“Chookies” is our collective name for the flock of backyard layer chickens we’ve shared with #thebestneighbourever since April 2017.
The existing chook-pen is located in her backyard, her dad bought the first batch of 12 hens, we buy the feed, the G.O. feeds and maintains the chooks and the enclosure, she and I provide kitchen scraps, I gather green leafy treats from our garden and rake up straw from the nearby churchyard, and we share the eggs.
Shortly after the hens arrived another neighbour who lives just outside the village
deposited a rooster in the run “donated” a rooster… in return for a clutch of eggs for hatching from time-to-time.
About a year later we rehomed an additional 5 hens from another neighbour who’d grown tired of caring for them…
But now 4 years on, the numbers dwindled to 6 hens and 1 or 2 eggs per day. Earlier this year, together with our friends whose chooks numbers had dropped to one, we planned to add new hens to both flocks. Before that eventuated, Coronavirus and ensuing oversubscription to backyard chickens happened. I got in too late to get us chickens but early enough to get on the next waitlist.
On Thursday 23 April, I got the call… our 4 point-of-lay hens were at the local farmers co-op in town, come and get them or they’d go to the next person on the list… and when the G.O. went to collect, there was a line-up of hopefuls who had heard about the delivery, and were waiting for cancelled orders.
The new girls… 22, 44, 66 and 88… ‘cos that’s how much they cost!
Chickens have become a popular part of #covid19 backyard sufficiency movement… let’s hope they aren’t the 2020 incarnation of Christmas puppies.
Chooks are entertaining, useful little creatures but they need proper care; and with a good life, depending on breed, live for many years.
Everyone’s chook situation is different. Our home is situated on a small residential block in a rural village where backyard chickens are part of the traditional landscape. Our neighbour has a larger block, featuring in the back corner an old-style fixed pen and coop which the G.O. retrofitted to make weather and predator proof. To his credit, we’ve not lost a chook to a predator, and the chooks seem happy enough.
Below are my basic whys, wherefores and how-to’s of chooks as part of our permaculture plan… I’ve included references so you can further research what’s right for you and your chooks.
Common name: Chicken e.g. Bonds Isa-Brown layer hens
Scientific name: Gallus gallus domesticus
Related species: Red junglefowl, Gallus gallus
Description: Domesticated forest species fowl. Red-brown in colour and weigh approximately 4.5-5.8 kg. They usually produce eggs for about 2 years, and sometimes longer. Most live for 2-3 years but can go up to 5-8 years. Chickens are originally native to Malaysian rainforest where they lived in small flocks of one rooster and a dozen or so hens.
Role/ function/characteristics/use in permaculture
Obtain a yield. Use and value renewable resources and services. Produce no waste. Use small and slow solutions. Use and value diversity.
Chickens contribute to a closed cycle; consume kitchen scraps and garden waste and supply eggs (and meat depending on breed). Perform pest & weed control and turn over garden beds. They provide nitrogen rich manure, recycled straw and organic matter which in turn is dug into compost heaps and gardens to grow vegetables to create more kitchen scraps and garden waste. Chickens are also able to be bred to keep up numbers.
Omnivore, so a balanced diet with variety. Layer feed which is a grain mix that a balance of protein, calcium and other vitamins to support egg laying. Supplement with fresh pick via free-range foraging, kitchen scraps and edible green garden clippings. Chooks will pretty much eat anything.
If we didn’t have use of our neighbour’s chook-pen, we’d have a chicken tractor that can be moved to fresh ground each day.
New stock vs breeding
Buy chicks or point-of-lay hens from a local reputable supplier or breeder.
There are several options for breeding: provide nesting boxes, obtain one or more adult hens and give them fertilized eggs to sit on; obtain a rooster, flock of young chicks or point of lay hens, which will mature and lay eggs that have been fertilised by the rooster, and the hens will sit on and hatch chicks, which can then later be bred but to prevent inbreeding flock can be separated into pens, or rooster culled/replaced; an egg incubator machine can also be used. After about ten days from lay candle the eggs at night using flashlight to check for viability.
Chicken ancestors are jungle fowl so they like to roost up high of a night, shade, protection, and some morning sun.
Chickens like to scratch and forage, so need litter to scratch through and preferably to free-range daily; water and food containers should be placed so they can be kept clean, or refilled daily.
Chickens mostly lay eggs daily; to get clean and unbroken eggs, provide nesting boxes with clean and regularly changed bedding straw.
Chooks are social creatures, they like to hang out, sometimes there’s a loner but mostly they go about in groups. If a chook has no other chook buddies, it will probably try to befriend the dog, cat or you.
