So I built my chicken coop/house and bought a feeder and waterer. I built a big 10m x 4m fenced area which had trees, shrubs, shelter, and the house in it. Finally I couldn’t find any more excuses for delaying it so we ventured out to buy our hens!!
Day 1 – buying the hens
We went to a poultry sale in a local village. It was a strange experience – we looked totally out of place, not being dressed as farmers. It was quickly apparent that we had no idea what we were doing despite having read everything there is to read about chickens for the previous 6 months. It was ‘point of lay’ hens we were after – around the 18-week old mark – which most of the hens for sale were. The sellers were very helpful and everyone had plenty of time to chat. No-one gave us the hard sell.
Every seller told us the hens had had their vaccinations (not that’d we know the difference anyway). In the end, we bought 4 hens from one guy and two from another. We bought them based on their colours which is obviously very scientific. We ended up with 2 hybrids, a White Sussex, a Barred Rock, a White Leghorn, and a Daisybelle which has beautiful iridescent black and green feathers. The White Leghorn lays white eggs and the rest lay various shades of brown.
Getting the hens home
We came prepared with a cardboard box in the boot of the car which the hens were very happy to sit in. At least, there were no complaints since they were probably scared out of their minds. One of the sellers started piling the hens into a plastic bag (!) before we told him we had a box.
We brought the hens into their fenced enclosure and opened the box…they weren’t keen to come out at first but slowly emerged and began to eat the grass and weeds and everything. Note that after a couple of weeks, your chicken area is going to be bare and brown!!
Finding bedding and food
We didn’t have bedding or food on the day we bought them, figuring we’d buy some of that at the poultry sale. There wasn’t any for sale, so we had to go elsewhere for that. It turns out that there are animal feed mills everywhere, at least within a few miles of any large town.
We were able to buy layers pellets which include everything a chicken needs nutritionally. We were also able to buy chopped straw, which is just little bits of straw about a centimeter or two in length. A big bale of it was £5 and a 25kg sack of feed was £8. Both last about a month. I also tried wood shavings and they work just as well – my preference at the minute is the straw since it composts more readily.
It didn’t take long for a hen to figure out how to escape. They can’t fly higher than a few feet, and the fence at nearly 2m high should have been high enough, however what I didn’t realise is that they jump on to things (like their house) then on to other things (like a branch) then over the fence. I have had to cut a number of low branches off a tree.
The first night went smoothly as we manually put all the chickens in the house and locked it. This is the recommended practice as it takes them a little while to get used to it. I opened it again the next morning and they waddled out happily!
The second night wasn’t as smooth. Two hens disappeared up a tree! I mean, right up the tree. I managed to get up on a step ladder and tap their bums with a broom and they flew out. I put them in the house. So, lesson learned: they’ll always go to the highest point possible! Another night, a hen managed to escape. I didn’t notice until she wandered up the garden path to say hello the next morning. I’ve no idea where she slept.
We bought all the hens at 18 weeks of age, and they were a little too young to lay. We checked the egg box every day and happily, the first egg arrived after about two weeks. It was perfectly formed. Each hen started laying one by one over the course of a few weeks until we we got six on one day and knew for sure they were all laying
We occasionally get a rubbery egg, or ‘softie’. They’re sometimes a sign that the hen is stressed (the egg ‘pops out’ too early, before the shell is completely formed) or possibly the hen isn’t getting enough calcium. In our case, I think the hens are just young and haven’t quite got the hang of things! We don’t eat them, although I understand they’re perfectly edible. If they’re broken, I clean it up pretty quickly.
Our Barred Rock hen seemed to be getting bullied in the first few weeks. It was running away from the other hens and “sulking” by sitting in the house. I thought it was sick at first but then realised it was the only hen who hadn’t yet developed a comb so it was the youngest and at the bottom of the pecking order! So, since she was eating and drinking, there was nothing to worry about. Apparently separating her from the rest of the hens is the worst thing you could do in this situation.
Free Ranging outside of their enclosure
Although the enclosure we have is quite large (about 40sq m) I like to open it up and give the hens free reign of the garden occasionally. They enjoy pecking about in the compost heap, climbing on stuff, eating in our veg beds (which we try to keep them away from), pooing on paths, eating slugs and other insects (which is great), getting in your way, and digging dust baths!
Hens and Kids
We have a two year old, and he loves running about after them. They aren’t scared of him, but when he chases them, I think they get a bit nervous. I think this can contribute to some ‘softies’ – the occasional rubbery egg. So he only plays with them under supervision. He loves it when they eat food out of his hand – I guess it’s quite exhilarating for him since they’re pretty large animals relative to him!
The hens put themselves to bed every night when the light starts to fade. I just go out and close their door. I have a homemade automatic door opener that lets them out at sunrise when they wake up (which is totally necessary since there’s no water in their coop, and sunrise is about 4:30).
I top up their food and give them fresh water every 2 or 3 days. I actually change their water whenever it starts to look dirty – they tend to get it a bit mucky somehow.
I clean their coop out once a week. Sometimes I do a “full clean” – shovelling out all the bedding, and scrubbing any poop that’s stuck anywhere. Sometimes I skip the full clean and just shovel out the chicken poo and put it on the compost heap. It depends what sort of state it’s in.
Diet – Scraps From the Kitchen
We give the hens quite a few scraps from the kitchen, bits of peelings and chopped veg and bread. Apparently giving them too many scraps isn’t good for them since they get a balanced diet from their pellets. So, we try to limit it to a treat. We also have crushed eggshell in a plastic box available to them which they can eat if they want more calcium. Apparently they know and they’ll just take what they need. I rarely see a hen go near it.
I have applied a powder to their coop once, which is apparently supposed to kill any ticks/mites that live in there. I don’t know much about this but I think at some stage I’m going to need to apply it to the hens themselves.