How to ensure keeping chickens is all it’s cracked up to be

Updated September 16, 2017 14:08:47

Pip and Natalie Taylor have been keeping chickens in their Canberra backyard for more than four years.

“They’re great as part of the backyard garden ecosystem,” Ms Taylor said.

“They produce eggs, eat our food scraps, and we scoop up their dirt and poo and put it into our garden or the compost.

“And they’re a lot of fun to watch — you can watch them do their thing for hours.”

The six birds produce more eggs than the family can eat each week.

“That’s where the neighbours come in: I just do a walk around the street from time to time and see who’s home and drop some eggs into them,” Mr Taylor said.

Across the street, Daniel Macdonald, Cath Atkinson and their two children keep three chickens.

“The eggs are great; they’re really yummy and you know that they’re free range when you grow them yourself,” Mr Macdonald said.

For 10-year-old Alistair Macdonald, the chickens make great pets.

“They’re fun and you can play with them; they’re good friends to have,” he said.

“Sometimes I take the scraps out and collect the eggs in the morning.”

Things to consider before getting chickens

As backyard chickens become increasingly popular, Peter Shands from the Royal National Capital Agricultural Society offered some tips for those thinking of keeping hens.

Basic needs of chickens

Clean water — ensure ample cool, clean water is always available.

Food as a minimum a quality layer or scratch mix; ideally also regular access to grass, vegetables, food scraps and insects through free-ranging.

Protection from weather provide shelter from cold winds, rain, prolonged dampness and heat.

Protection from predators — protect chickens from foxes, dogs, cats and birds of prey by surrounding and enclosing pens with mesh.

A place to exercise — chickens like scratching, dust bathing, foraging and socialising. General space rule is at least one square metre per bird.

A place to lay eggs — hens require a quiet, dark place to build nests and lay eggs. Line nesting boxes with straw, shredded paper or sawdust.

Somewhere to roost — most chickens like to perch at night so provide rounded perches that are at least 50mm wide.

Other chickens — chickens are flock birds and need company to be happy. Never keep just one chicken.

Source: Actsmart

First, consider why you want to keep chickens — is it for eggs, meat, to turn over compost and/or for fertiliser?

Then do some research and choose a breed that can deliver.

There are dozens of hybrid and heritage breeds of various colours and characteristics.

For example, hybrids like ISA Browns are heavy layers but have shorter lifespans than heritage layers like Leghorns.

Next, you need to determine how many birds you should keep based on available space and the number of eggs you would like to produce.

As a general rule, chickens require at least one square metre per bird to run around.

“In laying season with laying breeds, you’ll get about six eggs per week per female,” Mr Shands said.

“So if the family needs 24 eggs per week, you need four females.”

And when it comes to buying your birds, beware the fluffy chicks.

“People buy chicks because they’re cute, but on the whole, day-old chickens are unsexed so 50 per cent on average will be males and they all grow up and crow,” Mr Shands said.

“And with the females, the reality is you’ve got to keep them for six months before you get an egg.”

Mr Shands said sourcing one-year-old birds from a reputable breeder was a good option for those starting out.

“They’ve already built up disease resistance and they’ve been retained in flocks so you get a healthy bird, typically it’s not wild, and that’s a good way to get an introduction.”

How to house chickens in the backyard

Depending on the size and orientation of your backyard, you may like to consider a mobile chicken run or a fixed coop.

Where possible, Mr Shands said the opening side of the pen should face north or north-east.

“The pen should include some inside and outside opportunities, access to dust and dirt … and protection from the elements,” he said.

“Consider enclosing the pen to keep out wild birds … and embed mesh in the soil to keep out foxes, cats and dogs.”

Also position the pen to avoid water runoff and ensure good drainage.

“Water running into pens is the enemy and can wet litter and dampen feed and that encourages rodent activity and the biggest chicken killer in the world — the red mite.”

Nesting boxes and perches should also be built into the pen.

Some designs provide external access to nesting boxes so eggs can be collected without having to enter the chicken run.

While the initial planning and setup could take some time and effort, Mr Shands said it was worth it to ensure healthy, happy chickens.

“Keeping chickens is enjoyable; you ‘ve just got to put the time in to get the result, it’s not just good luck.”

Topics: human-interest, lifestyle, gardening, canberra-2600, act

First posted September 16, 2017 07:00:00