Our chooks have a large pen but benefit from daily free-range time. You can hear the volume of their clucking increase around mid-afternoon in anticipation of the gate opening. By twilight they’re done and taken themselves back to roost for the night, and are shut in before dark.
Between mid-afternoon and twilight… our chooks roam the village. They have no respect for boundaries or property. The only thing that stops them are good fences, shut gates and doors. They will squeeze through a crack half their size to get to something they think they might be able to eat or dig up to search for something to eat.
Is not a bad thing. Our chooks especially love snails, cat and dog food and finch bird seed. Call “here chook chook chookie chookie”, feed them treats and you will be the pied piper of poultry.
Useful if you forget to shut the chooks in at night and have to round them up in the morning so your neighbours don’t get thoughts about eating them or forming a lynch mob.
Characteristics to consider
Mixing flocks or introducing new chickens should be done carefully, in small numbers, similar size and age, segregating where possible as newcomers may be picked on or even killed by existing flock.
Chickens are susceptible to weather extremes; solid weatherproof and well-ventilated shelter, sufficient straw and shade, cold treats in summer and warm, hearty feed in winter can prevent losses.
There may be less egg production when introducing new pullets who have not begun laying, when hens are moulting or during cooler months.
Chooks can fly, jump and run… fast
When new chooks arrive, we clip the tips off one wing. If they persist, we clip the tips off the other wing. Done correctly it doesn’t hurt them. We’ve only ever had to do it once in their lifetimes; they get the idea that flying is a clumsy exercise and stop trying. The only adjustment required is to provide them with a pedestrian ramp up to their roost.
They can and will jump quite high to get at for instance not-quite-ripe–tasty grapes on a vine running along a fence, and if you’ve ever had a race a chook up a slope because you forgot to close the gate into the yard, you’ll know they can get mobile across ground when it suits them.
Useful to have nearby
Water supply for chook-pen, shade trees, chook friendly leafy green plants like comfrey, kale, nasturtiums, mustard greens, edible weeds, free range space, visible-audible proximity to humans for monitoring against predators and chicken dramas.
Useful to keep away
Grain and other feed storage, access to dwellings and outdoor entertainment areas inhabited by humans, access to humans’ productive-edible-useful-beautiful plants and garden areas.
Good chook-pens keep chickens in and good fences keep them out.
Predators: A suitable, secure enclosure should be dog, fox and bird of prey proof, with dug in wire, and at least partially enclosed with a roof, weatherproof but with good ventilation. We have never been able to keep goannas or diamond pythons out of the chook-pen. Thankfully they are happy to just eat an egg or two every now and again.
Health issues: Include parasitic worms, mites & lice, respiratory diseases; nutritional problems. Consult vet, reputable and experienced poultry breeder, reliable reference materials or online resources for information on how to deal with these effectively. Also, poultry websites such as www.backyardchickencoops.com.au have an online Ask an Expert help service. The issue should be addressed as soon as it becomes evident.
Pests: Clean chook-pen regularly and store feed away and secured against rodents. Applications of agricultural lime, which we use but also sulphur powder and diatomaceous earth are useful to prevent and treat lice and mites in the enclosure.
Occasionally eggs go missing that cannot be accounted for via the animal kingdom… there’s not much you can do about it except understand their need at that time is greater than yours.
Cross-contamination: Poultry carry germs that make people sick so effective hygiene practices such as handwashing, egg hygiene, and keeping chickens away from human traffic areas can prevent the spread.
At least replenishment of fresh water (sometimes we add 1 ml per chicken of organic unpasteurised apple cider vinegar to prevent gut parasites) and fresh feed, and if allowed free-range to be let out and shut back in, observing for health problems before they are let out. Eggs need to be collected daily so they do not become broken and dirty the enclosure.
Remove clumps of droppings from bedding straw and nesting boxes, change bedding straw regularly, remove clumps of mess and debris from enclosure. Sprinkle a light coating of agricultural lime on the ground and bedding to deter pests and odours.
Remove straw bedding followed by removable structures and containers from the enclosure. Scrape all debris from static and removable structures and scrub with a tough bristle brush, soap, strong white vinegar and very hot water in a bucket, changing it regularly. Rinse and let dry. Use a rake and shovel to clean enclosure floor. Return removable structures and containers to the enclosure. Replenish straw bedding, water and feed. Sprinkle a light coating of agricultural lime on the ground and bedding to deter pests and odours.
