Guide to keeping chickens!

img_7154Chickens make brilliant pets because they give you healthy eggs, eat your kitchen scraps and are compost machines. They are also relaxing and fun to watch. They are a great part of a healthier and slower lifestyle. 

Over the decades have had chickens in large numbers and in small numbers. We have had them in the countryside and in a backyard. We have also had many batches of small chicks. Right now we only have three chickens but they give us three eggs a day. Month in, month out. That’s 21 eggs per week. 1.2kg of nutrient packed protein per week! If we are hungry we simply walk out the back and grab a few eggs and fry them up!

Never have I been so happy to have chickens as through the Covid saga. Eggs were very  expensive at one point and when it felt scary to be at supermarkets we could eat off our own produce.

Have you ever considered keeping a few chickens? Here is a guide on how to do that easily and successfully. Once you are set up chickens are extremely easy pets to have and they have personalities you can enjoy watching. All you need to do is let them out in their run and feed them each morning, and lock them up at night. That takes 5 minutes a day for a lot of fun and beautiful eggs.

If you read up on how to keep them you can do a good job of it and your chickens will be happier and better egg producers.

Buying chickens. This is the first thing you think of but don’t actually buy them until you have their coop and run set up. When it is time to buy, consider good laying breeds like Isa Browns for example, or see what is available near you. Some breeds are good for eggs, others for meat, and others for their looks! The backyard variety (mix breeds) are not too bad either. Read up on the net, and ask around your area if you see a neighbour has chickens. Our Isa browns are super faithful layers but we feed them well too! Just do not get any that have mites. Once you get mites in your dirt and on your chickens it is so hard to get rid of them. Don’t accept offers of chickens from friends until you look close at their faces and feet for tiny black mites!
How many chickens do you need? Generally one per person in the family plus an extra chicken works perfectly.

A chicken run (fenced off yard area). You need a run (fenced off yard area) where they can scratch around all day. It is an area connected to their coop which is essentially their bedroom for night time. If you live in a warm climate do build your run under a tree so they don’t bake in summer. The run can be really big or quite small but preferably minimum 1-2 square metre per chicken.  You can create a run with metal stakes (star pickets) or pine poles, plus chicken wire. Use one stake/pole per 1.5 metres. For a stronger run use pine poles (around 1.8m long) and dig holes (60cm deep) and you can also drop some concrete powder into the hole and hose it a little and then drop in your pole. For a small run for 3 chickens 10m of wire will do, especially if you let them out in the rest of your garden for a little each evening. The wire does not need to be taller than around 1m unless you have dogs likely to jump over. They will not fly over the fence if you clip one wing on day one (more on that further down). Chickens are great at keeping weeds at bay. Give them an area where the weeds are driving you crazy! After a few years they will have eradicated weeds from growing there for some time. Then you can move them and use it for a vege garden with richly fertilised soil! Building runs underneath a deciduous fruit tree is an excellent set up for chickens and the tree. We have our chicken run under a Mulberry tree, so they get wonderful shade in summer but sun in winter when the tree has dropped its leaves.

A chicken coop. A coop is the little house where they sleep at night, their bedroom. You will have it adjoining the run where they scratch during the day. They will walk in there themselves at sunset every day to go to bed and be ready to go out each morning. Get one that is tall enough that you can walk in and clean out the chicken poop. It will need a big door for you to go in and out from the garden (if you need to collect some chook manure) and another smaller door that lets the chickens out into their run. If you live in an area with foxes you need to lock this small door at nights. Get a coop that protects from rain and wind. It is good if it has some area to walk around inside in case you want to throw their feed in there on rainy days.

The layer box. Every chicken coop needs two things: a perch and it also needs an area for laying eggs where there are one or two laying boxes. It is best if you can access the eggs from outside – not having to walk into the coop or the run at all. An externally accessed egg box is the best so you or the kids can simply lift a lid and get the eggs from the garden side. See the photo of my chicken coop. On previous coops I have built I used an old rabbit cage as a layer box and on another I used a metal laundry trough cupboard built into the side of the coop – I opened the for to get the eggs. Perfect.
Tip for keeping it clean. Most people line their wooden layer box with straw. A much better idea is to put a cardboard box inside the layer box and line it with newspaper and then dry leaves or shredded paper (straw seems to attract mites).. You can simply throw the whole cardboard box in the bin whenever it gets yucky and pop in a new clean cardboard box. This saves a lot of cleaning work. A clean layer box means clean eggs and less attractive to mites. I change the cardboard box every month or two. It stays pretty clean as long as they don’t sleep in there at night.
If they do sleep in the laying box they’ll poop in it and your eggs get dirty. Block access to the layer box each night for 1 week and they will change habits and use their perch! Let them access it in day though so they can lay in there.
How many layer boxes? One layer box per 3-4 chickens is fine. They will take it in turns and wait for each other to lay. By the way – listen out for the egg song! They sing (cluck) a cute ‘I am laying an egg song’ song when they are laying.  Remember – have the egg laying boxes off to the side or in a different area to where they perch. There will be a lot of poop dropping from the perch so you don’t want it over your egg boxes. On my photo below of our current mini coop for backyard set up, you can see our layer box is external and has a lift up flap. It is a very good design. Access is from outside.

