Chickens go hand in hand with organic gardening and they make wonderful pets. They are quiet (unless you have a rooster), great with kids, will recycle your kitchen scraps and grass clippings, de-bug your garden, produce wonderful manure for you to compost and on top of all that, they give you beautiful eggs.
There are three main differences between fresh eggs from your own backyard chickens, and the eggs that you buy in the supermarkets.
- They are fresh!! We all know that frustration of trying to crack an egg to keep the yolk intact, only to have the contents run out like water and the yolk burst open. This is because the egg is old and the delicate membrane that keeps the yolk together has broken down. Eggs on the supermarket shelves may be weeks old, and unlike George Clooney, they don’t improve with age.
A fresh egg is perky, and both the yolk and the white stay together. No need for an egg ring.
- The old saying, ‘you are what you eat’ also applies to chickens. Backyard chickens have the opportunity to have a varied diet, and if you let them free-range, they will indulge their natural scratching and foraging instinct and will eat grass, spiders, bugs etc. They also get all your table scraps. Chickens love their leafy greens, and this is what makes the yolk bright yellow! If your chicken’s yolks are pale they aren’t getting enough greens. All the goodness that they eat makes its way into the egg, made available for you to eat. Eggs from hens that free range have a higher proportion of omega 3 to omega 6, as well as vitamins A and E. Caged hens produce eggs high in omega 6. Over consumption of omega 6 in our diet leads to various health problems and disease processes, so it is a fact that free ranging your hens is better for their health and yours.
Now let’s think about what the poor commercial chicken gets to eat. A steady supply of a homogeneous high protein, wheat based pellet. What you end up with is a steady supply of homogeneous tasting eggs. If chickens were given two options, a patch of grass, or a bowl of wheat, they would pick the grass any day of the week.
If you can’t keep chickens, it’s well worth paying extra for free range eggs.
- A large flock/herd of anything is prone to disease and is often given prophylactic medication, antibiotics or hormones etc. You just don’t know. When you keep your own chickens, you can be sure that the eggs they produce are free from medication, and can be totally organic.
You don’t need a huge backyard to keep chickens. It is perfectly fine to keep them in a pen, or chicken tractor, and let them out every day/afternoon for a run and a scratch. Most chickens are very friendly especially once they associate you with food (as the bringer of food…not the actual food), and will run to you when they see you. Different breeds have different characteristics, so make sure you select a breed that will meet your family’s needs. Chickens can make up a great part of a family routine…sending the little ones out to check for eggs or with a bucket of table scraps to feed them.
Unlike dogs, they don’t need constant attention. You can fill up their food and water dispensers and leave them for a few days and they will be fine.
Yes, roosters will crow, and there is no way you can keep one in suburbia, you will become very unpopular with your neighbours very quickly. Hens may have a little cluck when they lay an egg, but aside from that they are generally quiet, certainly no noisier than keeping a budgie or a dog that barks occasionally.
Eggs are fantastic, but the manure chickens produce is like gold!! Cleaning out the pen and adding to the compost pile will produce rich and wonderful compost that will make your veggie patch go wild.
At the end of growing season, you can put your chickens in the veggie patch and they will scratch and clean the bed up ready for the next planting. Making a pen that fits over your garden beds is a great idea, and can be rotated from bed to bed to rest and improve the soil. They are particularly useful at removing slugs and snails. They will also eat your seedlings and salad greens, so make sure you watch them so they only use their powers for good, not evil 😉
In a nutshell, chickens need:
- Somewhere to perch/roost
- Somewhere private to lay
Like most pets, chickens need food, water and shelter. We all know how warm a feather doona is, well chickens are covered in these lovely feathers and generally are good at keeping themselves warm. If you ever put your hand under a hen, it’s always toasty and warm. In Australia it’s not the cold that will kill them, it’s the heat. Make sure their pen is positioned in the shade. On a hot day, they will die if left in full sun. On those extreme hot days it is advisable, if possible, to let them free range so they can find a nice cool shrub to dust bathe under.
They always need to have access to fresh water. Self-waterers are highly recommended. Getting a large one means less re-filling and less work for you. The large ones take approx 10 litres of water and can be hung up off the ground to keep it clean.
While free range backyard chickens will happily keep themselves occupied all day looking for food, if you want to get regular eggs, you will need to make sure they have a supply of chicken food. Chicken food comes in three basic forms, mash/scratch mix, crumble, and pellet. It is a high protein content that encourages egg production. The layer mash/scratch mix, is a mixture of whole grains. This is good as a supplement if your chickens are solely free range. If they aren’t free range, there tends to be a lot of wastage as they pick through the mix for their favourite things and won’t touch the rest. Pellets are a combination of processed grains/cereals/fodder/minerals. If you have bantams, look for micro-pellets. Crumble is crushed pellets, also very good for bantams and larger hens. I find there is very little wastage with the crumble.
Like most things in life, with chicken food you get what you pay for. Sometime the really cheap pellets just aren’t worth it as they have little nutritional value. If the egg yolks become pale your chickens need more greens (fresh grass) and if the eggshells become thin and brittle adding some shell grit to their feed helps. This is rarely a problem in free range chickens.
Chickens aren’t fussed with accommodation. It’s important that they are able to get out of the sun/rain/wind if they need too, but as to how it looks, you probably care more about that than they do. The existence of a caged chicken can become really miserable during a long period of rain. Everything just turns to mush. Keep this in mind when designing a pen. A large under cover area is great, as well as a raised platform area or a few low perches so they can keep their feet dry if they want to. It’s best to keep their food supply in an undercover area also, up off the ground.
In the wild chickens would fly (yes fly) up into the trees to roost of a night, safe from the jaws of predators while they sleep. This is a strong instinct for them so make sure they have somewhere to do this in their enclosure (just as high as sensible/possible). It also gets them up off the ground and out of the dirt, which can reduce lice outbreak and it give them somewhere to escape if they need to get away from other chickens/animals/wild children etc.
Hens are pretty good at finding the designated laying spot, which is usually the darkest, quietest and slightly enclosed spot in the enclosure. If they need a bit of encouragement to lay in the right spot either hard boil an egg and leave it in there for a few days, or you can buy wooden or ceramic replica egg to put in the nest. No matter how many backyard hens you have, you only need one nesting box. If you have three hens, and three nesting boxes, there seems to be this consensus amongst them that one in particular is the best and that’s where they will all lay. Funny things.
I’m not going to lie. Chickens are pretty dumb, but they are full of inherent instinct that is quite an amazing thing to witness and it is these strong instincts that have ensured their survival to this point. Poor things. They are always the hunted and not the hunter. I guess that’s the price you pay for being delicious. With this in mind, also consider what predators may be in your area when you design your coop. If you have foxes of something similar, you will need to lock your chickens in each night and build with materials that cant be chewed through, climbed over or dug under. It is so heartbreaking to come out in the morning to discover nothing but clumps of feathers where sly Mr Fox devoured your much-loved chickens.
Well that’s about it. All in all, chickens make a wonderful addition to any family and there are very few problems with keeping a small backyard flock. Not so long ago (before intensive farming) it was perfectly normal for everyone to keep chickens for eggs and even meat. Having a few backyard chooks is one way we can re-claim some self-sufficiency that we have lost and become more connected and responsible for where our food comes from.