A Guide to Keeping Chickens

keeping-chickensMany people believe that keeping chickens should be left to expert farmers, but this simply isn’t true. If you have a roomy garden and fancy the idea of fresh eggs, then chickens are for you.

Contrary to popular belief, keeping chickens is not difficult; it just takes a little know-how to keep them away from the clutches of Mr Fox. Chickens are hardy creatures that are easy to look after. They can be thoroughly entertaining and act as natural pest killers.

Keeping chickens in your garden can be extremely rewarding and, if you’re currently mulling over whether to provide a home for a flock of feathered friends, the guide below should answer all the questions you have about keeping chickens.

Choosing Your Chicken Coop

The chicken coop (the wooden house that the chickens live in) is likely to be the priciest investment when it comes to owning chickens of your own. There are many designs available on the market and, as many are made of wood, it is often a case of ‘you get what you pay for’. However, some lower budget chicken coops can be kept for years if treated to a coat of wood preserver and a touch of rejuvenation now and again.

When purchasing your chicken coop, keep a keen eye on the level of workmanship and quality of the wood used to make the coop. Inevitably, the better quality wood the longer it will last, but this will also hike up the price so it is all about adapting to suit your budget.

Chicken houses can be quaint and beautiful, or very basic. For the DIY-savvy amongst us, you could opt to build your own coop out of wood and wire. Essentially with chicken coops, as long as your chickens are kept dry, draft free, and well ventilated, the accommodation is perfect.

Whether building your own coop, or having purchased one ready-made, it is best that the wood is pressure treated to prevent deterioration in the first year. Also, nails, screws, and fittings, should be galvanised to stop them rusting. It is worth remembering when painting or treating a coop to ensure the product you are using is animal friendly and allow the structure to be completely dry before letting your brood move in.

If you have a few extra pennies in your budget, investing in a coop with a droppings board and large access door will save lots of struggling in the future. The floor of the house can be covered with wood shavings, straw that isn’t too dusty, or shredded cardboard. Many chicken owners like using straw or cardboard as it a great addition to their compost heaps after the chickens have made use of it.

Your Chicken Run

For an excellent quality of life, and to keep your chickens healthy, they should be allowed to stretch their legs. Your chicken’s could have full reign of the garden during the day, or have a sizeable fenced off area or pen. Chickens need to be able to roam and having the biggest area possible is advised. Having the most natural and free-range set up for your chickens will keep then happier and healthier, thus keeping costs down and egg counts up.

Protecting Your Chickens

It is imperative that your chicken’s run is secure. As much as you want to keep the chickens in, you also definitely want to be keeping foxes and other predators out. If building your own enclosure, bury wire netting at least 20cm into the earth, this will prevent predators from digging under the fencing. Furthermore, if possible, give the top of your run a roof or cover that is sturdy but can be detached in the day time. Many larger runs could be fitted with an electric fence or, electric poultry netting, where foxes are a real nuisance.

For some, enclosing their chickens up safely in their fox-proof coop is the best option at night. Some owners who relish their lie-ins like to invest in automatic door openers. This is a gadget that has a digital timer, essentially like a chicken alarm clock, that will open the door of the coop when it is safe for your chickens to venture into the dawn.

Feeding Your Chickens

Like all pets, chickens need a balanced diet. Traditionally, people fed their chickens scraps and let them forage as much as they liked. However, the reality is that a diet of leftover tidbits is not going to provide your chicken with the correct balance of nutrients for a healthy life.

Handily, most chicken feeds these days have been created to contain the correct mix of minerals, vitamins and nutrients. These feeds most often come in pellet form, or as a powdered mash. For healthy chickens that produce an ample quality of eggs, it best to provide them with a formulated feed.

No matter the number in your flock, there will be a pecking order amongst your chickens. Having enough feeders is essential to ensure that the birds at the bottom of the chain are still getting their fair share of food and not fighting against those at the top of the hierarchy.

Every hen deserves a treat now and again and garden or allotment scraps that have been nowhere near your kitchen are allowed. However, chickens who have a diet exceeding 20% scraps are prone to being overweight at which point egg production decreases. Some common plants and foods are poisonous for your chickens, so never feed avocado, potato plant leaves or rhubarb.

Mixed corn is also a welcome treat for your chickens. But, again, do not let them indulge too often. The yellow bit in mixed corn, maize, is fattening and fat hens simply do not lay eggs. A handful per hen, per day, is advised.

