Early spring is the ideal time to be thinking about hens in the backyard. We have about 50 free-range hens and they roam our orchard throughout the year. By now we have selected hens to be with our two roosters, to produce the next batch of chickens for the coming seasons.
Having your own little cluster of home hens will provide you with multiple benefits. With a good mix of food supplies, including all of your weeds and grass, you will collect delicious, truly yellow eggs that are so much more nutritious than any barn produced eggs.
You can have a mini, free-range poultry run by using one of those long triangular mesh coops that can be moved across the backyard – it can really be a chicken tractor operation for improving your vegetable garden. As well as a morning feed of wheat, throw in all your kitchen scraps and garden waste. They will consume everything, dig happily in the garden bed and leave behind a good supply of chicken manure, saving you time and effort.
The only warning that I have is that you will fall in love with your hens. Many have a gentle temperament and can be picked up and cuddled by young and old. You will not want anything to go wrong, as they become part of the family.
Of course, you can let them out to wander. But you need to keep a close watch out for stray dogs or urban foxes. Both can dig holes under fences and cages, so you should remember to "lock them up" at night. You could bury mesh around the perimeter of any permanent hen house, while laying mesh around the perimeter of a moveable chicken coop to help protect the birds.
The natural cycle of egg production is linked with daylight hours. So springtime is when most young hens begin to lay and it is the time when breeders will produce their fertile eggs. It takes 20-21 days for fertile eggs to hatch out and it then takes close to 20 weeks for the female chickens to begin laying.
Buying fertile eggs gives you the chance to see everything from the beginning. Eggs need to be kept warm throughout the incubation period, between 37-39C. If you have a broody hen, she can do it all for you. Bantam sized hens can sit on six to seven eggs and a larger sized hen can care for eight to 10 eggs.
Bellsouth Industries, based in Melbourne, produces a good quality polystyrene incubator that can take up to 100 fertile eggs. You will need to keep water inside at all times, because if the eggs dry out they will not progress. You also need to turn the eggs at least three times each day, so that the embryo does not stick to one side of the shell. Mark one side of each fertile egg with a pencil, to help you know that they are being properly turned. Mother hens naturally turn their eggs around 14 times each day.
If you buy sexed pullet chickens you have little worry about the problem of disposing of unwanted roosters. There is also a market for "point of lay" hens but the price is much higher per hen, as the breeder has provided all of the feed and care for the 20 weeks while they were growing.
There are some breeds that are available for purchase all year round. These are principally egg producers, including the brown feathered Hyline and Isa Brown breeds. European breeds generally lay brown eggs and the Barnevelder and Welsummer are two other top egg producers. However, I prefer to seek out some other purebreds that have additional qualities.
There are many breeds of hens to choose from and they do differ in their temperament, their average life span and their ability to withstand the shock of a cold and windy winter. Canberra has a cold winter climate, so there are some beautiful breeds of poultry that will give you heartaches if you do not take special care of them. Many of the special coloured bantams, such as Chinese silkies, Frizzles and Pekins are friendly, gentle and docile little birds but they cannot survive the cold winds of winter.
Plymouth Rock is a large fowl that is a good layer and is very friendly, with a gentle disposition towards children. They are quite hardy and have a long life expectancy.
Rhode Island hens (red or white) are one of my favourites, because of their gentle nature and long life. They are one of the hardiest breeds that can well endure the cold, windy conditions of mountain districts. You can choose either bantam or large sized hens.
Wyandottes are a curious breed that will follow you around as you work in your garden. They are great foragers and come in a wonderful assortment of colours, including silver laced and gold laced.
Sussex hens are large and adapt to most environments. They are excellent layers. The hens are calm and so are good for the urban family with some space. They can do well in either chicken coops or when free ranging.
Australorp is another large hen that is a good layer, even when it is very hot. They are calm around children and are a good addition to the backyard flock.
Whatever breed you decide on, just take good care of them and you can enjoy your own supply of free-range eggs.
Baked eggs with garden vegetables
2 medium onions
3 cloves garlic
5 tbs olive oil
2 medium zucchini
4 large tomatoes
2 medium red capsicums
1 large eggplant
1 tsp cumin
½ tsp ground coriander
½ tsp ground cinnamon
pinch of ground nutmeg
6 large free range eggs
salt and pepper
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Finely chop the onion and garlic then saute in the olive oil, in a deep based pan for 3-4 minutes until the onion is translucent. Add in the sliced zucchini and cook for a further 4-5 minutes.
Dice the tomatoes, capsicums and eggplant then add into the pan. Sprinkle in the spices, a dash of salt and pepper and stir gently. Cook for a further 3 minutes. Add 1 cup of water and cook over low heat for around 20 minutes until the liquid has thickened.
Lightly beat the eggs and then mix into the vegetable mixture. Pour into a lightly greased baking dish, cover with its lid and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the cover and keep in the oven for a further 10-15 minutes, until the top has browned. Serve with salad and Italian bread.
This week in the garden
• Plant out beans, snow peas, beetroot and carrots directly into the garden.
• Keep an active watch over the small seedlings already growing in the garden beds. Weed as soon as possible after the invaders appear and keep a good lookout for snails and other pests. Where slugs or snails are attacking leafy greens, use natural methods to kill them, such as physically removing at night by torchlight.
• Complete the pruning of raspberries and removal of dead branches from the brambleberry plants. Tie up the new vines along the trellis wires before the flowers emerge.
• If your stone fruit have set lots of apricots, nectarines or peaches, thin vigorously along the branches, to ensure that good sized fruit will result.
• Transplant tomato seedlings into medium sized pots, when the second set of leaves appear. Bury half of the stem into the potting mix. Keep well protected from frost.
Owen Pidgeon runs the Loriendale Organic Orchard near Hall.