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Keeping chickens

Keeping chickens at home can be a fun way to provide fresh eggs for your kitchen and nitrogen-rich fertilizer to your garden. Master Gardener Patty Deering describes some tips for those interested in keeping chickens.

Benefits of keeping chickens

  • They add a key component to your compost—nitrogen
  • They dig over the soil
  • They eat various insects, reducing their numbers
  • They eat kitchen vegetable and fruit scraps which reduces household waste
  • They supply you with beautiful, fresh eggs
  • They provide entertainment and are delightful to have around

Before you decide to keep chickens...

  • Check with your local government regarding the requirements and/or restrictions of keeping chickens and/or roosters.
  • Discuss with your neighbors your plan of raising backyard chickens.
  • As with other pets, chickens require daily care.  Make sure you can arrange for “chicken sitters” when you are on vacation or have to leave town.

We got four day-old chicks in spring of 2008 – two Silver-laced Wyandottes and two Rhode Island Reds.  We chose these breeds because they are good layers, and we get about one egg a day from each chicken, although this is decreasing as the hens age.


Basic requirements for keeping chickens

  • A dry, predator-proof shelter
  • A safe place to lay eggs
  • A roosting perch off the ground
  • Laying pellets (or crumble for chicks) should make up majority of diet
  • Chicken scratch should be offered occasionally
  • They must have access to clean, fresh water

Chickens do not have teeth; they swallow small pebbles or grit to grind down their food in their gizzard.  They must have access to a supply of grit for this purpose. Ground oyster shell provides calcium for stronger egg shells.

If you don’t plan on letting your chickens free range in a garden during the day, they will be much happier if you provide them with an outside run where they will be able to scratch at the ground, indulge in a daily dust bath, and enjoy the sunlight.

Straw can be used to line the nesting boxes and to cover the coop and chicken yard.  Straw, a carbon rich material, and chicken manure, a nitrogen rich material, can then be added to the compost pile when the area is raked cleaned regularly.  It is important that you use straw (instead of hay) in your chicken area and garden, because hay is full of seeds that will germinate. (Hay is the first cut of the grass field, while straw is the stem and lower cut.)

Egg-laying, roosters, and molting

Note that as the chickens get older, they lay fewer eggs. A hen will lay the most eggs in her first year of laying.  A young hen starts laying eggs at about 4-6 months of age, and she doesn't need a rooster to produce eggs. This is fortunate, as most residential areas don't allow roosters!  A rooster is, of course, needed for a hen to produce fertile eggs, and therefore chicks.

Also, most chickens molt annually. This is the process of shedding feathers and generating new growth.  The molting chicken tends to look unkept with missing feathers and a bare neck (and feathers all around the coop and run). This is natural; it takes a chicken about 9 weeks to grow a new feather. During the molting process, a hen will lay sporadically or not at all.

More resources

Keep Chickens! Tending Small Flocks in Cities, Suburbs, and Other Small Spaces by Barbara Kilarski

The Joy of Keeping Chickens: The Ultimate Guide to Raising Poultry for Fun or Profit by Jennifer Megyesi and Geoff Hansen

Chicken Coops: 45 Building Plans for Housing Your Flock by Judy Pangman


Contact your local chapter of 4-H or visit the San Mateo County Fair livestock section to find meet others raising chickens.

Consult your local feed store for supplies and to purchase chicks or pullets.