A Beginner's Guide to Keeping Chickens
Families looking towards a more natural and sustainable lifestyle are turning to chicken keeping. What, after all, could be more delicious than fresh, free range eggs from happy hens?
They're also a welcome distraction, with the care and attention they need, from everything else going on in the world right now and a great way to educate children about the value of animals.
We spoke to Holistic Vet Nick Thompson, MRCVS and got some helpful tips and advice for novice chicken owners.
Raising chickens for beginners
Provided you've got the space, keeping a few chickens in your backyard is fairly straightforward, although these are a few things to consider:
Choosing a breed
There are hundreds of chicken breeds available in the United States, and the chickens you chose will depend on a number of factors, including:
- Eggs - Are you looking for consistent layers or pets?
- Climate - Do you live in an especially cold or hot climate?
- Personality - Are you looking for friendly, cuddly chooks? Or more utilitarian, independent birds?
A few good options for beginners:
- Rhode Island Reds - These are a great option for a first-time chicken owner, as they're hardy in most climates and can lay 250-300 eggs a year.
- Hybrids - Hybrid chickens have been bred to lay large amounts of eggs, with some laying over 300 eggs a year.
- Leghorns - Although these don't make the best pets, they are excellent layers of white eggs, sometimes reaching 300–320.
- Jersey Giants - The gentle giant of the chicken world, these are calm and docile birds, laying around 150-200 eggs yearly.
- Silkies - Silkie chickens are one of the most sweet natured breeds. Fluffy and friendly, they make great pets, but aren't the best layers.
Backyard chicken and worms
Chickens are susceptible to various species of intestinal worms.
Dr Nick explains: "You'll need to ensure that you keep on top of any worms that all birds pick up. Whichever regime you use, it is wise to do fecal egg counts periodically (every 3-6 months) to assess how 'wormy' your birds actually are. It is usually impossible to tell from the outside what's happening in this department, so use a laboratory to help you simply and cheaply manage this side of things.
"By connecting with where your food is coming from, it’s an opportunity to cut out any unnecessary chemicals. By using a natural supplement, you can still eat the eggs from hens fed on a diet of BiomeXity. No nasties means nothing to worry about."
You’ll also need to think about their shelter and nutrition.
What do you need to raise chickens?
Dr Nick continues: "The best hen house is one that is big enough for all your birds (approximately one well bedded box per three hens) with adequate perch space (allow 25cm per bird, unless bantams) for all. If you cut corners here, you can induce stress disease e.g. feather pecking, egg eating and cannibalism.
"A hen house that's easy to clean is a godsend to the busy chicken owner, but will also reduce the chance of mites living in the cracks in wooden houses. Plastic hen houses, although potentially expensive initially have the major advantage of being easy to clean thoroughly, reducing the chance of mites infesting the building or persistent bacteria contaminating hard-to-get-at corners.
"I've seen some made from recycled plastic on eBay and the famous Eglu is apparently such a novel design that it's part of a permanent collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It's worth looking around for something that suits you and your wallet. Beware, secondhand houses may come with unwanted guests such as mites or coccidia infection.
"Housing should be cleaned out regularly, including feeders and drinkers to reduce the prevalence of bacteria, coccidiosis, viruses and moulds. They should periodically be disinfected and sprayed for red mites, especially all the nooks and crannies between slats in wooden houses.
"To clean a hen house, remove all litter and soak with a detergent. Wash well and rinse and allow to dry thoroughly. Disinfect when dry. Allow to dry and then replace bedding. I recommend shavings.
"It is very important to keep the run as mud free as possible to reduce coccidiosis risk. Moving the run, if possible, really helps me here. It should be as big as you can spare the hens; bigger the better to reduce stocking density, stress and increase exposure to fresh greens, worms and insects in the environment and will help reduce mud build up in winter."
Good nutrition is important if you want good quality eggs from your flock.
Dr Nick says: "Rations for hens should be the best you can afford. If you economize here, you run the risk of inviting nutritional disease later, not to mention reducing the chance of lots of lovely eggs. Personally, I would always opt for organic food, but the important thing is that it is well formulated by a reputable company, not just corn. Once you find a food that works for you and the hens, stick with it, don't shop for the bargain of the month as change in diet can upset digestion.
"All feeds must be stored away from vermin. Watch out for spilled feed as this, too, will encourage mice and rats. Ensure stores are used up and replenished frequently to avoid mold and rot.
"Your hen's ration should suit their age and purpose. Your supplier can usually help you here, if not your vet will be a useful contact. Grit is essential for good crop function and good digestion. Oyster shell should be part of the grit blend you use for calcium.
"Also, remember that chickens are foragers, so you can broaden their diet and reduce stress by allowing them to roam, safely, as much as possible. Clean, fresh drinking water, from clean drinkers and/or water sources is obviously essential, especially in hot weather.
"Feeding and the act of foraging and pecking around is incredibly important to hens. If you have housed birds, then supplementing with greens is important, as it is with birds with good access to grass and soil. All hens like treats, so give these to relieve boredom, although do not feed kitchen scraps.
"Hens in lay need more nutrients and calories than those not, so bear this in mind; the more eggs they're producing, the more feed they'll need, but by the same token, as they go off, you must reduce feeding levels to avoid obesity (all too common in backyard hens, I'm afraid) which can stop hens laying and render males infertile."
BiomeXity for Poultry
BiomeXity for Poultry has the added advantage that you are able to eat your hens’ eggs while using the product.
For exacting amounts, please read our feeding guide.
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