Having your own flock of chickens requires some knowledge about animal husbandry. Looking after any animal requires some thought, disease control, feeding, and choice of stock. Having your own flock offers the convenience of having birds that lay fresh eggs or broilers for eating. You can also exhibit rare or fancy breeds at shows and fairs. You can also enjoy keeping a wide variety of breeds and colours in your flock. You can keep chickens and bantams along with game birds and guinea fowl together.
Planning Your First Flock of Chickens
Always think about the end goal. Do you want to have fresh meat or fresh eggs daily? Do you want some pets to teach your children about caring for and having responsibility for an animal? Do you want to rear rare breeds or show your birds? You will probably have to check local regulations about whether you can keep chickens and how many you can have in your flock. There may be rules about noise and vermin control that you will need to consider when developing your coop and flock. It is also wise to check with your neighbours about whether they will be happy for you to have chickens. You will need to think about who will care for your birds when you go on holiday or are working away from home.
Choosing your chickens
There are generally three main choices when it comes to choosing your chickens. You will find breeds that are good for laying eggs, ones for showing and ones that are bred for producing meat. How you care for each of the breeds associated with these choices will also vary. Always choose your birds from reliable stock that comes from a registered hatchery or renowned breeder, as this helps to ensure that your stock is healthy.
Choosing Chickens for Egg Production
There are some chicken breeds that are well known for egg laying, such as White Leghorns or Rhode Island Reds. Some breeds will lay brown eggs (those with red ear lobes) or white eggs (those with white ear lobes). Prolific egg laying birds will lay about 200 eggs a year. You do not have to have a cockerel to encourage your hens to lay eggs. You can buy these chickens as day old chicks to rear or young birds about 4 months old.
Choosing Chickens for Meat Production
Most breeds of chicken that have been bred for meat production are fast growing birds that put on a bulk of breast and leg meat. A broiler could reach about 5 pounds in weight in about 6 weeks or a roaster size within 4 months.
Choosing Chickens for Exhibiting
Each breed of chickens has its own particular characteristics associated with it. You intend to breed and maintain these characteristics. You can learn more about specific breeds through special societies and breed clubs. These clubs are also useful for finding breeders of the particular breed. Some people prefer bantams because they are smaller.
Housing Your Chickens
Most people keep chickens in coops, which are made up of a chicken house and a run. The purpose of their housing is to provide suitable protection from the elements, predators, theft and injury. Think about where you would like to set up your chicken coop in your yard. The area should be well drained with access for electricity and water. The house should be ventilated yet insulated from cold weather. If you have a run for your chickens, you may want to set up some method of moving the birds from area to area so that the birds have access to new areas of ground to scrape and forage in. You will need to protect the top of the run from predators. If you have permanent runs, you may want to protect them from foxes and other predators and vermin.
Space Requirements for Chickens
Whether you are keeping bantams or chickens, you will need to ensure that there is adequate room for the birds to move around, nest, and roost. Insufficient space can cause aggressive behaviour and increase disease. Bantams should have 1 sqft per bird for inside space and 4sqft per bird outdoors. Chickens should have 2 sqft inside space and 10 sqft of outdoor space.
Birds will need nesting space, especially if they are kept for producing eggs. Birds will be interested in nesting from about 4 to 5 months old. Nest spaces should be made available so that birds are encouraged to use them and not lay eggs on the floor. Place one 25x25cm box about 50 cm up from the floor per 4 or 5 birds, and keep the nests separate from the roosting area. Add straw or wood shavings to the base of the nest box. Create about 18cm of perch space per bird to allow them to roost at night. Place the roost perches higher than the nest boxes to discourage the chickens from roosting in the nest boxes.
If you receive your birds as newly hatched chicks, then they will need some heat provided to them for the first few weeks, as they do not have sufficient feathers to keep them warm. You can buy brooders or heat lamps to help. Use an inexpensive infrared lamp to keep them warm for small flocks. Keep the heat lamp about 30cm up from floor. Insulate the room or brooder so that there is enough heat for the young birds. Start with a heat about 32 degrees Celsius and drop by a few degrees each week until the birds are about six weeks old and the ambient temperature is about 20 degrees Celsius. Keep a thermometer in the brooder so that you can check the temperature. Check the behaviour of the birds. Active birds that chirp and huddle too near to the heat source may be too cold. Conversely, if the chicks avoid the lamp and may be panting, then they might be too warm.
Chicken Feeders and Drinkers
There are many different chicken feeders and drinkers available on the market. The designs vary, but they will normally be galvanised metal or plastic. You can create your own feeders, but the design should be optimised to minimise waste of feedstuff. Water should also be covered; otherwise, the birds will be tempted to wash in it. Feeders that use tubes or hanging pods can usually be adjusted so that you can adjust the flow of food or water through them. Feeders should be constructed in such a way to prevent the birds from roosting on top of them. Allow about 5 to 7cm of space per bird.