Several years ago, when we first made the decision to have a small flock of chickens, I had difficulty finding good information for beginners just getting into chicks, so I decided to keep a journal starting from the decision making process to a day by day account of their care and growth. We have really enjoyed having our hens and now I wonder why we debated so long and hard about having poultry in the first place. When I began to research the various aspects of keeping chickens, I discovered there is a lot of information on large scale chicken production, but what I needed was a guide for the absolute novice that wants to keep a small backyard flock. I spent weeks browsing internet sites and reading books on the care of chickens. Some of the most helpful information I found was on a message board hosted by Backyard Chickens website, www.backyardchickens.com.
I searched in vain for a complete step by step instruction guide for the novice chicken owner. Not finding it, I started keeping clippings of any information that seemed useful to my situation and organized it all in a notebook. I have come to realize that there is not one right way to keep chickens that is suitable for everyone, as each individual has his own unique situation and preferences. But I’m going to tell you what we did, and why we made the decisions we made, and maybe some of you will find it helpful in starting your own backyard flock of chickens.
Am I allowed to have chickens?
Many suburban communities do allow for keeping a small flock of backyard chickens. Some areas may restrict the number of birds to no more than 3 and/or prohibit owning any roosters. It’s best to check with your city zoning board and homeowners association before jumping headfirst into owning chickens. We own 20 acres in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and are zoned agricultural. We also have a herd of 8 llamas, so there was no problem with having a small flock of chickens, too. It was our choice whether to have a rooster or not, and we decided against it, mostly because we put the coop right under our bedroom window. More about that decision later.
What kind of Coop and where should I put it?
Probably the hardest part of the whole process was finding the right coop. In my explorations of the World Wide Web, I discovered all manner of chicken housing. I saw everything from a discarded truck cap to the most elaborate replica of an ‘old west’ town. Here are some examples of what some people have done.
You can also modify a pre-built garden shed to make a functional chicken house.
We both have regular jobs, plus we operate a llama trekking business on the weekends, so finding the time to build a coop was not an option. At the time, a web search turned up plans galore, but
what I didn’t find were pre-built, deliverable chicken coops. In the UK there are several companies that make adorable chicken coops that can be delivered to site (if you live in England). And they are not that expensive. Fortunately, now there are quite a few options in the states for readymade coops that can be delivered to site. A web search for pre-built chickens should turn up a nice selection to choose from.
I discovered that one of the British manufacturers had a distributor here in the states—and they were only about 50 miles away from us. The British company is called Forsham Cottage Arks and can be found at www.forshamcottagearks.com. One cold and rainy day in February, we drove to Orange, VA, to have a look at the coops. We bought the model Boughton 904. This type of coop is called a chicken tractor, because it is designed to be moved around the yard. We chose to make ours stationery.
This model was marketed to house 15 chickens, but we planned to limit our flock to 8. Unless you plan to let your chickens out to freerange during the day, we found this to be a bit confining for even 8 adult hens. It took the two of us about an hour to put the kit together. Once assembled, the next decision was where to put it. We considered putting it in the pasture with the llamas, as the llamas would keep any predators out of the area. But the pasture is a couple hundred yards from the house, and we wanted the coop to be closer to the kitchen for early morning egg gathering. We moved it around a couple of times. That’s one advantage of this coop—it is made to be mobile. Living in the country as we do, predators are a big concern. We felt that the coop was well enough designed to keep out the small varmints, such as fox, possum, raccoons. But we have a lot of black bears that visit our property, and it would be a simple feat for a bear to topple the whole coop and help himself.
We finally decided to put it in the side yard, inside our backyard fence. We have a 4 board fence with welded wire for our 2 dogs, and the chickens would be a little more protected from predators. Of course there’s nothing to deep the bears from climbing the fence if they want chicken dinner bad enough. This turned out to be a good news-bad news arrangement. As I mentioned, the coop was inside the fence, which was a good thing, but what worked out really well was that we had 2 raised beds we had built several years ago with 4 x 4 landscape timbers to the dimensions 4 feet x 8 feet. This was the perfect size to serve as a base for the coop. We topped off the bed with a couple inches of play sand to serve as litter, and set the coop right on top. The bad news part hit us when we looked up at the side of the house and realized that it was sitting right below our bedroom window. Well, that finally settled the decision of whether to have a rooster or not. By the way, a rooster is not necessary for the hens to lay eggs. They lay the same amount with or without a rooster. Roosters only come in handy if you want to hatch any of your eggs.
To finish off the chickens new yard, I found a great wrought iron picket fence at Lowe’s. It came in 3 foot panels and stands 40 inches high. I fenced off the side yard so the dogs won’t bother the chickens, and we can let them out for a little exercise from time to time.