Back in 2009, in the depths of the Great Recession, the New York Times picked up on a then-novel trend among uber-frugal urban homeowners.
“As Americans struggle through a dismal recession, many are trying to safeguard themselves from what they fear will be even worse times ahead. They eat out less often. They take vacations closer to home. They put off buying new cars,” wrote reporter William Neumann.
He added, drily: “And some raise chickens.”
The economy has improved markedly since Neumann’s rendezvous with Brooklyn’s booming poultry scene, but raising chickens at home is hotter than ever. And it’s no longer relegated to bleak rural homesteads or hip, pricey urban enclaves. For reasons as diverse as they are, people from all backgrounds and walks of life are opting into small-scale poultry farming at home.
Why aren’t you? Whether you’re attracted by the promise of endless fresh (and free) eggs, a commitment to strengthening your local food system, or something else entirely, raising chickens at home is well within your capabilities.
If nothing else, replacing store-bought eggs with fresh, homegrown eggs can save you $100 or more per year, depending on the size of your family and your consumption rates.
Here’s what you need to know to make it work.
Can You Legally Raise Chickens on Your Property? How to Find Out
Before you do anything else, you need to make sure you’re legally allowed to raise chickens on your property. The last thing you want is to sink hundreds of dollars and countless hours of time into your brood, only to find you’ve run afoul of local laws.
Check Your Municipal Chicken Ordinance
If you live in an unincorporated rural area, you’re almost certainly allowed to raise chickens on your property. However, you’ll still want to check with your county government for potential restrictions on brood size, enclosure placement, waste mitigation, and other aspects of small-scale poultry farming.
Most incorporated cities have municipal codes explicitly allowing or banning small-scale poultry farming within city limits. A simple Google search is usually all that’s needed to find reliable, up-to-date code information. Just make sure you’re visiting an actual municipal website, not an impostor site or out-of-date hobbyist portal.
I live in Minneapolis, so I’m bound by the city’s Chicken Keeping Rules and Regulations. Residents of Maplewood, Minnesota, a nearby suburb, are bound by their city’s Chicken Ordinance. Note their similarities and differences – for instance, Maplewood caps brood size at 10 and prohibits roosters, while Minneapolis caps brood size at 30 and allows roosters for an additional fee.
Components of a Municipal Chicken Ordinance – Common Rules & Regulations
Most municipal chicken ordinances are predictable in content and scope. Look for these common rules, regulations, and stipulations in yours:
- Brood Size: DIY poultry farms can’t be too big. Most cities limit broods to a few dozen hens at most. Larger farms must get commercial licenses, which involve lots more red tape and out-of-pocket expense.
- Roosters: When hobbyists talk about raising chickens, they usually mean raising hens. Municipal authorities tend not to be fond of noisy, aggressive roosters. (In our old neighborhood, a rogue rooster happily stood in as an outdoor alarm clock – he’d start crowing as early as 5am during the summer.) If your city doesn’t ban them outright, it surely keeps closer watch on them and probably charges higher licensing fees, as is so here.
- Setbacks and Placement: Chicken ordinances have lots to say about where on your property it’s permissible to place housing (coops) and runs (outdoor enclosures). Generally, chicken-related structures need to be well away from property lines or neighboring structures (five feet from the property line in Maplewood and 20 feet from “residential use” buildings not including your own home in Minneapolis), and in a low-visibility side or rear yard.
- Enclosure Size and Dimensions: Coops and runs must be large enough to safely and humanely house your brood. In Minneapolis, coops need to have at least four square feet of interior space per chicken. Runs need to have at least 10 square feet of outdoor space per chicken. Your ordinance may go into even greater detail about permissible sizing and layout for enclosures, runs, and exercise yards – for instance, how much clearance is required in multilevel coops.
- Slaughter: For health reasons, chicken ordinances often prohibit live slaughter on private property, with exceptions for valid religious or cultural practices. If your ordinance doesn’t explicitly remark on this point, your municipal animal control authority for a definitive ruling. Where slaughter is prohibited on residential property, licensed butchers are happy to step up.
