Saturday, 25 March 2017

Eggscellent pets: Frugal and flavourful!

Check out these beautiful ladies. Tempest, Ethyl and their (unpictured) sister Wookie have been keeping me rolling in eggs for almost three years now. I've owned chicken since late high-school and they are some of the greatest animals in the world. On top of producing eggs daily, they dispose of any food scrap you can think of (except onions and citrus fruits) are solely responsible for the eggscellent soil in my veggie path, and are just so darn adorable.
Chickens make brilliant additions to a frugal backyard because on top of actually making you breakfast (well, you still need to cook) they can be the most self-reliant pets you forgot you had, or they can be lap chickens up for a snuggle.

Getting started - the expensive bit

To get started with chickens you don't need much space, but you do need security. Chickens are silly little featherheads that will fly over a fence and parade in front of a doberman if they see something snacky. Or if they're startled by a falling leaf. Or if the sun is the wrong shade of red. Honestly if they can jump a fence and find something dangerous they probably will. Your first month with hens will be coming home to find poop across the back porch and a thirsty, hungry bird will run up to you begging to be saved. They won't run close enough to easily be picked up and popped back in the pen, but they will come running nonetheless.

Coops, roosting and nesting

Thankfully, hens aren't that big or strong, so once you get some decent fencing in place, you'll have them safely contained. First you need a coop. That's the indoors bit with solid walls. Sometimes.

Image result for novelty chicken coops
You definitely don't need to be this fancy, but it looks great!
There's a variety of wisdom about the benefits of four solid walls (for warmth) versus three walls and an open side (for ventilation) or some combination of the two. Personally I have three full walls with a small gap along the top, and a half wall with a small gap at the top, and a chicken-height gap at the bottom. I also leave the door open at all times because I'm in a built-up, suburban, fox-free area (fingers crossed, touch wood!). If you live in a rural area, or near a nature reserve you'll either need to close up the coop at night, or ensure the run is fox-proof.

Firstly, the interior of the coop. Each hen needs a minimum of 40cm perch space. But since hens constantly squabble with one another, I recommend 1 perch for a pair, 2 perches for 3-6 hens, and 3 perches if you have more, with enough length for an extra bird (i.e. for 3 hens, you would need 2 perches and 160cm of space). Make sure the perches are more than pecking distance apart or you will have two grouchy birds taking over all the perches, and the rest sleeping on the floor in their own poop. Yuck.

Chickens are also ground birds, their feet are more suited to walking than gripping branches, so use wide flat perches. Roosts are for sleeping, so you want your birds as comfortable as possible.

Cheap Chicken Coop
DIY coops can be gorgeous! Pro-tip, you don't need to be this good.
The hens won't know it's ugly! Source

Next, you need a nest box, that's where the eggs go (hopefully). Nest boxes are tricky to plan. You want them at least the width of your hen so she can fit comfortably, but not so big she feels like she's out in the open. We have 2 boxes side by side that are 45cm cubed (roughly). You should always have at least two nest boxes, with roughly one box for every 4-5 hens. But they will inevitably choose their favourite one or two and always lay there, hens have been known to line up!

Runs, for diggin' scratchin' and good times!

This bit is easier - hens need at least one square metre of space each. Obviously that is a really really tiny space, so you're flock should get 2-3 square metres to start with, plus their one each, plus the space inside the coop. Anything less and you will end up with fat, grumpy hens who will constantly squabble. If you have a small yard, build a moveable run, then you can pick two plots of land and alternate them between chicken yard and pre-fertilised veggie garden!

If you have dogs, or live in an area with foxes use hardware mesh (not chicken wire) to build your fence, and bury it at least 50cm deep. If like me, you're in a 'safe' area (touch wood again!) you can use bird netting strung between garden stakes and weighed down at the bottom,

So what does it cost?

Well, if you're in a hurry, you can buy this bad boy for $195. Mr. FIRE and I were in a rush, so this is what our ladies live in. The floor has rusted through, the door fell off and I've had to cover the sides and put an extra perch up. It was a terrible purchase, but our old coop was falling down. Plus it is FAR too small for even two hens to live in full-time. It's an acceptable overnighter if your hens will be free ranging, but if not you need to build a run.

For a frugal solution, keep an eye on hard rubbish, Gumtree and listen in on your friends getting rid of scrap wood! You can pull together something much more effective (and cheaper!) for a third of the price with some basic woodworking skills. Mr. FIRE and I will be replacing our coop in the coming year and plan to build it from scratch.

Our run is currently made from a length of bird netting ($20) and garden stakes and old bricks we had lying around. Our ladies live under an apple tree, so they're protected from the elements and I think they ate more apples this year than we did!

And finally, you have to buy then hens themselves, unless you're lucky enough to find one walking down the road. That's how Wookie came into our lives. You can order a half dozen day-old fresh out of the shell hens for around $2-3 each if you find a nearby farmer. Commercial stores will sell them for more, but that's convenience for you! Day old hens require heat, special food, carefully stocked water and a whole lot of other trickiness. However you can buy fully fledged hens (ready for the great outdoors) from $6 - $25. The younger they are, the cheaper, however you have to shell out for food until the freeloaders hit laying age around 18weeks. 

