Keeping Chooks

Apr 15, 2014 by

Every time I read an article about keeping chickens, I think to myself if I had read that before I started, I wouldn’t have bothered. They all seem to imply so much work and expense and inconvenience.

Luckily I just did what I always do and jump in at the deep end. I always figured I managed to look after other animals so how difficult can it be.

All you really need is somewhere secure for them to roost at night away from an intrepid fox. And of course you need to remember to close them in. The chickens go in themselves so no hassle there.

You do not need fancy housing or nest boxes. If you put a pile of straw in the corner of where they roost that should suffice. However, you will always have the one who likes laying in a hedge or under a log pile or a tunnel under a pile of brambles. How I have solved this over the years is to leave them in the run until they lay, which is usually in or around lunchtime.

It is handy to have a run or somewhere they can be out but also reasonably enclosed if you are away during the day. But if they do not have access to lots of grass, weeds and foraging you will not have nice deep yellow eggs. And, if this is the case I can’t see the point in really keeping hens.

Helps to weatherproof house yearly

It never ceases to amaze me what filthy animals they are. I always remember my dad telling me that no animal poos where it sleeps. Well chickens seem to poo more where they sleep than almost anywhere else. I try to clean out their house once a week but sometimes I don’t get around to it. It never seems to bother them. They just move roost when the pile builds up! For bedding I use a combination of sawdust and straw. They seem to prefer straw to lay in.

For feeding you do need to use some form of layers mash. This is a feed which contains all the nutrients they need to lay. I have found if I stop feeding it for any length of time the eggs dwindle off.  Chickens hate any change to their diet. It can take them two weeks to get used to and accept a new brand of feed. I use a combination of rolled barley and organic layers mash in a 2:1 ratio. I feed them in the morning when I let them out into the run. Then again in the evening when I want to get them back into the run. If you get them into the habit of coming when you call them for food, it makes it much easier to get them in if you are going out for the evening. (Just shout chuck, chuck, chuck every time you feed them and hope your neighbours don’t hear.)

For such small animals they drink a surprisingly large amount of water. They also love to have a dust bath. Mine have several spots in the garden where the soil is very dry and sheltered. These spots also just happen to be real sun traps as well, even in winter.

Hens love sun traps

Every six weeks or so I use garlic powder in their feed to keep mites and parasites at bay. I mix in half a scoop into their feed twice a day for a week and wet the feed slightly. In the beginning, they are not keen on it but they soon get used to it. It is also terrific for curing scour.

When you first get your chickens it is a really good idea to clip their wings. It is explained very well here.
You need to do both wings and remember to check their feathers have not grown back after they moult. If you don’t clip their wings you will be amazed how some of them manage to fly out over your run and lay in the hedge where you will never be able to find the eggs.

Chickens moult once a year. This is usually about the time they were hatched so it is different for all chickens unless you have a batch which were hatched at the same time. When they moult they look very sorry for themselves, seem almost depressed and lose a large amount of their feathers. If you have a rooster he will also lose interest in them at this time (sexually). *Note you do not need a rooster for chickens to lay eggs*. They usually stop laying although I have had some who continued sporadically.
Just bump up the feed and they usually begin laying again once the moult is over.

The bonus of keeping chickens that have access to lots of rooting and scratching and green vegetation is a continuous supply of lovely fresh deep yellow eggs. The standard red hybrid chicken lays six days a week. The pure breeds may lay significantly less. You will notice that in the winter even if they are out on grass, the egg yolks will not be as deep a yellow as in the summer. This is because there is not as much chlorophyll in vegetation that is dormant. Even though laying is light dependent, I find if I feed my chickens well during winter they will continue to lay albeit not as much as in summer.

Duck and hen eggs laid in nest

Eggs bought in a shop are never as fresh as those that you gather from your own chickens. I was told that most shop-bought eggs can be anything up to three weeks old before they reach the supermarket shelf.  Eggs produced from chickens free to forage outdoors are much healthier for you containing more omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, vitamin A and beta-carotene.

Free range eggs are almost impossible to peel when hard boiled and in summer I tend to poach them. They are exceptionally good for poaching as the white stays in shape and doesn’t spread all over the pot. Another bonus is that as the hen ages she begins to lay huge eggs. Much much bigger than your “large” supermarket size. I often find I need only use one egg in place of two in a recipe which is great in winter when eggs are more scarce. I have also noticed that when the chicken is in her third or fourth year she begins to lay eggs which have a very thin shell, a very watery egg white and sometimes even a wrinkly shell. I just separate these very carefully as they are very fragile and use them for baking or scrambling or even just give them to the dogs when I have a glut.

wrinkly eggs

In summer I often freeze eggs separately. I freeze eggs yolks in one container and whites in another. Although you can whisk several eggs together and freeze them this way. Just mark on the bag or container how many eggs you have put in. Defrost slowly before use and they will work fine in baking. I have a post here where I include lots of ways to use up eggs when you have a glut.

And lastly remember chickens are carnivores so love slugs, snails, bugs and flies. In winter when it is very cold I scrape out fat from a roasting tin or even fat trimmings (except chicken) to them. They also love cold potato, rice, vegetable peelings, fruit, stale bread (shake your toaster out and they think it’s Christmas).

*To store eggs when you have a lot in summer – keep them in a cool dark place such as a garage. Do not wash the eggs. The hen secretes a film which surrounds each egg as it’s laid which seals the porous shell. Just soak them in warm water (with a tiny drop of bleach) before use and wipe dry.*

Diseases of poultry

Vent Gleet
I have been really lucky in all my years keeping hens and ducks that they have never got any disease. That was until this year and I noticed one of my chickens had what I thought was a bad case of white diarrhoea. This progressed to what appeared to be a prolapse of her vent with a lot of swelling. She lost all her feathers in the area and the skin was very inflamed and angry looking. For a couple of weeks I upped the garlic powder in their feed and used a teaspoon of vinegar in the drinking water. I kept searching “diarrhoea in hens” on Google and so got nowhere. Then I searched for vent disorders (the vent is where the egg is laid from but it also is how the chicken passes droppings, albeit from a separate channel).

Vent gleet or cloacitis is a fungal infection similar to thrush. I consulted my vet who in turn contacted a poultry vet who advised the same treatment for thrush in women. I got a prescription from the local chemist (much to his amusement.) I got all sorts of daft advice about dosages – 14mg to be extracted from a 50mg capsule. And then to repeat after 4 days. The first treatment I faffed about trying to cut open a capsule and extract a few grams of the powder. I ended up giving half. No change over the next four days so I gave the whole tablet next. I opened the capsule and tipped the powder down the hens beak and had a syringe filled with water to squirt some down so she would swallow. You have to be careful you don’t choke her, so do it in the evening when she has gone into roost and handle her calmly and do it slowly.

Still no change. In fact if anything it got worse. What to do next? I was on the verge of getting rid of her. I should have, but for many reasons I left her. At this stage she had had it for probably two months. I searched more on the internet and read that if you don’t start treatment in the first couple of days of onset, then there is no point as the hen will not recover.

And then more than 3 weeks after being medicated I noticed an improvement. At this stage she had had it for probably two months. She is definitely on the mend now and I am waiting to see if she will start to lay again.

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