Raising Backyard Chicks

Raising Backyard Chicks

Spring has sprung and our chooks do turn broody. 

If you are raising chicks then a broody hen is nature’s best incubator.

To get started, I select 6-12 fertile eggs depending on the size of the broody hen. Eggs can be stored up to 7 days after lay, before you start incubating them, but need to be at least one day old. If there’s a rooster in the flock the eggs will normally be fertile. If you don’t have a rooster you can buy fertile eggs online and have them posted to you! 

I like to be well prepared. I have a separate predator-proof nursery coop area for the broody mum. 

I put the eggs into a cosy shaped nest in our dark, quiet nursery coop and move the broody hen onto them. This is where it can get tricky because some broody hens won’t settle into a new area, especially if they haven’t been broody for long. I usually wait until I have a few broody hens and always end up with one unable to resist such a lovely clutch of eggs.

Some breeds are more prone to broodiness and Silkies, Buff Orpingtons and Wyandottes are good broody hens.

Incubation takes 21 days from setting. Make sure your broody hen eats and drinks enough. She will leave her nest briefly every day to eat, drink, poop, flap, stretch and maybe take a quick dust bath. I like to take her special chopped treats every day such as boiled egg, fermented grain, silverbeet and fruit.

Mother hen will cluck and purr softly while sitting on the eggs, which is how the chicks know her in the coop. Towards the final hours of the hatch you can hear them talking back to their Mumma. In this way she gives them encouragement to break out of the shell and reassurance that they are safe.

When the eggs start hatching Mumma is best left to her own devices. Most eggs hatch over a 24 hour period.

When she is ready she will hop off and tend to her new chicks leaving any unviable or unhatched eggs. Unhatched chicks can sometimes be helped along and nursed until they are strong enough to pop back under Mumma. I have had success with late hatching chicks by putting them in a sock on a string around my neck where it is nice and warm, and I return the sock chickie to Mumma at night time.

It’s a delight to watch a Mumma hen take her babies out foraging or to see a little chick’s head poking out from under her wing. 

But remember that raising backyard chicks will result in about 50% male chicks. They grow and they crow! Consider the space you have, your neighbours and how you’ll deal with the excess roosters. Some people in rural areas grow the boys for the pot. 

Often we find unplanned hatchings! Some cheeky chooks just take themselves off to a sheltered spot in the yard, in a corner or under a shrub, later to emerge with a gang of new chicks! 

For the first six weeks it’s good to keep the new family separate from the rest of your flock. Their mother should protect them from any bullying but keep an eye on them and make sure they are all getting on. It’s a good idea to have escape routes and safe areas so that young chicks can scamper to safety. If they are in any danger remove them and wait for them to be a bit bigger before reintroducing them. 

Apart from fresh clean water chicks need specific blends of food for healthy growth and disease resistance. I recommend a chick starter crumble with a natural coccidiostat (Regano) for the first six weeks. After a week or so I introduce finely chopped hard boiled eggs, shredded silverbeet, banana, probiotics and so forth – Mumma will select what she wants her chicks to try. Hours of time can be spent watching her teaching her young chicks to eat 🙂

Once they are a month old the chicks are able to have their first treatment of Super Mash. This will help to establish good gut health which is very important in young chicks.

If you are raising backyard chicks this season you’ll love watching your hen’s motherly instincts as she clucks, pecks and scratches around showing her babies how to forage. Children love to watch the curious young chicks as they copy their Mumma and practice chookiness. Being a backyard chicken farmer is all about marvelling over the delight of spring for these very social and caring creatures. 

Chook Poop

Chickens give us a host of useful services and it’s clear the more we care for our chickens, the more services they happily provide!

One of their endless gifts is chicken manure. A single chook produces about 1kg of manure each week. We can make very good use of that!

Keeping backyard chickens and growing a bountiful, beautiful garden go hand in hand. We all know that to grow fruit and vegetables you need lovely healthy soil. Good soil doesn’t just happen. A great soil is the result of years of compost, amendments and a watchful eye.

If you are fortunate enough to have a few backyard chooks and a bit of space to grow food here are some ways to make good use of your chook poo and coop litter in your garden.

