The first thing you need to consider if you want to keep chooks is where you’d keep them. You’ll need a coop or chook dome for them to sleep in, some nesting boxes, a roost – this is where they’ll perch while they sleep and some room for them to roam during the day. It’s much easier to have a cement floor in the coop because you need to be able to collect the manure to use on your garden and to hose out the coop each week. Smelly chickens will have your neighbours complaining and after a few days of rain you’ll be pulling your hair out if you decide against putting down a cement floor. The hen house will need to be surrounded by a tallish fence with a gate that can be closed every night and whenever you need the hens out of the way, like when you mow the lawn. Many areas of Australia are infested with foxes and wild dogs or dingoes. If you buy some chickens you must care for them well and make sure they’ll be safe, even if you’re not a home.
Chook house designs here, here, here, here and here.
Where I live, each chicken will lay about 300 eggs per year, or one every 25 hours. They lay best during warmer weather but will stop laying when they lose their feathers or if they are stressed. Work out how many hens you’ll need to supply your family with eggs. We have seven hens now and for a family of two we have plenty of eggs for us and enough to sell, give away or barter. Each hen will lay about four to five eggs a week so if your family eat an egg each a day you’ll need one and a bit hens per family member. So, for example, if you have four people in your family, you’ll need five or six hens and from them you’ll get around between 25 to 30 eggs per week.
Before you buy your first chickens, ring your local council and find out what the regulations are for raising chickens in your backyard. For instance, my local council has banned roosters and the hen house must be a certain distance from neighbourhood fences, there are also restriction on the number of chooks we keep, but apart from that anything goes. Find out what your local council requirements are and be guided by them.
Another decision you need to make before you buy is to decide if you want to keep hens for eggs or if you also want to raise your chickens for meat. Some hens are bred to maximize their egg laying potential, others are bred to have big breasts and legs so that they are best for meat chickens. Or you can do what ordinary folk have done for hundreds of years and kill the male birds for meat and keep the girls for eggs.
There are many different types of chickens but you should buy the type you find visually pleasing and those that will suit your purpose for size, eggs or meat. For example, I keep Rhode Island Reds and Australorps but in the past we’ve also had Pekins and Light Sussex. Light Sussex are a dual purpose bird as they are good layers, good broody hens and mothers and have a good body size for meat. If you have small children, maybe you’d like to keep silkies. They are gentle and don’t mind being handled but they don’t produce a lot of eggs, so there is a downside to them. They also have black meat which might put some people off. If you’re in a city, and don’t have much space, you might consider bantams. Three would give you enough eggs for a couple or small family.
Information about different chicken types here.
You can buy day old chicks, young chickens or pullets. My recommendation for first timer chicken keepers is to buy pullets. These are chickens that are about 16-20 weeks old and will be ready to lay eggs in the next couple of weeks. Buying pullets gives you a couple of weeks to get used to looking after them and then you will have the eggs to reward you. Try to buy from a local hatchery or a local breeder. This will give valued support to your local community, it will be easier for you to travel there and back with chickens in the car and there will be less stress on the birds. They will also be acclimatized to your local area.
Make sure your hen house is ready before they arrive, complete with food and fresh water. Chickens need four vital things to keep them healthy and laying:
- Grains – mixed wholegrain, not just sunflower seeds, corn or wheat. They will eat all those grains and seeds but it’s much better for them, and for you as you’ll be eating their eggs, that they have a healthy mix of grains.
- Fresh green food like spinach, silverbeet, cabbage leaves, lettuce, grass and weeds that you’ve pulled from the garden. They will also eat tomatoes, apples, pears and anumber of other fruits.
- Protein – chickens need a high protein diet to enable them to produce eggs. If your girls are free ranging, their diet will be supplemented with bugs, grasshoppers and caterpillars. This is good for the chickens and the garden. If your chickens are in a pen all day they will need high protein food in the form of laying pellets or laying mash. You can also give them meat, chicken or fish scraps from the kitchen or a little bread soaked in milk as a treat.
