Keeping chooks provides your household with a daily supply of sensational tasting eggs from a sustainable pet that consumes your kitchen waste and weeds your garden.
Keeping chickens is a great way to turn waste into food, entertain yourself (and your kids), and they increase the nutrients and health of your soil while eating bugs, insects and sometimes mice.
How to do it now!
Keeping chickens is easy with the right setup, equipment and knowledge. Always check your local library, bookstore or online for in-depth guides to keeping chickens, and care for them well.
Check any legal issues/requirements
Prior to setting up your chicken coop and getting started, check with your local council as to any local laws about keeping poultry. In general,
the following will apply:
- Roosters are prohibited (in urban areas) – Crowing early in the morning is rarely appreciated by sleeping neighbours.
- Limit of up to 5 poultry birds
- Care for the Chickens – You need to ensure that the animals have easy access to food and clean water, and can move freely around the enclosure.
The RSPCA, other animal organizations and chicken enthusiast blog websites are great online resources. See the additioanl resources below for a list of great further information sources.
Plan, build (or buy) your Chicken coop
To set up your chicken coop and enclosure you’ll need to allocate space in your garden based on the number of birds you plan to have. From this you can correctly size the coop, feeders, water trough etc…
Work out how many chickens you want
There are several factors that you need to consider when determining how many chickens you want.
- How many eggs do I need? – The egg production of a chicken declines as they age. First year chickens will lay over 250 eggs in a year with this dropping to 200 eggs in the second year and further as they continue to age. Chickens can live till they are 7 yrs old and will often keep producing eggs until their end. So if your household consumes a dozen eggs per week, you will need 3 young hens, or 3-4 of mixed ages.
- How much space do I have? – Each chicken needs space to flap their wings, move about and build a nest, a rough figure of 5 m2 for each bird is usually sufficient. The chicken coop, where the chooks are locked up overnight, and the broader enclosure would need to be about 15m2 for a three chicken set up. Often extra enclosed space can be handy if the birds need to be separated to deal with brooding, enable breeding, introduce new birds, etc…
- At least two birds – Chickens are herd animals, they love company, so for happy hens, aim to have at least two birds. Local regulations may limit the maximum number of birds you can keep.
Design your chicken coop and enclosure
Chickens require a comfortable, clean and secure coop to sleep and nest in. They need protection from extreme weather, predators (foxes, cats, and dogs) and vermin (rats). The common approach to keeping domestic chickens is either a permanent “deep-litter house” or a “small portable house” that can be moved about every couple of days. Chicken coops can be purchased online or from rural produce and some pet stores.
The deep-litter house is easy to manage and gives the birds comfortable, hygienic conditions. Birds should be housed at a stocking rate of no more than 30 kg/m2 (less in hot weather), so as a guide four dual-purpose breed birds/m2 (these heavier breeds may weigh 6 kg each) with or without an outside run.
The deep-litter house is often on a concrete floor with a deep layer of litter (sawdust, shavings or hay) that is changed regularly. Hens love scratching around in the litter. It absorbs manure and the mix of manure and litter makes great garden compost.
If birds have continual access to a run, they soon kill the vegetation and turn it into a muddy, barren, smelly area. Outside access may be for a short time each day, say in the late afternoon, or rotated through different areas.
Components of a typical deep-litter poultry shed (see Figure 1 below):
- an open bird-mesh front, a partially enclosed back and solid sides (sides may be more ‘open’, possibly with blinds, depending on climate and local setting)
- well ventilated, but not draughty
- made from material such as fibre-cement board, which is easily cleaned and not too hot
- a sloping roof which slopes to the rear with sufficient overhang at the front (600 mm) and back (300 mm)
- painted roof and walls, preferably matt white, to reflect heat from the sun
- a concrete floor with a rat wall is desirable
- new litter should be spread about 100 mm deep.
Figure 1. A shed for up to 12 laying hens. A similar shed without the nestboxes and roost would suit meat chickens. (All measurements in mm)
Suitable litter materials are pine shavings, sawdust and straw (all free of chemical treatments). If the litter is kept dry it will reduce odour, provide a better fertiliser for the garden and reduce the risk of disease to the birds.
Portable chicken house
The portable chicken house is often an A-frame coop and enclosure with wheels at one end that can be moved around the garden or lawn. The portable chicken house should be moved every couple of days to ensure the chicken’s poo is dispersed and the chickens don’t do too much damage to the grass the house is sitting on.
A covered water trough, which automatically refills, mounted outside on the shed wall avoids wet litter. The trough should be 200 mm above floor level and should be long enough to allow each bird in the flock to drink at the one time (10 cm per bird and if less than two or more drinkers are needed). There are a variety of automatic waterers available from poultry equipment suppliers.
A self-feeder is ideal for small flocks. There should be enough trough space for all the birds to feed at the same time.
The nest boxes should be mounted on the cool side of the shed preferably 600 to 900 mm off the ground. Allow one 300 mm x 300 mm nest box for every four hens. The nest material can be shavings, straw or shell grit, to a depth of 75 mm, and should be kept clean and dry.
Roosting perches made of 75 mm x 50 mm dressed timber placed 500 mm from the floor can be provided, but are not essential. If used, at least 150 mm of roost space per bird is required.
Starting your flock
You can start your flock by purchasing point-of-lay pullets or day-old chicks chicks from a reputable supplier who can provide a vaccination history of the birds. If you buy day-old chickens you should ask the supplier to confirm that the chicks have been vaccinated against common diseases such as fowl pox and Marek’s disease. Additionally, point-of-lay pullets should have been vaccinated for Newcastle disease as a legal requirement.
