Complete beginner’s guide to looking after chickens
Many people up and down the country have taken to looking after chickens. Whether you are keeping small numbers on a small holding or in your back garden, or farming more hens on a larger area of land, these animals are delightful to look after, full of character, and provide you with regular streams of wonderful eggs and meat.
If you are considering taking on a few hens then you should be excited at the venture that lays ahead. Not only are these beautiful birds brilliant domestic pets, but they also offer a real sense of achievment. That’s right, there are few feelings more satisfying than eating an egg that has been grown and laid on your own land.
So we thought we would sit down and put together a complete beginner’s guide to looking after chickens, focussing mainly on those of you who will be doing so on a small scale.
Chickens - the good and the bad
Before we go into the details of caring for these birds, it is important to outline some of the basics. Chickens are fantastic animals to care for, however, as with most things, they do also have their downsides. So, here is a brief outline of the good and bad sides of caring for chickens.
So long as you choose the right breed and care for your chickens properly they can provide you and your family with plenty of fresh meat and eggs. They can also do this on an area that is no larger than the average back garden, which is rather convenient.
Picture courtesy of Peter Cooper via Flickr Creative Commons.
Chickens can also be easily contained in nice chicken coops that can be constructed with relative ease with some basic tools. Their homes must, however, protect them from the cold and predators, whilst offering them plenty of space in which to run around. But more of that later on...
There aren’t many bad aspects to chicken farming, but one is the fact that chickens can be easily lost to disease. There are a large number of diseases out there that affect these birds, and they tend not to show any sign of some of the more deadly diseases, which can make spotting them difficult.
Another threat to the lives of your chickens can be predation. Foxes can pose a real danger and can kill an entire henhouse in one visit if you are unlucky. For that reason, you need to ensure that you are managing them properly and offering them plenty of protection from predators.
The laws and regulations behind chicken farming
When it comes to farming chickens there are a number of laws and regulations that you must be aware of, if you are just looking after a handful of birds in your garden or on a smallholding then most of these laws will not apply to you, but it might still be worth taking a look anyway.
It is vital that you ensure your chickens have a high standard of health and welfare whilst you also limit the risks of them passing diseases to both humans and animals. First and foremost, if you are going to farm chickens - or any other poultry for that matter - in larger numbers, then you must ensure that your chickens are registered correctly.
Picture courtesy of You As A Machine via Flickr Creative Commons.
Registering your chickens
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Government - backed by the poultry industry - have set up the Great Britain Poultry Register in order to gather information about species of birds that are held on premises in Great Britain.
To help national veterinary surveillance, the following species of poultry must be registered on the GB Poultry Register:
- Chickens - including bantams
- Pigeons - reared for meat
- Guinea fowl
- Emus, rheas and cassowaries (usually kept in zoos)
Who has to register?
You only have to register your birds if you own, or are responsible for, a poultry premises that houses 50 or more birds. These rulings apply even if the premises is only stocked for part of the year. If you have less than 50 birds then you do not have to register them, however, the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) does encourage keepers to do so voluntarily. You must register if you have 50 or more birds in total. They do not have to be all of the same species.
To keep the register up to date, you must notify AHVLA of any significant changes to information you have already supplied. You should do this within one month of the changes happening. You should call the GB Poultry Register Helpline on Telephone: 0800 634 1112.
What information do you have to provide when registering?
When you register your birds you will be asked for your name, the address of the premises, your Country Parish Holding number, if you have one, and the number of poultry that is usually on the premises (the number present when the premises is stocked). You will also be asked to supply information regarding the type of poultry housing, why you are rearing them and a series of risk assessment questions.
More laws and regulations
There are a wide variety of other laws and regulations surrounding farming chickens. To read all of the laws click here now and browse through the government’s official regs.
