next, you need to choose which breed or breeds of chickens you want to raise. You should spend some time thinking about this. Do you want to maximize your egg production in the first year or two? Or do you want them to produce a smaller maximum number of eggs, but for a longer period? Do you care which color your eggs are? Do you want your chickens to have a certain look? Do you want to use your chickens for meat once they become unproductive? Do you want hardy, hard to kill chickens? Leghorns are the standard bird for commercial egg production. They produce white eggs and are bred to produce large numbers of eggs for one or two years, but are not as hardy long term as some of the other options.

You can purchase your chickens as day-old chicks, pullets, or mature hens. Day-old chicks are the cheapest option, but they take special care and it will take some time before they are laying eggs. Also, be sure that you don’t purchase them ‘straight run’, which is a mix of male and female chicks. It is better to pay extra to purchase only females. If you purchase mature hens, be sure that they are no more than a year or so old- egg production can drop quickly for older hens.

Day-old chicks must be kept warm in a brooder for the first three weeks. You can easily build a brooder yourself from cardboard or plywood. A box 2 feet wide by 3 feet long and 18 inches deep will house 25 chicks. You should place clean, dry wood shavings, dry sand or other absorbent material on the floor. Chicks can’t maintain their body temperature so you need to mount a single 100 watt light bulb inside a reflective shield about 8 inches above the floor of the box. If the chicks huddle under the lamp, that means that they are too cold and if they move away from the light they are too hot so adjust your light accordingly. The bulb should be left on day and night for the first three weeks. When they are well feathered you can move them out to your coop. Do not mix new pullets with older hens as they may not be able to compete with them for food.

Feed for your chickens can be purchased at a local farmer’s supply store. Chickens of different ages will need different feed formulations. A laying chicken will eat about 1/3 of a pound of feed per day. You can also feed them table scraps and garden products. If you are allowing your chickens to forage, they will still need supplemental feeding.

Raising your own chickens for eggs can be a fun activity and supplies you and your family with the freshest eggs possible, but it can be a lot of work. Here are some links for more information on small-scale chicken raising and choosing chicken breeds.


Keeping Backyard Chickens in North Carolina –North Carolina Cooperative Extension:

The ABC’s of Backyard Poultry- Penn State University:

Choosing a Chicken Breed- Perdue University Cooperative Extension:

Poultry Breeds for the Small Farm- University of Arkansas:

Raising Your Home Chicken Flock- University of Maryland Extension:

Last updated July 26, 2019