This guide will show you exactly how to keeping and raising chickens.
- Which hen to choose
- Housing and equipment
- Maintaining health
And if you have some questions like:
- How do you take care of chicken?
- How many chickens should I keep?
- How much does it cost to keep chickens?
- What do you feed chickens daily?
You will get the answers here.
Let’s get started.
Table of Contents
Chicken Raising Facts
THE BASIC EQUATION for hens is NUTRITION IN = EGGS OUT.
In the middle are all sorts of complicated factors like genetics, health, and environment.
The laying cycle of a hen is a minimum length of twenty-five-ish hours and the best layers will lay an egg a day for a few weeks and then sometimes miss a day because of this.
Hens need a balanced diet to perform properly. If they don’t get enough of the right things to eat, they will not lay.
Chickens are omnivores – they will eat pretty much anything from corn to flies to frogs to each other.
They also need plenty of fresh water at all times.
The darker brown the colour of the egg, the less a hen will lay – it is the length of time the egg spends in the oviduct that controls the amount of colour that is laid down on the shell.
Parasites such as worms and mites affect how well a hen lays. A very common reason for going out of lay is parasite infection of one kind or another.
Keep your hens well fed (not too fat!) and their environment clean and they will reward you with regular eggs.
You do not need a cockerel for your hens to lay. A cockerel does sort out the pecking order quickly in a flock and keeps his wives in line.
However, it is not necessary to keep one for egg production and in an urban or even rural village setting it can cause a lot of trouble with neighbours over noise.
Having said that, I do I like to keep a cockerel with my hens, firstly for fertile eggs. But also because the hens seem to function better as a flock if they have a male with them.
He keeps an eye for predators and gives the hens warning if he sees one.
You will also often find that he will sacrifice himself for his ladies if there is an attack by a fox.
It’s not as complicated as it sometimes sounds!
In their ‘natural’ state, chickens are jungle dwelling fowl.
They are built to forage all day on the jungle floor for food and then sleep in a tree at night.
Domesticated fowl have been bred to produce more eggs and/or have a larger frame in order to give us more meat … giving them secure housing, clean conditions, and good food makes that happen. It isn’t that complicated.
How To Choose a Hen for Raising Chickens?
THERE ARE HUNDREDS of different kinds of hens, from tiny bantams no larger than a pigeon to enormous birds that will intimidate a small dog.
That is part of the fun of choosing what to keep!
They are all variations on a theme; they eat food, poo, produce eggs. Some need larger housing and some need smaller.
Some (some of the tiny bantams for example) are a bit more vulnerable to bad weather than others.
Choosing what you want to keep can be as simple as going along to the local farm and asking what they have, or spending ages researching colour and egg production statistics. It’s up to you!
Here are some thoughts to get you started.
Bantam or large breed?
BANTAMS LAY SMALLER eggs than large fowl; but also take up less room, eat less and are less damaging to a garden.
Some popular bantam breeds:
- Pekins and silkies can all get very tame, good with children.
- Welbar, Light Sussex, Ancona. Can all be very good layers.
- Coloured eggs. Marans: Dark brown. Araucana. Blue/green.
Some popular large breeds:
- Light Sussex, Rhode Island Red, Leghorn, Barnevelder, Orpington.
- Hens that lay coloured eggs. Cream Legbar: blue eggs. Marans & Barnevelder & Welsummer: Dark brown eggs.
Hybrid or pure breed?
Hybrids are ‘Large Fowl’ – you don’t get bantam hybrids.
Hybrids are specially bred for egg laying capabilities and lay 250 to 320 eggs a year.
Expect between 150 to 220 eggs per year from a Pure Breed hen, although some strains of Light Sussex and Rhode Island Red still lay 260 per year and there is a move afoot generally in the poultry world to retain and regain utility.
Pure Breeds have often been bred for their looks rather than their productivity, so when you are buying, you need to check whether they are from a ‘utility’ strain or not, if that is important to you.
Pure breeds lay less than hybrids in their first couple of years; but they will keep laying for a few years, whereas hybrids will tend to be ‘spent’ and worn out after two years.
Hybrids are often smaller than pure breeds and eat a bit less; they are bred to output the most eggs for the least feed money.
Hybrids tend to be given random names by the company that created them, and lots of companies create slightly similar concoctions and call them similar names.
The name ‘Black Rock’, for example,is owned by the Muirfield Layers hatchery in Scotland and cannot be used by anyone else.
However, there are various other permutations around by other people, with roughly the same genetic make up – the Rhode Rock, for example.
They are all a mixture of the Rhode Island Red and Barred Plymouth Rock to a greater or lesser degree.
Cockerels for hybrid breeds are not available and they will not breed true anyway.
- Black Rock, Warren, Bluebell, Calder Ranger, Goldline.
- Speckledy – dark brown eggs.
- Cotswold Legbar – blue eggs, NOT TO BE CONFUSED with the Cream Legbar.
Hybrids have a role in modern food production and if your emphasis is on egg numbers then they are definitely worth looking at.
Personality wise they are just as interesting as pure breeds.
My personal preference is for pure breeds as I like the idea of keeping a tradition going – and helping preserve a bit of the gene pool. They are also often prettier to look at!
Heavy Breed or Light Breed?
Heavy-breed fowl tend to wear big crinolines with lots of petticoats, have large bottoms and be laid backin their approach to life.
They originated as breeds that were both reasonable layers and reasonably fast fatteners for eating.
Heavy-breeds include Light Sussex, Wyandotte, Barnevelder, Faverolles, Orpington, Marans, and Plymouth Rock.
They tend to be slower to mature than light-breeds, coming in to lay at about six months and often don’t reach their full mature bodyweight until their second year.
Light-breeds are smaller and lighter, tend to come in to lay a bit younger and be more highly strung and flighty.
Leghorns are the best-known light-breed. They are suitable only for laying — you could eat one if you were hungry, but it’s a lot of effort for what you get meat-wise.
Light=breeds also need more space to run about, in my opinion, if they are to ‘do’ as well as they can.
Vaccinate or don’t vaccinate?
IF YOU BUY FROM A LARGE breeder, the birds will probably be vaccinated against a range of diseases.
Smaller breeders tend not to vaccinate, either for cost or practicality reasons or because they do not see a need.
