The Egg Laying Chickens
Egg Layers Enclosure
The Hives & Site
We have experience of two livestock types; bees and chickens.
We wanted to keep chickens for 2 reasons: eggs and for the table. I understand that many people now keep chickens for pets, but to us they are livestock. Having said that, the way our chickens are kept are probably close to the way others keep their pets. We wanted to be sure that our food has the best quality of life as for us it is about knowing where our food comes from and that the welfare of the birds is paramount. This means ensuring the birds are engaged, can (within reason) practise their natural behaviours and have plenty of room. We have done this in 3 ways:
· Lots of different shelters to hide in and provide shade and shelter from winds and rain.
· Lots of different structures to climb up as chickens have a natural climbing and perching instinct
· Keep them in enough space to maintain a grass base allowing them to graze.
It’s the last point that causes a lot of conversation with friends and neighbours. We are constantly being told that our chickens will “tear all of that grass up and you’ll have a mud bath in that run”. Our density is so low that we have succeeded so far. Giving the egg laying birds enough room to graze has resulted in extremely creamy eggs with the most vibrant yellow yolks we have ever seen. We do have some excess eggs which we sell at the front gate and we have a bit of a following now. There is a standard question that we have been asked multiple times “Oh, no eggs again today; why don’t you keep more chickens because I would buy them?”. The standard answer is that if we kept more chickens they would not be on grass and the eggs would not be as creamy or tasty. We keep the egg laying chickens to provide us with eggs, not to sell. We only sell the excess.
We have two enclosures both surrounded by 50 metres if electric fence with each having a large coop, shelters, feeding station, water stations and multiple perches, trees and climbing ladders.
One enclosure is for the egg layers which were purchased as point of lay hens. They are a mix of laying hybrid breeds including:
· 2 Speckeldys
· 2 Light Sussex
· 1 Bluebell
· 1 Gold Star
· 1 Rhode Rock
The rate of lay is high during summer and we have chosen not to artificially light the birds during winter allowing them to naturally moult and giving their bodies a break from laying for a bit. We will replace them at the end of the 2nd summer as the lay rate will have reduced that they will not cover their feed bill.
The 2nd enclosure is for 7 Buff Orpingtons but the numbers will flex over time. As I write this post, these birds are very new to us. We have bought unsexed pullets ranging from 6 – 12 weeks old. They will be brought on until we know if they are roosters or hens. If they are roosters, they will become table birds immediately. We will bring in another Buff Orpington Rooster from another bloodline to breed from so that any hens can not only produce eggs but also the next generation of Buffs for the table. We chose Buff Orpington’s for a number of reasons:
· They go broody at the drop of a hat
· They are a good sized table bird
· They constantly lay during the winter months
· There is a reasonable market for fertilised Buff Orpington eggs
In the meantime, they are highly entertaining with the youngest chicken literally running rings around the remainder of the little flock. Keep an eye on the blog to watch their progress.
Before we begin I do need to say that unfortunately due to an increasingly severe allergic reaction to bee stings, we no longer have the bees, but the experience was very rewarding.
We knew nothing about raising and caring for bees when we began so we decided to book ourselves into a course. The National Beekeepers Association runs courses through its network of district offices and we were lucky to find a local course which ran over a number of Sundays, provided by a very experienced and highly regarded beekeeper.
It was very daunting the first time that we put on bee suits and actually got “hands on” with the bees. I had always been led to believe that large quantities of bees were something to be afraid of but bees come in very different types and temperaments and if you select your bees from a reputable source, bees can be incredibly placid. Our bees were very passive, allowing us to crack open the hive, whip large pieces of comb off frames, dripping with honey, and the bees just seemed to look at us with curiosity.
Once we had built up some courage to take the leap, we made the initial investment. It has to be said, it’s NOT a cheap undertaking in terms of set-up. The running costs can pay for themselves by selling excess honey but to buy the hives, the smoker, the tools, the honey extraction kit and the bees it’s not a small cost. We did manage to keep costs down by trawling Ebay and picking up some real bargains. We also chose flat pack hives and constructed them ourselves which reduced the price too.
The site we chose for the bees was fairly sheltered in terms of wind, and had the advantage of being south facing so got a lot of sun to keep the bees warm. The hives had to be placed on a perfectly flat surface, so we laid slabs on levelled ground and sand. We also laid weed suppressant matting around the area and covered it with bark chippings so that we would not have to spray weed killer around the hives which would disturb the bees. They are very sensitive to new smells.
The bees themselves arrive in a “nucleus” which is a miniature hive with only five frames. In autumn when they arrived we only needed to put out the brood box where the queen lays her eggs and creates new bees. A full hive will have further sections called "supers" added. The "supers" are where the bees will generate more honey as the queen cannot get into these sections to lay eggs as they are separated by a divider called a “queen excluder” allowing worker bees to pass through, but not the queen.
A full brood box would normally take 11 frames. The 5 frames from the nucleus are added to the hive and 6 further foundation frames (a frame with a thin layer of wax imprinted with the honeycomb pattern) are added. The bees them draw out the honeycomb pattern with new wax and fill the cells with nectar, gradually reducing the moisture content to honey.
During the time we kept the bees we dealt with swarm capture, swarm prevention, disease prevention, uniting hives and the introduction of new queens. We harvested honey, propolis (a sticky substance bees harvest from tree sap and use to plug any holes in the hive and glue the hive sections together) and reclaimed wax.
Beekeeping is highly rewarding, but don’t let anyone tell you that it’s possible to pop a hive down the end of your garden and you can just forget it. As with any livestock, bees need care and attention. With the rise of bee disease such as varroa mite and foul brood, regular inspections, a basic knowledge of bee husbandry and disease prevention treatments are highly recommended to prevent hives suffering or even passing diseases to other hives. Having said that, I would recommend beekeeping even though my allergy now stops me from taking part.