How many and which?
The subject of choosing your birds can be a vast one in itself, indeed I could easily write a whole article on just this subject (and may well do in a future issue), but for now just a few headings and thoughts will hopefully give you the idea and general route for what’s what when choosing from scratch.
I often get asked ‘so, how many birds do I need?’. That’s not a question with a simple answer, everyone’s circumstances and possible needs are different, indeed, is ‘need’ the right word! Mostly, it depends on what you are trying to achieve. Just looking for example at two typical situations, a couple and an average family of four. If they are looking just to supply themselves with eggs, the couple would need just 1-2 good laying hens (and even then would probably have spare eggs each week), and the family would need just 3-4 hens to be sure of a good supply (again would probably have spare eggs each week). For most people, half this amount would probably suffice if the hens were in full lay. For the most part, people tend to keep double the amount, ending up with a whole load of spare eggs which are greatly received by and easily passed on to neighbours, family and friends – everyone loves a good quality home grown egg!
When choosing chickens, your requirement for egg supply is just one of the factors for selection. Another factor, still on the subject of eggs, is the egg colour – are you bothered?! For some the egg colour is paramount, for others - ‘an eggs’ an egg’ - – they all taste the same! For some, a filled half dozen box with each egg being a different colour is a sight to behold, others can’t think of anything worse – they all have to be brown ‘cos brown taste best’ – or do they? Does a rich brown egg really taste better than a blue one, for example? In our shop at Mantel Farm we sell eggs of many colours. I’m often heard explaining to customers that there really is nothing to fear inside that white, blue or green shell, it’s just a yoke and a white, the birds are in the same pen, on the same diet – what’s inside will all be the same! (after all, it’s the yoke and white that we eat, not the shell!) All that said, the brown eggs still out sell the other colours, week after week!
Eggs - all colours and sizes
So what type of bird? ‘That one looks stunning, I’ll have one of those’, ‘what about that one with the hair-do, or that one with the feathers that look like it’s been blow-dried!’. This method of choosing your chickens is what I refer to as ‘looks only’, having no regard for character, egg production or colour, life span or anything else for that matter! It’s certainly one way of choosing, but probably not the best way for a beginner. Though in a reasonable size flock, say 5-6+, a couple or so fun choices definitely adds interest, particularly where children are concerned.
Now, what about the size of the birds? In last month’s article, (part 1 to this) we discussed the space required, size of house and run with some thoughts on design to accommodate from the smaller bantams through to the large fowl such as Brahma. ‘Size does matter’, above all – avoid overcrowding (see last month’s part 1). In general, smaller birds will lay smaller eggs, though mostly the bigger birds don’t follow suit by laying bigger eggs. In fact, two of the biggest breeds, the Orpington and the Brahma, often have a disappointing egg size. There are also always the exceptions, our hybrid hen the ‘White Ranger’ (a white Leghorn hybrid), is our smallest hybrid hen of our range, but consistently lays the biggest eggs!
Next, choosing a bird by its breed, is probably the most beneficial of my headings. To buy a chicken by its breed usually means that you will have spent time researching that particular breed. Thus taking into account all the above and more. Though it is possible to have simply received a recommendation for that breed without research, I would only act on that advice if you know and trust that person has actual experience of the breed, and not that someone told someone who told them etc!
At Mantel Farm our recommendation for beginners wanting a good supply of eggs is always to start with our hybrid laying hens at ‘point of lay’ (POL) age. We start selling at around 16wks old, with POL being anywhere between 18-22wks, though from experience, we generally find actual POL for the majority is around the 19wk mark. There is a good range of types and colours available offering several different egg colours, usually something for everyone. We also advise to start with these young adult birds rather than ‘growing your own’.
