Whether you are new to keeping chickens, or have some experience – it is always best review your chicken house requirements regularly and ensure that you follow the basics as this will ensure your chickens are as happy as possible. This guide will give you information on chicken houses(often referred to as chicken coops ) together with basic information about where to put your chicken house, cleaning out chickens, storing chicken food and some useful information about things which may affect the egg laying of your chickens.
Before you get your chickens, the first thing you need to consider is their housing. There are plenty of houses for sale on the internet at very cheap prices, but buyer beware! You get exactly what you pay for. If you are able to, go and visit the supplier and view the house before you buy it. Some of the cheap houses imported from China are not fox proof and others overstate the amount of hens which they can accomodate.
As a rule of thumb, the house should have about 18″ square per bird and the run should have about 3ft square per bird. There should also be about 8″-10″ of perch space per bird and one nest box for every 4 birds. If it is only a house without a run the pophole must be able to be securely fastened at night as foxes will soon work out how to get in. This also applies to access for the nest boxes.
If you are making the house and run yourself there are some essentials to consider in addition to the above points.Most designs on the market have been designed by experienced keepers who have learnt through trial and error for things like ease of access and cleaning out and general maintenance, regardless of quality.
Roofs must be made from something strong and ideally allow some ventilation. Bitumen based corrugated sheets are ideal for this. If you are using plywood and roofing felt make sure you stick the felt down rather than nailing it as redmite (which are covered later) can get underneath and hide. Ideally you will have one side of the roof which is removable for easy cleaning. The perches should also be removable for cleaning.
If you are building it with a run, you should allow a door for letting them out and also a door where you are going to put their food and water. The nest box should be at the furthest point from the pop hole, so it remains as dark as possible. Hens like privacy when they lay eggs and will normally go to the darkest place.
The perches should also be higher than the nest box to encourage to roost at night rather than sleep in the next boxes. If this happens the nest boxes will quickly fill with faeces. If when you get your hens they start sleeping in the nest box, place a football or something similar at night to encourage them to roost instead.
Feeders & Drinkers
Once you have sorted out your house, the next thing to think about is feeders & drinkers. Both are available in several different sizes to accomodate the number of birds you have. Both should be hung so that the bottom rim is at the height of the chickens back.
An average hybrid chicken will eat about 1.5kg of food per week if kept in a run. If it is free ranging it will eat less. Large fowl will eat slightly more and bantams slightly less. Always use feeders that are filled from the top & where feed is eaten from the bottom. Never use a trough which is topped up as after a period of time the food at the bottom will go rancid and and make your chickens ill.
Your chickens will probably drink about half a litre of water a day, depending on the weather. Water should be changed daily to avoid the build up of bacteria and thoroughly cleaned once a week. In the summer months when it is hot, it is advisable to change it more often if possible as chickens will not drink the water once it becomes warm. In the winter months it is a good idea to remove the drinkers at night to prevent freezing. Plastic drinkers become brittle when it is cold so take care. If you have find yourself with a frozen drinker, immerse it in a bowl or bucket of hot water to melt the ice rather than trying to use force to separate the ice from the drinker. If you are making the drinkers yourself from buckets or troughs etc, make sure they have some sort of lid or cover to stop the hens standing on top and pooing in the water.
Siting the House
The house should be somewhere that offers shade and ideally shelter from the wind. If the hens are going to be left in the run day after day, you will need to move the run around on a regular basis otherwise you will get a build up of parasites in the ground which will make your chickens ill. If the run is going to be static and your chickens are going to free range, you should put down some wood chips on the floor. Make sure these are not the ground garden mulch type chippings as these have been chemically treated to prolong their life. The best litter for the house is softwood shavings as these are very absorbant. Straw is cheaper but can get a build up of mildew underneath when it gets damp which can lead to respiratory problems. The dust from hay and hardwood shavings can also lead to respiratory problems.
You will need a solid container to keep food in and the ideal thing is a metal dustbin, not a plastic oneas these aren’t rodent proof. You will need layers pellets or layers mash to go in your feeders. When buying food, it has a shelf life of about 3 months, after this the fats will go rancid so no matter how cheap you are offered food you should always work out how much you will use. Avoid buying from small pet shops as the food may have been stored there for a long time. Try to find a local agricultural merchant or poultry supplier who get regular fresh stocks.
Late in the afternoon you can feed them a treat of mixed corn. Keep this in a tin and rattle it before you give it to them, this will teach them where their treats are kept and you can then use it to entice them into the house or runs if you have to. Corn to chickens are like sweets are to children, so don’t give them too much!
