Keeping hens

...In middle age





...Table chickens

...Rearing program

...- Quality

...Multiplying chickens

...- Incubator

Probably the easiest of all livestock enterprises is keeping chickens for eggs.

That does not mean that they require no attention at all, rather that chickens have fewer quirks than most other creatures. If fed and watered, kept away from hungry predators and given a little electric light, you can expect a modern hen to produce up to 300 eggs a year. 'Modern' hen implies a hybrid bird, specifically reared to produce a vast number of excellent eggs. It also implies that the hen is in her first laying year; in the second year, her yield will drop by 30 per cent.

The first step in deciding the basis of your chicken enterprise is to decide exactly what you want to market. The second is to find out how much you can sell. Eggs and table chicken are produced in vast quantities and competition for sales is fierce. Research in your area will prove if you have a potential market or not. Sales of eggs are mainly affected by price: if you undercut your competitors and still provide a regular supply of fresh eggs, you will be in business for how long depends on whether you are still managing to make a profit. Price-undercutting can make egg production uneconomic; high fuel costs mean that delivery costs are a major factor. Free-range eggs have a limited market but they command a higher price. They are the subject of much argument today. Test-cases are being brought before courts of law all over the country. What exactly is 'free range'? Some producers claim that merely allowing access to a small area of outside ground to a large number of chickens is sufficient. Probably the only safe way to claim 'free range' is to have the hens roaming at will on your property and to let your customers see them. This means either selling Farm Gate or actually inviting the retailers to whom you sell to come and see the hens happy in their work.

Having established that you have a market for eggs and what the size of that market is, the quickest way to get into egg production is to buy 'point of lay' birds. These are advertised for sale in Poultry World and Farmers Weekly. A pullet sold as point of lay is generally around 18 weeks old. She will come into lay at around 21 weeks. If you do not wish to buy hybrid birds, you can choose a pure breed such as a Maran. You cannot expect as many eggs but you will get some extra entertainment. We have a Maran hen that is convinced she is a goose: she shuns her own kind and trots happily around on the end of the goose flock. Fortunately we do not have a pond!