- Disposal: Depending on breed, healthy chickens can live as long as 10 to 12 years, and remain productive egg-layers for about half that time. Of course, all good things eventually come to an end. Most chicken ordinances explicitly spell out how, where, and when to dispose of deceased chickens. Check before burying them on your property or throwing them in the trash – both may be forbidden in your area.
- Certification: Residential poultry permit applicants may need to complete certification courses before or shortly after obtaining their permits. Courses are generally offered by city governments themselves or local universities and can usually be taken online or in the evening.
- Commercial Use and Licensing: Residential chicken ordinances generally prohibit commercial activity without express permission from the appropriate authorities. If you want to sell your eggs or start a breeding operation, you’ll need to obtain a separate commercial license and jump through any attendant hoops.
- Submitting Your Plan: Most chicken ordinances require applicants to submit site plans with detailed coop and run schematics, including interior layout, dimensions, and placement on the property. City planners review, request modifications, and approve these plans, which then serve as the basis for periodic city inspections.
- Notifying Neighbors: Most ordinances have some sort of neighbor notification requirement. In Minneapolis, all applicants need to prove that they’ve notified immediate neighbors (adjacent and behind). Those planning broods of six chickens or more need to obtain written consent from 80% of neighbors within 100 feet.
- Fees and Renewal: Residential poultry permits usually last one to two years. You’ll likely need to pay a one-time application fee, then a lower renewal fee on a recurring basis. Renewal is conditioned on successful inspection and timely payment. One-time and recurring fees may vary based on brood size. Roosters usually cost extra – for instance, Minneapolis imposes a one-time rooster surcharge of $100.
What You Need to Raise Chickens on Your Property – Supplies & Costs
This is a list of common items necessary to successfully raise chickens on your property.
Opting to build a DIY chicken coop from scratch is the smartest financial decision any aspiring backyard poultry farmer can make.
The project itself is well within the capabilities of a reasonably handy homeowner. It’s the pre-construction planning that trips up most DIYers, who fail to account for ventilation, natural lighting, hiding spaces, waste disposal, and the like.
Before you get started, download a free chicken coop plan in PDF format from a reputable website like HGTV. There are literally thousands of unique coop schematics floating around on the Internet. Ignore anyone who tells you that you need to pay for a “quality” schematic – that’s simply not true.
Depending on its size and configuration, a DIY chicken coop can cost anywhere from $30 to more than $100 to build.
That figure doesn’t include the cost of tools necessary for the job. If you need to cut wood on-site and don’t have access to a table saw, for instance, you’ll need to find the nearest tool lending library (if one exists in your area) or rent the equipment from a hardware store at a likely cost of $30 or more per day.
Alternatively, you can trade time for money and purchase a premade coop. Used chicken coops start around $40 or $50. New coops start around $150 on the small, basic side, and run up to $1,000 or more on the larger, more intricate side.
If you plan to use your chickens’ litter (poop) to fertilize your lawn and garden, get a mobile coop that makes it easy to spread the “love” – or at least install a plastic tray under the coop for easy cleaning.
Chickens actually spend most of their waking time in runs: open-air enclosures constructed with metal or wooden posts, chicken wire, hardware cloth, and zip ties to hold everything together.
Runs aren’t fancy, and they’re not at all protected from the elements, but they keep chickens in a confined space that’s reasonably inaccessible to predators (more on that below). The Prairie Homestead has a good primer on constructing a chicken run.
As noted above, most municipalities require a certain amount of outdoor enclosure space per chicken, so size your run accordingly. Expect the job to cost $30 or more with store-bought materials or little to nothing with found or spare materials. Don’t forget to change your run’s mulch periodically.
Predator and Theft Protection
Free-range chickens are sitting ducks, if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor.
Keep carnivorous mammals and birds of prey out of the coop by securing windows and door openings with chicken wire or finer mesh screens. Make sure these coverings are fine enough to repel little hands and arms – raccoons are notoriously adept egg thieves. Secure the entire run – overhead and on both sides – with more chicken wire.
Pro Tip: Don’t let chicks and pullets (adolescents) out of the run unsupervised. They will become lunch for opportunistic raptors.
