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Keeping backyard chickens
Keeping chickens in the backyard has lots of benefits and done properly will reward you and your garden in many ways for years to come. By taking the time to research requirements and installing an appropriate chook shed, ongoing care should be straightforward.
- Reduce kitchen and food waste
- Fertilise your garden with composted chook poo
- Access to fresh eggs
- Great household pets
At a glance
- Savings 1
- Ease 1
- Impact 2
If you're interested in raising your own small backyard flock, there are a few things to think about before you get started:
- 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 factsheets on your council's website.
- 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. If the risk is too great, having backyard chickens may not be a viable option.
- Think about whether you want your chickens for egg production, meat production or both. Keep in mind that hens will lay most of their eggs in the first three years; after which the number of eggs will decline. For this reason it's a good idea to stagger the ages of the birds; adding new birds to the flock to keep you in a supply of eggs.
- When egg production decreases you may decide to keep your chooks on as helpful garden friends and pets. Alternatively you can opt for meat production for your dinner table. Be aware that hens older than two years are not ideal for consumption as their meat can be quite tough. Seek advice from an expert about this.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Once you've worked out the size and purpose of your flock, it's time to have fun choosing the right backyard chicken breed. There are hundreds of varieties of chickens but for egg-laying, cross-bred chooks are your best choice. You can search the internet for information on breeds to suit your circumstances and local breeders will be able to provide you with any advice needed.
There are a few basics to keep in mind:
- Take your climate zone into consideration. For example, do you need a winter-hardy breed with dense feathering to keep warm?
- Look for a breed that will produce eggs for longer periods throughout the year. Crossbreed chickens can be good for this because they're less likely to go broody.
- Decide what kind of relationship you want with your chickens. Chicken breeds, just like other species, have different personalities and temperaments. Some are friendly and good with children; some are inquisitive and like to follow you around; others are flighty—which can be good if they need to escape predators.
- Try before you buy? If you're not sure if chickens are the right fit for your personal circumstances, you can search the internet for chook rental packages. These services supply the chooks along with everything you'll need to get you started.
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.
You can buy a ready-made chook shed and run or build your own with a few basic tools and recycled materials. Another option is to convert an unused outbuilding. There are also portable pens (known as chicken tractors) which can be moved around your yard.
When choosing a design, there are a few chicken coop basics to take into consideration:
- 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. 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.
- Ensure there's an outdoor run that 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.
- Provide nesting boxes. 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.
- Install roosts. Housed chickens don't sleep in their nesting boxes; they perch on a hardwood roosting bar or at night.
- Stop predators digging under the coop by laying a concrete floor or use an apron of netting buried 30 centimetres into the ground and secured to the coop. Another option is to raise the coop 1.5 metres off the ground.
- Take precautions to protect your vegetables with a fence or netting—chickens love to dine on vegies and fruit.
As with any living creature, a varied diet and good nutrition is important. Well-fed chickens are able to provide healthier produce and survive harsher conditions.
- Provide a constant supply of fresh clean water (laying hens need lots of water).
- Ensure there's a constant supply of fresh food and oyster shell grit—chickens are designed to eat all day.
- Feed a combination of commercial poultry food supplemented with kitchen scraps. Scraps alone are not sufficient nutrition and should not be high in salt or fat. Your chooks will also need access to earthworms, insects, plants and pulled weeds.
- Learn about how much to feed and when. This will depend on a number of factors, including whether your hens are for egg or meat production; their age, and housing conditions.
- Don't feed anything that's rancid (unpleasant, stale smell) or spoiled. Be aware that snail bait and pesticides are harmful to chickens. Never give your chooks chocolate, coffee, egg shells, chicken, avocado, rhubarb, lawn-mower clippings or bones (raw or cooked). Most of these can go straight onto your compost.
- Store chook feed in vermin-proof containers and never allow other animals to eat commercial chicken feed.
With good care, your chooks can live a long and healthy, happy life.
- Keep your chook shed clean by removing leftover scraps—they attract vermin, ants and flies. Ensure wild birds can't access your chooks' water or feed as this can pass on disease. Clean out the feed and water troughs every day. Avoid putting out excess amounts of food so you don't attract rats or mice. Scrape surfaces free of manure. There are more cleaning tips available on the internet.
- Provide access to loose dirt so your chooks can take a bath—a dirt bath suffocates poultry lice.
- Keep a close eye out for any weight loss, noisy breathing, or if the comb on the top of the head loses colour. Also notice if any health issues are flock-related or in just one bird. Healthy birds are bright, active, eat often and interact with other chickens. Talk to your vet about any health concerns.
- Administer regular worming treatment and check for stick-fast fleas and ticks. The fleas appear as small, shiny black dots on the combs and wattles. Check for ticks at night because they leave the birds during the day. The ticks look like small grey/black dots under the wings.
- Learn how to catch and hold your chooks so they become familiar with being handled. Begin handling a few weeks after you bring them home to give them time to settle in and get used to you and their new surroundings. Chickens need to be handled with care. Once they're used to you, they'll sit quite calmly and can be stroked by children.
Now that you've followed the steps to choosing, housing and caring for your backyard chickens—it's time to reap the rewards.
- Put your chickens to work on some garden chores. When allowed to roam in the garden, your feathered friends will scratch to turn over compost and aerate soil. They'll eat weeds, leaves and fresh lawn clippings. They're also a great pest control service, dining on insects, bugs and sometimes even mice.
- Fertilise your garden. Chook poo provides more nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus than any other manure so it's great for your plants. Turn it into compost before using it on the garden—raw manure can burn or kill your plants. To do this, collect the manure and bedding from your coop, add it to your compost, water it, then turn it every few weeks. Depending on the composting conditions, chook litter will take 6-12 months to be ready to feed your garden. When ready, spread it on your garden and work it into the soil. Always wear gloves when handling livestock manure and thoroughly wash your hands and any produce before eating.
- Collect eggs at least once each day—twice if possible, especially in hot weather. Clean the eggs with a damp cloth, fine sandpaper or steel wool, and store them in your fridge. Wash your hands after handling the eggs.
- You can save water by recycling the calcium-rich water from boiling your eggs and use it to water your plants.
- If you intend to sell or give away eggs, you'll need to check your state or territory government Food Act. As a backyard owner, you also have responsibilities under the Animal Health Act and the Animal Welfare Act. Check with your local council regarding any restrictions or requirements in your area.
If you need more ideas or advice or a keen to do more, the following websites contain information and resources to help you take action where it counts.
- ACT Keeping poultry in the ACT ACT Government
- NSW Poultry keeping on a small scale NSW Government
- NSW Small scale poultry keeping—feeding NSW Government
- QLD Poultry Queensland Government
- TAS For hobby farmers and smallholders Tasmanian Government
- TAS Keeping backyard chickens FarmPoint
- WA Keeping backyard chickens Government of Western Australia
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