Welcome to this, no-nonsense backyard chickens guide.
So you’ve been wondering if keeping chickens in your garden or smallholding might be a good idea?
There’s a lot of good reasons for raising chickens. The eggs are so superior to the supermarket bought ones for a start. Your children learn animal husbandry and most of the day the chickens look after themselves.
Things to consider before acquiring chickens:
- Check with your housing association or local council to make sure that there are no covenants which exclude keeping poultry on the land as well as the amount. The last thing that you will want to do is lay out a lot of cash, and you don’t want to find out later that it isn’t allowed.
- Is the parcel of land that you intend to keep chickens large enough to take the appropriate size of the chicken coop?
- Are the whole family on board with the project? There will be times when you’re not available to carry out husbandry tasks, and so others will have to step up.
- Neighbours! If you have them, then definitely pop next door and have a chat the promise of a couple of eggs here and there will sweeten the deal.
- Are you and your family prepared to go out to the chicken coop in the pouring rain or snow?
If you have given all this some good thought and are determined to give it a go lets start and dive right in at the beginning.
There are many coops available to purchase on internet selling sites as well as in the larger garden centres and possibly pet hypermarkets. Some people also make their own and if that appeals to you, then research the many designs and images on the internet until you find the right one for you.
Pens are an excellent way to allow your bird’s unrestricted freedom while giving them the ability to forage around. You could have one with a small coop to grant them independence as well as providing a bit of shelter and a place to lay their eggs. Or you could have a pen that you can move to different areas of the garden and then bring them into a shelter in the evening.
Below are a few examples of chicken coops/garden/smallholding areas; these are just a couple of ideas to give you some inspiration.
So now I will assume that you have either made or bought your chicken coop and it is on your land.
Where to buy your starter chickens?
Many years ago you used to be able to go to the weekly farmers market to buy animal feed as well as livestock, and I remember going to Bury St Edmunds on a Wednesday and Swaffham on a Friday many years ago. Although I don’t believe these markets run anymore, I think others do up and down the country.
Another means of getting your stock is via the internet on websites that specialise in pets and livestock such as https://www.pets4uk.co.uk
I have even bought hatching eggs off the internet and successfully hatched them in an incubator which I also bought off the internet.
Also, several rescue centres are always looking for new homes, and it is quite astonishing how many birds get rescued each year.
How many chickens should I keep?
The number of chickens will depend on the size of your coop, and the size of the chickens themselves.
One decent-sized chicken needs approximately three square feet of floor space inside the coop.
Chickens are very sociable creatures, and It would be best to consider keeping three to six to start with, and even with this amount you will have a good supply of eggs for you and your family. A hen will typically lay two eggs every three days.
Consider purchasing birds that brood well and of a hardy type, although we are concentrating on egg-laying with this blog, it is always worth considering raising your stock for future replenishment of your flock.
Most chicken keepers keep the chickens for the constant supply of fresh eggs and not the meat itself, so I will steer clear of that part of the hobby as like others it doesn’t appeal to me.
If you do decide to get your stock birds from a rescue centre then bear in mind that hens are most productive during the first couple of years, then egg laying will slowly decline.
If your a keen gardener then you’ve also got some helpers on tap, let the chickens out onto your garden at the end of the season and watch as these little helpers uproot stems, gobble up weeds and insects while they scratch at the soil to peck at any worms and bugs.
You really will be astonished at the curiosity and enthusiasm of these little creatures, as well as all this they also supply an endless supply of chicken manure for you to age compost.
Composting with the bedding and poop that you clean out of the coop each day is easy to do, mix it with your regular kitchen composting materials and garden waste, soak the mix and over the coming year stir with occasional wetting. The result should be a rich compost full of nutrients to be added to your garden soil.
The choice of which bird breed to keep typically revolves around which birds lay the most eggs each year and the easiest to keep as well as the hardiest.
The Sussex breed of chicken is one of the oldest breeds that we have today, as the name suggests it did originate from the county of Sussex, and, in the time of the second world war, there were two main meat breeds in the Uk the Rhode Island Red and the Sussex.
The Sussex lays around two hundred to three hundred and twenty eggs each year and start egg laying 16-20 weeks making this a perfect starter bird. The hen weighs between the three to four kilos range. This bird is usually known to be an easy-going bird and mixes well with others.
The Rhode island red originated in America and is raised for meat as well as eggs, and today’s strains are bred and kept for their egg-laying abilities. They can produce around 260 eggs each year and are a hardy bird, although it can become a bit bossy at times towards smaller birds.
These birds are listed as being easy to care for and the typical hen will weigh approximately three kilo’s and will start laying at 18- 24 weeks
Red Stars are a hybrid breed and are amongst the most prolific of egg producers of all the bird breeds, and will typically lay three hundred or even more eggs per year and will continue to lay eggs during the winter season. These birds start laying between ten and 16 weeks, and the hen weighs approximately three kilos.
