Keeping Chicken 101
Before you start planning your Backyard Chicken Coop, be sure to read this handy Chicken Coop Checklist. It will save you time and stress!
Why having Chicken?
“Every time you consume factory farmed chicken, veal, beef, pork, EGGS, or dairy, you’re eating antibiotics, pesticides, steroids, and hormones!“
– Rory Freedman
In case you’re not sold yet on chickens, here are ten excellent reasons to call them your own:
Great-Tasting, Nutritious Eggs
We all love our dogs, cats and fish, but do they produce something edible? Or pay their way? Chickens do, and once you’ve dined on their eggs, you’ll never reach for a dozen in the supermarket again. They’re so much more flavorful, in no small part because you’ll eat them when they’re only minutes or hours old, not weeks or months. You’ll even see the difference in the yolks, which are a warm orange – not a pale yellow.
Plus, you can feel right about the organic eggs you’ll be feeding your friends and family. All it takes to get organic eggs is to provide natural chicken feed!
Free-range hens lay eggs with;
1/3 less cholesterol
more vitamin A
3 times the vitamin E
2 times the omega 3’s
4-6 times more vitamin D
7 times more beta carotene 2/3
1/4 less saturated fat
and they taste better.
Chickens Have Personality Galore – Seriously
Each chicken has its own unique quirky, kooky and endearing personality.
Get One Step Closer to Sustainable Living
A Healthy Lawn without the Chemicals
Chickens love to range freely, and allowing them to do so kills the proverbial two birds with one stone: they’ll eat any garden pest they can get their beaks on, and they’ll turn it all into treasure in the form of fertiliser. Say goodbye to toxic, costly pest control solutions and wasteful bags and bottles of commercial fertilisers. Chickens will even cut down on the amount of mowing you do because they love to eat grass.
One Man’s Unappealing Leftovers are another Chicken’s Feast
Chickens can eat almost anything people can, and they adore “people food” – so you can throw those unwanted leftovers into the chicken run. No more feeling guilty about letting them rot in the fridge or throwing them out! Watch out for the garlic and onion, though, unless you want your eggs tasting funny. Don’t give them avocados and uncooked potatoes, as they are poisonous to chickens.
A Balanced Compost Pile
Composting is a beautiful way to reduce your ecological footprint, and a nitrogen-rich compost pile is a healthy compost pile. What better to provide the nitrogen than chicken poo? Eggshells are a great addition, too, especially in areas where there’s lots of clay in the soil. At the end of the composting process, you’ll have “black gold” soil, so called because it’s so rich and fertile.
Handy Leaf, Weed, and Grass Clipping Removal
Leaves, weeds and grass clippings are a treat for Gallus gallus domesticus; They’ll happily dig through whatever you give them, eat what they can, and pulverise the rest. Give a small flock a heap of the yard and garden debris, and a week later it’ll be gone without a trace.
Save a Chicken from a Factory-Farm Life
If you’re aware of conditions in factory farms, even in some of the so-called “free range” farms, we needn’t say more. If you’re not, please research it. Factory farming is terrifyingly cruel. The good news is that by keeping a few pet chickens of your own, you’re reducing the demand for store-bought eggs and sending a message to those factory farms that you don’t want what they’re selling.
The Very Definition of Low-Maintenance
Chickens don’t need to be walked, brushed, or fed twice a day. Mostly all you have to do is gather eggs daily, fill their water and food containers a couple of times a week and change their bedding once a month!
Be the Coolest Kid on the Block
Despite their many merits, backyard chickens are still relatively uncommon. Impress neighbours, friends and family by being the first person they know to have chickens. Amaze them with the green eggs from your Ameraucana hens. Confound them by scooping up your pet chicken and cuddling it. Astound them when your chicken falls asleep in your arms after you’ve lovingly stroked its comb and wattles. Make them green with envy at the lawn your flock has made effortlessly fabulous.
Chickens are, after all, the most “chic” pet you could have. And we think it’s time everyone knew.
OK, chickens are great. But are they right for you?
Chickens aren’t good for everyone – even if you love the idea of having them. Here are a few things to think about:
Do You Think They’re Cute?
You are reading this part, so you probably do. Excellent! Off to a good start.
