collecting eggs

A Guide to Keeping Chickens

This week our featured article is all about keeping chickens.  Growing in popularity with both town and country folk… we thought we’d find an expert to give you an overview of what it entails to keep chickens.  Our author Tim Daniels has been keeping poultry for years and runs a poultry information website.   Now an accomplished breeder he has agreed to share his knowledge with Vital Pet Health members. Read on for everything you wanted to know about keeping chickens.

Keeping chickens has certainly become more popular over the last few years and with the reward of fresh eggs and a small taste of the good life in your own back garden, it’s no surprise the hobby has been gaining in popularity. If you are thinking of keeping chickens, you are bound to have some questions and this article aims to get you started along the right path.

Before you Start

light sussex chickens

Before you learn how to keep chickens, it is a good idea to understand the level of commitment involved.  On welfare grounds, you must consider where your chickens are going to live and ensure there is sufficient space for the number of birds you plan to keep. Most small gardens can accommodate a few hens but even a small area can quickly turn to mud with their constant scratching. You must consider whether you have sufficient time for the daily care and feeding routine as well as the time for cleaning their coop weekly. Remember chickens will need locking up every night without fail unless their coop is inside a fox proof run.

The Chicken and House and Run

The chicken house is probably the most expensive thing you will buy. Chickens don’t require any sort of luxurious accommodation but their coop does need to be well ventilated and be secure from predators. Cheap chicken houses can appear to be satisfactory for a few chickens but keep in mind that they don’t usually last very long and can have a number of weak points where a determined fox will be able to get in. Often, cheaper chicken houses and runs are over sold on the number of chickens they will hold so it’s always better to buy a coop that holds more birds than you plan to keep.

The larger run you can provide for your chickens, the better, although few of us have the luxury of a big garden these days.  Don’t despair though, it is perfectly acceptable to keep chickens in a small run and let them out to free range when you’re around. Chickens will go back to their coop to roost at night so letting them out for a few hours before dark is the ideal time.   If you plan to keep chickens in a small run, you should start thinking about how to keep the ground beneath them fresh. This can be done in two ways: By using a movable ark or by filling the run with six inches of softwood chippings, gravel or course sand. that can be changed every so often. This option is usually the best if you don’t have a lot of space. Arks are a great idea but the grass soon gets worn down and can take a long time to recover during the winter months.   All domestic chickens descended from the Red Jungle Fowl of Asia.  They naturally prefer wooded areas that offer them cover.  If you can include shrubs or bushes in their run, they will be content but also have natural shade provided in the summer months.

Food and Water

Chicken feeds are nutritionally balanced and contain everything your bird will normally need in their diet if they have access to grass when they free range. Grit should be provided for digestion since hens don’t have teeth and grind their food down with the help of insoluble grit. Fresh greens can be given to supplement their foraging. Mixed corn is often mistakenly fed ad-lib by newcomers to their birds. Mixed corn should only be fed as a treat (about a handful per bird per day is sufficient) since maize (the yellow pieces in mixed corn) is very fattening and wheat only contains around 10% protein which is insufficient for a laying hen. Fat hens don’t lay eggs!   Ensure your chickens have access to fresh water at all times, especially during hot weather. Chickens cannot sweat to cool down so they can only lose heat by panting or taking on cool water and passing more droppings than usual.  Try to keep water containers in the shade during hot weather.

light sussex chickensHybrids and Purebreeds

Hybrid Chickens produce a good number of eggs and are cheaper to buy than pure breeds since they can be sexed as day old chicks, which nearly halves their rearing costs.  They are a popular choice for beginners

There are nearly 100 chicken breeds. These are standardised by the Poultry Club of Great Britain. Not all breeds are suitable for beginners so it is best to spend some time researching a breed. For example, Mediterranean Breeds are generally flighty and some scratch far more than others and are better suited to larger runs.

Chicken Health

During the summer and autumn months, red mites are a common problem in hen houses so it is important to check the coop regularly for these pests. Respiratory problems are also fairly common in chickens but a few minutes observation every day will soon alert you to unusual behaviours such as sneezing or difficulty breathing. Chickens will need worming, generally every 4 to 6 months providing they are kept clean and not in intensive conditions.

Purchasing chickens from a reputable breeder and providing your birds with a healthy diet, will usually keep your chickens healthy.

About the author

Tim Daniels

Tim has been interested in poultry and the countryside since an early age. Growing up with Chickens and Ducks, as well as aviary birds like Canaries, Zebra Finches, Java Sparrows, Doves and Quail and having a pigeon loft at the bottom of the garden for Racing Pigeons, Tim takes care of the website design and the running of the 2 servers at poultrykeeper.com, as well as writing the bulk of the articles on the site. Tim currently breeds Marans and Cream Legbar chickens and keeps a few other breeds in small numbers. He keeps Abacot Ranger Ducks and hopes to have some Brecon Buff and American Buff geese soon.

For more information on keeping poultry visit poultrykeeper.com

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