Sunday, 21 April 2013

Keeping Chickens - Workshop

These are going to be very well loved chooks!
Hubby and I had a great time today and we were not the only ones.  We attended another Growing Communities workshop run by Shoestring Gardening, presented by Craig from Edible Gardens and sponsored by our local council, Wyndham City Council.

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.
Smell - if you are cleaning the run and coop regularly it should not smell.  Simply remove the base material each fortnight and place in your composter.  Fresh chicken manure is very strong and needs to be aged before placing in the garden.  Craig recommended putting a nugget of dried chicken manure in the hole before potting new plants.  When the roots reach the manure there is an explosion of growth.

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
Your local Pet and Livestock Supplier will have several options or you can shop online at
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. 
OK, i think Ive told you everything i can remember and facts taken from the sheet that Craig provided. 
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. 
Oh, thank you Karen for the lovely lunch.  The base of the lunch was good bread spread with caramelised onion and a sprinkle of feta then oven baked.  It was so yummy.  Huge spread of topping, cheese and fruit.  We certainly don't go hungry at these workshops. 

Thanks for visiting Living In The Land Of Oz


  1. We made our nesting boxes out of old fruit crates that we found on the property. The girls would rather nest in the blackberry thickets however...note to self "chooks are canny critters and actually want to retain their eggs for future repopulation of the earth"...note taken self! Steer clear of silver wyandottes...maybe my personal experience of them might be slightly skewed but our dopey silver girl "Blondie" (what an UBER FITTING NAME!) is the biggest pain in the derierre around! We allowed her to go clucky on some of her own eggs because we wanted more pretty babies. Not only did she do a bad job at that, she actually walked her new babies over to where the feral cats were basking in the sun to feed them directly to their enemies...sigh...chooks AINT smart folks ;). We have too many chooks...wish I could gift you our 6 younger girls. They are predominately Wyandotte which makes them great for eating or egg production and Wyandottes tend to lay all winter. We are only just starting to get eggs again after a 5 month hiatus. Turns out the chooks were sulking about us locking them up in a 12 metre x 12 metre outside run to try to salvage something in our garden. Now I have let a hunting party of them out again (the mums and the timid are still in the enclosure...fool me once feral cats...FOOL ME ONCE!) I am getting 2 eggs a's a good sign. When you are feeding 16 hens 7 babies in various stages of growth, a large rooster,a duck and a whole lot of grain guzzling sparrows and are getting no returns aside from a whole lot of projected guilt, keeping chooks starts to wear a bit thin ;). Steve was starting to talk about "reducing the flock" whilst running his fingers over the axe...I think they just saved themselves from a most ignoble death!

    1. Oh dear, that does sound like alot of work for small return. Perhaps i need to re-think my position on breed. I keep getting differing advice and i know what ever i choose will be around for 3-4 years. This first batch of girls need to be well behaved and productive to ensure that "the boy" remain on side.

  2. We've got a great chook pen that we've built in our rental back yard. The only thing I wish we'd don't was use bird wire. Each day the swallows come in and with the help of the rats, they clean out all the pellets. Rats are going to be an on going problem as they are living in the walls of the old shed we're using as the coop. What a fantastic workshop you went to. Can't wait to see your beautiful chickens!

    1. Craig suggested wire net rather than bird and chook wire. Its stronger and has a smoother finish. If you have big dogs then over time they can loosen wire by pushing it. Wire net can also be cut in big pieces, attached using U nails and later removed and re-used. Its shiny and looks clean and neat, which i like.

  3. what a lovely post, I'm sitting here smiling

  4. Thanks Sue, i hope its because you are enjoying my journey , blundering along the path of self discovery with the occassional trip ups.

  5. Wyandottes are great. Craig got some of his from me, and yes they do go broody, but it is a small price to pay. Australorps will lay for years.

    1. Thanks, so what do i put with silkies (not negotiable) if we just want egg layers that have character and are friendly. Are you part of the group?

  6. great review Linda adore your style, looking forward to the herman cake(great suprise gift) , im looking after it!! hopefully will have it baked for the chook group meeting, your a wonderful person Linda and glad to have met you through these workshops. ps will use the tags tommarow thanks. karen

  7. I've heard that buff orpingtons are great birds - we have one, but she's still just a we don't know her personality yet. We have a variety - one each of rhode island red, black australorp, silver laced wyandotte, blue andalusian, americauna, and a buff orpington - then we have 10 birds for meat. Thus far, they have been pretty easy to take care of. Food/water/food/water...I love it.

  8. Chickens are such characters, I used to have one that loved sitting on my shoulders, I felt like a pirate. They are great great pets, I would say that if you are going for the Silkies then maybe you should stick to similar sized chickens - like any bantams.

  9. Great post Linda. I sounds like you took a lot in. I would suggest you get a breed for laying to go with your silkies. Your silkies are going to be very prone to going clucky they will lay their 10 to 15 eggs then go clucky and want to site for a month. Then they will not lay for another month and the cycle will repeat. So if you are wanting a more consistent supply of eggs then choose a laying breed. We have kept Australorps and Isa Browns and they are very prolific layers and rarely go clucky. The flip side is that they will not live as long. Basically the more eggs they lay the shorter their life. Our top hen (Isa Brown) just passed away last week at 3.5 years and she laid nearly an egg a day that whole time. It seems a bit sad but they are a good beginner chook as they are hardy you reap the reward of a lot of eggs. We really wanted to try our a few other breeds as meat/egg birds but now that we are going to move to NZ in the next year or so we will stick with whatever we breed ourselves from our mixed bunch.


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