Seriously though, if you’ve spent time around chickens and you’re not particularly fond of them, or having them doesn’t appeal to you, you may be less inclined to care for them, which isn’t right for you or your chickens. And be forewarned: if you love them, but your spouse or partner does not be prepared to be the sole caregiver!
Can you Dedicate Some Time Each Day?
Although low-maintenance, chickens do require a small amount of daily care as well as some monthly and semi-annual maintenance. Plan on spending 10 minutes a day on your pet chickens, an hour or so per month, plus a few hours twice a year on semi-annual chores. If that sounds like too much, then chickens aren’t right for you.
Do I Have Enough Space For Chickens?
Chickens don’t require a ton of space. If they are “cooped up” with no area outside to freely roam, your coop will need to provide a minimum of 0.9 sqm per bird. On the other hand, if they’ll have an outdoor “run” area or will be allowed to range freely, which is preferable, they only require 0.18 to 0.37 sqm per bird inside the coop, as long as they also have at least 0.9 sqm per bird in the outside run. (see the complete coop specifications in Chicken Coop Requirements)
That said, the more space, the better, both indoors and out! Chickens are excellent foragers, eating insects, grasses and weeds, and many other tidbits they find in the garden. The more foraging they do, the healthier – and happier – they will be.
Also keep in mind that the less outdoor space they have, the more they will destroy the area they do have. Chickens obsessively scratch up the soil, peck at what they find, and scratch some more. They also dig holes for “dust baths”. And they love to eat plants and weeds. Consequently, if their run area is small, they’ll make a dust-bowl out of it in a week. On the other hand, give them a significant run area – or better yet let them range freely, and your garden will benefit immensely. Their scratching behaviour aerates the soil, their droppings fertilise it, and they’ll eat pests such as grubs and ticks.
Does My Town Allow Chickens?
Very few municipalities do not. Check before you get chickens. Inquire with your local Health Inspector.
The City of Johannesburg allows us to keep up to ten hens without needing a permit (Act No. 32 of 2000, Part 4, Section 129).
The City of Cape Town allows us to keep up to five hens without needing a permit. No roosters are permitted (SMC 05/09/05, Paragraph 12).
Considering Your Neighbors
If nothing so far has given you pause, you still need to consider your neighbours, especially if they’re close by. They may not be educated about chicken-keeping and so could have concerns ranging from noise, to smell (which shouldn’t be a problem if you follow the guidelines in Caring for Chickens), to accusations that you’re “downscaling” the neighbourhood. It might be a good idea for you to check in with them early on and address any concerns. When you do, don’t forget to mention all the free, fresh eggs they’ll be getting! (Plus, having their support could mean free pet-sitting when you go away for holidays.)
What Is The Cost Factor?
Having chickens won’t save you money any more than backyard gardeners save cash on their tomatoes. There are plenty of good reasons to keep chickens, but this isn’t one of them. Between building or purchasing a coop, supplies, and the birds themselves, getting your brood up and running involves some significant upfront expenses. These, along with ongoing costs for food, undermine the idea that eggs are “free”.
Cluck, cluck – show me the chickens!
If you’ve decided you want to raise chickens, CONGRATULATIONS! You’ve joined a growing number of people who realise all the benefits these lovely pets have to offer. This chapter will help you decide how many hens to get, which breeds are right for you, whether to start with baby chicks or grown chickens, whether to get roosters and finally where you can buy your chickens.
How Many Hens Should I Get?
Chickens are social birds, and they do not fare well on their own, so you should have a minimum of two. As a rule of thumb, one hen per family member should cover your egg needs, or two if your family loves eggs.
Which Chicken Breed Should I Get?
There are 414 chicken species in the world, of which four are South African listed as Ovambo, Potchefstroom, Venda and Boschvelder. With all those options, it can be tough to choose!
Standard vs Bantam
The first decision to make is whether to get Standards (normal-size), also known as “Large Fowl” chickens, or Bantams. At just 0.5 to 1 kg each, Bantams are a fraction of the size of Standards and are kept mainly for ornamental purposes. Being cute and flashy, they make great pets. But they lay less frequently, and their eggs are small, albeit edible. They are also more susceptible to predators – for instance, crows will take your bantams but wouldn’t dare to go after your giant fowl chickens.
