Basic Principles of Rearing and Management of Chickens
by Carole Youngs
Signs of good health:
- Full, bright and velvety ‘headgear’ (comb & wattles)
- Full, round and bright eyes, not sunken or cloudy
- Dry nostrils
- Good, smooth feathering with a shiny appearance
- Clean, fluffy feathers around the vent
- Neither thin or over-fat
- Steady respiration, no panting or wheezing
- Active, moving freely
- Laying well, and producing regular, perfect eggs
Feeding adult hens:
- Layer pellets and ‘mash’ (designed to be dampened before feeding) are specially formulated to provide all the energy and nutrients they need, but given the choice, most hens will chose to eat corn! So, give hens their ration of layer pellets in the morning (for a ‘utility’ type laying hen, allow approximately ¼ - ⅓ lb (or 130-150gms) per hen per day, and then offer corn in the afternoon. They’ll also appreciate plenty of ‘greens’ in their diet: lettuce, cabbage, and cucumber – anything fresh & juicy!
- Commercial egg producers regularly weigh their hens, and this is a good practise to adopt; loss of weight can indicate ill health, while excess weight can predispose a hen to become ‘egg-bound’.
- Check regularly for eggs, if left too long it may encourage egg pecking or eating – and once the habit is formed it’s very difficult to stop.
- If you find soft-shelled eggs, or eggs with misshapen or rough shells, it may be a sign of nutritional imbalance, disease or stress.
- Add a little Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV) to the hen’s water – although disputed, many people claim that the acidity acts as a ‘tonic’ for the hens and aids digestion. It certainly won’t do them any harm, but always offer untreated water in another container in case any of the hens won’t drink the treated water. Add 2ml of ACV (use a syringe to measure accurately) to 1 litre of water in a plastic drinker (it will corrode metal).
- If you like ‘natural remedies’, also offer the hens some garlic granules mixed with their layer or corn: garlic can act as a repellent to harmful gut worms, but don’t rely on it totally. Best practice is to carry out regular (4x per year would be about right) ‘faecal egg counts’ (FEC) to determine the parasite burden of your hens – your vet will explain how to collect a sample and will arrange for it to be tested in a laboratory, the result will indicate whether you need to use a worming product on your hens. Alternatively, you can use the excellent postal service provided by www.westgatelabs.co.uk/home-zone/news.htm
- Garlic can also help repel flies – it’s not unknown for hens to be ‘struck’ by flies in warm weather: they lay eggs on mucky feathers, these then hatch into maggots which burrow into their flesh, producing toxins at the same time.
- Keep grass mown short – long grass can obstruct their crop; and, by allowing the sun to penetrate the sward, parasite (worm) eggs are desiccated and killed (but you will still need to monitor your hens using Faecal Egg Counts, and worming as necessary)
- Try to rest at least part of their run for a few weeks on a rotation basis – this will help break the parasite life cycle
- Spring is the ideal time to replace or increase your flock, and there are various ways to go about this: from buying ‘POL’ (point-of-lay) hens, to hatching eggs – from your own hens if you have a cockerel and a broody hen, or buying in fertile eggs to hatch in an incubator.
If you have a broody hen sitting on eggs:
- Keep a close eye on the calendar, hen’s eggs take 21 days to hatch
- Take her off the eggs at the same time each day for feeding
- Some people advocate not lifting the hen off her nest, preferring to trust her instincts
- Allow her to feed for at least 20/30 minutes
- Make sure she has access to fresh water in the coop at all times
- While she is feeding, turn the eggs through 180 degrees
- Check that the turf-base of the nest remains damp, but not soggy
Caring for the broody hen:
Firstly, keep a note of the date the hen starts to incubate her clutch of eggs (up to 11 for the larger breeds, maximum of 7 for smaller hens). During the process she’ll probably be reluctant to leave the nest, but it’s vitally important that she has the opportunity to eat, drink and defecate. Lift her gently off the nest, preferably at the same time each day, and don’t allow her to return for at least 20-30 minutes (some people advocate not lifting the hen off her nest, preferring to trust her instincts). Offer high-energy mixed grains and make sure that she defecates before returning to the nest to avoid soiling the eggs (and herself, which can lead to flies laying eggs around her vent, leading to ‘fly-strike’). Make sure she has access in the coop to clean, fresh water at all times. A sitting hen is more at risk from attack by red mites and lice, so give her access to a dust bath and treat with a proprietary insecticide to keep her free of parasites.
The hatching process:
Egg incubation times vary slightly according to the size of egg: a large egg will take perhaps a day longer to hatch than a small egg. At around Day 18, you can lightly spray a little warm water onto the eggs; this can make it easier for the chicks to break through the shell. Keep a close eye on the calendar; you should expect to hear some cheeping by Day 20, this indicates that the chicks have pecked through to the air space at the blunt end of the egg. Within a further 6-10 hours, the chicks will have broken out of the shell. If a chick seems unable to manage by itself, it’s questionable whether it’s a good idea to help or not – more often than not, it will be a weak or malformed chick that may not survive. The newly hatched wet chick will quickly dry, and will be up and running and looking for food and water within minutes. It will need the hen for warmth, and hopefully she will fluff up her feathers and tuck them in around her.
