Why keep Chickens?
Firstly, by keeping chickens you are helping to keep most of your organic waste on your property. Chickens will quite happily eat most vegetable or equivalent kitchen waste, so all those veggies the kids won't eat can at least go to feed the chickens.
Secondly, compared to a compost heap, chickens provide a fast track route for converting such scraps into useful plant food, namely chicken poo! Chicken poo is quite magical stuff, as unlike horse poo, it contains both the organic and nitrogen components (i.e. equal to poo + wee).
Thirdly, you will be also reducing your dependence on stores to supply you with eggs. A good laying chicken should produce somewhere in the order of 200 to 300 eggs per year - so up to 25 dozen eggs per chicken per year.
Forthly, if you have children over 7 you can successfully 'delegate' the day to day responsibility of looking after the chickens; i.e. opening and closing the hatch to the run, keeping the water fresh etc. In this regard looking after chickens is considerably less work than looking after a dog or equivalent pet; plus a lot cheaper in the long run. Although you will need to still check everything is still okay about once a week and question to make sure the birds are okay.
What chickens need
Apart from the obvious, like food and water, they need a 'base' of operations - namely a coop. This is somewhere safe they can be locked up in at night and be safe from foxes and other predators. So the basic requirements for a coop are:
- It must be weather proof and dry; this means it needs a roof and walls. You can get away with a dirt floor, but if you can go the extra mile a proper floor is preferable as guarantees no way to 'dig' into the coop and is easier to muck out when needed.
- They need somewhere to perch at night, this is usually an inch round stick at just above waist height, and if your birds have had their wings clipped, it will need a walkway up to it (i.e. a plank).
- A place to nest. This is basically a foot square box set at just below waist height and always lower than the perch. One box usually to every 2 to 3 chickens.
- A water supply - either a bowl or special feeder.
- A food supply - again either a bowl or a special feeder.
- A lockable or latchable entrance door. Its important that this is easy to keep closed as you don't want to forget to lock them in and have something eat them at night.
- Shade - chickens need a place to keep out of the sun and also to rest just before nodding off on their perch. So usually the perch is put in the dark area of the coop.
- Access to the 'run' via a hatch that can be closed at night.
As regards the size to make the coop - rough rule of thumb is around one square meter per 2 birds, excluding door swing and nest footprint I'd say. That way the birds won't get too crowded out and you can get in without any getting out.
Also put in a cheap solar powered
shed light in there - that way if you need to pay them a visit at night, you will have some light to see by other than a torch.
One thing you need to remember is make sure that the coop is predator proof, i.e. it is not possible for them to 'dig under' and get access to the chickens and that all windows and doors are properly netted with wire.
The Run basically is an area joined to coop that it fenced off and accessible from the coop. This is where the chickens can go and literally have a run without fear during the day of being attacked. This is also the place where you throw in the kitchen scraps, rotten or bug eaten veggies from the veggie patch, etc.Note
: It is important that you fence this well and make sure there is no way for foxes or equivalent to 'dig under' the fence line. This you do by usually burying the bottom 15cm of fence into the ground and/or add rocks around the outside and inside (we used sections of old metal pipe for the job). Also make sure the gate you use to access this area has stones under it as well. You will probably also need to net the area as well to stop eagles making a meal of your chickens (use the long star posts to form the boundary).
How big should the run be? A good rule of thumb is around 1 meter square per chicken. This is slightly on the generous side, but avoids overcrowding problems and leads to happier chickens.
Chicken Food (as in the food for chickens..)
When they are young (say less than 16 weeks) you need to make sure they have medicated feed to build up their resistance to certain diseases. After that the usual routine is:
- A 'mash' in the morning - i.e. pelleted feed mixed with water to make it easier to consume.
- Then in the early evening a 'seed and corn' feed, or provide a feeder full of this in the run.
Then mix in with this access to grass, as this provides them with trace minerals plus it helps the egg be a nice a yellow colour. You should also provide a container full of shellgrit for them, to up their calcium and improve digestion.
On top of this feel free to throw into the run any kitchen veg leftovers except orange peel or banana skins - i.e. anything too tough to eat. Plus throw in a 'bad' veg from the veggie patch - they will happily eat them.
Also always provide at least two water feeders, one in the coop and another in the run - this way if it suddenly gets hot they will have enough water available. Also make sure this is replaced at least once a week.
The coop will need to be cleaned out about once a month if you are using a thin layer of straw or sawdust on the floor. If you have a thicker layer you can reduce this to once a quarter if it is deep enough for the chickens to keep turning it over. Also if they perch in one spot regularly and hence poo in one place on the floor regularly - just put some old newspaper on that spot and toss the paper with poo onto the compost heap at regular intervals - that will help keep things clean.
When you clean its a good idea to clear out all the straw,etc and then give it a good sweep out, then use a cleaner like Phenyle on all surfaces to ensure no bugs can breed.
You also need to make sure that the chickens are medicated against ticks and other insects (one drop of cat tick liquid does the trick once every 3 months we have found). Also adding garlic to their feed either in the mash or added to the water will help with general health.
Keeping chickens is not that hard, the hardest part actually is the set up and DIY involved. Once thats done you should be able to get in all you need from your local stock feed supplier, who will also be able to put you onto places to get chooks (if not supply them for you). Chickens will usually start laying eggs around 6 months of age, so anyways find out the age of your new chooks and make the date in your calendar.. Enjoy!