Ultimate guide to keeping chickens
Chickens can be a joyful addition to your backyard, paying for their keep with eggs, fertiliser for your garden and hours of entertainment for the whole family.
Bunning magazine, August 2020
A supply of freshly laid eggs straight from your backyard is very appealing, and just one of the rewards of keeping chooks. These fun, feathery friends do require a bit of TLC though. Read on for the lowdown on how to raise healthy, productive hens.
Give them a dusty and sunny space
You don’t need masses of yard space to have happy chooks, but you will need room for a secure coop and a fenced-in area with room to roam. “Allow them out to have a scratch in the garden so they can find bugs, eat dirt and have a good forage and play in the dust,” says Fiona Scott-Norman, author of This Chicken Life and owner of eight bantam hens. “They floof it up around them and it gets into the feathers; this helps to control lice, mites, and excess oil. If they can have a dust bath in the sun, they couldn’t be happier.” Fiona recommends allowing at least a couple of square metres of space per chicken. “If you’ve just got a concrete square, that would be a sad life for a chicken,” she says.
Aaron Hollingworth, brand manager at Pinnacle Hardware, says coops should be put in an area that enjoys both sun and shade. “Ideally it would catch the morning sun, but be shaded in the afternoon,” he says. “If you’re going to let the chickens roam free during the day, the coop should be connected to or situated within a roaming area called a run, so the chooks can come and go and nest and roost as needed.” Hens that can roam freely are more likely to be happy and healthy, and lay more eggs. Expect about six eggs a week per hen, less in cooler months when they slow or stop laying due to shorter daylight hours.
Chickens are social animals so aim to have at least three. “If one passes away, your chickens will still have a friend without needing to introduce new hens, which can be difficult,” says Aaron. In an urban backyard, start with three to four birds and no roosters. Neighbours are unlikely to enjoy the noise of a rooster, and many councils won’t permit them. Contact your local council for chicken regulations.
Find the right coop
A coop needs shelter from the elements and a raised area to keep chooks comfortable and dry. Adequate space for your chooks to roost and nest is vital, along with laying boxes and easy access to collect eggs, says Aaron. “Well-designed chicken coops made from timber are great because they are naturally breathable and are not as susceptible to condensation,” he says. In coops of about two square metres, three to four hens is a good number. “If your chickens don’t have enough space, you could experience issues such as excessive noise, feather picking, bullying and fighting,” explains Aaron.
The RSPCA recommends at least 20cm of perch for each hen. “Chickens like to be off the ground when they sleep because they are a jungle bird, originally,” says Fiona. “They come from roosting in trees.” She recommends flat rather than round perches, as chickens cling with their toes, and placing perches at different heights so the pecking order can play out. Avoid positioning perches above laying boxes or their food and water supply, as chickens poo while perching.
Coops need to be easy to regularly clean. Removable floor trays are handy, and you need good bedding such as pine shavings and shredded cardboard to soak up the chook droppings. Frequency of changing their bedding depends on how many chooks you have and how much waste they generate, but on average bedding should be changed weekly, and the coop should have a good clean out every month.
“Don’t position the coop too close to your house, as chooks can attract insects and rodents, and produce an odour that you may want to keep at a distance from your living room,” says Aaron. Ammonia, a natural by-product found in poultry manure, is generally the primary cause of the smell. Keeping the coop clean and dry will help manage this. Ensure your hen house is located away from property boundaries or houses. Check with your local council for required distances.
Old bedding and chicken manure can make fantastic fertiliser; just be sure to leave it for six to nine months to cure or compost, otherwise its high nitrogen content could burn your plants. Alternatively, a handful or so can be dissolved in a bucket of water to make a liquid manure.
Keep them safe
The coop needs to protect your flock from dogs, snakes, rodents and, most of all foxes, even in the city. Consider how the placement of the coop might discourage predators accessing it and regularly check its security. "Locating a coop on sturdy hard ground can help deter predators, as well as positioning it within view of your home so you have a direct line of sight in case something’s afoot," says Aaron.
A wire base can help to stop foxes digging underneath to enter the coop, as can wire dug under the ground around it. Make sure the wire is at least 1mm thick, as foxes can tear chicken wire with their teeth and squeeze through small holes. You could also surround the coop with sturdy steel mesh. “Chickens put themselves to bed around dusk, but you do need to make sure they’re securely locked up at night,” says Fiona. Don’t forget to unlock the door first thing and keep it propped open during the day to allow hens to roam freely in and out to lay their eggs or keep safe.
