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Raising Chickens on a Shoestring

Raising chickens can be an expensive Hobby. But we've got some really great information on how to lower your expenses.
By silkeysandra · Feb 28, 2012 · Updated Mar 11, 2018 · ·
  1. silkeysandra
    Raising Chickens on a Shoestring
    By Sandra Higgins Hanna

    Whether you’ve received a couple chickens as a ‘gift’ or just couldn’t resist baby chicks, you now need housing for the little sweeties. What can you do if you hadn’t budgeted for new pets? Join many of us and ‘shoestring’ it! My white Silkie pullets were a Christmas gift. Best Christmas ever! These bantam chickens lay small eggs sometimes. For consistent egg-layers, research hen breeds before buying or taking home free hens.

    Here's what I saw that Christmas morning:


    Hens, Chicks. Either, Or. Buy pullets (teenager hens) or mature hens or buy chicks—not both. Pullets are the best first start because they are still small and cuddly, but hearty enough to endure petting. Pullets, hens ready to lay, or retired hens past their egg-laying days make the ideal first flock. Hens make eggs as part of their nature. (Roosters aren’t needed unless you want baby chicks or fertile eggs.) Baby chicks take special care. Putting younger chickens into an older flock is traumatic to both sets of chickens and not recommended. Starting off with baby chicks takes lots of time and effort to get the right balance of heat, housing, and feed for them to survive into healthy hen-hood.

    Starting With Hens.

    1. Pick a breed best for your area and your family. If you have a dog or cat, choose 6 of the biggest breed hens you can buy and introduce the hens to the leashed pet.
    2. Little children need a friendly, gentle, sturdy breed.
    3. Buy from a respected breeder or farmer, who's flock looks healthy and clean. Poultry hatcheries will participate in the NPIP program.
    4. Check with the local SPCA. They sometimes acquire poultry needing a home.
    5. Put up a “Hens Wanted” sign at the feed store. Someone may have hens they’d like to sell or give away.

    Starting With Baby Chicks! If you have young children, (or you’re a kid at heart) baby chicks may come home with you from the feed store. I couldn’t resist either. Here’s what’s essential for good baby chick care. (Check out Chick Care advice in the BYC Learning Center.)


    1. Draft free plastic bin, cardboard box, purchased brooder, etc.
    2. Light/heat bulb and metal hooded receptacle
    3.Thermometer to check floor temperature
    4.Wire hardware cloth top
    5.Chicken waterers/feeders
    6.Chick Starter feed
    7.Fresh water and bedding when needed
    8.Careful handling and love, free

    The Chicken Coop. You can use found items or clean out a corner of your storeroom or garage to provide weather tight quarters. Any safe, dry place will do. If you store your feed in the coop, use metal containers with tight-fitting lids set where they won’t rust. Here’s some ideas, I’ve seen used to house hens.
    1. Children’s abandoned playhouse. Add wire to windows to varmit-proof.
    2. Old rabbit cages in storeroom/garage.
    3. Craigslist or Freecycle websites for low cost or free coops—you pick up.

    Photos of playhouse and dryer repurposed by Dan Probst of www.polishfarm.com, Poetry, Texas.


    My storeroom coop cages.

    Now that they have a dry and safe coop, what about a safe place for them to run and play in the sunshine, safe from predators.

    A Chicken Run. You can make a chicken run at the back of their property by fencing that portion with wire and shade cloth cover to protect from hawks. Some chicken owners fence in around a tree to ‘hawk proof’ their chicken area. Provide weather proof housing. We put our chicken run against the side or our storeroom.

    Our wood and chicken wire run with shade cloth roof. The hens stay here while we’re at work, then play in our backyard until night. Dog house in run is for bad weather protection.
    See the egg inside? See my hen, Millie?