- Water – this is vital to the life of your chickens. A chook can die within a short amount of time if it doesn’t have water. If you’re free ranging your chooks, have a couple of water containers that they can see. If they gather in the afternoon for a rest under a shade tree, put some water there and another under a tree near where they scratch around. There should always be a container should be in their coop. All the water containers must be clean with fresh water every day. Scrub out the containers every week to make sure you have no contaminants in the water.
Remember that everything you give your hens will go into producing eggs that you and your family will eat. If you give them fresh, clean water and healthy food you will be rewarded with beautiful golden eggs. You will have healthy birds that will give you few problems. If you don’t intend to look after them like you would your dog or cat, don’t buy chickens as they deserve to be treated like loved pets and, unlike cats and dogs, for their ability to produce fresh food for you and your family.
Your chickens will need a high protein diet if they are to regularly lay eggs for you. You could feed them exclusively on laying pellets or mash which you can buy from the local produce store. A more natural alternative is to give them a mixture of whole grains, amaranth, kitchen scraps and a few handfuls of laying pellets or mash. Chickens will also eat grass and will get a large amount of their nutrition from it if left to free range all day. Grass eating chickens will have a higher level of Omega-3 in their eggs than chickens who don’t eat grass. You should remember that chickens are omnivores, which means they need to eat bugs, and animal protein as well as grains and grass. Chickens are creatures of habit so start out the way you will continue to feed them, as once they are used to one thing it’s sometimes difficult to make them change their food preference.
Chickens also need shell grit which you can get from the local produce store. It will help prevent calcium deficiency. You can supplement the grit with finely crushed egg shells. To do this, wash the egg shells and allow them to dry completely. Then finely crush the shells with a rolling pin or pulse a couple of times in the food processor. The aim here is to provide a variety of grit sizes for the chickens. They will choose which size they need. A small bag of shell grit lasts a long time so don’t buy a huge amount.
Be aware that predators come from the sky too, they are not just lurking around corners. If you have dogs, hawks won’t be so much of a problem. Chickens have a natural tendency to sit under trees and bushes so they will be protected from sight much of the time if they free range in your backyard. After a while you’ll get used to their clucking and just like a baby you’ll learn by their various noises if something is wrong. If they are scared, they’ll let you know.
Always make sure you lock them in their hen house at night. That’s the time animals like foxes, cats and nocturnal predators will be creeping about. If they are safe and secure in their house, even if you have a silent fox in your backyard, they’ll be out of harm’s way.
Try to spend time with your chickens, especially when you first get them, so they accept you as part of their flock. You’ll need to be able to pick up your chickens and check them out occasionally and they will let you do this if you spend time with them and they know you are a friendly human.
Give them treats sometimes. I’ve made it my rule that whenever we take eggs from the nest the girls get a handful of seeds. They love seeds and grain, so a handful for the eggs makes them happy and makes the yolks in the eggs a rich yellow colour.
When you collect the eggs each day they should be clean and well formed. When your feathered ladies first start laying they may lay a few without yolks or a couple of double yolkers. The eggs will be small and light when they first start laying. When they settle into laying, the eggs will develop a good weight, the shells will be smooth and strong and the shell colour will be consistent.
Collected eggs should be stored in the refrigerator. If you provide a clean nest the eggs should also be clean when you collect them but sometimes they might be soiled or dirty. If you find an egg like this don’t wash it. Eggs have a protective membrane on the shell that protects the contents from becoming contaminated. Take the dirty egg inside and wipe it with dry kitchen paper. If you must wash it to remove the dirt, dry it with paper and use that egg next time you need an egg.
Chickens are one of the few creatures you can easily keep in your suburban backyard that produce food. So if you’ve been thinking about getting your first chooks, my advice is to jump into it. You won’t be disappointed.