A rise in demand for chicken meat, together with low poultry running costs, has made chicken farming more popular recently, both in urban and communal farming areas. In this tutorial you will learn some excellent tips on how to run a successful poultry business.
Poultry farming is usually a very profitable business throughout the year in most countries, though it's more rewarding during holidays and the festive season. The chicken industry is one of the most successful sectors in the farming arena. In just above 70 years, the chicken industry, especially the broiler farming sector, has evolved from being fragmented and locally oriented, into something that is highly efficient, and increasingly supplying customers nationwide and worldwide in some instances. Without wasting much time, let's delve into what's needed for one to become a chicken farmer.
For those who are interested in starting a small-scale chicken farm, the first step is to identify which part of the industry they want to grow in. One can either grow day-old chicks to sell them to other farmers or, you could hatch eggs and sell them to large companies and other aspiring small farms, or you could simply sell chicken meat to consumers or supply butcheries, takeaways, restaurants, etc.
Some of the areas of specialization in the poultry farm business include;
– Chicken meat production
– Egg production
– Poultry feed production
– Processing of chicken meat and eggs
– Packaging and marketing of poultry products
– Manufacturing of poultry equipment
– Poultry marketing and consultancy services
– Administration of poultry vaccines and medicines
– Sales of poultry equipment
In the chicken farming industry, there are three main sectors: Layers – which are chickens bred and raised to produce eggs, or broilers – chickens raised and bred to be slaughtered and finally free-range chickens which are raised usually in the backyard, foraging on their own and getting minimal supplement feed from the farmer, but growing slowly in the process.
Broilers are young male and female chickens raised specifically for meat. They grow from a hatch weight of 40g to a weight of approximately 1.5 to 2kg within 6 weeks only.
Layers are hens used for commercial egg production and then slaughtered for meat when they become off-layers, a term used to refer to adult chickens that have permanently stopped laying. Layer chickens are raised from one day old chicks, although you can also buy pullets, which are semi-adult chickens that are just about to start laying eggs. Layer chickens usually start laying eggs at the age of 18 to 19 weeks and continue until they are 72 to 78 weeks of age.
Free-range chickens are usually more like broilers and layers combined. They are raised for meat production as well as for egg production and the technical term for that is dual purpose chickens. The meat for free-range chickens is so delicious, perfect for stewing and free-range chickens have a special market demand but then, their growth is very slow, unlike the broilers that grow very fast. Free-range chickens can survive in many environments, are very hardly, rarely fall sick, are capable of looking for their own feed and some of the breeds have the capacity to hatch their eggs and greatly take care of their young ones.
– Free range system: Chickens are allowed to forage and look for their own food throughout the day, with minimal supplementary feed provided by the farmer.
– Semi-intensive system: The birds only forage for a specific time, say fro 9am to 4pm within a specific confined area and they get much of their feed from the farmer.
– Intensive system: This is usually perfect for broilers and layer chickens. Chickens are kept inside the coop or inside their chicken cages throughout their life time and they exclusively rely on the farmer for all food and water requirements.
The most important part of the project is proper planning. This stage addresses how much capital is required for the development of infrastructure and to purchase the chickens, feed and other running costs. By deciding to go through this tutorial, you have already done a great job towards properly planning for your chicken farming project, and I promise NOT to disappoint you on that. So do keep glued to your screen, you have a lot more to learn.
LAND AND CHICKEN RUNS
Whatever the size of the project, it must be run on adequate land. The chicken coop infrastructure must be spacious and ventilated to accommodate the targeted number of birds. Overcrowding subjects chickens to stress and high mortality. You should allow 0.1 square metres per bird or 10 chickens per square metre.
Farmers may have the privilege of choosing between barns, chicken runs or hutches. Whatever the preferred shelter, you must provide wood shavings, sawdust with bigger wood particles or an alternative floor covering such as straw or hay to provide comfort and warmth for the birds as well as to absorb moisture from the chicken droppings. Farmers would be advised to spare a piece of land on which to grow supplementary chicken feed. This is absolutely not necessary, but if you decide to raise free range chickens or ducks, or turkeys or guinea fowls then growing maize or corn and wheat or sorghum or peal millet and soya beans or sunflower seeds may help you lower the cost of feeding your poultry flock. Those running projects in their backyards where space for growing personal chicken feed crop is very limited, should buy stock feed from reputable sellers. The farmer should also always ferment their chicken feed for three days before feeding the chickens. Fermented chicken feed has so many advantages and helps lower your cost of production by nearly 50%. Watch this video for more information.
Also make sure that your chicken farming project has access to safe water and cleaning equipment. Chickens need fresh water and thorough cleaning of runs.