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Perch. There needs to be a horizontal perch or pole in there where they can hop up and feel high up and safe at night. That is natural for them. If you do not give them a perch they will sleep in the layer box and poop in it. (Then your eggs will be dirty. ) Do not use a square shaped rod for a perch as it is  uncomfortable for their feet. Their feet are designed to grip round a textured tree branch so give them that! Chop down a straight-ish tree branch that is slender and yet won’t bow too much when a row of chickens sit on it. You also need to install it on a slight angle (if possible) as chickens will perch in pecking order. The most mature or fertile chicken with the strongest personality will be the boss and she will perch at the highest point on the rung. The chicken with least status will perch at lowest point!

Mites. I strongly recommend not getting any chickens with mites. As I said, do not say yes to friends offering you chickens if they have mites. If you get mites into your dirt and on your chickens it is so hard to get rid of them and they breed on your chickens and cover their legs and faces after a while. Mites live in the ground and since they like layer boxes, if your layer boxes are on ground level, place some ceramic floor tiles underneath the layer box to stop them travelling from soil to the box. Certain types of plants are mite deterrents. Sometimes I have used foliage from mite deterrant plants as lining in the egg layer box.

Chicken Poop! There will be a lot of poop under the perch so if you put a rubber mat (car mat , door mat) there you can collect the poop easily to dump in your compost every now and again. The poop turns into dust in summer but is is packed with nutrient for your garden. It is pretty strong so mix it with soil.

What affects laying. Chickens lay more if they have consistant access to clean water and  lots of sunshine and enough food. They may lay less when the days get short in mid winter so build your run to get as much low winter sun as possible. If you live in the northern hemisphere, winter sun comes from the south- face it south. If you live in the southern hemisphere, the winter sun comes from the north- face your run northward. Change the water tubs when they look dirty. Keep two big water tubs in the run and one smaller one in the coop in case you ever forget to let them out in the morning. If in a very hot climate an old table over a water tub keeps water cooler (and provides shade for the chickens). They also crave scratching in the garden for some grass and worms or bugs (protein). It is their greatest joy. Happy chickens lay more faithfully. If you can let them out of the run into your garden for a little bit each evening they’ll be healthier and so happy. We do it after work, an hour before sunset as we know they will automatically go into their coop and put themselves to bed at sunset. Easy! If you cannot let them out ever, then pull up weeds and throw them into the run so they get some greens.

How to store eggs. You can store them in egg cartons in the pantry. They do not need to be refrigerated unless you live in a very hot climate. They are not at all as old as the eggs in the supermarket which may be 4-6 weeks old when you buy them! Inside an egg is a membrane that keeps it fresh. We always put new one to the right in the packet and older ones at left, then we eat them in the order they were laid for max freshness.
Is it boiled? If you find an egg in the kitchen and are not sure if it got boiled or not, spin it. If it spins fast it is boiled. If it spins really sow it is not boiled. A true and handy hack!

Clipping the wings. When you first get your chickens you need to cut the feathers a bit shorter on one wing/one side. That stops them flying out of your run because they can not get a balanced momentum to fly upwards. (Hold your chicken under one arm, use scissors and be careful. Cut around 5cm length of feathers off the wing, on one side of the chicken. I usually only do that the first day I get a new chicken and after that they never try to fly over the fence again. (Short memories!) If they do try to fly later I clip the wing again. It is for their own safety. After that they just stay happily in the run.

Foxes. If there are any foxes in your area you need to lock the coop each night to keep them safe as foxes come early hours of the morning. If you have dogs that are likely to jump the fence into the run and stress the chickens then use taller wire and make the run stronger. Remember you have the coop (sleeping house) and a run. It is the coop (where chickens sleep at night) that needs to be fox proof as foxes usually come around 3-6am. If you lock the coop each night then your run (chicken yard) doesn’t need to be fox proof unless you live in deep countryside maybe. Our current coop (2m long by 1m wide) has a sheet of strong construction steel mesh under it (laying on the ground). This is a very easy way to fox proof a coop house!

Hunter birds. In some country regions there may  be birds that may swoop and take chickens. Ask neighbours who have chickens before you build your run. If you have that issue, you may need to build one with wire over the top of the run, or at least build a run under a tree.

Water. Chickens lay more if they have continuous access to nice clean water. I use those round colourful tubs with handles (see photo at the end) and cut a bit out of one side on each tub so the chickens can reach in to drink. That is so the other higher sides protect the water from all the flying dirt! When chickens scratch around dirt goes flying! Always have more than one tub of water in case they knock one over. Some people rig up their reticulation to the chicken water bowl but it is easy enough to refill with a hose every 3-4 days.

