If you are attracted to the thought of a more natural way of living, you and your family will want to consume healthy, unprocessed food, and to know where it has come from. Even if you live in an urban area, raising your own egg laying hens goes hand in hand with this ethos and is one of the easiest self-sufficient living options. Your children will also learn important life lessons, a sense of responsibility for other living things, and for the food they eat.
Raising chicks once hatched can be fun and rewarding. Of course, there is a lot to get to grips with when you decide to keep chickens:
- How to keep them safe in a place where they can eat, drink, sleep, and exercise
- How to supply them with an environment that nurtures and provides for their basic needs, environmental enrichment and positive stimulation
- How to make sure they are getting the right nutrients
- How to keep them cool in summer and warm in winter
- How to spot when they are unwell and not thriving
I don’t actually recommend hatching your own chicks from purchased fertilised eggs. Once the chick hatching process is completed (which can be difficult and time consuming) then you have the possibility of unwanted cockerels to deal with – there is no way of knowing the sex of a fertilised egg so it is pot luck.
If you want to teach your children the process of chick-hatching consider sourcing an education programme. By teaching children early in their education about how our choices can impact animal welfare, we can create a kinder and more compassionate generation, which in turn will improve the lives of pets, livestock and wildlife in the future.
Buying chicks that are already identified as female from a hatchery or market almost insures you will not have male chicks that will develop into cockerels. However, determining the sex of a chick is difficult and most breeds of chicken cannot be determined at hatching. Usually, by 6 to 8 weeks of age, the combs and wattles of male chicks will be larger and redder than those of females. Often the legs of males are chunkier too. Male chicks may start to crow from around 12 weeks old but they can start much later. Sometimes you can see differences in behaviour between males and females. Male chicks can strut from an early age with their chests out and head in the air. Some breeds are notoriously difficult to sex, e.g. Silkies, in which case you may not be able to determine their sex until they are adults and they either start to crow or lay eggs!
Auto-sexing and sex linked chickens allow you to tell apart male and female by markings. It is easier to sex chicks if you have a few so you can compare their colouring and markings. If you are unsure, wait until you can sex them using the traditional methods. Do not dispatch male chicks until you are certain that they are males. This means if you do not know the sex of your chicks, you have to raise them until you can tell.
Females take around 6 months before they start laying eggs. The males need to be removed from the flock as they will fight aggressively, make a lot of noise and mate with the females sending them to go broody on their nests. Finding homes for cockerels is virtually impossible and males are usually killed. Of course, the killed males can be eaten either by you or your dog as cooked or raw dog food (if you are able to humanely kill and pluck the bird) but there are not many of us out there prepared to do that!
Therefore, I recommend avoiding buying mixed batches of chicks or actually trying to breed yourself. However, if this is something your family want to experience, there are guides on how to humanely dispatch your cockerel.
Ready-to-lay pullets are 20 weeks old and just about to start laying. They’re more expensive than day-olds, but of course, you get your eggs sooner. They can go straight to the coop and are all females. These, too, can be ordered through your farm supplier from the hatchery.
Adopting Rescue Hens
What I strongly advocate is hen rescue from chicken farms. These hens have come to the end of their commercial hen laying life after 2 years. However, our experience has been after rescue and a well earnt rest, they lay an egg every day for years ahead in the lighter months. There is not much more satisfying than rescuing a battery hen and seeing it experience the ground, have a well earnt mud bath and see the sky for the first time!
These hens are proven layers, have had their vaccinations, and mostly just need a bit of TLC and time to regain full health from their intensive farming lifestyle. Even free range farms have hens that need a break and do not have full feathers. Please see The British Hen Welfare Trust for all you need to know about adopting hens. Here you will find what diseases to look out for, nutrition, optimising the hens health and socialising the hens so you have a happy healthy egg laying flock of gorgeous girls.
- Chickens are sociable creatures, so plan to keep three to six birds. With this amount, you’ll always have a steady supply of eggs, since an adult hen lays about two eggs every three days, on average. Hens will lay eggs through spring and summer and into the fall, as long as they have 12 to 14 hours of daylight. Expect to collect eggs daily, or even twice a day. Some hens will continue to provide eggs in the winter months but less regularly. Hens go off the lay in the darker months and start again in the spring, sometimes after a feather malt. When a hen malts her feathers she can look rather bedraggled and unwell, but if she is eating and drinking normally and going about her daily business, she is just renewing her feathers. This is a good time to add in an extra supplement to boost nutrition, such as baked crushed egg shells.
