Thinking of keeping chooks?February 27, 2014
We're fortunate today to have the following guest post by Kate @ Beautiful Chickens. Kate has hundreds of chickens at her property just west of Brisbane and she knows a lot about them.
Silver campine, one of the rarest breeds in Australia but also one of our best layers.
Having chooks in the backyard has so many advantages that it’s hard to list them all.
They make great pets, provide us with amazing nutritious fresh eggs (tasting nothing like the store bought eggs), are an intrinsic part of any vegetable garden system and are just delightful creatures that brighten everyone’s day. Having said all of that if you have never had chickens before and are not well prepared then keeping them can become an arduous task.
So before you go out and buy your first chickens, think on the following and plan well.
Have you had chickens before? It’s best to start off simple. Try to avoid anything too fancy and choose easy care breeds which give good egg production and friendly nature.
Do you have any particular colours or breeds in mind? Sometimes one just falls in love with a breed when you see it and really that is a personal thing! So long as they are available and would suit your particular setup then you should look for the breeds you love. However a word of warning, many internet sources and books list breed traits that can be misleading! So take the advice of the breeder on temperament and their particular traits.
How many eggs does your family require a week? It’s no good buying only bantams and expecting enough eggs to feed a large family.
One of our pretty cross breeds….heritage unknown but from a long line of farm bred chooks that have been thriving on a local farm in Mt Samson for decades.
Is there a budget on spending? It is important to be aware that some breeds are priced highly simply because they are rare, are show quality, may be difficult to breed and/or are in high demand. Many breeders devote a lifetime to breeding quality birds at considerable cost to themselves. Don’t expect these breeders to part with their lovely birds cheaply. Without their commitment many heritage breeds would no longer exist in Australia. There are chicken breeds and crosses to suit every budget and if cost is an issue then go for crossbreeds or younger stock.
Gold laced Barnevelders
Do you already have a coop? Is it a chicken tractor, a small wooden style or a walk in large coop and will you free-range all the time, occasionally or rarely?
Some breeds would be quite happy in small chicken tractor where others require more freedom. It’s also worth considering the block size ie suburban block vs acreage available for free-ranging.
If there are circumstances that prevent free-ranging such as space, garden constraints, over-zealous dogs or predators then you should not feel guilty, just ask advice on the breeds and numbers that would work for your situation. Try to give them some sort of run if possible and supplement with a good variety of greens.
While the cheap online coop may look appealing in the beginning if you plan to add more hens you will soon become frustrated with the size as will the hens, overcrowding is not good for them for many reasons. Also many of these coops do not last long in the weather so end up being an expensive option. eBay and Gumtree, (if you are patient) can be a good way to buy a better quality coop for reasonable cost as can a bit of DIY with recycled materials. Just make sure it is predator proof. In areas with pythons use bird mesh. Foxes and dogs can easily dig under a fence so look at ways to deter this and do not underestimate their determination. The ideal predator-proof coop is a concrete floor and a solid structure with bird mesh so when locked in nothing can get to them.
Position of the coop is also very important. They need protecton from cold winds but plenty of ventilation and shade in the heat. In Australia, generally north-east facing is best but depending on trees and aspect you need to plan accordingly. The coop itself also needs shade even if just another layer of corrugated iron, shade cloth or tarp as they heat up quickly in hot weather.
Cleaning the coop. When a coop smells it’s time to clean as there is a build up of manure and this can adversely affect the health of the chickens just like humans! Deep litter systems are wonderful as they provide months of healthy living before bedding needs changing and then provide already composted manure for the garden. Most coops are not set up for this but if you have the option it’s worth doing!
Do you have a second housing option? Having a second housing option may sound extravagant but it gives you the freedom to bring later additions into the flock gradually thus avoid bullying issues, particularly if the new chickens are younger. It is also good for broody and sick hens. It can be as simple as a guinea pig cage, large bird cage or a segregated area off an existing coop with whatever materials are available.
