What’s a good number of chickens to start with when you’re a beginner?
Good question. When you’re starting out with anything new, there’s so much you don’t know. And with chickens, you might worry about taking on more than you can handle.
But chickens are very easy to take care of, so don’t worry too much!
Based on my 15 years of raising chickens, here’s my advice. For eggs, start with however many chickens it takes to get the amount of eggs you want. For meat birds, start with a few chickens and see if you can go through with killing them.
At a minimum, for a moderate supply of eggs for family use, you’ll need 3 to 4 hens. This takes into account the laying rate of chickens and their need to live in a social group (flock).
Other considerations apply if you’re planning to raise chickens for meat. A worthwhile, family size batch of chickens for the freezer would be 20 Cornish Cross broilers. However, starting with 20 meat birds could be a problem if you don’t have the stomach for slaughtering them.
Let’s dive into some flock size basics for beginners.
What Do You Want Chickens For? Meat, Eggs, Or Both?
Before you try to figure out the number of chickens you’ll need to start your flock, decide what you want the chickens to provide.
While the needs of chickens are broadly similar, whether you’re raising them for eggs, or meat, the way you’ll manage the flocks is different.
Broiler chickens are usually raised in batches. The chicks you start with grow super fast, and they’re ready for slaughter at 6 – 8 weeks. Then you bring in another batch of chicks and repeat the process. It’s a short cycle, and it’s easy to adjust your numbers up or down with each run.
Layer flocks are different. Your hens will have productive egg laying lives for several years and most flocks eventually have a mix of older and younger hens.
When you bring in day-old chicks, there’s a much longer waiting period while those chicks mature. Depending on the breed, that could be 4 to 5 months, or 7 to 8 months.
The other option is buying point of lay hens (pullets entering their first laying season).
If you decide to ease into keeping chickens with a small flock of 3 or 4 hens (whether you bring them in as day-old chicks or pullets) and plan to increase your flock size later once you know what you’re doing, you’ve got 3 problems.
- There’s going to be another lengthy growing period before your new chicks will mature into laying hens.
- You’ll need a separate space to raise those youngsters until you can integrate them with the flock.
- When they’re old enough to join the flock, integration takes time, and the pecking order (and egg laying) will be disrupted as the newcomers settle in. Sometimes integration can take several weeks of effort.
None of the above are major problems, but you can avoid them entirely by deciding how many eggs you want and sizing your flock for that level of egg production right from the start.
It’s as easy to take care of 12 or 20 hens as it is to take care of 3 or 4. Chickens are simple creatures with simple needs, and you shouldn’t feel at all nervous about taking on a flock.
I’ve seen others advising beginners to start with just 3 or 4 hens to learn the basics. I think that’s unnecessarily cautious.
One reason for the baby steps approach is so you can learn to deal with problems when they arise. But that’s not my approach. There’s a very good chance you won’t have any problems with illness or disease in your flock, especially when your birds are young.
In my experience, older birds are the ones more susceptible to coming down with some mysterious complaint for a few days. Younger layers are pretty robust.
Taking care of a healthy flock for 6 or 12 months teaches you nothing about dealing with sick chickens.
What’s A Good Number Of Chickens To Start With For Eggs?
For a 4 person family, 12 hens is a good flock size. A productive layer breed of 12 hens can provide 60 to 70 eggs a week.
How Many Eggs Do You Want Each Week?
Think about how many eggs you use now. Do you want your hens to give you that many or more?
Once you taste those fresh eggs from your happy hens, you’ll want more. I guarantee it!
Eggs from your own flock are nothing like the bland offerings in the supermarket. Your eggs will have deep golden yolks full of flavor and firm whites.
They taste exactly how real food should taste!
Suddenly, eggs for breakfast, eggs for lunch, and eggs for dinner, starts to look like a really good idea. They’re a great source of complete protein for us, and for our dogs and cats, too.
Maybe you use two dozen eggs a week now. Perhaps you’ll easily use four or six dozen eggs from your own chickens.
Once you’ve got a rough idea of how many eggs you want, the next thing you need to know is how many chickens you’ll need to lay those eggs.
I’ve written a more in-depth article about egg production rates in different breeds of chickens. But, I’ll go over the basic considerations here.
How Many Eggs Do Chickens Lay Each Week?
Different breeds of chickens have different rates of egg production.
Egg laying breeds like the White Leghorn or the sex-link hybrid chickens like the Black Star or Red Star lay the most eggs (almost daily in the right conditions) while some other breeds will only give three to four eggs a week.
If you keep a flock of 12 Red Star chickens, for example, you can expect 10 to 12 eggs per day.
That sounds ideal doesn’t it? But there’s a downside to these highly productive hybrid layers. Because they lay so many eggs, their egg laying rate drops dramatically once they’ve been laying for 2 years.
They’ll still lay eggs, but you won’t get as many.
If you want to keep a high rate of egg production, you’ll need to bring in new chickens. Then you have a dilemma. Do you keep feeding and housing the less productive chickens as they continue to decline, or do you cull those birds?
That’s a question only you can answer.
Traditionally, homesteaders raised dual purpose heritage chicken breeds. These breeds have a reasonable rate of egg production that holds steady over a longer period compared to the sex links. Then once egg production drops off, the large hens become dinner.
Heritage chicken breeds have another benefit over hybrids. Hybrids rarely go broody and hatch new chicks to replenish the flock because that trait has been bred out of them. The flock cannot sustain itself.
And because these chickens are hybrids, you can’t take the eggs they lay, hatch them in an incubator, and get more chickens with the same high level of egg production.
Hybrids are a mixture of two heritage breeds. The chicks that hatch will be one of the original breeding strains and they won’t be as productive as their mothers.
