A starters guide to chickens

14/03/2023

Introduction

Owning chickens, for fun or profit can be very rewarding. Chickens will consume scraps, provide fertilizer and give you a ready source of eggs. If you love your chickens they will love you back. But none of this comes without a little effort. You need of course to keep the fed, sheltered and healthy, there are some health things to look out for that are unique to chickens (or other birds) and if you are in an urban area you may not be able to keep chickens (roosters in particular). In this article we look at this and more.

Can you keep chickens?

This is not something we can answer for everyone, regulations from council to council are highly vairable. In most states of Australia even small scale chicken farming is considered as intensive farming and planning approval is likely to be required. The rules around a few chickens for domestic purposes are more flexible, but councils (particularly in urban areas) will likely limit the number of chickens allowed and may not allow any roosters at all.

Which breed?

There is a large number of breeds, and this is an indivdual choice. The character and characteristics are highly vairable across breeds e.g. 

  • Silkies and Frizzle chickens are popular chickens with unique plumage, they are neither great layers or known for their meat. Silkies are great brooders though and can be used to hatch eggs for other breeds that become broody less. 
  • Popular meat breeds in Australia include Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island Red and Sussex. 
  • Some popular egg layers are Leghorn, Plymouth Rock and Rhode Island Red. 
  • Isa Brown is a breed developed specifically for commercial egg farmers, typically their best productive period is about 6 to 18 months. Any good plan should consider how and when chickens will be retired.
  • I am a fan of the golden and silver wyndottes which, to my mind at least fit in all of the categories, though whilst they have a reasonble egg production you wouldn't pick them for a commrecial farm.

Housing chickens

When it comes to housing and husbandry requirements, chickens need a secure and protected area to live in, such as a coop or a pen. They also need access to fresh water and food at all times, and a clean and dry environment to prevent diseases.

Protection from foxes is a must in Australia, this means regularly locking them up at night (as a bare minimum). Don't get to complacent, you might be lucky enough to go weeks without locking them up, but losses in a single night can be devestating. It is also a good idea to vary your routine and be out and around your chickens from time to time, foxes will learn routines and attack in broad day-light or just before you would normally lock them up.

When designing your chicken home/shed/cages remember foxes will certainly dig and may even jump or climb into your chicken yard. Attack from birds of prey are also not unheard of.

It is a good idea to provide roosts of various size and don't forget a spot to lay eggs, if you don't provide an attractive spot and they are allowed to free-range they will find somewhere ... and you may never know where that is. In particular the ideal spot will provide a degree of privacy and some soft nesting material, hay will suffice (and will need changing from time to time). 

Can I sell eggs, chickens and meat? 

In terms of regulatory requirements, selling eggs for human consumption in Australia is regulated by  various government bodies and you will likely need to become certified to sell even small quantities. Accredition will require you to show how the eggs will be collected, stored, and transported under hygienic conditions. You will need to include measures to ensure eggs are of a consumable quality (shells must be clean, free from cracks and can't be fertilized if for consumption). Even where you are not selling eggs you should give consideration to these factors before you consume the eggs.

Chicken farmers should be aware of the regulations regarding the transportation and sale of live chickens. The transportation of live chickens must comply with the Animal Welfare (Transport of Livestock) Standards and Guidelines, which outline the requirements for the welfare of animals during transport.

The slaughter, processing and retailing of chicken meat are also of course regulated.

Where can I buy/sell and chickens (and chicken products)?

The Farmers Lot allows you to buy and sell fresh eggs, fertilized eggs, chicks, chickens and processed chicken meat (subject to complying with national, state and local regulations and bylaws) which is perfect for small scale chicken farmers who want to sell their products locally. We don't have any farmers selling any of this yet so this your chance to get a store and make your mark!

There are a number of pages of facebook where you can find local contacts (though selling livestock isn't without issue here). Gumtree is also an option for chickens. Your local fodder store may sell chickens, or know where some locals are and are often a great source of advice (and chicken feed of course).

Selling processed chicken meat requires compliance with food safety regulations, including the Food Standards Code. This includes requirements for the handling, storage, and labeling of meat products.

Other considerations

Aside from the regulations, it is important for small scale chicken farmers to have a good understanding of chicken nutrition and husbandry. This includes knowledge of feed and water requirements, as well as the proper care and management of chickens. A good understanding of poultry health and disease prevention is also essential.

Commercial feeds are readily available and will contain a good balance (chickens need more than grain alone). Allowing your chickens out to forrage will reduce your costs, reduce bugs and improve the taste of your eggs. Even free range chickens will need an available supply of shell grit (or you risk thin shells that easily break) and potentially other supplements.

Clean fresh water is critical, it should be kept cool on hot days (possibly add a frozen bottle of water) as if the water is hot they will reduce their consumption (or not drink at all) and this will impact the health and production of your chickens.

A word on health

Health and treatments deservers an article of it's own and is beyond the scope of this post. I will say that  Mites and worms are issues most chicken farmers will come across. Daily monitoring of your flock is important and will help you spot changes in behaviour that might suggest health issues. Significant loss of feathers (all chickens molt to some degree), deformed feathers or patches of missing feathers will also point to health concerns.

Summary

In summary, small scale chicken farming in Australia requires council approval, compliance with various regulations and a good understanding of chicken nutrition, husbandry, and health. The Farmers Lot is a great platform for small scale chicken farmers to sell their products locally.

This summary is pretty brief, we hope it wet your appertite, if it has we recommend you do more research before jumping in. Please add your experience in the comments below, what is your faviourate breed?

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