Raising Healthy Chicks:
- Once the chicks have hatched their needs are pretty well the same whether hatched by a broody hen or an incubator, though hopefully in the case of the hen, she will do most of the work!
- Housing: A broody coop with a small mesh-covered run that can be moved regularly onto clean, fresh ground if the chicks are to be reared by the hen; a broody box if the chicks have been hatched in an incubator.
- Temperature: The newly hatched chick needs warmth, firstly to dry its down to save getting chilled, and for the next 6 weeks at least, until it grows it’s own feathers. The mother hen will keep her chicks warm by gathering them under her warm down, the incubator chicks will need to be placed in a draught-free ‘brooder box’ where artificial heat is provided by a heat lamp (the ones that provide heat without light are best, so the chicks become attuned to day and night rhythms) or heat pads. Make sure they’re not too hot (moving away from the heat source, gasping), or too cold (huddled tight together under the heat source, heads reaching up towards heat source.
- Health Checks: As soon as the newly hatched chick has dried and fluffed up, it’s a good idea to quickly check that it has no deformities, things to look out for include: ‘Star-gazing’ this indicates a serious disease (Encephalamasia) from which the chick will not recover, so best to humanely cull; ‘Crooked Toes’ meaning the chick cannot stand properly, again, there is no remedy and culling is the best option; ‘Splay Legs’ may be caused by too slippery a surface, so provide a more secure flooring: clean shavings or fine wood-chip – if the chick is still doing the splits, gently tie a piece of soft wool around each leg with a link between.
- Water: Use a small automatic waterer, never a dish that the chicks may fall into and become chilled. Chicks from an incubator should have their beaks dipped into the water; chicks reared by a hen will be taught to drink by the hen.
- Feeding: The newly hatched chick can survive on the yolk sac for up to 48-hours, but offer chick crumbs soon after hatching. The mother hen will show them the food: she’ll scratch the food around, tempting them to eat. They should remain on chick crumbs for about 6-8 weeks, when they can start eating grower’s pellets and wheat (with mixed grit).
- Growing on: As the incubator chicks outgrow their brooder box provide them with a larger area, but gradually reduce the heat as they ‘feather-up’ by raising the height of the heat lamp. Slowly adjust them to less heat by turning the lamp off during the warmest part of the day, and then remove it altogether. You will also need to accustom them to darkness at night if you’ve been using an infrared heat source. If you have an existing flock, it will be at least 6 months before your new ‘growers’ can be introduced. Chicks raised by a hen, however, can join the main flock at about 8-10 weeks, as she will protect them from bullying by the other hens.
When you are ready to introduce your newly fledged pullets to the flock, here are a few helpful hints for a successful integration:
Protect from Disease
- Remember that the new pullets will be ‘naïve’ – meaning they have no acquired resistance – to all the diseases that can affect chickens, so try to ensure they go onto clean ground that has not recently had chickens on it
- Alternatively, or additionally, use a ground sanitising powder on a weekly basis
- Keep a very close watch for any signs of illness (eg. loose droppings, ‘raspy’ breathing) and investigate any problems immediately
Although the cold weather will have given your chickens a welcome relief from red mite (although they can still be present in the coop, they won’t be breeding at this time of year), lice can still be a problem. As lice live on the chickens (feeding on dead skin and feather debris) throughout their life cycle, they aren’t bothered by the cold weather, and will reproduce even at this time of year, causing irritation to their host.
- To check whether this is a problem in your flock, pick up one of the hens and gently part the feathers (on the back and under the wings) to expose the skin; you’ll see lice as small 1-3mm yellowish-grey insects which will scurry away from the light.
- Next, look around the vent area, where if mites are present, you’ll find their eggs (‘nits’) in clumps at the base of the feathers.
- To treat, use louse powder (which most usually contains Pyrethrum) all over the bird, parting the feathers as you go.
- Treat all birds in the house at the same time, and repeat weekly for at least 4 weeks as their breeding cycle, from egg to adult, is 3 weeks.
- An alternative, organic, treatment is to use diatomaceous earth, applied to the chickens in the same way as louse powder.
- If you continue to have problems, your vet can prescribe an Ivermectin based treatment (eg. Frontline) that you apply to the back of the bird’s neck, but do be aware that this product is not licensed for use in poultry, and you will probably need to discard eggs for the duration of treatment.
- Once you have cleared up the infestation, provide your hens with a dust bath, which will enable them to keep free from external parasites naturally, and enjoy the process at the same time!
Bullying or Making New Friends!
