This is by no means a definitive guide to keeping chickens but general information which may be helpful for those thinking about getting some hens. A good poultry handbook should provide more in dept information about keeping chickens.
Where to start
When buying chickens for laying, for the beginner the easiest way to get started will probably be to buy point of lay pullets which are 16-18 week old females which start to lay at around 19-21 weeks for the first time.
Regardless of what birds you buy, young or old, when you get the birds home or when they are delivered they will probably be a bit stressed from the ordeal of traveling so it is important to handle them with as much care as possible. When handling, hold the chicken by supporting the body underneath while confining the wings from above to stop them flapping. Place the birds in their house with a drinker and some food and leave them confined to the house for 24 hours before letting them out. The reason for keeping them locked in for 24 hours is so that they will realise this is their home. After 24 hours open the house door and allow the hens to emerge from the house of their own accord – some may be more cautious than others but they will eventually emerge and start to explore. Now place the feeder and drinker in a sheltered area of the run and soon the birds will be enjoying their new home.
Chickens will eat almost anything and are very easy to look after but it is important that they get the right balance of nutrients for health and egg production. This is usually done by feeding them layers pellets or layers mash as well as supplementing their diet with table scraps and vegetable peelings etc. Pellets are cleaner than mash but it is a personal preference as to which you choose to use – whichever you do choose try to buy an organic brand to avoid any of the artificial or genetically modified ingredients which some brands may contain.
Grain can also be given as feed and is usually fed separate to the mash or pellets to ensure that the birds are actually getting their nutrients. Mash or pellets in the morning and grain in the afternoon would be a good routine. The grain also has the added benefit of bulking out the pellets or mash which are more expensive to buy.
To digest food chickens need grit, this acts to grind food in the gizzard once it has passed from the crop where it is stored before digestion. Generally free-ranging birds will in the normal course of their foraging and scratching about pick up enough grit to aid digestion but it is still a good idea to provide some in the run.
Calcium is required for strong shells on eggs and for the bone structure of the bird. Layers pellets and mash will contain a certain amount of calcium. A sign of calcium deficiency is a soft or fragile egg shell. Crushed oyster shell can be bought from feed suppliers to improve calcium levels.
Food should not be left lying around so as to avoid attracting vermin.
Clean fresh water should be always available. Raising the drinker off the ground on a couple of bricks or blocks will help to keep the water clean. In cold weather it is important to make sure the water is not frozen over.
Cleaning regularly is important. The frequency of cleaning depends on the size of house and number of birds. Droppings, hay, straw and wood chips can all be added to the compost heap or can be stored separately allowed to rot down and used as a fertiliser for fruit and veg.
If the chickens are being kept in a small confined run it should be moved regularly so as to provide fresh grass and to prevent picking up disease and parasites from the ground.
Moulting, which is the annual loss of feathers occurs in mid to late summer. Usually this occurs in the second year but a small amount of moulting may occur in the first. Egg laying may also stop at this time.
It is important that the hens have a balanced diet to help with re-feathering.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q. Do I need a cockerel to have eggs?
A. No, Hens will lay eggs with or without a cockerel.
Q. Do I need a lot of space to keep hens?
A. As long as adequate housing and an area to range is provided hens will be happy and healthy. Even in a small garden it is possible to keep a few chickens so long as the run area can be moved to provide fresh ground if they are being confined.
Q. How many eggs will a hen lay?
A. This depends on the breed of hen but generally laying hens will lay about 300 eggs per year. The may stop in winter and during moulting but during their peak laying time the will normally lay about one egg a day.
Q. How do I protect hens from the fox?
A. There is no 100% sure way of keeping foxes away but the most reliable method is to lock your hens in their house every night and not to let them out too early in the morning. This way the risk from an attack from a fox can be minimised.