Some people believe it is not good to mix vaccinated and non-vaccinated stock because vaccinated birds can carry diseases without exhibiting symptoms and this can be passed on to the rest of an un-vaccinated flock.
However, if you have a small flock and mix birds anyway, you will often find that birds from one source are immune to one thing and birds from another source are immune to another – you mix the flocks and they all get each other’s germs, a bit like the first few weeks the children go back to school in September.
Good hygiene and stock management should mean that this isn’t a problem – healthy birds with a low stocking density will throw disease off.
Vaccination is essential if you are keeping thousands of birds and it is your livelihood; and if you are a large producer keeping birds at the maximum stocking density that DEFRA allows.
However, if you are a small backyard keeper, it really is down to your own preferences.
Where to Buy?
IF YOU CAN, BUY FROM personal recommendation. If you can’t do that, go and visit your preferred breeder and ask to have a look at their birds and at their parent stock.
A reputable breeder will be happy to show you around and spend time chatting.
There are often local ‘table top sales’ at feed merchants during the summer, which can be a good way to meet people and get an idea of what you want.
Small breeders can take along any surplus stock they have and you can get chatting.
Larger livestock auction centres often have rare breed auctions monthly; auctions are a good place to go to see stock, but if you are buying for the first time, take along a more experienced friend – you are not allowed to handle the stock, for health and disease reasons, and so you need to know what you are looking for, or more surely, avoiding.
Cost Versus Age
WHAT YOU PAY FOR A chicken very much depends on what you are buying and who you are buying from.
It also varies wildly from area to area across the country.
A lot of people sell birds at POL — Point Of Lay — which is about eighteen weeks old.
Depending on the breed and the time of year, hybrids and light-breeds might just be in lay at that point; or for heavier breeds, not come in to lay until twenty-four or twenty-six weeks.
Hybrids start at around E8 at Point Of Lay (POL), a Pure Breed hen will start at about E 15 and go up to E35 or E45, depending on the breed and how old she actually is.
Always ask how old hens are in weeks when you are buying and then you will have some idea ofhow long you should expect to wait for eggs.
If a hen is at POL as the nights are starting to draw in — October or November, she probably won’t start to lay until after the turn ofthe year, around about Christmas.
People pay a premium for ‘fashionable’ birds and ones that lay blue or dark brown eggs, such as Cream Legbars and Marans.
Obviously, if you buy younger stock, prices should be less, accordingly. This has the advantage that your hens will settle in before they think about laying and will become tame.
On the other hand, you will have to wait for eggs!
Ex-battery hens are often a starting point for a lot of people. They are cheap and you get a feel-good buzz be- cause you are giving them a nice home whilst you work out whether chicken keeping is really for you.
You get the satisfaction of seeing them turn from wobbly survivors of an intensive system to confident producers of your breakfast egg.
There are various charities that take them en-mass from the farm and then rehouse them for a small fee.
The downside is that they are already past their laying prime – although they may live and produce usefully for another three or four years; they may run out of puff much quicker and just fade away after a few months of freedom, depending on their genetics.
However, my main consideration is that by rehousing like having to pay for disposal ofthe birds, they get them taken away for free, which of course impacts on industry costs.
That doesn’t take from the fact that for those individual birds you take on, you are doing a good thing. Just be aware ofthe whole picture if you go this route.
Essentials: Choosing Stock
- Look for bright eyes and an upright posture, not hunched. If it’s diffcult to catch, it’s probably healthy!
- You can askto see the parent stock – the breeder may not have them, but they should be able to tell you where the birds come from.
- Try and avoid buying from people who buy and sell. They may be buying at auction and selling on for a markup, which isn’t bad in itself, but it does mean that you won’t know where your birds came from and they have more opportunity to be exposed to disease.
- Auctions are a bit intimidating for inexperienced people – take a more experienced friend along with you.
- Table-top sales can be a good way to meetlocal breeders and make contacts – and buy!
Housing and Equipment for Raising Chickens
What space do I need?
People are often very confused about how much space they need for their chickens.
DEFRA regulations are set out in various publications I have linked to in the Appendix, but here is a summary from this point in time (September 2016).
It’s important to remember that in egg marketing terms, ‘free range’ is a legal definition.
In the traditional sense, it just means ‘letting your hens out to wander around a bit’ and that’s how I use it unless I am very specifically referring to DEFRA.
UK regulations state that in ‘non-cage systems’ , ie, ‘Barn Hens’, stocking density in the hen house should not be more than nine birds bird per square meter (which works out at about one square foot each). Producers must have one nestfor seven hens.
Perches must be 30cm apart and they must allow 15 cm of perch space per hen.
In addition, to be classified as ‘free range’, commercial hens should be allowed outside space of four square meters per bird, or 2,500 hens per hectare.
In practice, with large commercial free-range systems, hens tend to cluster near the pop-holes oftheir houses and not stray far over the pasture they have been allowed.
Paddocks tend to be grassed areas with no trees or shrubs.
Hens can also be housed in ‘multi-story’ arrangements under these regulations and there are rules for how much feed and water trough space they need and how many pop-holes are spaced along the houses.
As a food producing system for lots of humans, trying to keep animal welfare in mind, I think it’s acceptable. But it is in no way natural and I do think it’s important to remember this.
In my opinion, the legal requirement for housing and perching space should be taken as an absolute minimum in a small system.
For example, as a rule of thumb for Barnevelders, which are classed as a heavy breed, I would allow two square feet per bird inside a house, with 25cm of perch space each.
We will get on to the difference between Heavy and Light breeds later but basically, the legal space requirements are set out assuming the birds are quite small hybrid laying hens.
More traditional breeds will need more space. Bantams, of course, will need less. As a rule of thumb, you can assume twice as many bantam as large fowl in the same space.
In your run, I would allow at least one square meter per bird, if you are going to be able to let them out regularly.
If you are going to keep them inside the run all the time, it would be good if you could allow more than that, at least two square meters.
With these sort of stocking densities, you will not be able to keep grass in the run, so you will need to put something like chopped straw or bark chippings down as a base and reckon to clear it out (on to a compost heap) every couple ofmonths.
It would also be worth thinking about some sort ofroofing for at least part of the pen to keep the floor dry.
If you want to keep them on grass all the time, you will need to think about a much larger space – perhaps six or seven square meters per bird.
The other alternative to consider if you have space is a run that you can move every day.