    Here’s what’s needed for a safe chicken run.
    1.Wire thick enough to withstand attack by large dogs. Chicken wire is not recommended. Chain link works great.
    2.Posts that won’t pull out of the ground if wire is pulled by an animal. Sink most poles (metal or wood) at least a foot into concrete or hard dirt.
    3.Overhead cover to protect from hawks or animals climbing the wire.
    4.Rain proof shelter for bad weather. Even an old dog house will do.
    5.Ventilation in summer and heating if building will get below freezing.
    Weather help “on a shoestring”.
    1.For temps below freezing, fill coop with straw for hens to burrow into.
    2.Put up incandescent lights or electric heater* to warm a small coop with concrete flooring and hens secured away from the heater. For your normal coops with hay or sand for flooring, try to keep the roosting area just snug enough in the winter for the girls to use their body heat to stay warm.My storeroom was kept very clean and nothing combustible was near my little heater which was only used on the bitterest of winter nights. NEVER USE ELECTRIC HEAT OR HEAT BULBS IN YOUR COOP.
    3.Rain-proof openings with plastic sheets or tarp material.
    4.Screened ventilation windows, or a rotating passive exhaust unit.
    5.Fill shallow plant saucers with cool water for summer chicken wading and splashing.
    6.Freeze liter water bottles for hens to sit next to on extremely hot days
    If you can spend a little.
    1. Thermostat controlled fan to exhaust hot coop air.
    2.Misting unit for part of chicken run in extreme heat
    3.Add cracked corn, crimped oats to feed and vitamins supplements to water.

    Chicken Run Flooring. You need flooring to absorb and help the poo dry. Straw, pine shavings or sawdust is good to use. These materials keep flies and disease away when it is replaced when needed. Some flooring is done by the ‘deep litter’ method, whereby you lay down a 4-6 inch layer of straw, pine shavings or sawdust, turning it when the top layer gets soiled. I heard it can last for around 6 months. I use sand and bagged leaves we collect from our trees to use in our outdoor run. Rake your material each week, removing the most soiled areas. When flooring needs replacing, dump the used stuff in your compost pile and give it a good tossing. Most “shoestring budgeters” find free straw or sawdust on local Craigslist or Freecycle sites, wood working shops or even the local high school if they have a wood shop. Compost that contains chicken poo is perfect for veggie or flower gardens.

    Chicken Poo is great fertilizer the hens give you free! It can be used by itself, when dried, on veggie or ornamental gardens. My hens sleep in old rabbit cages with trays underneath. Their poo goes through the wire bottoms where it dries. I collect the dried poo once a week for a neighbor. He and I share the dried poo as well as the eggs. Don’t allow poo to get moldy or cause flies to congregate, bringing disease to your coop. Remove poo at least once a week. I make sure no poo stays on the bottom wire to keep chicken feet clean. I disinfect the bottom trays with 1/2 cup bleach to a gallon of water once a month.

    Here's what they look like. The trays are easy to tip into a bucket each week.

    A Chicken Tractor. If you have an acre or more, you can make an inexpensive “chicken tractor” from PVC pipe or wood and hardware cloth to safely put your hens outside. It looks like a wire box turned upside down. These materials can be leftovers from other projects, but aren’t expensive to buy. For every hen, give them 3 or 4 square feet play room. This means if you have 6 hens, make your chicken tractor 2 feet tall (so they can stretch and flap), 4 feet wide and 6 feet long. Include shade and rain protection, food and water. Move the tractor to fresh ground each evening making sure you don’t trap a slow-moving hen. If you attach a small coop to the tractor, the hens will go inside and lessen the risk of hurting a hen. Put wheels on the coop or tractor using repurposed children’s wagon wheels. It is the recommended ideal to have enough land so your chicken tractor doesn’t return to the original spot for a year. For small farms, just use a tiller on the used spots so you can return there when the grass matures.

    Tractor examples built by BYC members. Search “chicken tractor” or “duck mobile” in BYC.


