Counting on chickens

by Andy Bryenton

One of the most basic pleasures of owning a lifestyle property, and one of the advantages of living on a farm, is the ability to keep a small flock of laying hens to provide healthy, orange-yolked free-range eggs. While those on a large acreage may simply hold a rooster or two and let nature take charge, raising a clutch of little chickens can be rewarding for the small block holder.

It need not be an elaborate endeavour, either. Sourcing baby chicks is not difficult, and their needs are easy to address. They are space, food, water and protection from the limited scope of the chick’s abilities. With the most affection in the world, it’s true to say that baby chickens are not the smartest creatures on Earth. They are also hardwired to respond to certain stimuli in ways we humans find detrimental. So a clever coop is the answer.

Try to offer plenty of space, even if you only have a handful of chickens to raise. It’s essential to get the temperature right, at 33 degrees celsius, as this puts chicks at ease and stops them from becoming literally ‘peckish’. Use a red bulb to light the enclosure for this same reason. Red spots are invisible to baby chickens under red light, and red spots of blood even just from a feather that’s been pulled loose can cause the little fluff-balls to turn on each other with fatal results. It’s believed that this behaviour was useful in the wild to weed out weak or sickly birds; in captivity, it’s easy to prevent.

Reduce the temperature by increments each week for six weeks, until you’re at room temperature. It is also the time to switch to natural light, and exchange baby chick feed for growth-promoting mash.
Food and water must be available at all times, but keep water dishes

plentiful and shallow — these little creatures have a knack for drowning, especially if they crowd up. For similar reasons, the rearing coop should have no tight corners. Round them off with cardboard, or the chicks at the bottom of a ‘pile’ formed at night for warmth may suffocate. Above all, keep food supplies plentiful and close by. Chickens like these will not travel far to feed, and once again, you don’t want them to bunch up and trample their little sisters.

It might seem from this advice that baby chicks are fragile and accident-prone. You may ask how they ever survived in the wild. However, once you get past those crucial first weeks, young bantams especially are hardy creatures who will reward your early diligence with a relentless hunt for insect pests, and of course, eggs for breakfast that don’t come from a cage.