Can I (Legally) Keep Chickens or Goats in My Back Yard?

Make sure your backyard chickens won't run afoul—or is that "afowl"?—of the law.

By , Attorney · Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law

Let's say you've just moved into a new suburban home with a big, beautiful yard. You've always been interested in running a small farm as a hobby. Maybe not for commercial purposes, but to feed your own family. Is this legal?

As the food-to-table movement gains in popularity, increasing numbers of people are interested in running their own mini-farms. But you'll want to first consider local laws that could affect your plans as well as neighbor issues, as discussed below.

Beware of Regulations on Using Your Home to Keep Livestock Animals

It's tempting to believe that once you've bought your home, you can do anything you want on your property. Farming livestock of any sort is, however, often regulated at the local, state, and/or federal levels. Different animals are regulated differently. Before you start investing in expensive chicken coops, animal feed, or assorted farm equipment, make absolutely sure that livestock are permitted.

Unfortunately, there's no one answer we can give to this question, because each state and locality regulates farming in its own way. Broadly speaking, the answer will depend on whether your property is zoned as "residential" or "agricultural."

How to Research These Local Regulations

The first place to contact (or check the website of) is your local zoning board or zoning office, which most cities or counties have some version of. They will be able to inform you about your property's zoning. They might then direct you to a separate state or city agency to answer questions on what sorts of animals you can keep and for what purposes.

In Michigan, for example, it's called the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. In California, it varies by city. Some cities have published extensive guides for folks interested in starting goat farms on their property, like San Diego.

Also keep in mind that, should you want to sell your chickens' eggs or animal meat, you might face further compliance issues owing to both local laws and federal farming regulations. If turning your small farm into a business is something that you're interested in pursuing, contact a lawyer to discuss your situation.

Dealing With Neighbor Issues When Keeping Livestock Animals

You should also consider a less "legal" aspect of having animals: the neighbors.

Roosters have a habit of being bothersome early in the morning, for example. Goats and other livestock also make all sorts of noises and can produce smells. Squirrels might steal your animals' feed and cache it in a neighbor's yard.

Another concern is if there are young children in your neighborhood who might be tempted to sneak over to your property and "play" with your animals.

These situations could actually be dangerous and result in unexpected kinds of liability. They could also, more simply, make your neighbors unhappy with you. If the smells or noise of the animals bother the neighbors, they could have a legitimate cause of action against you for trespass or private nuisance. A judge might award nominal damages, and/or force you to remove the animals.

Before you begin your backyard farming efforts, be sure to speak with—or at least notify—your neighbors. This is not unlike the type of courtesy you would give if you were undertaking a major home renovation. Neighbors tend to be less suspicious or angry when they're aware of what's going on.

If these potential legal or social pitfalls are discouraging, but you're still interested in exploring your rustic side, you might want to start with a lower-maintenance initiative. A small garden of herbs or vegetables for your family won't face the same kind of scrutiny as livestock. They're also far easier and less expensive to maintain, and less likely to bother your neighbors.

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