A quick guide to keeping hens
In this country we don’t have to worry about foxes taking our chickens at night so for free-range hens, a henhouse is really just somewhere out of the rain and wind where they can sleep and lay eggs. Even when they have a henhouse, they will usually end up making a nest somewhere in the garden where they prefer to lay.
There are many henhouse designs available on the internet. Whatever you choose, you need to make sure it has perches up high as hens like to sleep roosting on these. Some henhouses have a little door at the back which opens into the nest boxes for easy egg collection. Ours just has two boxes that are easily reached from the door.
Make sure it has adequate ventilation and no drafts as chickens hate the damp.
It is also important that the henhouse is easy to clean out. I give my henhouse a good squirt with the hose once a week, then change the hay in the nest boxes and pick up any droppings off the ﬂoor. Once you have done all this spray the whole place with neat white vinegar to kill any lingering germs. Your hens will put themselves to bed at night because they are really blind in the dark and need to know they will be safe. All you need to remember is to shut the door to the henhouse before you go to bed in case some rabid tomcat decides to have a go at the hens in the night.
Choosing your hens
If this is your ﬁrst adventure with hens I strongly advise that you get them from someone who has hand-raised them so that they are reasonably tame. Good breeds to choose for egg production are Red or Brown Shavers. As pullets – hens aged around 20 weeks – they will still be quite light on their feet so expect them to ﬂy quite high, until they put on weight and can only leap a bit. Your hens should start laying any time after 20 weeks old.
Hens can hold their own against cats and most dogs will leave them alone but if you’re worried you can fence the hens in. Our dog Rosie is actually quite frightened of them. But there are some breeds of dogs that just can’t leave a hen alone so check that out with your vet before you bring hens home.
Most city councils will have a ruling on how many hens you can keep on your property and most will not allow roosters. The council where I live allows six hens. It is important to have more than one as they like to be part of a social group – three is the best number to start with.
Some people are confused about the role of the rooster. You only need one if you want to breed your birds, otherwise hens will happily ovulate (make an egg) every day without a rooster around to fertilise them.
You can buy commercial chicken feed at most supermarkets, although I prefer to buy mine from a supplier who opts out of using meat by-products. The good thing about a commercial laying formula is that you can be sure the hens are getting all the nutrition they need. However if you plan to free-range your birds and feed them kitchen scraps they will get plenty of everything they need from your leftovers as well as slugs, insects and garden weeds.
You can make your own feed using my recipe if you want to spoil them (see below).
The hens will also need a supply of grit to keep in their crop where they grind up grains and grasses and supply calcium for egg shell production. Fresh, clean water replaced daily is important too. Hens drink a lot of water in hot weather, so do keep an eye on it. I also give mine regular feeds of milk products like the whey from my cheese making, or yoghurt and cottage cheese to ensure they get enough calcium.
Our hens will eat everything from leftover cereal and toast, to salads and stale cake. The only thing they won’t eat is citrus fruit. Don’t feed green potato peel, dried beans or avocado skins as they contain toxins. Too much sugar or salt is bad for them too.
Feed your hens linseed as this supplies ﬁbre and omega-3, which means your eggs will be even more nutritious. Alfalfa sprouts and corn will both give their eggs deep yellow yolks.
When you ﬁrst get your hens, encourage them to eat treats from your hand so that they get used to you. This way they will always come when you call them and they can easily be led away from the vege patch they have invaded.
Our hens’ top treats in order of preference are sultanas, grapes, corn, silverbeet and bugs from the garden.
Add a clove of garlic and a teaspoon of cider vinegar to their water bowl. This will boost their immune systems and help their digestive systems.
Also add a teaspoon of colloidal silver, which is a liquid suspension of microscopic silver particles and is well known in alternative medicine as an antiseptic and disinfectant.
Hens enjoy a cuddle and as they get older, most will crouch down on the ground to make it easier for you to pick them up. Hens are very reactive to anything that drops a shadow on them for two reasons. The ﬁrst is as an instinctive reaction to a rooster that might loom over them to initiate sex. The second reason is in case of attack by a predator such as a hawk. Because we are dominant, when we cause a shadow over them, they crouch down obediently.
Pick them up so that you are holding their wings tightly against their body on both sides or else they will squawk and ﬂap all over the place. Pull them into your side and hold them reasonably tightly. They love to be stroked around their head and neck very gently. And if you need to calm a hen just tip them upside down. I’m not sure why this works but they go very quiet!
Incredibly expensive hen food
1 kg jumbo oats
1 kg rye
1 kg bran
1 kg wheat
1 kg brown rice
1 kg sunﬂower seeds
250 grams linseed
250 grams sea kelp granules
500 grams brewer’s yeast
Mix together and serve three very happy hens.
One hen will need about 100 grams a day, but I just keep a feeder full and let the hens feed when they need it, which tends to be at both ends of the day and a couple of times during the day.
To make it go further you can combine this half-and-half with commercial feed. You won’t get purely organic eggs, but you will have very strong and healthy hens.
Note: Where possible, I buy organic produce for this recipe.
The Long Lunch with Wendyl Nissen, 12pm - 3pm on RadioLIVE and streaming live to the rova app on Android and iPhone.