Chickens are a popular choice for many smallholdings or households as they can be kept free range or confined to a run. There are many different breeds of chicken that can be divided into light breeds, which are more suitable for laying; heavy breeds, which are more suitable for the table and; dual purpose breeds, which can be used for both.
Chickens have an average life span of about 7-10 years and require a balanced diet to meet nutritional requirements and to maximise health and well-being.
Chickens have no teeth, therefore they select feed with the beak and swallow it whole.
Food enters the crop (pouch-like bag at the base of the neck on the left hand side) and is held there while it is softened by the addition of water, causing it to swell. Feeling the crop is a good indication of whether a bird is eating or not – the crop should be empty in the morning and fill as the bird eats during the day.
Once food is sufficiently softened, it is moved through the oesophagus to the stomach. The stomach of poultry consists of two parts, the proventriculus (where the food is broken down by digestive juices) and the gizzard. The gizzard is a strong muscular organ which breaks down any hard foods, such as whole grains and seed, into a paste so that it can continue through the digestive system. This process is helped with the presence of grit, which helps grind down hard food parts.
Food can move backwards and forwards between the two parts of the stomach until it is broken down sufficiently to continue through the system. The finely ground food then continues to the small intestine where the majority of foodstuff is absorped. The food is then passed through to the large intestine where water absorption takes place and any waste is excreted.
Chickens are omnivores, eating both vegetable matter and animal protein, and require a balanced diet all year round. The dietary requirements of chickens will vary depending on their age and purpose for which they are kept.
It is recommended that chickens are fed using the following guidelines to ensure a balanced diet appropriate to age and purpose:
- From hatching to 6-8 weeks of age a chick crumb is generally fed, this typically has the highest protein level to support growth and development.
- From 6-8 to 18-21 weeks a growers ration is generally provided, birds for the table can be finished on this ration.
- From point of lay (between 18-21 weeks depending on breed) a layers ration can be fed to laying hens.
- Alternatively for breeding and show birds a breeder/show ration can be used which typically contains higher levels of protein, vitamins and minerals. For best results a breeder ration should be fed 6-8 weeks prior to breeding commencing.
Grit is an essential part of the poultry diet. Pieces of grit ingested by the bird are used to grind feed down into smaller particles, making digestion and absorption of nutrients more effective. While free-ranging birds will tend to select grit from their surroundings it is worth providing a source of mixed grit at all times especially to those without access to other suitable sources. There are different sizes of grit suitable for different ages of chicken, if the grit is too small it can pass through the bird and be of little use.
- Feed should be provided on an ad lib basis all year round.
- As a guide poultry will eat a minimum of 100g per day for larger birds or 50-85g per day for smaller birds.
Because of the limited capacity of the crop it is advisable not to mix treats or grain in with the feed.
- Insoluble grit and clean fresh water should be provided at all times. Providing water in a purpose made feeder can help to reduce the risk of chickens dirtying the water or tipping it over. Ensuring on very hot or cold days that the water isn’t frozen or too warm is essential. Water is essential in the diet not only to meet requirements but also to soften feed in the crop to prepare it for grinding in the gizzard.
- If possible use a purpose made poultry feeder to avoid waste and ensure enough feeding space for all the chickens.
- A layers ration is often offered in two forms; a pellet and a mash. Both feeds are often similar nutritionally, just in different forms. A mash can be used to promote natural foraging behaviours and dampened with warm water in the winter months. Pellets are ideal for use in feed hoppers and can be less messy/wasteful.
- As chickens have very few taste buds they select feed based on texture and size, therefore it is important to ensure that any changeover between feeds is gradual.
Treats such as mixed corn, wheat, cut maize, fruit and vegetables can be added to the diet in moderation. Treats should ideally be fed in the afternoon/evening after being fed a pellet or mash to prevent the chicken filling up on the wrong food and the diet becoming inbalanced. Over-feeding of treats and other foods (such as fruit and vegetables) can ultimately lead to an imbalanced diet and other problems. It must be noted that the feeding of kitchen waste is illegal and therefore any fruit or vegetables must be sourced from non-catering outlets.
When feeding mixed corn we would recommend feeding no more than 28g (1oz) per bird per day in addition to the recommended amount of a balanced diet. Providing mixed corn, which can be scattered, helps to satisfy their instinctive need to scratch and range.
Chickens tend to regulate their body temperature well if provided with adequate shelter, even during the coldest winter months. Ensuring that the hen house is not too large for the number of chickens can help. If the chicken house is to large for the number of chickens, filling some of the space with an object (such as a card baord box) can encourage chickens to huddle to regulate temperatures.
Additional bedding can also help to keep chickens warmer, along with using insulation around the hen house (for example, old carpets or cardboard). Chickens can suffer from frost bite, therefore susceptible areas such as the comb, wattles or earlobes can be coated in Vaseline (petroleum jelly) to provide a protective barrier. Feeding mixed corn over the winter months beforeputting them away for the evening can also help to keep the chickens warm as the corn is digested overnight.
Chickens require shelter, food and protection from predators. Whether chickens are free range or confined to a run it is important that they have some form of hen house (coop). Chickens are perching birds and prefer to roost at night, therefore ensure that the coop has a perch and nesting boxes (3-4 hens to one nest box or more commercially) for egg laying.
Chickens thrive on routine. If dealing with a range of different aged birds, seeing to your youngest birds first is considered good practice to limit any spread of disease from older birds to those with less well developed immune systems. As well as access to shelter, chickens need access to the outside so they can scratch about for food and take dust baths. Chickens will tend to make their own dust bath if one is not provided as it helps to remove external parasites from their bodies.
Breeding and Showing
Ensuring breeding birds are fed a suitable breeding ration can be beneficial to help enhance fertility, support egg development and hatchability. The incubation period for eggs is 21 days and a broody hen can hatch a clutch of 10-12 eggs. A hatching date between March and June is considered preferable to give chicks the best chance. For showing birds a specialist show diet will help to promote condition and provide quality protein for feather production.
Raising Chickens for the Table
Commercial free range birds can be raised for the table in less than 8 weeks, however for the smallholder, especially if raising more traditional breeds with slower growth rates, achieving finishing weight over a longer period is often more appropriate. Many different feeding practices can be used to achieve finishing weight, for example continuing on a growers ration or, if raising birds for the table alongside laying hens, a layers ration could be fed.
Egg laying is dependent on the amount of daylight hours and therefore as the days get shorter egg production can decrease or stop completely (unless artificial lighting is provided). Some breeds are more inclined to stop laying than others over the winter months; traditional breeds being likely to reduce egg production in comparison to more commercial breeds.
The number of eggs will gradually decline as the bird ages. On average one hen will provide around 5 eggs per week during the first two years of its life. Egg production varies between breeds; typically the more prolific layers tend to have a faster decline in egg production over their third and fourth year. Chickens will tend to moult each year in late summer. The time taken to complete the moult varies from breed to breed but a healthy bird in its first or second moult should take no more than 8 weeks. They will often stop laying at this time, but will still require a suitable diet as protein is needed for feather re-growth.
Body condition scoring
It is important to be able to ascertain whether your chickens are the right weight as being under or overweight can predispose them to a number of problems, therefore regular monitoring is recommended. You can body condition score your chickens by palpating the keel and the breast muscles. A hen in good laying condition will have a good covering of muscle over her keel. A bird in poor condition will have a very prominent keel and little muscle. Plump birds with bulging muscles either side of the keel are carrying too much weight.