- An established flock of hens has a ‘pecking order’ and will often bully newcomers, especially if they are smaller than themselves
- In an ideal world, the new pullets should be reared separately from the main flock until they have grown to the same size as the established flock, and then carefully introduced
- In all events, plan to introduce them in a way so that they can see one another, but not have physical contact: one way of achieving this is to construct a wire mesh enclosure for the new birds inside the existing run
- Provide a suitable coop to house them in the separate run, and the two groups will gradually get used to one another
- When you want the new birds to join the existing flock, wait for them all to roost, then carry the new hens into the henhouse and gently pop them onto a perch – in the morning the established hens tend not to notice that there are more hens in the house
- Let the newly-enlarged flock out at daybreak (as soon as they become active) so they are all outside with space for the new pullets to escape if one of the older hens tries to bully
- Make sure there is plenty of room in the henhouse – don’t overcrowd as this is a recipe for bullying
- Provide more than one feeding and watering station so there is less competition
- Hang several tit-bits, such as greens or cucumbers, in different places around the run to distract the birds
- There will still be a bit of ‘hen-pecking’ to establish the ‘pecking order’, but this should settle down in a few days
- Be vigilant for serious bullying: once a hen draws blood, she will often go into a pecking frenzy and do serious damage, or even kill her victim – so remove the injured bird as quickly as possible, and try again in a few days time
- This is without a doubt the most natural way to keep hens – as long as you can protect them from predators
- In reality, true ‘free-ranging’ is often not possible, but make as much space for your flock as possible and then the newly-introduced hens can run away from the bullies and a ‘hen community’ will establish itself more easily
The Annual Moult
Each year chickens will change their feathers; this is called the ‘annual moult’ and usually happens during the months of August and September for spring-hatched chickens, and perhaps not until October for those hatched in the autumn. Some hens will moult at other times of the year, and this is often a sign of stress, poor nutrition or an underlying health problem. A good layer tends to loose more of her feathers in a shorter timescale than a fat bird who produces fewer eggs. The moult is important to the chicken, as having strong plumage helps enable them to withstand harsh winter conditions.
A young hen in good condition will usually complete the moult in about six weeks, whereas an older bird, or one who is over or underweight, may take as long as three months during which her health will be under par. The heavier breeds, such as the Sussex or Rhode Island Red tend to take longer to complete their moult than the lighter breeds.
The moult is a stressful time for birds, and for the owner it usually means a temporary halt to egg laying. Therefore, it’s generally believed that the sooner it’s over and done with and the chickens can re-feather, the better. This means you won’t have bare birds during the cold winter months!
Often, the hens will just start by loosing a few feathers. At this stage you can help to accelerate the process by cutting back on both the quantity (by up to a half) and the protein content of their feed. For example, if they are on a layer’s ration, substitute up to half of this with plain oats, which are lower in protein. Then, when the hens are in full moult, feathers are falling like autumn leaves and you can see the new feathers starting to come through, increase the quantity and quality of their feed: they will need first-class rations, including lots of greens (lettuce, cabbage, kale, etc. – these all contain vitamins and minerals) to help them grow strong new feathers. You can also add a little cod-liver oil to a proprietary layers mash, or add linseed and hempseed – these oils and oilseeds are high in calories.
Once the hens are fully re-feathered, return them to their usual rations, otherwise they may become overfat, which is as unhealthy for chickens as it is for us!
Should I keep a Cockerel?
- Breeding: a cockerel will fertilise your hen’s eggs to provide replacements, this is cheaper than buying POL (point of lay) hens, or buying fertile eggs to hatch in an incubator
- If your hens are free range, the cockerel will tend to keep the flock together and warn of any danger from predators, but there is little evidence that a cockerel is willing or able to protect the flock from rats, foxes, stoats, and other predators
- And finally, a cockerel will make a fine Sunday lunch if you later decide you have make a mistake!
- All cockerels, once they reach maturity, will crow in the early hours of the morning; in summer, this can be as early as 4a.m. If you live in a remote area and are an early riser, this will not be a problem. However, most of us have neighbours and should consider their feelings on this matter! There are numerous cases of poultry-keepers being prosecuted and fined for noisy cockerels.
- If you only have a few hens, a young testosterone-fuelled male will be constantly ‘treading’ the hens, which can cause feather loss and even damage to the ‘saddle’ area. It’s recommended to have a minimum cockerel to hen ratio of 1:6 and for the male to be of a similar breed and size to the hens
- A cockerel’s spurs may need trimming to prevent damage to hens – if you can catch and securely hold him, this is a simple job (you can use dog toenail clippers and a nail file, but beware of cutting too far as this will bleed profusely)
- If you decide to keep a cockerel to fertilise eggs, there is no guarantee that your chap will be fertile
- A mature cock will be a large, heavy bird with male characteristics, for example, he may be aggressive to humans and frighten young children
- Keeping more than one cockerel is possible, providing you have enough hens, but they can fight; if you have more than one, they should be of an equal size
- If you do decide you have the right environment to keep a cockerel, make sure you choose one that is not too heavy for your hens, for example, don’t put a large fowl onto bantam hens.
- And finally, if you are offered a ‘free’ male bird by a breeder, it is not likely to be the best example of the breed, and if you do plan to breed, you should always use the best genetics possible
If you’re just starting out with hens and can’t decide which breed will suit you best, have a look at our Guide to Poultry Breeds. If you decide to get a mix of different breeds, it’s best to choose those that are roughly the same size to prevent the smaller ones getting hen-pecked.