The point-of-lay pullet is around 18 weeks old and should start laying when she is about 22-24 weeks old. The four to six week period between purchase and first egg allows the pullet to get used to her new surroundings and settle in. The best time to buy started (i.e., started to lay) pullets is in December or January, as they will then lay for a full 12 months, without moulting in autumn. It is not recommended to mix birds of different ages and colours as this can upset the flocks established pecking order.
If obtaining day-old chickens, it is important to brood chickens at the correct temperature in an area free of draughts and with plenty of light. Young chickens should have clean, fresh water and feed at all times. Keep an eye on the chicks, especially during the early brooding period and make sure they are comfortable. Use a chicken starter mash or crumble during this brooding period.
Some suitable breeds
The breed you choose will depend on your situation, for example a commercial crossbred may suit if you want lots of eggs, some breeds are quieter and better suited with children and some breeds are smaller which may better suit a small garden even though the egg size is smaller.
Commercial crossbreds are good performers. They are specially bred birds, for either egg-laying or for table purposes. Commercial pullets are the best performers under most conditions as they are good layers, not prone to broodiness and don´t eat as much as other breeds. These laying chickens are commonly bred from White Leghorn/Australorp crosses but several other new crosses are also available. Commercial crossbreds are generally available through produce stores. Purchase from a reputable supplier.
Watering your chickens
Since an egg is made up of 70-75% water, laying hens need a constant supply of fresh, clean water. Water troughs must be kept clean and shaded from the sun. A minimum drinking space of 100 mm is recommended for each hen, with sufficient space for all birds to drink at the sme time (essential during hot weather). Three laying hens need approximately a litre of water per day.
Feeding your chickens
It is usual to provide food for your chickens at all times. A tube or self feeder with sufficient trough space for all of the birds to feed at the same time is ideal. Commercially prepared feeds should be used as it supplies the correct balance of protein, vitamins and minerals necessary for the bird´s health and maximum production. Poultry feeds are available from produce merchants in mash, crumbles or pellet form. Adding grain or bread to these diets is not recommended because it dilutes the daily amount of vitamins and minerals the bird receives. To help your fowls grind their food and digest it more efficiently, they should have an insoluble grit to pick at all the time. Shellgrit type supplements also help the hen build stronger egg shells.
For more detailed information on mixing up your own chicken feed, The NSW DPI has a handy information sheet which provides further details:
Small-scale Poultry Feeding.pdf
Management of feeding
Feed needs to be kept dry and its freshness ensured by not buying a new batch every month where practical and storing in a cool, dry place. As a guide, each layer will eat about 120 g/day.
Keep feeders and drinkers in the shed to prevent wild birds accessing it – reduces feed loss and also the risk of possible transfer of avian influenza. To avoid feed wastage, adjust the height of the feeder trough level with the hens back and do not fill troughs more than half-full. Clean the feeders regularly and remove stale, wet or mouldy feed.
Layer feed should not be given to chicks or growing stock because the high calcium level may cause kidney damage. Make sure the feed is suitable for the type of poultry to which it is fed. Feed manufacturers label their product accordingly – that is, suitable for chickens, growers, or layers.
There is a legal requirement aimed at combating the introduction and spread of exotic animal diseases that no animal matter or other waste contaminated by animal matter is allowed to be fed. While it is okay to feed poultry with vegetable matter from the kitchen (where there is no risk of its being contaminated by animal matter) or the garden, it must never be substituted for the birds´ normal diet. As a guide, feed small amounts that the flock will eat in five to 10 minutes. Take care with scraps, those high in salt or contaminated with insecticide should be avoided. Silver beet, cabbage or cauliflower leaves can be given to hens. Fresh lawn clippings are excellent but large amounts are not recommended as they tend to go mouldy before being eaten. Grass that is very long can sometimes cause a digestive problem.
Collecting and cleaning eggs
Collecting eggs – Fresh eggs should be collected at least once a day (in the afternoon), with collections more often if possible. Leaving them longer increases the risk of the chickens damaging them and their losing their freshness.
Cleaning eggs – Eggs can be surprisingly dirty and need to be cleaned. Water should be avoided with a dry cloth used. If more muck is in need of removing, use dry steel wool or fine sandpaper.
Storing eggs – Once collected and clean eggs can be stored for up to 3 weeks in the fridge or a dark cupboard. It’s a good idea to write the collection date on the eggs with a pencil so you know the age of each egg.
Health and Sanitation
To keep your fowls healthy:
- provide a shed that is comfortable, well-ventilated, well-lit and free from drafts and dampness
- keep the shed clean
- frequently renew the litter, wash or spray the shed with a disinfectant and insecticide
- remove sick birds from the flock and keep them away from the other hens while treatment is given. It is often more humane to destroy sick birds.
- treat young birds for worm parasites every two to three months (healthy adult poultry usually acquire a resistance to internal parasites)
- treat the birds when necessary for pests such as lice, mites and stickfast fleas
- read the label carefully when the use of an antibiotic or other treatment is recommended by your veterinarian. For any treatment, restrictions and a withholding period may apply to the use of the eggs and meat.
- Originally adapted from Fact sheet no 46/78 by Rod Woolford, Primary Industries and Resources South Australia.
Acknowledgments and further information
The following sites and resources are invaluable to ensuring your chickens are healthy, happy and productive…
- “Keeping Chickens: An Australian Guide” Penguin, (2007) – is a comprehensive book on raising backyard chickens from CSIRO publishing.
- Chicken husbandry pages (RSPCA website)
- Poultry pages – Department of Primary Industries (NSW)
- Success with Poultry blog – Great enthusiast site on chicken keeping.
- Rentachook – try before you buy, rent a chook.