In order to keep chickens for farming purposes, you first need to familiarise yourself with animal keeping by-laws in your local town or municipality. These give guidelines as to where your farm can be situated, the maintenance of animals, and other regulations.
Once that is sorted and out of the way, you need to build a structure for your chickens. According to most chicken farmers, a zinc structure is the best option. I personally opted for a brick structure which I built a few years ago. Although the zinc structure is much cheaper, however, a brick fowl-run is the most secure and thieves cannot easily break into my coop. Where security is of paramount importance, a brick fowl run is the most ideal one. There are also other options such a wooden coops, fenced coops, metal coops, scrap material coops etc. Your budget and requirements determine which option to work with.
Whatever material you decide to use to construct your chicken coop, it should, however, possess the following features:
– Big enough to house all your chickens, remember you need 10 chickens per square metre!
– Be rainproof – a wet chicken is an unhappy chicken!
– Be secure from too much wind, rains, predators and thieves.
– Have smooth surface walls to stop mites and other pests from hiding.
– Have good ventilation and in hotter areas at least 2 sides should be partly chicken wire mesh.
– Preferably have cemented floor for ease of cleaning and disinfecting.
– Be rat-proof.
– Separating chicks from old birds.
Please Note: Periodically spray the poultry unit with insecticide and disinfectants. Also periodically remove chicken droppings and clean the poultry house regularly. Use plenty of litter after cleaning the poultry house.
HOW MUCH SPACE DO CHICKENS NEED?
Ultimately, it depends on which breed of chicken you’re raising. The general guideline across the world is that one medium-sized chicken needs at least 3 square feet of floor space inside the coop or 0.1 square metres and 8-10 square feet or 2.4 to 3 square metres outdoors. Even renowned academic institutions such as University of Missouri Extension, share the same sentiments too. The more space, the happier and healthier the chickens will be; overcrowding contributes to disease and feather picking.
The birds will need some space to spread their wings, a good-sized chicken run, for example, or a whole backyard. Our hens have lots of outdoor time. They have places to take a dust bath and catch a few rays. The space must be fenced in order to keep the chickens in and predators out. If you are going to raise layer chickens and broiler chickens then you don't need outdoor space, that is for free-range and semi free-range farmers who raise free-range chickens like me.
MANAGEMENT OF CHICKS
Before chicks arrive at home or farm; make sure that:
– A brooder is in place.
– Paraffin lamps or electric bulbs or charcoal heaters are available.
– Litter for the floor is available.
– 1 square metre will accommodate 20 chicks up to 4 weeks old.
– Have stress pack, an antibiotic and other vaccines necessary for the type of birds you are going to raise that are suitable for your country or local area. Your poultry shop where you buy your chicken feed or order your day-old chicks should tell you the medications or vaccines you need for your birds. Free-range chickens are the easiest to raise, stress pack and an antibiotic such as oxytetracycline (also known in other countries as terranox) is all they need for the first 5 to 6 days after arrival. A chicken stress pack is a multivitamin product used to treat or prevent vitamin deficiency in poultry birds.
Temperature control should be 35°C for day-old chicks and 24 to 27°C for 1 week. Reduce heat as they grow especially at night.
The first thing that chicks need when they arrive, especially if they were shipped through the mail, is water. Dip the beak of each chick into the water to teach them where the water is. This will prevent the chicks from getting dehydrated.
Young chicks are not able to adequately regulate their body temperature, so they need a source of heat for the first few weeks (referred to as the brooding period). It is important that the chicks have enough room to move toward or away from the heat source to find their individual comfort zones. For the first week, the chicks’ environment needs to be in the range of 90°F to 95°F or 32.2°C to 35°C.
Reduce the temperature gradually, five degrees each week, until the broilers are three to four weeks old or until the pen temperature is 70°F or 21.1°C. Place waterers a good distance from the lamps to prevent splashing water from cracking the hot bulbs. When using a heat lamp, you can change the brooding temperature by adjusting the height of the heat lamp above the floor.
The temperature should be monitored with a thermometer at chick level and by observation of the chicks’ response to the heat source. Cold chicks will huddle together under the heat source; hot chicks will move to the outer limits of the brooder guard; comfortable chicks will stay in a semicircle around the heat zone.
The cost to grow a chick to a point of sale varies from place to place. Generally, growing a day-old chick to broiler point of sale (from 40-45 grams to 2.2 kilograms) will cost you about R38 to R40 in South Africa, that's about US$2.80.
Feed is so expensive, and a lot of people are thinking of making their own, which is not easy though. It is important to note that chicken do not just eat anything, otherwise their growth rate gets stunted. For broiler chickens there is usually the broiler starter, broiler grower, broiler finisher. 50kg bags of these broiler feeds vary from one country to another, but generally they range from US$20 to US$25 per 50kg bag or equivalent in most countries.
