Category Archives: Chickens

A complete guide to organic poultry keeping


Although smallholding does not imply any requirement to keep livestock; most smallholders do keep some poultry and most smallholders do begin with chickens.

Chickens were one of the first animals to be domesticated way back in our distant past, and this was for more than one reason. Chickens are by far the least dangerous of all the domesticated animals we do keep, they are very productive both for meat and eggs, but however they do have their drawbacks.

The Up Side

Chickens when chosen well, will provide a small family with all the meat and eggs they need on little more than the area of the average garden, they are easily contained in movable arks (small mobile homes with both protection from the elements and an outdoor run.) These can be constructed easily by anyone with the inclination and a few basic tools, for far less than a shop bought mass produced unit.

Choosing your chickens is the key to success; if you are looking for just meat then commercial breeders have perfected some hybrid chickens, which put on weight very quickly. I believe however that this tendency to gain weight quickly in any type of hybrid stock is detrimental to the true flavour of the meat.

Choosing your chickens for good egg production has similar drawbacks many of today modern hybrid chickens will lay more than 300 eggs per year, they will even lay 300 good quality eggs. But they are often incapable of reproduction without assistance, and you will need to either keeping a few of an older breed just to sit on your eggs for replenishing your stock, or buying an incubator to artificially incubate your eggs. Both of these methods of preproduction will come at a cost, both financial and personal inconvenience. Paying to feed an older breed of hen that will go broody readily but not produce as many eggs as the hybrid is costly, an incubator is to my mind expensive and artificial, the personal cost comes in the form of failure as both hens and incubators fail at times.

For my own needs and my recommendation would be to choose an old breed that has proven to be a good dual purpose breed, i.e. will provide you with both good meat and a reasonable amount of good quality eggs. There are as with all choices drawbacks and compromises to be made, but in my opinion the pluses outweigh any of the drawbacks.

Some of the choices are as follows


Varieties: Speckled, Red, Light

Standard Weights : Cock-9 pounds; hen-7 pounds;

Skin Colou r: White.

Egg Shell Colour : Brown.

Use : A general-purpose breed for producing meat and/or eggs, one of the best of the dual-purpose chickens, a good all-around farm fowl.


Varieties: Light, Dark, Buff

Standard Weights (Light): Cock-12 pounds; hen-9-1/2 pounds;

Standard Weights (Dark and Buff): Cock-1 1 pounds; hen-8-1/2 pounds;

Skin Colour : Yellow.

Egg Shell Colour : Brown.

Use : A very heavy fowl for the production of heavy roasters, fair egg layers.


Varieties: White, Buff, Columbian, Golden Laced, Blue, Silver Laced, Silver-Pencilled, Partridge, Black

Standard Weights : Cock-8-1/2 pounds, hen-6-1/2 pounds,

Skin Colour : Yellow.

Egg Shell Colour : Brown.

Use : Meat or eggs.

There are of course more to choose from but these are my favourite breeds and all are proven in their ability to produce excellent quality meat and eggs, as well as reproduce readily and without assistance of any kind. You will of course still suffer the inevitable failures of hatching but these breeds will prove to be a pleasure to keep, and of course the eggs will provide for your needs in cooking as well as reproduction, and the meat will be a pleasure to eat.

The Down Side

Chickens are easily lost; the array of diseases is vast and complicated. Chickens do not readily show any sign of some of the more deadly diseases and complaints that they suffer from; the first sign may be that you find them dead. I do not however see this as a reason not to keep them; they can be easily fed and provided for without drastic losses. The second and sometimes the greatest danger is predators; even the most aggressive cock will not stop your whole henhouse being wiped out by a fox in one night; rats, martins, buzzards, and polecats will all take chickens or their offspring, again none of these things are a reason not to keep them but your management of chickens will need to take all of these considerations in to account.


Feeding can be as simple or as complex as you whish to make it; preparatory feeds are available which will take care of all of your chickens needs but for me this is far from ideal most super markets sell cheep chicken and eggs which will have been fed by exactly this means. For me the joy of smallholding is the superior quality food I enjoy from my livestock, this is due to an approach that takes care of my animals at a much higher standard than that of truly commercial factory farm. Smallholders can of course take the same factory farm approach to their livestock but it is not an approach I will advocate or instruct you in.

