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.

    Share This Article

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


To make a comment simply sign up and become a member!
  1. jinxie2300
    Another good ventilation trick is a solar chimney. If you have a short length of metal pipe, fix it to the roof so air can vent out, then as long a piece of black PVC pipe (the same diameter as the metal bit) as you can find. Attach them together and support them as you can so it doesn't fall over. If your coop is near a building you can stick it right up the side of the building, but you want it to stick out above the room as much as possible.

    When the sun hits this, it will heat the air inside. Hot air rises. It will suck the air right out of your coop! The metal bit is there because the black PVC will get HOT.

    Do be sure to block the end with wire cloth or such, so nobody climbs up and in and gets to your flock!
      Chelle'sChics likes this.
  2. Sharon Barrett
    My husband got a wired door from a friend that had it on a dog run, we had some wire and used some plywood left over from other projects and enclosed a horse stall in the barn put in a dog box and some laying boxes so we paid nothing for our coop. A friend of our's gave us six sheets of plywood he had left over we made a area for geese by using an old steel frame cut it welded it into a square up next to the barn. then we used some wire fencing we had and made a goose pen. My thought is what ever you have around the house or farm can be put to good use for making safe runs and pens for your birds.
      farmgirlzz23 and WildfireBreezy like this.
  3. Ursuline Chick
    We live in an area where the houses are raised, ours is 5 feet off the ground, and we placed our nesting boxes under the house. Enclosed of course, this offers some protection from the elements, but does add some additional work in keeping everything a little cleaner than might be necessary if the boxes were out in the middle of the yard. We also repurposed old milk crates as nesting boxes, they work great with a lip on the edge of the shelf. Our area went through a lot of rebuilding 12 years ago, lots of good lumber scrapes being thrown away. Check construction sites, most are glad to give you leftover lumber they can't use.
  4. SpeckledHills
    Cheap ventilation coverings for windows: old wire shelves from an old frig or oven. You can get them cheap of free from some used appliance stores. Very sturdy! And much cheaper than hardware cloth / wire. :)
      garagegirl likes this.
  5. Beer can
    Mangel Beets.
  6. Lynn-n-JimsVT
    I live in a winter climate on a mountain with very clay soil and also bedrock underneath in random patterns lol (just start a digging project, you'll find some soon enough). Anyway for my chicken run I needed a cheap quick way to build a winter cover shelter that would survive snow, wind, frost heaves etc etc. Digging 4 feet past the frost line is kinda tough here in some places so I went with 5 gal buckets setting the 4x4 posts inside the buckets. The buckets sit on top of the ground so I avoid the whole heave dig issue. The most expensive part was the 4x4 posts (PT). The roof was made of lumber from the mill, rough pine which was treated with 2 diff kinds of stain (and colors lol) left over from my woodshed project I think the lumber cost was $20 bucks maybe for the roof minus the posts. I call it "Rustic Roost Ranch"
      pginsber and Magepalm like this.
  7. IdyllwildAcres
    Heating if building will go below freezing?
  8. FlyWheel
    Please, please, PLEASE, people, please stop suggesting heat lamps for raising anything! They are dangerous and unhealthy for the chicks to boot! I almost killed my first flock and nearly burned down my garage when the heat lamp I was using fell into their brooder! Fortunately I came home soon enough so the worst I had was a garage full of smoke, a smoldering brooder with seven terrified chicks huddled in the far corner of it! There is a much safer (and healthier) method available, and costa no more than a heat lamp. Probably less when you figure in the electric bill.
    1. View previous replies...
    2. jinxie2300
      Smaller chickens and bantams do not do well unheated. Chickens with very tight feathers (they look skinny compared to others of the same weight), very big combs, or feathered feet are also not recommended. They are, respectively, poorly insulated, prone to frostbite, and collect snow/ice (and mud, for that matter) in their leg/foot feathers. The combs CAN be coated in vaseline to help.
    3. jinxie2300
      Having a coop that is well ventilated is important, because chicken poop is very high in moisture, and damp cold WILL kill. You want lots of air movement ABOVE where the chickens roost, so there is no draft where they are sleeping, because cold drafts WILL kill.
    4. jinxie2300
      Most medium large layers self-insulate quite well as long as there is nothing to blow the heat out of their feathers. Several chickens in a coop sized for them, will be perfectly happy. Even in a super huge coop with only a few chooks, as long as it is draft free, they are good. They are only heating their feather coats, not the whole coop.
      elaineinspain likes this.
  9. Petra Pancake
    Not sure if I should admit to it... but it's really on a shoestring. I cobbled my chicken coop together using 1) an old large garden table, 2) an old plastic tool storage chest 3) an old filing cabinet 4) the railings of an old baby bed. I got all that stuff for free, then tied it together, closed the open spaces with plastic grid and put a makeshift roof on the parts that needed one. It's got the shape of the letter "L" seen from above. Super cheap method and so far, no predator problems. Disadvantages: it doesn't look very nice - think of a pile of old furniture - which is why I don't really want to include a photo. Difficult to reach inside and to clean. Also, during winter rain storms it is not entirely water proof - the floor gets swampy. And the roof flew off once during the first winter storm, but after weighting it down and tying it on with a rope it's been holding ever since. The chickens made it through the winter alright with all that. They are just getting back to laying after their winter break.
      Chelle'sChics and Magepalm like this.
    1. Magepalm
      I'm building a frankencoop with an old crib and old cabinets and head/foot boards lmao I feel your pain!!!!!
      Chelle'sChics and garagegirl like this.
  10. CrazyPetunias
    Glad to know I am not the only one. I have an old playhouse similar to the picture above. I have already covered the openings with hardwire fencing and plan on using it to house my cornish rock hens this summer. I also use an old dryer drum to keep my baby chicks in for the first 2 weeks. Its 2 1/2' tall and made out of metal - works great to keep heat in for the babies.
  11. Betsy57
    Well, I've seen washers and dryers on porches in some rural areas but never one made into a nest! Another good use for an old appliance.
  12. judie928
    A few years ago my husband found a damaged camper shell for a truck at an auction. He brought it home for the chickens. We pushed out the dent, and the missing window space was used as the entry. It was a great place for them to get out of the weather.
      garagegirl, SpeckledHills and nagope like this.
  13. silkeysandra
    Hi! I've added my Facebook Notes link to my profile information if anybody wants to read my monthly newsletter about life with the girls at Cluckin-Better Farm.
  14. countrydream7
    getting blue iowa chicks in spring cant wait been wait to long ...my coop all done need to put up pics soon to show u all
  15. LindaMurphy
    Yep that is my style of raising chickens, on a shoestring. After all a shoestring is all I have. In all honesty, the eggs and what I get from the garden is a big part of our diet now. We have hit on hard times and this is the route I have taken to survive. I get a lot of the chickens food from the food bank. I have made arrangements with them to pick up their throw away produce. I plan on taking my overage of eggs to them once my other chickens start laying. They eat very well. All the fruit and vegetables their hearts desire oh yes they also give us the throw away bread. Past sell date. Nothing wrong with old bread as far as the chickens are concerned.They love it all. Especially the whole grain breads. My chickens have fattened up fast and they are very happy and healthy.
    We used what ever we had laying around to make our chicken coup. The boxes are made up of all kinds of things but they seem to like the old tables that my husband was going to throw away, the most. I stacked an old table on top of an old throw away computer desk and attached some boards that I pulled off of a small old torn down fence on three sides. It gives them privacy and still lets air in. They ALL like to roost on top of it at night together. There are plenty of other crates and tubs in there but they stick with the multi layered box. There are 3 shelves in it but they seem to like the top for sleeping at night and the more enclosed shelf below for laying the eggs.
  16. LuvMyChickies13
    What a wonderful article! Thank you!
  17. theoldguy
    great read, thanks sooo much
  18. polarbearpilot
    Can you give advice on how to feed the chickens on a shoestring? Thanks.
    1. jinxie2300
      Free range, free range, free range! They will find lots to eat all on their own if they have enough room to hunt.

