Backyard chickens can be a highly successful source of eggs and meat – as long as you look after them, says Prof Cheryl McCrindle.
Running a successful poultry operation, even one aimed at feeding you and your family, can be quite difficult even when things run smoothly.
But it can become very tough indeed if you have to deal with sickly chickens.
1. Choose the right chickens
It is very easy in South Africa to buy live hens that come from the broiler and layer industry. Day-old chicks, especially males, are also cheap.
But neither of these are suitable for backyard conditions. Rather buy chickens from your neighbours. They are most likely to be hardy and used to surviving outside.
2. Put clean water in the right containers
Water containers for chickens are cheap and can be bought at the local co-op. You can also use a large flat bowl or container, but put some rocks in it so that the young chicks don’t drown.
Remember to change the water every day – many poultry diseases are carried by dirty water.
3.A safe enclosure
Although chickens can wander about the farmyard during the daytime, they should have a safe place to sleep at night. You can easily make a chicken hutch out of wooden poles and chicken wire, with a corrugated iron or thatch roof.
Build it on slightly sloping ground and dig a drain around it so that it does not get flooded when it rains. Put perches or branches inside for the chickens to roost on, as they often get sick if forced to sleep on the ground.
Providing perches and cleaning away bushes and long grass around the hutch also protects poultry from rats and snakes.
As you have to put the chickens in the hutch at night and let them out in the morning, you will be checking twice a day that they are healthy.
4. A regular source of food
If backyard chickens are an integral part of a mixed farming system, they may be able to survive on feed spilled onto the ground by dairy cows, pigs or horses.
Fly larvae provide another source of poultry food. Sub-standard vegetables and table leftovers (except raw meat) can also be thrown out for poultry to eat.
However, it is a good idea to buy layer rations for the hens that will incubate eggs and produce chicks. Small chicks also require an extra source of feed such as crumbled hard-boiled eggs or Chick-Chick Number 1 ration, until they are strong enough to start foraging for food.
Green food is important for backyard chickens. A kikuyu lawn can provide a scratching area and a source of vitamins.
5. Calcium and other minerals
A lack of minerals, especially calcium, can result in joint and bone abnormalities as well as soft-shelled eggs.
Oyster shell grit is a well-known source of minerals for hens and chicks. Diatomaceous earth also contains many minerals, including calcium, and can easily be included with the ration.
6. Hygienic surroundings
Chicken manure can be composted for use in vegetable or flower gardens, but can be a source of disease if it is allowed to build up.
Flies breed rapidly where chickens roost; keep the area as clean as possible to keep your birds healthy. Always remove and bury dead birds.
7. Breeding and hatching
If you want chicks, you will need one rooster for every five to six hens. Remove or slaughter other male birds as soon as they are mature to prevent noise and fighting. Hens start laying at about six to eight months.
If you collect eggs every day, they will carry on laying. If you leave the eggs in the nests, the hens will become broody and want to hatch the eggs.
Select about six clean eggs for a broody hen if you want to breed chicks. Avoid cracked eggs; these will not hatch.
Veld grass or straw is ideal for nests, but must be changed fairly often to prevent a build-up of red mites. Hens sitting on eggs need water and food close by. Chicks must be kept in a pen with the hen for the first two to three weeks after hatching.
8. Parasite management
Red mites can stop hens laying or sitting on eggs as they are an irritant. Tampans can cause paralysis and death. Both these pests can be controlled by insecticidal powder registered for chickens.
Sticktight or hen fleas are small black insects that gather around the eyes and combs of chicks. They can be killed by a thick layer of Vaseline, as it stops them breathing.
Chickens also suffer from roundworms and tapeworms. If you slaughter a chicken, cut open the intestines to see if these are a problem. Worm remedies for poultry can be bought from your co-op.
9. Vaccinate and prevent disease
Newcastle disease is a virus that is deadly to unvaccinated chickens. It can kill your entire flock in a very short time.
Although commercial birds are automatically vaccinated, this does not always happen in backyard flocks. Vaccines are available that can be dripped into the eyes of young chicks, used as a spray on birds in cages, or mixed into the drinking water.
Buy them from your local co-op; full instructions are included on the leaflets or labels.
10. Check the chickens daily
Probably the best way of keeping your chickens healthy is by keeping an eye on them and reacting quickly if something goes wrong.
For more advice on poultry, click here.
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