Lastly, chickens do not have teeth and rely on flint grit and oyster shell grit to grind down their food. The oyster shell grit also contains high levels of calcium which will help your hens lay eggs with strong shells.

Water and Apple Cider Vinegar For Your Chickens

The size of water containers for your chickens, also referred to as drinkers, will be dependent on the size of your flock. You will need to make sure that your chickens have fresh water that is free of droppings. The drinker should not tip over easily and should be easy to clean, and this should be done at least every-other day.

Drinkers will ideally hold enough water to last one day for all your chickens, with some spare capacity for hot summer days. A handy tip is to allow a litre of water per chicken, plus a litre spare on top.

As with feeding the same pecking order will be maintained when it comes to water consumption as well. This may mean you need to invest in a secondary drinker, to allow those chickens at the bottom of the pecking order to get their share of water. This second water container should be located away from the one frequented by the dominant chickens.

Apple Cider Vinegar is also very good for your chickens. However, being acidic, it must be provided in plastic containers. Galvanised containers will corrode.

Keeping Your Chickens Healthy

On the whole, chickens are small and hardy. However, chickens can sometimes have health problems and require some extra special care from you. Reputable breeders will always provide you with fully vaccinated chickens. However, there are a variety of common chicken health problems and it is best to give your chickens a regular health check to ensure they are in the best condition.

A nemesis of the chicken is the parasitic worm and it is far easier to prevent worms than treat them. Chickens can contract three types of worms:

  • Roundworms – this category can be split into threadworms, hairworms, and the most common, the large roundworm. These can be found anywhere in your chicken’s digestive system and can often be spotted in your chicken’s droppings.
  • Gapeworms – chickens suffering with gapeworms will often appear to be gasping for air, stretching their necks upwards. Gapeworms attach themselves to the trachea of the chicken and are often picked up via worms, slugs, and snails.
  • Tapeworms – these are the least common but can significantly weaken your chicken’s immune system by attaching themselves to the lining of the intestines.

A chicken with worms will often eat more, but lose weight, suffer from diarrhoea, or stop laying eggs. Preventing worms is much easier to do than treat a worm infection. Worming treatments can be administered to your chickens feed or water every month. Apple cider vinegar is another remedy. A teaspoon of vinegar in a litre of water will keep your chickens in a healthy condition.

Red mites are small parasites that could live in your chicken coop and feed on the blood of your chickens at night. Wooden coops tend to suffer the most from red mite infestations. Chickens who are suffering from red mites will often stop laying eggs, have a pale comb and wattle, and become anaemic.

The best way to get rid of red mites is to completely strip the coop and replace all the bedding after thoroughly scrubbing the wood down. Applying red mite powder to the coop and your chickens every couple of days is advised.

Parasites also attack chickens via scaly leg mite and depluming mite. Scaly leg is caused by mites burrowing under the scales of a chicken’s leg, causing the damaged tissue to weep, which is what the mites feed on. In severe cases chickens can become lame, but most chickens will simply suffer from crusty legs, covered in irritation or raised scales when the infection progresses. There are a variety of lotions available that will soothe and cure the mites.

The depluming mite is related to the scaly leg mite. This parasite burrows in to the skin of the chicken by the shaft of the feather. This causes irritation and discomfort for the chicken and the mite feeds off the fluid that is released as a result. Many chickens end up looking worse for wear when suffering with these mites, often plucking out their own feathers and gaining bald spots. Sulphur baths are a popular solution to get rid of the depluming mite, however, it is best to visit your vet for expert advice, especially if a novice chicken owner.

Should I Keep Cockerels?

Cockerels are only needed if you intend on breeding from your hens. Your hens will still lay eggs without a cockerel; he will just provide the fertilisation to turn eggs into tiny yellow chicks.

If this is the path you are wishing to take, one cockerel per five hens is ideal. Cockerels can be fiercely possessive over their hens and may fight if there is competition when it comes to mating. Essentially it is a case of making sure there are an ample amount of hens to go round!

Chicks will only hatch from fertilised eggs if the hen is broody and sits on then, or if you incubate them yourselves. If you have a cockerel but do not wish to have chicks, simply remove the eggs every day and place them in the fridge. These eggs are fine to eat and are exactly the same as non-fertilised eggs at this juncture.

Speaking to other chicken owners and perusing beginner chicken handbooks is a great start in providing you with ample knowledge on your chicken husbandry journey. Chickens are forgiving animals and as long as they are safe, fed, watered, and healthy, they will be a great addition to any family.