Chook lover from birth, KATE FEAIN, tells the story of the 'Chook Clock' - her ultimate poultry house and garden design - then gives some more modest pointers on how to care for and house chooks.
I have always had chooks in my life. As a child, while all my friends played with their dogs, cats and budgies, I was taking my pet rooster for a walk (with a soft lead around his leg) and designing comfortable nesting boxes for 'the girls'.
My parents recognised my passion and helped me draw, design and build a two-storey coop - my version of a dolls' house - complete with ramps, water collection from the roof and a sun-deck.
Just being around my feathered friends, hearing their soft clucking and loud cackling made me feel grounded, connected and content. As a child, gathering eggs for the kitchen and poo for the garden was a secondary bonus. As I grew older I realised just what a great relationship we had, the chooks and I, mutually beneficial in many ways.
As I grew to become an adult, the joy of having chook company never waned. Wherever I moved, I found a way to have at least a couple of cluckers with me - experiencing many types of chook housing along the way: permanent, makeshift and even 'roosting in the garage'. Like many others, I learned the hard way that, if you are not set up for chooks, they can be more of a liability than an asset.
Anyone who has experienced chooks trashing gardens, being killed by foxes and dogs, or young chicks being swooped upon by chicken hawks - not to mention egg-stealing goannas and snakes - knows what I am talking about. It's enough to put you off, and suddenly the thought of popping down to the shop and buying a dozen organic eggs and a bag of organic manure seems preferable! What I've found, though, is that with an understanding of the needs of chooks, some sensible preparation and good design, living with them can be an absolute pleasure.
The ultimate design
As with chook lovers the world over, I have spent many hours dreaming up the ultimate chook house and run design to ensure happy, healthy poultry. I'm also a permaculture enthusiast, excited by its focus on interconnected systems and how to combine plants and animals for increased productivity.
A few years back, after a decade's gestation fed by many books and the ideas of other 'chook-house architects', I came up with my best design so far - the Chook Clock - a circular run divided into sections like a pie, branching out from a central chook-house tower.
It allows different crops to be grown in each section, and also for the chooks to be moved as needed to dig over a spent crop and provide their wonderful manure to the soil. Vitally, each section is rested from chooks as needed, preventing soil compaction. So when a friend in northern NSW who owned a newly certified organic small farm decided to invest in the Chook Clock, this 10-year dream began to turn into a reality.
The design aims to create a self-sustaining environment where people and poultry work together, grow together and enjoy each other's company - a system designed purposely to combine the natural skills and talents of both bird and human to produce food, gardens and fertiliser in a predator-proof area. There were two added challenges: to construct with recycled materials where possible, and to redefine the 'old chook-pen' image, making it as visually attractive and interesting as possible.
The Chook Clock
The design is a hexagonal shape divided into six separate pie-shaped sections for crop and chook rotations. The central tower, with a steel support post in a concrete floor, contains the roosts and nesting boxes. The name 'Chook Clock' was born when I was at the design stage - I had a vision of making the whole structure, with not six but 12 garden beds, into an enormous sundial. I scaled this down, but the name stuck. It makes for simple instructions such as: "Plant the beetroots in the two o'clock", or "Let the chooks out into the six o'clock today".
The entire Chook Clock is surrounded with aviary wire, predator-proofed around the perimeter and roofed with orchard netting. The internal walls separating the sections are of standard chicken wire, as these don't have to be predator-proof, just wandering-chook-proof! Each section has its own external door - also predator-proofed.
Each side of the hexagonal tower has a small chook door. The tower also has a main raking out/caretaker's door and a large, easy egg collection door. And to top it all off, a large, brass rooster weathervane on top of the tower roof - just because!
I built it all with the help of my good friends, Harm and Georgie, and I was there to settle the first chooks in and watch the system work for the first year. After I moved onto my own property, Georgie took over working the Clock. Note, the chooks also get to free-range in the orchard outside the Clock.
I know the Clock might sound like a lot of work and cost, but once it's working the rewards in eggs, manure and crops are great. Recycled materials keep the construction costs down, and for those with only a small backyard the design can be scaled down and adapted. In fact, the design is ever-evolving, the process always interesting and improvement always possible.
