Guide to keeping chickensGuide to keeping chickens

Guide to keeping chickens

Keeping chickens can be easy, inexpensive and extremely rewarding. If you're thinking about getting your own chickens, here's a few tips and advice to get you started...

What do I need to keep chickens?

Chicken house/coop (ideally with a run or within an enclosure)

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Feeder and drinker

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Feed such as layers pellets or layers mash

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Dust-free bedding (avoid products such as sawdust which can cause breathing difficulties)

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Cleaning products

What do I need to keep chickens?What do I need to keep chickens?
Is it expensive to keep chickens?Is it expensive to keep chickens?

Is it expensive to keep chickens?

Owning and looking after poultry should be no more expensive than the running costs of having a dog!

They require a constant supply of food and water, cleaning products for the coop and if you choose, additional husbandry and dietary products. Hens eat approximately 1kg a week each of feed - so a 20kg bag to feed four hens, will last five weeks!

Choosing the right breed

It is a common misconception that all hens will lay an egg for you every day; only some breeds or types will do this for you. Hens start to lay at around 16-20 weeks (at this time they classified as POL - Point of Lay) and will be most productive up until about a year old. Thereafter they drop the level of eggs per day but they are still very happy to give you about 3-4 eggs a week.

The best pure breeds for high egg yields are Australorp, Rhode Island Red, Sussex, Maran and Barnevelder; some laying up to 300 eggs a year. The egg colour varioes within the breeds as well, with the beautiful blue eggs fo the Cream Legbars being highly sort after.

The most common variety of chicken is the hybrid - these are bred for egg laying and if it's a regular, reliable supply of eggs you are looking for these are your birds.

Choosing the right breedChoosing the right breed
HousingHousing

Housing

The general rule of thumb is to allow 4ft square per chicken for inside space and 10ft square for out side space. When it comes to chickens ‘more is more’! The more space they have the happier they are, the happier they are the more eggs you get! The standard space of a coop can be supplemented by adding a poultry electric fence to ensure that your chooks are able to free range but only where you want, so you can protect your lawn and flowerbeds!

Make sure you use a dust free material for the base of your coop which will stay in place if they have a good flap and a wing stretch. Chickens like a flat roost to be able to get up off the coop floor to snooze, a round roost is fine but a flat roost means they can relax their feet and get a good night’s kip.

A nesting box is a great addition, but these girls can and will be a bit choosey where they lay, especially if they are going broody. It’s not unheard of for a hen to take herself off to a quiet patch in your garden and settle in for the 21-day incubation period getting off to feed and returning swiftly to her clutch. This can make her vulnerable to predators so you may wish to pop her in a broody coop to protect both her and her chicks when they hatch. The hen can go broody without there being a cockerel present but the eggs will not be fertilised and therefore never hatch.

Diet

It is important to select the right food based on the growth stage of your birds. The basis of their diet should be a compound feed (e.g. layers pellets) as this contains all the nutrition they need to stay happy and healthy. Providing a supply of mixed grit helps the hens digest their feed and provides calcium for strong egg shells.

Treats, such as mixed corn, should only be fed in small amounts later in the afternoon when they have eaten most of their normal food. If you feed your hens too many treats they may stop eating their normal food, become rather overweight and stop laying.

Make sure you keep all your feed in secure rodent proof containers, and whilst buying bigger bags may be cheaper by the kilo, in the warm summer months it may be advisable to switch to small bags bought more regularly, as feed left in a container for a long time in humid conditions can start to go mouldy, even if it is within the expiry date.

DietDiet
EnrichmentEnrichment

Enrichment

These intelligent avians require a good amount of scratching and pecking, dust baths and sun bathing to feel at their best and therefore give you the most amount of eggs.

Try giving your girls a small bale of straw (with the string still on) to jump up and scratch at.

An old roasting tin is a handy dust bath with some sand and hanging peckable treats are great to keep your ladies in tip-top mental and physical health. Have you considered making them a swing? Chickens love a swing!

Incubators

Incubators take the guess work out of hatching and are a fantastic learning tool for children.

Incubator starter kits are ideal as they contain all you need to get going including the incubator, candling lamp (so you can check the life stage of your chick), brooder (to keep your chicks warm like a hen would), drinkers and feeders designed for little chicks and disinfectant so that you can keep all the equipment in tip-top condition.

IncubatorsIncubators
Fun factsFun facts

Fun facts

Chickens can recognise up to 100 human faces – so all the hard work you put in doesn’t go to waste! Every time you visit, they know you’re the nice person who feeds them!

They have great memories and can recognise individuals, both human and fowl. Chickens also create excellent fertiliser.

Chicken manure contains a good deal of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium – the primary ingredients in lawn and garden fertiliser.

Troubleshooting

Not laying?
Hens will stop laying if they are about to or are going through a moult (losing last year’s feathers in readiness for this year’s). It takes a lot of energy, protein and calcium to produce these new feathers so it is important to take special care of them in this time, try adding a nutrient supplement to help with overall heath.
Soft eggs?
This can be a sign of a calcium deficiency or an outward sign of stress or worm burden, it can also just be a ‘glitch’ and rectify itself in a very short time. Try giving free access to oyster shell grit and lots of daylight to help.
Impacted crop?
Did you know that chickens don’t have teeth, giving rise to the phrase ‘as rare as hens’ teeth’? They use grit to grind down the feed in their crop. This can sometimes get impacted or ‘sour’ so to prevent this make sure there is free access to an insoluble grit – mixed grit is ideal because it also contains soluble oyster shell to help with egg shell production.
Feather pecking?
This is a common problem and can range from the odd peck from a higher ranking chicken to keep the others in check, to a full-on stripping of feathers. Not to be confused with the loss of feathers when in moult or through a cockerel’s amorous attentions, a feather pecked chicken will typically lose the tail feathers and be quite sore. Make sure there is plenty of space and other enrichment for the chicken to occupy themselves with. If this continues after the addition of entertainment then consider using an anti-feather pecking spray to deter them.
Scaly legs?
This is caused by a small mite that burrows under the scales on the legs, causing them to raise and become dry, crusty and uncomfortable. These can take a while to get rid of but there are products available to spray on the legs to kill the mites, deter further infestation and provide some relief.
Red mite?
The red mite is a miniscule blood sucking ectoparasite that lives in the cracks, crevices and joints of the coop. They are hard to spot and mostly active at night-time when they come out to feed on the hens. Prevention is key! There are various products that can prevent and treat an infestation. They cannot live on humans and are not known to transmit disease.
Worms?
Like most other pets and livestock, chickens can pick up parasitic worms from their environment – and we don’t mean the friendly earthworms in your flower beds! It is important to consider treating your chickens with a wormer; one of our specially trained animal health advisors in store will be able to advise on the appropriate course of action and prescribe any necessary products.