At some point, every homesteader needs to decide whether or not to bring poultry into the mix. Most of the time, the answer is a resounding “Yes.”
But then the next question arises…what type of poultry is best for beginners?
Chickens are the easiest type of poultry for beginners. They are easy to care for, don’t require much room, and are self-sufficient compared to other poultry types. Many breeds can be used for both eggs and meat, and the lessons you learn from raising chickens will apply to every other bird.
In this post, my goal is to take a look at the start-up considerations for the fledgling (lol) flockster. We will go over how to prepare the space, the potential costs and earning potential, and the time required in addition to other factors.
Raising Poultry: What To Consider Before Getting Started
Poultry are like homesteads in miniature. They need their own sources of water, shelter, and food (see the section on Startup Costs), just like humans. As you provide those needs, the flock will thrive, and from their abundance, will thrive, as well.
Interdependence as It Relates to the Food Chain
In my worldview, we don’t eat poultry because we are bigger and smarter. It is not a Darwinist relationship of the strong eating the weak. You are not a monster for killing and eating a prey animal that you have raised in a sustainable way.
Rather, the homestead is an exercise in interdependence. Poultry and other livestock fit into this relationship as prey animals.
Prey animals intentionally overbreed. If left unchecked, their numbers will decimate their own food source. By over-reproducing, the prey supports the predator, and the predator supports the prey by keeping the numbers down. Together, they support the land that they share.
When you commit to having poultry, you are committed to the well-being, safety, and management of your flock.
Luckily, the poultry’s needs are simple. They will take care of themselves if allowed, and barring plague or predator, they will be as self-sufficient as you need.
At a bare minimum, you will need to let them in or out twice a day and ensure their access to food and water every day.
If you can’t live on a schedule that lets you do those things, you will either need to automate those processes with the use of technology or wait until you are in a different stage of life.
Most coops you buy online will assume 3-3.5 square feet per bird. This is an average. If you plan on harvesting your chickens when they are small, you won’t need quite so much. If you get any of the jumbo breeds, you will need about 4 square feet per bird inside the coop.
Chickens keep themselves warm in cold temperatures by bunching up together. If you leave too much space in the coop, they could get frostbite. They should be close enough to cuddle without being squished.
If you plan on fencing the chickens in, the bigger the yard the better. Jumbo breeds need about 8 square feet per bird but also remember that the more room your chickens have to scratch, the less food you need to supply them. They will gladly find their own food if given the space to do so.
Your Knowledge & Experience
If this is your first flock, start small. Get or build a coop for about five chickens, and grow from there every season. You don’t want to jump in with a flock of one or two dozen. Learn to manage the care, eggs, space, and slaughter of a handful before wading knee-deep in feathers.
Two things matter when it comes to climate: temperature and humidity.
Environments with consistently high humidity levels are ideal breeding grounds for a host of fungal and bacterial infections, particularly respiratory issues. This is true regardless of temperature.
For cold temperatures, the key term is “hardiness.” Hardy birds will handle the cold better than birds that are not hardy. A Southeast Asian breed of chicken, for example, will not be as hardy as a chicken bred in Switzerland.
On the flip side, certain breeds will handle extreme heat better than others. If you live in a warm region, plan ahead by considering coop placement (lots of shade and access to breezes), cooling measures (coop fans and cross ventilation), and heat-tolerant breeds.
Startup & Ongoing Costs
Startup costs for poultry are your largest expense, although those costs can take many different forms. Of the four keys to survival (water, shelter, fire, and food), shelter is the largest expense. Your coop will set you behind.
Maintenance costs are mainly wrapped up in your water and food costs. The more time or money you spend on providing those, the healthier your flock will be. Of course, there will be coop and fencing repairs, feed buckets to replace, pluckers and incubators to buy, and various other occasional expenses as well.
“Fire” needs for poultry are very low. Unless you have a coop lamp, coop fan, or automatic doors/feeders/waterers, you will not need to provide warmth or energy.
Eggs are some of the most in-demand foods at farmer’s markets. Meat co-ops are a big draw as well. To sell these things for profit, though, you will need to have a very large flock.
Otherwise, if you are just looking to feed your family, you will need to calculate the cost of your poultry’s feed vs. what the cost of eggs and meat would be if you were buying them year over year.
In some seasons, the hens will not lay any eggs. In other seasons, you will have more than you need. This is why year-over-year costs are more accurate than month-over-month costs.
