A Guide to Keeping Chickens

Breeding and Rearing Chickens

Breeding and raising poultry can be very rewarding, especially watching them hatch as chicks and then grow into mature adults. You can either breed your own stock or purchase “hatching eggs” which will be already fertilised and ready for incubation.

If you decide to breed your own birds then you must select the breeding stock from healthy and fully developed chickens. Hens should be at least 1 year old and cocks at least 6 months.

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Pests and Diseases

As with all livestock, chickens do occasionally fall ill and if in doubt you should consult a veterinary surgeon.

However good management will prevent many diseases and lead to early recognition of others. Four key principles will, if applied correctly, go a long way to minimising disease problems.

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Flock Management

It is helpful in managing any flock to understand bird behaviour. Chickens have a well developed social structure based on the “pecking order”. The dominant hen is at the top of this order and can peck all beneath her. The second tier can peck those below them but not the one above and so on. Once established this pecking order allows a flock to co-exist peacefully.

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Young hens or pullets start to lay at about 20 weeks of age. Commercial laying hens can lay over 300 eggs per year although this is much lower for some of the older breeds and those bred for meat production.

Flocks do not require to include a rooster or cock if they are to lay eggs; only where fertilised eggs are required for breeding. Fertilised eggs, if collected and used regularly are perfectly OK to eat.

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Poultry will eat most things but like all animals they require a balanced diet for good health and best performance. The best way to achieve this is by feeding ready mixed compound feeds. These are available from commercial manufacturers and are designed to meet the chicken's dietary requirements at every stage in its life. Such feeds are now generally produced in the form of small pellets to reduce waste. Typically a laying hen will require about 130 gm of feed per day containing about 16% protein. This should be supplemented with 20 gm of grain, such as wheat; scattered on the ground in the evening.

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As explained earlier housing for hens does not need to be large or elabotate as long as it provides the essential requirements of shelter, protection, and sufficient space to exercise their basic instincts to roost and scratch.

There are huge array of poultry houses on the market or you can make your own or adapt an existing shed or outhouse.

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Choosing a Breed


Commercial hybrid chickens are particular commercial crossbreeds based on those originally selected in the 1950s for the battery cage producers seeking to vastly increase production over the traditional pure breeds. They are based on just a few of the more productive pure breeds and are generally brown in colour; of uniform size and shape; and produce 250 -300 eggs over 2 years. These will be cheaper than other poultry as they are reared in large numbers and are ideal where your primary interest is in providing fresh eggs for the family at minimum cost. Common examples are produced by Warrens, ISA Brown and Hy-line. Beware of very cheap stock which may be “rescued” from commercial units. While this may be very satisfying it can also be distressing as they are often coming to the end of their lives.

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Questions to ask before you start?

Keeping chickens can be an extremely satisfying pastime with the added bonus of providing fresh eggs for family and friends. It does however require sustained commitment so before you start you should ask yourself some important questions.

What is my primary interest in keeping hens?
If it is to have the satisfaction of providing fresh eggs for the family then one of the Outdoor or Commercial Hybrid Breeds will be what you require. However if you want to breed chickens for the pleasure of their unique colour or attractive appearance and perhaps in the future to exhibit stock at local shows and competitions, then you will need to choose from one of the many pure breeds available. This is probably one of the most important questions we pose to new poultry keepers when trying to assess what types of birds are best suited to either their experience level or home environment. 

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The Supply Chain Development Programme is funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD). Further information on the programme is available at www.countrysiderural.co.uk