Chickens will provide you with hours of endless fun and of course beautiful, tasty eggs, all they ask in return is a safe environment to live in, good quality feed, clean water and clean chicken houses to live in. They will quickly become part of your daily routine and you will be greatly rewarded for your efforts.
Hens need certain nutrients to keep them laying good, healthy eggs; this is provided by their layers feed, which comes in 3 forms, meal/mash, pellets and crumb. A diet, which consists mainly of any one of these, will ensure that your hens will remain healthy and laying good quality eggs.
Your chooks will love to forage in the garden, and will eat all number of garden pests, digging over and fertilising your soil as they go. Another essential part of their diet is fresh vegetation; they especially like dark green vegetables like cabbage, kale and broccoli – you will notice that the natural colorant in these vegetables turns the egg yolks a deep marigold orange. Hanging up a bunch of vegetable leaves in the run will keep them occupied for ages. Chickens also love corn or maize, which can be used to train them to come when called. As with any treat, or addition to their diet, leave it until the end of the day when they have filled up on pellets; just the same as with children… they have to eat their pellets before they get any pudding!
Cotswold Chickens is an agent for the Smallholder range of feed, their BHWT range, plus The Organic Feed Company.
It is essential that they have access to a supply of fresh, clean water every day, especially in the summer when they will drink a huge amount. Clean and sterilise the drinker on a weekly basis, and rinse it carefully when you refill each day. Be sure that the drinker is out of the sun as hens don’t like to drink warm water, also be careful that it doesn’t freeze solid in the winter; you might want to bring the drinker indoors over night when the temperatures are sub-zero.
There are various water-soluble tonics, which you can add to their water to enhance their health. Live Apple Cider Vinegar is sometimes recommended as conditioner, but please don’t use it in galvanised drinkers as it will corrode the metal.
It is important to have good access into the hen house in order to clean it out, weekly cleaning to remove soiled bedding and any build up of droppings is advisable. At least once a month you should completely gut the house and give it a good clean out with some poultry friendly disinfectant. Pay particular attention to all the corners, under the perches and roof space as this is where red mite will build up. Once the house is clean make sure that you use some sort of red mite repellent before adding clean bedding.
Straw can harbour red mite especially from March to September and even more so if it is bought in big bales straight off the field. If you prefer to use straw try and get some chopped straw, by doing this the mites are less likely to be in the straw as they usually live within the blade. Avoid hay as bedding, it builds up mould spores very quickly and as chickens have quite a delicate respiratory system it’s best avoided. Shavings or hemp bedding is much more absorbent than straw, paper bedding is also acceptable.
What’s on the base of the house is for your ease of cleaning and not their comfort, as they should roost at night. The nest box should be deeper as they like to be quite comfortable when laying.
It is vital that you check for red mite on a regular basis, it lives in the house and feeds off the chickens at night. If there are a few that go unnoticed you will have thousands in a very short space of time, once they are in behind the structure of the house it’s virtually impossible to get rid of them.
It is essential to give each hen a check over every week, not that you need an excuse to cuddle them! This way you can check their general health and weight, watch out for parasites and just get them used to being handled.
Never chase your chooks to catch them, if they are elusive, then use a landing net to pop over them or try getting them at night once they have gone to roost when they are much quieter and easier to handle. Hold the chicken’s wings to its side while you slide one hand underneath them so that the tops of their legs are grasped between your fingers and their weight is supported on your forearm. Make sure that the ‘business end’ (tail) is facing away from you!
Wherever you purchase your pullets from, make sure that you look for a few key signs of health; bright, clean eyes, clean nostrils and beak and (depending on the age of the pullet) a small pale comb, wattles and face.
Make sure that their feathers are fresh looking and not tatty or dirty around the vent. Check around the vent for any signs of lice or mites crawling on the skin at the base of the feathers.
A young pullet should have smoothly scaled legs, with no crooked toes or visible injuries to the foot pad. She should be healthy and alert rather then hunched and isolated.
We can clip the primary flight feathers on one wing of the pullets we sell, this is essential in the first couple of months, just while she learns where home is, and prevents her from straying into the neighbour’s vegetable garden. We clip one side only so that she can’t take off, and suggest that you check the feather growth every couple of weeks and re-trim if necessary.
Once they’ve settled in, you shouldn’t need to trim them again.
Poultry lice are transmitted by garden birds. They are small, fawn creatures, similar to human head lice, which scuttle around the base of the feathers. Their eggs are small and white and are laid in clumps on the feather shaft.
Northern Fowl Mites are much smaller, dark grey and their eggs create a mess looking rather like sticky cigarette ash in the fluff around the hen’s vent.
While neither of these are dangerous to a healthy hen, they will cause irritation and possibly slow down egg production.
Red Mite is the most common of all and is a potential killer if left untreated. The mite lives in the house and it’s where they must be treated, they get into the structure of the house, inside the knots of the wood and all other nooks and crannies. Once it gets into a wooden house it’s virtually impossible to get rid of them but can be managed.
The chickens’ natural defence against mites is to have a dust bath; they dig themselves a pit in some sandy loose soil and kick up dirt with their feet. They then roll and twist in it and shake themselves making the dust go between their feathers. Cleansing the skin, and loosening the dead skin cells while removing all the dirt and bugs.
If the weather is wet, then you can build a dust bath in the run for them; fill an old trug or cat litter tray with soil or potting compost, add some wood ash or Diatom powder and they will love to wriggle around in it and freshen up... just stand well clear when they shake it all off!
Your chookies can catch intestinal worms form the soil and wild birds; just as with your pet cats and dogs, they will need to be wormed twice a year. A licensed wormer from your vet or agricultural supplier is the best option.
Wormer should only be purchased from a licensed supplier like your vet, an agricultural merchant or specialist supplier.