In the last few years, Georgie has grown many crops, raised generations of glossy, contented chooks and collected squillions of their certified organic eggs (what she calls "gold nuggets"). She often says the Clock is "my favourite place to be".
• Provide eggs (and meat)
• Produce quality manure
• Help control pests and weeds
• Make great pets and company
Choosing and caring for chooks
Not everyone can have, or wants, a grand chook-house but no matter where you put your chooks, they need specific care. You also need to plan ahead because acquiring chooks before you are prepared can lead to disaster - for the garden, your sleep patterns, neighbourly relations and sometimes the chooks.
Roosters in particular can be big trouble, crowing at the crack of dawn and at the full moon, and sometimes becoming overprotective - pecking people and children. Luckily, roosters aren't necessary unless you intend breeding chickens. No matter what the person trying to give you a rooster for free tells you, there is no humane, foolproof method of stopping a rooster from crowing.
I once moved to a new property where, before I had a chook pen properly set up, I was offered (and accepted against my better judgement) some lovely Australorps. The next day while I was out, they escaped their temporary enclosure, digging up all my newly-planted seedlings before moving inside the house to traumatise my housemate's toddler and poo all over the lounge-room! There was the bonus of two eggs in the laundry basket, but I learned my lesson.
So do your research, visit friends or neighbours with chooks, look on the internet and read some books... the more prepared you are, the more you will enjoy your chickens.
Here are the basic needs for happy, healthy feathered friends:
• Protection from rain, wind, sun and predators (such as dogs, cats, foxes and snakes).
• A variety of feed, starting with the four G's: Grains, Greens, Grit and Grubs - and moving on to fruit, vegies and various household scraps.
• Lots of fresh, clean water.
• A nice, safe perch for roosting, with room to fly/flap up to (and down from).
• A comfortable, safe and quiet place for 'the girls' to lay eggs.
• If possible, somewhere to have a dust bath.
• If you plan to breed chickens, a safe, enclosed space for the broody hen and her chicks.
Once you have their basic needs in mind, consider what space you have available (see section on Breeds), what role you would like your chooks to perform, and how your neighbours will respond. Check with your local council regarding its regulations on keeping poultry. Also, consider what kind of housing you require. Aside from the Chook Clock, less grand options include:
• A portable 'chicken tractor' with no mesh on the floor - designed to fit over garden beds to prepare them for the next crop.
• A moveable 'chook mower' with wheels and mesh floor for maintaining your lawn or area of grass and weeds. You can make them or buy them.
• A permanent shelter - perhaps a humble home-built project or, for those with little practical skills or time, there are stylish, functional chook-houses for sale.
• Larger, rotational or moveable structures such as the 'dome design' which involves mesh or netting framed with polypipe. (See Linda Woodrow's book in 'More information').
• Also, the Chook Clock can be scaled down or adapted to your needs. Half or more can be kept as a permanent food garden, or else you can have mini versions with fewer sections, less chooks and smaller towers
There are many different breeds with differing requirements. Some need a lot of room while others are happy to live in a more confined area. Some will destroy your vegie garden in no time at all, while other, smaller breeds will scratch around in your garden with seeming respect. Some are flighty, not very human-friendly, while others will attempt to roost on your bedhead when the sun goes down!
Which breed you choose will also depend on what role you have in mind for your chooks - are they to be garden workers with little human contact, much-loved egg-producing pets, or somewhere in between? Just as you wouldn't choose a Great Dane for a studio apartment, put some thought into the type of chook that will suit your lifestyle, available space and personality.
Michael Sommerlad, in his article 'Am I the Chook for You' (x OG x Winter 2003), divides the breeds into three broad categories: extensive free-rangers; in-betweeners; and small-scalers.
• Extensive free-rangers generally do best in open situations with plenty of room. They include breeds such as Australorp, Langshan, Leghorn, New Hampshire, Sussex, Welsummer, Rhode Island Red and commercial laying crossbreeds of some of these.
• In-betweeners include Ancona, Barnevelder, Orpington, Plymouth Rock and Wyandotte. Also, there are smaller bantam versions of many free-rangers including, the Australorp, Langshan, Leghorn, Rhode Island Red and Sussex.
• Small-scalers can live happily in small spaces and in close contact with people. Breeds include Silkies, Pekins, Golden Campines and Salmon Faverolles.