    Predators. Typical suburban predators are hawks, dogs, cats and maybe even a possum or raccoon. Shoestring protection can simply be a piece of plywood secured against the coop opening or pegs holding down your chicken tractor. My storeroom can be latched and the repurposed rabbit cages also have latches so even if a predator hides in the storeroom, the locked cages protect them. I sprung for an inexpensive baby monitor (try garage sales, thrift stores, or ask a friend with kids.) so I could hear my hens at night.
    If the hens get alarmed, I can hear and go check. It gives me peace of mind and only cost me $20 new. There are wireless models that take batteries and some that transmit long distances, good for those folks with coops on acreage. Rural homes sometimes have predators like coyotes, wolves, or even wandering dogs. You can anchor your chicken tractor to the ground with wooden stakes driven through the wire into the ground. If you can spend a little, I have heard some folks successfully use those auger style pet stakes. Your hen’s night quarters need to be secured so that a smart predator cannot open it. If the coop door is held shut by a simple swivel latch, make a hole in the latch and through the wood door frame. Push a big nail into the drilled hole so that the latch can’t swivel. Just that can predator proof a simple coop.

    Joy is Free. The joy you and your family receive watching your hens and collecting their eggs is the best free thing about raising chickens. Since the Christmas of ’06, I and my husband have shared our suburban backyard with our flock of hens. Our rescue dog, Reggie, has been trained to be respectful of the hens. Even on a ‘shoestring’, we’ve been able to provide our hens a happy and healthy life. We enjoy chickens on our shoestring budget! I can’t imagine my life without my sweet and amusing hens.

    *at the time I wrote this piece, our 'coop' was a concrete floored storeroom and I used old rabbit cages fitted with roosts. the electric heater was carefully placed so nothing within 3 feet was combustible. Also all the hens had their own 'house' and were locked securely inside until morning. With the baby monitor on at night, i could hear if something was going wrong like an electrical short--the girls would squawk alarm. So for this particular incidence, the heater was OK to use.

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    Eryniel, Arctic Henn, Jim&Dee and 6 others like this.


