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.

Question

I just moved into a new suburban home with a beautiful yard. It has plenty of space, although it’s never been used as a farm before, as far as I know. I’ve always been interested in running a very small farm as a hobby. It wouldn’t be for commercial purposes, at least to start, but just to feed my own family. Is this legal?

Answer

As the food-to-table movement gains in popularity, increasing numbers of people are interested in running their own mini-farms. This trend has received national media attention. It’s tempting to believe that once you’ve bought your home, you can do anything you want on your property.

But farming livestock of any sort is generally regulated at the local, state, and/or federal levels. Different animals are also regulated differently. Before you start investing in expensive chicken coops, animal feed, and assorted farm equipment, you should make absolutely sure that livestock are permitted.

Unfortunately, there’s no one answer to this question, because each state and locality regulates farming in its own way. Generally speaking, the answer will depend on whether your property is zoned as “residential” or “agricultural.”

Your first phone call should be to 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 may 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.

You should also consider a less “legal” side effect 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. Squirrels may steal your animal feed and cache it in a neighbor's yard. Another concern is if there are young children in your neighborhood who may be tempted to sneak over to your property and “play” with your animals.

These situations could be dangerous, and result in all sorts of 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.

Keep in mind that, should you want to sell your chickens’ eggs or animal meat, you may 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, you may wish to contact a lawyer to discuss your situation.

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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