Simple Living Series - Let's talk chooks

1 February 2010
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.


  1. Thanks again for another interesting and informative post. Martha is particularly cute, by the way. :-)
    Tracy (Brisbane)

  2. Hi Rhonda, I have only found your blog in the last week or so and wanted to say thank you so very much. My husband and I have always tried to live within our means and not beyond them. As a result I have been able to stay home with our two young boys. Since finding your blog I have realised my plans for establishing a home garden and having a few 'chooks' in the backyard can become a reality. Your indepth information is wonderful.

    The area we live in is a farming town in North Queensland, so it has a great climate for growing. And I remember the chickens we used to have in our back yard growing up. I even had a pet one that used to follow me every where.

    I am looking forward to trying to create some of these beautiful memories for my kids and live a more enriched life.

    So, once again thank you for your wonderful guidance.

  3. Dearest Rhonda Jean,

    I'm very glad how you so wisely include the animals' welfare, always as your priority in teaching people how to raise them. It's obvious you are a very loving and responsible livestock/pet owner (and wildlife lover.)Thanks for being such a good example. Linda

  4. Your chickens are beautiful! Thanks for the information. It'll come in very handy when we get our own in the next few months.

  5. I'm hoping to own chickens by this time next year as I'm going to be moving to a house with a bigger garden. This post has been a wealth of info for me, thanks!

  6. I can hardly wait to get our chooks (when we move) , we feed the neighbours over the fence everyday and my small boys love it.

  7. Cute chooks. I have 2 Isa browns and 2 black Araucanas, so I have 2 blue and 2 brown eggs each day. (mostly)

  8. Great post! It also is great timing, as a goal of mine once I get into my house is to build a chicken coop and populate it with a rag tag team :)

  9. Wonderful post! I am so excited, we are getting some chickens this spring...I miss having them the past few years. And Rhonda, I always love seeing pictures of your "Heather"...~smile~ Heather

  10. Thanks for this post on chickens. I have had chickens for the past few months and love them. But this week they have started eating their eggs. I am trying to collect them earlier and I still find half eaten eggs. I wonder if the cold weather and snow has something to do with it since they can't get out as much. Have you ever had this problem and what did you do for it? Thanks for any info you can provide.

  11. Hi Rhonda, any advice on how to snake-proof a chicken coop? We are planning on getting some chickens and have a brown snake that lurks around our vegie patch.


  12. Never underestimate how devestating the neighbor's dogs can be, unlike wild animals that will grab a meal & run (one chicken) the neighbor's dog is just having a good time. We lost over a dozen chickens one night due to a slightly ajar gate.

    For our nesting boxes we recycled the plastic containers that originally held cat litter & bird seed. We laid them on their sides so the rectangles are tall and cut the plastic lid at the folding hinge so that the small part was left to hold in the straw. These are very sturdy & easily washed at coop cleaning time.

  13. Rhonda, your chooks are lovely. I'm another chook person. Would never have thought it but here I am! We've got Minorcas and New hampshire reds and also 7 Appleyard ducks. They give hours of endless amusement!

  14. Chickens eat mice and frogs? Ugh. I always love feeding my friend's chickens and ducks but we don't own any because we only use eggs for baking. This year we might raise our own Christmas turkeys if we can find chicks and someone to give us advice.

    Just out of curiosity, is there a minimum/maximum number for keeping them happy and settled? I know some animals have to have companions.

  15. I love my chooks and especially the way they provide so many useful services in so many different ways.

  16. great post, rhonda. thanks
    kathy (aust)

  17. Hello Rhonda,
    We collected our little ladies last Friday and they are settling in nicely. So good to hear them clucking around. I can't wait for the first egg. Great post and very helpful.

    Blessings Gail

  18. I have 4 New Hampshire hens and when i bought them, i was told not to give them bread or grain because they would become to fat. And when they are fat, they don't lay eggs.
    So some types of chickens become fat easily.

    Annikka from the Netherlands

  19. Your chickens are all so cute, and I just love your chicken house.

    Mine is an old dog kennel, dog house and all! I have filled the dog house with straw and they lay their eggs in a couple of different areas.

    I have old broom handles as roosts criss crossing over the dog house. I love listening to them settle down at night.

    The kennel locks up at night, and since it only has a mish-mash of tarps and boards covering it, I have a heat lamp in there too.

    I'm so glad I got the chickens, they are lots of fun to watch scratching around and when they realize I'm outside, they all pick up their little bloomers and run straight to me.

    Sorry for the long winded-ness, but I love my chickens too.

  20. I would LOVE love love to keep chickens. But we can't. We have a husky dog and he would also love love LOVE the chickens. For breakfast, lunch and dinner.... And the dog has the reign of the back yard so no safe space left for chickens I'm afraid.

  21. Lovely post. Sadly all 4 of our chooks were taken by (we presume) a fox last week. We have recently moved house and I hadn't secured their run properly. It's an awful feeling, so please, if you're going to get chickens, make them secure. Also, I understand you shouldn't give chickens potato peelings as they are poisonous to them.

  22. We love our Bantams and hope to let a couple of them hatch chicks for the first time this year.

    Our first thought is that we need to provide them nesting boxes separate from the normal community laying area. We want to make sure that the other hens and the rooster don't kill the chicks when they hatch.

    Anything else we need to think about?

    Becky K.

  23. This is a subject that my husband and I are extremely interested in and have been researching. We have a dog who loves to be outside. Do you allow your dog to be outside at the same time that your chooks are free-ranging? How do you handle that - and is it even a problem?

  24. As to water... I live in a very cold climate (winter right now) and I have noticed that the chickens drink far more when the temperatures drop below -20c (and colder). I think it has to do with air becoming dryer in the cold. I can tell you it is a challenge keeping the water from freezing even in the hen house!

    By the way, I'm a lurker and I love your blog!

  25. What a timely post! I've been thinking about getting chickens for some time now and my husband just agreed that they would be a good idea! We had them when I was little, but it's been a very long time, so a refresher course is great!

  26. I love my chickens. I have about 40 or so. It's hard to keep count and then we just lost one to a cat a few weeks ago.
    I use many eggs and the rest I sell to friends neighbors and a few people who pass by and want to try them. It works out that the chickens pretty much pay for their own feed.
    We did free range them with no fencing but they were causing traffic problems and the neighbor dogs like to eat them. So now we have a fenced in pasture that they can roam and the dogs can't get them. We also raise broilers because we eat alot of chicken. They grow to about 5-6lbs in 8wks. This year we are making chicken tractors out in the field so they get the benefit of free range without being picked on by the layers.

  27. Our 2 chooks (Isa Browns) are having a holiday with friends at the moment as we have just moved house and need to construct the coop. The new coop will be built mostly of salvaged materials but will need to protect them against Brown snakes, Red Belly Blacks and Peacocks (we have a feral population that drives me nuts!). I'm looking forward to your post about predators.
    When we get them back I want to introduce 2 -3 of an Heirloom you know the correct way to do this? Is there a 'pecking order' and the new ones can get picked on?

  28. Hi Rhonda, informative and great post, (as always) we are near completion of our chook house and so this info has come in very handy.

    Maybe we should have a series of photos of chook houses like the kitchen sink ones?

    Di (Launceston Tas)

  29. Wow, what a wealth of info. We are strongly considering chooks and have been reading everything we can get our hands on! Thank you


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