Like all birds, chickens don’t wee. Therefore all of the nitrogen which other animals excrete through their urine is concentrated in a chooks’ poop. Chicken manure has one of the highest nitrogen levels of any manure.  Nitrogen in chook poo is more available to plants than the nitrogen in non-bird manures, which is what makes it ‘hot’, so it’s important that it’s aged or composted before using. This will lower the nitrogen level moderately as well as eliminate unwanted pathogens.

Composted Poo

If you are starting a new patch or need to refresh your soil, then well composted chicken manure makes a wonderful soil amendment.

Chook poo is a nutrient dense powerhouse booster but it must be composted for at least three months before use. A great way to do this is to make a watery slurry of chook poo and tip it over your compost heap, water in well.

Deep Litter

If you used a ‘deep litter method’ in your coop over winter now is the time to spread this onto your garden.

‘Chook Poo Tea’ –  Liquid Gold 

Spring is the perfect time to be growing seedlings and ‘Chook poo tea’ is just the ticket for giving young plants a boost especially when transplanting out. A poo tea also helps with transplant shock to give your garden the best possible start.

To make Chook Poo Tea:

3-4kg of aged chook poop

1 cotton pillowcase

40-50ltr. plastic tub/garbage bin

20-30ltr. warm water

A strong heavy stick

2 meters cord/bailing twine

Optional extras for boost!

1 cup of molasses to feed microbes

½ cup seaweed liquid or a few handfuls of seaweed for additional trace elements

Pop the poop (and extras) into the pillowcase and tie at the top. Submerge in water then lift with cord and poke down with stick to thoroughly wet. Place in a warm sunny position that you pass by often throughout the day. You need to lift the bag out of the water and then poke it down to aerate the mixture as much as you can, at least three times each day for 2-3 weeks. Incantations and mumblings help!

This aeration helps to steep the tea, maintain an aerobic state and reduce pathogens.

Do not cover with a lid, wash hands well after mixing and keep away from children. If you like, you could even use a fish tank aerator to push the process along.

Remove the bag of poop, spread it onto your compost (pillow slip as well) and water in well.

Application:

Dilute the Chook Poo Tea that you now have 1:4 with water and apply to young nitrogen loving plants.

Don’t apply to carrots, beetroot, radishes. Root crops prefer nutrients that are matured from the previous season in the soil.

Chook poo tea is good for tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelons, pumpkins, beans, peas, sweet corn and any vegetables with fruit away from the root zone.

Note: Too much nitrogen with too little calcium encourages blossom end rot in tomatoes and it prevents effective flower growth. Add sulphate of potash in small quantities to promote flower growth.

The Business End

Watching chickens release poo is the least romantic past-time one can imagine, yet harness its goodness and our gardens will certainly feel the love!!

July 2019 Take Pleasure in your Chooks

Take Pleasure in your Chooks

Add up all the world’s cats and dogs, cows and pigs and there would still be more chickens. Toss in every rat on earth and the chook still rules. More than 20 billion chickens live on our planet, three for every human alive. 

Keeping backyard chickens is rapidly expanding across Australia. 

Chooks are popping up in more and more backyards, schools and nursing homes… because chooks, not only turn table scraps into eggs, they have great personalities and make wonderful companions.

Here are a few ideas to look after your flock over the coming months.

The chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) is a type of domesticated fowl, a subspecies of the red junglefowl (Gallus gallus) from the dinosaur era.

The chook house should mimic the forest as a safe and social resting place

Coop placement in your garden design depends on many factors. If you want to keep them in an orchard, their scratching and excavations damage feeder roots, which then sucker, so place mesh on the ground around trees.

If you want to tractor chooks in the kitchen garden to build up your soil structure, a small one by two metre enclosure for a few birds, moved daily, will create friable soil quickly. You can help them dig by forking the soil gently first, then cast a few grains into the crevices.

A final factor in coop placement is that your chickens are family members, they’re lovely to watch and hear, and they like to be near you! 

Chickens are affected by overcrowding. Their social etiquette requires room for them to run around and to flap their wings! As a minimum, allow one square metre of perch space per four chooks, and at least two square metres per chook for their outside day run. This provides space for dust baths, escape routes, roosters crowing and a sunny spot to rest together.

