Having a small backyard flock of chickens is a growing trend in Australia and it is not just people living in the country who enjoy raising chickens. More and more people living in more urban areas are enjoying the benefits. So why are chickens so popular?
Chickens are easy, inexpensive pets with great benefits. Backyard and free ranged hens produce eggs that are very nutritious and great tasting. Chickens make fantastic pets for children and make a wonderful addition to the family. Free range chickens also help out in the garden, keeping bugs and weeds at bay whilst fertilizing the soil. So why not get all the benefits from these wonderful animals and add a small flock to your family!
New to Poultry?? .. Here’s what you need to know to keep your flock healthy and productive:
The trend for chicken ownership in urban and semi-rural areas is rising, more and more people are turning to a more sustainable lifestyle and the idea of owning a few chickens in your backyard has become really appealing. There’s a lot to like about raising your own chickens, the eggs are tastier and fresher and there’s the ultimate satisfaction gained by cracking open your home grown egg.
Adding to your personal household sustainably goals, the egg shells, along with the chicken manure, can be tossed right into the compost pile and later used on your vegi patch. Chickens tend to be low maintenance, much of the day, the birds entertain themselves, picking at grass, worms, beetles, and all of the good things that go into making highly nutritious eggs. Plus, with their keen eye for insects, chickens make for great gardening companions (just don’t let them get access to your veggies).
So before you go out to by your laying hens there’s a few things you need to get ready:
How Much Space Do Chickens Need?
Ultimately, it depends on which breed of chicken you’re raising. Rule of thumb, one medium-sized chicken needs about ½ a square metre of floor space inside the coop and 1 square metre outdoors. The more space, the happier and healthier the chickens will be; overcrowding contributes to disease and feather picking. The birds will need a place to spread their wings, so to speak: a sizeable chicken run, for example, or a whole backyard.
How Many Chickens Should I Keep?
Chickens are sociable creatures, so plan to keep three to six birds. With this amount, you’ll always have a steady supply of eggs, since an adult hen lays about two eggs every three days, on average. Chickens are most productive in the first two years of their lives; after that, egg production will slow, so you’ll need to think about replacing your flock with younger birds eventually.
Hens will lay eggs through spring and summer and into the autumn as long as they have 12 to 14 hours of daylight. Expect to collect eggs daily, or even twice a day. As summer comes to an end you will notice your hens egg production slow down. With this, your hens’ nutritional requirements will change as their body moves from a state of production to a state of repair.
The amount of daylight tells your hen when to release a yolk and produce an egg. So, when the daylight is reduced, chickens don’t receive this light ‘cue’ to tell them to release a yolk. This state of repair during winter is crucial for hens, because laying eggs throughout the summer places a huge amount of stress on their body and without this break they will eventually burn out.
What to feed and how much??
As the summer comes to an end you will notice your hens naturally start to slow down and their egg production will also slow down. With this, your hens’ nutritional requirements will change as their body moves from a state of production to a state of repair.
As you can imagine, when a hen is laying eggs they need lots of protein, however during a state of repair they will need more carbohydrates which also assists to keep themselves warm. As we approach winter, hens’ feed consumption will typically be 1.5 times the amount they eat in the spring/summer, and many first-time backyard chicken keepers get caught out and aren’t prepared for their hens to suddenly start eating more food!
During winter your hens’ dietary requirements will change as they moult and prepare for the cold, dark winter whilst their body prepares for next spring. Not only will their dietary requirements change but the volume of food they eat will also change during the winter. It’s important that during these changes you keep an eye on your hens and provide them with not only the right food but the right amount of food.
Its a good idea to keep your flock on either layer pellets or a scratch mix (visit www.greenvalleygrains.com for more info) this provides them with all their key nutritional requirements and keeps them healthy.
Hens love to scratch..
You might be surprised to find out that hens get a lot of nutrition from scratching and pecking at the ground. One of the most important minerals they get from foraging is shell grit. Chickens don’t have any teeth so the grit they collect is used to break and grind down their food. You need to make sure your hens have access to enough shell grit. Normally this can either be from commercial feed or you can just scatter crushed shell grit in their run. This doesn’t need to be done daily, a handful once every 2 weeks will be plenty for a small flock of 12 hens.
Don’t get too caught up on whether you are feeding them enough or not- the will let you know. If you are constantly finding that there is food left in their feeder when they go to roost at night, you know that you are giving them too much feed. If there is feed leftover at night remember to tidy it up, as this will attract pests.
Don't get complacent - watch out for cold snaps.
Weather patterns in Australia can be very unpredictable especially in southern states. A balmy day can be followed by hailstones and frosty mornings. So, be vigilant. Remember that if the weather suddenly turns cold, your main caring task will be to ensure your flock's water and food supply is kept fresh and the coop is free from drafts and mositure.
What about worming?