Adult hens need nesting boxes to safely and comfortably lay their eggs. Your typical multi-hen box has room for four, though larger options exist. Expect to pay at least $100 for a high-quality, pre-built four-nester.
A DIY nesting box is well within handy farmers’ capabilities (especially those who’ve already built their own coops) and costs far less to complete – maybe $10 to $20 in materials, all-in. HGTV has a good step-by-step for DIYers.
If you’re raising chicks by hand, you’ll also need a brooder, a specialized compartment that keeps the little guys warm and comfortable for about six weeks after birth. A new brooder costs $75 to $100. A heat lamp costs at least $20. You can reuse both on subsequent broods.
Straw is the most common, and cheapest, bedding option. Expect to pay $5 to $10 per bale. Pine shavings are slightly more expensive and significantly messier. (They stick to feathers.)
Your bedding needs will depend on the size of your brood, the quality of the coop’s ventilation, and your neighbors’ sensitivity to odor.
Feeding and Watering Equipment
Unlike household pets, chickens don’t have set feeding times. They’re pretty much always eating, actually.
Feeding and watering equipment minimizes the attention you need to devote to ensuring your brood is well-fed. Basic apparatuses can cost as little as $10. Fancier devices, with space for more birds and different setting options, cost as much as $40 or $50.
You can make your own equipment with found or cheaply sourced supplies – Backyard Chickens has some DIY-friendly ideas.
A 50-pound bag of regular feed provides a roughly four-month supply of food for a single adult hen, or a one-month supply for four adults. If your flock is bigger, divide accordingly. Chicks eat a little less – about 10 pounds during the first two months of life.
Expect to pay $15 to $20 per bag for non-organic feed and up to $35 per bag for organic feed. Higher-quality mixes can cost more – up to $50 per bag.
Stretch your food budget further by supplementing with table scraps and giving your chickens the run of your yard – they’ll hoover up bugs, earthworms, and plant matter like no one’s business.
Heat lamps aren’t the most efficient source of overnight heat for adult hens. In cold climates, an animal-safe space heater or electric radiator is a better bet.
Look for models that deliver gentle heat on low fan settings, rather than industrial-strength space heaters that turn confined areas into saunas. Expect to pay $30 to $40 for a basic model, $100 or more for a fancier, multi-setting model.
If you don’t already have one, you’ll need a heavy duty outdoor extension cord – another $10 to $40, depending on length and quality.
Don’t forget the chickens! Very young chicks are more cost-effective to procure: Day-old chicks usually go for $3 to $4 per head. Young adult hens are more expensive by a factor of 10.
You should expect to lose at least a couple of chicks before they reach maturity, depending on the size of your brood at the outset, but buying youngsters is still a better financial strategy.
Hens are more likely to survive to old age and are guaranteed to be the right sex – about 10% of chicks are improperly sexed, meaning there’s a one in 10 chance you’ll end up with a rooster in any given brood.
Make a Home for Your Chickens – Setup Procedure
This is the basic procedure for setting up your enclosures, acquiring chicks, and raising them humanely.
- Plan Your Brood. First, decide how big your brood will be. Four is a common size for hobby broods. More than that and egg volumes become overwhelming, less than that and you’ll likely have empty space in your coop and nesting boxes. If you plan to sell eggs commercially or gift them to friends and extended family members, bigger is better.
- Evaluate Your Space. Determine what your property can handle. Refer to your local chicken ordinance for rules regarding setbacks, sizing, and placement. Make sure your coop and run are both large enough for your brood as set forth in the ordinance. Decide on a final location and extent for the entire setup before buying or building.
- Get a Coop Plan or Choose a Coop. If you’re going the DIY route, use the HGTV link above or do your own research to find a coop plan adequate for your needs. If you’re buying a new or used coop, select your model. Do the same for your run.
- Get Legal. Draw up and submit your site and coop plans to the appropriate authorities, along with any required applications and fees. Don’t start building until you’ve received the all clear.
- Assemble or Install Your Coop and Run. Carefully follow your coop plan or manufacturer instructions as you erect your chicken enclosures. If you find that your planned DIY project is too overwhelming or time-consuming, reach out to a local expert or fellow hobbyist for help. Many areas have Facebook or Google groups dedicated to backyard chickens – don’t be shy about consulting them whenever you encounter difficulties.