A walk-in coop is the ideal design to collect eggs and to allow you to inspect the perches and service the coop.

Nesting materials should not be hollow stemmed, because they provide a mite habitat inside the stem. Pine needles, many native grasses, shredded paper or wood shavings are best. 

On each full moon, make time to service the flock and the coop.

Scrape perches and nesting boxes clean, then scrub with a 10:1 water vinegar solution. Replace nesting materials and add aromatic herbs like rosemary, lavender and oregano to repel mites. On the same night, sneak in and paint your chooks’ legs with cooking oil to smother any leg mites.

A treatment of Super Mash feed supplement each full moon, gives them a boost of nutrients and probiotics for gut health and vitality. Ingredients in Super Mash, like sulphur and garlic, exude from the skin to deter lice and mites and prevent intestinal worms.

Chickens value a varied diet. Fresh green pick is essential. Grass clippings, sprouts, weeds and harvested leafy greens each day keep their digestive system healthy, yolks yellow and, if you eat some birds, green pick gives their meat local flavours.

Chooks love protein, especially during the autumn moult. Protein can include mealworms, meat scraps, garden worms and maggots. Keep logs and rocks in the day run where they can scratch for treats.

You can also sprout grains which are soft and digestible and they give your chookies a living food to enjoy. To make sprouted grains just soak a half a bucket of wheat or barley in a bucket overnight. Drain and rinse at least once a day for three to four days until they start to sprout. Give generously.

Chickens can draw calcium out of their bones to make eggs, so during lay season your girls need a calcium boost. Dry your egg shells over the week, pulverise in a blender and place in an elective feed container. 

Take time to sit and watch your flock. Apart from being a calming and entertaining thing to do, you’ll notice flock dynamics and warning signs of health problems. 

So grab your cup of tea, sit down and take pleasure in your chooks.

June 2019 Predators

Predators

Chickens are such important critters in our lives, it’s no wonder the biggest problem we face is predators. 

It’s up to you to protect your chickens and it all starts with the physical chicken coop security. But who are the predators?

Snakes, goannas, quolls, hawks and eagles are common but no hunter is as efficient a killer as the fox.

Foxes are stealthy, tricky, very strong and can decimate your flock in one night – a shocking and heartbreaking thing to go through.  

Winter is the ideal time for a fox to hunt. Long nights, windy conditions and humans safely inside are ideal hunting conditions. A fox will stake out your place for weeks prior to an attack.

Known plurally as a ‘skulk’ or ‘leash’ of foxes, their eyes glow green in torch light instead of red or orange of other animals. They are most often single predators, but can travel in pairs.

Foxes have an amazingly good sense of smell (better than dogs) and more heightened senses generally which include whiskers on their face and legs to assist with navigation during nocturnal travels but they also hunt through the day.

They can travel 10-15 km from their den to find food and will map food sources by smell.

Foxes can thrive in cities where there are lots of hiding spots under buildings and plenty of food waste.

If you’ve got a fox skulking around, you can talk to your local council or Lands Department who could assist with at trap and humanely disposing of a trapped fox.

Snakes are predominantly attracted by rodents and eggs and won’t usually eat a chook, though they would gulp down a young chick. Keeping on top of rats and mice and collecting eggs every day will reduce the prevalence of snakes.

Goannas are similar to snakes but will harm a sitting chook to get to eggs. If you do have a chook wounded by a goanna a slathering of honey to the wound will help to heal the nasty toxic wound.

Quolls, Tassie Devils and Goannas are protected animals so must not be harmed. You will need strong preventative measures to keep them out of your chicken coop.

If you have free ranging hens it can be more difficult to protect them against birds of prey, feral cats and dogs.

Rats and mice are attracted to easy access of chicken feed so keep your feed secure and dont have surplus grains lying around in the coop. 

On poisons, avoid using poison pellets and blocks. They make for a slow and awful death and you risk secondary poisoning to birds such as owls, hawks, your chooks and other critters. 

