In response to a query about keeping chickens on a microholding, I’m taking a brief break from the series of posts on goat keeping to outline the annual schedule I try to follow to ensure a constant supply of eggs and a yearly ‘crop’ of meat. Due to the small space we have to work with on our microholdings, having unproductive animals is, well, unproductive. And the main culprits are chickens. This is how it seems to play out for a lot of people:
They are attracted to the idea of keeping chickens so they can have a supply of fresh eggs without having to buy them at extortionate rates from the supermarket. So out they pop and buy some chickens – usually a hybrid breed that is sold for its egg-laying qualities, though sometimes for their looks as well. They get them point-of-lay, of course, housing them in crazy-expensive houses, and it’s not long before the supply of fresh eggs begins. Exciting!
The chickens lay right through autumn and winter and into the following year. Still exciting! And then, a few hundred eggs after they began, the moult hits that in late September and the eggs drop off like the autumn leaves, not returning until the following February.
Even then, the eggs supply is not quite up to the level of the previous year. But, at least they’re still laying. Until the moult hits again and the long, cold, eggless months begin.
The following year there are fewer eggs again, dropping off earlier, starting later, until, eventually, there is a cluster of non-egg-producing chickens that the owner doesn’t know what to do with.
They don’t kill them, of course, because they’ve become attached to dear little Cluckerbell, Doris Pecker and Lady Scratchit. They’re not livestock – they’re family. And so the unproductive chickens take up all the available space, scoffing sack after sack of pricey food and giving nothing in return, until, at last, they die of old age and are buried with solemn ceremonies in the flowerbed.
This is a terrible situation that is to be avoided AT ALL COSTS! Before I even begin to talk about the annual schedule, I need to make this one thing clear: Hens are not friends – chickens are not family. Get this mindset very clear before making any kind of a start. Don’t name them. Don’t share your lunch with them. Don’t bring them indoors and give them their own perch in the guest bedroom. They are livestock, and one day, sooner than you think, they need to be turned into deadstock.
That wasn’t too harsh, was it?
Here’s the schedule, anyway:
|March||Buy eggs and begin incubation|
|April||Transfer hatched chicks to brooder|
|May||Get rid of males & excess hens and integrate with old stock|
|Sept/Oct||Cull old stock in moult as new stock start laying|
Pretty straightforward, isn’t it? I will go through each of these items in more detail in future posts, but this annual schedule will ensure a continuous supply of eggs all year round and a supply of meat in autumn.
You’ll have noticed, though, that I don’t suggest buying point-of-lay hens, but recommend hatching eggs instead. I suggest this for two reasons: firstly, it’s a LOT cheaper (no pun intended – well, not much of one anyway). Secondly, it opens up the whole experience of chicken keeping. The only things against this are the expense of the equipment (incubator / brooder), the fact you can’t guarantee whether any females will hatch, and the unbelievable amount of dust they produce while growing their first feathers! If you do insist on buying point-of-lay pullets, don’t go for the expensive hybrids. Rhode Island Reds and Light Sussex are great dual-purpose breeds – relatively inexpensive, good layers and good meat birds.
So that’s it. That’s the annual schedule for keeping productive chickens on your microholding. And in order to make this work, you will have to kill chickens (or have them killed) each year. Poor Lady Scratchit!