by Emma Cooper 10/18/07
An increasing number of people these days are concerned about the environment and
particularly the food that we eat. Many are starting their own vegetable gardens,
growing their own produce so that they know exactly how it has been raised.
The next logical step in this process, if you have space, is to raise a few animals
in your yard too. My husband and I took this step a year ago, when we brought home
two hens, and the garden has never been the same since!
Hens make great pets. They're tame and good with children and will happily co-exist
with other animals. Watching their antics is very entertaining. It's great to see
them exhibit their natural behavior (that would not be possible in a battery farm) -
scratching and preening, dust bathing and sunbathing. If one of them finds a particularly
tasty treat then the others are likely to chase her to try and get it! Hens don't
even take up much space and can be at home in even a small yard, and discovering an
ultra-fresh egg in the nest box is a wonderful experience.
If you're thinking about keeping hens in your yard then their first requirement is
good housing. You will need a coop in which all your hens (and they're social birds,
so keep at least two at a time) can roost at night. The coop needs to be rain proof
and secure enough to keep out marauding foxes - a hen's number one enemy.
The coop will also need a nest box where the hens can lay their eggs. When you get
them, keep the hens confined for a couple of weeks until they learn that the coop
is home and the nest box is where they lay. If you want to, you can then let them
free range around your yard and they will still lay in the nest box. They will also
automatically go into the coop to roost once the sun is setting - you won't have
to chase them around the yard!
A coop is your largest expense when keeping chickens. There are many available if
you want to buy a ready made one that suits your needs. If you're handy then you can
also build your own or modify an existing shed.
Like us, hens need a balanced diet to keep them healthy. They also need plenty of
protein and calcium to produce eggs. Layers pellets or mash are their ideal food.
GMO-free and organic ranges are usually available in pet stores, although you may
have to order them in.
Hens also need a source of grit, which helps them digest their food and adds calcium
to their diet. Free-ranging hens will pick up grit in the yard, but they still need
a dish of grit available to them. It's not expensive and they don't go through it
The secret to yellow egg yolks is to feed your hens greens. They love grass, and if
you keep them on the lawn you will need to keep moving their run so that they have
fresh grass and the lawn gets a chance to recover! Mine love fresh veggies from my
kitchen garden - lettuce and chard are their favorites and I grow some just for
Food is also the key to taming your hens. Once they associate you with food they will
always be pleased to see you. We use treats (generally poultry corn) to get ours back
into the run when we're going out - we love them too much to leave them out in the
open on their own! If you want to give them an extra special treat, then fresh corn
(sweetcorn) is the best thing ever as far as a chicken is concerned. They don't mind
whether it's fresh on the cob or out of a can (no added salt or sugar, please!) and
you will be amazed at how fast they can gobble it up. However, their favorite is fattening,
and a fat hen is not a happy hen, so use corn as an occasional treat.
The final requirement is the same for all animals - hens need a constant supply of
You should also budget for the occasional trip to the vet. Some people believe that
a sick chicken isn't worth saving, because they cost so little to buy. Your hens,
however, will soon become family pets and you will want to treat them as such. Both
our hens have been to the vet once since we got them. Henny picked up an infection
fairly soon after she arrived, probably due to the stress of moving. She started sneezing
and when the sneezes got snotty we took her to the vet! Princess was ill at the end
of last winter. She looked very sad, crouched in the corner and reluctant to walk.
Both of them were quickly cured with a course of antibiotics. You can avoid most problems
with your hens by buying them from a reputable breeder and ensuring that they have
had their vaccinations. They're hardy animals and as long as they're well fed and
housed, problems are few and far between.
In return for your care, you will get fresh eggs. A modern hybrid laying hen will
lay an egg each day during the summer. Egg production slows down as the days get shorter.
If you choose purebred hens, and some people consider them much more attractive, they
will lay less regularly.
You will also have a source of fresh chicken manure! It's great for use as a garden
fertilizer or compost activator, and you can also use it to make a liquid feed for
any particularly hungry plants.
Hens will also help you deal with your pest problems - although you will have to stop
using pesticides in your garden. Our chickens are particularly fond of slugs and snails
and cabbage caterpillars, and no doubt eat many more bugs that we don't see or recognize.
We used to let ours out into the vegetable patch (with supervision!) but they do a
lot of damage and can't learn what they are and are not allowed to peck at, so now
we fence them out when there are things growing. If you allow them into empty vegetable
beds in the fall they will scratch up any bugs that are trying to hide, eat up some
of the weed seeds and leave behind a few neat packets of fertilizer for next year's
Hens are easy to keep, productive and add life to your garden. We wouldn't be without
ours. But just remember - hens don't need a cockerel to keep them laying and your
neighbours don't need a daily wake up call, so stick to hens!