Feeding your chickens should take care of all of the nutritional needs they have but they will also enjoy variety as we humans do. Good quality high protein grains are the main stay of any poultry species food needs. Barley is one of the best of these grains and would take care of most of your chickens needs regardless of the use of the stock either egg layers or meat birds, but maize will give the meat of any chicken a different richer colour and taste. I have fed free-range chickens on a mix of barley and maize as well as food they can forage from their surroundings and they are hard to beat for flavour or texture, and the eggs from birds fed on the same diet will be unbeatable for flavour. I have experienced a drop off in egg production in birds fed on the same diet for six months or more and simply feeding them on a different grain such as wheat for a month or so seems to bring the production back up again. My policy is now to change the diet of my egg laying birds regularly avoiding the drop in production.

Two very important feeding tips not to forget.

• I. Chickens need water; it’s obvious; I know but if you forget you will pay in more ways than one. Bird health, weight, egg production will all be affected, if you do not give them a plentiful supply of clean water you could find your birds dead.

• II. Chickens need grit this one is not so obvious but it is nearly as important as water, your birds could be on the best diet in the world but if they don’t have grit they will not be able to digest their food. You can buy crushed oyster shell and mix it with their food but this is not necessary if you simply feed them on the ground they will take up soil and grit; this will suffice but of course you will have to feed them in a different place so the ground does not become an infected desert.

Housing needs

Chickens need housing for many reasons, and to be honest most of these reasons are orientated toward human management needs rather than to meet the birds needs. Chickens can and do fair very well on their own without any housing at all, they can avoid predators very affectively by roosting high in trees well before dark. Chickens can also tolerate both high and low extremes of temperature without detrimental effects to their health or longevity.

However chickens kept for food production in some kind of enclosure without trees to roost in will need a secure house to protect them with somewhere to roost as high as possible even if only a foot or so off the floor. If you do allow them to roost in trees and do not provide housing they will also lay their eggs all over the enclosure in any dark secluded place they can find, and you may not find the eggs. A house with roosting perches and nesting boxes that they can lay in is ideal but it has to be impervious to all of the predators mentioned earlier. This normally means you will need to open the house to let the birds out and lock them back in again just before dark. This is a routine that requires some discipline as many a smallholder has lost their hens the night they did not lock the henhouse after they returned late from a party, or the weather was just to foul to go out in.

Reproduction needs to be taken in to account if you whish to have your own hens hatch their own eggs. To help in this a separate house or ark for your broody hen will avoid your broody hen being bullied off of her nest by a more dominant bird. Even if she is only bullied off for a few minuets a day she may hatch her own eggs successfully but all the eggs laid after the first day or so of incubation will be left to die, this will adversely affect the success rate of your reproduction program.



Best laying chickens suitable for smallholders

You may be limited by what your local breeders can supply. Magazines such as “Country Smallholding” have pages of adverts for poultry; if you live in a rural area, the local newspaper might also be a source.

Visiting breeders

Buy poultry from a reputable breeder; if at all possible, pick your hens up, so that you can have a look around. Most breeders will be happy for you to visit first to take a look at some hens and to get a feel for the different breeds. If you are unsure about anything just ask – a good breeder will be happy to answer your questions and to give advice. Be prepared to walk away if you are unhappy with the condition of the birds – don’t be tempted to take on sub-standard birds because you feel sorry for them.

Poultry auctions

Buying from an auction may get you a heap of grief, unless you know what you are doing. However, it’s good experience and very interesting, so it’s worth going along to a poultry sale just for a look, if you are confident that you can keep your hands in your pockets.

Your first flock

Start small; a flock of three hens is a good start (if one dies, you still have two as company for each other until you can restock). In a year or so, add another two or three to the flock. If you fill your accommodation to capacity on day one, in a couple of years you will have a group of middle-aged hens laying very few eggs and you will probably be too attached to them to do anything else than wait for them to die of old age. We’ve had one live to age seven, so it could be a long wait!

We started with three point-of-lay (POL) pullets in the spring of 2002; a Light Sussex, a Rhode Island Red, and a Black Rock. They lived in a small Forsham Cottage Ark that we still have and use.

Hens generally start to lay at about 20-22 weeks old, so the easiest way to start out is to buy point of lay (POL) pullets. These are easy to keep, you’ll get pretty instant eggs and you don’t have any cockerels to deal with because by that age, the two sexes are quite distinct. Naturally, this is the most expensive start up method.

Day old chicks

Another option is to buy day old chicks, but the level of stockmanship required is quite high, or certainly higher than buying POL, so maybe wait until you have some experience before trying this. You will also need a heat lamp or brooder and specialist feed. If the chicks you buy are from a sex-linked breed or strain, then you will be able to buy only female chicks.

