Chickens for eggs

Deciding it was time I got chickens, I thought best I find out the basics of looking after chickens to get my own fresh eggs!

Growing up on a farm, we had a chicken run at the back of the vegetable garden, however, I wish I could paint a pretty memory about collecting the eggs, but what I can remember is that the entrance had a mangled gate making it nearly impossible to get in, the run was smelly and a banded cobra was found a few times in a tree closeby – every little girls’ nightmare. I found it safer to brush down the bulls in the evening with my Grandpa than collecting eggs. Many years later, I am now pondering on the idea of finally becoming that egg collecting girl. But, as I paid little to no attention on how to look after the chooks, I literally feel I have to start from scratch, and ask friends, family and people in the know-how what I have to do to have healthy happy, stink free chickens that produce great eggs and save a bit of money as it costs 10 cents to produce eggs at home and 18 cents per egg in the supermarket.

Is it legal to have chickens in town?
I finally found out through a reliable source and after countless unanswered calls to the council and EMA that we are allowed 35 chickens in a home in the suburbs. I am not interested in producing them as a business, but just enough to get a few eggs a day. However, 35 chickens is a good number for a small sustainable income, earning a maximum of $85 a month.

Chicks or chickens?
I must say getting day-old chicks sounds adorable, I might just learn how to love them more. Unfortunately, that is not the way to go unless you are a hardcore businessman and can afford to feed them until they start laying at 20 to 24 weeks. Furthermore, you need to purchase the necessary vaccinations, which are not generally sold in smaller units for the general public. Chicks also suffer from the cold so you need more equipment to keep them warm all winter through. So, a chicken it is! Apparently, I need to get my hands on some point of lays.

The term point of lay means that they are ‘on verge of point of laying’. It is important to understand that when receiving the birds that if the producer has done their job correctly, they will be delivering the birds prior to any proper egg formation within the bird’s uterus, thus alleviating the risk of prolapse, which could kill the bird.

Generally, the birds will be between 17 to 19 weeks old on collection and will take approximately 3 to 5 weeks to come into lay dependant on the season, so winter takes a little longer then summer. The birds will start laying at a lower percentage to start with, but as they mature the percentage output will increase and you should be able to get as high as 90% output from the bird i.e. 35 birds @ 90% = 32 eggs a day, and as they get older this will gradually decline to about 70 to 75%.

The different types of ‘Brown’ breeds, Hyline and H&N, are the main egg producers in Zimbabwe, for both small and large scale producers. The one thing to note is that when point of lays start laying, they are generally very productive, generally producing an average of 85 % output per month so 25 eggs per lay per month. Generally, the economically viable production cycle lasts 70 weeks. After the 70 weeks, when they are around 90 weeks old, they will be laying at approximately 70%, which means they are effectively paying for their own feed, not making it viable. That is the best time to get rid of them…

Where do I buy point-of-lays?
There are a few places around that sell them but I have been told to watch out for the dodgy sellers who are likely to sell you a chook that is a bit past her prime. Novatek animal feeds sell the Hyline Brown, at $12 per bird and are fully vaccinated. They stock every poultry requirement that you may need, to bedding material to the food. If you do order, remember most places have a waiting time between two and four weeks.

What’s the best chicken coop to have?
Before I rattle on, let me just get the terminology down first. A coop is a house for hens where they lay their eggs, and a chicken run is an outdoor enclosure for chickens to run around in. Basically, chickens come out of the coop and into the chicken run.

Now I have cleared that up, more about the coops. I know there are two types of chicken coops: the chicken tractor, which is a small portable A-frame house you can pull around the garden, or a permanent structure, which is usually based in a chicken run. After visiting several friends’ coops, I have started to weigh up the pros and cons of each one.

The permanent structure
Obviously, you can make the coop as big as you want so you are not limited regarding the number of chickens you want. You can buy these off the side of the road, make it out of brick or whatever you can get your hands on, as long as it has a roof, walls and a place for them to nest, such as a nesting box. However, I have noticed that the area around the coop can be a little bit smelly and the chickens tend to destroy the area in the enclosure or run, so there is not much grass. The chickens do also have a bit more space in the enclosure to run about.