Commercial crossbreeds are the most commonly available - combining as they do the desired qualities of different breeds, but there is a growing awareness of the need to preserve rare and pure breeds - just as we need to preserve heirloom vegetable varieties.
Rare breeds can be very beautiful and often have distinct personality traits. By choosing to keep a rare breed you will be making a contribution to biodiversity. Pure breeds are in danger of extinction because they do not necessarily adapt well to 'battery-hen' production. However they may be better climatically adapted, forage more actively, live longer and may be hardier than hybrids chooks. If you decide to breed your flock you will have no trouble selling any excess birds.
The website of the Rare Breeds Trust of Australia www.rbta.org lists these poultry breeds as rare and in need of preservation: Silver Grey Dorking, Black Orpington, Sebright, Croad Langshan and Favorelles.
There are a variety of ways to acquire chooks. My favourite is to find another backyard chook-keeper or breeder with healthy stock (preferably pure breeds) and to purchase or trade with them. Permaculture and organic garden groups, and community gardens (see Resources section page 85) are good initial contact points. A good website is www.backyardpoultry.com which has 'club pages' and information on breeds, while X Australasian Poultry x magazine (see more information) also lists clubs and breeders.
Pure breeds are always featured and often for sale at large agricultural shows held in capital cities and regional centres. It’s the perfect way to see breeds and meet enthusiasts.
In country areas, rural produce stores usually sell chooks.
Another idea is renting chooks. There are a couple of services we know of in Sydney and Melbourne which offer rental as a way to 'test' whether chooks are for you. They also sell chooks and chook houses.
You also need to think about what age the chicks or chooks should be. You can purchase:
• Very young chicks, which are cheap but need special care.
• You may pay a little more, but it is often possible to buy sexed chickens to make sure you only get hens.
• Pullets, which are aged between eight and 16 weeks and not yet laying.
• Point-of-lay which are aged 16 to 20 weeks and laying or just about to. They are the most expensive but you don't have the cost of raising them.
• Older, mature chooks, which if healthy, are a good for beginners. They may lay less eggs but can go to work straight away in the garden.
Grow your own feed crops
If you have the space, growing your own chook food makes sense. Buying in feed gets expensive, and sourcing certified organic feed can be difficult. There are many grain and/or greens crops to grow such as sunflowers, clovers, oats, comfrey, wheat, barley, lucerne, maize, buckwheat, rye, amaranth and Pinto's peanut. Green Harvest mail order resource guide is a good source of information. www.greenharvest.com.au/seeds/poultry_forage.html or phone 1800 681 014).
If your chooks are in portable enclosures as 'living lawnmowers', try sprinkling some mixed seed in your lawn for added variety. Letting your chooks free-range means they will pick and choose from among the weeds, worms, insects and grit on offer. When feeding chooks kitchen scraps, avoid things like coffee grinds, onions and chilli. You can also source extra scraps from grocers, restaurants, friends and family.
• Backyard Poultry - Naturally x, by Alanna Moore, Python Press (CSIRO Publishing), 2008, New Edition;
• Chook Wisdom x published by x Earth Garden x, 2007. Ph: (03) 5424 1819; www.earthgarden.com.au
• The Permaculture Home Garden X, by Linda Woodrow, Penguin.
• Organic, Happy, Healthy Chooks x, by Jade Woodhouse, self-published, 2008. Phone (02) 6657 3368 or go to www.simplynaturalorganic.com/book_chooks
• x Australasian Poultry x magazine, edited by Meg Miller. PO Box 438, Seymour VIC 3661; Ph: (03) 5792 4000.
• Australian Poultry Breeders Directory - www.ozbreeders.com
Look locally, but ready-made chook house sellers include:
• McCallum Made Chicken Tractors, Ph: (07) 5483 3800; www.thechickentractor.com.au
• Southport Showplace Chook Mowers, Ph: (07) 5522 5112; www.southportshowplace.com.au
• The Royal Rooster Mobile Chicken Coops, Ph: 1800 817 745; www.royalrooster.com.au
• Bookachook, Ph: 0438 540 664; www.bookachook.com
"Admittedly, there was the bonus of two eggs in the laundry basket, but I learned my lesson: prepare first, then get the chooks."
By: Kate Feain
First published: March 2010