Want to know how to look after chickens? Here are some tips for keeping chickens. Mark and Sharon Burrows have been looking after chickens for over 25 years and know a thing or two about keeping your chickens happy and healthy and they both love showing beginners how to get started.
You’re always welcome to pop in and see them for a chat about “chooks” :)

Water

Chickens need access to clean water during the day and will drink a lot more when the weather is warm. Drinkers that are kept in the coop should be removed at night as they  create a damp atmosphere that is not very healthy for your hens.

You would have had to remove it anyway the next morning to clean it and refill with fresh water.

Food

When you first buy your young birds they will have been raised on layers mash. We would advise that you keep your birds on mash for at least a week. Mash is something that is familiar to them and they are eating from the moment you get them home. If you wish to change them on to pellets, start by introducing layers pellets gradually, increasing the ratio of pellets to mash.

What to feed your chickens

To keep your hens healthy and give them as long a life span as possible, it is essential to give them the correct healthy diet. Remember the hen has not only to maintain herself but she also has to produce eggs which is very demanding on her system, so the main diet of the hens should be layers pellets or layers mash. It contains all the correct nutrients in the right quantities for the overall health of the bird. Layers pellets should be available for the hen’s to eat all day in a feeder that cannot be knocked over by the birds. Feeders need to be topped up every day.

They do appreciate fruit and fresh vegetables, cabbage etc, when available. Lettuce holds little nutrition for them and if given in large amounts will upset the nutritional balance of the hens diet.

Remember! It is illegal to feed your hens meat, animal by products, kitchen scraps or any food that has passed through your kitchen. This is because hens produce a food product and cross contamination with meat or surfaces where meat has been prepared could occur. This applies to the domestic poultry keeper as well as the commercial industry, regardless of if you sell the eggs or not.

We do not recommend giving birds under 24 wks of age mixed poultry corn, bread, biscuits, crisps or pasta. Their digestive system is still immature  and is not designed to cope with any processed food, sugar or salt, giving rise to health problems, which can be fatal. Long grass and a shortage of hen grit can also cause this so keep grass short where the birds are kept.

Some feeds do contain a small amount of grit but we always supply our hens with extra grit to ensure they get enough.

Mixed poultry corn should only be fed to chickens over 24 weeks and then only as as winter scratch feed, a small handful per bird is sufficient. Throw it onto the ground so they can scratch for it as late in the afternoon as possible. This helps to keep them warm overnight in the cold weather. Do not mix poultry corn with layers pellets in the feeder as they will pick out all the corn and leave the layers pellets leading to an imbalance in their nutrition. The majority of problems with hens can be traced back to an incorrect diet.

Chickens also like to scratch the ground to search for seeds, roots and insects. Food dispensers should be cleaned regularly.

Grit

Chickens also need hen grit, this should contain soluble and insoluble grit. It is essential for their digestion and for the formation of eggshells and bones. This should be made available all the time. The birds do not eat this in vast quantities they will only take what they need when they need it.

Housing

The house needs to be dry and well ventilated. The floor should be covered with dry material (e.g. wood shavings or straw), which must be cleaned out at least once a week. Do not use hay as it contains mould spores and it will release them as soon as it gets damp leading to respiratory problems.

Chickens like to forage, dust bathe and preen their feathers, and so materials such as wood shavings, dry sand or wood ash should be supplied whenever the birds can’t do this outside in dry soil. You can add some louse powder to their dust bathing area and it will help keep them free of lice and ticks.

There should be plenty of space in the house for chickens to move around, exercise and stretch their wings. As a rough guide, 12 square metres of floor area should be enough for up to 30 birds.

It is advisable to have a trio of hens rather than two because if something unfortunate happens to one of them a hen is not left on her own. They like company of their own kind and can become very depressed if left on their own and lose the will to live.

Please remember to lock your hens away at night after they have gone to roost, they rely on you to keep them safe.

Roosting

Chickens need perches to roost on at night. These should be lengths of wooden batten, around 3 to 5cm wide with rounded edges but not completely round eg like broom handles as these can damage the feet. There should be enough perching space for all the chickens to comfortably roost at the same time, and enough space between perches to let them get up and down without injury. Perch height should be adjusted to suit the size of the birds.

The entrance (Pop Hole) to the house should be big enough to allow chickens to pass through without difficulty and without having to crouch down. Providing more than one entrance can help to avoid bullying and encourage all chickens to go in and out.

