When people discover that I keep chickens, they are seriously surprised. The reaction I get is almost as if I’d announced I could ride a broomstick. (I can’t.) Of course the real reason is partly that it’s a resurrection of home arts; a rediscovering simple food production technology. But it could also be because I keep hens in a tiny inner urban garden and get enough eggs to make the family regularly complain, “Not omelets again?” If you’re interested, here’s how I do it. It’s incredibly simple and it’s a super fabulous fit in any garden because chook poo is a brilliant fertilser, chickens clean up nasty bugs and the hens will eat virtually all your kitchen scraps and left overs. Win, win, win and eggs.
The run. My set-up is simple. I’ve a chook house sitting in a fenced chook run. The three hens scratch around inside the area for most of the week, pecking bugs out of the woodpile that sits along one side, enjoying a bit of shade from the tree overhead in summer, and dust bathing in the dry sandy area beneath. A little gate lets me go in to clean their house, dig over the yard, spread straw from time to time and grab logs for our fireplace. I wear my gardening clogs when I go in for obvious reasons.
The perfect hen house. My husband Tom has built me many chook houses and this one is the absolute palace. (The first was a two-door kitchen cupboard nailed to the fence.) If you look at the pictures you’ll see it achieves what’s important. It looks good, which as I’ve always explained to him is essential to its function. It’s raised off the ground: chickens like to elevate themselves at nightfall so climbing up into the house comes naturally to them. It has a roosting rail for them to cozy up together at night. The house floor is covered with a sheet of stiff plastic sheet which makes for easy cleaning, and there’s a separate little nesting box where they can safely lay their eggs. Touch wood we’ve never had an issue with a fox so I don’t have a door on the front of the house to close at night, but I do have a large hatch at the back for easy of cleaning, and the nest box roof lifts to allow easy egg gathering (as you can see in the photo above).
Food and water. I feed my hens egg-laying pellets that I keep stored in a tightly lidded bin to keep out rats and mice. I fill the feeder once a week with the pellets and toss the kitchen scraps and left overs into a hopper to give them some variety. There are things to avoid feeding your hens but I’ve found the chooks are smart enough to know what’s good and what’s not. Once a week (more often, when I can), I let my girls out to range more freely while I clean out their house and refresh their food and water. They happily scratch around in the leaf litter beneath our old gum tree and I try not to think too much about the centipedes and worms that they’ll be turning into eggs. As for their water, until recently I just hung an old kettle on the fence and slipped a few garlic cloves in it to help keep their guts healthy. But on really hot days, the kettle ran dry so I made my own automatic water dispenser.
The eggs. I have had chicks and I’ve had chickens at point-of-lay, and while the chicks were fluffy-cute, they took a very long time and a lot of feed to produce eggs. So I recommend point-of-lay and I sourced mine from our city market. As for breeds, I’ve paid silly money for magnificent rare breeds then spent even more at the supermarket buying eggs for the table (they barely laid), so I have to say I am a fan of the common girls I have now – they are Isa Browns. Once they start to lay, your chickens will produce one egg a day, then take a break and start again. At some point in the year, they will take a few weeks off to regroup and at times moult. I looked this up once, but it seems to vary so much, I never bothered again to keep track. If your chicken has a bright red comb on top of her head and full feathers, she’s laying. I store my eggs on the bench top in the kitchen, using the oldest first, but given we eat so many omelettes (we don’t, really), our oldest egg is probably very youthful compared to those in the shops. And if an egg’s a bit muddy I’ll wipe it with a damp rag. If ever I’m not sure about an egg I simply use the water test and throw it out if it floats.
Cleaning house. I do this every week and it takes me half an hour. Yes it means mucking around with chook poo, but that comes with the territory. Step One: I let the girls out to wander then I open up the big back hatch of the hen palace and carefully slide out the plastic sheet which catches the chook poo from the roosting rail above. Step Two: I scrape the poo off into the compost pile where I turn the pile to stop flies breeding, then I wash the sheet in a bucket of water (which I then use to water my pot plants). Step Three: I sweep any dust out of the corners of the chook house floor (see my nifty home made brush below) then slide the protective sheet back into place. Step Four: I fill the feed hopper. Step Five: I scrub and refill the automatic waterer. Step Six: I call the girls back into the run.
And that’s it. Really truly. My sandy dry garden has managed to be green and lush looking ever since the hens arrived, thanks to the manure I’ve been able to spread around over the years. I love having living things in our little outdoor landscape and the eggs make up for the pitiful harvests I manage from my vegetable garden (because it sits in shade, but that’s another story…) Go on. You know you want to keep chickens…
Editors Note: Here are a few US-based chicken breeding supply links as well: