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Rural Insight: A chicken and egg situation

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In the early 1900s, around half of New Zealand households had hens in their backyards. After a lull in the practice, there is a definite swing back to chicken and egg basics around the country – particularly on lifestyle blocks.

Recent controversy over supermarket eggs masquerading as free range when in fact they are likely to have been sourced from less optimal production chains, is prompting more lifestyle block owners to look into keeping chickens on their properties.

“Recent controversy over supermarket eggs masquerading as free range is prompting more lifestyle block owners to look into keeping chickens on their properties.”

Councils throughout New Zealand regulate the number of poultry allowable within the urban boundaries while for lifestyle block owners with land size generally over 4,000m² in rural areas, there are few, if any, restrictions. 

Whether it’s a modest backyard flock of three or four chickens or a lifestyle block-based business operation in free range eggs, the care and welfare fundamentals of keeping chickens remain the same. 

The Animal Welfare (Layer Hens) Code of Welfare 2012, an adjunct of the Animal Welfare Act 1999, dictates responsibilities for anyone keeping chickens whether in a home environment or a commercial capacity.

Website contributor Fiona Herbert says the most important consideration is to be clear on why you actually want chickens on your lifestyle block. “Are they going to be pets or are they just for eggs?  Do you have plans to make this a paying venture supplying local markets?  Are you going to breed them, or show the chickens at poultry shows?

“All of these ideas are possible, but probably not at once.  So identify what you want to achieve to help guide your choice of breed/s and the number of chickens you ultimately keep.”

Herbert says chickens very likeable and have distinct personalities, and eggs from your own chickens are generally superior to most store-bought eggs. 

“The whole ritual of looking after chickens – letting them out in the mornings, feeding, watering, collecting eggs, watching them – can be a rewarding 'mindful' outdoor practice for anyone and children especially love interacting with chickens.” 

Not all breeds are created equal and broodiness is not what you want if you’re counting on daily eggs from your chickens. Some of the fancier breeds and heritage varieties with attractive plumage and striking features, are not the greatest egg layers.

Hyline Brown and Brown Shavers comprise the bulk of New Zealand’s commercial poultry flock and are the most popular for domestic situations. Buy them from reputable suppliers with a good track record.

Look for alert chickens with bright eyes, an upright vivid red comb, and shiny feathers.

The SPCA recommends that a chicken house needs to provide a minimum space of 2m² for up to 10 birds but the roomier the house and associated run, the better.

It says chicken houses or coops should be located on well-drained land, have a lockable door or pop-hole to keep predators out and be dry, well-ventilated yet not too draughty for colder months. Nesting boxes should be filled with non-treated wood shavings or straw for each chicken to lay their eggs in.

Roosting perches should be raised off the ground to protect from predators or rodents but be low enough for the chickens to maintain a natural position when roosting.

All chickens need an outside area to peck, scratch and forage and a fenced-off run is always a good idea even if you want your chickens to free-range as plants in your gardens will be fair game for roving hens – and then there’s the poop factor…

Commercially-prepared foods with the correct nutrient balance are available from pet stores or stock feed companies and these can be supplemented with table scraps. If pests are a problem, lidded auto-feeder boxes requiring chooks to stand on a small platform to open the lid for food are available. A daily supply of fresh, clean water is vital.

An egg a day per hen should be your reward for good chicken management, although during the winter when daylights hours are condensed, most chickens will go off the lay.

“Today’s lifestyle property owners are increasingly driven by a desire for healthy and ethical food options.”

Our ancestors were onto something when they kept backyard chickens. Today’s lifestyle property owners are increasingly driven or encouraged by a desire for healthy and ethical food options – something rural acreage can deliver on.

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