Additional requirements for egg-laying hens

Hens need quiet nest boxes where they can perform laying behaviours where they feel safe. Boxes should be draught-free and lined with clean, dry, comfy nesting material, such as straw or wood shavings. If nesting material becomes soiled it should be removed as soon as possible and replaced with clean as you do not want your eggs to be laid in soiled nesting. If you find that your hens are roosting in the nest boxes deny them access by blocking them off with boarding at night and then remove during the day. Chick boxes are excellent for this purpose and have an egg roll away function to keep eggs clean and stop egg eating habits before they start. You can find these on our website.

Your hens will start to lay approximately between the ages of 23 to 26wks of age, although the Columbine can be as late as 30wks. Hens are very individual and will not all start to lay at the same time, even if they are of the same breed. Their first eggs will be small (pullet eggs) but as the hen matures the eggs will get larger. Sometimes you may get a blip in the system like a double yolked egg or a soft shelled egg, this is nothing to worry about it is just the hens immature system trying to get into the swing of things. Everything should settle down within a few weeks.

Outdoor run

If your birds are kept in an enclosed run make sure there is plenty of room for them to move freely about and provide amusement for them by hanging some greens just out of their reach. If chickens become bored feather pecking can appear and is almost impossible to cure.

The outdoor area needs to be large enough so that it can be divided up if necessary, to allow chickens to roam on good pasture every day while other parts recover.

There should be overhead shelter, such as small trees or purpose-built, and places to perch. These will help to provide protection from sun, bad weather and predators, and encourage the chickens to explore. Chickens like dry soil areas to dust bathe in.

If feed or water is also provided outside, it should be sheltered and care taken not to attract wildlife. Feed should be removed at night to a secure place where rodents cannot get to it.

Fences should be well-maintained, provide protection against predators, and designed to ensure the birds cannot escape but do not become trapped or injured.

Introducing new chickens to an existing flock

The best time to introduce your new chickens is at night after your other birds have gone to roost, this will help to reduce bullying but may not stop it from happening. All birds can then be let out together in the morning. You will need to keep a close eye on them for a few days to ensure that it does not get out of hand. It is always handy to have a spare pen or somewhere else to separate the main offender, usually the one at the top of the pecking order.

We recommend that you introduce at least two hens at a time as this effectively divides the bullying in half. Also ensure that your coop and run are large enough for your new birds to escape from the worst of the bullying.

Alternatively (and probably the best solution) is to have a separate run alongside your other hens so they can see each other but not come to any harm. They will then gradually become accustomed to each other and you can let them all run together.

When you get your hens home it is advisable to keep them in an enclosed run for a week or two so they become accustomed to their new surroundings and learn to go into the coop at night to roost.

Health

Healthy birds are bright-eyed, alert and interested. Signs of poor health include:

  • Hunched posture
  • Head tucked under the wing
  • Reluctance to move
  • Hiding in corners

Please consult your vet if you are concerned about your hens health.

Parasites

Lice are 2 to 3mm in size and can be found all over the body with eggs around the shafts of the feathers, the best place to spot them is around the vent area.It is a good idea to have some louse powder to hand for when this problem occurs as it can make the hens miserable in a short space of time. Dust all the hen’s all over with the powder and repeat in seven days.

Red mites are not the red spiders you see outside in the daylight. They are a lot smaller and are brown or grey until they have blood meal. They live in crevices within the house and will crawl onto the hens when they go to roost at night. They will then then feed on the blood of the birds. They can usually be spotted first on the underside of the perches and if squashed you will see a blood smear. This problem can become serious very quickly and prompt action needs to be taken as the hens will become anaemic and very poorly in a short space of time. We use “ Total Mite Kill” from Nettex as it is one that we found actually works. Every square inch of the house has to be sprayed paying particular attention to small cracks etc. Red mite will also hide in the feeders and drinkers hence the need for regular cleaning and checking for these parasites.

Diatom powder is excellent as a preventative measure against red mite, liberally dust the perches, holders and nest boxes with it once a week when you clean the house. Diatom is also a 100% natural product and it can be used to dust the birds in if they have lice or fleas. It works by desiccating the outer shell of the parasite, it can also be mixed with their food to aid with internal parasitic worms. Please refer to guide lines on container for quantities to be mixed with food.

Chickens need worming at least twice a year. Flubenvet is a powder you can buy from the vet (the only licenced wormer for poultry) which is mixed with the layers pellets for seven days. We use a few teaspoons of cod liver oil to help the powder stick to the pellets. There is no egg withdrawal period with flubenvet.