Updated: Jul 22, 2020
The trend for chicken ownership in urban and semi-rural areas is rising, more and more people are turning to a more sustainable lifestyle and the idea of owning a few chickens in your backyard has become really appealing. There’s a lot to like about raising your own chickens, the eggs are tastier and fresher and there’s the ultimate satisfaction gained by cracking open your home grown egg.
Adding to your personal household sustainably goals, the egg shells, along with the chicken manure, can be tossed right into the compost pile and later used on your vegi patch. Chickens tend to be low maintenance, much of the day, the birds entertain themselves, picking at grass, worms, beetles, and all of the good things that go into making highly nutritious eggs. Plus, with their keen eye for insects, chickens make for great gardening companions (just don’t let them get access to your veggie patch or prized garden beds).
So before you go out to by your laying hens there’s a few things you need to get ready:
Make sure you have the space for a hen-house or a full-size chicken coop.
It has to hold a feeder and water containers, a roosting area, and a nest box for every three hens. A proper coop should be large enough that you can stand in it to gather eggs and shovel manure comfortably, but a simple hen-house can be quite a bit smaller. It must be free from drafts and moisture.
Any housing must be sturdy enough to keep your chickens safe from all the predators out there (including your domestic pets) Foxes are notorious for fearless hunting, even in urban areas.
Chickens need food (and water) daily.
A grown hen requires at least 500mls of fresh, cool water daily to maintain health. In summer months, your chickens will need about 1 litre per bird per day.
So off to the store you go - shopping list in hand.. Waterer, Feeder, Nesting boxes, Food!
How Much Space Do Chickens Need?
Ultimately, it depends on which breed of chicken you’re raising. Rule of thumb, one medium-sized chicken needs about ½ a square metre of floor space inside the coop and 1 square metre outdoors. The more space, the happier and healthier the chickens will be; overcrowding contributes to disease and feather picking. The birds will need a place to spread their wings, so to speak: a sizeable chicken run, for example, or a whole backyard.
How Many Chickens Should I Keep?
Chickens are sociable creatures, so plan to keep three to six birds. With this amount, you’ll always have a steady supply of eggs, since an adult hen lays about two eggs every three days, on average. Chickens are most productive in the first two years of their lives; after that, egg production will slow, so you’ll need to think about replacing your flock with younger birds eventually.
Hens will lay eggs through spring and summer and into the autumn as long as they have 12 to 14 hours of daylight. Expect to collect eggs daily, or even twice a day. As summer comes to an end you will notice your hens egg production slow down. With this, your hens’ nutritional requirements will change as their body moves from a state of production to a state of repair.
The amount of daylight tells your hen when to release a yolk and produce an egg. So, when the daylight is reduced, chickens don’t receive this light ‘cue’ to tell them to release a yolk. This state of repair during winter is crucial for hens, because laying eggs throughout the summer places a huge amount of stress on their body and without this break they will eventually burn out.
What to feed and how much??
As the summer comes to an end you will notice your hens naturally start to slow down and their egg production will also slow down. With this, your hens’ nutritional requirements will change as their body moves from a state of production to a state of repair.
As you can imagine, when a hen is laying eggs they need lots of protein, however during a state of repair they will need more carbohydrates which also assists to keep themselves warm. As we approach winter, hens’ feed consumption will typically be 1.5 times the amount they eat in the spring/summer, and many first-time backyard chicken keepers get caught out and aren’t prepared for their hens to suddenly start eating more food!
During winter your hens’ dietary requirements will change as they moult and prepare for the cold, dark winter whilst their body prepares for next spring. Not only will their dietary requirements change but the volume of food they eat will also change during the winter. It’s important that during these changes you keep an eye on your hens and provide them with not only the right food but the right amount of food.
Its a good idea to keep your flock on either layer pellets or a scratch mix (visit www.greenvalleygrains.com for more info) this provides them with all their key nutritional requirements and keeps them healthy.
Hens love to scratch..
You might be surprised to find out that hens get a lot of nutrition from scratching and pecking at the ground. One of the most important minerals they get from foraging is shell grit. Chickens don’t have any teeth so the grit they collect is used to break and grind down their food. You need to make sure your hens have access to enough shell grit. Normally this can either be from commercial feed or you can just scatter crushed shell grit in their run. This doesn’t need to be done daily, a handful once every 2 weeks will be plenty for a small flock of 12 hens.
Don’t get too caught up on whether you are feeding them enough or not- the will let you know. If you are constantly finding that there is food left in their feeder when they go to roost at night, you know that you are giving them too much feed. If there is feed leftover at night remember to tidy it up, as this will attract pests.
Don't get complacent - watch out for cold snaps.
Weather patterns in Australia can be very unpredictable especially in southern states. A balmy day can be followed by hailstones and frosty mornings. So, be vigilant. Remember that if the weather suddenly turns cold, your main caring task will be to ensure your flock's water and food supply is kept fresh and the coop is free from drafts and moisture.
What about worming?
It is imperative that you de-worm your flock three monthly – just as you would your dog or cat. You can buy specially made chicken wormers from any major pet stores or online. Wormers come in liquid, tablet or syrup form, and should be administered every three months. How much you add to water or give orally will depend on your flock size, but there is guidelines on the box. The wormers generally cater for the prevention of ALL types of worms, rather than just one specific type.
Watch out for mites and lice.
The warmer weather and lighter nights can make caring for your flock much easier. There are fewer concerns about whether they're warm enough, they can forage more easily and hens are coming back into lay. But it can also bring some unwanted guests: lice and mites. These nasty little bugs can survive even the hardest of winters, and will begin to breed in earnest once the weather begins to warm up again. Mites and lice are annoying, pesky problems to have with your backyard flock, and must be treated quickly as it can spread to all the other feathered friends.
These extremely common external parasites feed on your chickens, irritating and weakening them. Lice and mites can crawl on you, too, if you handle infested birds. Although chicken lice think people taste disgusting (they won’t hang around for long), mites will happily bite a person before running back to their preferred host — your chicken.
How do I treat mites and lice?
Immediately dust all of your chickens thoroughly with diatomaceous earth, or Pestene powder (both available at your local produce store). Both of these are harmless to chooks, but you should wear a dust-mask to avoid irritating your lungs.
So to sum it up, chickens are easy, inexpensive pets with great benefits. After your initial set up costs, keeping chickens is relatively inexpensive. When you raise your own chickens, you know what went into the production of the eggs and its a healthier alternative to factory farmed eggs. Backyard and free ranged hens produce eggs that are very nutritious and great tasting. Not to mention they are always fresh! Chickens make great pets for children and make a wonderful addition to the family. They are friendly, easy to manage and low maintenance. Chickens are entertaining and have individual personalities, keeping a small flock can be very rewarding and at times very amusing.