Getting started with a small flock of chickens is a wonderful adventure and a lot of fun. However, there are a few things to consider before you begin.
- Why are you raising them? – Eggs, meat or pleasure?
- Where are you going to put them?
- Who will take care of them if you go away?
- Are you allowed to have chickens – if so, how many? Make sure you check your council regulations.
Step One: Choosing which chickens are right for you
Whilst there are lots of breeds of chickens, they all fall into one of five categories:
- Heritage Breeds: A heritage chicken is a natural breeding chicken that has a slow growth rate and can live a long, productive outdoor life. The breed must also conform to the American Poultry Associations standard for that breed.
- Egg Laying Breeds: These hens have been bred to produce large quantities of eggs through their short production lifetimes. Isa browns are a good example of this.
- Dual Purpose Breeds: These hens are the best of both worlds in utility terms. They are productive in the egg department and grow large enough to be used as a meat bird later in life.
- Meat Breeds: As the name suggests these breeds of chicken are bred for meat purposes. They grow very, very quickly. They put on weight at an alarming rate and are ready for slaughter at around nine weeks.
- Fun Breeds: This catagory is set aside for the fun loving and cute breeds. The do still lay eggs, but generally less and smaller than the egg laying breeds. An example of this is the pekin bantam – perfect for children.
Picking a breed of chicken can be a lot of fun and there are so many different types to choose from – Isa Browns, Silkies and Australorps to name a few. The good news is, you don’t have to pick just one, mixed flocks are common practice in many backyards across Australia. It’s a good idea to pick some birds in your flock that are great layers, like Rhode Island Reds, as well as other even cuter breeds, like the Polish, which are just fun to look at!
Then, check out our breeder’s directory to find a breeder near you.
Step Two: Housing
The way you look after your chickens depends on your lifestyle and environment. In order to keep them safe and happy in the backyard, you’ll need to make some adjustments according to your living arrangements and backyard size.
If you’re someone who works during the day and can’t safely let your chickens roam in the backyard while you are gone, then getting a coop with a run attached is essential.
If you or another member of your household is home most of the day, then letting them out to free-range is always a great option. Chickens will generally go about their business until the sun goes down before you need to let them back into the coop for a good nights rest.
- The coop:
Shelter is the most basic need of all, a place where they are able to get out of the blistering sun, howling wind or blowing snow. The coop needs to be water-resistant as there is nothing more miserable than a wet chicken.
As well as having a dry, draft-free house to sleep in, chickens require a certain amount of shelter from the elements. Bushes, a hedge, or wall can be used if birds free range to get out of the sun, wind, or rain but if this sort of cover is not available, you should consider erecting some sort of shelter that allows them to get out of the elements.
Adequate space for birds to co-habit peacefully is essential. If they are crowded together they are likely to start anti-social behaviours like picking and pecking each other. The worst time for these behaviours is winter; hens get bored and create mischief. Read our winter boredom buster tips here.
Ideally, the coop should be cool in summer and warm in winter. Correct ventilation of your coop is crucial when it comes to temperature regulation. A good flow of air will keep the coop at an optimal temperature for your hens. If you think it’s too hot you need to add more ventilation holes.
- Nesting Boxes:
With nesting boxes, you will need approximately one box for every three hens, but it never hurts to have more. There is always one favourite box that they will squabble over, so more is better. Read more nesting tips here.
Nest boxes should be provided below the height of the perches to ensure birds don’t roost in them and soil them. They should contain pine shavings, hemp or happy flock (not hay due to mould spores that can cause problems) or another suitable nesting material.
Roosts are simply the place where the birds congregate to sleep at night. They will all generally sleep on the same perch (roost), although some do prefer to be by themselves if they feel perfectly safe.
I recommend 4 to 5cm wide perches with rounded edges. At least 40cm long per large fowl and 30cm per medium hen (hybrid size) or bantam. Chickens like to sit down when they sleep and a fairly wide perch helps them balance when sleeping like this. They don’t take all of this perch space as they often huddle together but you do need the extra space to allow for gaps so birds lower in the pecking order can still roost away from other hens.
Some large breeds will not roost very high and can damage their legs or feet when jumping down from high perches so low perches 30 cm from the floor or a series of perches gaining in height like a sloping ladder is normally better for these breeds.
The run is an enclosure that extends from the coop, keeping your flock safe but allowing them to have access to fresh grass, pick at bugs and grit and enjoy all the benefits of free-ranging.
- Predator Proofing:
Australia is home to a multitude of predators and pests. I recommend predator-proofing from the outset. You can learn how to do this here.
- Step Three: Food and Water
Chicken food comes in a wide array of choices that can be confusing. You can read about all the different types of feed available here.
- 0-8 weeks: 18-20% starter feed crumbles
- 8-14 weeks: 16-18% starter/grower
- 15-18 weeks: 16% finisher
- 18 weeks upward: 16% layer feed
Water is essential to all living things and chickens are no exception.
A hen will drink about a cup of water each day. She will take frequent small sips throughout the day. Too little water can affect egg production among many other things, so make sure they have plenty.
Step Four: Keeping your chickens healthy
As with any other pet, chicken health is very important. The good news is that most illnesses that your chicken may be at risk of contracting can be cured, provided you catch them in time. If you think for any reason that your pet chicken health is subjected to a chicken disease, it is always best to isolate them from the flock to avoid the risk of spreading any possible chicken disease further among your chooks
Here are a few symptoms that you should look for on a regular basis which could indicate that your chicken’s health is at risk. These symptoms include:
- Visible mites and lice – Read about how to prevent these pesky insects here.
- Excessive feather loss
- Respiratory issues like sneezing and wheezing breath
- Abnormal stool – Read about this here.
- Lack of energy and loss of movement
- Loss of appetite
- Keep in mind that during extreme climate changes, such as a heat wave, your chickens may experience some loss of appetite.
- Stunted growth
- Sudden reduction in one chicken’s position within the pecking order
- You will likely notice right away that your chickens develop a pecking order. Anytime you notice that a chicken which was formerly higher in the pecking order of your flock has dropped in that pecking order, this should be cause for concern. Birds of all types, including chickens, often have a sense of when another chicken is ill and will frequently pick on them.
The best method for maintaining your chicken’s health is to prevent disease in the first place. By following careful coop maintenance, cleaning and care you will have a much better chance of having a flock that is both happy and healthy.
It is recommended to worm your chickens every season. This is a simple process which you can read about here.
Step Five: Daily Checklist
Keeping chickens is a relatively easy job, so long as you establish a good routine. Here are some of the things you’ll need to do for your flock each day.
- Ensure that they have plenty of food and water.
- Spot check the coop to make sure it is clean and sanitary. If the coop looks too dirty for chickens, make sure you change the bedding, as well as cleaning out the feeder and waterer if need be.
- Empty the nesting box of any eggs your flock has left for you – otherwise they might eat the eggs themselves.
- If you are letting your girls free-range, be sure leave the door of the coop open so they can come and go as they please. If you are unsure if you want your flock to free-range, be sure to read this informative article here.
- Count your chickens at the end of each night before they go back in the coop to ensure that everybody is safe and well.