- Acquire Everything Your Brood Needs to Survive. Buy everything your brood needs ahead of time: brooder, nesting box(es), heat lamp, heat source, feed, bedding, feeding and watering equipment. Set aside storage space for consumables, such as feed and bedding.
- Set Up Your Brooder and Nesting Boxes. Follow a DIY-friendly schematic or manufacturer instructions to assemble and set up your brooder, nesting boxes, or both. If you’re hand-raising chicks, the brooder is your top priority – they’ll need to go in there right away. Don’t forget the heat lamp.
- Set Up and Test Feeding and Watering Equipment. Set up your feeding and watering equipment. Make sure everything works properly.
- Purchase Your Chick(en)s. If you’re a chicken novice, spend some time researching your options. This primer from Backyard Chicken Coops is a nice overview of 20 popular breeds. There are plenty of others. You’ll probably want a breed known for reliable egg production, physical resiliency, and even temperament, but it’ll definitely help to talk over your options with someone at your local farm supply store.
- Regularly Clean the Coop and Run. Develop a cleaning schedule for your coop and run. Well-designed coops usually facilitate cleaning from the outside, using plastic trays to catch falling waste and wide openings to allow for sweeping. Wear a mask to ward off odor and dust, which can cause respiratory problems. Remember to check for and remove eggs daily. Replace bedding as necessary – it’s worth spending a few extra dollars per month for more straw or shavings if it means keeping your neighbors happy and chickens healthy.
- Keep Your Brood Happy, Healthy, and Productive. You can’t force your chickens to lay eggs, but you can certainly encourage them. Happy, healthy hens need plenty of water, protein-rich food (any approved commercial feed should do), calm roosting spaces, dark and quiet nesting boxes, adequate hygiene, ample ventilation, and suitable climate control. With proper care, most hen breeds remain at peak productivity – laying one egg nearly every day – for two to three years. Some continue producing for nearly a decade.
Pros of Raising Chickens at Home
Why raise chickens at home? Let us count the ways.
Mitigates Your Diet’s Environmental Impact
According to a Poultry Science study reprinted by the National Institutes of Health, free-range eggs have a “global warming potential” of 2.2 kg CO2 equivalent per dozen. Most of that potential is bound up in commercial poultry feed, which requires substantial carbon inputs to produce economically.
“Eggs represent a relatively low-carbon supply of animal protein,” write study authors R.C. Taylor, H. Omed, and G. Edwards-Jones, “but their production is heavily dependent on cereals and soy, with associated high emissions from industrial nitrogen production, land-use change, and transport.”
In other words, the ideal at-home chicken raising arrangement involves as little commercial feed as possible. That’s not a massive ask in warm climates, but commercial feed is probably unavoidable wherever the ground freezes or becomes snow-covered in winter. And remember that commercial feed is the least labor-intensive strategy to ensure reliable egg production.
Strengthens Local Food Systems
However modestly, residential poultry farms strengthen local food systems by supporting a ready-made source of protein not dependent on the intricate, continent-spanning logistical networks supported by big agribusiness.
Your mini-farm may help nudge your household toward dietary self-sufficiency. While your family can’t survive on homegrown eggs and chicken meat alone, poultry is a valuable complement to other self-directed vectors, such as vegetable gardens and foraging. On larger rural plots with sufficient space for extensive garden plots, livestock storage, cellaring facilities, and public lands available for foraging, self-sufficiency is within reach for the truly committed.
Renewable Supply of Fresh, High-Quality Eggs
Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
For those raising backyard chickens, the answer is obviously the chicken. But the egg doesn’t follow far behind. Hens are egg-laying machines – as long as they’re well-fed and cared for, they won’t fail you.
The general rule of thumb is: At peak productivity, most hens lay eggs most days. In practice, your backyard farm will probably average just under one egg per prime-age hen, per day, or five to six eggs per hen, per week. With two hens, you’ll pull down about a dozen eggs per week. (Don’t take this as an article of faith – a lot goes into steady egg production.) At supermarket prices, that’s $1.50 to $2 saved per week on factory-farmed eggs, and $4 to $5 per week on organic, free-range eggs.
