The chook. More exotic than you know - they are the domesticated descendants of wild junglefowl from Asia.
More powerful than you know - they are perhaps the most successful species of bird, by numbers, that have ever lived. There are now an estimated 24 billion of them.
Why is the chicken so popular? And what can they do for our backyard? It's not just about producing better tasting and cheaper eggs than you can possibly buy (but they do that too). Even if you already have chooks, it's good to think about all the benefits they provide.
There are lots of reasons to bring some chooks into your life.
- They eat your food scraps to make delicious eggs
- They provide you with rich manure for your food garden
- These animal ‘tractors’ are great at preparing your vegie patch for planting - they love to scratch
- They help to control insect pests in your garden
- Chooks have personalities - they make great pets, kids love them and learn from them
- You can reduce demand for the inhumane treatment of factory and barn raised chickens and give some chooks a long, happy and healthy life
House, Strawyard and Run
Chooks need some protection from predators and the elements. A chook house must:
- Be fox proof
- Be weatherproof (yet be well ventilated)
- Have a perch (Chooks like to perch off the ground at night. These perches should be 30cm or more off the ground, allowing 30cm space per bird)
- Have nesting boxes where the chooks can lay their eggs in private. (Old lawn mower leaf-catchers or wooden boxes are good. Add straw to the laying boxes. Allow 1 nesting box for every 3 chooks)
- Be easy to access (you'll visit it at least once per day)
- Have some kind of system for dealing with the manure (chook do at least half their pooping at night)
We've spent years designing and building chook houses that tick all these boxes and all of our favourite ideas come together in the VEG chook house (temporarily unavailable sorry) - see a guided tour here.
While optional, we strongly recommend a strawyard, which is a fox-proof fully enclosed area adjoining the house.
To fox-proof, dig the chicken wire 10cm into the ground then angle it 90 degrees outward before extending it another 40cm away from the fence.
Cover the floor of the straw yard with a deep layer of leaves, straw, woodchips or something else high in carbon. Top up occasionally and maybe twice a year harvest as beautiful finished compost for your garden.
Ensure that your chooks have plenty of shade for the hot months. Chooks love mulberries and fruit, so why not plant a mulberry tree right next to your strawyard and they’ll eat the fallen berries.
Chooks need room to move about, and ideally need a large run broken up into several separately gated sections. Fences should be at least 1.4m high. This area usually doesn't need to be fox proof, as the chooks are only out in their run during the day. At night your job is to shut them into the fox-proof house and strawyard areas.
Consider a chook ‘tractor’, ie. a mobile pen without a floor. This can be moved around the garden allowing the chooks to scratch the ground and eat weeds or left-over veggies, while spreading their droppings. This should be done about two weeks before you want to plant out this area. You can make your own chook tractor with guidance from books like Harvey Ussery's excellent "The Small Scale Poultry Flock."
- Chooks are very territorial and will put themself to bed at dusk in the same place every night.
- Chooks are social animals and should never be kept on their own.
- When introducing new hens, add at least two at a time, otherwise the new hen will be picked on. A new group of hens may fight quite viciously until they work out their pecking order.
Various grain or pellet mixes can be purchased from farm suppliers. A balanced diet should include:
- Kitchen scraps
- Layer pellets, mash or grain mix. To lay well, chooks need approximately 18% protein in their diet
- A calcium source – shell grit, cuttlefish, crushed roasted eggshells (shell grit or sand is also important for their gizzard, to help them crush their food)
- Insects and earthworms
- Greens – grass, spinach, parsley, carrot tops, cabbage leaves (tie up in bunch and fasten to the side of the chook run). Or grow a ‘green manure crop’ that will condition your soil + provide green pick for your chooks.
Don’t feed them: rhubarb leaves
For recipes to make your own chook food see Alanna Moore’s book “Backyard Poultry – Naturally.”
Water: Always have fresh water available.
Some breeds are excellent egg layers, others are bred for their meat, others are ornamental and some breeds are dual/general purpose (ie good for both egg laying and meat). If you want to breed chickens, buy pure-breed chooks. Otherwise, there are a good range of hybrid and pure-breed chooks for each purpose.
Good egg layers that are friendly and suitable to a backyard:
Australorp – Australian, dual purpose. Large, handsome, black bird.
Rhode Island Red – U.S. dual purpose.
Isa Brown – Cross between Rhode Island Red and Rhode Island White breeds.
Good dual purpose chooks that are suitable for a backyard (moderate egg layers and table birds)
Sussex – U.K. breed. Dual purpose. Suited to cool climates.
Wyandotte – U.S. dual purpose. Friendly and cuddly looking.
... there are many more great breeds out there.
Maintaining Chook Health - Naturally
Think about planting herbs and flowers next to your chicken run that the chickens can selectively eat to keep themselves healthy. A great idea is to plant them on the other (chook-free) side of the chook-run fence so they grow through and can be pecked out without being totally decimated. Some recommended plants are:
Comfrey – Wonderful herb for your organic garden. Perennial, large green leaves, grows in sun or partial shade, plant from a root cutting. Chop up and feed to chooks regularly. It is also a compost activator (see VEG compost worksheet). Comfrey has a vigorous root system, so grow it away from your veggie patch.
Nasturtium – Great for your chooks general health and it repels insect pests.
Nettles – Helps increase egg production and is fattening for your chickens – a great winter food. Nettle is also a compost activator.
Rue – Good chook medicine and insect repellent. Dry and scatter through chook house to repel pests. Wear gloves when handling this herb as it can cause some skin irritation.
Southernwood and Wormwood – Insect repellents and medicinal. Grow wormwood away from other plants as its roots inhibit growth. Good to dry and scatter through chook house.
Tansy – Attractive fern-like leaves with yellow flowers. Tansy is a vigorous grower that repels pest insects. Dry and scatter leaves through chookhouse. Tansy is also a compost activator.
Rosemary – Insect repellent. Chop and scatter in chookhouse.
Worming your chooks
Regular garlic treatment is the most popular natural method.
Place 1-2 cloves (per bird) of crushed garlic into your chooks drinking water, for several days in a row.
Other methods – add a little apple cider vinegar to the drinking water or any of the following - nasturtium seeds, grated carrot, wormwood tips, mustard or pumpkin seeds. If your chicken has worms and needs urgent attention please visit a pet supplies centre to buy worming liquid.
The Small Scale Poultry Flock, Harvey Ussery - By a far the best chook book we have seen and totally consistent with VEG's approach to, and philosophy about, keeping chooks.
Backyard Poultry – Naturally 2nd Ed, Alanna Moore, Python Press
The Chook Book, Jackie French, Aird Books
Courses: See the Upcoming Courses section of the Very Edible Gardens website for upcoming 'Beginners Guide to Chickens' courses.