|These are going to be very well loved chooks!|
Attendance numbers were up and it was great to see a few newcomers which means our little community group is certainly growing. It is so pleasant to spend the day with people who are like minded, interested and interesting. No one has an agenda other than to soak up as much information as possible so that we can go back and put what we have learned into practice. The questions (many my own) come often and no one seems to mind the interruption as the answers provided are usually something that you wanted to know anyway but didn't know enough to ask.
Craig certainly has been busy since last month's workshop (see here) . The two story cubby-house that we repurposed into the Chook House has now become a proper chicken coop with run. The wired run has been buried about 50cm to prevent dogs & foxes from digging under and backfilled with crushed rock which also acts as a deterrent. Craig made a point of telling us that it is our responsibility to keep the chickens safe and not to blame animals that are simply doing what nature intended. He told us the sad story of losing 6 of his chickens to his two Jack Russells. Lucky he was smart enough to realise that it wasn't their fault but his own. Craig recommends using a spring on the door so that it closes automatically behind you so that they cant slip in around your legs.
Additional bird wire (not chicken wire) will be added to the roof and walls to make it rodent and bird proof. They go after the grain and food and can bring disease and make a mess.
As always, the first step after introductions and housekeeping was to go through the by-laws about keeping chickens. It was at this point that i discovered that having to have the coop 1.5 mtrs from the fence does not include the run. The actual coop with nesting boxes & roost must be this distance. I've been struggling to fit my previous understanding of this by-law into my backyard but now it all works well and i just have to adjust the placement of the coop. The height restriction is 2m and in Wyndham we are restricted to 6 chickens, no roosters, no ducks, no turkeys etc.
If you want more details on your area then talk to your local council.
So why keep chickens?
The list of reasons for keeping chickens is long. Their presence in a back yard creates a complete cycle that is a must for anyone interested in permaculture, self-sustainability or just wanting a few eggs that taste like real eggs. I'm serious, most people out there do not know what an egg taste like that has been raised organically on a balanced diet and fresh water. They create the most nitrogen rich manure that along with the straw from the floor of the run creates free compost for the garden. From my perspective they are a joy to watch and interact with. Its very calming to sit in the sun holding a chook and pat it. To visit the garden in the morning and evening, to call out to the girls that are clucking and scratching away. Talking to chickens probably puts you a little in the strange category but talking to your veggies is way left of centre for some (though i do that too). Chickens bring your backyard to life and give it personality. I cant wait!
How to keep chickens?
There is so much information available in books, and on the web regarding this subject. Those that have had their own for a long time are a great resource and you should avail yourself of this as much as possible. Do try to learn as much as you can and be prepared before getting the actual chickens. Like dogs or cats, they are living beings and should never suffer from our ignorance. They may not live as long as other domestic animals but so long as they are cared for they will continue to give back in abundance.
If you live in Melbourne and want someone to give you advice and maybe build your coop and run for you, contact Craig on the following site. Edible Gardens
The Australian Government also have a great site (here) on keeping backyard chickens.
The following information has been taken not only from today's presentation but from a fact sheet provided by Craig.
Base of the Run - it's best to cover the soil with a thick layer like saw dust, mulch or straw. The chickens scratch around in it and the manure they produce breaks it down. It also stop the run becoming a mud puddle in wet weather and makes cleaning easier. Craig recommended straw as it is cheap and works well in the composter.
|It was the children's job today to spread the straw.|
Dust Baths - Chickens like to bath themselves in dust to get rid of mites and insects. They look like old ladies fluffing up their feathers and rolling around. Its so much fun to watch. It took our chickens today about 5 minutes to scratch away the straw and start dusting themselves providing much entertainment. Remember these chickens came from cages.
Nesting Boxes - Craig showed us a simple idea and that was to use old mower catchers. They are the ideal size and shape, can be lifted by the handle so no bending over to get eggs out and if you have a reluctant chook that doesn't want to give up the eggs, a slight tip is all that is needed. Chooks like privacy and darkness when laying so make sure that if you are building a nesting box that they are not in direct light in the open.
|Lawn Mower repair shops often have these for sale or to give away.|
I'm planning on having nesting boxes accessible from the outside with a lid that opens to access the eggs without going into the yard.
Roosts - chickens sleep on a roost. It is usually elevated and flat so that they can rest their breast whilst sleeping. A plank or wide branch will serve this purpose.