Choosing a breed of chicken
Right, that’s the legal stuff out of the way. Now it’s time for the fun stuff. First up, we thought we would take you through some of the breeds and types of chickens that you may wish to choose. It is always a good idea to choose a pure breed chicken. This is a chicken that has been bred by a reputable breeder who has put together a pen of pure bred birds in order to produce offspring that conform to the British Poultry Standards.
The Poultry Club of Great Britain suggests that you do not simply go with the first breed that you are presented with. They recommend heading to a poultry show where many breeds and experts will be present. There may well be someone there who you can speak with who may be able to offer you advice on which breed is best suited for your needs.
Chickens can be split into a number of categories, so here are some that may be perfect for you and your needs...
Popular breeds of chickens
There are a number of breeds that people tend to opt for, however, it is worth remembering that lighter breeds tend to consume less food for the eggs they produce. Lighter breeds tend to be more flighty than their heavier counterparts. Heavier breeds tend to be quieter and lay less but they will also often go broody and attempt to incubate their eggs themselves. Popular heavy breeds include Light Sussex, Rhode Island Red and Plymouth Rock and the most famous light breed is the Leghorn.
Other light breeds
Most light breeds lay white or light coloured eggs and the birds themselves come in a great variation of colours and types, many of which are imports. The White Leghorn still out-produces most breeds, however, there are many other colours available. There are a number of Mediterranean breeds from the Ancona, which has white spots on black, to the Minorca and Andalusian, which is blue laced.
British breeds can also be found including the Derbyshire Redcap, Hamburg, Old English Pheasant Fowl, Scots Grey and Scots Dumpy - which has short legs. All of these British breeds have good utility attributes.
You can also get crested breeds, which sit within light breeds. These include the Poland, the fluffy Silkie and the Araucana which produces blue/green eggs. Another good layer is the Frizzle, which does look odd with its backward-curling feathers. Particularly hardy birds include the Old English Game and the reachy Modern Game, both of which are also nice and colourful.
Picture courtesy of Steven Lilley via Flickr Creative Commons.
Other heavy breeds
Most people like classic dark-brown eggs. The two breeds which produce these are the Marans, which has a lovely two-tone grey banding across its feathers, and the Welsummer, which is usually orange and black in colour. Welsummer eggs tend to be slightly redder than the eggs laid by Marans, which are a darker brown. Barnevelder chickens lay lighter brown eggs and have mahogany plumage with double black lacing on each feather.
One of the most popular British breeds is the Buff Orpington, which was owned by the Queen Mother. The Sussex is known as a good egg layer with its most popular colour being white with black points. The Rhode Island Red, Australorp and Plymouth Rock are all good layers of tinted eggs.
Heavier breeds include the Dorking and the Indian Game, which is very broad and weighty. There are also the heavier breeds with feathered legs to consider such as the Cochin, Brahma and Faverolles.
Here is a chart provided by the Poultry Club of Great Britain offering you the expected laying capabilities of pure breed chickens.
Whilst the Poultry Club recommended getting pure breeds, it’s at least worth mentioning hybrids. These birds are commercial crossbreeds that were originally developed in the 1950s. They were, unfortunately, selectively bred for the battery cage industry in order to vastly increase egg production. These chickens tend to be based on just a few pure breeds and are often brown in colour and are all around the same size.
The pure breeds that they are based on are some of the more productive birds. Hybrids tend to be cheaper than pure breeds as they are reared in large numbers and some examples of these breeds include Isabrown, Hy-line and Warrens. The very cheap ones should be avoided as they will often be at the end of their laying life. The best production you can look at with a hybrid breed will be around 250 - 300 eggs a year for around two years.
One honourable option would be to take on some ex-battery farmed hens. These spent layers will not have had the most enjoyable life, so you can offer them a lovely and happy “retirement”. Their output may not be as reliable as other birds, but you will have the satisfaction of doing a good deed. You may also be able to get help from the Battery Hen Welfare Trust.
