How to keep backyard chickens
The newest addition to our suburban backyard is a pair of chickens. Water Pistol and Cooper (as we call them) love life in their new chook house and my kids enjoy watching them forage up and down the chicken run. Each day we collect fresh, delicious tasting eggs laid by our own friendly birds. If you’re interested in chooks for your own backyard, here are the basics to get you started.
Why keep backyard chickens?
Backyard chooks make great pets and can have a profoundly positive impact on the health of the garden. They eat up food scraps, nourish the soil with their nitrogen- charged droppings, devour insect pests, and provide fresh eggs (or meat) for the family table.
How do I house my backyard chickens?
To keep healthy, happy chickens in a suburban backyard you need to provide protected spaces for them to feed, scratch, explore and nest.
At our place we have a permanent chicken coop combining nesting boxes, an elevated roost and a chicken run. It’s a well-ventilated home complete with feeder, water containers and a generous floor covering of sawdust. We also have a mobile ‘chicken tractor’. This is an enclosed chicken run that I can pick up and move around the garden during the day. It lets the chooks forage in a managed way. Whether you plan to build your own coop or invest in a ready-made version, make sure that it allows you easy access for cleaning, feeding and collecting eggs.
How much space do I need?
Generally, each bird needs one square metre in the chicken coop. Larger breeds require more space. Allow another two square metres for each bird in the chicken run so they have room to dust bathe and behave like chooks. You can let your chickens roam free during the day, but be aware that they will disturb garden beds, eat plants and scratch around. I let my pair roam free range if I’m home but prefer to keep the birds secure in their chicken tractor at other times to avoid mess and keep my leafy green veggies unharmed!
How do I choose the right chicken?
There are many different types of chickens. Some are bred for meat and others as egg layers. Choose a breed that suits your needs.
I chose Hyline Browns because I wanted good, calm layers. They provide us with two eggs a day. Other popular breeds are ISA Browns and White Leghorns, or you could choose from smaller breeds. Bantams are ideal as pets and for small backyards.
You will be able to buy your birds as chicks, pullets (female chickens under one year) or adult layers. Buying pullets is a good option as they tend to have received vaccinations and treatments. Buying chicks can be problematic because their sex is hard to determine. You might end up with a rowdy rooster on your hands! Rescue hens are also available but tend not to be as proficient layers.
How do I care for my backyard chooks?
Check in on your chooks daily. Provide clean water, quality food and collect their eggs. During the week do a basic house tidy by clearing out droppings, removing old food scraps and refreshing nesting/floor materials. Let them forage during the day and secure them in their coop at night. Twice a year undertake a thorough clean up. This means washing down and scrubbing all surfaces within the coop. It’s a spring clean for your chickens!
Are there any rules I need to consider?
In most suburban areas in Australia you can keep a small flock provided you follow a few basic rules. They differ between local councils, so seek out information specific to your area. Many of the rules are there to encourage us to be good neighbours as well as good chicken keepers, which is a pretty sensible philosophy to uphold!
Tips for keeping backyard chickens:
- Provide a good chook house. Provide chickens with a safe, clean house that protects them from weather and away from predators such as foxes. Happy hens mean more eggs.
- Choose a suitable breed. Think about the characteristics you’re after and the conditions you have, then identify a breed that suits your backyard.
- Provide quality feed. The notion that ‘you are what you eat’ also applies to chooks. Provide them with specialist feed which you can supplement sparingly with food scraps.
- Care for your chickens. Check in on your chickens every day. Establish weekly, monthly and annual hygiene routines. Also make sure you have someone to help when you’re on holidays.
- Consider where you put your pen. Think about your neighbours when getting new chooks and situating your hen house.You can always share your fresh eggs with neighbours to help keep everyone happy!