They will also like vegetable peelings but make sure they have not been in contact with any meat products in the kitchen. Potato peelings are poisonous raw, but not if they are cooked. Try to avoid letting your chickens eat long grass and don’t give them grass cuttings from the lawn mower, just let them eat pieces of grass from the lawn. They also need to have access to poultry grit which will help them grind up the food in their crops. This is best placed in a bowl in their run as they can then get in when they want it.
This needs to be done on a regular basis, at least once a week and ideally the faeces in the house should be cleaned out daily. Keeping the house clean will prevent parasite build up which will make the chickens uncomfortable and can even cause death. Weekly, when cleaning the nest boxes, sprinkle some Diatom powder into the shavings. This will kill the mites on the shavings and will also work it’s way into the bird when they are laying their eggs. Red mites don’t live on the birds, but it the crevices in the house and they come out at night to feed on the birds. Before they feed they will look like little grey pinheads, but after they have fed they will be red with the blood they have sucked from the chickens. Another defence against red mite is poultry shield.
As a preventative measure, the whole house should be sprayed once a month with a garden sprayer, making sure all the nooks and crannies both inside and out are thoroughly soaked. This will ensure any red mite or their eggs are destroyed. If you do get an infestation, this process should be repeated daily for a minimum of seven days, so as to break their breeding and incubation cycle. Whenever you use poultry shield, do it in the morning so the house has all day to dry out before our chickens go to roost at night.
Lice live on the chickens and can be seen by pulling back the feathers to expose the skin. They will normally be found around the vent but if left undiscovered they will spread across the whole bird. Lice can easily be treated with louse powder or spray. Simply dust the bird with the powder or spray the whole bird with the spray, and repeat as per the manufacturers instructions.
When you get your chickens they will probably be sold as point of lay hens or pullets. Point of lay (P.O.L.) refers to anything between 18-26 weeks old. Pure bred hens will normally be in the latter period or even longer during the winter months. Most hybrid hens are solid at 16 weeks old and are advertised as P.O.L. They are sold at 16 weeks because this is the length of their vaccination, but will usually start laying at 18 or 19 weeks if they have settled into their new home. If bought in late November or December they may not start laying until the end of January or early February when the days start to get longer. Most hybrids will lay eggs more or less every day for the first year and a half to two years but will then decline rapidly.
Pure breeds of poultry will lay eggs for more years but a fewer amount per year. They will not normally lay eggs through the short days of November to February. Eggs should be collected on a daily basis and any broken eggs should be removed completely. Don’t be tempted to just pick out the shell. If chickens get a taste for their eggs they will soon start to try breaking and eating them. Once this starts, egg eating is a very hard vice to stop. Collecting the eggs as early in the morning as possible is best as this will discourage them from getting broody. Hybrids will rarely go broody but certain types of purebred poultry will do so. Don’t worry if your first eggs are small, after a few weeks they will start to get bigger. Sometimes once they have started laying they will miss a day and the next day you will get an unusually large egg containing two yolks. This is not a problem if it happens occasionally, but if this happens regularly you will need to get some advice.
Your chickens should be wormed every 6 months with a proprietary worme. If you have a large amounts of chickens, this can now be bought ready mixed with layers pellets, but if you only have a few chickens it is best to buy the wormer and mix it with the pellets yourself. Always read the instructions and make sure you heed any egg withdrawal periods the manufacturer recommends.
After your chickens have completed their first egg laying cycle, usually one year, they will start to moult and lose some feathers. During this period their egg laying will slow down or completely cease depending on the length and extremity of the moult. Sometimes chickens will lose feathers gradually or sometimes look like an ex battery hen within a few days. When this is happening it is a good idea to give them a vitamin supplement. Keep your eye out for bullying when birds are going through their moult as large areas of bare flesh can lead to feather pecking. Should this start to happen the bird should be removed from the rest of the flock until they have fully refeathered. When reintroducing the chicken, this is best done at night when the other chickens will be not notice. This also applies to introducing new chickens.
It is a good idea to put an extra drinker & feeder in the run when introducing new chickens so the other birds don’t see the newcomer as a threat to their food and water. If bullying occurs place the birds apart, but make sure they can see each other but cannot have contact. Leave like this for a week and then try again. Some upset is going to happenas the birds re-establish their pecking order, so keep your eye out and give them as much space as possible. Unacquainted cockrels very rarely get on with each other so try to avoid this. When introducing any new make sure they are all of a similar size. You can mix different breeds, but if you do – follow the above.