Housing your chickens
___________________________________________________________Chickens are relatively hardy animals that don’t have the most demanding housing requirements. They can, for example, avoid predation rather well by roosting high in trees and are also quite well adapted at surviving in relatively high and low temperatures.
However, you will want to have some form of housing for your chickens in order to offer added safety and to help you when it comes to managing them. If you were to leave your chickens to roam free they may end up laying their eggs in the most hidden place possible making it hard for you to find them. Whlst they may be good at survival when offered trees and space to roam, if you leave them without much shelter in your garden, they most probably won’t last very long.
Picture courtesy of betancourt via Flickr Creative Commons.
So, offer them a nice secure house with somewhere high up where they can roost. Roosting perches and nesting boxes are a good idea. The chicken coop must be secured safely as predators will seek out your chickens in the night. As previously mentioned foxes can get through a whole henouse in one hit, so do your utmost to keep them out.
You won’t want to keep your chickens locked up in their coop all the time, so make sure they have somewhere to road around during the day and lock them away at night. Some people will opt to let their chickens roam free, however, building a covered run can be a safer option. So long as you don’t restrict their space too much.
What to include in your coop
A basic chicken coop should offer its inhabitants protection from predators and shelter from the weather. It should be able to keep the chickens dry when it rains, warm in the winter and nice and cool in the summer. As mentioned above, your hens will require space to lay their eggs. For example you could fill wooden boxes with straw, which would offer the hens a nice warm place to lay. One box for every two hens is a good way of saving space as the birds will be happy to share boxes. Placing their roosting space off the ground is one good way of keeping the chickens happy and you will also want to offer them around two to four square feet of ground space per bird as they do not deal well with overcrowding - which is a fact that makes the thought of battery chickens even more sad. When stressed, chickens will peck each other, so you need to ensure that they are happy in their home.
When it comes to the floor, it is a good idea to cover it with two to three inches of pine shavings. You must ensure that you replace these shavings every month.
Picture courtesy of Carly Lesser & Art Drauglis via Flickr Creative Commons.
If you are attaching an outdoor running space for your hens, then you will want to ensure that there is around eight to ten square feet of space per bird. This will offer them sufficient room in which to exercise. In order to keep the birds safe when they are in the run ensure that it has a wire top and fences around the edge. You should also ensure that these fences are buried to at least one foot below the ground as this will help prevent predators burrowing underneath.
Reproduction in the hutch
If you are going to be breeding hens to hatch their own eggs, then you will want to build a second coop or house for your broody hen. This is to stop her from being bullied off her nest by a more dominant bird.
What to feed your chickens
When planning what to feed your chickens it is vital to make sure that you use balanced feeds from reputable sources. You will also want to ensure that you are feeding the correct ration depending on the age of the birds. For example you should feed chick crumbs to six weeks, then growers pellets to 18 weeks and then layers pellets after that.
If you do opt to go for cheaper feeds then you should be aware that they will often be of poorer quality. You should avoid feeding them scraps regularly as these can upset the balanced ration. However, green vegetable cuttings can be good, especially in winter.
Compound rations can be fed to your chickens in pellet form or as meal or mash. If using pellets then you can place them in a feed hopper, however, mash should always be fed freshly mixed as it can turn bad rather quickly.
If your chickens are being given access to grass then you won’t need to offer them any extra greens. But in the winter, when the grass levels drop you will want to feed them some nettles or brussel sprouts or cabbage stalks to feed on too. Swede is also a good choice, simply cut it in half and plonk it on a nail sticking out of some wood - they’ll love it.
Picture courtesy of Farm Watch via Flickr Creative Commons.
Grit should be added to the diet in order to help the gizzard grind up food - this is even more important if you’re feeding the animals hard grain. At around four weeks before their laying begins, you will want to begin providing the birds with oyster shell or limestone grit as this will also help with the formation of egg shells.