Timber roosting perches -ideally 50 mm in diameter made from natural sticks or smooth/dressed timber, allowing 250mm space per bird- so they can be up high of a night, shade and protection and some morning sun. Straw/litter on the ground and access to outside run so they can scratch and forage. Water and food containers placed so they can be kept clean, or refilled daily. At least one nesting box per 5 hens with regularly refreshed bedding straw. Suitable enclosure with sufficient indoor shelter and outdoor run space; secure construction that is dog, fox and bird of prey proof, with dug in wire and enclosed roof area, weatherproof but with good ventilation.
Minimum recommended is 0.37 square metres of area per bird inside the coop, and 0.92 square metres of outdoor enclosure space per bird.
Ensure they have access to clean, dry dirt for dust baths.
Regular checks to monitor health and wellbeing, lice, mites and parasites.
Soak accumulated muck off feet in warm sudsy water.
Soak caked or blocked vents aka buttholes in warm sudsy water to remove build-up of droppings.
We’ve never had to clean our chooks TG!
Protection from weather extremes
Solid weatherproof and well-ventilated shelter, sufficient straw, sunshine and warm hearty feed in winter, shade and cold treats in summer.
Clean enclosure regularly, store feed away and secured against rodents.
If missing eggs are an ongoing issue, we padlock the chook-pen gates for a while.
Local government regulations
It’s good idea to be familiar with local council rules about keeping chickens, for instance our village is classed RU5, we’re allowed 10 hens, and keeping of roosters isn’t allowed. However, in 15 plus years I’ve never known there not to be at least one rooster in the village…
You’ve heard of the saying “herding cats”… well chooks aren’t much different. Our rooster is the man for the job; he crows, struts, protects, tid-bits and keeps track of his ladies.
Chickens produce eggs daily, therefore for optimum freshness and reduction of contamination risk and damage, eggs are collected at least daily after chickens have been let out to free range.
In very hot weather eggs are collected mid-morning as well to reduce risk of contamination.
Eggs which experience large temperature fluctuations can develop condensation on the shell which may allow bacteria to move inside the eggshell.
We check eggs for dirt and damage. Badly cracked/damaged eggs are put in the compost, or if only slightly damaged they’re fully cooked and given to our dog for dinner. Not raw, no-one wants an egg eating or sick dog.
Dirty eggs are kept separate and wiped with a clean dry cloth which is discarded. Very dirty eggs are washed at outdoor tap, kept separate and used first because washing removes the eggshell’s protective cuticle.
Eggs are dated using a pencil and stored in clean undamaged cardboard egg cartons in the fridge unless using immediately.
Eggs are stored in the fridge between 4C and 5C for 4 to 6 weeks. At room temperature i.e. 22 C for one day is the same as storing eggs for a week in the fridge.
We use the float test to check for freshness. Place eggs in a bowl of cold water. Eggs that sink to the bottom and lay flat on their sides are very fresh. Eggs that stand on one end at the bottom of the bowl are a few weeks old but still safe to eat. Eggs that float to the surface are longer fresh enough to eat.
While working in the chicken enclosure we wear PPE – hat, boots, gloves and protective clothing. Work boots, or any outdoor shoes at all, aren’t worn inside the house.
We wash our hands before and after handling eggs to avoid spreading bacteria.
If eggs are laid in a strange place or might have been there for a while, they are discarded as they may be old and unsuitable for consumption.
Sick chooks are isolated and eggs from hens that are sick or not eating are discarded.
It is possible for eggs to become contaminated by the food poisoning bacteria Salmonella which although is killed by cooking at 74C, if mishandled and consumed may cause illness, or death in vulnerable people.
For sale of eggs to the public, legally sellers must register with local council to obtain permission, meet their regulations, food safety and labelling requirements which vary depending on business type and size.
“Regard it just as desirable to build a chicken house as it is to build a cathedral.”
—Frank Lloyd Wright
There’s a lot of information out there about keeping backyard chickens…
A good deal of how relevant depends on how many chickens and type of enclosure and environment in which they are kept.
There are many useful backyard chicken books…
Backyard Chickens, How to Keep Happy Hens by Dave Ingham
The Chook Book, Jackie French
Keeping Chickens – An Australian Guide, Gordon Kerr, Nicolas Brasch, John Burgess
Many online references…
Between now and July 2020 I’m studying Certificate IV Permaculture via Tafe NSW and the National Environment Centre flexible online learning. Studying online, I discovered, involves a lot of writing. This year of study, I think, might lend itself to some blog posts… follow along if you are interested in learning what I learn during my permaculture journey.
*Links are working as at date of publishing.