Choosing Chicken Breeds: Chicken Keeping Course
Choosing your poultry stock
The best birds for garden egg production are the several crossbreeds and hybrids that combine the virtues of hardiness and docility with high egg yields. Rhode Island Reds crossed with Plymouth Rocks or Light Sussex possess these qualities. In addition, cross-bred birds of this type will lay the brown eggs so esteemed in the British egg-cup.
These medium-size and heavy breeds and crosses, in contrast to those derived from the more slender-bodied Leghorn, also provide a meaty carcase when their profitable egg-laying days are over — at the end of their first or second laying years.
Buy only from an established breeder, who will not only know the history of his birds but will also be able to supply much useful advice.
It is best to buy pullets when they are about 18 weeks old. By this time their rearing and vaccination programme will be complete, and they will begin laying within a few weeks. Though they cost more than younger birds, you are saved the cost of their feed during their non-productive months and the pullets are less liable to infection.
(`Pullet’, incidentally, is the term used to describe a hen in its first laying season.) Buy only free-range birds, or those that have been raised on deep-litter. Birds reared in cages tend to catch diseases when they are first put into a run or into a deep-litter house.
Making a start
Prepare the house for the pullets a week or two before they are due to be delivered. If you are using a converted shed or a second-hand house, make sure that it is thoroughly cleaned and disinfected.
The best disinfectant is creosote, which will kill most bacteria and also lice and red mites.
Pay special attention to perches and nest-boxes. Red mites can live on in these places, awaiting new hosts for months or even years, so apply creosote to all cracks and crevices.
Once this is done, cover the floor with litter. for a deep-litter house the litter should be 9-12 in. (230-305 mm.) deep. Only a shallow layer is needed in a house with an attached run, and this need not be renewed once the birds are allowed outside after a day or two.
Deep-litter may be a mixture of chopped wheat straw, wood shavings, shredded paper and peat, though the latter is perhaps too expensive to be practical. Avoid barley straw, as the husks can cause irritation and swelling in the birds’ beaks.
Line the nest-boxes with wood shavings or straw. Do not use hay; its warmth encourages lice and, if it gets wet, the eggs will be stained.
When ordering your birds, find out the brand of feed they were reared on so that, in their new surroundings, the food at least will be familiar. Put it in the house just before they arrive, and fill the water container, so that the pullets can be left to settle in without further disturbance.
Visit them in the evening to see if they have perched. Very likely they will not yet have discovered the perches, and for the first night or two you will have to put them on the tars yourself.
If you have provided an outside run, leave it until the second day before you open the pop-hole — the door between the house and the run. On the third day, when the birds are becoming accustomed to their new environment, you can move the drinking trough outside.
Make sure, however, that all the pullets are coming out into the run to drink.
Some birds take longer to settle down than others, but if, after three clear days, they still seem unhappy in their new home, contact your supplier and ask his advice.