Chickens are pretty omnivorous, but it is very important for them to have a balanced diet. Unless you are very expert at chicken feeding, the best way to do this is to base your chickens’ diet on one of the pelleted feeds. You can feed your chickens this in conjunction with corn or wheat, the consensus of opinion being to feed the pellets in the morning from a feeder that keeps the food dry, then the grain in the afternoon as a scatter food.
If the chicken run you choose is under cover, then you are assured the food will be kept dry, but if your chickens are free-range it is important to buy feeders with lids on. Feed your chickens at a rate that leaves a little left over at the end of the day, as this will assure you that every bird is getting enough to eat. Birds love fresh greens and they will also benefit from these. If you can’t get your birds onto a grassy area regularly, then give them some cabbage or something similar. Once you are sure the birds are properly nourished, you can add a few treats which won’t do them any harm and will be much appreciated by your chickens. Bread, cereal or sunflower seeds make good treats.
Fresh, clean water must be made available during the daylight hours. A drinking fountain will keep a reserve of clean water which fills up a small trough, making it harder for the water to be fouled. If you lock your birds in the chicken coop at night, it isn’t necessary to make water available.
Hens need (flint) grit to grind food in their crop. Some grit will be included in a good quality food, but it’s also a good idea to supply some in a suitable container. There will also be a source of calcium in their food which is necessary for the production of eggshells, but many poultry keepers like to supply extra calcium in the form of ground oyster shell which is usually mixed in with the grit.
The chicken house will need to be cleaned regularly, exactly how often depends on the amount of birds you are keeping and the time of year, but ideally once a week. It is very important to keep all the crevices of the chicken coop clean and watch for signs of infestation by red mite or fleas The floor of the chicken house should be covered with sawdust but it is very important that this should be dust-free wood shavings as chickens have delicate respiratory systems and dust can be very harmful to them. For the same reason clean, dry wheat straw (not hay) should be used in their nesting boxes, preferably on a layer of sawdust. The floor can be lined with old newspaper first, then sawdust, droppings and all can simply be rolled up. Poultry droppings make one of the best garden manures you can get, though used fresh and direct, in quantity, can be too strong for plants. It is better to allow the manure to rot down with the old straw and sawdust – it really shouldn’t smell.
Hens don’t need a cockerel with them in order to lay eggs, the cockerel is only required if you want fertile eggs (which if collected regularly are perfectly OK to eat). The rate of lay depends on the nutrition your hens are getting, the amount of contentment they feel, the age of the bird, day length and breed of bird. 14 hours of daylight is the optimum day length and commercial producers may use lights to provide a false dawn. Dusk should be gradual for the welfare of your birds as this allows your chickens time to roost. Chickens usually start laying again after the winter, around mid-February, but you will probably get the odd egg all year round. It is true that a china egg can help stimulate laying. It’s very important for your chickens to have the correct environment for laying eggs. The nesting area within the chicken coop needs to be dark and reasonably private. It is advisable to collect your eggs at least once a day as you don’t want birds to start sitting on a clutch (unless you want to start breeding!) or to get a taste for eggs themselves. Whether to clean eggs is a debateable matter. If you do, then just wipe them with a cloth dipped in clean, tepid water. Eggs are porous and so will absorb any smells. Mark the collection date on the shells with a pencil so that you use the oldest first and enjoy the incomparable taste of a really fresh egg!
Once a year chickens lose their feathers (not all of them) and grow new ones. They can go rather quiet and tend not to lay as much, but after a few weeks you will see them looking good again. It is advisable that birds are in tip top condition prior to the moult, as this process can take a lot out of your chickens, so ensure your worming and parasite control is up to date. You do not need to take any other action, although some hen keepers like to add some extra vitamins to their hens’ food as an encouragement.
Chickens have a hierarchical social system with the stronger, more assertive birds having first crack at feeding. They will also boss the lower order chickens around. This is known as the ‘pecking order’. You will notice, as you watch your chickens, the order of precedence. This behaviour becomes particularly obvious when new birds are introduced to an established flock. Until the order is re-established any new birds that have been introduced to the flock will be bullied, sometimes quite badly. It is often necessary for the protection of new birds, to segregate them in an enclosure within the main run until they are accepted into the flock. General well-being Contented, busy chickens are much more likely to thrive and lay well, compared to those that are unhappy. Chickens feed mainly by scratching the ground, then pecking an earth floor to the run. A few inches of bark chippings or similar will also keep them occupied and happy. Another simple measure is to provide their greens hung up in a string bag or on a hook so they have to reach up to get at it. If possible, let them roam free – they will love the space but may play havoc with your garden! With care, especially during the high summer and through the winter months, a small number of chickens will not do much damage in a garden. They will eat up a lot of pests – they love slugs – spread some very fine manure, and be a pleasure to have around. Keep an eye on your flock’s behaviour, droppings and food consumption – any bird that ‘goes quiet’, has a messy tail or loses feathers should be investigated