Saturday, July 27, 2013

Blessings of Suburban Backyard Chicken Keepers

There has been plenty of news lately about whether the explosion of suburban backyard chicken keeping has been a good or bad thing. So as an ex-farmer I want to show you just what it means to be a suburban backyard poultry owner and what we bring to the table.

Camp Negative has been trying to muscle in lately citing the inability of city folk being able to cope with the chickens’ life cycle and destination for the pot once egg laying has ceased.  (‘You can’t kill something with a face!’)  The dumping of unproductive hens and inadvertently raising roosters instead of hens joins the long line of kitten and puppy dumping.

This panic from Camp Negative can be healed or at least soothed as there is more to poultry keeping in the suburban backyard than what most nay-say writers can see. Come and see me for my complete list of alternatives.

Camp Positive says it’s wonderful and should be encouraged for the sake of self-sufficiency, an extension to gardening, knowing where your food has come from, how it has been treated and as a wonderful alternative pet for the kids. There is a need that is completely justified because it is productive (and rather jolly good fun)!

"From the day that you start to plan to buy poultry there is something that you have agreed to."

From the day that you start to plan to buy poultry there is something that you have agreed to. You have agreed that there must be benefits to invest in your yard through poultry. With the demise of Australian farms being pushed to the wall by the major supermarket chains since the deregulation of the egg industry came in; you are investing in your future food security.

We still need to support our Aussie farmers by buying their produce, but if there is room in our little back gardens then we can all be part of something much bigger.  Swap for swap or the bartering system. From neighbourhood to neighbourhood grows a community and a sense of that we are all needed as one family. Our little backyard alone has managed to score swaps which have included eggs for cake, sawdust for smoked fish, manure for plants, home-made cheese for quince paste and herbs/plants for a haircut.

Not everyone will want to keep poultry; some have excellent talents for catching fish. But as for me, I am happy to muck rake the chicken coop, dust the hens for mites and deal with hen pecking issues. It really comes down to a matter of whether you love it or not and perhaps that is where many backyard chicken owners discover where they stand when they make the decision to cease keeping hens.

"In fact if poultry keeping was not done on a small scale like this today’s farmers would not be as informed as they are."

Those who do love their hens, ducks, geese, guinea fowl, pheasant and quail and give them loving backyard suburban homes are a dedicated lot and I don’t mean that lightly. In fact if poultry keeping was not done on a small scale like this today’s farmers would not be as informed as they are. The reason is the ability for experimentation within small flocks.

Small backyard poultry keeping allows for breed trials and alternative or old fashioned remedies. Just because big companies make mega bucks out of selling us dangerous chemicals to give our birds does not mean that it the only way, since poultry has been around many centuries before these big businesses where ever established.

Suburban chicken owners are not entering into any ‘official’ testing trials; they are normal everyday people simply finding different techniques and breeds to suit their personal wants and needs, or filling a need in the market for an alternative. Many poultry owners become breeders and add to the nation’s stocks. There is a sense of personal achievement as well as a potential financial one.

No matter what the motivation, suburban backyard poultry owners and breeders are making a quiet change to this nation for the benefit of everyone who wants to eat healthily and sustainably.

Most chicken owners get requests from neighbours and friends for chicken manure for gardens or a carton eggs.  However, owners receive two more blessings from their flock that others will never get: the marvellous garden bug control and that lovely bond of chicken/owner friendship. There is nothing quite as satisfying as sitting on garden bench seat in the warm sun, coffee in hand and just having the *girls* around by your feet. And if worse comes to worse I now know a good mobile chicken vet.

As an ex-farmer of many hundreds of free-range chickens, now a suburban dweller, there are a few good things that I have learnt that I couldn't have learnt on the farm…

The blessings of the suburban backyard:
  • Chickens will eat bananas, garlic and meal worms
  • Good to give live culture yoghurt to chickens to increase their calcium intake and help their gut system
  • Diatomaceous Earth (DE) is great for controlling mites and flees and is far safer
  • Automatic feeders keep pigeons out
  • Chickens are highly accurate in choosing which grains they like/dislike in a mix
  • They have a favourite perch spot
  • Dummy eggs do work to train chickens where to lay
  • Depending on your house’s location within the suburb, it can vary the attack from foxes significantly.
  • Different breeds will like different treats
  • Certain breeds can be very cliquey and snobby against other breeds
  • I know a good dropping from a bad dropping (and who is was from)
  • Bored chickens will chase pigeons for fun. Hooray!
  • I have found local auctions take roosters off my hands as do good breeders
  • Veterinarians that will treat chickens in the city are very rare. Mobile vets are the best!
I don’t think my list is complete and that’s the most wonderful thing about owning chickens in the city – that list will grow. Bursting with a wealth of knowledge, I know more about poultry habits and health all thanks to the small scale of my backyard filled with happy hens.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

When hens start laying - Part 2

Pullet (young layer) eggs
It is the middle of a very wet winter for me here in Adelaide. One of the coldest and dampest is many years in fact. So all the more extraordinary when my new flock of hens start to lay their very first eggs.

My veggie seeds are taking an extra 5 days to germinate but my chookies are all ready to lay!

Last month, one of my Silver Laced Wyandotte hens started by laying her very first surprise egg on the concrete path next to the water container, and had a little curious peck at it. Since then she has discovered the fake wooden eggs in the coop layer boxes and has been laying there daily ever since. Meat/egg hens love to sit on eggs, they really love it! So using dummy eggs has worked wonders.

Her eggs now contain yolks (yolkless on the first lay, usually). Pullet eggs are usually smaller than older hens' eggs but less runny in their whites so when they are fried they stay beautifully symmetrical, almost. I love pullet eggs for breakfast, but I do prefer the bigger eggs in other recipes.

But as of today, ANOTHER one of the girls has begun her first egg laying. I suspect it might be one of the Light Sussex hens.
Is this the owner of the newly laid whiter egg?
I haven't managed to pick which chickens are the layers, but the egg shell colouring does give me a hint. Every breed of hen has a particular shell colour range.

The second hint I have is their perching habit at night.
When I was cleaning the coop last week in the roost area I noticed that there was a yolk splat on the lino floor covering beneath one of the perches. It was shell and white free which indicated that it had not come from my old Isa Brown. A shell-less egg is most likely to come from a young pullet whose body is still trying to get laying into gear.

The third hint I had was watching their movements in and out of the coop.
Normally, my free-range girls do not go up on their balcony next to the door to the perches during the day unless they are considering visiting the layer boxes. They usually only wander in and out for a peck of feed and a drink of water and walk back out again. My Light Sussex was definitely on the balcony with head through the door.

I knew another hen was on the verge of beginning her egg laying life.

And the fourth hint is in the comb. When hens coming into their laying season their comb looks larger and more mature.

There are always little hints, sometimes it might even be an increased hunger, so the flock might make a little more noise trying to entice their owner out to give them a few more treats.

As the hens grow older their egg size will increase.
Silkie Bantam chickens will always lay very small eggs, whereas Leghorn and White Austrolp chookies aim to surprise with their incredible occasional whoppers!


  • Egg only hen: Isa Brown and Australop. Not particularly broody. Light body. Regular layers.
  • Meat/Egg hen: Bigger, fatter and lay less often throughout the week. High tendency to get broody.
  • Meat hen: Bred for meat. Very heavy bird. The eggs are often very small and random.

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