Day-old chicksDay old chicks

In sex-linked breeds  / strains, the newly hatched female and male chicks will look quite different; in other breeds, both males and females will look the same (to the untrained eye) until much later, so you will almost certainly get some cockerels in the batch you buy.

Incubating fertilised eggs

You can buy fertilised eggs and hatch your own but, again, you’ll need some specialised equipment such as an incubator and a brooder, if you don’t have a broody hen, and you’ll have to wait 5 months or so for your first egg. The same issue around cockerels exists with hatching eggs as it does with buying day-olds.

The cockerel question

If you buy non-sex-linked day-olds or hatch eggs, you will inevitably get male chicks. Now is the time to think about how you are going to deal with this. The market for breeding cockerels is very limited. The cockerels of laying breeds, even from utility strains, take a long time to fatten and don’t produce the best carcases, but you can eat them. See the later section on raising birds for the table. Abandoning cockerels at a farm gate because you can’t bear to kill them is simply not acceptable.

Ex-battery hens

If you have a battery farm nearby, you might want to try to get some spent layers from there. The output might be a bit unreliable at first but you will certainly have the satisfaction of giving some birds a happy “retirement”. The Battery Hen Welfare Trust may be able to help if you fancy doing this.

How to prepare your chickens for a cold winter

Keeping your chickens fit and healthy through the winter months doesn’t have to be a painful task, with a little preparation and forethought this process can be accomplished with relative ease. When looking to prepare your chicken and their home there a few things that must be considered these include lighting, heating, ventilation and choice of food.

When to get prepared?

Is it ever too early to be prepared? That being said we recommend getting started by the start of October as the first frosts of winter can be potentially fatal to many of the less hardy breeds. Some of the best breeds of chick for cold climate include Ameraucanas, Black Giant, Buff Orpingtons, Plymouth Rocks and Russian Orloff.

When the weather starts to worsen you will notice a dramatic decline in the number of eggs being produced by your hens, one great way of combating this problem is to install a light in the coop this can give the impression of longer daylight hours and in many cases keeps eggs coming all year round. It’s best to use a timer system when attempting this method as anything over 10 hours of daylight can disturb this hens sleep cycle.

The best light to use for the job is a simple 40watt bulb with reflector around 6 feet from the floor of the coop; this single bulb should be enough to provide adequate light for 180 square feet!


Here at the farm we use green house heaters in our main coop this give of low levels of steady heat that stop frost from reaching plants inside the greenhouse but they work in much the same way when it comes to chickens. Be warned overly warm coops interfere with the chicken’s ability withstand cold temperatures in the future.

When insulating the coop be sure to allow decent ventilation as without proper air flow condensation can build up leading to ammonia.


As autumn passes into winter it can be a good idea to start supplementing your chicken’s diet with a higher density vitamin enriched feed. These vitamins can helps hens when molting as well as improving their ability to cope with the cold weather.

The Baby Chicks are Here!

Sweet Dreams Creations

Finally!  The wait is over!  They we’re due to hatch on the 25th and they started hatching on the 24th!  I had been reading allot of blogs lately where their chicks were hatching a day early everyone blaming the heat.  So, I figured mine might just follow along and they did.  4 hatched on the 24th and 1 on the 25th.  Goldie was sitting on 8 eggs, 5 out of 8 not bad and it looks like their all girls!! Yeah!   I do the wing check and it for me works.  Here’s the You Tube video for you to watch if your interested:  Sexing Baby Chicks.

The last few days before they started to hatch, on 2 seperate days, we had hens manage to get into the broody box, while Goldie was out for her daily dusting, and lay eggs, so we had 10 total.  We had planned to…

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Poultry farming turns into money-spinner for ex-accountant

It is the desire to be her own boss that saw Lillian Akinyi Okwiri become one of the most successful poultry keepers in Kisumu.

Mrs Okwiri, 50, quit her job as an accountant after being in formal employment for only six months. To her friends, this was a risky gamble but she was convinced that time was ripe for her to go into self-employment.

“I always dreamt of being my own boss someday and I opted to hasten the process. What worried me most was whether I would still earn as much money as I did when I was employed,” she says.

After quitting her accounting job, she realised that she didn’t have enough money to go into poultry rearing, a market she had realised had few players.
She started with selling second-hand clothes to generate enough cash to venture into poultry keeping.

“I also started making ice-cream from my house and selling it to school-going children. I got a little cash and added it to what I was earning from the clothes business,” she says.

