OK, so you’ve decided to get chickens! You’ve read the Beginners Guide to Getting Chickens. You’ve asked yourself and your family some questions, and made a careful decision about how they will fit into your backyard, lifestyle and family. After all, having your own feathered flock in your backyard, fresh eggs to collect, and the sounds of bok-bokking in the background is a delightful experience… as long as you have the time to care for them properly, and can learn how to keep them healthy and happy.

This Guide to Keeping Chickens can help you answer some of your questions, and prepare you for the joy and challenges in being a backyard chicken keeper.

How much time does chicken keeping require?

It can take as little as 5 minutes a day to cover the essential jobs required to care for your chickens, providing you have some good systems in place, and attend some ‘bigger’ jobs on a regular basis. You can download our Caring for Chickens Checklist, to see the daily/ weekly/ monthly & seasonal jobs that you may need to do to care for your new chickens.

Backyard chicken keeping can be done in a more efficient way, by using some techniques and methods (depending on how many chickens you have), including:

  • large feeders which require less frequent topping up
  • automatic waterers which are connected to a hose/ tap (for example)
  • set up their house and run in an area of your yard which doesn’t need to be cleaned out, or using portable options so nothing builds up too much in one area (or if that isn’t possible, use a deep litter method)
  • using a pooper scooper in nesting boxes, so you can remove poop to ‘freshen up’ the nesting area every few days, only having to completely change over the nesting materials every couple of weeks

Of course, you can spend a lot of time with your chickens, if you choose, picking them up and handling them, some chickens like a nice cuddle or rub under the chin. You could spend hours watching them do all sorts of entertaining things. They can be great helpers in the garden, though some naughty chickens will eat all your worms and seedlings if you turn your back for a minute!

How do we feed & water our chickens?

Chickens are omnivores, who require a specific range of nutrients for optimal health, depending on their age, and their purpose (this guide covers chickens who will be laying hens). Your chickens may be able to free-range (around the garden or in a pasture), and be given kitchen/ table scraps, but generally, this only supplements their feed – they still require some form of complete chicken feed, such as a commercially produced feed.

There are special feeds to support growth in younger chicks and pullets. Chicks require a high protein ‘chick starter’ crumble or mash from day old, up until about 6 to 8 weeks of age. It is small enough for the chicks to eat, and requires the nutrients for this fast growth stage.

After that there are grower or pullet feeds, for chickens from 6 to 8  weeks of age, up until about 18 to 22 weeks of age.

In older chickens from 18 to 22 weeks, that are at the point of lay, or are laying hens, you can buy feeds to support their egg laying abilities, and egg quality. This feed is a variety of grains (with various added ingredients) and may be sold in a few different forms:

  • mixed whole grains – less processed, but chickens may pick out their favourites and leave the rest (why did our chickens never eat the corn kernels from the mix, which then piled up in the chicken run and made a lovely feast for mice!?!)
  • mash – a processed mix, which can also be used to make a ‘warm mash’ using hot water (good for cold Winters and spoilt chickens)
  • pellets – the processed mix, pressed into a small pellet shape
  • combination – many chicken feeds are a blend of mixed grains and pellets

You can buy your preference (or that of your chickens!) from your local stock feeds store, pet food store, or online. There are some organic feeds available.

HOW CAN WE GIVE OUR CHICKENS WATER?

Don’t forget to give your chickens access to clean water, using one of the variety of watering devices available. We use an automatic waterer that is hooked up to a tap via hose, but it does require fairly frequent cleaning out of straw/ mess, and scrubbing of green build up. We have a back up waterer that came with our Royal Rooster house, which has a valve-activated water cup (see Fluffy Wuffy drinking from it below). Consider a location for their ‘waterers’ which is not hot in Summer, and less likely in freeze over in Winter. Make sure if you have baby chicks you use a safe waterer that they cannot fall into!

Can we give our chickens treats? What can’t they have?

Your chickens may be given treats, such as kitchen scraps, garden ‘waste’ or ‘scratch mix’, but should only be given as a ‘supplement’ to their complete chicken feed. If they eat too many treats (even ‘healthy’ ones), it can cause them to eat less of their proper food and may miss out on all their required nutrients. It can then lead to behavioural problems, like feather pecking or egg eating.

Examples of treats they can have in moderation, include:

  • kitchen scraps, like peelings, pumpkin seeds, leaves and ends of veges
  • leftovers/ table scraps/ plate scrapings (ours love soggy cereal, toast crusts soaked in warm water, leftover dinner esp. rice and corn on the cob, cut up meat scraps)
  • veges and safe herbs from the garden, that may be prunings, or leaves that have bug holes, or plants you have pulled out that have ‘bolted’/ gone to seed (avoid nightshade family and anything that has been sprayed with a chemical or natural solution)
  • fruit (watermelon pieces, or even the leftovers from eaten wedges, are a treat in Summer, and our chickens like grapes and apples, but they have never like stonefruit, berries or bananas)
  • lawn clippings (our chickens love to scratch through it, as long as it doesn’t sit in a pile and go mouldy) and safe weeds
  • scratch mix, which is generally mixed whole grains, lupins, corn kernels and seeds, including fun stuff that chickens covet, like sunflower seeds

WHAT CAN’T THEY EAT?

There are certain kitchen scraps and garden waste that should not be fed to chickens, or only given in limited amounts, as it could be toxic to them, which includes:

  • rhubarb leaves
  • avocado pits and skin
  • chocolate or coffee
  • dried, uncooked beans, pasta or rice
  • onion
  • citrus (I can’t see my chickens eating citrus anyway)
  • green potato peels
  • anything high in processed fats and salts
  • anything mouldy or rancid
How do we handle, and pick up our chickens?

Here are some tips:

  • If you are raising chickens from newly hatched or days/ weeks old, you should try to give them lots of handling so they get used to being picked up. This will be handy when you need to give them a health check, or catch them when they are escaping to the back corner of your yard.
  • If you have chickens that are older age that have not been handled or are not very personable, you might find that laying hens can be picked up more easily when they crouch into their ‘submissive position’, crouched down, wings up but slightly ajar, fluffy butts in the air.
  • To pick a chicken up, with less squawking, flapping of wings and demanding to be put down, you need to put both hands over their wings (you may need to hold your fingers apart for a big chook), and hold their wings down against their body
  • Have their head closer to your body, and their butt facing away under your arm (less chance to get poop on you, and easier for a second person to inspect their vent)
  • If you need to do something with one hand (like a health check), then try the ‘football hold’ where you use your left arm to hold the right side of the chicken up against your body/ chest (which secures their wing on that side), and move the left hand around to the front of their body, with your left arm holding their wing and body secure (or vica versa for left handed people)
Why are our chickens not laying eggs? Why have they stopped laying eggs?

Chickens can be up to 6 months old before they start laying, and there will be a certain time period in the year (usually Winter) when they may stop laying, as there is not enough daylight hours to stimulate egg production. Some hybrid breeds do not experience this.

Other reasons why chickens may not be laying, or their egg production may have decreased, include:

  • they are moulting
  • they are broody (see photos below)
  • another chicken higher in the pecking order is broody (and hogging the favourite nest)
  • they are unwell
  • they do not have a secure place to lay, or are being scared/ stressed by something near their house/ run

You can also read The Chicken Diaries to see how we came to be chicken keepers in 2011.

Want somewhere to show off photos of your new flock, with like-minded people who ‘get it’, then join the Growing Home Online Community, a closed group hosted on Facebook, with people who have lots of experience with keeping chickens.


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