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6 Crucial Things to Know BEFORE You Get Backyard Chickens

With egg shortages and soaring egg prices, many people are considering starting their own backyard flock of laying hens. Chicken keeping is one of the best methods for self-sufficiency, but there are a few important things to know before you start.

My family has kept chickens for over a decade and we have learned a lot in that time. Besides the usual learning curve on how to raise and care for chickens, there are other important considerations that many people don't realize. Here I will share some hard truths, so you can go into chicken keeping with your eyes wide open.

6 Crucial Things to Know Before You Get Chickens

  1. Chickens can live 8+ years, and most chickens will only lay eggs for 3-4 years.

  2. If you don't want to run a chicken retirement home, you will have to cull your flock at some point.

  3. If your flock gets too old, your hens will not be able to provide enough eggs for your family in the winter.

  4. You might end up with a rooster.

  5. Free-ranging chickens will destroy your yard and garden.

  6. Chickens are predator magnets.

Let's dig into each of these in more detail.

1. Chickens can live 8+ years, and most chickens will only lay eggs for 3-4 years.

Many people do not realize that chickens will only lay eggs reliably for the first few years of their lives. Most chicken breeds start laying eggs at around 5-6 months old. The highest egg production will be in the first 1.5 years of age, and then egg production starts to decrease. Once hens get older and their egg production drops off, they can still live for a few more years.

In our experience, high production breeds such as Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds will lay many eggs in the first couple years, but then their egg production will taper off considerably.

Our medium production breed chickens, such as Ameracaunas and Plymouth Barred Rocks, have tended to have good egg production for 3-4 years.

2. If you don't want to run a chicken retirement home, you will have to cull your flock at some point.

When your hens have reached 3-4 years old and have passed their main period of egg production, you will have to make a decision: whether to run a chicken retirement home or cull out the old members of your flock.

If you have plenty of financial resources and space, you may choose to continue providing housing and feed for your hens as pets until they get old enough to pass on naturally by 5-8+ years old.

However, if you mainly keep chickens for their eggs, you will need to either cull or re-home your chickens once they reach 3-4 years old. No illusions here: re-homing will probably mean that someone else is going to cull your hens, as people don't generally keep chickens as pets.

(I could write a whole article about how my kids and I have navigated culling our flock over the last 10+ years. Comment below if you'd like me to share our experiences with that in detail.)

3. If your flock gets too old, your hens will not be able to provide enough eggs for your family in the winter.

Chickens that are older than 18 months old will have much lower egg production in the winter months. There are two reasons for this: molting and shorter daylight hours.

At around 15-18 months old, your hens will have their first molting towards the end of the Fall season. They will lose their old worn-out feathers and regrow beautiful new feathers. Some chickens molt quickly and very obviously (looking like porcupines!), whereas other hens may lose their feathers a few at a time and you may not notice such a dramatic change.

Either way, growing new feathers takes a lot of energy and protein, so your hens will slow down their egg production while they are molting.

The shorter daylight hours in the winter are also a biological trigger for your hens to slow down or cease egg production. This makes sense from the point of view that shorter daylight hours correspond to colder temperatures, when baby chicks would be less likely to survive.

Some people choose to add artificial light in the winter to increase egg production.

In our flock, we have chosen not to add artificial lighting and prefer to allow our hens to take a natural break in egg production over the winter. One method we use to make sure we will still get some eggs every winter is to buy at least a few new chicks every Spring. Those Spring chicks will not molt their first winter and will continue laying eggs relatively well, while our older hens are taking their annual break.

4. You might end up with a rooster.

Depending on where you live, you may not be allowed to keep roosters. When you go to buy chickens, if you want hens specifically you will need to buy "pullets." Even if you buy pullets, chick sexing is only ~90% accurate. That means that you could end up with a rooster when you had intended to have only hens.

In our 10+ years of chicken keeping, we have had roosters in our flock about 50% of the time. Roosters can be calm and docile, and they are great at protecting the flock from predators. They also bring balance to the flock, as the hens will generally not have pecking-order/bullying issues when there is a rooster present.

However, roosters can also be very noisy, even in the middle of the night. They can easily become aggressive towards humans, especially if they feel the flock is being threatened. One of our roosters became aggressive just because the hens had been frightened by a feed bag that was momentarily held over their heads. And some roosters are just aggressive by nature.

Roosters often involve tough decisions at some point, such as whether to keep or cull a rooster who is attacking people, how to handle roosters who are over-mating the hens, whether to remove the sharp spurs that roosters can use as weapons, etc. We are currently very much enjoying our rooster-less flock.

5. Free-ranging chickens will destroy your yard and garden.

When we first started keeping chickens, I had an idyllic vision that the chickens would trim our grass for us and be able to wander freely in our backyard. That vision was shattered as I watched the chickens slowly-but-surely dig holes through our grass, eat my tomatoes before they were ripe, dig up my flowers to get at the bugs underneath, and leave chicken poop ev.ery.where. One funny upside, though, was often having the chickens staring in the back door and watching me do yoga, haha!

Seriously, though, chickens can be very destructive in the yard and garden. They will create places to take dirt baths by digging through grass or ground cover, they will dig in moist areas around your plants to find insects to eat, they will eat the leaves and fruits of your vegetable plants, and they will jump-and-flap to peck low-hanging fruits on trees or bushes.

And, the chicken poop alone will cause most chicken-keepers to decide they would rather keep their chickens confined to a specific area.

(There are some great ways to use chickens as helpers in your yard and garden, but it needs to be done intentionally and carefully. Let me know if you want to know more about that.)

6. Chickens are predator magnets.

You may think there are no predators in your area who will prey on your chickens. And there might not be, initially. But over time, the predators are likely to find your chickens. We've learned this the hard way on multiple occasions.

Dogs have been the biggest problem for us. But we've also had problems with coyotes, roadrunners (who prey on baby chicks), and nocturnal predators of unknown species (probably foxes or raccoons). Some other chicken keepers we know have also had problems with skunks, bobcats, and even hawks (who prey on small chickens or baby chicks).

Be prepared to provide your hens with a secure area. For us, a 5-foot-tall fence on our chicken yard combined with locking the chickens into a wooden chicken coop every night has worked best. Some people may also need to provide protection from aerial predators with wire fencing overhead.

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Chickens are Still Worth It

If you are considering chicken-keeping, I hope that what I've shared helps you make an informed decision. After 10+ years of chicken keeping, we still love it!

Recent events have shown us that the centralized food system can easily fail us in times of stress. Producing eggs at home can be healthier for the animals, the environment, and our own nourishment. Chicken keeping has been an important part of my family's mission to become more self-sufficient and to educate our kids for the future.

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