The Ayam Cemani breed originated in Indonesia, and the word Ayam means chicken, its name comes from a village located on the island of java,
This is a strain of bird which is not for the beginner as it is really more of an ornamental bird than it is for its egg-laying ability, the rooster weighs approximately two and a half kilos. The hen averages out at two kilos. From what I’ve researched enthusiast breeders mostly keep this bird for showing at bird shows and has quite a following,
This breed of a bird rarely hatches its eggs so I don’t believe it would be a good starter bird for someone wanting plenty of eggs and to perhaps increase their flock naturally over time.
Feeding your chickens:
One of the most important considerations when you decide to keep chickens if you get this part wrong you could end up with eggs that are malformed, feather plucking and perhaps other unwanted behaviours. But get it right, and you will have superbly fresh eggs delicious to the taste and a happy and healthy flock that will greet you with plenty of clucking as they peck away at the latest treats you’ve supplied today.
Usually, chickens won’t overeat, so if you’ve put too much food in their feeders, there’s no need to be concerned as the birds won’t just keep on eating.
When you put your birds away in the evening its an excellent idea to have a tidy up of their area and remove any uneaten food so as not to encourage rats and the like.
So what should you feed then?
The diet is only as good as the quality! so bear this in mind when your out shopping for the layers pellets and other foodstuffs, it can and often is tempting to save money with the many different budget foods on offer but as we all know with anything that we buy today( you get what you pay for ) and another one is ( if it seems to good to be true then it most probably is)
We supply our girls with good quality layers pellets, and it provides them with all the vitamins and proteins that are needed to keep healthy and happy birds. The pellets usually contain maize, salt, sunflower seeds, wheat, and oats, and our girls love fruit and vegetables, and almost every one of them is safe to feed.
However, avoid raw green peels like raw potatoes and citric fruit such as lemons, oranges and the like.
Whichever way you choose, either by letting the hen hatch the fertilised eggs that have been laid or by collecting up the eggs and putting them into an incubator to hatch you will find the experience extremely rewarding.
First off, you will need a rooster unless you intend to purchase fertilised eggs sourced from the internet. Both of these methods I have tried in the past to acquire my eggs for hatching, and quite honestly to collect up my eggs that have been laid by my chickens have always turned out to be best and yielded a higher hatch rate.
Your rooster should be in the best possible shape, and he should be running with up to ten hens, remember that adding a rooster to your flock will increase the noise level, some people (and that includes myself when I first started with chickens) think that roosters make their early morning call just in the morning! Not so, they will crow at all different times of the day. This is something to consider with regards to your neighbours.
Spring is an ideal time to start breeding, although most of the year would be ok, spring would give the chicks the best chance.
Both your hens and rooster should be eating good quality food, and the rooster should be unrelated to the hens.
If you decide to let the hen hatch the eggs herself it will take approximately twenty-one days to set and hatch them, then another eight weeks of the hen rearing them.
Eggs For the incubator:
- Check for eggs regularly.
- You will want to choose the best ones for putting in the incubator.
- Handle the eggs gently so as not to damage the membrane inside.
- And wash your hands after collecting the eggs.
- Do not choose to mishappen or thin-walled eggs or eggs with hairline cracks.
- Mark your eggs with a cross using a pencil so that you can tell that the incubator is turning them correctly.
- You can store eggs before incubating for up to seven days making sure to turn once a day.
I have used a couple of different incubators in the past, and the one that I found best for me was one of the fully automatic R-com incubators, mainly because it did everything such as adjusting humidity and heat levels to suit.
Set up your incubator in an area that has a stable temperature avoiding anywhere that has a draught or near a heater. Check that you have topped up the water level and run for a few hours to determine that all is good with the incubator and the egg turning is working as it should.
If you bought your incubator from new, it should have an instruction manual with it with egg hatching information/guide, if it doesn’t don’t be alarmed the internet is full of useful information on this matter.
The incubator should be operating at a temperature of (38degC) 100F, and the humidity should be in the region of 40% for the first eighteen days.
The large end should be facing upwards or tilted upwards if laying horizontally, never have the small rounded end pointing upwards as the chick will stand next to no chance of exiting from the egg.
Candling the eggs.
This part of the hobby I have found exciting as well as disappointing at times. Candling the eggs at about seven days gives you an idea if you have an embryo developing or not and you should start to see blood vessels forming inside the egg. Dispose of any eggs that you can see have nothing at all inside of them between days ten and fourteen.
Hatching can and often does take most of the day from when you first notice the pipping although I have had much shorter hatching times. And this is such an exciting time, so much so that its hard to take your eyes off the process.
Try to avoid helping the chick out of the egg as the risk of causing more harm than help is possible due to the chick stuck to the inside of the egg. Still, I must admit that I have been guilty of this a couple of times when I have seen a chick that has been struggling for far too long, luckily these particular chicks have gone on to be great little chickens.
Once hatched put the chick directly into a brooder, you can buy a brooder, or you can make your own, they are an open-topped box with a 40-watt bulb as the heat source suspended over the top, generally at one corner. Make sure there is a constant supply of fresh water and chick feed in the brooder and clean daily.
After approximately six weeks the chicks will be ready to be introduced the established flock, keep an eye on all the birds as you add the youngsters as there is a definite pecking order with chickens and the chicks will find their place in that order.
I hope you have found this article interesting and below I will include some more useful links to other of our blog articles.