Keeping Chickens - Getting Started

Keeping Chickens as Pets and for Egg Laying

Cheap Eggs?

If you are thinking of keeping chickens to obtain cheap eggs, think again: the cost of setting up to keep chickens can be very expensive. However, the satisfaction of producing a regular supply of fresh eggs and creating a hobby that can give the entire family hours of entertainment and education are factors that need to be included in any calculations. Also it’s a great present idea for the family that has everything!

Keeping Chickens for Egg Laying

The Chicken House

Without doubt this can be the most expensive part of setting up, but before you scan through the eBay special offers have a look around your own garden. Do you have a shed that is not being fully used, is there a child's play house that is only used to harbour old toys and garden furniture that hasn't seen the light of day for the past few years? I have even seen plastic compost bins being converted into useful coops, but be careful if you are tempted to use a disused rabbit hutch as these do not normally allow enough head room for the chickens.

Maybe you have someone in the family who enjoys carpentry, although unless you can source your materials from a very cheap supplier, you may find it works out more expensive this way.
If all else fails then the internet is an ideal way of sourcing the coop, with many sites showing detailed photos of their “improved designs”. I certainly would not be able to tell you which ones are the best, but I would suggest that you get what you pay for.

A few things that I would consider before parting with my hard-earned money are:

  1. The house should be large enough to home the number of birds that you intend to keep; it would even be advisable to choose a larger house to accommodate a few more girls later. An average hybrid chicken requires a minimum 25cm sq. of floor space. It is worth checking the full dimensions when buying a coop as for some reason the recommended bird capacity is not particularly accurate on many of the imported coops.
  2. If you do not want your girls to wreck the garden, then a coop with a run attached would cover the extra cost of replanting the flowerbed. If you allow 2m sq. per bird this will keep all the animal welfare people happy, but more importantly your girls will be contented. A shade on top of the run to protect them from the elements will be appreciated by the girls, but please do not cover it completely as they do enjoy a little sunbathing at times.
  3. Depending on your physique, do you require a house that you can walk into to clean out or are you going to send in the kids to crawl through the small entrance? It's worth making sure the doors have strong hinges and a secure fastener, as there are some out there that the fox will easily open.
  4. Nest boxes are best attached to the outside of the house, for ease of egg collecting and because they tend to keep cleaner. One box per 4 chickens is adequate, at least 45cm off the ground in an ideal world.
  5. Plastic houses are much easier to clean and reduce the risk of little parasites like the dreaded red mite as there are no cracks or crevasses for them to hide in, however it is extremely important that these are sited away from direct sunlight, to avoid the possibility of overheated chickens.
  6. Please do not buy a house with a felt top roof. If you do you will be providing a breeding place for thousands and thousands of red mites and even lice; they simply breed and breed under the warm conditions and no one can reach them as they are snuggly under the felt, and each night they crawl down and feed off the chickens and stagger back to their cosy environment and produce even more and within a few weeks you will have a major problem with your girls becoming lethargic and very poorly. Watch out when buying your coop online that the advert states what sort of roof materials are used; normally, if it's not mentioned, then you will most likely find it is felt, because this is the cheapest material to use.
  7. A well-made wooden chicken coop makes an attractive garden addition; they can even be painted in pastel colours. At Longdown Activity Farm we use Lockes animal housing from Devon to make all our animal housing. We have found that the strong, treated timber gives years of life and is very practical as well. We have a selection of these on display, with chickens in, to allow our customers to see how viable they are.
  8. To protect you chickens from predators, weld mesh should be used in preference to chicken wire, as you will find the crafty fox will eventually get his teeth through the thin chicken wire to snatch his prey.
  9. If there is a run attached to the coop, make sure the door is large enough for you to persuade the reluctant girls to go into the house, and that you can fit into the gap to retrieve the water container and feed bowl, otherwise you may be giving the neighbours something to laugh at as they watch you squeezing through the gaps.
  10. If you are looking at moveable houses and runs, it's worth checking that there are secure handles to allow you to move them, otherwise you will soon be damaging the framework.

Building your own Chicken Coop

If you are building your own style of house or coop these details are important:

  • Ventilation is vital. Vents should be at the top of the house to avoid draughts and to allow the strong ammonia to escape. Ideally these should be adjustable to control air flow.
  • Floor space: 25cm sq. minimum per bird (hybrids).
  • Outside run: 2m sq. per bird. This should be covered to prevent escapees and to keep wild birds out.
  • Perches: 5cm by 5cm timbers rounded off on edges, 25cm off ground, allow 18cm per bird - make them removable for ease of cleaning - if more than 1 perch, keep them 25cm apart.
  • Pop hole door: 35cm high by 40cm wide.
  • Nest boxes: allow one box per 4 chicken, 30cm by 30cm.
  • Distance off floor: 45cm.
  • Nest boxes should be kept as dark as possible to avoid egg pecking; hanging a dark cloth with a slit in it in front normally provides this.
  • Best not to site the coop in direct sunlight and consider drainage from the run.
  • Please do not use felt on the roof!