If you normally get your eggs through a CSA egg share, your savings will be even more impressive: The egg share to which my wife and I subscribe charges about $6 per dozen. And these are really good eggs we’re talking about. If you’ve ever had a free-range egg, you know there’s no comparison with the factory-farmed variety.
A backyard chicken coop is a great conversation-starter, especially in urban neighborhoods where livestock are novelties. Don’t be shy about inviting your neighbors over to ogle your chickens. Unless your block is particularly crunchy, this is pretty much guaranteed to earn you the coveted “cool neighbor” designation.
Educational Opportunities and Companionship for Children
You don’t have to turn your yard into a petting zoo to seize its educational potential.
For starters, backyard chickens offer drudgery in droves. Your kids are far more likely to embrace mundane chores like cleaning coops, changing litter, and retrieving eggs than the adult members of your household. They’ll learn something along the way – about the importance of manual labor, the value of a dollar (assuming you pay them), and the finer points of animal husbandry. Even without putting them to work, your poultry palace can teach them important, if basic, lessons about biology and agriculture. There’s nothing quite like seeing the avian lifecycle unfold up close, in real time.
Never-Ending Natural Fertilizer Supplies
All that chicken poop has to go somewhere. Why not your lawn and garden?
It’s not advisable, and might not be permissible under local ordinances, to let your chickens do their business wherever they please. At minimum, you’ll need to periodically clean excrement from their enclosures and then spread it around your lawn and garden as fertilizer.
You can also add it to your home compost pile, where it’ll mix with other waste and cure over time. Poop-boosted compost is a great lawn and garden fertilizer.
Free-range chickens are effective mechanical fertilizers too. With their nigh compulsive scratching and digging, they turn the soil like so many earthworms, aerating and mixing the medium.
Natural Pest, Weed, and Trash Control
Free-range chickens are omnivorous. If your yard has enough room for your feathered friends to run free outside protective enclosures, and your local government permits domestic fowl outside coops and runs, turn them loose and let them do their thing.
Backyard chickens aren’t picky eaters. They’ll eat pretty much anything they find: bugs, ants, worms, spiders, leafy weeds, small amphibians and reptiles, nuts, seeds, unidentifiable pieces of trash.
Their indiscriminate foraging habits present a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they’re all too happy to eat annoying insects, structural pests, and garden weeds. On the other, they eat plenty of friendly insects, arachnids, and plants.
If you’re worried that your chickens are eating too much of the wrong stuff, supplement with table scraps. Fruit, leafy greens, cooked legumes, berries, nuts, grains, and even meat scraps are all fair game. This is a great way for busy households to reduce food waste too.
Pro Tip: Free-range chickens aren’t the only solution to pesky residential pests. Nor are they appropriate for certain types of pests, such as structural termites. Even if you’ve lived in your house for years, it’s never too late to get a home inspection to check for latent infestations.
Supports Genetic Diversity
As a species, domestic chickens are the farthest thing from endangered. But that doesn’t mean their genome isn’t under threat.
Corporate poultry farms have powerful incentives to use all-but-identical stock. This is good for big agribusiness’ collective bottom line, but not so great for America’s agricultural heritage. Once-common heirloom poultry breeds (known officially as “heritage chickens”) grow rarer by the year. It’s up to small-scale, mostly family-owned farms and hobbyists – that’s you – to save them from extinction.
Cons of Raising Chickens at Home
Backyard chickens aren’t worry-free. These are just some of the things you’ll contend with as a small-time poultry farmer.
Waste and Odor Mitigation Headaches
Chickens are not clean animals. They poop a lot. There’s simply no way to keep a coop completely odor- and waste-free.
But you have to try your best, if only to keep your neighbors and the local powers that be happy. Devise a regular schedule for cleaning and re-bedding your coop – to keep offensive odor to a minimum, you’ll need to completely replace the bedding in your coop and run at least weekly. Follow on with a waste disposal plan: either on-site composting or your city’s organic waste program. Always wear a mask and gloves when handling chicken waste.
