Thrive Or Survive?...
Here I would to address some thoughts on the welfare of hens. I have started this on 25/06/2013 - please bear with me as it's now 19th July 2014 ... a work in progress.
Hens are great survivors, they are capable of somehow surviving in some quite terrible conditions - an attribute that commercially has been abused over the decades (with obvious chemical intervention).
Ask yourself the question:
"Are my hens (or any I may acquire) REALLY thriving - or are they simply surviving?"
A hen that has the right environment and management will thrive, she will lay well, feel well and as a result I will be bold enough to say - she is thriving. No shortage of high quality feed, plenty of clean, fresh ground to scratch, a flock to feel secure in, clean water, good management, and not stressed by the advances of a persisting cockerel.
So we will look at the first thing: FEED
You do in life 'get what you pay for' and this is no different in terms of feeds. We use Garvo Feeds - keep reading this is not an advert:)
We use them for a reason. Quality. In our own field tests here, unbeaten in the results all round: chick growth, hen health, egg quality, sheen to plumage, and importantly hens showing preference.
When looking to select a feed brand - aim for one that has the interests of the hen at heart, not lining the pocket of an Egg Producer trying to make a living out of an egg contract.
Do you understand what it is you are reading on your feed label? ~ Have you ever taken a moment to inspect one?
How dusty/smelly is your feed? What does your feed smell of? - If it smells a bit dodgey to you, it will smell the same to your hen. If it smells dusty to you, it will to your hen.
Quality feed smells good enough to eat!
Buying the cheapest bag is also a false economy, a higher quality feed will leave the hen feeling satisfied/ fuller for longer - reason being she is getting everything she needs in fewer pellets and less of the 'fillers' she doesn't need.
For the free ranging bird feed is supplemented by their daily findings of insects, seeds, grass and anything else she may find and consume. For a hen who is confined, she loses the luxury of this varied diet, and I believe it is our responsibility to ensure she has something to do whilst confined that mimics the activity a hen would choose when not confined.
There are good quality peck blocks, which can be used, often the hens prefer to knock them to the ground as this is a more natural eating position for them. Choose a good mixed variety block with herbs, seeds and ideally insects, avoid those which are simply wheat and maize - they tend not to go for these ones (but these ones are often much cheaper).
Throw in healthy greens and veg, although remove any uneaten items before they rot to avoid issues.
Scatter feeding treats is also great, it's entertaining to watch, and provides a much needed natural behaviour for the hens. HOWEVER, it is important to make sure that you are not scatter feeding onto faeces covered ground.
CLEAN, FRESH GROUND
When I speak with any potential new poultry keeper for the first time, they will all have the same questions:
"How much space do you have for your hens?"
There is a DEFRA guide for how much room a hen requires, it is designed to justify stacking them high into commercial settings, be it barn, battery or 'commercial free range' - all simply have too many hens in one place.
My view is not commercial, but with the interests and well being on the hen - and the ground.
Sick ground = sick hens = disappointed owner in the hens performance.
It is common to hear folk say this hybrid or that hybrid did not lay well for them, and I often wonder how many of them were kept in cramped, confined and wholly unsuitable set-ups.
Rotating your hens onto new ground is the best thing for your ground, and your hens. They will thank you for it!
OR, if you are fortunate enough to have a paddock, orchard or large area (0.5acre upwards), then simply rotating the location of the house within the grounds, and a small number of hens will see little impact to the ground.
If you have an average sized garden - then you need to consider how much you LOVE your beautiful plants, manicured lawns and generally immaculate presentation - because poultry will change all that!
We meet people who have such gardens, some fall in love with their hens, forgive their pecking and poohing and relax about their garden a little, rather than lock away the hens. Others do not cope well at all and are stressed by hen ownership, often leading to the hens being 100% confined.
Ideally - if you MUST build fixed runs to protect your garden (remember these are not ideal for the hen), then build at least two. One can be rested whilst the other is in use, and then rotated to allow time to recover and regrow. This also keeps bacterial, fungal and viral issues with poached ground to a minimum. Building two on limited space may make them small - then for the sake of hens - my advice would be - seriously consider if you have the right space for keeping hens.
Imagine living on the tube train in rush hour which is passing through beautiful countryside with an 'all you can eat' buffet of your favourite food on show that you can never reach"
Well, for the hen, they may not think quite like us, but they can see, smell and hear just as well. Once your pen is poached and the ground no longer supports plant life - what are your hens going to do everyday?
These situations are when one starts to see the FEATHER PECKING" and other negative behaviours caused by stress. - How many days would you survive on the tube train above?
I can not stress just how serious the consideration needs to be on your ground, protecting it and your hens for a happy life for all (including you).