The first time we got chickens, we ended up with a bunch of Rhode Island Reds that my sister needed to rehome. We knew we wanted chickens and had inherited a great coop from some friends, but we didn’t put too much thought into what breed or how many we should have.
That was a beginner’s mistake.
Now that we’ve been keeping chickens for around six years, we know which breeds we like and which ones we don’t. We know about how many can fit into the little coop we built for our new place. We know what happens when you get too many chickens in one small place.
We’ve learned a lot, and now I want to pass along some of that knowledge to other beginners.
How many chickens should you get for your backyard flock?
How many chickens you choose to keep depends on why you want chickens: are they pets, future meat, or egg-layers? And it depends on where you live and how much space you can provide to a flock. You always want to get more than one chicken because they are flock animals and most won’t thrive without a flock of at least three.
Why Keep Chickens?
1) Some people keep chickens because they can be sweet pets.
They’re mostly quiet, soft and docile, as long as you get the right breed.
Hint: if you want docile, don’t get Rhode Island Reds! Get Silkies.
If you get the right breed, you can even find docile roosters, including Silkie roosters and Polish Silver Laced roosters.
And as a bonus, these breeds are attractive with soft, funky feathers that look like fur. The silkies even have furry feet.
If you want chickens to keep as pets, three or four might be the perfect size flock for your backyard.
It’s important not to crowd too many chickens into a small space because they’ll fight each other, sometimes to death.
Aside from that, it’s just more humane to be sure you have open space for your chickens. (And I’m pretty sure the eggs taste better when the hens are happy.)
A flock of three or four is small enough for those cute chicken coops you can buy at the hardware store. Any more than six, and you’ll want to build something more spacious.
Warning: If you have children, keep in mind that pet chickens will be loved. So when one dies, which happens, you’ll need to help your kids emotionally process that.
While any pet can die, chickens have a shorter lifespan than many other pets (5-10 years if well-protected), and a lot of natural predators.
2) Some people keep chickens because humans are one of their natural predators: Mmm, tastes like chicken.
People use the meat and the bones when they eat chicken. The meat can be cooked, baked, fried, and grilled. The bones can be boiled to make a nutritious, collagen-rich bone broth that many swear can cure the common cold.
If you decide to keep game hens for meat, you’ll want to keep a lot of them. At The Elliott Homestead, in their article, Raising a Year’s Supply of Meat, they suggest 50 hens if you want to average one chicken a week.
Obviously 50 game hens, while small in stature, will still take up plenty of space. For this type of chicken-keeping you’ll need space and homesteading-friendly laws in your city and county. Make sure to check those laws and codes out before committing to any number of hens.
Some cities have arbitrary codes they’ve borrowed from other cities that may not make sense for the area. We lived in a rural town where you needed a license to keep more than six chickens, which seemed needlessly restrictive to us.
If you feel passionately about keeping chickens, don’t be afraid to lobby to change the laws. You’ll need to convince your neighbors and local leaders, but it might be worth it.
3) The third and probably most common reason to keep chickens is for the eggs they lay.
Eggs are a healthy source of protein, and getting farm-fresh cage-free eggs is worth just about any price you have to pay.
A flock of six to eight chickens is usually sufficient to supply a small family with eggs on the daily.
Keep in mind that chickens take some time to mature. You’re looking at around three and a half to four months before you get that first egg if you raise your chickens from day-old chicks.
In addition, you’ll need to keep them cool and hydrated in the summer and warm with an electric light in the winter if you want year-round egg-laying.
You’ll also want to cull your flock periodically, since older chickens don’t lay as well as mature younger chickens. Especially if some of your chickens are six or seven years old, those are freeloaders who eat the feed but give nothing back.
Whether you put them out to pasture with some kind soul or kill them for meat, it’s more practical to replace them than to keep them for sentimental reasons.
Of course, if they’re just pets anyway, it’s a different story.
Knowing why you want chickens will help you decide not only how many to buy but also how you’ll manage your flock. The lessons you learn from keeping chickens for any reason will sometimes be hard ones, but it’s an endeavor that we believe is worthwhile.
What We’ve Gained From Keeping Chickens
For us, keeping chickens was a no-brainer. We wanted the eggs and the occasional chicken dinner when it’s time to cull the flock.
But most of all, we wanted our sons to have a chance to be responsible for an animal that actually contributes to the family’s livelihood.
Chores are great and it’s well-known how beneficial having a regular chore is to a child’s development and connection to the family. But having a chore on a homestead or farm is next level.
It encourages our sons to think about the natural cycle of life and death, how we take care of an animal that takes care of us in return, the importance of consistent care of living creatures, and any creative solutions to broken fences, gates, coops, and warming lights when things go wrong.
We actually took a break from chicken-keeping after we moved to a new home a few hundred miles from our old one. I thought our oldest son would enjoy the break, but he was the one lobbying the hardest for us to start another flock.
Interestingly, he’d viewed those hard early years when none of us knew what we were doing as a baseline he wanted to improve on. He’d been reading our chicken-keeping books and couldn’t wait to try out his new knowledge.
We currently have seven hens, a mix of Barred Rock, Ameraucana, and Brahma. And we have two black Silkie roosters from the same original flock.
Keeping roosters is controversial, and illegal in some neighborhoods, but we love our Silkie roosters. They’re not loud crowers, not as aggressive as other breeds. We believe they encourage egg production and keep the pecking order tame.
Most of the time you only want one rooster because in general they can be territorial, but ours came as a set from someone seeking to rehome them.
We take the responsibility of living in rural country very seriously and love to accept animals that need homes.
Now that you know a little more about average flock sizes and the different reasons for keeping chickens, you can make an educated decision about how many hens and roosters you are willing to give a home in your backyard.