It is always worth setting up the coop and fencing before bringing the girls home just in case it takes longer than you anticipated.

Chicken fencing

Free Range Chickens?

If your hens are going to be allowed to free range, to protect your garden and the neighbour’s, it’s important that the perimeter fence is secure, mainly to stop predators from entering and also to prevent the girls from invading the well-manicured garden on the other side of the fence. Fencing panels are ideal for this or fine meshed wire. Watch out for the clever ones who, despite having their wings clipped, will still be able to somersault over a 1m fence. Gates and doors will also require mesh of some sort. It’s nothing personal but these feathered creatures are very inquisitive and will spend hours trying to find out what is on the other side of the fence.

Keeping chickens - equipment

Other Chicken Equipment

As long as you provide a safe house to protect your girls from predators and provide food and water that is easily accessible then there is not too much more that you require initially. As you get to know your chickens you will find lots of things to spend your money on if you wish to spoil them, no different than children!

Feed containers come in different shapes and sizes made from plastic or galvanised tin. Really the choice is yours, depending on the depth of your pocket and your long-term intentions.

When deciding on which size to purchase it would be advisable that a full container should hold enough feed for all your hens for at least 3 days. Each hybrid chicken will eat approximately 150 grams per day. To avoid wastage, the feeder should have an anti-scratch insert around the base. Do not be tempted to use a bowl or biscuit tin as you will find that the girls will use this as a dust bath and have great delight in flicking all the Layers pellets across their run, until the last grain has disappeared into the dust! A weather-proof cover on top of the feeder is a good investment as this will allow you to place it in the outside run.

Water containers are probably more important than the food containers. Chickens simply cannot digest their feed without water, therefore it is vital that they have a supply of clean water close to the food station. Again, 3 days’ supply should be available; an average hybrid will drink 450ml per day, however as this is where most bacteria and viruses will start, I strongly recommend that fresh water is provided daily and the drinker is cleaned on a regular basis. If you provide water in an open bowl the girls will have fun scratching the dirt into this and within minutes it will resemble a pig’s mud bath. Both feeder and drinker ideally should be 15cm-20cm off the ground to reduce the risk of contamination, either by them hanging from a chain or putting them on top of blocks. There is no need to put weather-proof covers on the drinkers. Medication and tonics are normally given through the water, therefore it will help if there are quantity markers embedded on the side.
Keeping chickens - bedding

Inside the Chicken Coop

The type of bedding used inside the house is a personal choice. I enjoy watching the chickens scratch about in layers of straw; they get a lot of satisfaction in spreading it around the house and searching for grain and insects, but the disadvantage of this is that they also can take it out into the run, which creates a soggy mess on a wet day. I have a large field where I can spread the end product but if you have a small garden, it will require a good compost heap to store it in.

Wood shavings on the floor and barley straw in the nest box make an ideal compromise during the summer months, then perhaps put straw on the floor during the colder months to help keep the girls warm and active. There any many varying opinions as to using hay or straw in the nest box. I have experienced some major lice problems when using hay, as this soon goes mouldy during wet periods, which then acts as an ideal breeding zone for the lice to expand in numbers. Also the girls tend to eat the hay, creating a risk of compacted crop. Barley straw is softer than wheat and oat varieties. If you purchase your straw in sealed plastic bags this will reduce the risk of bringing in red mite.

Wood shavings purchased in the larger bags are a better economical buy, but please remember that all bedding must be stored in a dry place.

Shredded paper can be used both on the floor and in the nest box, but besides having paper flying in all directions, it can get wrapped around the girls’ legs and feet, causing them to panic.
Keeping chickens - cleaning materials

Cleaning Materials

A strong shovel, a paint scrapper, a hand brush, a supply of strong plastic bags, a container of Poultry Shield and lots of elbow grease is all that is required to keep your girls clean and healthy. Depending on your coop, it is best to pick up the droppings under the perches daily and give the whole house a clean out once a week. Make sure that the soiled waste is moved well away from the chicken area and preferably somewhere that they do not have access to, otherwise all the little creepy crawlies that you have just moved out will be heading back to the warmer habitat. If there is a problem in the house with red mite or lice it's best to clean them out on a more regular basis.

Keeping chickens - health and first aid

Chicken Health and First Aid

As with all livestock it's best to be prepared and a box with a few essentials could save a trip to the local veterinary surgeon later. As with children, good housekeeping can save many problems. This list of goodies will put you in good stead to prevent problems and to deal with any minor ailments:

  • 1 litre Poultry Shield - for use in keeping the house clean and free of little bugs
  • 1kg Diatom - for spreading in the house to prevent a build-up of red mite
  • 250ml Poultry Tonic - to add to their water when the girls go into a moult or are stressed for any reason
  • 1 can antiseptic spray for wounds
  • 1 small pot of Vaseline (or Diprobase) for infected areas or feather loss, ideal for scaly legs and rubbing onto the combs during frosty weather to prevent frostbite
  • Cotton wool - to clear weepy eyes and runny nostrils
  • Spare egg box to carry all the eggs back into the kitchen

Next section: Food for your Chickens >