However, if you don’t get to move it, you will find that the ground becomes muddy and fouled very quickly.
If you have space you could consider the ‘Balfour Method’ – having a permanent pen with the house and feed and water and two or even three grass pens surrounding it.
You throw all your garden waste and kitchen scraps that would ordinarily go on the compost heap into this pen, along with some ground cover like chopped straw.
You leave your hens shut in until mid-morning or lunchtime and then you let them into the grass pens in rotation.
They do most oftheir scratching in the permanent pen in the morning and hopefully their egg laying – and then they get a bit of grazing in the afternoons and the grass doesn’t get destroyed so quickly.
By having grass pens you can rotate through, the grass gets a chance to regrow.
Ideally, you would mow it when necessary so it doesn’t get overly long.
In my opinion, generally speaking, the way to start is to look at the space you have to allocate to a permanent run and then decide whether you will be letting your birds out into the garden or fields.
Be realistic aboutyour lifestyle – for example, if you work full time and are planning on letting them out when you are at home, for most of the winter they will spend their time in their pen.
Plan how many birds you are able to keep accordingly. I would also say, start slowly, until you have gone through a whole winter, from September to April.
It’s fine to have a lot of birds in the summer. In the winter, when it’s snowing, it’s muddy, you haven’t managed to clean them out for a couple ofweeks because it’s been hacking down at the weekend when you’re home, and you’ve just slipped and fallen over in the poo whilst chipping ice off their water you’ll wish you hadn’t succumbed to temptation and bought the three extra ones you liked the look of at the farm.
Types of Housing
There are as many types of poultry housing as there are poultry keepers.
However, there are very simple priorities – keeping the birds dry and keeping the house ventilated with a minimum of draughts.
Chickens come with their own built-in duvet, so they really don’t need much extra insulation – just having a dry place that’s out of the wind will mean that if they get wet they can dry off naturally and their body temperature will start to rise.
The exception to this is very small bantams, which like quail and tiny birds have a very small body mass and therefore find it more diffcult to raise their body temperature to keep dry and warm without a bit of additional shelter.
For back garden chicken keepers, there are a huge number of purpose build solutions on the market, from moulded plastic that is easily pressure washed out to gypsy caravans.
What you pick will depend on your available space and available cash.
I do like some of the moulded plastic solutions — however, they can be very expensive new and if you are just starting out you may not want to invest that amount of money.
Some ofthe eBay solutions available are very cheap and cheerful and a much better option financially.
They are not good quality – you definitely get what you pay for – but they do the job for beginners, even if you have to re-screw some of the woodwork with longer, better quality screws.
Longer lasting options are often available from local woodyards and joineries, with good quality, pressure treated timber, but you will have to search by local recommendation to find them.
Second-hand housing can often be a very good buy if you have transport to collect it – but you will need to disinfect thoroughly before you put your birds inside.
Plastic versus wood is entirely personal preference.
I prefer wood b ecause my preferred method of cleaning is to scrape out and blowtorch the corners for lice and mites and then vaseline my perch ends.
Blowtorching a plastic coop is not recommended!
However, plastic coops usually come completely apart and are very easy if you have a pressure washer – however you do then have to wait for them to dry off before you can put them back together and put the birds inside.
It’s entirely down to whatyou feel is easiest for you.
The other option is to find something like a small shed or children’s playhouse and convert ityourself.
This would be my preferred option if space is available.
A six foot by four foot shed with a couple ofperches across one end over a droppings board – more ofthat in a moment – leaves plenty of room for nest boxes, scratching space in bad weather and for feed and water to stay inside.
It also means a lot less bending when you are cleaning out.
At the other end ofthe scale, I have four tiny bantams living very happily in a four-foot by eighteen-inch rabbit hutch that I have put a perch in, with a four-foot by eight-foot pen attached.
They lay in a small cardboard box I have wedged into the corner that every so often I burn and replace.
Droppings boards – what are they?
Just a board underneath the perching area that can be easily scraped clean.
Hens pass about two-thirds of their faeces at night, so if you can keep it out of the bedding you are on to a winner.
If you are making your own house, having perches three feet up in the air and a shelf a foot underneath with a piece oflino on it will mean that space underneath THAT can be used for nest boxes or just as more space to scratch.
You can put newspaper on the board and simply roll it up every few days and chuck it on your compost or scatter a bit of litter on it to soak up moisture and scrape it with a shovel when you clean out.
A perch over a droppings board, with a nest box hidden underneath. I do have an issue with a lot of purpose-built poultry housing, in that the ventilation is very poor.
A muggy atmosphere with condensation allows bugs to breed – having lots of air circulation is much healthier and I often end up drilling additional holes around the tops of houses that I buy in.
I have also had success with a pen/house combination – a roofed space, high enough to walkin to easily, eight feet by eight feet in area.
The bottom is surrounded with board to a height of about three feet and wired in above that.
At the back, there is a perch, with a droppings board underneath and a couple of apple crates as nest boxes under that.
You have an overhanging roofthat keeps the rain from blowing in and a canvas blind or a shutter to pull across when it is very cold or windy.
I then put a lot of litter in the bottom and hang a feeder from the roofthat gets hooked up out of the way each night.
I throw all the things I would usually put on the compost heap into the pen and I clean the droppings board every week.
The litter gets mucked out and put on the compost heap when it needs it, which depend on how many hens are in there and the weather. Probably once a month.
The birds then get let out in the garden when I am around to keep them off the vegetables.
There is no ultimate solution – it depends on your situation and it is worth putting a lot ofthought into getting it right.
Traditionally people seemed to use straw for poultry bedding and this works fine. However, there are lots of alternatives that workjust as well.
I use chopped straw (wheat, barley, rape, it doesn’t matter), partly because it composts more quickly, which is a factor for me because I use it on the garden.
However, I also think it lasts longer in the house because it’s easier for the birds to rake about as they scratch and it, therefore, works in better with the faeces.
Chopped hemp or elephant grass and sawdust all work in the same way.
Other things you can use are dried bracken or dried grass clippings, woodchip or shredded newspaper.
In the nestbox I use a base of chopped straw or equivalent with some Diatom mixed in to discourage lice and mites; and then a mix of hay, straw or long grass.
I burn the nestbox content rather than composting it because I don’t want hay or grass seeds in my compost.
