Backyard chooks can be a fantastic source of fresh eggs, as well as interesting pets to have around. They usually start laying about 5 months of age, lay best in the first 2 years, and often stop laying while in moult and during the winter. For maximum egg production, it is recommended that you buy point-of-lay pullets in September, and replace your entire flock annually. This is obviously not so easy if they are also your pets.
· Secure fence with the base buried in the ground to prevent animals burrowing underneath
· A secure door to shut hens in at night
· Space – at least 30 square cm per hen (1 square foot)
· Shelter from wind and extremes of hot and cold
· Nest boxes will result in cleaner eggs and fewer broken ones. These can be build along the walls, preferably in the darkest area, at least 25 cm above the floor, and at least one per 4 hens. Check out the books at the local library for building ideas
· Litter 10cm deep of absorbent material such as straw, wood shavings, or shredded newspaper
· Fresh clean drinking water must be available at all times
· Always thoroughly clean and disinfect the hen house before introducing a new group of hens
Using a commercial diet of layer pellets or meals will give you peace of mind and healthy chooks. You can also supplement with small amounts of kitchen scraps, remembering that too much onion or fruit peel can cause an off-flavour in the eggs. Green feeds such as lucerne and silverbeet are a rich source of vitamins and contain pigments which give the egg yolks that rich golden-yellow colour. Home formulated diets need to include grit (oyster shell, pipi shell or limestone) to aid crop digestion and prevent egg problems. Pullets coming into the lay often drop shell-less eggs initially. This should last no longer than two weeks. If you find several birds laying thin, soft or shell-less eggs, the trouble is likely to be associated with their feed.
Keeping nests clean is important for egg hygiene. You can train your chooks to stay out of the nests at night by closing off the nests in the evening before they roost, and reopening them once they are asleep for the night. A week or two of training should set the pattern so that they do not seek the nest at night.
Moulting is the shedding and renewal of feathers and occurs about once a year, and takes about seven weeks to complete. It starts at the head and neck, passes to the body and wings and finally reaches the tail.
Mites and lice are best prevented by keeping the henhouse as clean as possible and discouraging contact with other flocks of chickens, wild birds and vermin. Preening and dust bathing in dry soil help hens deal with external parasites. Check your hens at least once a month for signs of infestation. Treatment powder is available at the clinic, and should be repeated once a week for three treatments to deal with newly hatched lice.
Good hygiene is also important in controlling internal parasites. Young birds are more likely to be infected with worms than older birds. The treatment is Ivomec oral at a rate of 5 ml per litre of water, as the drinking water for 1-2 days. We recommend not eating the eggs for the next week, so if you treat them during winter or during the moult you will have less need to destroy eggs. This product is not licensed for birds.
Hygiene in the Hen House
1. Provide one nest per four hens
2. Begin training the pullets to the nest before they start to lay
3. Clean out the nests and hen house once a week
4. Gather eggs twice daily
5. Dirty eggs should be ‘dry’ cleaned if possible with a scouring pad
6. Only wash really dirty eggs, in water that is 400C, rinse each egg in clean water and air dry. This is to prevent bacteria being absorbed through the shell
7. Do not soak eggs before or during washing
8. If you are getting a lot of dirty eggs you need to review your management