How to look after egg laying hens in your garden.

Tips from my own experience of keeping healthy happy garden hens,

  • The best food to feed a balanced diet to laying hens,
  • Best type of housing for chickens in a garden,
  • Which hens are the best egg layers,
  • How long will eggs stay fresh,
  • How to test if an egg is still fresh,
  • Looking after hens and chickens in cold and wet weather
Day old Chicks Hatched from layers
Day old Chicks

With a bit of common sense, a clean place to live, the right food and protection from foxes, egg laying garden hens can live long and happy lives, paying for there keep with nice fresh eggs.

Chickens and laying hens can be kept in small or large gardens, in the countryside or town and as long as they are fed and housed properly will reward you with lovely fresh eggs. These are a few tips gained from my own experience keeping laying hens that should help you look after your garden hens.  

Before rushing out and buying laying hens or point of lay pullets, you will need to think about buying or making a suitable place for the hens to sleep, rest and lay there eggs.

 

Types of coops and runs for housing hens and chickens in a garden are discussed in more detail later in the article.

A hen house or coop will need to be high enough to have perches for your hens to roost and a safe run, preferably on grass or soil for them to scratch around and enjoy the sun and fresh air.

 

When choosing housing for poultry it is important to consider protection from foxes.

You will need a secure chicken run for nights and when you are away. All but one of my laying hens left to wander in my garden for a couple of hours were killed by a fox in early afternoon. Walls and fences that will keep most dogs out of your garden will not stop foxes.....

 .....The run should be made from reasonably strong wood and completely covered with chicken wire. Fit a secure door for feeding and access to the hen house.

 

Chicken and hen run that can be moved around the garden. 

This type of hen house can be moved regularly to provide fresh places to scratch around and makes access for cleaning out easier. If you don't have space for this type of hen house and run, add fresh hay or straw for the hens to scratch around in and a bowl of sand or dry earth for the hens to dust bathe. The stuff you remove when cleaning out can be added to the compost heap. 

What to feed laying hens.

To keep your hens in peak condition and laying many eggs it is very important to feed them the correct food as discussed next....


The correct balanced diet for Laying hens.

This is the diet I feed my laying hens, feed can be purchased here food for garden hens 

     

Mixed corn, 
Grain encourages chickens to exercise by scratching the ground to find the grain, it is high in energy and fiber, but relatively low in protein, like feeding your kids a diet of fast food, great in moderation, but chickens that eat too much mixed corn will have less appetite for more nutritious feed. 
I always feed mixed corn to my laying hens to encourage them to have a bit of fun and enjoy scratching around the run, also the corn provides energy to help keep your hens warm overnight and it keeps their crops full overnight.
Feed enough mixed corn as your chickens can finish in about 20 minutes in the afternoon after they have eaten the layers pellets you have fed them in the morning and it won't spoil there appetite.
 
Layers pellets.
Pellets provide the essential protein and calcium laying hens need to produce hard shelled healthy eggs, they require large amounts of calcium to form the eggshell, the layers pellets you are feeding to your hens should contain 2.5% to 3.5% calcium. If you find your hens produce eggs with thin shells or shells that are easily cracked, it may also be necessary to supplement the diet of laying hens with grit that contains ground oyster shell on a free-choice basis. 
Layer pellets should contain at least 14% protein to keep your chickens fit and health during the laying season, I also buy meal-worms to give my laying hens the occasional treat and provide a bit more protein during the peak laying season.
Layers pellets should be fed in the morning, before treats like corn and kitchen scraps.

Household and kitchen scraps. 
I supplement my chicken feed with scraps from the kitchen, it helps keep the feed bill down and provides a bit of variety for my laying hens,  but according to Defra rules? It is illegal! 
If you are going to feed kitchen scraps to your chickens and laying hens, feed them in the afternoon after the layers pellets have been eaten and avoid scraps that contain high levels of salt, fat and any food that has gone moldy. 
Laying hens will also enjoy grass, weeds, seeds, insects and slugs and snails from your garden.

Grit is essential to help grind up and digest the food.  If your hens are regularly given the run of your garden or live in a movable run, they will also pick up grit from the garden.
 