Food scraps for the chickens. Have a container in your kitchen for all organic scraps. it could be a mini kitchen bin with a lid, or one of those tall tins with lids at Kmart for laundry detergent. We put everything in (except chicken meat)! Even things chickens don’t eat (like citrus and onions) as it all breaks down and turns into compost. Remember the chook yard is your compost machine! The chickens eat and poop and scratch the organic material into good soil. We feed ours the scraps in the morning at the same time as their grain as then it is all gone before mice may lurk at night and also it is easier to do both at once. Do throw in all lawn clippings too (unless your lawn has just been  sprayed). You can harvest soil from the run once a year. One year we harvested 10 wheelbarrows of soil from our chook run (a large one) and filled a new raised vegetable garden! The veggies grew like rockets! I have never seen anything like it!

Avoiding mice and rats. We feed our chickens everything (grain and scraps) in the morning, then it is all gone by night before nocturnal animals like mice or rats might be attracted to our yard. Chickens will peck and eat every last molecule of food in a run if they have some hours!

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Grain. You can buy mixed grain or crushed grain at pet feed stores. We bought crushed grain and high quality as we want healthy chickens and quality eggs. Don’t be stingey when you feed your chickens, they lay around 60-80grams per day in eggs and they also need energy to stay healthy and happy and warm and walk around all day. I give mine a bit more than 2 times the weight of the egg they lay each day plus kitchen scraps. My maths on this: the eggs are 70g. So 70g x 2 x three chickens is 420g grain per day so I round up and give them 500g a day. I mark a container with a line and use it every day. Read up on the breed you have and what they may need. I also feed mine more in winter as they need more energy to stay warm. Also if you don’t let yours out much then you need to give them a bit more food. I would prefer to have a free feeding set up (continuous access to food) but whenever we do it we get mice hanging around.

Free ranging. Every chicken is desperate to do some free ranging each day. They want to scratch some worms and eat some grass. This is pure joy for them. If you can, let them out for a little while each day. If you are concerned about them doing damage in your garden make a section for them to free range in or just let them out for a short while before sunset. They will always put themselves to bed at sunset. Then you go lock the coop door before you go to bed. Easy!

Laws. We live in an area where it is no problem keeping chickens. Many suburbs do not allow it though so ring your council to check.

Roosters. Unless you live in the countryside you cannot usually, by law, keep roosters. They will drive your neighbours nuts crowing at 5am. It is not worth annoying the neighbours. However if you live on a larger property and can have a rooster or two it is good as chickens lay better with a rooster around apparently. Also a rooster will try protect them from a fox.

Feeder tube. We have a feeder tube we made out of white PVC plumbing pipes with a curve at the bottom! It hangs on the inside of the coop so it does not get affected by rain. However we only use it if we go away for a few days or are particularly busy and cannot feed them each morning. It fits enough food for 4 days. The reason we do not use it normally is that if there is a constant source of food around it will attract mice. Remember to feed your chickens early each day so every trace of food is gone by night when rodents are looking for food.

Dog Whispering and other animals. If you have a dog then you need to sit down with it and have a good old serious man-to-dog chat when you get chickens. My friend who is a dog trainer told me this. When we got our first chickens in 2001, our dog had been running back and forth along the wire and terrifying them. So, after advice from my friend, I sat down and explained to our dog in a calm firm tone that the chickens were part of the family and not to be chased. Our dog stopped chasing them! After that she protected them and if the neighbours roosters came over she chased him away from our chickens! Dogs are very intelligent and understand much more than you think. Cats do not go near chickens as chickens are bigger. Guinea pigs can also live alongside chickens. My brother has guinea pigs as well as chickens in his back yard. The guinea pigs used to be pets but now live wild out there and eat the grass and and fertilise it. He simply leaves water bowls and shelters (from birds) out for them. They can live near chickens no problems.

Some facts about eggs. Most people wonder if their eggs are going to turn into chickens. Firstly, you will only get fertilised eggs if you have a rooster. The rooster very unromantically jumps on the chickens most days and mates with them. This means the eggs they lay are fertilised. However at this point they are not activated. They will not automatically turn into a chick. The fertilised egg only gets activated when a mother chook is sitting on them keeping them constantly warm. That process takes 21 days from start to hatch. If you have a chook that goes broody and sits on a batch of eggs all day and you do not want her to, you will need to separate her from the egg layer box for some days or a week. If you have a rooster and a broody hen has been sitting on the eggs a few ays already, you do not want to try eating them. Throw them away. If you do want chicks that is another story. Let them hatch and then keep them with their mum, in a separate cage to the rest of the chickens. Otherwise they can get trampled when tiny. (If your layer box was a cardboard box it is easy to move them.) After hatching they will need special chick feed. I am not writing much on chicks here as this post is mainly about keeping chickens not breeding them. A post for another day. We sure had a lot of chicks over the years!

Chickens and children. If you have your chickens from young the chickens might get used to being picked up by your kids! They are great pets for kids (as long as the kids are taught to be gentle). Our current chickens come from a breeder that breeds really gentle chickens and they can be picked up and patted. My sister had some too and her children cuddled them each day and the chickens came to them for more! My chickens follow me around the garden. They think I am their mum!

I hope you have learnt loads about keeping chickens and will come back to this article again anytime you need it! Everyone should have a few chickens! Do share my article with anyone you know who is figuring out how to have happy and healthy chickens!

Siobhan 🐓🐓

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