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Chicken & egg situation

PUBLISHED: 21:33 03 August 2015 | UPDATED: 21:33 03 August 2015

Richard Witney with his chickens.

Richard Witney with his chickens.

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Fancy keeping a few chickens alongside the veggie plot? Rachael Porter got a few tips on how to get started from Hollesely-based poultry producer Richard Whitney

Richard Witney with his chickens.Richard Witney with his chickens.

Whether it’s to produce fresh eggs for breakfast or a tasty table bird for a special Sunday roast, keeping backyard poultry is a growing trend.

Most people opt for egg-laying hens, according to Suffolk-based poultry producer Richard Whitney, or Chicken Richard to his friends.

“They’re a good place to start if you’ve never kept poultry before,” he says. “They also produce more quickly too, particularly if you buy birds that are at point of lay.”

This means they’re about 16 or 17 weeks old and, literally, about to start laying eggs. As long as there’s about 14 hours of daylight each day, they should start to lay once they reach about 20 weeks old.

“For the beginner, I recommend starting with a traditional laying bird breed – a standard brown hybrid, such as a Rhode Island Red. These will lay plenty of eggs in return for the feed you give them and they’re relatively easy to manage. You can’t go far wrong with them and they should lay for between 18 months and two years before egg yield starts to fall.”

Richard stresses that once you buy in a group of birds, it’s important not to introduce anymore.

“They don’t mix well with new birds. They form a hierarchy within the group – literally a ‘pecking order’ – any new birds are likely to be bullied, and aggression can be a serious problem.”

If you fancy looking after a more exotic looking breed, or want to produce unusual eggs – there’s a breed that lays blue-coloured eggs, for example – it’s best to wait until your current flock has gone and then start again with a new group of birds.

How to have happy hens

Happy hens lay eggs. In order to maximise egg production, Richard recommends putting a low-energy light bulb in the hen house to extend daylight hours when the days begin to shorten in the autumn.

“Remember it takes 14 hours of daylight to produce an egg and if you allow production to drop off, it can take up to three weeks to get birds laying again. So keep an eye on day length.”

If you do, you can expect each hen to lay around 340 eggs a year. Feed is important too.

“Buy a specialist layer pellet and keep feeders topped up at all times. Try not to feed too much wheat, as this takes the bird a long time to digest. And providing fresh water at all times is also vital.”

The hen house must also be kept dry and well bedded.

“I’d also recommend getting some lime dust to scatter on the bedding, at least twice a week, as this helps to neutralise the acid in the chicken muck. It also helps to prevent red spider mites from infesting the hen house and the flock.

“Red spider mites thrive in acidic conditions. So spreading some lime, particularly on the woodwork in the hen house, should help to prevent them. “It won’t get rid of them if they’re already there, but it will help to keep them in check.

“Remember to wear protective goggles! Also, if your hens are irritated by mites, hungry or thirsty, or not getting enough daylight then they won’t produce eggs. If they’re happy, they’ll lay.”

Tasty birds

Native and traditional breeds are best for table birds. But for a juicy, tender chicken on the table Richard stresses that the cooking times for these birds must be slower, and at a lower temperature, compared to a typical intensively reared shop bought bird.

“The best birds, in my opinion, are White Sussex or a similar cross-bred bird. The White Sussex is quite a robust breed, and it’s easy to produce a 2kg roasting bird within four or five months – between 16 and 20 weeks.

“Just keep a few to begin with. It’s important not to allow them to become too sexually mature – they’ll start fighting, which results in bruised carcases, and the meat can also become a little tough in older birds. So a mix of sizes is idea unless you plan to freeze birds rather than eat them fresh.

“Feed a specialist feed for fattening and finishing – not a layer’s ration. Visit your local agricultural supplier for the correct feed. Make sure it’s available to the birds at all times. A constant supply of fresh water is also vital and you can feed them any household scraps too, as a treat.”

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