After a few months, she had raised Sh30,000 and was ready for take off. I had no formal training in poultry keeping, but had the urge to make money and that is what has seen me thrive, she says.

“I had done little research and realised that Kenyan traders import poultry products such as eggs from neighbouring counties. I knew that there was money in this venture,” she says.

She started with 150 day-old layer chicks costing Sh100 each and converted one of her bedrooms to house the birds.

After five weeks, the broilers were ready for the market while layers took between four to five months to start laying eggs. Soon she moved the chicken from her bedroom to a structure that could accommodate 600 chicks.

“I used local materials, wire mesh and iron sheets,” she says.

Counting her profits every day, Mrs Okwiri is doing booming business and is an envy of many in Kisumu’s Nyamasaria estate and has a total of 1,000 chicks—700 broilers and 300 layers.

She has turned into a beacon of success for many women who seek advise on poultry keeping.

Years later, does she regret quitting formal employment?

“I have no regrets because I made the right move. Had I clung onto my job then, I wouldn’t have made such impressive strides,” she says.
Mrs Okwiri says she gets at least Sh100,000 every five weeks from selling broilers which costs Sh400 each.

“ I collect close to 10 crates of eggs every day with a crate selling at Sh330,” she says

When business is at its peak, she says she receive orders to supply up to 150 birds per day. ‘‘During such periods, I am forced to wake up as early as 4 am and to hire more casual labourers,” she says.

She mainly sells broilers to hotels and learning institutions in Kisumu.

Mrs Okwiri says to attain her success, a lot has to be put into taking care of the chicken.

“A lot has to be done like buying feeds and drugs and these must be obtained from accredited dealers to guarantee quality. In the five weeks of rearing, the broilers use around five bags of starter mash which goes at Sh2,250 a bag and 17 bags of finisher pellet, with a bag selling at Sh2,850,’’ she says.

“The layers also eat a lot of food.” She says the chicks also have to be vaccinated against New Castle disease and given multivitamins.

Buying of feeds and drugs is a challenge because the prices go up but you have to feed the chicks to weigh more in order to fetch better prices,” she says. To those planning to go into business, she says: ‘‘Start-ups don’t pick up as fast as one may want but patience pays.”

She encourages women and youth to learn to be self-dependent.

“They should not just sit by waiting for miracles to happen; I challenge them to take their destiny into their own hands. I have a very supportive husband but that does not mean that I should not work,” she says.

Chicken therapy

Resident Sally Cross-Sevon was introduced to "Clementine."

Resident Sally Cross-Sevon was introduced to “Clementine.”

Ellen Levinson’s tone becomes nostalgic as she recalls how she felt the day last summer when Terry Golson placed a hen in her lap.

“Having that chicken in my arms and holding it against my body was profoundly soothing,” Levinson said.

But even in that moment, she wasn’t thinking so much about herself as her clientele. Levinson is executive director of Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley , a nursing home in Littleton that offers residential care for elderly patients with memory loss as well as short-term rehabilitation services.

“We deal with agitation a lot on the dementia unit,” Levinson said. “The chicken felt wonderful to hold. Something clicked. If I were agitated or upset, this is what I would want.”

She couldn’t have been in a better place when the idea struck her. She was attending a seminar led by Golson, a Carlisle resident whose acclaim as a poultry-raising authority has landed her on Martha Stewart’s TV show and in the New Yorker magazine.

During the backyard workshop, which Golson offers periodically, Levinson found herself thinking more about how the presence of chickens might affect her patients.

“We spent some time watching the chickens as they pecked in the ground and took dirt baths, and it was fascinating,’’ Levinson said.

“One of the issues present in people with dementia is short attention span. They can’t sit still for even half an hour. But if we had the chickens nearby, I started thinking, our residents would be able to watch them for a short time, move on to something else, then come back and watch them some more. It seemed like a natural fit.”

The notion wasn’t quite as far-fetched as it might seem. With its grass-rich campus amid what was once agricultural land in Littleton, the Life Care Center has already introduced several nonhuman inhabitants into the mix. Permanently installed on the 40-acre property are goats, llamas, an alpaca, and an indoor cat, and dogs come in for daily visits; Levinson wondered how her patients might react to chickens in their midst.

Levinson asked Golson to visit the facility and advise the Life Care staff on the viability of installing a chicken coop on the grounds. Golson loved the idea. After discussing with Levinson what would be required to set up a flock, Colson and the director of the facility’s memory support unit, Erica Labb, arranged a series of visits to introduce the residents to the idea.