Some, but thankfully not all, heritage breeds have had their natural instinct to nest and raise chicks bred out of them. The White Leghorn, for example, is a superb egg layer, but hens don’t want to hatch a clutch of eggs and if they do, they’re poor mothers.
White Leghorns are a heritage breed though, so you can take their fertile eggs and incubate them to get more Leghorns. Which is something you can’t do with hybrids.
How Many Chickens Can You Raise?
What we want and what we can achieve aren’t always the same thing. Take a realistic look at your space and your budget, then ask yourself how many chickens you can accommodate.
- What size chicken coop can you afford?
- How much run space have you got room for?
- How much is chicken feed going to cost?
- How much is litter going to cost?
Don’t forget to check if local rules limit how many chickens you can have. There may be pesky local ordinances you need to comply with or rules from a homeowners’ association.
Here’s How A Typical Day Looking After Our Chickens Goes
First thing in the morning, we let the chickens out of their coops. That’s as easy as opening the doors.
Next, we put out fresh water and the morning feed.
As the chickens come over to eat, we observe them and make sure they’re all healthy.
Later in the afternoon, we’ll collect eggs and provide some more food.
At dusk, we collect the rest of the eggs and shut the chickens away for the night.
Apart from cleaning out the coops, that’s all there is to keeping chickens on a day-to-day basis.
Starter Setup For Egg Laying Chickens
Starting With Chicks
If you’re starting with chicks, you’ll need a chick brooder. This is a safe indoor enclosure where the chicks will be warm.
A brooder needs to be secure so the chicks can’t get out and other animals can’t get in. A dog cage with a plastic tray bottom makes an effective brooder and is secure and easy to clean. Thread some dowel through the bars to make roosts the chicks can perch on.
You’ll need a heat source to keep the chicks warm, which can be a heat lamp or a radiant heater like this one from Brinsea. I’ve got their older model radiant heater as well as a couple of their incubators. The heater works really well and doesn’t use a lot of energy.
The brooder needs litter on the floor to absorb droppings and to provide a non-slip surface. When chicks don’t have sure footing, their legs can splay out, producing a condition called spraddle legs. You’ll need to make teeny chicken splints to fix them.
The other equipment you’ll need is a waterer the chicks can’t drown in or poop in, and a chick feeder.
Chicks are lovely, but you’ll wait a long time before they give you any eggs. As a beginner, you’ll have more immediate rewards if you get started with point of lay hens.
Starting With Point Of Lay Hens
Point of lay hens, can go straight into your coop and run or chicken tractor.
Put down straw, hay, or wood shavings to catch droppings in the coop.
Set up robust chicken waters and feeders that won’t get knocked over or blown over in a strong wind.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can just let your hens roam around in your backyard or garden. They need to be contained. Chickens will quickly destroy your flower beds or vegetable garden.
What’s A Good Number Of Chickens To Start With For Meat?
For the purposes of this article, I’ll keep things simple and talk about Cornish Cross hybrid chickens because those are the chickens most commonly raised for meat.
Things To Know About Cornish Cross Hybrids
- Cornish Cross chickens are raised in batches
- They’re typically harvested in one go
- Harvesting chickens isn’t fun
Cornish Cross Broiler Chickens Are Raised In Batches
Unlike dual purpose chickens which give you eggs for a few years before they end up in the stew pot as you selectively cull older hens, broiler chickens have short lives.
For the sake of efficiency, you raise as many broilers as you can fit in the freezer once it’s time to process the chickens.
Typically Harvested In One Go
With a broiler flock, once the chickens reach table weight, they need processing. If you’re raising 20 birds, then you’ve got 20 birds to slaughter and butcher. That’s a lot of work, when it’s your first time.
It’s important to slaughter the chickens at the right time for a couple of reasons:
- Once the broilers are ready for harvesting, any delays mean extra feed costs.
- Cornish Cross broilers are notorious for health problems. Their rapid growth leaves them vulnerable to a host of ailments, including heart attacks and sudden death. The longer you keep these chickens, the higher the chance you’ll have unusable poultry. You shouldn’t eat poultry that displays signs of illness, and you shouldn’t butcher a bird if it’s been lying dead for a few hours.
Harvesting Chickens Isn’t Fun
This is the main consideration you should pay attention to if you’ve never killed a chicken before. And it’s why I advise you to start with a handful of broilers so you aren’t overwhelmed.
If possible, join another homesteader on slaughter day to get your hands dirty before you get your own birds.
Imagine you’ve got 20 or 30 broilers. You’ve taken care of them for 8 weeks and it’s time to process them. You’ve watched some “how to slaughter chickens” videos and you think you’re all set. Then reality bites and you realize you can’t kill a single one. Now what?
You’ve got to harvest those chickens. They’re no use to you for anything other than their meat.
Killing 4 or 5 broilers (or giving them away to another homesteader) will be a lot less of an ordeal than dispatching 20 or 30 birds.
Then, you can decide if you want to raise more broilers. If you do, great. Now you know what to expect and you know how to slaughter and process a chicken.
But perhaps the experience has taught you that you never want to kill another chicken. If so, you can focus on egg layers and let your hens live out their days once their production drops.
Final Thoughts On What’s A Good Number Of Chickens to Start With
Chickens are easy to raise, even for a complete beginner.
If you’re going to raise chickens for eggs, my advice is to start with a reasonable flock size that will meet your needs. For a family of 4, 12 laying hens or dual purpose chickens is ideal.
For beginners interested in raising broilers or dual purpose chickens for the stew pot, give careful consideration to the end stage of the process. Be honest with yourself about your capacity for slaughtering and butchering poultry.
If possible, find another local chicken keeper to show you the ropes. Otherwise, start with a handful of broilers and see how you get on.
Thanks for reading: What’s a good number of chickens to start with?