Chick crumb is another product that is worth looking into. It is high in protein and is intended for chicks. However, if your chickens are moulting or aren't getting access to any naturally protein rich food such as worms and bugs, then supplimenting their diet with some chick crumb could be a good idea. This is usually the case when the ground becomes frosty for long periods. Chick crumb can improve the condition of your hens’ feathers and helps them to maintain good health.
It is important that your chickens have constant access to clean water throughout the year. An average hen will require around 200ml of water a day. However, during the warmer months of the year this requirement will obviously increase. Hens are very susceptable to dehydration and if they are left without water for just a couple of hours then it can kick in. This is bad because it will harm the welfare of the animal and it will also effect lay.
As with most farm animals, chickens and hens do love a good treat. You can offer them anything from green and leafy vegetables such as broccoli, lettuce and spinache - all of which give good colour to the yolk; to sweetcorn, fruit, peanuts and live mealworms.
It is often a good idea to offer up these treats later in the day once the chickens have had their fill of their regular food - ensuring they have gained all of their required nutrients. You should also bear in mind that during the warmer months there are plenty of natural grubs and greens around. This means you don’t have to offer very many treats. And finally, when it comes to treating your hens, make sure you don’t overdo it. An overweight hen will be out of condition which can impact laying.
You should always keep all of your chicken feed in a vermin-proof bin that is safe from the elements. This will keep the feed secure and fresh. When you purchse the feed take a look at the date on the bag as some freshly made feeds will only last around three months before the vitamin content begins to degrade to an unacceptable level.
Picture courtesy of Laura via Flickr Creative Commons.
What not to feed your chickens!
There are some things that you should always avoid feeding to your chickens. Certain fruits and vegetables and other foods can cause your chickens to fall ill. These include the following:
- Citrus Fruits
- Lawn Mower Clippings
If you are unsure as to whether or not you can feed a specific food to your chickens then make sure you consult a vet before going ahead with it.
Other bits and pieces
Here are some other snippets of advice that might come in handy whilst you are looking after your chickens. Some of these will be useful whilst others may just offer you a bit more of an insight into the behaviour of your chickens. The following bits of information are in no particular order. Enjoy.
Breeding your own chicks can be very rewarding. And, on top of this, little chicks are incredibly cute animals to look after. They will tend to take around 21 days to hatch from the egg, however, this timeframe will vary depending on the breed of chickens that you have.
Chickens will often have what is called a dustbath. This involves getting dust or dry soil in between their feathers and then vigorously wriggling their bodies and flapping their wings. The reson they do this is to get rid of parasites such as lice. If you allow your chickens to roam free then they will often find an area where dry soil is located and use this location for their dustbath. If you are keeping your chickens in a run that is covered then you can help them out if you supply them with a covered box or area in which they can have a dustbath.
Picture courtesy of Rob Faulkner via Flick Creative Commons.
Chickens tend to live for around five to ten years. However, as with all animals, this age range depends on breeds etc. There was one chicken, called Matilda, who made it into the Guinness Book of Records. She was the first recorded World’s Oldest Living Chicken and was 15-16 when she died. Now that is old for a chicken. However, one of the main reasons she died so late was because she never produced any eggs, which usually takes its toll on a hen. And, on top of this she was also kept inside for the majority of her life offering her a stable and protected environment all-year-round.
Sometimes hens will eat eggs
That’s right, if an egg breaks it is not uncommon for a hen to eat that egg. Wth most chickens that are kept together, as soon as one finds food, the rest will all crowd in. This means that egg eating can spread throughout a flock rather quickly. Unbroken eggs won’t usually be eaten, however, if one has something stuck to it, such as a smear of yolk from another broken egg, then they may peck at it.
If your hens are eating eggs then one good way of stopping this from taking place is to make their nests darkened. Chickens do not like to eat in the dark and are also less active in darkened spaces. This means that they are less likely to be moving around, preventing them from breaking eggs. But if they do crack one, they are less likely to eat it. Nest with more space and padded floors will often have less broken eggs in them, and you can also keep on top of breakages by collecting the eggs regularly.