I would suggest trying a few different things and working out which one suits your system and your budget best.
The main thing is to make sure that you change your bedding regularly enough that it is dry for them underfoot – you’ll probably have to do so more often in the winter.
Chickens Can Fly
WHEN YOU ARE CONSTRUCTING your pen, remember that CHICKENS CAN FLY.
Not far and not fast – but if it’s a windy day and they get excited, there’s a possibility that they will be over a six-foot-high wire fence.
Also, foxes can climb – I’ve seen one go up and over a fence that high, too. Consider roofing any kind of pen with either wire or nylon netting.
This will also keep out wild birds and therefore lessens the risk of disease being transmitted to your poultry.
Shade and Dustbathing
YOU SHOULD MAKE SURE that your hens have access to shade in hot weather – chickens suffer far more from the heat than from the cold.
Their house should be well ventilated – in my opinion, many of the small houses on the market at the moment are not only overpriced but are also badly designed, with very little in the way of ventilation.
If you can manage it and their house isn’t that large, try to roofpart ofthe run to keep the rain off.
When it’s warm, our hens like scratching about in the bushes and trees at the top of the garden and when it’s cold or wet, they stay in their house, scratching around on the floor, because it is quite large.
Iftheir house is essentially just a roosting area (which is fine in of itself) then they don’t have that dry space and as nothing is madder than a wet, hen, it is nice for them to have some dry space outside.
Enjoying a dust bath.
The other thing that you should try to provide them with is a dust-bath of some kind.
Dust-bathing helps keep them free of mites, gets rid of irritating chicken itches and is generally something that they love to do.
Dry soil or sand is ideal. If you have a particular favourite plant or bed ofvegetables, you can be almost certain that they will uproot it and turn the area into a dust-bath.
The very dry, warm soil of a greenhouse is also favourite. They can look very peculiar when dust-bathing – almost as ifthey are having some kind of seizure.
And then they get up, shake themselves off and are perfectly fine.
If you use Diatom to keep on top of mites and lice, you can scatter a bit in the area they dust-bath, which will help even more.
THE MAIN PREDATOR YOU will come in to contact with is the fox.
Foxes are opportunistic hunters who like nothing better than discovering an easy takeaway food source.
If you have a local fox who has discovered the benefits of domestic chicken keeping, in much the same way as students discover the local kebab shop, then you will have a problem.
In the wild, a flock of birds will settle in one place for a very brieftime.
The fox will kill all they can because tomorrow the flock won’t be there – and then they will return for a few days in a row to collect their kill.
Foxes can climb a six-foot fence ifthey are desperate – more likely if you corner them in a pen and they are trying to escape than trying to get in – and they can dig.
So, you need to either turn the wire of your pen out in a curve, for about thirty centimetres around the bottom, so they can’t dig under; or dig a trench around the bottom of the pen and put the wire into the earth; or surround the pen with paving stones.
You will never make a pen completely fox proof – but you can make it serious enough to dissuade them and make them go and eat someone else’s hens or decide to move back to rabbits.
Badgers can also be serious predators of poultry and are much harder to keep out. They can pull boards off the side of the hen house and are much better diggers than foxes.
However, they are less likely to use you as a food source, unless they are old and finding hunting hard; or unless it is particularly dry, and the earth is too hard for them to get grubs and beetles.
Buzzards and crows will take small bantams and young birds, so netting over the top of a pen will be necessary if you have them locally.
That leaves hedgehogs, which will take eggs ifthey come across any – for example under a broody sat in a hedge – and tiny chicks; and rats.
Rats are the bane of my existence. They are everywhere even if you can’t see them. If you can see them, you have a serious problem. They eat loose food and they take young birds.
To prevent them from getting the upper hand, you need to make sure there is no food leftlying on the ground at night. Pick up feeders and take them inside or hang them up in the pen so they are unreachable.
If you have a cat or a dog that is a good ratter, that is an excellent deterrent.
Otherwise, get someone to shoot them; or use poison. If you poison, you need to make sure you are using bait stations that other creatures can’t get in to.
There are various plastic boxes to take bait available online and from your local feed store.
I like the ones that are a thirty-centimetre black tube with a clear pipe coming out ofthe top that you pour the granules in to.
You can then see it going down without disturbing it, so you know when to refill. I also have a selection of curved half-pipe type roof ridge tiles that I put it under.
Rats are creatures of habit, so try and keep your bait stations in the same place and they will get used to them.
I would recommend keeping a bait station by your feed storage area, one near your feeding area and one near where you dispose of your bedding – I compost mine.
That should address the issue before it ever becomes a problem.
YOU WILL NEED A FEEDER, a drinker, and tools to clean out your poultry house.
You can go for a no-cost feeder/drinker solution using old Tupperware containers or you can buy purpose made items.
Cheap plastic feeders and drinkers tend to go brittle from use after three or four years and will need to be replaced – if you are going to spend out and are thinking of the long-term, go for galvanised ones, particularly drinkers, although they are often double or triple the price.
It doesn’t matter what it looks like, so long as you keep the water in it clean.
- Calculate the right amount of housing and pen space for the number of birds you are going to keep. Allow more rather than less:
- Allow at least 2 square feet of floor space each inside the house
- 10 inches of perch space each as a minimum
- Go through a winter with your first number of birds before you consider getting more – there is a big difference in how muddy and horrible things get mid-winter compared to mid-summer.
- Remember chickens can fly out of a pen – consider netting the roof
- Try to roof part of your pen to keep the rain off if you can
- Access to shade is essential – chickens are woodland birds
- A dust bath will be appreciated and is good for them
- You don’t need to spend a huge amount on chicken housing – it can be made fairly easily if you are handy
- Ventilation is REALLY important – many small hen houses on the market are not well ventilated enough. Chickens will very rarely die from cold, they are more likely to die from heat
- Damp is very bad for chickens
- Foxes, badgers, and dogs will predate on chickens – badgers more so ifthe ground is dry and they can’t eat their normal worms and small insects
- Birds of prey, crows and magpies will take growers and chicks, so they will need a roofed pen
- Cats are unlikely to bother them unless you have very brave cats and very tiny bantams or chicks
Feeding for Raising Chicken
A few year ago, after reading a quite old and very good book called ‘Natural Poultry Keeping‘ by Jim Worthington, I started feeding my free-range birds on ‘straights’.
