Keeping chickens

Keeping chickens and raising them in an organic way can provide you with a source of organic eggs, meat and the joy of seeing them scurry around your property. They are bred all over the world and are an integral part of any organic farm or homestead and are a must on the road to self-sustainability.

Choosing your birds
The first thing you need to do when keeping chickens is decide what you want to keep chickens for. Is it purely for eggs – then you need a laying breed, is it for meat, then you need a heavier meat breed, or is it for both – as is the case with us, in which case you’ll need to find a dual purpose breed that lays well and is heavy enough to give good meat.

I would advise that you source a local breeder who will be able to tell you about the breeds grown in your area and decide from those what kind you want. We breed a local breed known as the Valer, which is a cross between the meat bred Australorp and the egg producing Leghorn. It is a hardy bird, bred by a local university, and are good mothers.

You will also need to decide if you are going to buy day-old chicks or other young chicks, or adolescent hens or older stock. In making this decision, bare in mind that the mortality rate with young chicks is high and you will probably have to vaccinate them while they are young against local poultry diseases. Adolescent hens might cost a bit but you have the advantage of not having to wait too long before they begin laying. (Although my hens only started laying after 7 months old.)

Older stock might come a bit cheaper, but remember that a laying hen lays the most eggs in her first year of laying and decreases after that.

Regarding meat birds you will be looking for young birds that can be fattened up as soon as possible so the cost of raising them is kept low compared to the cost of meat.

Housing your birds
Even before you bring them home you will need to give some thought to where you will keep them. Chickens like a protected place they can retreat to to keep warm and dry, to sleep and to lay eggs. Hen houses are not difficult to make and can be in a number of styles. Ours is a wooden structure off the ground with a little ramp and small door just big enough for the birds to come in and out of. Inside it has several perches for the birds to perch on when they sleep, and an open area for keeping food. Right at the back are 4 nest boxes for laying eggs (you will need one nest box per 4 laying hens). The hen house is laid with fresh dry grass every week and the droppings cleaned out. On the outside of the henhouse there is a flap window over the nesting boxes so we can open the window and remove the eggs from the nests without having to crawl into the hen house and disrupt the birds.

If you are buying day-old chicks or very young birds you wont be able to just put them in a hen house and have them fend for themselves – especially in winter. Get a large box and put them and their food and water – in very shallow containers as they will climb into them to eat and drink – in the box and have them live in there for a while till they grow stronger. Cover the box at night with a blanket and keep it in a warm place in winter. Move them out into the hen house when they are about 42 days old and the weather is warm.

Around your hen house you could put up a fence to keep them in a confined area or you could let them roam free over your property. My birds are kept in the farmyard where they are a little safer away from dogs, jackal and meerkats, but they have plenty of space to move around and peck about making them truly free range birds.

Feeding your birds
New born chicks can eat and drink and walk by themselves from the day they are born. Growing baby chicks need growing mash and later growing pellets that you can get from your local animal feed store. It is a combination of exactly what they need as they grow. They do make a mess of the growing mash as chickens like to scratch in their food so place it in a container were they cannot get into it but can only pick at it with their beaks.

When they get closer to the time when they will start to lay – around 6 months old, put them onto layer pellets that you can also get from your local animal feed store, as this has the grit, calcium and added protein they need to produce eggs.

For meat birds, once they have been fattened up, you will need to put them onto what is called finisher just before slaughtering them. This is a high protein diet that just fattens them up a little more before eating.

If possible source chicken food from a supplier whose feed is not produced with genetically modified ingredients. The current levels of genetically modified ingredients, especially in animal feed is very high in South Africa and the US so if you can find a supplier whose feed is not genetically modified then buy from them. The reason being that then your eggs and meat will not be contaminated with genetically modified DNA from the chicken feed. In addition as you use chicken manure as a source of manure and compost for your garden you won’t be infecting your organic vegetable garden with genetically modified DNA.

Make sure they have access to clean water at all times, and try to keep their food and water out of reach of wild birds who might be carrying disease and infections that they can pass onto your flock.

Breeding chickens
We keep one rooster with our group of laying hens and slaughter and eat any other cocks that are hatched. One rooster is able to mate with about 8 hens. They are nice to have around for the full farm feel, but are not necessary for egg production as laying hens will still lay eggs even without mating with a rooster, but these will be infertile – which means still good to eat, but not able to hatch into chicks.

Laying hens that have mated with a cock will naturally want to make a nest, lay their eggs and sit on them. If you want to eat those eggs you will need to take them from the nest – be it a nest box or outside nest where they have lots of privacy away from the other hens. Once the hen has layed a certain number of eggs – known as a clutch – usually between 12 and 16 she will become ‘broody’ and sit on her eggs. She will sit there for 21 days only leaving the nest to eat and drink a bit. I have seen my hens sit on her eggs through rain and hail, cold and wind. They are the most amazing mothers and will protect those eggs with their lives.

After 21 days the eggs will begin to hatch and you will witness one of the most amazing sights in this little ball of fluff that emerges from under moms’ wing. She will continue to sit on her eggs for another 2-3 days till all the eggs that will hatch have hatched and then she will take her young ones out for a walk to show them around. She will call them and they will follow her everywhere. I have had to learn how perfect this whole process is and that it needs little interference from me to help it along – in fact most of my help make things worse. She will raise her chicks till they are old enough to look after themselves. She will not lay during this time as her focus is on her young ones.

Many people hatch their own eggs in incubators, but rarely achieve the amazing success rate that mother hens achieve in nature. Incubators try to mimic the process of the mother keeping the eggs warm and turning them regularly for 21 days.

Interesting facts about chickens
• Chickens like drinking muddy water and so if you spill water on the ground they will rather drink that than the clean water in their bowls.
• Chickens like sand baths. They will dig a hole in the sand and sit in it and then roll in it to get the sand under their wings etc.
• Chickens love to eat other things besides chicken food including bread, some kitchen scraps like fruit peels and spinach and they love catching bugs. Their beady little eyes move very fast and can catch termites right off the ground. Although letting them roam freely through your veggie patch they might destroy your young plants, letting them in now and then to catch the bugs is a good idea and gives a protein boost to their diet.
• Chickens make different sounds depending on if they are happy or angry or fighting or calling their young.
• Chickens sometimes fight with each other as they establish a pecking order in their group. Be careful not to put young baby chicks in with older hens as the hens will kill them. Wait until the babies are big enough to fend for themselves before introducing them to the larger group and then give them time to re-establish the pecking order.
• Once a year chickens moult – meaning they loose their feathers and grow new ones. During this time they will stop laying.
• Chickens also will decrease or stop laying all together during very cold winters when the day-light hours are not long enough for them to lay. They will start up again when the weather warms up.
• Don’t be surprised if it takes a long time for your hens to start laying as many factors could determine at what age they start to lay. They should all be laying by 7,5 months old.