Time was when keeping a few chickens was a pastime reserved for country folk with a knowledge of handling livestock however, these days, virtually anyone can now keep a few chickens and enjoy the benefits of a cheap and plentiful supply of their own free-range eggs.
And with prices continuing to rise in the shops as farmers blame the increasing cost of wheat making their own animal feeds more expensive, now might be a very good time to explore keeping your own chickens in more detail.
You basically need a coop to shut them up at night in / provide a shaded laying or roosting box, a run to stop them escaping and more importantly to keep chicken loving wildlife like foxes out, food and water.
Chickens aren’t fussy eaters but investing in some proper feed pellets will enhance their eggs – both laying capacity and quality. They also love corn and if you’ve got an arable farm nearby, enquire about purchasing the odd sack of the chaff that’s sorted out when the corn’s stored as it often contains a lot of wheat etc which chickens love to scratch around in and peck out the seed – it’s very cheap food and entertainment for a chicken rolled into one. My Dad used to boil up potato peelings in an old pan and mix that with powdered feed in the winter, chopping it roughly with the edge of a trowel before serving to an appreciative audience (the chickens – not us kids).
You can buy mixed corn seed – all food is best stored in a cool, dry moisture and varmit proof container like a large drum / bin.
Cleaning out your chickens is easy enough – all that straw or wood chipping makes an excellent addition to your compost heap. If you ever visit a farm, you’ll notice there’s a thin covering of wood chipping / sawdust or straw in the nesting areas which is fine. You don’t need to make a nest as the chickens will sort that out themselves – if they can be bothered. If you’re thinking of putting your run on the lawn – beware as chickens will soon peck down and soil a fixed patch of lawn so either make your run easy to relocate or make it a permanent home.
From a childhood steeped in feeding all manner of livestock at the top of my dad’s garden, I know that chickens are inquisitive creatures who’ll wander off at a moments notice so make your run secure. There are a number of pre-fabricated chicken runs you can buy – we suggest you don’t go mad until you’ve discovered if keeping chickens is really for you. They’ll have their own guidelines on the number of chickens you can home.
An old garden shed makes an excellent hen house.
Keeping chickens does put you on the ‘radar’ of vermin and other wildlife that enjoys a cold chicken dinner. Whether its the foodstuffs (hence the varmit proof containers) or the chickens (or their eggs) themselves, you’ll need to keep an eye on your chickens, making sure they’re shut up inside at night.
How many eggs and what colour depends on what breed of chicken you keep. Local breeders will be able to help and also advise on which breeds will co-exist without to many feathers flying. If you’re buying a laying breed, then you’ll want to purchase as near to ‘point of lay’ as possible (usually around 18 – 22 weeks old). Table birds refers to chickens which are better for eating. If you do decide you’re going to eat one of your chickens after a long laying career, boiling is a good method but be prepared for a long cooking time!
Check with your breeder whether they’ve been inoculated – proof is usually by way of a certificate.
Finally, there are loads of self-help style websites, many written by people who decided to keep their own chickens and are a wealth of information for the first time keeper, including runs, feeding, health and best breeds & sources of etc. so have no fear that you’ll be on your own once you’ve purchased your first chickens. Many first-time chicken keepers are introduced to it by friends and neighbours keeping their own or helping out with the occasional holiday feeding whilst the owners are away.
If you’ve got someone near you that keeps chickens, why not pay them a visit and get some first-hand experience before taking the plunge and keeping your own.