Having a few chickens scrabbling around the farm garden producing a daily stream of fresh eggs is any good lifer’s dream.
Keeping your brood clean and appropriately fed and watered will go a long way to keeping them healthy and happy, and, ultimately, more productive, says Douglas Steele, poultry expert from nutrition specialist Harbro.
“Whether it is chickens, ducks or geese, a good nutritional diet is really important, not just the scraps from last night’s dinner. You can buy meal and pellets from good country stores which are nutritionally balanced to promote gut health and performance.
Some keepers give their poultry mixed grains, which is great as well, but should be more of a treat and in addition to pellets rather than their core diet,” he says.
“Poultry need grit to help their gizzard develop so they can digest food, so scatter some on the ground for them to scratch and peck at – a great way to encourage natural behaviours too, scratching and foraging. After 40 weeks, as their gizzards become more efficient, you should introduce oyster shell grit which will help maintain and improve shell quality.
“Clean water is essential and should be refreshed every day.
“Keep poultry away from standing water, which can be full of bacteria, and also watercourses, where infections can be picked up from wild birds.
“Water is also the perfect way to get vitamins and wormers into your birds, which are a vital part of poultry health. You should worm every eight to 10 weeks, and you can add liquid vitamins when the flock is in need of a bit of a boost.
“Like us, the healthier they feel the more motivated and productive they are. For laying hens, from 50 weeks shell quality naturally starts to deteriorate, so add some liquid shell treatment to their water for eight- to 10-day bursts as and when needed.”
Mr Steele advises maintaining a clean environment to reduce the risk of disease.
“If your poultry stay on the same site, make sure you clean it out regularly and put in fresh bedding. If you can start to smell the ammonia it is in need of a change.
“Dust the area inside and out for red mite every one to two months, and use a disinfectant on a similar frequency to keep the living environment hygienic; a bedding conditioner acts as a drying agent which keeps the bacteria challenge down. It can be seen as extra expense, but it is worth keeping on top of it as prevention is often better than cure.
“Biosecurity has become even more essential during the recent avian flu outbreak. As birds can still become infected even when kept inside, during outbreaks you need a disinfectant footbath for boots on the way in and out, wash clothes after contact with the poultry, or use disposable outer layers which can be thrown away each time, clean regularly and disinfect equipment.
“If you just have a few chickens, it is tempting to feel the avian influenza restrictions do not apply to you, but avian flu is virulent and every little helps to keep it under control.
“For those with a few hens, you may be able to net a small outdoor area, as long as food and water are still kept inside or away from possible contamination from wild birds,” he adds.
“I have seen some imaginative solutions, like people turning their kids’ trampoline upside down and netting it, and the hens are happy as anything and feel safe. Enrich their environment with pecking blocks, a football or vegetables hanging from strings. Changing it around every now and again will keep them interested.
“Keeping poultry is really common sense, but if you make sure your birds are enjoying a good diet of nutritionally-balanced feed from a quality supplier, plenty of scope to display their natural behaviours, a comfortable place to nest, and vitamins and supplements when needed, they will reward you with excellent eggs or meat for the table.”