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Playing chicken

Written by  Nikki van Coller
| in Tuin
| August 11, 2015

Chickens are easy and inexpensive pets to keep, and more and more South Africans are seeing the advantages of raising their own backyard brood.

Our team visited Willie Schreuder at his wonderful Aspidistra Garden Centre, to find out what it takes to raise chickens, what the benefits are and how to choose the right chickens for your needs and expectations.

The freshest healthiest eggs and poultry

The most obvious reason for keeping chickens is a daily supply of fresh eggs, far more tasty and nutritious, and higher in vitamins and minerals - than store bought eggs. Laying hens lay one egg every day from around six months of age and less frequently the older they get. So six laying hens will give you six eggs every day, fresher than you could ever buy them.

“So six laying hens will give you six eggs every day, fresher than you could ever buy them.”

Retired hens can also be processed and eaten, unless of course you grow emotionally attached to them. (Willie tells us he won’t eat any of his chickens, even those who die of old age.) But if you have a large brood, including one or two breeding hens, you might not be averse to the idea of a monthly roast from your very own backyard. Free roaming backyard chickens are also more nutrient-rich and lower in fat and calories than store bought chickens, not to mention much more flavourful.

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Great garden workers

Chickens are very useful in the garden. Not only is their manure packed with nitrogen and perfect for composting of garden and kitchen waste, they are also excellent for getting rid of garden pests, insects and snails – without the need for chemicals. Your chickens will be of great help if you have an organic vegetable garden; they eat many types of weeds and their scratching and digging tendencies mean you have your own little army of gardeners to mix top layers of soil with compost and mulch.

Fantastic family pets

Believe it or not, chickens make great pets.          
Many of them are extremely social and can integrate well with the family dog or cat. They can be fairly affectionate too, and are fun to watch and interact with. According to Willie, some breeds bond extremely well with humans and have unique personalities and moods. Caring for them requires only a few minutes a day for feeding, giving fresh water and putting them into their coop at night.

How to choose your chickens

Firstly, it’s important to know exactly why you want to keep chickens. Is it only for eggs, do you want to start taking part in shows, or do you just want two or three chickens as pets for your kids?

There are hundreds of different breeds from around the world, many imported into South Africa because they do well in our climate. According to Willie, Orpingtons or Orpington bantams are great because they are social, good layers and not very good flyers (although he is quick to add that chickens are quite territorial and not likely to leave when they have found a happy home). Brahmas are also a good choice, as they are great looking, friendly and social, give excellent meat and can be good at both laying, setting and mothering.

“There are hundreds of different breeds from around the world, many imported into South Africa because they do well in our climate. ”

Compared to keeping a dog, chickens are relatively inexpensive to keep. They cost anywhere from R20 a chick to hundreds of rands for purebred show chickens. You can buy them from a day to six months old and on average, a laying hen starts laying at around six months.
If you have a fairly small space, consider bantams – these are smaller-bred chickens, which also come in many different breeds. Some chickens are noisier than others, so consider that too when choosing the breed/s you want to keep. If you are in a suburban area, keep your neighbours in mind and be sure that your rooster’s early morning wake up won’t disturb their sleep.

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DID YOU KNOW?

Battery hens that are farmed for their eggs are usually slaughtered at around a year or two, when their egg-laying slows down. Backyard chickens on the other hand tend to live for an average of 8 – 10 years, although some can live as long as 20!

Looking after your chickens

All you really need is a decent size backyard, a large enough chicken coop and good quality chicken feed. This varies in price and will depend on whether you have laying hens or purebred show chickens.

Don’t overfeed your brood; they shouldn’t have access to food all day long. Each chicken needs about a handful of feed every morning - a little less for bantams. It should take them around four or five minutes to finish the food given and they should be satisfied and not look for any more food after that. Don’t leave chicken feed lying around as the chickens can overeat and it could also attract rodents.  For treats, you can give them fresh vegetables, bread and cracked wheat. It’s important that your chickens have access to garden greens too.

While your chickens should be kept in a coop at night – to keep them safe from predators or interference of any kind – it is best to have them roaming free during the day. Not only does this make for healthier, happier chickens, it also means they can eat greenery and insects, and do your garden work for you!

Chickens must have access to clean, fresh water and should sleep and eat in hygienic conditions. If you have garden ponds, make sure they are safe and shallow, so that the chickens can’t fall in.

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Challenges

If you are an absolute perfectionist, chickens are probably not for you. They can scratch around in your garden, and make things a little untidier than you might like.

Chickens are not very prone to disease, but when one picks up pox or any other illness, it can very quickly spread to the rest. A chicken that is suddenly very lethargic, hiding its head under its wing, or has runny manure, might be infected in some way. You should immediately isolate it, give it heat and treat with Terramycin, an over-the-counter poultry antibiotic.  
You need to keep an eye on them and make sure they don’t have any lice or fleas as these spread very quickly and can easily become an infestation. Pox can strike quickly too, but free roaming, greenery-eating chickens are far less susceptible to sickness.

Compared to keeping dogs, horses, koi and many other types of animals, chickens really are easy, inexpensive and a whole lot of fun. If playing chicken appeals to you, why not start with a pair? You might find, like Willie, that you develop a great fondness and affinity for these often-misunderstood birds.


Showing Chickens is a great hobby

Owning and breeding these elegant birds might be enough reward for some, but others might want the challenge and accolades of breeding and showing champion chickens.
Willie has a number of different breeds and shows with his chickens, often scooping many awards for his prize poultry. 

When we visited the nursery, Willie was a few days away from the championships, held in Bredasdorp and the nursery was a-flutter with activity. He explained that a few days before the show, each bird is washed and blow-dried, their nails cleaned, and special oil placed on their feet to show up the natural colour.

Who are you calling chicken? Scientists have uncovered that the chicken is the closest living relative to the great Tyrannosaurus-Rex.


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