The chicken tractor
This portable chicken house is often an A-frame bottomless coop, with a place to nest, an enclosure, and with wheels at one end so that it can be moved around the garden. The advantage of this is that the chickens won’t do much damage to the grass, as they need to be moved every second day. Chicken manure can be evenly dispersed around the garden, so there is less of a smell and in return, everyone says your garden gets fertilised. It can generally hold around four to five chickens. However, there is a very small space for a perch, and it might not be well protected against rain.

Regardless of what type of coop you want, all chickens require a comfortable, clean and secure coop to sleep and nest in. They need protection from extreme weather, predators and there should be enough space for food and water, as well as a perch, to sit on. Unfortunately, I do know the snake issue might not be solved, as you can protect the chickens but they will still attract the snakes.

Free range chickens
Most people have a romantic vision of chickens roaming in the garden every day. However, there is a slight problem with this, as if they are let out too often, they might start to lay eggs in their own secret places and not eat the food given, which has all the required nutrients for healthy eggs. Ideally, they should only be let out twice a week or provide a run with a limited inspectable space.

How many chickens do I need?
The question you want to be asking yourself is how many eggs do you want or do you use each day? So, if I get six chickens I will have about a two dozen a week, which is plenty to share with friends and family too. Chickens are herd animals, they love company, so for happy hens, aim to have at least three birds.

Since an egg is made up of 70-75% water, laying hens need a constant supply of fresh, clean water. Water troughs must be kept clean and shaded from the sun. They do have a good sense of smell and taste so avoid smelly or chlorinated water! Restricting water for one day can stress the chicken and can affect their production for up to three days.

Feeding chickens
It is usual to provide food for your chickens at all times. However, to stimulate the birds to eat, feeding less more often is better than dumping a pile of food hoping that they will get through it.

Most of the coops, I have seen have a self-feeder, or you can make your own by: securing an ice-cream container to the wall or putting a brick in a container. Make sure you elevate it slightly to stop them pooing in it or it is well secured to stop them scratching in it, which will cause it to flip.

In terms of food, look for Layers mash – there are countless varieties available – make sure you buy from a reputable supplier to make sure you get the best nutritional balance for your birds through all seasons.

Nowadays, some layers mash may lack lime grit, which is a source of calcium to make the shells hard. If your eggshells are soft, you can feed them the following: bake/dry eggshells and then grind them up. Don’t feed uncooked, whole egg shells as you may encourage birds to break and eat their own eggs before you’ve collected them.

The bedding
Bedding for the chickens is a must, as they need to get cozy in the coop to lay their eggs and it needs to be robust and very absorbent. Bedding can be wood shavings, wheat straw and even veld grass. The wonderful thing about the bedding is that when it is time to clean out the coop and replace the bedding, the litter (used bedding) can be thrown on the compost heap or you could use it to make liquid manure.

Health and diseases
From what I understand, the best way to avoid any diseases is to keep your chickens healthy and the environment clean:

1. Provide a coop that is comfortable, well-ventilated, well-lit and free from drafts and dampness.
2. Make sure you thoroughly clean out the coop at least once a month, by replacing with fresh bedding, disinfecting the whole coop with a good disinfectant (a digestible disinfectant that won’t harm the birds such as ‘Virukill’). When you get in new point of lays too, make sure you thoroughly disinfect everything.
3. Good quality bedding is also needed to avoid getting mites and ticks. Mites are horrid little things, and the best way to avoid them is clean, clean and, yes you guessed it, clean the coop.
4. Remove sick birds from the flock and keep them away from the other hens while treatment is given. It is often more humane to destroy sick birds.
5. If you are not sure why your chickens are sick or dying, take it to the government vet department as they will do a post mortem at a small fee, or a local poultry vet for a diagnosis.
6. If your chickens suffer from any stress or fright, they will stop laying for a while. Changing the food they eat or any element of the environment can create stress. Sounds like there will be daily yoga in my back yard!

Thank you for all the help I have got from friends, family and experts in finding out all the necessary information!

Hope you will join me on this clucky adventure to get your own fresh eggs!

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