That means food that hasn’t been processed. I had two ten-gallon barrels, one with eight 1 Omm holes drilled around the bottom and one with eight 20mm holes drilled around it.
This is a handy size, as a twenty or twenty-five-kilo bag of food will go nicely in each barrel.
In the one with the smaller holes, I put grain – wheat, rolled barley or rolled oats, whichever happens to be cheaper when I went to buy it.
In the one with the larger holes, I put ‘micronised’ or ‘rolled’ peas. The peas provide 23 % protein.
The idea, which seems to work, is that the birds will help themselves to the grain or the peas and balance their own diet with what they pick up whilst free-ranging.
Since starting this, I have spoken to a few other people who do it and there seems to be a general agreement that egg production doesn’t drop, that it is cheaper, that they don’t waste the food (they just help themselves from the barrels) and the food doesn’t go stale in the way that pellets can do if they are not eaten quickly.
Some people feed ‘straights’ but not on an ‘ad lib ‘ system.
You can also soak a handful ofthe peas in cold water for ten minutes and feed them like that and throw the grain down on the ground for them.
One ofthe reasons that I preferred feeding like this is that imported soybeans from South America are therefore not in the feed and it is more environmentally friendly.
You can also feed it to growers and grind it for chicks; I have heard good personal reports from people who feed it instead of chick crumbs.
My experience when birds are not able to free range properly is that they gorge on the grain rather than the peas and egg production does in fact drop – so again, this is a decision to make based on your circumstances.
You are aiming at about eighteen percent protein to mimic the balance of layers pellets.
Chickens Are Omnivores
Hens will eat pretty much anything – they are omnivores.
They will decimate your flower and vegetable beds, help you dig the garden and pick out the worms and bugs from under your spade; and I have seen them hunt down and eat a mouse with relish.
Their natural environment is woodland. All domestic breeds are descended from the Jungle Fowl of Eastern Asia and they enjoy foraging for the small insects that live on woodland floors or in your compost heap.
This is great for giving them a balanced diet – but not everyone has a large area of woodland to let their poultry range free in.
There are two schools of thought about and minuses to both kinds.
In addition to this, hens also need grit, to help them digest their food, and shell (usually crushed oyster shell), to help them produce strong shelled eggs.
They always need access to plenty of clean, fresh water.
‘Keeping Poultry and Rabbits on Scraps’ by Goodchilde and Thompson is a very good book about the way poultry were fed in the war; although there are now strict regulations about feeding your birds kitchen scraps that were not in place when the book was first written it is worth a look.
Feeding Layers Pellets
Many people now feed their hens a mixture of readymade ‘layers pellets’ (or mash) and corn – either a mixture of wheat and maize or wheat alone.
As a rough rule of thumb, if you are doing this, every day you should feed each heavy-breed bird:
- Layers’ pellets or growers’ pellets (or mash) – 150g (50z)
- Corn (mixed, or just wheat) – 50g (20z)
Grit and shell should be put in a small hopper somewhere in their pen so that they can pick at it when they want to.
It is usual to feed pellets in the morning and feed the corn in the evening.
This has two advantages – one, that the corn is a more ‘lasting’ feed and will keep them going overnight. And secondly, in my experience, they tend to prefer the corn over the pellets – so if you have let them out of their pen during the day, you can throw the corn down on the ground inside and they will all rush in and you can shut them up!
If you have space inside their house, you might consider leaving the pellets in a feeder available all day.
I find that they don’t overeat on it – whereas they perhaps will if you leave them corn available all the time. However, if you do this, be careful that
you are not attracting rats, or feeding the wild bird population. You will find that they eat more when it’s cold and less when it’s very warm.
You should also try to ensure that they have some greens hung up in the pen to peck at – not only will this keep them occupied if they don’t get let out to scratch around; but it’s also an extra source of vitamins and nutrients.
Brassicas, lettuce, fruit, and veg – they will have a go at pretty much anything.
DEFRA does not allow the feeding of leftovers to egg producing birds. This is for big business reasons and is very sensible legislation.
The rules are very strict – nothing that has been inside a domestic kitchen can be fed to laying hens.
If you are selling eggs to other people, in any capacity, do not feed them leftovers.
However, having said that, ifthe eggs are for your own consumption then I really cannot see why you should not feed scraps to your birds.
Obviously, you do not feed them their relatives or large lumps ofmeat.
But the end of your child’s uneaten bowl of spaghetti bolognaise or the leaves off the outside of a cabbage are not going to start a new outbreak of foot and mouth disease.
Do not feed raw potato, citrus, meat, or anything rotting.
Pretty much anything else is fair game, particularly if you are using the ‘pre-compost’ ‘Balfour Method’ and throwing anything that would otherwise go on your compost heap into your chicken pen first and then after a couple of months putting the whole lot on the compost heap and starting again.
Feeding Live Food
Everyone can agree that maggots are gross. This is not the case if you are a chicken.
Naturally, hens would forage across a large area and this would include bugs, beetles, and worms. The will even eat small frogs and mice.
Obviously, they do not get this if they are penned. I have therefore been experimenting to see what I can do to introduce live food back into their diet; this means mealworms and maggots.
Mealworms can be bought dried or live. They are forty percent protein and therefore very good to feed your birds.
If you prefer live ones you can breed them. I have a small mealworm breeding set-up that gives my chicks, quail, and growers enough for a few each per day.
They are the larvae of the Darkling Beetle and are much easier to breed than you would expect – I find the whole thing quite soothing.
There are plenty ofresources online if you want to try it and I have linked to a couple in the back of the book.
Maggots are a step further. You take a large bucket – two or three gallons and you drill 15mm or 20mm holes all over the bottom, about 4cm apart.
You hang your bucket up somewhere in an unobtrusive corner of your chicken pen with something over it to keep the rain off and into it you chuck everything you would otherwise be bagging or burning to keep the flies away.
The flies lay eggs. The maggots hatch and burrow down to the bottom ofthe bucket under the stuff you have chucked in. And they fall out of the holes you have drilled.
Your hens will sit underneath looking up at the maggot dispenser in the sky, waiting for them to fall.
Every so often, you wait for the whole thing to dry out and tip the remaining things bones etc – out and dispose ofit appropriately and start again.
It smells much less than you would expect and it’s a fantastic way ofboth keeping the hens entertained and giving them extra protein.
