We have a treat for you this month as Niall has put his head above the literary parapet and written an article! In answer to one of our facebook queries Niall has agreed to impart what chicken knowledge he has gained over 8 years living with a number of birds.
Keeping Chickens in your Garden
Let me start by saying I am no expert on keeping chickens. I have being doing so for the last 8 years and have made plenty of mistakes but to be honest nothing too serious. Keeping chickens has to be one of the easier roads I took on my journey to produce my own food.
As a city boy turned smallholder I knew little at the outset and had a lot of learning to do. Many of you will already know the following but the basic questions are the ones I'm always asked so here we go:
Do I need a Cockerel for my chickens to have eggs? No. Hens will produce eggs whether there is a cock around or not. They do however tend to produce better eggs when a cockerel is looking after them. He will find food and scrapings for them which lead to healthier eggs.
Can I eat eggs that a Cockerel has fertilized? Yes When a cockerel is looking after his women all of your eggs will be fertilized. You won’t notice any difference. On occasion if you leave an egg for a few days before collecting it you may get a small red blotch in the yolk. This is not a problem and the eggs are still perfectly fine to eat.
Where do I keep my chickens? Depending on how much space you have available you have a number of options. The important things are that they have a space that they can be locked in to at night to protect from both the elements and foxes, mink or Pine Martens. I lost 12 chickens last winter to a local Pine Marten. It was cold so I guess she had to feed her young but if I had better housing this wouldn’t have happened. If you have a small area to keep your chickens in there are a number of companies who will deliver housing with hens. A lot of these units have wheels and can be moved around the garden every few days so that they don’t create muddy patches in your garden. If you want to do it yourself here is a good link to a site that shows you how to build your own hen housing. Easy DIY Chicken Plans.
What do I feed my hens? It depends on how organic you want to be. I feed my chickens a mix of Layers pellets and rolled Barley. This is supplemented by the scraps from the kitchen. Some people don’t like to give them the scraps but to be honest it makes a big difference to the taste of the eggs. You'll get layers pellets from your local agricultural suppliers.
How often do they lay an egg? One of the best breeds for laying are Rhode Island Reds. If you get them young they will not lay until their 6 month birthday. From then on they will lay about once a week initially, improving to once a day in the peak of the season. A good Hen in her first year should give you about 5 eggs a week. 3 hens in good form will therefore give you between 10 to 15 eggs a week from February to about September. This will decrease to roughly 6 eggs a week between September and January.
Do chickens need to be put in at night? Yes Chickens need to be kept in at night to protect them from foxes or other predators. Luckily the chickens are well aware of this and will go in themselves about a half an hour before dusk. All you have to do is fasten the door shut as if you have a fox about he'll check it every night.
How difficult is breeding my own chicks ? If you have a Cockerel running with your hens the eggs will be fertile. At certain times of the year (normally Spring and Summer) a few of your hens will go Broody. They will lay their eggs and continue to sit on them for the day. You can lift them off the eggs and take the eggs or if you want to bring on chicks you just leave them to sit. They still need feed and an area to dust themselves off but after approximately 22 days the eggs will hatch and you will have yourself some new chicks. It is important to put a small tray with mashed up meal and a small tray of water out for them. Do not rely on the mother hen to do this as many of the newer breeds are not great mothers. You can of course bring eggs on in an incubator but if you know how to do this then this article isn’t for you.
Can I bring on my own chickens for the table? Yes You can of course always eat old hens or Cockerels but to be honest they are only good for Cock-au-vin or for boiling. If you want chickens for the table you are best to buy day old Broiler chicks. You then bring them on separately to your laying hens. These chickens will fatten up quite fast and will be ready for the table in 10 to 12 weeks (Shop chickens are ready in 6 weeks, what's going on there?).
Broilers are bred to put on weight and as a result they do not need perches in their housing area. As you are buying them as day old chicks and they don’t have their mother to keep them warm they will need a heat lamp at night for the first few weeks of their lives.
Is keeping chickens difficult? No. All in all keeping chickens is relatively easy and most importantly they do not tie you down too much. If you want to go away you can buy a large feeder and watering unit which will keep them sorted for a week or so. If your chickens have plenty of feed and water they will look after themselves once they have a bit of enclosed space to move around. The only danger is putting them away at night. You can of course build you housing up high or just make sure to have them well fenced in.
Here’s a great tip someone gave me recently and I haven’t been bothered by foxes, mink or Pine Martens since: Get some old Nylon stockings and fill them freshly cut human hair (I get this from a local hairdresser. You don’t have to keep cutting your hair for this exercise). Tie them at intervals around your chicken coup. The smell of humans will keep the nasties away. Refresh the hair roughly every 3 or 4 months. Seems to work.