Fortress Chicken… the best defenses

  • A strong and secure run and coop sleep-house with galvanised netting or mesh.
  • Floppy fence top facing outward if the coop is not fully covered
  • 300mm mesh apron facing outward at the base of the fence, they’ll dig close to fence but can’t easily tunnel under.
  • Keep your chicken feed secure and don’t leave food around
  • Use double latches on chicken run and sleeping coop
  • Electric fencing with hot wire or wired chicken mesh
  • Light activated coop door – from www.coopsecure.com.au
  • Fox lights are available online – a random sweeping strobe 
  • Predator sensor light – activated by movement close to the coop
  • Urine and smell of people – hah! wee around your coop 🙂
  • A good rooster will always keep one eye out for danger. If he spots anything, he’ll sound the alarm and gather his hens in a safe place. Listen for alarm calls
  • Your family dog makes an eggcellent poultry protector and will alert you to predator threats. Your trusted pooch will hear a fox yelp and scream on a windy night and tell you there is danger afoot!

The chicken, in their dinosaur days, may have had the forest as protection. These days they are more exposed.

In these drier times, with less natural bush foods around, your chook flock is a target for every sky and land based predator. 

Perhaps you need to upgrade security!

Deep Litter Method

With Winter approaching and our days getting cooler it is the perfect time to set up a ‘Deep Litter System’ in our coops.

Cheryl Nelson from Natural Chicken Health – Super Mash shows you how to create this happy environment.

Deep litter in a chicken coop develops its own biome (bacterial culture), which acts to reduce insect pests, diseases like coccidiosis and unwanted moulds. The biome helps to decompose manure which reduces the amount of maintenance.

Here are the steps to clean the coop and make a healthy, natural deep litter on the floor.

Step One

Make a sweet smelling, natural cleaning Spray

To a large jar, add the peels of 1 lemon or some lemon oil, a big handful of fresh thyme, a couple of squashed cloves of garlic and white vinegar to cover the solids. Let the jar sit for a 1-3 weeks, shaking the contents every few days until the mixture is fragrant and the vinegar scent is gone. Strain.

Alternatively use the peels of 1 orange, a couple of cinnamon sticks, and a couple of fresh vanilla beans OR lime,  lavender, and mint (which helps to repel mice who don’t like mint) OR pine and cinnamon.

Spray perches, nesting boxes, nooks and crannies with your spray. Scrub and scrape with a stiff brush and paint scraper,  respray to rinse off solids.

If you find mite infestations use a pyrethrum spray to kill them.

Replace nesting material with dry pine needles or other fill with solid stems that don’t house mites. Add stripped rosemary leaves or lavender, oregano, or any of the mint family to deter bugs.

Step Two

To start your deep litter, empty and scrub down the coop (as above) to start with a fresh slate.  Scrape any manure to one side to add later.

Deep litter coop maintenance is all about balancing the beneficial microbe levels to allow the manure & litter to decompose in the coop. It means less coop cleaning, a healthier flock, a warmer flock through Winter and a rich garden compost for Spring!

The build method is to create layers with dry ingredients. It’s not ‘deep litter’ unless it’s at least six inches deep.

Add agricultural lime to the base and again half-way up the pile. Be careful to cover the ag. lime, the lime can mildly burn your chicken’s feet.

Then add layers of pine shavings and other dry materials like pine needles, dry lawn clippings, shredded paper, dryish sea grass, autumn leaves and other dry ingredients. Some people use straw or hay in their deep litter coops with success, but watch for mould and dampness.

As chickens roost above the deep litter, manure may cake. Caked manure can go anaerobic, which releases ammonia, which is a toxic gas.

Once or twice a week, use a hoe to completely stir up all the shavings & droppings. You can get your chickens to help with this part by tossing scratch or treats into the coop that they will have to scratch around to find.  You will still want to be in turning it yourself at least once a week so that you can access the condition of the material.

Deep litter has anti-coccidiosis properties, after it’s been around for a few months, building its own unique biome, so never remove all of it.  When you start bumping your head on the rafters, remove most of it.

Your chicken house should allow quite a bit of airflow. Deep litter must be combined with a fresh-air poultry house. Closed housing will build up ammonia levels that are far too high. Even in the brooder house, ventilation is essential. Just keep the wind-chill factor down by limiting drafts at floor level, to prevent chilling the chicks.

Once you get a feel for deep litter housing, you soon realise it makes a better growing environment for your flock and you.