Some breeds such as Silkies, Belgian Bearded D’Uccles and Sebrights are only available as Bantams; others just as Standards; many as both. The good news is that you can combine them in a flock, so if you want both types, you’re free to mix and match. Many people worry that if they mix their flock, the Bantams will be on the bottom of the pecking order, but we haven’t found that to be true at all. Besides, no matter what breeds you ultimately decide on, one bird will be at the bottom of the pecking order, and another will be at the top.
If you live in a cold climate (regularly gets below freezing during part of the year), there are certain breeds to avoid. In general, Standards are hardier than Bantams, and heavier breeds fare better than the lighter variety. Combs and wattles also come into play: the smaller they are, the less susceptible they are to frostbite.
Especially cold-hardy breeds include:
- Plymouth Rocks
- Rhode Island Reds
If you live in a place that regularly gets over 38 C, you want to avoid the fat, fluffy and feather-footed breeds. Bantams do well in the summer (except the feather-footed varieties), and the best Standard breeds for hot climates are:
- White Leghorns
- Light Brown Leghorns
- Blue Andalusians
- Golden Campines
These birds originate from the Mediterranean; their large combs and close feathering help them handle the heat well. You might also consider Turkens, a.k.a. “Naked Necks”. They were bred in France to have fewer feathers so they’d be easier to pluck, and while not used for that purpose today, they’re a fun, goofy addition to a heat-hardy flock.
Some breeds are valued mainly for meat, some for laying eggs, and others, called “dual purpose”, for both. Still, others are kept primarily for ornamental purposes, including all Bantams.
Great egg-producing breeds:
- White Leghorns
- Rhode Island Reds
Dual purpose breeds that also lay well:
- Plymouth Rocks
To Chick or Not to Chick?
An important choice is whether to start with baby chicks or “started pullets”; hens that have just started laying.
Baby chicks require much more tender loving care than full-grown chickens, and it’ll take 4-5 months before they start laying. If you go for baby chicks, be sure to purchase “sexed” female chicks as opposed to “straight run” (mixed male and female). Otherwise, you will end up with roosters.
Contrary to popular belief, roosters are not needed for hens to lay eggs. Plus they are loud and may cause a problem with zoning ordinances and neighbours. The cities of Cape Town and Johannesburg do not permit roosters in the urban areas. Many people think roosters only crow in the morning. Consider that myth busted! They do this throughout the day.
Where To Get Chicken
One can obtain baby chicks at a bird hatchery and garden or farm supply stores. Grown chickens you can purchase either at a hatchery or a local farm near you.
Below are a few names of people and organisations that might be able to provide chicken. They are in random order. We have no affiliation with anyone and thus accept no responsibility:
- Candu Farm
082 – 353 5674
Young unsexed chicken of different breeds.
- River View Farm
Kalbaskraal, 10 km south of Malmesbury
Juvan (he sexes 3-day old chicks)
076 – 271 2448
- Altro Pets
81 Voortrekker Road
021 930 2846
- Mark Rist
- Alex Lansdowne
Silkies (friendly), Sablepoot Booted Bantams (small chicken), Sultans (large white eggs), Lavender Araucanas (olive-green eggs), Appenzeller Spitzhaupens.
Alex usually sells pullets.
- James Bhatch
082 – 627 1576
Oude Molen Eco Village
- Sivan Naidoo
084 – 491 0480
Sivan sells Chickens and Ducks
- The Pretoria Poultry Club (www.ptapoultryclub.co.za) has a long list of members that could assist.
- SASPO (Southern African Show Poultry Organisation) has a downloadable list of countrywide poultry breeders at www.saspo.org.za.
Food – What and How Much?
Customers often ask us whether they can feed their chickens scraps, or worms and other bugs from the garden. Small amounts of vegetables/dairy should be okay, and they’ll love it, and the same goes for insects and worms. But consider those like dessert, not the main course. Starter feeds and laying hen pellets contain everything birds need to survive and thrive, and filling them up with too much of the “other stuff” can throw off their nutritional balance.
People want to know how much food they should give their birds. The answer is: as much as they want! Don’t ration it. Give your birds 24/7 access to all the food they can eat. They are not like dogs. They’ll self-regulate.
