Chickens are probably the easiest bit of homesteading that you’ll ever do. The essentials are just the birds, a henhouse, and a proper feeder… and you’re off, with eggs so full of flavour your neighbours will be queuing up for them. Provided you don’t have a rooster they’re rarely noisy, and their peaceful crooning and clucking is a calming “all’s well” sound while you work your patch. Despite the terrifying range of ailments mentioned in the poultry books, all but the fastest-growing meat birds are generally trouble-free; it just pays to know what to watch out for. Space is rarely a problem even in the tiniest of yards, but you do need to know what you’re getting into.
How much work is involved?
Laying hens normally need to be visited three times a day; once for letting out, once for putting in, and once for egg collecting (if you’re wise), but this can be condensed into two trips if the eggs have usually been laid by the time you let the chickens out. It’s quite possible for the canny keeper to set things up so that the birds can be left unattended for a day or two, but for trips of longer than a weekend you’ll need someone to stop by for those daily visits – not usually a problem if you add the magic phrase “and do help yourself to as many eggs as you want”.
Where do I get the birds from?
Experienced chicken keepers get new stock in a variety of ways, such as buying fertilized eggs by mail (for which you need a broody hen or equipment including an incubator, heat lamp etc) or taking on ex-battery birds, which can be arranged for you by local chicken welfare groups. In Britain that’s the British Hen Welfare Trust, but there are equivalents in many countries.
For beginners, however, by far the easiest way to get your starting flock is to buy ‘point of lay’ (generally about 17 week-old) birds from a breeder or at a poultry auction. Look for alert and bright-eyed birds with no sign of a mucky rear, and don’t be fooled by any eggs in the cage – they’re often added by the breeders before the auction starts. Birds are commonly sold as ‘trios’ of two hens and one cockerel, but you don’t need a cockerel for eggs – only if you want the eggs to be fertilised.