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Oily Rag - Happy Chooks

Oily Rag - Happy Chooks

By Frank and Muriel Newman

A few weeks back we went to the annual poultry and pigeon show put on by our local breeders association. A queue of eager patrons extended well into the car park, and when the doors opened there was a rush towards the For Sale section (like retail shoppers rushing for bargains - but without the sharp elbows, pushing and shoving, biting, scratching, and ear biting!).

Despite the melee we managed to acquire some Indian runner ducks, which are now happily residing alongside the various visitor ducks that inhabit our ponds at feeding time. It was a great event and fascinating to see so many different types of unusual feathered friends – well done to the breeders and show organisers.

In recent years there has been a noticeable increase in backyard chicken-raising, not only because more people appreciate the virtues of a ‘good life’, but also because it has become one of those fashionable things to do by people who want to know that their eggs are coming from happy chooks that they know personally, rather than the sullen grim-faced incarcerated kind we seen on TV from time to time.

According to the last census there were 3.3 million chickens in New Zealand (and 600,000 living in Australia - just kidding!). It’s not hard to see why there are so many when you consider that the average consumer eats 218 eggs a year (according to the Egg Producers Federation).

Free range back-yard chickens should produce a leisurely 250 eggs a year (which allows them up to 16 weeks annual leave).

Most councils allow people to have up to a dozen or so without having to jump through hoops and pay huge sums of money to have multitudes of earnest looking clip-boards judge your suitability to indulge in the good life. There are usually a few things our local regulators don’t like. Crowing roosters is one and having your pen too close to a house or the neighbour’s boundary is another. It would be wise to check so your chickens don’t end up before a judge and spending time on remand roosting in Mount Eden.

Good food is as essential for chickens as it is you. We know they like pavlova and chips but it is generally said that a chicken needs between 125 and 150 grams of commercial chicken food a day. Over a year that adds up to about 45kg per bird, or roughly about $50 in cost - although this can be reduced with food scraps along with grass and insects for those that free range.

Affordable housing also applies when in come to chickens. You should allow at least a third of a square metre of floor space per bird - or more if you want to provide Ritz-style accommodation. Put wheels on your cage so you can move it around your lawn or onto your garden. Chickens are great foragers and will give your garden beds a good working over when they are between crops, as well as fertilising them at the same time.

A brand-spanking new never-been-soiled chicken house can cost between a couple of hundred dollars and a thousand, depending on its size and the quality of the whiteware and tap fittings. While there are plenty of second hand hen runs available, it may be cheaper to build your own if you are handy with a hammer. Here are a few things to keep in mind when building a coop.

Perches are important. Chickens like to be on the top perch - it gets a bit messy if you happen to be low in the pecking order! The solution is to make them all the same height and give each bird about 15cm of space. Place them at an easy hopping height of about 60cm – the height of your dining table!

Nests should be about 30cm x 30cm, and one per hen - although they are known to share. Line the base of each nesting box with hay or sawdust.

A good diet, a clean pen, fresh water and material for a dust bath should be enough to keep you chooks parasite free, healthy and happy. “Bathing” matter would normally be dry soil, saw dust or wood shavings (don’t worry about soap and shampoo!).

The great thing about chickens is that not only do you have pets that lay eggs, but they give you lots of high-powered manure for the garden. Give it a go!

Don’t forget to send your money-saving tips to share with the oily rag community, by visiting or by writing to Living Off the Smell of an Oily Rag, PO Box 984, Whangarei.

*Frank and Muriel Newman are the authors of Living Off the Smell of an Oily Rag in NZ. Readers can submit their oily rag tips on-line at The book is available from bookstores and online at


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