It is important to add green stuff to your laying hen's diet.
Laying hens and chickens, in fact all poultry, need green stuff, like grass and cabbage leaves, they will produce better eggs with less cholesterol and more Omega-3 fatty acids currently good for you according to the daily mail, although they do have a habit of changing health advice quite often.
If you are not growing your own vegetables, most  greengrocers will be happy to let you have leafy vegetables that are just past their best, for free or quite cheap. 

What to feed chicks.
Chicks need a special diet, normally in the form of specially formulated chick crumbs.
Day old chicks, pullets and point of lay hens all need slightly different feed mixes as they grow older. 
Naturally hatched chicks will learn from the mother hen and will eat most of the food listed above, just add specially formulated chick crumbs to the feed.
Incubator hatched chicks, It is best to continue with the formula the breeder has been feeding them, ask the breeder what food they are feeding the chicks and continue to feed your new chicks the same food, usually chick-crumbs that provide the nutrients needed.

Make sure to keep all poultry feed in a secure clean container away from rats and mice. I use a galvanized dustbin to store all my feeds.

 The feeds can be purchased from the food for garden hens shop 

Hens that don't have access to green stuff will benefit from and enjoy being fed cabbage and other kitchen leftovers

They actually enjoy vegetable peels, bananas, apple cores, carrots, broccoli even spaghetti and porridge. In fact, almost any wholesome food, vegetable or fruit you eat yourself,  if you can eat it so can they and you can feed them this daily, as long as its part of a balanced diet that also includes the mixed corn, layers pellets and grit  I have listed above.

 

In fact I have found over the many years I have kept layers and birds for the table that one of the many benefits of keeping chickens is that most of my kitchen waste and stuff I grow in my garden can be fed to them ensuring my flock get a varied and balanced diet and saving me some money too. 

 

Avoid feeding your chickens any raw green peels (such as green potato peel) and citric fruits such as oranges and lemons all fatty foods or foods with lots of salt in it, also sweets (to much sugar) and  processed food (to much of everything that is bad) If it is bad for you it is bad for your hens.

Housing and general care for garden hens in cold wet weather

A chicken has about 8000 feathers that keep it warm, even in freezing temperatures. Providing they have good shelter they won't need extra heat in cold weather, but they will need a little extra care and attention during cold and wet weather. The things that can cause problems in cold or wet weather conditions are damp, muddy soil and drafts so there are several things you can do to keep your chickens comfortable and healthy in the winter.

Pay attention to the 6 things listed here and your hens and chickens will stay healthy and happy in bad weather.

  1. Hens need to be sheltered from rain, damp and drafts, but the house should be well ventilated (vents should be above the roosting height to avoid drafts) and kept clean, as manure contains a lot of water, and in the winter, when the coop is closed up, this can make the air unhealthy and the hens prone to respiratory illness. 
  2. Insulating the chicken run from cold and drafts. Siting the hen coop and run so it is protected from the coldest winds,  is the best way of insulating your poultry. If you don't have the room in your garden or the poultry house and run is too heavy to move another cheap way to insulate the coop, is to use cardboard to line the walls and roof, and straw or hay as insulation for the coop floor.
  3. Most chicken breeds do not need heaters placed in the hen house or run. Heaters can cause more problems than they help, the hens huddle near it and when they move away to eat or roost, they won’t have their feathers fluffed out to protect them from the cold. (Bit like why we warn kids to remove coats when indoors or they won't feel the benefit when they go outside). It’s not good to go from one extreme temperature to another.  Silkies and other frizzle-feathered poultry might need heaters. 
  4. Hens need to roost close to each other to stay warm at night. The ideal perch will be long enough to hold at least three roosting hens. I have watched them swapping position on the perch through a cold night, sharing the middle spot.  If you have only one hen, do her a favour and get her a friend.
  5. Hens and Chickens are sensible enough to keep out of rain by sheltering undercover. So as long as you cover a section of the run there's no need to cover the complete top. 
  6. If the chicken run, gets muddy, add a few bags of sand, or wood chips to the boggy bit, to give the hens a dry place to scratch around.
  7. If you notice mud balls attached to the ends of chicken's toes, it is very important they are removed before they grow so big they can stop the hen moving freely.

 

How long will freshly laid eggs stay fresh.

Collect your eggs daily to enjoy the taste of real fresh eggs. How long will eggs stay fresh? The eggs will be good for up to about 18 days the time it takes a hen to lay a dozen eggs for hatching, but the fresher the better, so its a good idea to have a pencil handy and write the date on the egg. 