Do you have other pets? Some dogs are well behaved and leave chooks alone but for many when left to their own devices the temptation is too great! Whether it’s your own dog, a neighbour’s dog or wild dogs please consider how you will manage them. It may mean that free ranging is only possible when you are home or the dog needs containing or that a fenced run is required. They are only following instinct so it is up to us to be aware.
Is it important to you that the chooks are friendly and easy to handle for children or yourself? Again research and take advice on this as there are breeds that are more friendly than others. Bantams make great pets and look gorgeous but lay limited eggs. There are breeds that lay large eggs that can be friendly too but not all! Favorelle crosses are a great friendly all round layer.
Thinking about rearing chicks? There is nothing as cute as a fluffy day old chick. They however require more commitment on your behalf as they need a heat source, dry bedding and medicated chick starter feed. If you don’t use mediated feed then cocci is a big risk that can cause death very quickly. It’s not hard but rearing chicks does need to be done correctly. The alternative is letting a broody hen rear them, this will require a separate run or coop until chicks are bigger.
What is pecking order? All chickens have a pecking order. This can be distressing to a first time chicken owner but it is the way of the chicken! There will always be a dominant girl and this will be most obvious when you try to bring a new bird into the flock. This bird will eat first, drink first, lay first and usually is the healthiest and probably the most productive. It may appear brutal but usually settles quickly. As mentioned before having a second housing option will help ease this as you can introduce new birds gradually. Younger birds or placid natured birds are more in danger of being bullied so never introduce one hen on its own if you can help it. Sometimes it is necessary to rehome a chicken who is a persistent bully but this is not common.
Are you aware of poultry health?
There are certain husbandry requirements to owning poultry and if you are aware you will avoid problems! It’s no different to owning a dog or cat. Prevention is better than cure.
Lice and mites: a dust bath area is imperative. Decide on treatment you will use and have on hand. Timber nests, roosts and straw are ideal hiding places for mites so treat these areas also with lime, diamataceous earth or your preferred treatment.
Worms: Check regularly, dirty feathers around the vent is a sign and treat
Respiratory: Chickens can get colds or respiratory symptoms that are caused by exposure to wild birds or new birds, moldy dusty bedding, poor intestinal health or from anything that causes stress including overcrowding, dirty smelly coops, transport, mites/lice, worms, change in weather hot/cold and bullying from other chickens. Be careful of dusts for treating lice and mites as they are irritating to their respiratory system too. So be aware and act quickly if you see any sneezing, coughing, nasal discharge or rattly breathing. Most recover with some tender care or may need antibiotics from a vet. Separate the bird from the flock while unwell. These problems are of no danger to humans but practice good hygiene all the same.
Pekin bantams, just one of the many colours.
Feed and water
Quality feed keeps hens healthy and give you more eggs! Speak to your local producer and decide which layer mash (grains) or pellets you will use. Mixed grain is not a complete feed as the protein is too low, 10% vs a quality layer mash which has 15-16% protein plus added vitamins, minerals and calcium.
Feed should be available all day if you are not able to feed twice daily. Consider feeders that limit access by rodents or put feeder way at night.
Chick starter: 0 to 6 week old chicks
Pullet grower: 6 to16 week old pullets
Layer ration: mature pullets over 16 weeks
Chooks love scraps but again they are not a complete feed so give only what they will eat each day and give a good mix of greens, fruits, bread, pasta or whatever you have! Again make sure there is none left for the rodents at night.
Shell grit is also important for the hen to digest food and add calcium for egg shells. Make a separate dish and keep it full always as they will take what they need.
Fresh cool water is also a necessity. If you are not able to change water daily look at making or buying a waterer designed to minimize slime and muck from chooks using nipples or lube cups. These also allow a greater storage of water. Apple cider vinegar is a great product to put in the water weekly as it helps to maintain a healthy gut, reduces slime build up in the waterer and is a general tonic for chickens. Do not use in hot weather.
Be aware of where you buy food from
It’s always best to buy from a reputable produce store or a breeder who is willing to offer you after sales service and advice.