Happy, healthy hens will lay delicious and nutritious eggs, and a good diet ensures this. Hens are omnivores, so they enjoy seeds, grains, grass, fruit and vegetables, along with insects and other protein. “Buy feed, such as mixed grain or pellets, from a feed store or a pet shop, and make sure they can access it all the time,” says Fiona. To prevent spillage and rats use a hanging feeder, which can be raised as your hens grow. Then use kitchen scraps as treats. “They’ll eat what they want, but clean it up at the end of the day, or you will attract rats,” advises Fiona.
Don’t feed chooks salty or spoiled food scraps. Potato, avocado, chocolate, citrus fruit, rhubarb leaves, onion, garlic and uncooked beans and rice should all be avoided. But, do include dried and crushed eggshells, as chickens need the calcium from shell grit to make eggshells. They also need lots of water (one hen can drink up to a litre a day) to aid digestion, control body temperature and enable egg production. Ensure a regular supply of fresh clean water is always available, in a shaded, not sunny, spot.
Look after your hens’ health
There are several parasites, such as lice, ticks and mites, that can harm hens, so check the state of your chooks’ health daily. If they’re listless, have little appetite, signs of wounds and feather loss, or discharge from their nostrils or eyes, seek veterinary advice. While chickens naturally take a dust bath to remove lice and mites, they may also need treatment with a powder or spray product, and the coop could also require a thorough clean and treatment.
Worms can be prevented with natural remedies or a regular dose of wormer; but foamy or blood-stained droppings can indicate their presence. Treat hens with a poultry worming solution and read the packaging for advice about avoiding eating the eggs for a set period. Blood in droppings can also be a sign of an intestinal disease called coccidiosis, which can be treated with medication.
A limping hen with roughish red patches on her feet may have bumblefoot, a bacterial infection that in the early stages can be easily treated, but may need antibiotics and bandaging.
For any concerns about your chickens’ health and their ongoing care, such as worming and vaccination, consult your local vet clinic. Remember to always practise good hygiene when handling your hens. Wear protective gloves when cleaning out the coop, wash your hands thoroughly and do not eat or prepare food near where they live.
Bringing up babies
If you want the whole hatching-egg-and-fluffy-chick experience, be prepared for the initial outlay, effort and patience required. Your first egg won’t be laid until at least four months later! “You can buy fertilised eggs, which can still be viable up to two weeks after they’re laid and still get put under a hen and grow into a chicken,” says Fiona. Although a broody chicken is best to hatch an egg, you can do this at home. There’s a lot involved in the process (and a 50 per cent chance they’ll be roosters). For more information on hatching eggs, visit poultryaustralia.com.au/hatching-fertile-eggs.
Alternatively, you can buy day-old or several-day-old chicks from hatcheries and pet chicken farms. If they’re sexed at birth you’re much more likely to get hens, but you may need to get them vaccinated. Once your chicks have arrived you’ll need to keep them indoors for at least the first five weeks, longer in winter, in a brooder box that’s lined with absorbent bedding, warmed with a source of heat, such as a heat lamp or hot water bottle, and netted, as little chicks can flutter and leap out. They’ll also need special chick food from pet food suppliers and plenty of fresh water.
Egg care and safety
Eggs are porous and arrive with a bloom, a gelatinous protective outer layer that seals the shell. Washing eggs can remove this layer, and actually increases the risk of bacteria like salmonella and listeria entering the egg. Instead, it’s better to lightly brush eggs clean, advises Fiona. This is important because once an egg is cracked, chicken faeces on the outside of the shell can contaminate the egg.
Salmonella can also manifest in chicken ovaries, making its way into the egg. To prevent disease and pathogens, buy chickens from reputable breeders and be vigilant at maintaining their health and wellbeing. While the frequency of salmonella-contaminated eggs in Australia is very low, it can be a serious illness for the elderly, those with chronic conditions, infants and pregnant women. Reduce the risk from salmonella by avoiding using cracked or dirty eggs, and cook eggs properly, since salmonella is killed at 74°C*. For more information about avoiding salmonella contamination, see australianeggs.org.au. For advice on how to enjoy eggs safely, visit foodauthority.nsw.gov.au or betterhealth.vic.gov.au.
Make your own chicken coop
On a budget? Watch our helpful video to learn how to build a D.I.Y chicken coop.
Photo credit: Getty Images