How to Start Keeping Chickens
Chickens make fantastic pets that have the added advantage of laying eggs 4-6 times a week! While many people start keeping chickens for the eggs, which are often fresher and tastier than eggs from the shops, the eggs start to play a background role once they realize that chickens have hilarious, quirky personalities.Â ;
While weâre big fans of pet chickens, they require proper care and preparation just like any other pet. Read on to learn if chickens are a good fit for you!
Chickens need enough backyard space to ensure that their enclosure can be rotated regularly to keep the grass healthy, and reduce the risk of parasites. Chickens kept in a fixed enclosure will soon destroy all the grass, and buildup of waste on the ground can encourage parasites like worms and fleas to start multiplying.Â
There are a couple of setups that work well to alleviate this problem.
The main enclosure needs to be easily movable in a rotational setup. The image below is an example of how your backyard can be split up into different areas so that your chickens are moved to a new patch every 48 hours. If your yard is large enough, you can even move them daily!
Having a spare area allows you to have a backup in case a section of the yard requires more resting.Â
Rotational enclosures have several benefits, even though they require more work to maintain.Â
- Your chickens will help you maintain the lawn! Chickens help to aerate soil with their scratching, eat weeds, and fertilize the ground with their droppings. They also help to keep grass short. The golden rule to ensuring that they will help and not hurt the ground is regular rotation to make sure that they donât overgraze. As chickens can only eat the new, tender growth of grasses, mow your lawn prior to starting a rotational system.
- Reduced risk of parasite burdens. Any parasites that have gotten a foothold will not contact chickens for almost a week, reducing their ability to multiply. Recently grazed areas can also be treated with anti-parasiticals safely.Â
- Unpalatable weeds are less likely to overgrow, as the chickens will not have a chance to eat other palatable species to the ground, allowing room for weeds to proliferate.
- Chickens remain protected from predators throughout the day.
Setting Up a Rotational Enclosure
The hottest tip for setting up a rotational enclosure is to put it on wheels! Wheels can be easily installed at the bottom of wooden hutch-style enclosures, as well as wire aviary-type enclosures. Do ensure that the gap at the bottom produced by the wheel is not wide enough for chickens to get out. Handles can also be installed for ease of movement.Â
For plain wire enclosures, ensure that your chickens also have a covered section to allow for roosting. Perches are also recommended for their roosting area, as well as nest boxes for egg laying. Ensure that it is large enough so that there is a nest box and perch for every chicken, as boss chickens may hog them if they are in short supply.Â
Enclosures should have shelter from weather and sunlight, and tarpaulins or shade cloth can easily be tied on for protection.
A drinker should always be available. Food can be scattered within the enclosure, or fed in a dish or feeder.
Free Ranging Your Chickens
Having free-ranging chickens is a lovely way to observe behaviour and allow your chickens to access all parts of your garden. This is much easier to start with than a rotational enclosure, but this still requires some daily work to ensure that your chickens do not go to the same parts of the garden each day. You may also need to install rollers on fencing or other predator-deterrents.Â
Free-ranging chickens will still need an enclosure that allows them to roost at night, and it can also include nest boxes. Chickens should be shut in a secure enclosure overnight as they have poor night vision, and are at a higher risk of injury or predation at night.Â
Food and water should always be available in their enclosure 24/7.
To reduce chickens overgrazing portions of the yard, ensure that food and treats are scattered over different sections of the yard every day. You can also make sections of the yard more enticing to your chickens by using food puzzle toys containing treats for them to work out!Â
Shade should always be provided, and free-ranging chickens will seek out shade naturally. To encourage them to spend more time in certain parts of the yard, you can use an open-bottomed tent.Â
Benefits of free-ranging
- Your chickens will be able to express a larger range of normal behaviour and enjoy a larger roaming space
- Boss chickens find it harder to bully others or stop others from accessing resources
- Quicker and easier to set up, with less adjustment needed with added chickens
Drawbacks of free-ranging
- Chickens are more exposed to predators and may escapeÂ
- Damage may still occur to grass if chickens choose to congregate in the same area, as well as parasite infestation
- Chickens may lay eggs in hidden spots, leading to potentially rotten eggs!
It is important to source your chickens from a reputable, reliable breeder or producer, as chickens are prone to several transmissible diseases which can quickly decimate a flock. There are several potential sources for getting new chickens, including small scale breeders, ex-battery hens, and larger commercial breeders.Â
While it is fun and rewarding to hatch your own eggs and watch the chicks grow, hatching and rearing young chicks is difficult, and we recommend that new chicken keepers start with pullets (young female chickens) just at the point of lay. Starting with pullets also eliminates the potential for getting roosters, which may not be legal to keep in some council areas.Â
A reputable source of pullets will have vent-sexed them prior to offering them up for sale, and some breeds of chickens have sex-linked plumage, which means that the males and females are different colours!Â
Depending on the size of the breeding operation, chickens may or may not receive vaccinations prior to sale. This is because chicken vaccinations often come in large volumes designed for 1000-10000 birds, and this may not be viable for small-scale breeders. There are several vaccinations available for chickens in Australia, but the most important for backyard chickens is Marekâs disease.Â
Chicken producers should have a rigorous biosecurity protocol, including ensuring that visitors wash their hands and don appropriate protective gear, not allowing visitors to handle chickens, and quarantining all new arrivals for at least 14 days.Â
The breeder should be knowledgeable regarding the breeds they produce, and should be able to discuss lifespan, potential issues such as reproductive disease, age at which laying should start, and what they have used for parasite control in their flock. Be mindful that all medications used should be on-label for egg-producing chickens.
Suitable Breeds for a First Time Owner
We have a more comprehensive list of breeds in our "Chicken Breed Guide", and this section focuses on hardy breeds that are good layers.Â
ISA Browns are a hardy breed known for excellent laying abilities; however, they have short lifespans, and start to develop reproductive diseases around 2 years of age. Most ex-battery hens are ISA browns, and they are a great way to give a hen in need a good forever home. Most ex-battery hens are retired at 10-12 months of age as their laying rate decreases.Â
Australorps have been bred to thrive in Australian conditions, and are a robust, attractive breed that are good layers, but are not as productive as ISA Browns. However, they have longer lifespans and are less prone to reproductive disease, and live up to 10 years. They are larger chickens and require more space per bird.Â
Leghorn chickens are sleek, healthy birds that are prolific layers, and they also sport strong, active personalities. These chickens are good layers well into their 3rd and 4th years, and can live up to 6 years. While the classic Leghorn chicken is a pure white, they come in several different colours and patterns.Â
We feel that the Silkie chicken deserves a mention although they are not the most active layers, and are primarily considered an ornamental breed. Silkies will still lay 3-4 eggs a week, and although they lay small eggs, their eggs are still delicious. They can be very long lived, and often make it past 10 years of age. They have sweet, friendly personalities and make excellent pets. Plus, they are incredibly adorable!Â
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