How About Hens?
Thinking of getting some backyard chooks but not sure what to do? Poultry expert Megg Miller has lots of tips on how to get set up and keep the girls laying happily.
Everyone wants chooks (and why not?): they are entertaining, they convert greens and table scraps into fresh eggs and obligingly provide fertiliser for the garden. A pet cat or dog cannot beat that.
Before considering housing, you’ll need to have an idea of the number of hens you will keep. Find out what council regulations permit (for example, roosters are often not allowed in built-up areas). You should also consider the number of eggs you need. Fowls vary a lot in their egg output. Just three to five commercial crossbred chooks would meet the needs of a good-sized family. For occasional egg eaters, a pair of pretty purebreds would be ample.
Don’t overlook bantam chooks as there are lots of gorgeous breeds suitable for backyards. Remember that two bantam eggs equal one large hen’s egg, so extra bantams may need to be kept.
OK, you’ve decided to make a start (good on you) so what do you need in the way of equipment, housing, etc?
• Henhouse, plus a covered outdoor yard if possible.
• Water container: a bucket is fine but later on you may want an automatic drinker.
• Hanging metal feeder: hanging reduces waste and is harder for rodents to access. Obtain one with a deep pan covered with an anti flick grille to prevent wastage.
• Nest boxes.
• Litter for nest boxes and the henhouse floor. Litter absorbs moisture and keeps the henhouse warm.
• Shell grit and hard grit.
• Proprietary chook feed.
Housing & facilities
Housing for chooks must meet several basic needs – safety from predators, protection from wind and weather extremes, including ventilation during heat waves in particular.
Access: don’t forget housing should be easy to you to enter for cleaning. So, allow for head room if you need to examine and treat any birds at night.
Space per bird: make the building large enough for containment for weekends when you go away. That means it should offer no less than 0.37m² floor space per bird, more if possible (ie, 61cm x 61cm = 0.37m2).
Nests: generally hens all use the same nest, whose width should be 25cm and extend the usual length of 30-50cm for two to four hens.
Place nests on the darkest, coolest side of the house, preferably low to the ground. Nests in prefab chook houses are often hot boxes half-way up the wall. Drilling ventilation holes in these will allow trapped heat to escape.
Roosting spaces: chooks like to roost, so a ladder-style perch works best as the birds can hop up to the top. Select wood 50mm x 75mm wide and round off all edges. Allow 25cm per bird roosting space.
Outdoor enclosure: plan for an outdoor enclosure next to the henhouse, fully netted overhead to keep crows out. The birds can enjoy a dust bath here safe from predators.
Hens are ideal for cleaning up spent vegie beds and will reduce bugs if they can scratch under fruit trees. Their idea of garden freedom is to scratch over every leaf and area of mulch they can get to. And they will strip leaves off plants including silverbeet and raspberries. Supervised freedom in growing areas is advised.
Chooks eat around 135g of feed daily. Most of this should come from proprietary feed, either pellets or a grain mix, because these are balanced nutritionally. Certainly free-ranging hens will pick up grubs and seeds but a lot of what they ingest is grass. While greenfeed is important, it can’t replace the energy and protein of a commercial product.
Treats in the form of kitchen scraps and bread should be fed in moderation. Pure breeds can cope with makeshift feeding better than heavy layers like ISA Browns and commercial crossbreds, so if you’re keen to recycle garden and kitchen waste, choose your breed wisely.
Supply daily greens if hens don’t get out to fossick: they’ll really go for silverbeet or brassica leaves tied up or placed in a string bag, for hens to peck at. A clump of weeds with soil still attached will also be appreciated.
Layers need shell grit (medium/coarse) for extra calcium for shell strength and hard grit in the form of insoluble stones (3mm diameter) to aid the grinding of grain and seeds.
Where do you find chook food? Most supermarkets sell small bags of wheat or pellets but the best source is a farm and produce store, which will also carry the feeders and drinkers, parasite control and shell grit that you’ll need.
Pests & predators
Pests are your number one problem. More fowls are lost to foxes when doors are left open than through break-ins but take the trouble to ensure foxes cannot dig in (see our box, right, on dig-proof wire netting).
Netting over the outdoor yard should stop wild birds entering – they feed greedily on chook feed and are a carrier of external parasites. Rodents also steal food, so continual safe baiting (which hens cannot access) will keep numbers low.
Henhouse cleaning worries many new owners – how frequently should it be done? Walls benefit from brisk brushing every four to six weeks and if manure and loose feathers are removed fortnightly, then a thorough clean-out twice yearly would be adequate.
Nests are best checked weekly and soiled litter removed and replaced with fresh material. Dried pine needles, wormwood and soft grass are all suitable and some people use shredded paper with success.
After nest hygiene, the next important task is scrubbing out the waterer. Some people brush out bowls daily, and it should be done at least weekly or fowls will be drinking tainted water.
Parasites invariably trouble poultry, both worms and lice and mites. Don’t automatically medicate without discussing with your vet what to look for.
Megg’s Top 10 Backyard Breeds
Silkie: beautiful nature, easy for beginners but not a good egg layer.
Pekin: a bantam, also placid and a poor layer but available in lots of attractive colours.
Australian Langshan: elegant fowl, a little standoffish but the best purebred layer. Available in large and bantam sizes.
Commercial crossbreds: black, white and red crosses, super layers but hearty eaters, better value than ISA Brown.
Ancona: eye-catching plumage, economical eater, lays lots of creamy white eggs. Large and bantam sizes available.
New Hampshire: robust farm breed, good layer of tinted eggs. Large only.
Wyandotte: fancy breed that is good to look at, very ordinary layer. Gorgeous colours, large and bantam available.
Belgian bantams: dainty little hens in a variety of colours, kids adore them.
Hamburghs: active, irresistible, small-bodied breed, cheap to keep, moderate layer of white eggs.
ISA Brown: commercial bird sold to backyarders, top egg layer but copious eater and only produces for one to two years.
Secure fencing tip
To stop foxes and dogs digging under fence wire, extend the wire down 10-15cm into the soil, and also 50cm away from the fence line. Should a fox or dog dig down at the fence line (which they do) they’ll strike wire and soon give up. Wire or netting should also cover the roof of the henhouse area and yard.