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Raising healthy hens

Chickens can be a great asset for landholders.  They provide a daily supply of fresh eggs, control insects and weeds, eat kitchen scraps, provide good quality fertiliser and loosen soil when they are scratching.

Keeping chickens can be easy with the right setup, equipment and knowledge.  Following are some points to consider when getting started.

Prior to constructing a coop and establishing a flock, check to ensure you are meeting your local legal and council requirements.  In many areas roosters are prohibited because of their crowing, and there may be restrictions on the number of birds you can keep.  Then work out how many eggs you are looking to produce. For a dozen eggs per week you will need three young hens or three to four hens of mixed ages.

Chickens need protection from wind, rain, heat, cold, wild birds and predators such as foxes. They require both a coop and a secure yard for ranging. The coop needs to be well ventilated and contain perches, nest boxes, feeders and waterers.  Feeders should be cleaned every time they are refilled at a minimum and waterers should be emptied out and refilled daily.  There needs to be one to two nesting boxes per bird filled with 10 cm of deep litter material, sand, or shell grit.  A common approach for good hygiene is a deep litter house (with straw, shavings or rice hulls free of chemical treatment, spread 10-15 cm deep) or a portable enclosure with wheels that can be moved every few days.

You can start with day-old chicks or buy 16-18 week old vaccinated birds or pullets from a reputable hatchery/grower. Any birds purchased should be vaccinated for Marek’s disease at the very minimum as day-old chicks. Growing chickens have very different lighting, nutritional, and housing requirements compared to chickens over 16 weeks of age and therefore purchase of pullets is strongly encouraged.

Normally hens come into lay at 18-22 weeks of age and egg production generally declines as birds age.  Chickens may lay over 260 eggs during their first year. They lay for 12-14 months, moult and rest for two months (autumn to winter), and then lay again for another 10-12 months before moulting again, and so on. Replacement of layers is recommended every 2-3 years if peak production is your objective.

Fresh eggs should be collected at least once a day.  Any dirty eggs should be brushed with an egg brush or rubbed clean with a dry towel. They can then be stored for up to 2 weeks in the fridge or a dark cupboard.

Provide your birds with a balanced feed and clean, cool water in their coop at all times. Buy ready mixed mash, pellets, crumbles or grain mixes, or mix your own feed. Find a feed that contains 16-17.6% protein to achieve maximum production.  Supplement with scraps of fruit and vegetables, crushed egg shells and dark leafy greens. Watch out for signs of low calcium in your birds, including the laying of thin shelled or shell-less eggs, and seek veterinary advice if you notice these signs.

Provide as much food birds will eat. As an example, a mash meal can be provided at a set time of day with grain mix available at all times.  Water and feed troughs should provide at least 10 cm per bird. Position them inside the coop where contamination from droppings is avoided. Laying chickens average 1 kg of feed consumption per bird per week.

It is important to monitor the health of your chickens daily. Most medications are not registered for use in poultry. It is therefore of the utmost importance to only use over-the-counter products that are labelled for use in poultry.  Always follow label directions and see your veterinarian if you have concerns about the health of your flock.  For any medications prescribed by your veterinarian, make sure you have written instructions that include the length of time that must pass between the last dose of the medication and resumption of egg consumption.

Avian influenza and Newcastle disease are diseases of poultry that are exotic to Australia. Signs of an exotic disease of poultry include a sudden increase in death, a sudden decline in feed and/or water consumption, unusually quiet or depressed birds, a decline in egg production, birds with swollen heads/combs/wattles, and any birds with nervous signs, diarrhoea, or respiratory disease. If you notice any unusual signs in your poultry contact your private veterinarian, your Local Land Services district veterinarian, or the Emergency Animal Disease Watch Hotline on 1800 675 888.

For more information please contact your nearest Local Land Services office on 1300 795 299. NSW Department of Primary Industries can provide more information about feeding poultry, keeping poultry on a small scale, and requirements for small egg farms and egg producers.

ENDS

Media contact: Kate Sawford, 02 4842 2594