I appreciate it’s not for everyone – my husband won’t have anything to do with it – but it’s working very well for my Barnevelders and Legbars.
- 150g layers or grower’s pellets or mash per bird per day
- 50g corn per bird per day
- Pellets or mash in the mornings, corn at night
- Continuous access to grit and shell
- Hang up green stuffin the pen – eg, brassicas and lettuce, plus fruit and veg
- Always have access to fresh water
- You can feed ‘straights’ – ie, micronised peas and some kind of grain like wheat ‘ad lib ‘ and the chickens will balance their own diet
- ‘Natural Poultry Keeping’ by Jim Worthington
- ‘Keeping Poultry and Rabbits on Scraps’ by Goodchilde and Thompson
- Live food keeps birds interested and gives extra protein
- Be sensible when feedingleftovers and do not do it if you are selling eggs to other people.
Raising Chickens: Maintaining Health
If you keep your chickens in good conditions and feed them well, then they should reward you by staying healthy.
Sometimes they do get sick – and it is very diffcult to diagnose what is wrong with poultry.
Few vets specialise in them and if you find one that does, you are lucky.
Keeping them warm and hoping they recover is about all you can do.
However, there are a few additional things that you can do on a regular basis to promote good health.
The main one ofthese is to ensure that your poultry housing is dry and well ventilated.
In my opinion, many small hen houses are not ventilated well enough and need extra holes drilling around the top of them.
Chickens do not like to be in a draft, but lack of ventilation encourages bronchial complaints.
It is an inescapable fact that if your birds are outside and in contact with wild birds, then they will get parasites and diseases from them.
But if they have a strong immune system and are well fed and housed, they should, mostly, be able to fight disease off themselves.
I am not a vet or an expert in poultry ailments and this is really just a starting point.
There are many books out there that specialise in the health and diseases of poultry and I would recommend reading one of them.
Victoria Robert’s ‘Diseases of Freerange Poultry’ is particularly good. Also, find a poultry friendly vet before you actually need one, ‘just in case’.
Common Health Problems of Raising Chickens
Egg binding is when an egg forms inside the hen and she can’t pass it.
Symptoms are being generally ‘off colour’, being hunched up and miserable and, of course, no eggs.
If you examine her, you should be able to feel whether the oviduct is soft and empty or hard and full of egg.
You may be able to massage the egg free, or you might have to break it inside her to get it out.
If the latter, you must make sure that you get all the bits of egg out, otherwise she may get an infection. If in any doubt, seek advice from your vet.
Mycoplasma is a very infectious disease of poultry that is spread by them sneezing, often into their water.
It has been around for years and has also been known as Roup.
It is pretty common in all flocks as a sort of ‘background’ disease that comes out when the birds are stressed, overcrowded, a bit run down (from something like red mite, worms or scaley leg) or in poorly ventilated housing.
The sinuses and face can get very swollen. The eyes sometimes get ‘gummed up’ or have clear, soapy bubbles in the corners and they can have a runny nose.
They also exhibit a classic ‘rattle’ in their breathing and can ‘gape’ for breath, stretching the head and neck in the air and opening their mouth.
There is also supposed to be a classic unpleasant smell from sufferers.
There are different variants ofthe disease, so they might not exhibit all the symptoms.
Treatment is usually antibiotics – Tylan or Baytril are the most common, and need to be got on prescription and either syringed down sufferers or put in their water.
Respite Poultry Tonic, Herban, and Colloidal Silver are also treatments that can be used, but l have no experience of these.
By jumping down from perches or walking on hard ground, birds can sometimes get small wounds on the soles of their feet.
If these get infected, they can turn in to large, pus-filled lumps that are very painful.
The best treatment is to carefully open the wound and get rid of the infected matter, soak with an antibacterial like Epsom Salts or similar; and spray with purple antiseptic spray.
The diffculty is keeping it clean whilst it heals – you may need to keep the bird caged whilst this happens.
Like all mammals and birds, sometimes poultry get small wounds from fighting or scraping themselves. Wash and clean with an antiseptic and spray with purple spray.
You may need to keep the bird isolated whilst the wound heals because hens do like to worry at anything like this on their flock mates.
I think it almost goes without saying that if you have pet animals and/or birds, or livestock they will have the occasional parasite, even in the best regime.
Worms, lice, and mites can come with your stock when you buy it; or they can come in second-hand houses, or from the wild bird population.
You can check the birds feathers to see if they have a mite or louse problem and you may see them around the vent, under their wings or around the bottom of their trousers, just at the top of their legs.
My favourite tools for parasite prevention and treatment are Diatomaceous earth and Vaseline.
Diatomaceous Earth is the remains of fossilised Diatoms, a type of protozoa.
It has very abrasive molecules and it wears down the shells of the mites and lice and their eggs.
Vaseline is very handy as crawling things stick in it – and it soothes irritated chicken legs and skin.
Worm regularly – Even ifyou don’t think your birds have worms. You can buy various proprietary worming pellets that are added to the food for a run of a few days every so often.
If you don’t have a worm problem, you don’t need to worm them every month – but every three months or so is a good preventative.
Flubenvet is a powder that many people use – it is the only licensed wormer for poultry in the UK – for five days at a time mixed into the food.
You can also buy layers pellets with it already mixed in, which I would recommend – it’s an awful lot easier than faffng around mixing up the dosage every morning.
You can only buy ready-mix from licensed suppliers, so you may not be able to purchase it at your local feed merchant, however it is readily available online from several different retailers who will do mail order.
Some people also use one millilitre of ‘Ecover’ washing up liquid per gallon of water.
The surfactant in it breaks down the worm casings inside the birds and deals with the worms without harming the birds at all.
Red mites are tiny blood-sucking parasitic vampires that live in chicken houses and come out at night to feed on your birds.
If your chickens are reluctant to go to bed at night and seem to be a bit off colour, it might be that you have them.
They can live for a longtime without chickens to feed off, so a second-hand house might have them.
You can use Diatomaceous earth or one of the various generic ‘mite and louse’ powders or sprays and you will need to dust or spray each chicken and disinfect all the nooks and crannies ofthe house where they hide.
I tend to include a couple of table-spoonfuls of Diatomaceous earth with their clean bedding every month or so, as a preventative – this works well for me, as the birds like to dust-bath in their house.
