Are backyard chickens for you?

Are backyard chickens for you?

June 14, 2015

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Chickens can be a wonderful addition to any backyard. When you think that a single chicken can lay eggs for its lifetime and can cost less than a dozen eggs from the supermarket, it’s certainly a pet worth considering for more reasons than one.

A chicken can also help with your backyard clean-up, getting rid of kitchen scraps, weeds, insects and grubs, at the same time adding valuable fertiliser and loosening the soil in your yard.

The best chickens for a residential backyard are the large layers, which are quite happy to range around your yard during the day, then retire for the night to the security and protection of their pen.

Bantams, whilst not as productive as the larger layers, can be wonderful fun pets for children.

Always check with your local authority before purchasing any chickens as there may be restrictions or they may even be prohibited in urban areas. Roosters, on the other hand, are prohibited by many local authorities because of the noise and, of course, they do not lay eggs. It is important to note that if you get chickens that are on the verge of laying (16-24 weeks old), they will not need roosters to continue to lay eggs.

When purchasing chickens always make sure they have been vaccinated. And if you are adding to an existing flock, always keep the newly-introduced chickens separate until you are certain they are not carrying any diseases or viruses.

Feeding and care of chickens in your backyard

Chickens can be quite sensitive to their diet, which can affect their productivity as egg-layers. It takes quite a bit of energy for a chicken to produce bright, healthy eggs, so a complete, balanced diet is essential for their health as well as to give them the energy they need to produce their eggs.  Most commercial poultry mixes have been designed with the right balance of nutrients to provide the energy, protein, vitamins and minerals for a healthy, productive flock. And contrary to popular myth, commercial poultry mixes do not contain antibiotics or hormones.

Whilst most chickens enjoy pecking at household food scraps, they usually only eat what they can consume in a short period of time, so will often leave left-over scraps that can attract vermin such as rats and mice. Most vegetable scraps are acceptable, but you should avoid feeding your chickens orange peel, banana peel, potato peel, tomato skins, rhubarb leaves and tea leaves.

To maximise egg production and egg quality, a complementary diet of complete feed layer pellets, in conjunction with crumbles, household food scraps and shell grit, as well as an ample supply of fresh water, will ensure your chickens are happy, productive layers. Mature chickens that prefer to eat quickly should have pellets as there is less wastage, whereas juvenile birds should be fed starter crumbles as they often have difficulty swallowing pellets. Starter crumbles also contain high levels of protein and trace elements which juveniles need to support their rapid growth.

Where will your chickens live?

Healthy chickens will need a well-drained and well-ventilated area, along with a protected undercover area for sleeping and roosting. A slightly sloping concrete floor is recommended so that the area can be easily hosed out. An easterly aspect is also important to give your chickens protection from the westerly rain and wind.

At night chickens prefer to roost on raised perches, which should be at least 3cm in width. Nesting boxes should be positioned off the ground, preferably in a dark corner and should be at least 35cm by 35cm. The boxes should be regularly filled with fresh straw to keep eggs clean and to discourage hens from defecating in it.

Unlike humans and many other animals, chickens do not have in-built cooling and so will suffer in even mild heat. To avoid heat stress they should always have plenty of shade and cool water as well as good ventilation.

A concrete floor falling slightly to an agricultural drain will keep the pen well drained and dry, it also allows the area to be cleaned and hosed out easily and stops foxes from digging under the fence.

Care of your chickens

If you’ve followed the suggestions above, your chickens should live long, happy and healthy lives, as most illnesses or stresses in chickens can be traced back to inappropriate or inadequate food and water, and poor shelter. Regular removal of waste and thorough cleaning of their environment is critical in minimising the risk of sickness and disease. The most prevalent disease in backyard chickens is Coccidiosis which is much more likely to occur in damp and dirty pens.

Mites can also be quite prevalent in the warmer months but can be difficult to see as they hide during the day, only coming out at night to feed on the chickens’ skin. You can prevent mites and lice by putting down a layer of hydrated lime every time you clean the pen. After you apply the lime you should place straw on top to keep it clean. Notwithstanding that, you should always clean out your chicken coop every week.

Stickfast fleas can be a problem in summer and autumn, infesting chickens around the comb and the eyes. Details about the prevention and treatment of stickfast fleas can be found on the Department of Agriculture and Food website. It is important to remember that cats and dogs can also be affected, so treatment is essential.

If mites or lice are left untreated in your chickens they can cause anaemia, malnutrition or even death.

Eggs – the payoff for looking after your chickens!

Healthy chickens will start laying daily at between 16 and 24 weeks old, and should continue at that rate for 18 months or more. From around 18 months to 3 years of age, egg production will naturally decline.

To prevent a hen from becoming broody, eggs should be collected daily. If a hen does become broody, remove her from the area and break up the nest and she should soon lose the urge to sit on and hatch her eggs.

Eggs collected daily should not be washed (remember, if you’ve maintained the pen properly, they won’t be dirty!) as they will stay fresher for longer if left unwashed. Write a “collected on” date on each egg with a pencil and make sure you use them within 4 to 5 weeks. To check if an egg is fresh and edible, fill a bowl with water and carefully place the egg in it. If the egg floats, do not eat it. You’ll find the freshest eggs are the ones that sit horizontally on the base of the bowl.

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