We are fortunate to have Dr Andrea Graves in the house for this special guest post. Andrea Graves has a PhD in animal behaviour with a speciality in chickens, and is the author of What Your Chickens Want You To Know: Backyard Chicken-Keeping in Aotearoa. She lives in Hamilton and keeps three determined, busy and endlessly fascinating Hy-Line hens in her modestly sized backyard.
To those of us prone to such longing, chickens are seductive. Some are absolute beauty stars – and I say this after having recently gazed at my friends’ new Barnevelders. Oh, the black and gold bodies topped by perky young combs. Daily egg production. Lovely natures. What’s not to love?
It’s true that there is much to love about keeping chickens. It’s a surging trend in New Zealand, helped along by the surge in egg prices and perhaps a desire for a return to nature in our tech-crazed world. However, there are some disclaimers to be aware of. You may still decide it’s for you, but forewarned is forearmed.
You’ve no doubt seen images of fresh green grass being delicately plucked by beautiful chickens, with colourful flower gardens in the background. That chicken dream might manifest for you if you have a huge area you’re willing to let your chooks loose in. But most likely you’ll find that they are extremely tough on the ground and on your garden. Mulch will go everywhere, seedlings will be dug up and your silverbeet will be reduced to stalks. Chickens’ main occupation is to scratch the earth in order to forage for food – regardless of how much you’re feeding them and how hungry they are. Plan for them to be in an area that will become denuded and torn apart, and decide how to make it as interesting as possible for them anyway. That’s easier if it’s a big area, but small areas can work too. And look out for what squishes between your toes when you walk barefoot.
The key things for life are, of course, food and water. Keeping chickens is a commitment to making sure these necessities are always available. These are hungry, thirsty creatures. Make sure you’ve got a system worked out to keep them fed and watered, and the determination to maintain it even when everyone’s sick and busy and life piles up – for all the years of their life.
It pays to think hard in advance about how many eggs you’ll want and how many chooks you therefore need. There are trade-offs. More chooks mean more eggs, but the feed will cost more and there will be more poo and mess to deal with. But needing to bring in more birds later on will create trouble because the existing birds will fight the new ones, and it can be brutal. The social disruption passes, but it‘s likely to be weeks before peace is restored. You’re unlikely to see any boxing matches when you buy a group of young birds and introduce them to your place all at the same time.
You may envision a consistently abundant egg supply, and to start with you’ll probably get it. Young birds start laying at four to six months of age. During spring and summer, that’s likely to yield an egg a day or close to it, especially if you choose a Hy-Line or brown shaver, the two modern commercial breeds (the heritage breeds aren’t as productive). Production slows down in autumn and winter when the days are short and picks up as the days lengthen again. But after the first year, eggs may completely stop in winter. As the years pass, egg laying also slows and then stops in the warmer months, too, if your birds last that long.
Commercial egg farmers avoid this problem by artificially lighting sheds to simulate summer-length days and by sending their birds for slaughter before they turn two. In addition, they only keep commercial breeds, which means the hens are unlikely go broody (meaning they want to sit on eggs and stop laying). But in your backyard, it’s a back-no-nature dose of fluctuating egg supply as seasons change and birds grow old.
End of life
Chickens are hardy creatures, but they do get sick, and the older they get the more likely this is to happen. The commercial breeds tend to deteriorate after three or so years, whereas heritage breeds could even carry on for up to ten years. In both cases their physical health is likely to outlast their useful laying life.
It’s usually but not always obvious when illness strikes. It’s hard to know what’s wrong, what to do, and whether to put them out of their misery or not. Veterinary care is expensive. If it’s bad enough to warrant euthanasia, the DIY version is doable but feels terrible. For some people, the solution is an expensive trip to the vet (those folks have wonderful injections). For others it’s ‘call a friend’ time if they have someone suitable.
So what do you say – are you up for all the adventures of life with chickens? This post has concentrated on some of the more challenging aspects of life with chickens, but there are plenty of rewards too, so don’t be too put off. But it does pay to plan for road bumps.
What does your daily work involve? Digging, scratching, dust bathing, ‘fertilising’ the garden. A bit of laying. We u...
We are fortunate to have Dr Andrea Graves in the house for this special guest post. Andrea Graves has a PhD in animal...
While they’re not as obvious (or obnoxious) as a cock-a-doodle-doo, your brood’s clucks and cackles may be more meani...
Chicken Quick Care Guide Clever and charismatic, chickens make choice pets. Did you know? There are m...
Feeling pretty puffed up about your busy hen house now everyone is scrambling for eggs? Well, by following these tips...