Some people like the idea of home grown birds, either by buying in day old chicks, or hatching purchased fertile eggs in an incubator. This is certainly a lovely thing to do, particularly for children, and how many adults can resist the charms of those cute cuddly chicks! That said, I would still prefer that people had gained previous knowledge of adult poultry care before embarking on this venture, I think a nice thing to do at a later date when you’ll be more ready for some of the more difficult things that hatching and rearing can bring. Sadly there is much that can go wrong, and even if it all goes to plan with a good hatch and survival rate, its most likely (with a recognised male hatch rate of 65% min), that you will be rearing and faced with many unwanted cockerels. (Please refer to my February 2018 article on the subject of cockerels) Definitely a subject for consideration before deciding to grow your own, my advice is always to have a plan for the virtually guaranteed surplus of cockerels.
Who can resist? but beware the pitfalls!
If your final methods of selection require you to buy birds from several sources, or of different sizes, breeds and ages, please be sure to refer to my November 2017 article, which looks in detail at introducing birds to each other, as this can often prove to be far from straight forward.
Food & Feeders – Water & Drinkers:
On the market there is an array of designs for poultry feeders and drinkers, the vast majority being ‘bell’ shaped. The main design principal I’m sure being that of something even a chicken would find it hard to poo in! (that said, there’s always one that manages to find a way to achieve it!). Beginners always think there’s a saving to be made by using old bowls or saucepans for feed and water (in fact, to be honest, that’s exactly how we started! and by all means, give it a whirl!), however, most quickly learn the hard way that your birds will always try using the edges as perches and either tip them up or poo in them!
I would always advise hanging your feeder and drinker where possible. This has many advantages, it can no longer be knocked over (minor spillages only), prevents dirt being scratched into it and can prevent unwanted visitors (vermin), getting any food or drink. To achieve the above, always hang as high as possible, just allowing your birds to dip their heads enough to feed or drink. For feeders without ‘anti-scratch’ divisions there is another advantage, hanging as high as possible helps prevent your birds scratching the feed out.
For sizing of feeders, use an approx. amount of 125g of feed per bird per day, multiply this by 2 to allow for some hungry birds, loss to wildlife and wastage, then multiply this by the number of days feed you wish to provide. This will give you the size of feeder to buy. For the water the starting point is a quarter of a litre per bird per day. During the hottest days of summer it is advisable to provide an additional drinker.
In the feeder should be a good quality layers pellets or mash. In the afternoons a scattered treat of mixed corn can be given at the rate of a small handful per bird per day . This can be scattered mid to late afternoon as a treat and will give them something to do towards the end of the day when the possibility of ‘what shall I get up to now – boredom’ could set in! It can also be a very handy way of getting your birds in before dusk, if required, just throw it where you want them to go, provided they recognise what it is they will follow! I would advise never to mix any treat food in the feeder with the mainstay feed, as any treat is always far more attractive to your birds, and they will generally throw out all else to get to the very last grain of any treat!
Next month we will be looking in detail at feeding your birds, types of feed, treats and greens also do’s and don’ts. There’s much more to say and no space to cover it all now, just the basics to get you going!
Feeders and drinkers for all
House bedding & run flooring:
Inside the indoor living accommodation we recommend wood shavings, a good thick layer where possible (ideally min. 1”-2”, 25-50mm thick). This gets naturally turned over by the birds so drying out the poo and makes the flooring last longer, and provided it is regularly changed, avoids a sticky mess. In the nesting box, a thin under layer of shavings is useful with a reasonable layer of straw on top. The straw allows the birds to mimic nest building and will entertain them longer, occupying a larger part of their day – always useful to avoid boredom which can lead to bad habits.
After letting your birds enjoy the original floor of their run, be it a piece of your lawn, or a selected area of rough ground, there will come a time when this can become a mess, particularly after a period of heavy rain. At that point, woodchip can provide a great substrate for the poultry run floor. Woodchip can be raked and forked over as necessary to prevent clogging, it forms a free draining layer and is a long lasting, natural floor, it attracts many bugs and crawlies, providing interest and instinctive forage for our birds. I would always recommend pure (native) hardwood chips (no mixed in greenery – this causes the chip to rot faster – the compost effect), we have used this very successfully for years, and sell the same from our shop, our customers swear by it – no more mud!