- Make sure you have the space for a henhouse or a full-size chicken coop. It has to hold a feeder and water containers, a roosting area, a low perch, and a nest box for every three hens. A proper coop should be large enough so that you can stand in it to gather eggs and shovel manure comfortably and the area large enough for the hens to scratch, sun bath, mud bath, exercise etc. One medium-sized chicken needs at least 3 square feet of floor space inside the coop and 8-10 square feet outdoors. The more space, the happier and healthier the chickens will be; overcrowding contributes to disease such as bumble foot and feather picking.
- Should you have a flock that pecks younger, older, injured or ill hens remove the hen until better and then round off the corner of the coop so weaker hens are not cornered. Remove an injured hen for recovery and gradually re-introduce back into the flock when she is strong and healthy again. If there is one particular bully remove this bird to give the others a rest and shift the dynamic so when you gradually re-introduce the bully, things have settled down.
- Temperature control is not difficult but important. Hens require shade when it is hot to avoid heat stress. You will see them enjoy dry mud baths to keep cool but will quite often sun bath, flaked out in the sand or dry mud if it is not overly hot. Plenty of fresh cool water always available and lots of ventilation in the hen house. Adding a block of ice in the morning can keep it cooler throughout the day. On the other extreme, hens can get frost bite on their combs. If it is going to deep freeze at night significantly reduce drafts and consider temporary insulation. We wrap an old duvet over the house if freezing conditions are forecast and send them to bed with extra corn and a warm mash. More hens in a house create warmth and they can huddle together. A heat lamp maybe needed but is not always recommended due to the risk of fire
- Feeding your hens an organic diet will not only provide natural organic eggs but organic manure too for your veggie patch. Feeding scraps to the hens from the house is also good for reducing waste and giving them an interesting varied diet. I boil up potato and veggie peelings for a tasty nutritious mash. Melon peel and seeds, apples, fruit and veg at the market going cheap will be appreciated
- Chickens require grit in their food to aid digestion. Avoid mouldy food as this encourages sour crop, a very unpleasant condition that makes the hen very poorly
- Free-range hens make the best eggs as you will have very happy hens so strongly consider fencing your whole back yard to allow them to roam during the day. They are great at keeping pests under control and if you have a veggie plot will help turn it over at the end of autumn. They should always be locked safely away at night to avoid predation. Day raids from dogs, cats, foxes and badgers are possible also so let them out with supervision
- Collect the chicken manure and create a nitrogen rich compost for your garden. Crush the egg shells and add to compost (baking the egg shells make them easier to crush and break down- and also can be fed back to the hens for added calcium). In about 6 months’ time, you will accumulate about 1 cubic foot of manure per chicken.
We collect the eggs around mid-morning every day – leaving them in the nesting boxes risks them being broken. We then wash and store them out of the fridge. If there are lots of eggs, we date them to know how fresh they are or sell/give them away.
If you get an abundance of eggs in the summer months, they can be whisked up or separated and frozen. Wonderful recipes such as meringues, egg custards, mayonnaise, hollandaise, omelette, lemon tart, pancakes, Yorkshire puddings, cakes etc will help you get through the surplus. As a child we would eat French toast or Eggs Benedict at the weekends from eggs collected that morning. A perfectly fresh egg makes the perfect poached or fried egg whereas an older egg makes a better hard-boiled egg (easier to peel) and a crisper meringue.
Making mayonnaise is fun and rewarding. The batch lasts well in the fridge and the jars can be flavoured differently. I make a batch of mayonnaise using our free range eggs and an organic olive oil/rapeseed mix. For each jar I flavour with my essential oil collection, such as Pink Pepper, Lemon, Coriander, or garlic, truffle or mustard. Put a pretty label on and this makes a delightful gift!
Another favourite is the lemon or custard tart as this will use up 9 eggs in one delicious desert of afternoon treat! See the recipes for a delicious tarts (they can be made without crust if required).
Chicken lifespans vary widely, with most hens generally living between 3 and 7 years. However, with ideal care, they may live even longer. If a chicken is kept safe from predators and doesn’t have genetic issues, they can certainly live 10 to 12 years old and become very much part of the family. We have the joy of tame hens that sit on our laps, follow us into the house and are a pleasure to have around, clucking and cooing as they talk to us throughout the day!