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A Beginner’s Guide to Keeping Chickens in Urban Areas
© Very Edible Gardens Pty Ltd, www.veryediblegardens.com
Why get Chooks?
- They eat your food scraps to make delicious eggs
- They provide you with manure for your food garden
- These animal ‘tractors’ are great at preparing your veggie patch for planting
They help to control insect pests in your garden
- Chooks have great personalities
- You reduce demand for the inhumane treatment of factory and barn raised chickens.
- Could be a converted old shed or cubby house
- Must be fox proof
- Must be weatherproof, not too many cold drafts and no leaky roofs.
- Chooks like to perch off the ground at night. These perches should be 30cm or more off the ground, allowing 30cm space per bird. You can use appropriate leftover pieces of timber or sturdy tree branches – 40-50mm wide is ideal
- You will also need nesting boxes where the chooks can lay their eggs in private. Old lawn mower leaf-catchers or wooden boxes are good. Add straw to the laying boxes. Allow 1 nesting box for every 3-4 chooks.
- For more chook house ideas see: http://www.veryediblegardens.com/products/backyard- chickens#chooks
A straw yard is a fully enclosed fox-proof small run adjoining the chook house (meaning you can go away for a few days and the chooks can come and go). In the straw yard the chooks will happily work to generate rich organic compost by removing seeds and insects from leaves etc then manuring and turning the matter ready for collection and use. You can throw food scraps including meat scraps directly into the straw yard for the chickens to process (but only as much they can eat or scratch in within a day). It is important to keep a 20-40cm thick layer of pea straw, dry leaves, wood chips or similar in the straw yard at all times, to be periodically harvested (via a good access gate) for use in the orchard/food forest and on the vegie beds. The straw yard can potentially become your composting system and remove the need for extra bins.
The straw yard should be fox proof, requiring you to lay a 40cm flange of mesh coming off the main fence at 90 degrees about 10 cm below the ground. You should ideally completely cover the straw yard with mesh to make it 100% fox proof. For more straw yard ideas see: http://www.veryediblegardens.com/products/backyard-chickens#strawyards
Fenced Run / Orchard
The main chook run fence needs to be 1.3-1.4 metres off the ground to prevent the chooks escaping and should be dug in about 50mm to stop the chooks scratching a hole underneath. In this area the birds will gladly keep down grass, weeds, pests, and fertilise the fruit trees & vines it makes sense to plant there, and source a proportion of their own food in the bargain.
A great idea is to plant comfrey, wormwood, nasturtium, silverbeet and similar on the other (non-chook) side of the chook-run fence that the chooks can self-medicate on by pecking through the fence without being able to destroy them. Comfrey is also an excellent soil builder.
Chooks will control pests and provide fertiliser for the fruit trees.
If the chooks can by cycled through different areas, this allows grass and other greens to regrow, giving the chooks some extra green in their diet, and the soil a chance to recover. These can be managed with gates or small chook sized hatches. Highly recommended!
Consider a chook ‘tractor’, ie. a mobile pen without a floor. This can be moved around the garden allowing the chooks to scratch the ground and eat weeds or leftover veggies, while spreading their droppings. This should be done about two weeks before you want to plant out this area. Chook tractors can be purchased from Very Edible Gardens.
If you have secure fencing, chooks love to free range through an area of your garden (eg. around the fruit trees). To reduce the risk of fox attack, only allow to your chooks to free-range between 9am and 4pm (later during daylight saving).
- Ensure that your chooks have plenty of shade for the hot months. Chooks love mulberries and fruit, so why not plant a mulberry/fruit tree right next to your chook house and they’ll eat the fallen berries.
- Chooks are very territorial and will put themselves to bed at dusk in the same place every night.
- Chooks are social animals and should never be kept on their own.
- When introducing new hens, add at least two at a time, otherwise the new hen will be picked on. A new group of hens may fight quite viciously until they work out their pecking order.