It is imperative that you de-worm your flock three monthly – just as you would your dog or cat. You can buy specially made chicken wormers from any major pet stores or online. Wormers come in liquid, tablet or syrup form, and should be administered every three months. How much you add to water or give orally will depend on your flock size, but there is guidelines on the box. The wormers generally cater for the prevention of ALL types of worms, rather than just one specific type.
Watch out for mites and lice.
The warmer weather and lighter nights can make caring for your flock much easier. There are fewer concerns about whether they're warm enough, they can forage more easily and hens are coming back into lay. But it can also bring some unwanted guests: lice and mites. These nasty little bugs can survive even the hardest of winters, and will begin to breed in earnest once the weather begins to warm up again. Mites and lice are annoying, pesky problems to have with your backyard flock, and must be treated quickly as it can spread to all the other feathered friends.
These extremely common external parasites feed on your chickens, irritating and weakening them. Lice and mites can crawl on you, too, if you handle infested birds. Although chicken lice think people taste disgusting (they won’t hang around for long), mites will happily bite a person before running back to their preferred host — your chicken.
How do I treat mites and lice?
Immediately dust all of your chickens thoroughly with diatomaceous earth, or Pestene powder (both available at your local produce store). Both of these are harmless to chooks, but you should wear a dust-mask to avoid irritating your lungs.
So to sum it up, chickens are easy, inexpensive pets with great benefits. After your initial set up costs, keeping chickens is relatively inexpensive. When you raise your own chickens, you know what went into the production of the eggs and its a healthier alternative to factory farmed eggs. Backyard and free ranged hens produce eggs that are very nutritious and great tasting. Not to mention they are always fresh! Chickens make great pets for children and make a wonderful addition to the family. They are friendly, easy to manage and low maintenance. Chickens are entertaining and have individual personalities, keeping a small flock can be very rewarding and at times very amusing.
Having a small backyard flock of chickens is a growing trend in Australia and it is not just people living in the country who enjoy raising chickens. More and more people living in more urban areas are enjoying the benefits. So why are pet chickens so popular?
Chickens are easy, inexpensive pets with great benefits
Free range chickens are excellent, hardworking gardeners.
Feeding your chickens, a complete and balanced diet is essential if they are to stay healthy and lay lots of lovely eggs! Chickens will eat almost anything so to prevent deficiencies and health problems, a wide range of foods should be offered.
Fresh clean water must always be readily available.
A good quality poultry pellet or grain mix should be the mainstay of their diet. A commercial dispenser can assist to keep the food dry. Grains are a favourite with chickens and can also be scattered within their environment.
In addition to a good quality poultry pellet or grain mix, a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables can also be given daily. Examples of raw fruits and vegetables that can be fed include: Bok choy, silverbeet, spinach, endive, chickweed, cabbage, vegetable peels and fruit (e.g. banana).
In addition, table foods such as wholemeal rice, rolled oats, cooked pasta, beans, bread and legumes can be offered as well occasionally. If you are unsure about the safety of a particular foodstuff check with your veterinarian.
For birds that are laying large numbers of eggs, an easy and high calcium supplement is dried egg shell ground to a powder and added to their normal feed. Layer pellets are supplemented with calcium as well. Soft or thin shelled eggs may indicate calcium problems in your birds.
Chickens are extremely sociable animals and must be kept in numbers of two or greater. For this reason, feeding chickens is a group exercise. Monitor the chickens to ensure dominant birds are not excluding weaker or younger birds which may need to be fed separately. If you notice any changes in your birds feeding behaviour or appetite, please consult with your veterinarian.
Make sure scraps don't contain anything that is high in fat or salt, and avoid feeding anything that is rancid or spoiled.
Provide a constant supply of coarse shell grit and access to earthworms and burrowing insects in leaf litter and compost.
Provide access to garden plants including pulled weeds (beware and avoid any poisonous plants). A weed lawn instead of a monoculture lawn is recommended for free range hens.
Monitor your chickens closely – watching out for signs of stress or ill health. Parasites can also be a health concern for your flock. Typically, mites being the biggest culprit. A good worming and de-lousing schedule can help prevent issues as well as maintaining a clean coup.
Rhubarb, avocado, chocolate, onion, garlic, citrus fruits or lawn mower clippings (as these can become mouldy quickly and mouldy food can make chickens very sick).
Before bringing your chickens home to roost, it's important to ensure that their housing is ready to keep them safe while they adjust to their new environment.
It is important to have a fox-proof coop which is still easily accessible and adequately ventilated. The coop should be fully enclosed and the chickens locked away every night.
Protect your chooks against wind, rain, heat, cold and draughts in a secure, dry, well-ventilated enclosure with windows and a door. The best spot and orientation will depend on your climate zone and geographical location. Locate the chicken house facing east so that the back is towards the strong westerly, rain-bearing winter winds. If you're in a really hot or cold climate, consider building an insulated chook house.
