Life expectancy: 6-20 years
Laying age: from 22 weeks
Egg production: 200-300 eggs annually breed dependent.
Purchase your chickens from a reputable breeder or supplier. A number of breeds are available in Australia including Leghorns, Rhode Island Reds, Astralorps, Branevelders, Light Sussex and Bantams. Chicks can be purchased as young as a few days old or hens can be purchased at laying age i.e. around 18-22 weeks. Chicks are sexed however occasionally a male sneaks through so you may find yourself with a rooster.
There are many aspects of environment, housing, feeding, handling, health and veterinary care to consider when rearing chickens. It is recommended that at least 3 hens are kept together, and it is not necessary to keep a rooster as they are not needed for egg production and crowing may not be desirable in urban areas. Each council will have specific rules around maximum hens allowed on a residential property and most councils in NSW do not allow roosters.
Environment and housing
- Chicks should be provided with a red lamp or some other form of soft heating until their adult feathers come through. This may also mean keeping them indoors (e.g. a garage) to ensure they are warm enough.
- Keep the environment clean and dry. Try to avoid wet/moist areas and keeping hens in the same small area of ground as this can encourage build up of parasites. You can try ensuring good drainage of yard/housing, placing down slats, moving the hut regularly and allowing access to new yards.
- There are many variations of chicken houses or huts, however shelters should provide protection against environment (wind, rain, cold, sun), be predator-proof, easy to clean and adequately ventilated.
- Nest-boxes: adequate perches and nest boxes should be provided (a minimum of 1 nest box per 4 birds, however ideally one per bird) and placed in a dark place in the henhouse. Chickens should be allowed enough space per animal to grow and lay. Minimum space requirements for layer hens is 4.5 birds per m2 floor space but the more space the better.
- Bedding/Litter: ideal litter may be easily cleaned, dry and absorptive. Wood shavings or finely shredded paper are ideal. Other options include sawdust, pine chips or rice hulls. Good quality straw may be used however there is a risk of bacteria, dust and mites. Hay should be avoided due to risk of mould contamination. Chicken litter should be composted for a few months, and may then be used as a good source of fertilizer.
- Ventilation: adequate ventilation is needed to prevent buildup of ammonia and bacteria which can predispose chickens to respiratory infections. Clean the henhouse regularly and ventilation near the roof provides ventilation without draughts.
- Cleaning: regularly remove droppings and soiled litter to maintain a clean henhouse (the frequency depends on how many hens you have and the litter type). Use a disinfectant licenced for use in chickens or poultry.
- Chickens should be locked in a predator-proof area over night, and let out into a fenced yard during the day. A minimum of 1m x 1m area per hen of ideally grassy or a vegetated yard is needed. Shrubs to allow some shelter, and sand/dust baths can be incorporated into a yard or enclosure. Chickens will take themselves to bed at night to roost.
- Allow constant access to feed, and feed should be replaced daily. Commercial starter (for chicks), grower (for growing hens) and chicken layer pellets (for laying hens) is the best option as this provides a balanced diet with the energy, nutrients, vitamins and minerals needed for growth and egg laying.
- You can off chicken table scraps. Vegetables, fruit and grains are fine. Avoid onion family (garlic, shallots) and meat leftovers.
- Allow constant access to fresh clean water, and water should be replaced daily.
- Food and water should be elevated off the ground to prevent soiling with faeces. Feed and water dispensers can be bought from pet or feed stores.
- Handle chickens on a regular basis as this will allow inspection for behavioural changes and signs of weight loss, ruffled or lost feathers, diarrhoea, lameness, decreased egg production or other early signs of disease. If you are concerned please contact your local veterinarian.
- Worming: Growers should be wormed at 7 and 17 weeks of age. Laying hens should then be regularly wormed 3-4 times per year to prevent infections of gastrointestinal and respiratory worms. Chickens that have a worm infestation may have ruffled feathers, pale wattles and combs, do not put on weight well, and may have signs of diarrhoea.
- Wormers are available from large petshops (e.g. Petbarn) or feedstores. Products such as Flubenvet or Aristopet are added to food or water (check the product instructions). A second 7 day treatment 3 weeks after the initial treatment may be required to prevent re-infection in birds with significant environmental contamination. There is no egg withdrawal period, however the meat withdrawal period is one week after the last treatment.
- External parasites: ticks, mites, stickfleas and lice commonly affect backyard housed chickens, causing irritation, feather damage and in some cases anaemia. Chickens should be examined regularly and treated every 2-3 months. There are many commercially available sprays and powders which can be purchased from large pet shops or some vet clinics.
- Vaccination: Try to purchase vaccinated birds (i.e. vaccinated against Mareks disease at 1 day old, and respiratory diseases at 20 weeks old). However vaccination in smaller backyard flocks is not essential as vaccination is not cost effective (vaccines are sold in the thousands), vaccination is not 100% protective and risk of disease is minimal.
Harrison, G. L & Lightfoot, T. L. 2006, Clinical Avian Medicine, Spix Publishers, Palm Beach.