OK, so you’ve decided to get chickens! You’ve read the Dirt to Dinner 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 Dirt to Dinner 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, and what, 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.

WHEN AND HOW OFTEN DO WE FEED OUR CHICKENS?

Your chickens may have unlimited access to their feed, in ‘feeders’. These are a container that stays in their chicken house/ run area, which stores the feed, but allows the chickens to access the feed whenever they want. Feeders may only need to be filled weekly to every few weeks, and gives them access to as much feed as they require.

There are various options available, but we found we could put 2 to 3 weeks worth of our chickens pellets in a 12kg galvanised feeder (like this one), without it going stale, and with less mess, as the chickens cannot ‘scratch’ in to it. The size depends on how many chickens you have, of course.

You may prefer to feed them once (or twice) a day on an intermittent feeding schedule, say, if you are making them warm mash in Winter, or there are pests (birds, mice, other) eating the chickens feed if left out in feeders.

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!

WHAT SUPPLEMENTS MAY THEY REQUIRE?

If you are having issues with soft shell eggs, you may want to add a calcium supplement by using a commercial shell grit product, or adding in dried and crushed egg shells to their feeders, or to any scratch mix you throw to them.

Moulting happens to chickens generally in Autumn, when they lose some of their feathers, and you may want to supplement with extra protein at this time, as they need ample amounts to rebuild feathers. This may be through meal worms (you could set up a meal worm farm and raise your own), cooked and chopped up egg, or cooked meat scraps (avoid salami or processed meats).

Some people also use herbs, apple cider vinegar (ACV) and crushed garlic as supplements. Please do your own research into this.

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.

Treats are a good bribe for wily chickens who are free ranging in corners of the backyard, reluctant to return to their chicken run/ house for the night! 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

Possible treats (that you need to do your own research into) include yoghurt, fermented veges/ scobies/ kefir grains (be aware of salt/ alcohol content) and herbs, like comfrey, nasturtium, mint.

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

Some people say chickens are smart enough to not eat something bad for them. You can figure out if your chickens have the level of intelligence required to make that decision.

How do we handle, and pick up our chickens?

Before I had children, I had very little contact with newborn babies, but guess what, I soon worked it out once my first baby came along. (I never dropped her, even when she wildly waved her little arms about making a lot of noise). I even went along to a chook workshop before we got chickens, and still didn’t get to pick one up. So, don’t panic if you’ve never picked up a chook! 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 your flock will be allowed out of an enclosed house or run to have ‘free range’ time, you may want to train them to return without fuss. I can clap my hands and call ‘chook, chook’, whilst herding behind my chickens and they know what that means (doesn’t mean they always obey me!) You can throw scratch mix or treats in to their run/ house area when you want to get them back in. If you are desperate, I find using a hose to spray behind them can herd them back in the direction you want (I don’t ever spray them or try to scare them). My chooks have always slept in the same roosting area, if it was starting to get dark, they would naturally return at that point.
  • 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 (their hormones make them automatically get in ‘position’ for the rooster, which if you don’t have a rooster, it may well be you!) With our chickens, I find you only get one shot at this. They’ll crouch down for you once, wings up but slightly ajar, fluffy butts in the air, and you take your chance, and pick her up then (or miss out)
  • 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)
How do we know if our chickens are sick or injured?

HEALTH CHECK

To give a chicken a general health check, pick them up, and check from the top down. Note, this may be a two person job (and you may want to have a poultry antiseptic spray handy if you suspect they have an injury or have been pecked):

  • Feel their weight – it may be hard to compare to how they normally feel, but a sick chook may feel very light
  • Check the comb and wattle – this may be shrunken/ pale if they are ‘off the lay’ but check for dry, dusky, or signs of any pecking
  • Check their eyes are bright, glossy, not dull, red, oozing or grey
  • Check their nose and beak area – for signs of discharge, bad smell or injury
  • Feel their crop (this sack is part of the digestive track, you can feel it at the front of their body near the base of their neck, above the breast area) – it may be swollen with some food but it will still feel wobbly, it should not be hard
  • Check their feathers/ body – looking for any patchy or pecked areas, feeling for any bulges or lumps
  • Check their vent (their bottom and egg lying orifice, it should be pink and moist, and may be going in and out, as they are stressed by being picked up and having someone peer at their private areas!) – check that it isn’t red, swollen or prolapsed, check that there are not mites or lice in the feathers around the vent (you may not see tiny pests but you might see clumps of white eggs at the base of the feathers)
  • Check their legs – looking for pests/ mites (you may see tiny pests or there may be scaly redness – note some redness/ red stripe effect is normal when they are coming on the lay)
  • Check their feet – look for bumblefoot or other injuries

If you suspect your chicken, or chickens, may be unwell, watch them for signs of:

  • drowsiness (sleepy or slow even when you move near them)
  • sitting down a lot, or wobbly when standing up/ walking, or not able to stand, or get on to the roost at night
  • holding wings out, or droopy wings, bent wing
  • panting, or irregular breathing patterns
  • not eating or drinking
  • not laying
  • not pooping, or unusual poo (consider when they were last wormed) Note, you can find various lists and posts about various normal and abnormal chicken poos online, such as this one, or this one 
  • dusky, purplish or shrunken comb (on top) and wattle (under their chin)
  • being pecked by other chickens (sick chickens hide their illness usually, because otherwise they are vulnerable to others – you may need to separate a sick chicken from the flock to protect the chicken, and potentially, the flock, if it is contagious)
  • inspect the chicken run for signs of pest infestation, toxic plants or additions (like herbs or weeds you’ve thrown them),
  • check that all chickens have access to food, water and shelter, and shade/ warmth (that they not being hen pecked and kept away)
  • feel them all over for any signs of tumour or bulging areas

If you feel they are a little sluggish or off, you could try a dose of Epsom salts, poultry vitamins or apple cider vinegar in their water. Please do your own research into this.

If you have noticed pest infestation, you can look into options to treat your flock and their house/ run, using a pesticide or sulphur based treatment, and then perhaps a more natural preventative after that. Please do your own research.

If you have noticed minor injury, you may be happy to treat this yourself using a antiseptic spray (coloured ones make it less likely that other chickens in your flock will try to peck at a bloody or red area). Please do your own research.

If there are serious health issues, please decide if you will consult a poultry friendly vet (ask your local poultry association, stockfeeds or pet store if they know of a local chicken-friendly vet). You may also consider asking your local poultry association, or stockfeeds centre if they know anyone in your area who can assist you. There are also many online backyard chicken forums you may consider posting a question and some photos, but that may not yield consistent or reliable solutions.

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
References and resources

Please note this does not cover keeping and raising meat chickens, or show chickens, and it is far from being a comprehensive guide on all things chicken keeping.

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.