Notes prepared by Adam Grubb 2023
The chook. More wild than you know – they are the descendants of the red junglefowl from Asia.
More powerful than you know. They are perhaps the most successful species of bird (by numbers if not by quality of life) that have ever lived. There are now an estimated 20 billion of them.
Why is the chicken so popular? And what can they do for our backyard? It’s not just about producing better tasting and cheaper eggs than you can possibly buy (but they do that too). Even if you already have chooks, it’s good to think about all the benefits they can provide.
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, and making compost.
- They help to control insect pests, and can keep grass and weeds down.
- Chooks have great personalities and kids learn from them.
- You can reduce demand for the inhumane treatment of factory and barn raised chickens and give some chooks a long, happy and healthy life.
The chooks use their house to sleep, and sometimes to to escape fierce weather
- It must be fox proof, and you’ll need to close it and open it each night and morning.
- It must be weatherproof yet well ventilated (dry and cool is much healthier than warm and moist).
- Chooks like to perch off the ground at night. Allow 30cm space per bird. You can use appropriate leftover pieces of timber or sturdy tree branches (if clean and crack-free) – 40-50mm wide is ideal.
- Be easy to access (you’ll visit it at least once per day)
- Have some kind of system for dealing with the manure. (Chooks do at least half their pooping at night.) Our systems involve grates at the bottom with straw underneath.
- 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 one nesting box for every 3-4 chooks.
For more chook house ideas see: www.veryediblegardens.com.au/iveg/the-power-of-chook/
Want to make your chooks happier, and have them go to work making great compost for you? Want to be able to go away for weekends knowing they’ll be safe?
A fox-proof straw-yard is your (and your chooks’) best friend. It is a fully enclosed small run adjoining the chook house (meaning you can go away for a few days and the chooks can let themselves out into this safe outdoor space). 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 scratching and turning the material, until it is chocolaty brown and ready for collection and use.
You can throw food scraps, including moderate amounts of 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 to avoid rodents). It is important to keep a 20-40cm thick layer of straw, dry leaves, wood shavings or similar in the straw-yard at all times, to be periodically harvested for use in the garden. The straw-yard can potentially become your main composting system and remove the need for extra compost bins, and the chickens will have a very fine time scratching in there doing the composting for you!
Because of the danger of foxes, chickens must be locked up safely in a fox-proof area every night. The straw-yard can be made 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 completely cover the roof of the straw yard with chicken wire to make it 100% safe.
Now you can leave the door of their house open at all times to the straw-yard, which allows you to go away for a weekend, or sleep in as late as you want, because the chickens have a safe outdoor area.
Fenced Run / Orchard
Chooks need room to move about! And free ranging them through the whole backyard is usually not a great option. As they’ll make themselves a little too at home in your verandah and trash the veggie patch. So you need a fenced chook run.
The fence needs to be at least 1.3 metres high to prevent the chooks escaping and should be dug in at least 50mm to stop the chooks scratching a hole underneath.
Often the run includes fruit trees. This is a great idea! Why? The chooks will gladly keep down grass, weeds, pests, while fertilise the fruit trees. They will also enjoy the shade, shelter and fallen fruit as part of the deal. There’s also some downsides: Shallow rooted fruit trees can be damaged by the chooks. So we often pin some chicken wire to the ground around them. Too much nitrogen from chook poo might promote leaf rather than fruit growth. But some deep woody mulch (useful also for soil toxins, see below) will absorb much of the nitrogen and slowly generate compost.
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.
Around homes it is worth being aware that the soils may contain lead or other heavy metals or residual pesticides. Before getting chooks you can get your soil tested for lead through the EPA’s GardenSafe program. You must control flaking paint in the area if it contains lead before getting chooks. For moderate levels of soil contamination we recommend a deep layer of woody mulch to minimise the chooks contact with the original soil.
Consider a chook ‘tractor’, i.e., 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. It can be cruel to keep chickens in a small place for a long time, so we generally recommend chook tractors as temporary and not permanent homes. However, if you are dedicated to moving them regularly it can work. If you want to know more about a whole system of veggie gardening based around light weight movable chicken tractor domes, check out Linda Woodrow’s The Permaculture Home Garden. There’s guidance on other chook tractor designs in Harvey Ussery’s excellent The Small Scale Poultry Flock.
Ensure that your chooks have plenty of shade for the hot months.
- 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, it can help to add at least two at a time, otherwise the new hen will be picked on. There will still be some bickering, but it settles down over time.
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:
- Layer pellets. To lay well, chooks need approximately 18% protein in their diet which these provide.
- Kitchen scraps in moderation, e.g. pasta, veggie peel, scrambled eggs, mashed potato – just make sure they aren’t filling up on things that mean they aren’t getting enough protein.
- Grit for their digestion – e.g. shell grit.
- Insects and earthworms – a large run in a healthy garden provides these for the diet.
- Greens, e.g. 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, chocolate, green potatoes, rhubarb.
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. On super-hot days you may need to add ice to the water or the chickens won’t drink it!
Some breeds are excellent egg layers, others are bred for their meat, others are ornamental and some breeds are dual/general purpose (i.e., 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. Large, handsome, black bird.
Rhode Island Red – U.S. dual purpose.
ISA Brown – An industrial hybrid that lays a hell of a lot.
Sussex – U.K. breed. Dual purpose. Suited to cool climates.
Wyandotte – U.S. dual purpose. Cuddly looking.
Pekins – a bantam breed, great for kids. Quiet, tame and low impact on the garden, so they can free range in more areas.
… there are many more great breeds!
Maintaining Chook Health
The most important aspects of chook health are to do with good food, clean water, good ventilation, and sanitation, and protection from predators – just like us (fortunately we don’t have to think about the latter on a daily basis, but chooks do!).
Things can go wrong however. Chicks should be immunised for Marek’s Disease and other ailments shortly after hatching. A list of the most common ailments addressed by vets in Melbourne can be found at birdvetmelbourne.com/keeping-pet-chickens-chicken-vet/
You can also help prevent ailments by allowing chickens to self-medicate. A great idea is to plant them on the other (chook-free) side of the chook-run fence so they grow through and can be pecked out without being totally decimated. One particular medicinal plant is wormwood, which treats both internal and external parasites. It’s good to dry and scatter through chook house and laying boxes.
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.
Mites – Mites can live in the cracks of the chook house and march out across the perch and up the chook’s legs at night to suck their blood. Check periodically at night with a torch, and if you find any treat the inside of the chook house with boiling water or a paste made from hydrated lime.
Most councils allow you to keep between 4-10 chickens without a permit (excluding roosters). Some of them have restrictions on the placement of chicken houses. VEG have compiled a list of council regulations (within Melbourne) here:
Backyard Poultry – Naturally 2nd Ed, Alanna Moore, Python Press
The Small Scale Poultry Flock, Harvey Ussery, Chelsea Green