It was during these interactive sessions that Labb, who describes herself as “not that much of an animal person previously, but now I’m becoming one,” was struck by something she doesn’t typically see during group events in her unit: rapt attention.

Unlike the more common animal-therapy programs in which dogs are trained to visit hospitals and nursing homes, the chickens are not expected to interact in any particular way with patients. And unlike the llamas, goats, and alpaca, which are kept on the Life Care Center’s front lawn, the chickens and their coop are right outside the large picture window in the activity room.

It became clear to Golson in her initial presentations that chickens carried strong associations for some of the residents. Many of them, now in their 80s and 90s, grew up around farms or had other memories associated with farm animals.

Resident Thelma Mollot, age 101, was introduced to "Beulah," by "Chicken Captain" Terry Golson (right).

Resident Thelma Mollot, age 101, was introduced to “Beulah,” by “Chicken Captain” Terry Golson (right).

“Chickens are innately engaging,” Golson said. “I made it tactile by passing around feathers and eggs. For some of these elderly people, it’s been years since they’ve touched an egg. For those who used to do a lot of cooking or baking, having an egg in their hand can be very evocative. For one woman who grew up in Italy, holding the egg tapped into memories of making homemade pasta.”

One of Golson’s areas of expertise is, for lack of a better term, chicken personality. It was important to her to find the right mix of fowl temperaments to make this experiment work. So she began the way she always does with newcomers: by getting to know them.

“Last winter, I ordered 26 chicks from a mail-order hatchery. Once they arrived in March, I observed their innate personalities and eventually chose the five that seemed the friendliest.”

Not only did Golson want the right social characteristics among the Life Care flock, she also wanted the nursing home residents to be able to distinguish among them visually, so she chose a variety of breeds and colors to make the final cut.

The chickens and their coop showed up at the nursing home late last month.

Labb came up with an inspiration for naming the birds; she chose from among a list of the names of the residents’ mothers and grandmothers. As a result, the tenants of Life Care’s new chicken coop are Clementine, Elsie, Beulah, Mae Belle, and Millie.

“My hope is the residents get to know the chickens individually and develop some interest in their social life,” Labb said. “They’ll develop favorites. Eventually, I hope they will participate in caretaking, feeding, gathering eggs. The goal really comes down to engagement.”

Labb never anticipated adding “chicken captain” to her resume, but a few lessons from Golson taught her what she needed to know about keeping the birds safe and healthy. The maintenance staff bears the brunt of the feeding and cleaning for all the farm animals at Life Care. At this point, having animals on the property is second nature to them. Not so for those farther afield; Levinson received a phone call from a representative of the center’s accounting firm in Tennessee, who wanted to know why the nursing home had just received a bill for a chicken coop.

Littleton resident Richard Carozza , a recent McGill University graduate who is applying to medical schools, has joined the Life Care team for the summer as a volunteer to apply his scientific research skills to the experiment.

“We’ve already discovered that Life Care has a lower usage of antipsychotic drugs than other facilities with dementia patients,” he said. “Could this be related to the presence of animals?”

And by extension, Carozza wonders, can he prove a measurable difference in the patients’ behaviors after they start interacting with the chickens? He will spend much of the summer investigating these questions.

So far, Labb and Levinson both say they are pleased with the residents’ interest in the coop, and eager to foster continuing interaction throughout the summer, including having the residents help gather eggs once the chickens start laying.

Golson would like to see this model extended to other long-term care and memory loss facilities, particularly if the same careful attention to detail is followed.

“Life Care went far beyond just throwing some chickens and a coop out onto the lawn,” the facility’s consultant said. “It’s important that this not be done in a slapdash way. It has to come across as a beautiful, well-cared-for flock, just as this one is.”

And the presence of the animals helps when the residents have visitors as well.

“It’s a way of connecting generations,” Labb said. “Nursing homes can be scary places for young children. People sometimes don’t know how to visit. The animals provide something for everyone to watch together.”

Golson, whose website ( features live streaming video from her own chicken coop, believes that “watching chickens is both engaging and peaceful at the same time.”

“Having chickens in the backyard is like looking at the ocean. There’s a lot of movement and at the same time it feels calming. What could be better for memory-loss patients than this constant ebb and flow in which they can engage? It’s a perfect match.”


Steadicam chickens

Did you know that chickens have image stabilized heads. It’s true!  It’s actually called the vestibulo-ocular reflex. Naturally (and… nerdily?) people started suggesting that someone should try making a steadicam using a chicken. Well, YouTube user Destin actually went ahead and did it… The results can be seen in the video  below.