      You can also make a maggot pot for them. Basically a 5-gallon bucket with a few holes in the lid (to let flies in) and a few holes near the bottom (to let maggots out) with a healthy pile of dead stuff to attract flies/feed maggots.
    2. jinxie2300
      You want the bottom holes to be an inch or so up the side, OR even better, right on the bottom of one side if you can put the bucket so the bottom slants. You want the dead stuff contained, but the maggots to be able to crawl out. This will make high protein goodies for them. Just place the bucket in their run, they will collect maggots any time they appear!
    3. jinxie2300
      The 'dead stuff' can be anything that would attract flies, but NOT other pet poop or such, that could itself contain nasties.

      There are many YouTube videos on this.

      Also any leftover chicken scraps (that are edible, there is a list of what chickens can't have someone on this site). Try your local grocery or food bank to see if you can get their left over past human consumption veggies.
  19. cluck cluck 123
    This is awesome!
  20. theoldguy
    great article, shows anyone can do it:)
  21. cluckcluckluke
    GREAT!!!!!!!! Article.
    Top Job!
  22. Kelley Farms
    I have a baby monitor in my coop. everyone thought I was silly but I'm going to show them this article to say "see I'm not over protective of my girls"
  23. Wyandottes7
    Very informative article!
  24. Nutcase
    Great! Nice work.
  25. Brandi Leigh
    Very helpful.
  26. 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.
  27. 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.
  28. 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.
  29. 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.
  30. Abby11182
    Great article! What is a rotating passive exhaust unit?
  31. 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.
  32. 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.
  33. 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.
  34. 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
  35. lifefromthelog
    I loved the picture of the childrens playhouse turned into a chicken coop!!! How smart and environmental!
  36. twinmama
    I enjoyed reading this and gained a few new ideas. I especially enjoyed the pictures!
  37. Athena
    Awesome article and very informative! Thank You!
  38. 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.
  39. 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.
  40. 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.
  41. FluffyChickensM
    Brilliant advice and I never thought if I have a dog I should get bigger chickens! Thank you!!! :)
  42. 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!!!
  43. 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
  44. judyki2004
    Great material!
  45. BYC Project Manager
    Congratulations, silkeysandra! Your article is featured on the homepage! Thank you for submitting it in the BYC Article Contest.
  46. chickenrun1020
    Thanks for the info, it's nice to know I can house chickens with out spending an arm and a leg.
  47. maksmama2010
    Great information!!
  48. 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!! ;)
  49. TiffanyFalter
    Thanks for this, I now have some great ideas to try out :)
  50. Mrs. Mucket
    Great article and ideas, Sandra. Very creative use of an old dryer!

BackYard Chickens is proudly sponsored by