Creosote or a blow-torch are other very satisfying ways to get rid of mites.
If you are going to use both, remember to do the blow-torching first to avoid setting the house on fire!
Pay particular attention to under the roofing felt if your house has it because the mites hide underneath.
The ‘red mite’ season seems to be the wet and warm periods of the year.
Cleaning the house thoroughly, blow torching over all the cracks and crevices ofthe house and sticking vaseline around the ends ofthe perches, so the mites get stuck in it when they come out to feed on the birds at night, is my preferred method of control at the moment.
Scaly leg is caused by a parasitic mite that burrows under the leg-scales and makes the leg look crusty.
It is infectious and needs dealing with as if untreated it can result in permanent lameness.
There are various methods oftreating – one successful way is to immerse the legs in surgical spirit once a week for a few weeks and scrub gently with an old tooth brush.
The mites will be killed and when the bird moults, brand new, clean leg-scales should grow in again.
My favoured method is to smother the legs with Vaseline to suffocate the mites. You can also get various proprietary sprays.
There is a very old-fashioned method of painting on creosote or paraffin, both of which I have read about in old books but never heard of anyone I know of still using and I wouldn’t recommend this.
Some birds just seem to be prone to scaly leg. The feathered-leg breeds in particular, because the feathers harbour the mites.
But individual birds in a flock sometimes seem to have it all the time whilst their flock-mates are clean.
However, if one bird is showing symptoms, you will need to treat all of them and disinfect your housing.
Again, if in any doubt, seek advice from your vet. It probably goes without saying that scaly leg doesn’t happen spontaneously.
It needs to be imported in somehow and is something to keep an eye out for when you are buying birds.
Poultry lice are golden and between 1mm and 3mm long.
They move fast, and they lay their eggs on the bottom ofthe feathers under the wings and around the vent – the clumps of eggs looklike little polystyrene balls.
You can carefully pluck out feathers with large clumps of eggs. Rub Diatomaceous earth or mite/lice powder all over the bird, working it into the underfeathers.
Treating With Ivermectin Drop On
An Ivermectin drop-on will deal with both internal and external parasites – it will eliminate all biting mites and lice, as well as worms.
However, you will need to get this prescribed by your vet.
Although various drop-ons are available off the shelf for different pet animals and birds, for food-producing creatures you need a prescription and need to think about withdrawal – not eating the eggs (or meat) for a couple of weeks after application.
Ivermectin is very effective, but it is also very strong.
It can make cockerels infertile permanently and you need to be careful with it around collie dogs as it can make them ill. I use it once a year on prescription, on my birds that are not producing eggs for public consumption, and on any birds that I buy in.
For up to date information on notifiable diseases, you must check the government web site, at:
However, as I write, there are only two diseases that are notifiable Newcastle Disease and Avian Influenza, or Bird Flu.
Newcastle disease is a highly contagious bird disease that affects poultry. It is caused by pathogenic strains of Avian Paramyxovirus type 1 (APMV-1).
Occasionally virulent strains of Paramyxovirus of pigeon (APMV-1) can infect poultry causing Newcastle disease.
Birds affected by this disease include fowls, turkeys, geese, ducks, pheasants, guinea fowl and other wild and captive birds, including ratites such as ostriches.
The clinical signs in affected birds can be variable.
The disease can be acute, with sudden onset and high mortality, or mild, with respiratory distress or a drop in egg production as the only detectable signs.
A sub-clinical (asymptomatic) form of Newcastle disease and many intermediate forms of the disease can also occur.
Common symptoms include:
- lack of appetite
- respiratory distress – with beak gaping, coughing, sneezing, gurgling and rattling
- yellow/green diarrhoea
- signs of nervousness
- signs of depression
- sudden drop in egg production in laying flocks
- high proportion of eggs laid with abnormally soft shells
Young birds are particularly susceptible and death rates can be high. Survivors often exhibit permanent nervous signs.
Avian Influenza (Bird Flu)
There are many strains of Al, which vary in their ability to cause disease.
Al viruses are categorised into two types according to their ability to cause severe disease in species of birds:
- highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI)
- low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI)
LPAI does not always cause obvious disease in birds and is thought to circulate freely within the global wildfowl population.
Some strains of HPAI spread easily and quickly between birds in poultry populations and cause severe disease, with a high death rate.
Al is spread by movement of infected birds or contact with respiratory secretions and, in particular, faeces, either directly or through contaminated objects, clothes or vehicles.
The effects of HPAI are more noticeable with signs and symptoms that include:
- high mortality rates in flocks
- respiratory distress
- a swollen head
- loss of appetite
- drop in egg production
The Poultry Register
In addition, if you have more than fifty birds, you must register with the GB Poultry Register and you are encouraged to register even if you have less, in order that if there is an outbreak of something highly infectious you can be told about precautions in place locally to prevent the spread of disease.
Moult and Laying Over The Winter
In the ‘natural world’ a hen hatches her eggs in the spring and the youngsters start to lay towards the end ofthe summer, or, if they are a bit younger, after the worst ofthe winter has passed.
Traditionally, you buy in pullets in the late summer to keep yourself in eggs over the winter, whilst your older hens are moulting and having a winter rest.
Moult happens to all chickens once a year in the late summer or autumn/ /winter.
Their feathers fall out either slowly or quickly — and they grow new ones.
The body’s energy goes into producing new clothes; so egg production is put on hold.
Feeding extra protein and vitamins is often done at this point to help them along.
A hen who take a long time over her moult is often a ‘bad doer and might not be a great layer.
Over the winter, the shorter daylight hours both affect the hen’s diurnal rhythms and means that there is less eating-time during the day; This again means that they have less energy to produce eggs.
This can be got around by giving them extra light for a few hours every day during the winter so that they have more time to eat and are fooled into thinking that spring is just around the corner.
A 40-watt bulb on a timer in the hen-house to give them extra light for a few hours in the morning is the easiest way.
If you light them at the other end of the day and the light goes off suddenly, they are stranded on the floor in the dark and cannot see to perch.
Some people choose to light birds over the winter, some think it is better to give them a rest.
My ideal situation is to give them a rest until mid-winter and then start lighting them and feeding them an extra feed in the middle of the day (slow-simmered whole barley or a bowl of ordinary household porridge is ideal) to get them back in to lay.