Life with chickens 

Okay, now that we've gone through all the drama of set up and your hens have arrived (and you've chased them back into the pen a hundred times and plugged all the holes in the fence) you can settle down and enjoy them. Hens are generally quiet unless they've laid an egg and want to brag about it. The worst I've had was fifteen minutes of the 'egg song' at around 8am. More often than not, your neighbours will be surprised to find out you have hens, they're so quiet.

If you want to handle your hens, they will do anything for food. Start as soon as they come home, and hand feed them kitchen scraps, budgie seeds, weeds you pulled from the footpath. Soon they will know you've got the good stuff and come running when they see you.

In terms of food and water - make a top fill dispenser to ensure they always have pellets available (our pellets cost about $35 for 2 and a bit months) and fresh water at all times. The more kitchen scraps they eat, the less pellets you'll use. You can build brilliant DIY feeders with a few lengths of PVC pipe - simply grab a 180degree elbow, about a metre of pipe about 20cm diameter and a cap and glue the lot together. For the food pipe, leave the cap loose so you can fill from the top. For the water, glue the cap on, then fill by flipping upside down. Water will flow down until the level sits higher than the bend and will sit there like a vacuum seal, similar to putting your finger over the end of a straw.

Image result for hen in nest
Finally, start collecting junk mail (without any plastic gloss) old newspapers and bills. You don't need to buy straw to line the nest boxes, simple fill with shredded paperwork and change every week or two. 

And you're done! Enjoy free eggs for the rest of your life! You can up the care quality by regularly providing treats (watching hens fight over spaghetti is amazing) and checking for mites and bugs, but with access to a good amount of fresh dirt, hens are largely self-sufficient.

Notice I've been saying hens this whole time? Because roosters are LOUD! Technically they are great for flock dynamics and will keep the ladies in line, protect them from cats and announce the good food. But they are so so very loud, from the first tiny glimmers of sunshine two hours BEFORE dawn to that last breath of sunset they don't stop. It's not just the crowing, but the incessant chatter. Unless you are rural and want the baby chooks or perhaps to make Coq au Vin, steer clear of roosters, no matter how pretty. 

Makin' a little on the side

So far our hypothetical hens have cost us about $250 in housing, and $18 a month in food. But they give back an average egg every 2 days. In summer they'll lay daily, and in winter when the days are shorter they'll slow down and take a break. My three hens are eating $18 worth of food a month, and giving back almost five dozen eggs! To buy five dozen cheap, ethically questionable eggs would cost me $21, to buy free-range eggs would be $31.50! 

Image result for chicken shamingThere are so many eggs I can't find enough ways to use them all. I have zuchinni slice, cake, banana bread, eggs and rice, bacon and eggs, quiche and yet somehow I still have dozens of eggs left over! Thankfully my area has a thriving trade culture and I've swapped a dozen eggs for close to $10 worth of produce (hello Kale!) as well as being able to sell a dozen eggs for $3 or $4. I'm not sure if I'll make back the cost of the expensive but cheaply made coop I bought online, but as far as cashflow goes, the hens sit in the plus column!

Except that time they escaped and ate all my peas... right down to the ground.

Tell me about your pets! What do they cost in dollars? What do they add to your life that makes them completely worth it? Bonus points for photos!

8 comments:

  1. My wife wants hens so bad. She wants fresh eggs everyday. In our next house she wants to move somewhere where we have the space to do this. I'm sure after she reads this article that she'll remind me how easy it is to do :)

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    1. So I shouldn't mention that my 3 hens live very happily on a mere 6m2. Or that the entire garden is a mere 15m2 (ish)

      There's a bit more space for the paved areas, but we have a very small space and fit our hens happily.

      But I didn't mention that ;)

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  2. The people over the road from us have a rooster. We don't hear him very often, but when we do it's such a joyful noise that I appreciate hearing it in the suburbs. I like your description of chooks as pets. Frank and Jelly, our cats, are freeloaders who pay their way with cuddles, allowing us to stroke them, and making us laugh.

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    1. It definitely depends on the Rooster, but the lad I had for a few hours was a noise MACHINE. Much yelling was had in my (my parents) house that day.

      We also have a freeloading cat. She's evil incarnate, but oh so fluffy we love here anyway :)

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  3. my parents had chickens when I was young, interesting pets indeed! I don't remember much about them though.

    I'm not sure if Mr DDU and I are chicken people, but it was interesting to read about the associated costs and how many eggs they produce. I doubt our landlord would be a fan either! I wonder if any Aussies are successfully renting as chicken owners.

    Mrs DDU

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    1. I guess it all depends on the property - as an owner I would be more than happy for my tenants to have hens on the condition that they were fenced to keep them away from any pavers / concrete. Chicken poop leaves some unpleasant stains :)

      Plus I'm a big believer in allowing tenants to have pets, it makes them less likely to move on, and more likely to treat the property as a home, rather than a temporary situation. And on a more mercenary level, you can normally charge higher rent ;)

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  4. Really cool post and we have a largely similar system to yours. I love our chickens, including 1 adopted stray!

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    1. Adopted stray hens are the best, but it always surprises me how they get out. Once hens learn where home is they don't seem to stray too much. Wookie was found wandering down a main road, and when I worked at an animal shelter we had a hen / rooster / duck almost every month. Crazy

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