Keeping Chickens

We’ve been keeping chooks at our nursery for 7 years now. They are not only our pets, but also our composters, veggie patch fertilisers and a regular source of the most local, organic eggs. If you’re looking for a pet to tick all the boxes, a chicken is about the only one that can do that. It’s a symbiotic relationship that reduces waste, creates food and perhaps most importantly, provides companionship. 

Chooks typically live for between 5-8 years (yes ours are getting quite old…), and begin laying after about 6 to 12 months, typically when conditions are warmer in spring or summer. Like most things in a garden, laying is most prolific in the warmer months and will subside a little during autumn and winter. Once a chook begins to lay, most of the egg production is achieved in the first 3 years of its life, however if a bird is healthy there is the potential for it to lay an egg a day until it dies. 

Even though their laying may slow down during the winter, their appetite does not. Their is seldom a moment during the day that they are not peaking and scratching around for food. When keeping chickens there should be no organic food waste heading for landfill, because they are simply waste machines. 

Birds not laying tend to be affected by either health problems, such as worms, lice and mites, or a poor level of protein in their diets. Once the problem is addressed, laying should resume. The healthier the bird, the better the egg and its yoke. A deeper yellow yoke is indicative of a hen eating plenty of yellow-orange plant pigments called xanthophylls, much like how a salmon will naturally develop a pink flesh by consuming a crustacean diet.

Keeping chickens, like with any pet, requires you to abide by certain requirements. This relates to the number that can be kept, how they should be looked after and how they need to be contained. While the laws are there to keep conditions humane for the birds and reasonable for your neighbours, they are also a blue print of how to keep them happy and productive. 

When building a chook coop is must not be built within 4.5m of a neighbours dwelling and 1m from a diving fence. The size of the chook dwelling, or coop, must be in proportion to the number of chooks kept; with space to roost (when laying eggs) and an otherwise clean area that is not overcrowded. There is no quantified space required per chook (maximum of 5 can be keep in residential Victorian households), only what is considered reasonable and what can be kept clean, and this is the primary issue when keeping chooks – keeping on top of their prolific pooing habits. Home owners who have soft landscaped space (not lawn which they’ll tear up) for the birds to scratch around in, pooing as they go, are at an advantage here. The only rule is there can be no roosters.

The birds will need to have their wings clipped routinely to avoid your pets taking flight to what they may perceive as greener pastures. It is also necessary to have them wormed every 3 months (as simple as putting a de-worming liquid in their water) and their coop most certainly must be fox proofed. Many believe foxes living in surburia is purely urban myth, however once you have keep chooks in an inadequately fox proofed coop, you will quickly realise how real they are.

Just like the perfect child who requests to go to bed when night falls, your chooks will head off to roost in the coop - all you need to do is lock them in each night. You will need to provide them with food and water, as much shade as you can and a little bit of dirt for the chooks to shower themselves in. Much like pigs would in their muddy sty, chooks give themselves dust showers whenever they deem it necessary.

It is best to balance a chook’s diet between pelletized chook feed, seed mix and any food scraps intended for the rubbish bin. Make sure the chook feed is kept rodent proof and avoid leaving scraps out overnight. The best time to feed is in the morning, allowing them to clean the area for when night falls and pests are most active. You’ll also have to consider the pigeons that will take a liking to your chook seed - and as has happened to one before - been locked in with the ladies overnight. That wasn’t a good night for the pigeon. 

Chooks generally interact well with family pets and your fearless, smothering kids who will always want to touch and play with them. This practice only develops tamer birds or those that make it known they prefer a little space, usually by hanging out by themselves when the kids come out to play. You only need to be cautious of a clumsy, stray peck during mealtime and when brooding. 

Brooding refers to the natural urge a hen may develop to incubate her egg/s, and is a behaviour more likely to strike during spring/summer. Infrequent collection of the eggs will increase the chances of brooding, so make sure to routinely check and remove fresh eggs (like you needed more incentives). If a chook begins to display the characteristics of brooding - by sitting on her eggs for an obscenely long time, looking agitated or stressed and not leaving the coop very often – you will need to deter her. A brooding chook will prioritize what they believe to be the arrival of new life at detriment to their own, and tend to become malnourished. Try removing the eggs, or alternatively, isolating the chook. The problem with brooding is it can often be contagious, others thinking it a great idea. You may need to isolate the brooding chook before her behaviour catches on.

There are many varieties of chooks to choose from and some make better pets, some make better layers and a few make ideal fashion accessories to the image conscious. Australorps, Barnevelders and Rhode Island Red’s are very popular due to their regular laying and tameness around people, while Silkies and Bantems will always be the kids’ favourite, because - alright - they are actually very cute. 

You can get chickens from a day old (incredibly cute, tiny birds that will need heat lamps and a lot of love), to pullets (about 10 weeks old), point of lay or laying, and that choice really hinges on whether you demand eggs sooner or later. But given time all chooks will reduce your waste, help your veggie patch, provide you with food and be great companions around the garden. Tick, tick, tick and tick. 

Check out our video on Building a Chook Coop

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