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  1. Brandi Leigh
    Very helpful.
  2. richicken
    Great info, I just wanted to let you all know that I use lawn clipping in my run it gives the chickens something to do and after a week or so I just rake it all into my compost pile and replace with new grass clipping the next time I cut the grass.
      jinxie2300 likes this.
  3. rmblrosechicken
    I used an old 4'x8' trailer base & built up from there. Half is hen house, the other half is a covered porch for feeding. Attached to the end of that I added a 4'x8' screened in run that drags along from location to location. I have been using tent stakes to help secure the screen at the bottom. They are easy in and easy out when we go to move. I used all second hand material except for the pvc piping for the screened in run area. Already had the chicken wire & I used an old trampoline safety net to go over the chicken wire as a secondary layer for safety's sake. Only been using the portable coop for a couple of months, but so far, so good.
      WendyBaaa likes this.
  4. silkeysandra
    a rotating passive exhaust unit is like what you see--but smaller--on top of houses--those slotted metal caps you see rotating during hot days. It does so simply by the air pushing out making the blades of the cap rotate. They are less expensive but you have to cut a hole in the coop roof. The exhaust fan we use needs electricity, so this method is best for something basic.
  5. silkeysandra
    About using chicken tractors: those work best if you have acreage. For a backyard, a long chicken run with a wire or fabric top made across the back of your yard will let them get sun and fresh air and grass. I am retired so my girls spend half a day in the protected pen, then around noon I let them out to free range in my backyard. We do have hawks and I've had them buzz me when I was out with my girls. They disappeared! Hawks are everywhere these days. All you can do is have protection available to them like lots of bushy plants they can get underneath and a protected pen the hawk can't land inside.
  6. Abby11182
    Great article! What is a rotating passive exhaust unit?
  7. alechianeathery
    I live in a small town like I said before. If I build a chicken tractor,my back yard is where my chicken would be house, My back yard is a nice yard,not to small. I don't have an acres or more and I can't return it back to the original spot in a year. I don't want to till up my yard. Because I would not have a yard if I move it and till it each day. When my dogs pop in my back yard in the summer,I rake it up one a week and put it in the compost. In the spring and fall when the grass is growing and green. I leave the dog poop so the lawn mower can chop it up along with grass.
  8. alechianeathery
    What another great articles! I live in a small town where we have skunk,hawks,owls,cat and sometime possum . I have heard that the hawks have gotten some family pet out in the country. But sent I live in town and not near any field I'm somewhat safe. My great-grandma and grandma has seen some hawks near their house. But sent there a field behind their houses. There been lots of hawks flying around. They also live in town a block over from me. One day setting in each of there yard and not on the some day we all counted about 4-5 big hawks. We all have skunks, lot of them! It's got so bad that my grandma next door neighbor caught the skunks up and took them off. We still have skunks and sometime my grandma ,my 4 yr old cousin,my bf and I can smell them in the day time. My neighbor and my bf caught one in a drain hole and pug up both ends right next to our houses. I live next door to a family who feed the town cats, they have known to use my garden as a bathroom,dig hole in my dirt. Other then that they don't mess with people,dogs other animal. That not to say that they will. I have not seen any possum sent I was a kid in the same town I grow up in. When I move in my great-grandma rent house we had a big owl that would set on a the street light pole near my house and my next door neighbor saw it and said that it took one of the cat off. I have not seen it lately. But I welcome all animal that don't mess up my yard and that are safe to be around.
  9. MeandSpoof
    Great article. I too really enjoyed the re-purposed play house and dryer. We built our chicken tracter from used scrap lumber and tubing but we purchased the chicken wire. Thanks for sharing.
  10. Meloypeeps
    I lucked out. My mother added on to her house a couple years ago and had left over lumber. I was able to snag it along with some free lumber from craigslist and build a pretty nice coop for my ladies. I had given the same thought about using baby monitors...but I thought perhaps I was a bit on the crazed side...glad to see someone else had the same idea! Perhaps I'll go ahead and find one this summer on a garage sale. :) Thanks for all the great ideas
  11. lifefromthelog
    I loved the picture of the childrens playhouse turned into a chicken coop!!! How smart and environmental!
  12. twinmama
    I enjoyed reading this and gained a few new ideas. I especially enjoyed the pictures!
  13. Athena
    Awesome article and very informative! Thank You!
  14. janieannie
    We have a tall chicken yard attached to our coop. We have many cedar trees on our property. My son cut down a cedar, removed the branches, but left them at 8-12" long, then sunk the pole into the ground. Our chickens love it. Many like it better than the roosts inside the coop.
  15. KWatts2u
    I have mine in an old 5'x 10' dog kennel ($25 on craigslist). Over the top i used bungee cords and a shade tarp ($5 harbor freight) and inside i cut a few (free) 55gal barrels that i got at the local car wash so my girls have a little shelter from the wind and rain. If u can think it,.....someone out there has figured out a way to make it happen.
  16. MarkBo409
    good ideas. Important to figure these things out ahead of time. As with any living thing there are costs involved and folks without resources to properly care for animals shouldn't have them.
  17. FluffyChickensM
    Brilliant advice and I never thought if I have a dog I should get bigger chickens! Thank you!!! :)
  18. Lady Ressler
    I have that same play house that is no longer in use. I think I might use that for my broody hens when they are hatching next year. Thank you!!!
  19. tatiana916
    I use a wendy house in my chicken coop, my girls love it! they're always standing on the door or window ledges and it looks so cute
  20. judyki2004
    Great material!
  21. BYC Project Manager
    Congratulations, silkeysandra! Your article is featured on the homepage! Thank you for submitting it in the BYC Article Contest.
  22. chickenrun1020
    Thanks for the info, it's nice to know I can house chickens with out spending an arm and a leg.
  23. maksmama2010
    Great information!!
  24. chickengirl99
    My dad won't let me get chickens until i have researched about them. this article is really going to help. i'm on my way to having chickens, dad!! ;)
  25. TiffanyFalter
    Thanks for this, I now have some great ideas to try out :)
  26. Mrs. Mucket
    Great article and ideas, Sandra. Very creative use of an old dryer!
  27. Disco Hen
    This is awesome

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