Shavings for indoors
Our recommended poultry house disinfectant product is ‘Poultry Shield’, we’ve used it for many years and trust it to do the job. It doesn’t contain poisons and can even be used in organic production systems. It is bio-degradable and has a low odour. (Of course there are many other products on the market, and most probably there are some producing just as good results.) It is important to concentrate efforts on perching rails (especially support sockets), nesting boxes and all corners (not forgetting the rest of the indoor accommodation!) It is essential that you use enough liquid to penetrate all the cracks and crevices. I’m always ranting on to my staff here, that if it’s not dripping out the bottom, then they haven’t used enough!
Please take note, if you like to use a jet wash to wash out your poultry house, then fine, BUT, not before thoroughly applying the Poultry Shield (or equivalent) and allowing to soak for an hour or so. This is to ensure that if any red mite are present in the house, they are killed before they are simply washed out. Otherwise, many will survive the blasting, and simply climb back aboard later! (For beginners asking ‘what is red mite, please take the time to read my September 2017 article, an in depth look at dealing with the same)
I would recommend after each clean out (generally once a week), a thorough spraying with an anti-red mite proprietary liquid, such as Poultry Shield. Once the coup is dry (or as dry as practicably possible), I would recommend a good application of a proprietary anti-red mite, flea & lice powder.
We have found the best product for this being ‘Diatomaceous Earth’ (Diatom or DE for short). This product is my recommended anti-red mite powder. The powder works by dehydrating the red mite. By applying the powder liberally around the inside of your birds housing, nesting boxes & perches, it will be possible to tackle red mite, fleas and lice all at the same time.
But what about cleaning the birds, they have no fitted bath or shower! Have you ever watched a wild bird dust bathing in a corner of your flower bed, on a dry spring day, or in the heat of the summer? – similarly, all poultry love to dust bath. Dust bathing is a birds’ natural way of keeping themselves ‘clean’, in good condition and ridding themselves of fleas, lice and other mites as best they can. In summer, it also helps with cooling. If you have a decent sized run, or your birds are allowed to occasionally free range the garden, they will very quickly find a spot to form a dust bowl. In dry weather this could be almost anywhere, flower beds etc, or during damp weather maybe under a dense bush or at the base of a tree such as Leylandii. However during times of prolonged wet conditions, small or exposed runs, your birds will be unable to dust bath. It is then I would strongly suggest that you provide them with a dust tray, with a suitable dust mix in it. Either bring this in and out according to the weather or make a covered area within the run for it. The tray can be purpose made (Mantel Farm dust trays are of timber 16” x 16” (40cm x 40cm) and 4” (10cm) deep), or something you have knocking around that might do the job of similar size. If you have enough space, bigger is also good as dust bathing in the sun is a social event, your birds will love to ‘do it together’!
The ‘dust mix’ can be purchased from us, or mixed up yourself, and may contain a mix of dry dusty earth, sand, fine sawdust & wood ash. In addition, sprinkle over the top or mix in a good amount of the Diatom powder, hence, DIY treatment – the ultimate prevention!
Thorough cleanouts are essential - with all the gear
With findings of Avian Influenza, ‘bird flu’ in Europe and occasionally in the UK becoming more common, it is essential for poultry keepers to act responsibly in the way we keep our birds, becoming a legal requirement at any time when Defra introduce an ‘Avian Influenza Prevention Zone’ in your area. Common sense and good practise is all that is really needed, along with an understanding of the Defra requirements. For further information please refer to the Home Farmer article of March 2018, and the Defra website: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/avian-influenza-bird-flu#prevention-zone.
Biosecurity includes clean boots between pens
To finish, I would like to reiterate a paragraph from my December 2017 article, just because I can’t improve on it, so it’s worth repeating……………
I think the best advice would be, start when it suits you, when you can give it the time it needs, when you have time for reading, research and maybe time to attend a course to learn how to ‘set it up right’ – when you can afford the enclosure and equipment the birds deserve to keep them healthy and safe – the best time of year is when you are ready!.