For any concern other than finance, you are definitely profiting if you calculate nutritional value and taste. Local, organic, and sustainably raised meat and eggs produced in your own yard are above and beyond anything you could get at the store with all the same labels.
If you are backyard homesteading or part of a homeowner’s association, check your local laws to determine how big of a flock you can have or if poultry is allowed at all in your neighborhood. Fortunately, laws on this are relaxing as backyard homesteading becomes more popular.
HOA rules will determine how much effort you put into hiding your chickens from the nosy neighbors.
Types of Poultry
Poultry is a catch-all term for white meat, egg-laying birds you can raise on your homestead.
Chickens are the best choice for any beginner. More often than not, you won’t need to add any more types of birds. For egg and meat production, there is no better.
Ducks do not have the same egg production or meat production value as chickens. However, their eggs and meat can be used in many specialized recipes or holiday meals. If you sell at market, you can sell higher due to supply and demand.
Like ducks, geese are specialty poultry that will sell well at market during certain times of the year. Goose meat sells better than goose eggs. Geese also can act as guardians for a mixed flock of smaller birds.
Turkeys are the worst for egg production, but they have enough meat to justify feeding them for a year before slaughter. They will also guard your smaller birds, and their cast-off feathers can make for great arts and crafts if you homeschool.
Pheasants, quail, guinea hens, and doves are your typical game birds on the homestead, though there are others. Like the rest of the non-chicken flock birds, they will have a niche market value, and if you want to stay in the green on this investment, you ought to use them to supplement your flock and not as a primary bird.
Ostriches, emus, rheas… these are the birds with the highest specialty costs and value. They will require everything chickens require but big enough for a six-foot bird!
Furthermore, you are more likely to get gutted by an ostrich than make a giant omelet for breakfast. It takes a special homesteader to have these around!
Deciding Between Egg or Meat Birds
This decision is best answered with “both!” Consider getting a mixed flock. This is where you raise several different breeds of chickens (or other birds) that are either dual-purpose or egg/meat-specific. As they interbreed and the broody hens raise everyone else’s chicks, you will develop a flock that meets your personal homestead needs.
Deciding on Flock Size
One way to approach this is to ask yourself how many pounds of poultry you want to eat each year and then lower that by 75%. When you are slaughtering all of your own meat, you will eat less of it.
It happens every time.
The best thing is to start with a small flock while you continue to use the grocery store. Raise the flock sustainably, and the flock will grow. As you use the birds more and more, you won’t need the grocery store any longer.
Many breeds are called “dual-purpose.” This means they are good egg layers that also produce meat. To handle a good dual-purpose breed, follow these steps:
- Cull (slaughter) 80-90% of the males. They only serve 2 functions: breeding and defending the hens. Too many of them only lead to violence within the flock.
- Let your egg-laying hens lay eggs until they get too old. Then retire them to the crockpot.
- If a hen is not laying eggs, but she broods and raises chicks, let her live. You will need her to raise the next generation.
- Rotate your roosters every couple of years to avoid stagnant genetic lines. You can either trade with your neighbor or buy a few males to replace the ones you have.
How To Get Started Raising Poultry
As I mentioned above, poultry, like all animals, require water, shelter, fire, and food. This is how you provide that:
- Source Water – Most homesteaders have waterers that can be filled with a garden hose. There is no need to measure the water; just keep it clean. Free-range birds that can find their own water are in an even better position.
- Build Shelter – Poultry need to be protected from predators and exposure. They need at least a roof, and the more walls you have the better. They will also need to roost at night since sleeping on the ground is the best way to get eaten.
- Get “Fire” – Poultry need to stay warm, and any automated portions of their shelter need to be powered.
- Provide Food – Even free-range birds need to be fed, especially in cold weather when natural food sources are low.
What Is the Best Chicken Breed for Eggs?
For eggs, no breed can beat the Australorp. It holds the world record for the most eggs in a single season and will have the longest egg season of any other bird.
What Is the Best Chicken Breed for Meat?
Though others may disagree, I prefer the American Bresse. While it is a smaller chicken, it is capable of free-ranging and produces a ton of eggs. The quality and taste of the meat is hard to beat.
As a heritage breed, it will be more likely to brood and raise your next generation of birds, so ultimately, it will save you money on feed and future chicks.