Today's post is a crossover between food and backyard livestock. Let's talk chooks, or as the rest of the world knows them, chickens. Many people are looking at creative ways of bringing healthy food into their homes and even if chooks have never been part of your home before, the time might be ripe now to introduce them. Chickens may be kept in a variety of climates - from tropical to cold and snowy. As long a you have a safe home for them that is appropriate to the climate, a roost for sleeping on, nesting boxes and food, chooks will happily make their home with you.
George, our old rooster. George is a bantam (the size) partridge (the colour) Pekin (the breed).
Before you get your first chickens, think about the predators lurking in your area. Your chooks must be kept safe - they will reply on you to protect them because up against a dog, fox, raccoon, hawk, coyote, large cat or snake, they have no hope. This is an important responsibility. Make sure you can keep them safe in a barn, coop or chicken tractor. If you have snakes in the area, it will need to be snake-proof, if you know of wild dogs, or even neighbourhood dogs, you need to be able to lock your girls safely away at night. Chickens do not see well at night so if something creeps into their coop, they won't see it and will be a sitting duck, erm chook.
We used shredded paper before we realised they were eating it. Now we lay down straw, it soaks up the droppings and we add it to the compost heap.
When you get the accommodation sorted out, you'll need to install some roosts, off the ground, for the flock to sleep on. These can be sticks from the bush that have been tidied up a bit to remove burs or they can be dowel attached to two side braces. Don't rely on the nesting boxes as sleeping quarters because they soon mess up the nests and you'll have to change the nesting material every day. When your girls go in to lay eggs, you want them to do it in a clean environment. Place some straw under the roosts to soak up the droppings made every night. That can be removed when necessary and added to the compost heap.
Nesting boxes can be a safe and darkish area, like a box or old container. It should have a small strip of wood nailed over the bottom of the box - they will step over this when they enter the nest. It will help keep the nesting material in and stop eggs rolling out. If you live in a hot climate, try to add a bit of ventilation to the nesting boxes. Hanno drilled a few holes in the side walls of ours. Your chooks will like a private darkish spot in which to lay their eggs, so place the boxes away from the door and in a dark corner. Fill the nesting box with straw or hay to provide a little nest that will safely hold the eggs. We used to used shredded paper for this but found the chooks would eat it. BTW, don't put any polystyrene boxes near chooks, they peck at it and eventually eat it. Not good.
Heather, our salmon coloured Faverolles as a baby chick.
Chickens must have fresh water at all times. Particularly in hot weather, but this applies to all chickens, they need water. Depending on your container, this may have to be refilled daily. We use a bucket as a water container but be aware that baby chicks will drown. If you buy chicks, you'll need a water feeder that they can't fall in to.
Martha - our little bantam buff Pekin.
Food - chooks eat almost everything, including meat. If you buy chicks, you'll start them on chicken starter or scratch food. You should buy good quality feed and supplement it with kitchen scraps, odds and ends from the garden and old bread. If you want organic eggs, you'll need to buy organic feed. We buy layer pellets and mash, which is mixed seeds like sunflower, wheat, millet and barley. There are a number of plants you can grow to help feed your chickens. Pigeon pea, sunflowers and comfrey are all favourites but they also love tomatoes with grubs in them, outer lettuce and cabbage leaves, radish tops, silverbeet and spinach. In fact almost everything you eat, the chickens will eat if you feed them that from the day you get them. If you go on a gardening rampage looking for grasshoppers and caterpillars, the chooks will eat all of them for you. They love something warm in winter - we make nice warm porridge and milk for our girls every morning in winter. Any high protein food you give them will enable them to produce more eggs and if you find your chooks off the lay for a reason other than moulting, a high protein boost for a couple of days will often get them laying again.
These are all the same breed but different colours. They're all Sussex chickens. Seth is the large white rooster, behind him is Margaret Olley, our buff Sussex and the two black girls are silver Sussex. Sussex chooks have a black necklace and tail feathers.
When you have your own chooks, you shouldn't be throwing out any food scraps, apart from bones, and even those they will pick as clean as a whistle. Never feed mouldy food or raw soy beans to your chickens - the mould will poison them and the raw soy beans can be toxic to chickens Remember, what you feed them will help form eggs and you want the best and safest eggs possible. Chooks love eating grass and if they do, the eggs they produce will contain Omega 3. Let your flock out on a grassed area for free ranging every day if you can. This can be a small area like a little back yard, or a huge paddock. While they're pecking on the grass, they'll eat any bugs they find as well as any frogs or mice. They'll also pick up little stones, and dirt that will help them digest their food. Chooks don't have teeth and their food is ground up in their gizzards, with the help of the grit they pick up in the field. If they can't be let out to free range, your chooks should have a supply of grit added to their food. You can also grind up eggs shells in the processor and add them as a calcium supplement. It will help strengthen their egg shells.
As you can see this is a big subject so we'll continue tomorrow. Then we'll talk about selecting your chickens and how to raise them well.