How to test and tell if a egg is fresh?

Fill a bucket with cold water, place the eggs in the water, the rotten eggs will float, the eggs on the turn will lift of the bottom and the fresh eggs will stay on the bottom. 
When you crack an egg into the frying pan a really fresh egg will have a yoke supported on a firm white, the older the egg the more the white will spread around the pan. Just like supermarket battery eggs. 

What breeds are best to keep in a garden for laying eggs?

 Too many to list here, but I like Light Sussex they are good layers of light brown eggs, Marans are good layers of dark brown attractive eggs and Rhode Island Reds lay a good number of brown eggs. 

These three breeds of laying hens are also easy to look after in a domestic garden. A mix of all three will provide a lovely mix of colours in your egg basket. Welsummers lay a nice dark egg, but are a nervous and noisy bird and might disturb the neighbours. More about these breeds of poultry here.

Ex Battery hens, usually a breed of chicken called Warrens, 
find Ex Battery hens the friendliest and most grateful and the best layers, laying many light brown eggs. They are an ideal breed to keep in your garden, because they have been reared and kept in cages and are used confined space, It really is a treat to see them enjoy a first ever dust bath. 
Factory owners, "can't call them farmers" kill the clipped beak, miserably kept hens or sell them as pet food or worse when they are about 1 to 2 years old because they are nearing their prime. 
Looked after, kept clean, housed and fed correctly in your garden, ex battery hens will reward you with fresh eggs for another 6 years. Battery hens are a good reason to keep your own laying hens, never again having to buy factory eggs. 

Feeding your Hens and chickens in Winter weather.

  • One of the most important things to provide for chickens in freezing weather is fresh water, remember to break up any ice that forms on top. Check the water two or three times a day and change it if it gets muddy.
  • During winter the chickens will use up more calories just staying warm so give them an added ration of mixed corn or grains. Also, in winter the chickens and hens won't find the same amount of protein they get from worms and insects,  so make sure to feed them good quality layers pellets.
  • Greens are important in the winter, feed the same amount you did in summer and slightly more if your hens and chickens were allowed to roam around your garden or were housed in a movable run on a lawn. 

Laying eggs during winter.

Hens need 14 hours of sunlight to lay eggs. You can extend the laying season in the winter months by increasing the light they get with a 40 watt bulb on a timer, but the yield will still be less than summer. 

If you do set up lighting, make sure it switches off well before it gets dark.  If you leave it until it's dark and the light suddenly goes off, the hens won't be able to see to get up onto the perches to roost and be stranded on the cold ground.

I never use artificial lighting "the egg factories do" just to squeeze a few more eggs out of my chickens. Let them rest through winter just as nature intended.

Choosing suitable housing and runs for hens kept in a garden

Floor Space: Allow a minimum of 12 inches x 12 inches for each hen not including nest boxes.

Perches: 2 inch wide perches with rounded edges, hens sit down when they sleep and a fairly wide perch helps them balance. Perches should be 12 to 16 inches wide per hen. They might not use all of the space as they often like to huddle together, but the extra space will allow hens that are lower in the pecking order and being bullied to roost away from other hens.

The minimum height for a perch is about 12 inches. If you can and have the space, gradually step up the perches to about 36 inches as some smaller lighter hens  prefer to roost high-up. Never position one perch directly over another as hens defecate whilst roosting and the lower hen will get sh.. on.

Nest boxes: should be positioned below the height of the perches so the hens don’t roost in and soil them. Use  straw not hay to line them due to mould spores in hay that can cause problems.  Provide one nest box for every four hens with a minimum of two.

Summary of things to look for when choosing a suitable hen and chicken house.

The chicken house will need to be wide enough for the hens to have about 12"of roosting space each (4 hens = 4ft) or deeper with 2 perches.

Timber chicken houses are best, Check for Price, Perches and Condensation before you buy the new "plastic" type. Try to site the house so it fits in with all the other stuff going on in your garden.

 

To many types of chicken runs, houses and coops to show pictures, but there are a lot of pictures and types if you click here

 Whatever you go for make sure each hen has:

  • at least 12 inches of roosting space.
  • Off the ground Perches.
  • Secure run.