It’s easiest to purchase “complete” feeds that have precisely the right mix of vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates and fat. If your girls have started laying eggs or are 20 weeks or older, purchase a complete “layer” or “developer” feed, depending on their age and the variety of feed you’ve chosen.
Some owners also buy “scratch” for their birds. If you want to see a chicken go bonkers, give it some scratch! It’s a mix of grains including millies, wheat, oats and rye, among others. Unlike your complete feed which should be kept in a feeder for around the clock access, scratch is usually thrown on the ground for the chickens to peck. It should be a special treat – not a staple of their diet – because it doesn’t include all the nutrients they need. Your girls will let you know if you’re giving them too much. Their eggshell will become weak and susceptible to breakage.
Ever heard the saying “scarce as a hen’s teeth”? That’s right; chickens don’t have them! Instead, they eat tiny pebbles and store them in their “crop”. When the food enters their crop, the stones grind it up to make digestion easier. For baby chicks, sand, parakeet gravel or canary gravel, available at your local pet store or grocery store pet aisle, will suffice. You can either sprinkle this in their feed or provide it in a small cup or bowl.
If your hens have a good, “complete” layer feed, they may not ever need oyster shells or any supplemental calcium! However, it never hurts to offer it a free choice (and it is inexpensive and lasts a long time). The reason is that some flocks that spend most of the day foraging, or are given too many treats, in which case they don’t get all the calcium they need from their feed. A lack of calcium can cause weak or irregular shaped eggs, slow laying. It too can even cause behaviour problems like egg-eating as they’re so desperate for the calcium! Best is to cut down on the treats also.
What Not to Feed Chickens?
One of the significant benefits of having chickens is they take care of your unwanted leftovers. There are a few foods they shouldn’t eat, though:
- Citrus fruit – Citrus fruits probably won’t kill your chickens. However, they do cause a drop in egg production as they interfere with calcium absorption, leach calcium out of the bones and contribute to thin-shelled and fewer eggs. Fed in moderation is ok.
- Meat – Any large serving of meat, or meat that has gone bad.
- Spinach – the oxalic acid in spinach can interfere with calcium absorption, so spinach – while super nutritious – should be only an occasional treat.
- Garlic – Toxic in large doses and may affect the flavour of the eggs.
- Onions – Fed in large quantities onions can cause anaemia or jaundice, and sometimes it can be fatal. This is because it contains thiosulphate which destroys red blood cells.
- Asparagus – can taint the taste of your eggs.
- Iceberg lettuce – has very little nutritional value and can cause diarrhoea in large amounts. Far better choices are leafy greens such as cabbage, kale and collards.
- Apple seeds – The seeds contain cyanide which can kill your chickens. Any other part of the apple is fine.
- White potatoes – cooked or raw, skins or flesh, vines or leaves. They contain the toxin solanine. Sweet potatoes are perfectly safe to feed to your chickens.
- Green tomatoes and immature eggplant flesh should be avoided until ripe when the toxin solanine isn’t present any longer in amounts that are of concern.
- Avocados – Don’t even think about feeding your chickens avocado. Avocados contain the toxin persin. This has been associated with myocardial necrosis, which is where the heart stops working.
- Rhubarb – the leaves are toxic to humans and animals. The entire plant contains oxalic acid, which can lead to soft-shelled eggs. So best to avoid rhubarb altogether.
- Plants that are part of the nightshade family – Members of the nightshade family include potatoes, tomato leaves (not the fruit), and eggplant. The Latin name for these plants is Solanaceae. This is because they contain a compound called solanine. It is toxic to chickens. The compound can be broken down if the plants are cooked, however.
- Long cut grass – could cause an impacted crop.
- Chocolate or sweet things – Chocolate contains toxin methylxanthines theobromine. Just like too much sugar is bad for humans, too much sugar can cause your chickens to be overweight, leading to a drop in egg production.
- Salty foods – Chickens can suffer from salt poisoning, as they don’t naturally ingest a lot of salt.
- Mouldy food – Mouldy food should never be fed to chickens as the mould can cause illness and may be fatal. Overripe, wilted vegetables or stale bread is all fine as long as the mould is not present.
- Uncooked Beans – Uncooked beans contain hemagglutinin which can be toxic to your chickens. Cooked beans are fine.