Cover the floor of the coop with about 8 centimetres of sawdust. This will later become compost for your garden. The chicken house should contain a perch (no more than 60cm high) for roosting and nesting boxes which can be accessed from the outside. Nesting boxes provide a safe comfortable area for hens to lay their eggs and allow ease of collection. For egg-laying, chickens feel safe in quiet, dark places that have only one entrance. Line the boxes with straw or sawdust bedding. Change the bedding every week. Add the old bedding to your compost.
If you are keeping the chickens in a ‘Run”, it should be bordered by 1.8m high chicken mesh and enclosed to discourage foxes and wild birds. To deter foxes from digging under the fence, dig the netting into the soil to a depth between 30- 50cm or continue the netting outwards at the base of the fence.
Ensure that the outdoor run has enough space for the chooks to move around and exercise—the more space, the happier and healthier they'll be. Chickens are designed to forage about 75 per cent of the day, so ideally, let your chooks roam free in your enclosed yard during the day if there's someone at home to keep an eye on them. Make sure they can't get out and that predators can't get in. Always lock them up overnight.
Egg size is dependent on breed, age, and weight of the hen. Larger chicken breeds tend to lay larger eggs; bantam breeds lay small eggs. Older hens tend to lay larger eggs than younger hens.
The shell colour is a breed characteristic. Most chicken breeds lay light-to-medium brown eggs. A few breeds lay white, dark brown, green, blue, or cream coloured eggs.
Shell colour is only “skin deep”- the eggs inside are the same as eggs of other colours.
The shell colour intensity of eggs laid by one hen can vary from time to time, with an occasional darker or lighter eggshell.
The Egg * graphic of cross section of egg**
The chicken, Gallus gallus domesticus, is a domestic subspecies of the red junglefowl, a member of the pheasant family that is native to Asia. Genetic studies have found that the grey junglefowl also contributed to the chicken’s evolution.
With around 25 billion chickens in the world, there are more of them than any other bird species.
Chickens aren’t completely flightless—they can get airborne enough to make it over a fence or into a tree.
These birds are omnivores. They’ll eat seeds and insects but also larger prey like small mice and lizards.
Female chickens are called pullets for their first year or until they begin to lay eggs. For most breeds, around 20 weeks is a typical age for the first egg.
Some breeds lay eggs daily, some every other day, some once or twice a week. Some individual hens never lay eggs, due to narrow pelvises or other anomalies. Normal laying routines can be interrupted by moulting, winter daylight shortage, temperature extremes, illness, poor nutrition, stress, or lack of fresh water. Hens usually return to normal laying habits when the disruption-causing factor ends or is corrected. Most hens are productive layers for two years before declining in production, but some continue to lay eggs for several years.
Hens will lay eggs whether or not they’ve ever seen a rooster. Roosters are necessary only for fertilization of eggs.
A rooster announces to a flock of chickens that he’s found food with a “took, took, took.” But the hens don’t pay attention if
they already know that there is food around.
The typical interval between eggs laid is about 25 hours, so a hen that lays an egg every day will lay a bit later each day.
Hens don’t usually lay eggs in the dark, so once a hen’s laying cycle reaches dusk time, she will usually not lay till the following morning.
Eggshell production drains calcium from the hen’s body. The comb, wattles, legs, and ear lobes will fade as the calcium leaches out. Calcium must be replenished through either feed containing calcium, supplements such as oyster shell, or high amounts of calcium in the soil of birds with outdoor access.
Check with your local council for regulations and requirements for keeping domestic chickens (often referred to as 'poultry keeping on a small scale'). Follow your local council's poultry keeping guidelines for information specific to your area on raising, housing and feeding chickens at home.
Look for fact-sheets on your council's website.
Consider obtaining vaccinated 'point-of-lay' pullets (16-20 weeks old) from a reputable supplier or hatchery. While pullets are more expensive than young chicks, they're easier for a novice to rear, are protected against major diseases and should start laying eggs within a few weeks of bringing them home.
Work out how many eggs you'd like to produce each year. This will give you an idea of how many chickens to keep. In the first year you can expect 270 eggs per bird, declining to 190-200 in the second season and dropping from there. Keep in mind that chickens are flock animals, they need companions for a happy productive life, so it's best to keep at least two. The size of your flock will also depend on how much space you have and any local by-laws.
Find out which predators are common in your area (for example, foxes, feral cats, domestic dogs or snakes) and take this into consideration when designing and building your chook run. Don't assume that urban or city areas are safe from foxes.
Avoid roosters — they're not needed to produce eggs and are generally not allowed to be kept on residential premises (the noise of a cock crowing at odd hours won't be popular with your neighbours). They also tend to make your chickens broody (sit on their eggs to hatch chicks) which will reduce the number of eggs they lay.