Basic Medicine Cabinet
Your basic medicine cabinet need to have:
- Purple antiseptic spray (spray on wounds)
- Dettol (wash wounds in mild solution)
- Vaseline (lice and mites)
- Diatomaceous Earth (lice and mites)
- Flubenvet (wormer)
It’s really not large – chickens are very robust and really need very little help to stay healthy.
You may also want to add in Ivermectin drop on for worms and biting lice/mites and Tylan Soluble antibiotic that is administered in the water for mycoplasma and other unpleasant diseases.
However, these are only available on prescription and you vet will dispense them if necessary.
I scatter Diatomaceous Earth in the house and in their dust baths. This is a natural powder that has spikey molecules that abrade the shells of lice and mites.
You can also dust birds with it, under their wings and around the vent were insects gather. It is not a chemical and does not lose its potency with age. See above for more information.
I also use Vaseline. This is old-fashioned but effective. You can put it on the legs ofbirds showing signs of scaley leg and it will suffocate the biting mites that burrow under the leg scales and cause the condition.
You can also smear it on the ends and underneaths of your perches and red mite will get stuck in it.
Flubenvet is the only licensed wormer for chickens that does not require a prescription or to stop eating eggs whilst you are giving it.
You will see if your birds have worms because they will show up in the droppings. If this happens, use the wormer regularly.
If no worms show in the faeces, then it is still advisable to worm once or twice a year as a measure of good practice.
You can also add various things to your chickens’ food and water to promote health and wellbeing. Many people do swear by them.
- Cider vinegar is a general pick-me-up that you can put in the water. It is supposed to be good for the immune system and help prevent worms/balance the digestive system. It also has the added benefit of helping to keep the water fresh.
- Garlic can be given in powdered form, or you can add a couple of crushed cloves to the drinker. Again, this is supposed to help with general health.
- Poultry Spice and similarthings can be added to the feed – they are a general vitamin and mineral tonic. Many people use them in the breeding season or iftheir chickens have been poorly.
I cannot emphasise enough the importance of finding a vet who is used to poultry before you need one.
Now that back garden poultry in suburban areas are becoming much more common, vets are becoming more chicken friendly.
However, this is quite recent and if no-one in your area has chickens, they just won’t have come across them before.
Rural area vets tend not to see poultry because farmers deal with them themselves; and up until the last few years, town vets didn’t see them because people didn’t keep them.
When To Say Goodbye
As with all animals kept by humans, at some point, it will be time to say goodbye. This is a quality of life judgment that it is your responsibility make as the owner.
Some poultry keepers are very pragmatic and will cull older birds for the pot whilst still healthy and replace them with younger ones – I am in this category.
Some people do not want to do this, and that is fine too. In fact, chickens tend to fail very quickly when they are reaching the end of their lives.
You will find they look a little peaky for a couple of days and will stand in the pen looking all hunched up and humpity backed.
And then you will go to let them out one morning and they will have literally fallen offthe perch.
If this is not the case and you feel a bird is suffering, then you either need to despatch it yourself, ask someone to do it for you, or take it to your vet.
Again, all of these are valid options.
I do think that it is a good idea to know how to despatch if you need to, in case of emergency – a fox attack that leaves a mauled bird in the middle of the night, for example, when the vet is closed, and your neighbour is on holiday.
You may not want to despatch on a planned basis – if you have a neighbour or a vet who can do this for you, then that is great.
However, in an emergency – if you have an injured bird in the middle of the night for example – it is a good idea to know what do to.
The best way to learn to despatch is to ask someone to show you.
However, there are videos available on YouTube that will show you have if you need to.
My preferred method of despatch for birds over eight weeks old is the ‘Broomstick Method’. It is very straight- forward and very simple.
Done smoothly and without fuss, it will be as stressless as possible for the bird.
How To Despatching Chickens Using Broomstick Method (step by step)
- Find a hard piece of ground – soft turf is unsuitable as the bird’s neckjust sinks into it when you apply pressure.
- Find somewhere you can hang the bird up afterwards.
- Put the broomstick down on the ground within arm’s reach and have a loop oftwine ready in your
- Collectyour bird.
- Hold the bird hanging by its legs in one hand and with your free hand, support its chest and lay it down gently, flat on the ground.
- Keep hold of its legs and with your free hand, that was under the chest, pick up the broomstick.
- Place the broomstick across its neck, quite far up, close to the head.
- Hold it GENTLY in place with one foot as you stand up, close to the bird.
- If you have a helper, at this point, get them to hover their foot over the broom on the other side ofthe neck. If you don’t have a helper, you need to stand up and put your foot there yourself, s o your feet are braced over the broom either side of the neck.
- In one smooth movement, rock forward with your feet on to the broom, whilst pulling the legs smoothly vertically up towards your chest and bend them back over the bird’s head. The neck should form between a right angle and forty five degree angle under the broom, the head flat on the ground and the feet bent back slightly over its head.
- You don’t need to pull sharply; smooth, steady pressure will do it and you will feel the neck ‘crunch’. If you pull too hard or too sharply, then the head might come off – and that is ABSOLUTELY the worst thing that can happen. It’s messy, but you know the bird is dead.
- There will be flapping, probably quite violent flapping. It can go on for ten minutes or so. That means you’ve done it properly. Twist the loop of twine around the bird’s legs and hang it up. The go away for ten or fifteen minutes until the flapping has stopped. I quite often have a bit of a cry at this point, because I hate this part of chicken keeping; but it’s necessary to be able to do it to be fair to the birds.
And that is it. It’s grim, but it’s good to be able to do it if you have to.
Essentials: Maintaining Health
- Birds that free-range will inevitably come in to contact with parasites and diseases from the wild bird population
- Inspect housing and birds regularly for parasites.
- Tonics, Poultry Spice etc. can also be used to promote health
- Have the basics in your medicine cabinet before you need it.
- Find a vet who is good with chickens before you need one
- Consider how you would deal with a bird that needed to be despatched Before you need to do it.
- Lack of adequate ventilation can cause bronchial problems and mycoplasma – often small poultry houses are very poorly ventilated. Consider drilling more holes at the top ofthe house.
- Prevention is better than cure. Worm regularly, even if you think they don’t have worms. Use Diatomaceous Earth or a similar lice/mite powder in your bedding and occasionally on your birds.