Various grain or pellet mixes can be purchased from farm suppliers.
Chicks – start with chick crumble for the first few months, (at least 20% protein) then – 16 weeks and older:
- Kitchen scraps, eg. pasta, veggie peel, scrambled egg, mashed potato
- Layer mix or grain mix. To lay well, chooks need approximately 18% protein in their diet.
- A Calcium source – eg. shell grit, cuttlefish, crushed roasted eggshells
- Insects and earthworms
- Greens, eg. grass, spinach, parsley, carrot tops, cabbage leaves (tie up in bunch and fasten to the side of the chook run). Or grow a ‘green manure crop’ that will condition your soil + provide green pick for your chooks. Don’t feed them: avocado, and possibly chocolate, green potatoes, rhubarb
For recipes to make your own chook food see Alanna Moore’s book “Backyard Poultry – Naturally”, which is available from www.veryediblegardens.com.
Water: Always have fresh water available. Keep the container out of the sun otherwise the water will become too hot for the chooks to drink.
Some breeds are excellent egg layers, others are bred for their meat, others are ornamental and some breeds are dual/general purpose (ie good for both egg laying and meat). If you want to breed chickens, buy pure-breed chooks. Otherwise, there are a good range of hybrid and pure-breed chooks for each purpose.
Good egg layers that are friendly and suitable to a backyard:
Australorp – Australian, dual purpose. Up to 250 eggs per annum. Large, handsome, black, docile bird.
Rhode Island Red – U.S. dual purpose. Docile. 200+ eggs per annum.
Isa Brown – Cross between Rhode Island Red and Rhode Island White breeds. Up to 300 eggs per annum
Sussex – U.K. breed. Dual purpose. 240-260 eggs per annum. Docile and suited to cool climates.
Wyandotte – U.S. dual purpose. 200-240 eggs per annum. Docile, friendly and cuddly looking.
.. there are many more great breeds!
Sizes and Ages
Most breeds come in two sizes – standard and smaller bantams. Bantams are smaller, eat slightly less and lay smaller eggs.
Chick = bird in their first few weeks of life
Pullets = a young hen under 12 months of age
Point-of-lay = a pullet that is ready to start laying eggs, about 4-6 months old
Maintaining Chook Health – Naturally
Think about planting herbs and flowers next to your chicken run that the chickens can selectively eat to keep you themself healthy. Some recommended plants are:
Comfrey – Wonderful herb for your organic garden. Perennial, large green leaves, grows in sun or partial shade, plant from a root cutting. Chop up and feed to chooks regularly. It is also a compost activator (see VEG compost worksheet). Comfrey has a vigorous root system, so grow it away from your veggie patch.
Nasturtium – Great for your chooks general health and it repels insect pests.
Nettles – Helps increase egg production and is fattening for your chickens – a great Winter food. Nettle is also a compost activator.
Rue – Good chook medicine & insect repellent. Dry and scatter through chook house to repel pests. Wear gloves when handling this herb as it can cause some skin irritation.
Southernwood & Wormwood – Insect repellents and medicinal. Grow wormwood away from other plants as its roots inhibit growth. Good to dry and scatter through chook house.
Tansy – Attractive fern-like leaves with yellow flowers. Tansy is a vigorous grower that repels pest insects. Dry and scatter leaves through chookhouse. Tansy is also a compost activator.
Rosemary – Insect repellent. Chop and scatter in chookhouse.
Worming your chooks – regular garlic treatment is the most popular natural method: Place 1-2 cloves (per bird) of crushed garlic into your chooks drinking water, for several days in a row. Other methods – add a little apple cider vinegar to the drinking water or any of the following – nasturtium seeds, grated carrot, wormwood tips, mustard or pumpkin seeds.
See also: Backyard Poultry – Naturally 2nd Ed, Alanna Moore, Python Press The Chook Book, Jackie French, Aird Books