It is important that prior to starting your flock that you check with your local council about the
regulations for keeping chickens in your area. Most suburban councils will limit the number of birds
that you can keep and will not allow residence to keep a rooster due to the disturbance that they could
cause to neighbours. Most rural and semi-rural areas will allow households to keep poultry for domestic
purposes without restrictions. Regulations that are specific to your local council can be found on their
website or by contacting them directly.
Under circumstances were there are no council restrictions and you wish to keep a rooster, it is still
important to consider the level of crowing noise that your neigbours could be exposed to. The roosters
from bantam breeds will be far less noisy than a larger breeds such as a Rhode Island Red or Leghorn
Chicken Coop and Run
The second aspect that you need to consider when starting your own flock is where you are going to keep your chickens. The location for the chicken run should be in a sheltered spot where they can spend time outside while still having access to shade from the sun and shelter from the wind and rain. The size of the chicken run depends on the breed and number of chickens that you will be keeping. If you only have a limited space, then considering a bantam breed such as Pekins or Silkies would be your best option.
While large chicken runs are great for your flock, they can be hard to keep maintained and be expensive to construct. To keep your birds happy is important to find a balance between giving them time to free range and keeping them confined to prevent damage to your garden. Chickens that get the chance to free range are happier, healthier and lay larger quantities of eggs. When planning the construction of a chicken run, ensure that predators such as hawks and foxes will be deterred from entering the run. Birds of prey are a major threat in many areas of Australia and are capable of killing most breeds of poultry. The only way to keep your chooks safe from these predators is to enclose their yard with netting. Young birds are also vulnerable to rats and smaller birds such as kookaburras.
The next step is to create a coop for the birds to seek shelter and perch in at night. The coop must be predator and weatherproof. The chicken coop can be a converted shed, custom building, or a flat pack purchased from a pet store. Your chooks will need a perch to sleep on set at around 30cm off the ground and straw nesting boxes to lay their eggs in . Straw is the best choice of padding for a nesting box as it is easlily replaced and keeps eggs clean. The whole chicken coop and run needs to be cleaned regularly in order to keep your flock healthy and to prevent diseases.
Food and Water
Chickens need access to food and water at all times. With a 20kg bag of feed costing around $22.00, keeping large numbers of chickens can be quite expensive. A small flock of four hens fed on layer pellets, grain and kitchen scraps will easily earn their keep in eggs. If you have a backyard big enough for your flock to free range, it will reduce your feed bills and improve the fertility of your garden. Free ranging chickens for too long during the day or feeding them with just grain can decrease egg production if they are not eating enough of their layer pelets. Never feed chickens avocado, green potatoes, or rhubarb. Water needs to be available inside and outside the coop and must be changed everyday. Eggs are around 80% water, so access to clean water for hens at all times is highly important for egg production. Well looked after hens fed with a healthy diet can live for up to 15 years depending on the breed.
For many poultry keepers egg production is a priority. Hens will start to lay at between five and six months of age depending on the breed. Egg sizes will often increase over the first few months of the hen's laying period. The number of eggs that you can expect your hens to lay depends largly on the breed. Good laying breeds can lay between 250 and 300 eggs in their first year of egg production. Bantam varieties will produce between 120 and 200 eggs per year, however the eggs are considerably smaller than eggs layed by larger hens. As hens grow older egg production will decrease untill they stop laying at between three and six years of age. In some cases a hen will only be half way through her life when egg production ceases. It is therefore important to plan for a reduction in eggs by adding new point of lay hens to your flock every few years.
Egg production can be impacted by factors such as the level of light during different seasons, hot and cold weather, poor diet, and stress. To improve egg production make sure that nesting boxes are a secure, private, and a reasonably dark place for hens to lay eggs. If nesting boxes are overcrowded hens will often find alternative nests when free ranging to lay their eggs. A balanced diet including some kitchen scraps, grain, and shell grit will help ensure a good egg production.
Both worms and lice are very contagious issues that can arise with keeping chickens. Symptoms of worms include increased food consumption, weight loss, and pale egg yolks and combs. Lice are often viable on the bird, in nexting boxes, or on eggs. Dust baths are a natural method used by poultry to clean and remove lice. Chickens will often take the oportunity to have a dust bath in gardens when free ranging. Products to control worms and lice can also be applied every three months in necessary. Most hens will moult annually during late Summer or Autumn. Moulting hens will lose a large quantity of their feathers which will be replaced over the next month. It is normal for hens to stop laying during their moulting period.
Introducing New Birds
Chickens are highly social flock animals and should not be kept without a companion. The main issue that can be caused when adding new additions to a flock is the introduction of new diseases. Young poultry is partucually suseptable to diseases and buying new poultry at point of lay will reduce the risk of heath issues for the new additions.
Different breeds of chickens or different ages groups can usually be kept together. It is normal for hens to peck each other when establishing a pecking order. This is particually noticable when new additions are added to a flock and during spring. Occasionally a hen will need to be seperated from from the rest of the flock if it has been particually singled out and injured. If the hen is bleeding talcum powder can be put on the wound to prevent other chickens from picking it further.
Also see Poultry Australia's guide to Buying Live Poultry