Although smallholding does not imply any requirement to keep livestock; most smallholders do keep some poultry and most smallholders do begin with chickens.
Chickens were one of the first animals to be domesticated way back in our distant past, and this was for more than one reason. Chickens are by far the least dangerous of all the domesticated animals we do keep, they are very productive both for meat and eggs, but however they do have their drawbacks.
Feeding can be as simple or as complex as you whish to make it; preparatory feeds are available which will take care of all of your chickens needs but for me this is far from ideal most super markets sell cheep chicken and eggs which will have been fed by exactly this means. For me the joy of smallholding is the superior quality food I enjoy from my livestock, this is due to an approach that takes care of my animals at a much higher standard than that of truly commercial factory farm. Smallholders can of course take the same factory farm approach to their livestock but it is not an approach I will advocate or instruct you in.
Feeding your chickens should take care of all of the nutritional needs they have but they will also enjoy variety as we humans do. Good quality high protein grains are the main stay of any poultry species food needs. Barley is one of the best of these grains and would take care of most of your chickens needs regardless of the use of the stock either egg layers or meat birds, but maize will give the meat of any chicken a different richer colour and taste. I have fed free-range chickens on a mix of barley and maize as well as food they can forage from their surroundings and they are hard to beat for flavour or texture, and the eggs from birds fed on the same diet will be unbeatable for flavour. I have experienced a drop off in egg production in birds fed on the same diet for six months or more and simply feeding them on a different grain such as wheat for a month or so seems to bring the production back up again. My policy is now to change the diet of my egg laying birds regularly avoiding the drop in production.
Two very important feeding tips not to forget.
• I. Chickens need water; it’s obvious; I know but if you forget you will pay in more ways than one. Bird health, weight, egg production will all be affected, if you do not give them a plentiful supply of clean water you could find your birds dead.
• II. Chickens need grit this one is not so obvious but it is nearly as important as water, your birds could be on the best diet in the world but if they don’t have grit they will not be able to digest their food. You can buy crushed oyster shell and mix it with their food but this is not necessary if you simply feed them on the ground they will take up soil and grit; this will suffice but of course you will have to feed them in a different place so the ground does not become an infected desert.
Chickens need housing for many reasons, and to be honest most of these reasons are orientated toward human management needs rather than to meet the birds needs. Chickens can and do fair very well on their own without any housing at all, they can avoid predators very affectively by roosting high in trees well before dark. Chickens can also tolerate both high and low extremes of temperature without detrimental effects to their health or longevity.
However chickens kept for food production in some kind of enclosure without trees to roost in will need a secure house to protect them with somewhere to roost as high as possible even if only a foot or so off the floor. If you do allow them to roost in trees and do not provide housing they will also lay their eggs all over the enclosure in any dark secluded place they can find, and you may not find the eggs. A house with roosting perches and nesting boxes that they can lay in is ideal but it has to be impervious to all of the predators mentioned earlier. This normally means you will need to open the house to let the birds out and lock them back in again just before dark. This is a routine that requires some discipline as many a smallholder has lost their hens the night they did not lock the henhouse after they returned late from a party, or the weather was just to foul to go out in.
Reproduction needs to be taken in to account if you whish to have your own hens hatch their own eggs. To help in this a separate house or ark for your broody hen will avoid your broody hen being bullied off of her nest by a more dominant bird. Even if she is only bullied off for a few minuets a day she may hatch her own eggs successfully but all the eggs laid after the first day or so of incubation will be left to die, this will adversely affect the success rate of your reproduction program.