Limited Cost Savings
If your brood is productive enough to supply every egg your household uses, it’ll save you a nice chunk of change. Replacing store-bought eggs at $2 per dozen, your homegrown flock is worth $104 per year. Step it up to organic, free-range eggs and you’re looking at $208 saved per year. Larger families can easily take down two dozen eggs per week; adjust your savings accordingly.
But your backyard brood isn’t free. Depending on the complexity of its enclosure(s) and the initial cost of its members, it could take anywhere from one to five years to break even on the up-front outlay. Moving forward, feed, supplies, utilities, and equipment will eat into your “income.” Your brood might eventually pay for itself, and perhaps even turn a profit. But it’ll take a long while.
Regulatory Red Tape
Obtaining a residential poultry permit isn’t the hardest thing in the world, but cities don’t just hand them out either.
If you’re a busy homeowner who’s not particularly passionate about the idea of raising chickens on your property, think carefully about whether the application and certification processes are really worth the trouble.
Make a list of the arguments for and against raising chickens at home. Ask yourself whether raising chickens is actually necessary to realize the perceived benefits. Perhaps you can educate your kids about farming with a field trip to a working farm in your area, and partake in hyperlocal bounty with a CSA membership.
Higher Power Consumption in Winter
Chicken coops don’t need to be kept toasty, but most chickens can’t tolerate freezing conditions for long periods of time, and some breeds are downright delicate in cold weather.
In cold climates, the humane (and practical) thing to do is hook up a space heater or electric radiator in your coop, so that your chickens at least have a warm place to sleep. (Hardy breeds can handle freezing conditions during daytime exercise periods.)
Depending on the length of your heating season, the amount of power required to maintain an acceptable ambient temperature, and prevailing utility rates in your area, heating your coop could add significantly to your farm’s overhead. An extra $50 to $75 per season isn’t out of the question.
Ongoing Time and Energy Commitment
Even if your kids are old enough to help (and willing to lend a hand), raising chickens is a lot of work.
Depending on the size of your operation, you can expect to devote 20 to 30 minutes most days to cleaning, feeding, and harvesting eggs from your chickens – more if it’s important to you to spend time with the animals.
And that baseline doesn’t include time devoted to research, troubleshooting, or trips to the store for equipment and supplies. If you’re already overscheduled, think twice before you commit to a multi-year animal husbandry project.
Risk of Predation
I almost made it through this post without writing the phrase, “fox in the henhouse,” but there it is.
Rural areas abound with natural chicken predators. Depending on where you live, your native predator lineup might include snakes, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, cougars, fishers, bears, various hawks and owls, other birds of prey, or all of the above.
Not to mention feral or roaming housecats and wayward domestic dogs, which live everywhere.
Oh, and raccoons: They’re not as likely to bother with the birds themselves, but they love eggs – and they’re astonishingly adept at stealing them.
Larger predators aren’t as common in urban and suburban areas, but smaller chicken nemeses – coyotes, foxes, birds of prey, and of course raccoons – thrive in city backyards. Despite your best efforts, you can expect to lose at least one chicken to predation during your tenure as a backyard poultry farmer. Forget the obvious financial impact: Most people get quite attached to their brood, and losing a member can really hurt.
Chickens might be the most common backyard livestock, but they’re not the only productive creatures suitable for small-scale husbandry.
When we lived in the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, my wife and I were amused to no end by the unruly free-range rabbit farm that had more or less taken over the tiny hamlet to which she occasionally traveled for work. Apparently, the owners harvested the bunnies for their pelts and meat. Who knew that sending dozens of fluffy, mottled bunnies to hop around town like so many mobile Weed-Whackers could be so profitable?
Meanwhile, in our current hometown, political momentum is building to allow small-scale goat husbandry on residential property. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, goats are already legal on private property across the river in St. Paul. Both city governments already use goats to clear invasive brush in public parks. Querulous bleating could soon emanate from backyards on our side of the river too.
In other words, there’s hope for you yet if you prefer rabbit meat or goat milk to farm-fresh eggs. And, if enough of us jump on the small-scale animal husbandry bandwagon, maybe there’s hope yet for our broken food system and the globe’s increasingly vulnerable ecology.
Have you ever considered raising chickens on your property?