When feeding treats such as bread, cereals, and pasta be very sparing as these treats have little nutritional value and can cause your chicken to be overweight. Dairy products and too much iceberg lettuce can cause diarrhoea, so these should also be fed in moderation.
- Oatmeal (cooked, cold and warm)
- Flaxseed (mixed with food or straight)
- Yoghurt (plain, probiotic source)
- Rice, Pasta and Spaghetti (cooked)
- Stale Bread (sparingly)
- Sunflower Seeds (unsalted)
- Fish and Shellfish (flesh only)
- Eggs (scrambled or hard-boiled)
- Mealworms, Earthworms and Crickets (freeze-dried or fresh)
Fruits and Vegetable Scraps
- Watermelon and Cantaloupe (including rinds and seeds)
- Strawberries, Blueberries and Raspberries
- Pumpkin and Squash (raw or cooked)
- Leafy Greens (such as Kale, Clover and Mustard Greens)
- Cherries, Grapes, Tomatoes, Bananas and Apples (no seeds)
- Broccoli and Cauliflower (stems, leaves and flowers)
Its rich vitamin content will give your girls a healthy boost that may help them lay even more delicious and nutritious eggs. Another interesting side effect of feeding your chickens leeks is that its sulphuric content will help their bodies repel pests like lice, mites and worms.
Caring for Grown Chickens
Caring for pet chickens is pretty easy! They have the same needs as most any other pet. In this section, we’ll fill you in on daily, monthly, semi-annual and annual chores, as well as different nuances of chicken farming.
On their first day with you, teach your girls where “home” is by confining them to their coop for three to four full days. After that, they will always return home. The saying “chickens come home to roost” is correct! You’ll never need to worry about them getting lost.
Chickens love to take dust baths! They dig a shallow hole, loosen up all the dirt, and proceed to get themselves as dirty as they possibly can. (Don’t worry, they shake the dust off later) Dust baths are necessary: they prevent parasites such as mites and lice from finding a home in your chickens’ feathers and legs.
If your chickens aren’t free-range or their run area doesn’t have a dry patch of ground where they can dig a hole, you’ll need to provide them with an artificial dust bath.
What to Do Daily
- Keep feeders and waterers full.
- Make sure the waterer is clean. Chickens will be less inclined to drink dirty water, and a dehydrated bird can very quickly become ill or die.
- Collect and refrigerate eggs, pointy side down for maximum freshness. Others say that eggs do not need to be refrigerated.
Keep in mind that you CAN leave your chickens alone for a few days provided they have enough food, water and space for the duration of your trip. The eggs they’ll have laid in your absence should still be good to eat. Fresh eggs keep for several days without refrigeration. Are you surprised? Consider this: hens lay an average of 10-12 eggs per “clutch” (the group of eggs that a hen sits on to incubate). They lay one egg per day and at the end of a 10-12 day laying period they roll all the eggs together to hatch them. That means the egg laid on day one is still good enough on day 12 to become a living, breathing baby chick – so it should be good enough for you to eat too!
Egg Tip: Your eggs may have some slight traces of dirt or chicken faeces on them. Resist the urge to scrub them clean! Outside the egg is a delicate membrane called the “bloom” that wards off bacteria and other foreign matter. Scrubbing will damage this membrane. If you’re one of those Type A people that need perfect looking eggs, rub them with your fingers very gently under warm water. Then, wash your hands thoroughly.
What to Do Monthly
- Change the bedding in the coop and the nest is necessary for sanitary purposes. Excessive ammonia buildup is dangerous to poultry and can cause respiratory illness.
- Remove the faeces. We put ours in the compost bin or use it as fertiliser.
What to Do on a Bi-annual Basis
Twice a year you’ve got to scrub your coop clean! Remove bedding, nest materials, feed and water containers. A strong citrus cleaner will do the trick. Never use bleach to clean chicken coops. Moist chicken poop will give off ammonia. Mixing bleach with ammonia creates a dangerous chemical reaction. After cleaning, rinse thoroughly and let dry before replacing with fresh bedding. Do the same with the feed and water containers: clean thoroughly and rinse thoroughly, and replace with a new supply. You should be able to do this all in a couple of hours!
Excessive heat is a real risk to birds. Make sure they have access to fresh, clean water at all times. Provide them with a source of shade outside and as much ventilation as possible inside.