Water - chickens need fresh water daily. If you are using a waterer, use the ones that do not allow light in as this encourages algae growth. If this is the way you want to go then try galvanised or a drip waterer. In the shoestring coop we just put heavy based containers filled with fresh water that will be changed daily by those volunteering to collect eggs and care for chickens.
Grain Storage - the idea is to provide a container that holds the grain or pellets that does not allow the chickens to throw it around. By restricted their access to just an opening that they can put their head into they can only peck at it. There is no wastage nor seed on the ground that will encourage rodents and it does not get fouled by feet or manure.
|Shoestring's Grain Hopper|
|Commercial Hoppers for Water and Grain|
Royal Rooster .
Also check out Grandpa Feeders on the web.
Food - the most important thing to remember is that what ever you give chickens ends up in the eggs that you eat. So don't give them garden leaves sprayed with chemicals (though we wouldn't be doing that anyway - now would we??). Chickens need a balanced diet of a variety of grains, kitchen scraps, shell grit, insects and bugs from the garden, protein (yes they are omnivores), and garden refuse. You can grow veggies specifically for your chooks. Like wormwood (a few branches scattered around will deter mice and fleas), silverbeat or comfrey for iron rich food source, sunflowers. Since i cant free range in my veggie garden, i hope to have two yards. One in use and the other resting and growing greens and shoots of grass ready for the chickens. This will ensure that don't miss out on a variety of foods and give them something to do, scratching around. A friend of mine yesterday showed me trays of soaked grain in a seeding tray that were allowed to shoot before being placed in the chicken yard. It was like a living piece of carpet.
There are also things that you can give them to encourage good health - consider it naturopathy for chickens.
Garlic boosts their immune system - sprinkle minced garlic in their feed every now and then.
Comfrey is a preventive medicine for chooks - just put a little in their yard.
Apple Cider Vinigar in the water helps with disease causing organisms in the gut.
Placement of Coop and Run - chooks require shelter from draughts and cold. They get the flu and colds just like we do. You should position the coop and run so that there is a period during the day where they can bask in the sun yet seek shelter when it is too hot. Chickens also go off the lay when they are cold. So providing them with a warm environment during winter will encourage them to lay for longer. Historically forest birds they like dappled light. If you can provide them with a similar environment then they will do well. Some people grow a tree or bush that they can shelter under in the actual yard.
Clipping Feathers - chickens can fly, not well but enough to get over your fence. Clipping the wing on one side puts them out of balance and hinders flight. It does not hurt them anymore than clipping your nails but you should follow instructions. Craig demonstrated this and several workshoppers were easily able to do this first time.
Choosing Chickens - you will need to decide why you want chickens first before deciding which breed. Do you want eggs only, meat only or eggs and meat. Do you want commercial varieties bred as living egg factories that duplicate what you can buy in supermarkets (Isa Browns) or do you want a heritage breed that offers a different egg, a different personality or just plain beautiful to look at. I guess you can tell which way I'm going. I'm planning a couple of Silver Laced Wyandottes with a couple of Silkies.
|Silver Laced Wyandotte|
When to Buy Them - as a beginner you should try to get them around 22-24 weeks when they are ready to start laying. Look for clear eyes, nice red combs and wattles, and smooth feet with no scales. Also look for a clean bum - don't we all want that? Later on you can buy them as fertilised eggs or as chicks and raise them yourself.
Craig purchased the Shoestring Isa Browns from P & J Casaccio, 170-198 Bulban Rd, Werribee for $17 each. These chooks were bound for a life in a cage and so they are now going to a good home where they will be cared for and given a quality life. They are in very good health.
Introducing Them to Yard - Craig advises getting them all at once. If you break them up then you will have one group against another. Today we had a perfect example - two were brought in and put in a tractor together and 4 were in a box with air holes. They had formed two separate groups so that when we put them in the yard they remained separated. The two in the tractor stayed in the coop and the other four stayed in the yard. Very shortly they will sort out the hierarchy of the flock and the pecking order will be established. This takes only a short time so don't be alarmed by a bit of fighting at the beginning. Always leave them in the coop for the first 5-7 days so they establish a routine of laying in the nesting boxes and sleeping in the coop at night. Otherwise they may lay anywhere and you will have to hunt for eggs and chase them to bed.
|One of the tractor chooks hiding in the coop from the others.|
Shoestring are looking to form a group of volunteer chook keepers. They will be rostered to provide the daily care of the chooks and in return get to keep the eggs. Please contact Shoestring if you would like to participate.
|Site Supervisor - you just know that this garden is run by women.|
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