Broiler chickens don't eat one thing throughout their course of life. They start with the one that gets their digestive system started. The grower which helps them grow faster, and then the finisher which gives them weight and meat.
Feeding Layer Chickens
1 to 8 weeks feed on chick mash, after 8 weeks introduce growers mash gradually, then with layers mash after the drop of the first egg, usually around week 18 to 21.
If you allow your poultry birds to free range make sure the area they have is fairly predator proof. You likely will not stop all predators unless you supervise them at all times, but you can certainly cut down the casualties by being proactive.
Although your hen may be ready to lay at 18 weeks old, it sometimes takes a bit of time for their egg machinery to crank into gear. Often, the first egg laid will be a small and puny effort – these are known as cock eggs, and some people think they are laid by roosters, but well, eggs are laid by hens only. Roosters can't lay eggs whatsoever!.
The chicken may lay an egg and then nothing for a week or so. Be patient and things will sort themselves out. If you want to sell eggs, there are a range of things that need to be taken into account:
– Size of your operation: Do you have lots of land, barns, and processing space, or do you just have a large backyard?
– Market: How will you sell your eggs? At farmer’s markets, in local stores, or on a broader scale?
– Type of Chicken: Depending on the kind of enterprise you wish to operate, you’ll need to select the best types of chickens for your purposes.
Rhode Island Reds are popular for laying many large brown eggs and are good to use as free-range birds. On the other hand, commercial White Leghorns lay many large white eggs and are often used in barns or for caged laying. There are many amazing varieties, and some of my favorites are Black Australorps, Plymouth Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, Brahma and Sussex. I have previously published a video that explains in great detail 20 best chicken breed for backyard farming which you can watch here.
Chickens are most productive in the first two years of their lives; after that, egg production will slow, so you’ll need to think about replacing your flock with younger birds eventually.
If you’re more interested in breeding chickens and helping save one or more of the many endangered varieties, then running a hatchery might be ideal to you. Hatcheries can focus on producing just a few chicken breeds or many. Some are small and mainly service the backyard market, while others supply large egg or broiler farms with new stock.
Hatcheries have several different income stream options. They can sell hatching eggs for buyers to hatch themselves, chicks that can either be sexed or unsexed, or pullets, which are young hens coming into lay and laying hens.
If you sell rare breeds, the cost per egg or chick or bird will be higher than the cost of many common types, but the likelihood is that demand may be smaller. When starting out, it would be advisable to offer both and see which works best in your area. However, based on personal experience, I have realised that Black Australorps have a great demand throughout the world as they generally lay more eggs than most, if not all, other breeds. So consider starting with Black Australorps.
How Many Chickens Should A Beginner Start With?
If you have no previous experience looking after chickens, it’s best to start with just five hens. All hens, note – no cockerels. This will introduce you gently to the routines of egg-collecting, coop cleaning, and hen feeding. If you intend you increase your flock from about 5 or so that you are going to start with, then per 4 to 5 hens, get a single rooster who will then fertilize the eggs your hens will lay in future. Roosters only fertilize eggs, hens will still lay eggs even if you don't have roosters, but those eggs won't hatch as they are not fertilized eggs.
If you are going to start with broiler chickens or layer chickens, they you may start with between 10 and 25 chicks. Broiler chickens are very demanding for the 6 weeks that you are going to raise them. After that you will have to slaughter them and dump them in your freezer or sell them to friends and neighbours, so starting with a few chicks is a good idea. Once you have some experience with chicken farming, you can start to boost the numbers.
Apart from that, though, chickens are very good at looking after themselves. They tend to stick together in a loose flock, even if foraging in a garden or meadow, and they always know when it’s time for bed. All you need to do is make sure the coop is open, and they will retire at dusk. It’s not recommended to start with just one hen, though. Chickens are sociable animals, and although some breeds get used to human company and can become household pets, that’s not something a complete beginner should consider.
GENERAL DISEASE CONTROL PRACTICES
The following can only be used as guidelines for disease control, for proper chicken disease diagnosis and treatment, consult the veterinarian.
– Don’t overcrowd brooders.
– Adequate ventilation.
– Feed must be of good quality.
– Give clean water ad-lib.
– Don’t mix young and older birds.
– Clean poultry house.
– Dispose of dead birds quickly and isolate sick ones.
– Provide disinfectant at entrance to house.
Antibiotics should never be used to replace good management and should be used on prescription by a veterinarian.
GARDENING WITH CHICKENS
Most folks who keep chickens do so largely for the constant supply of fresh eggs, but did you know that keeping chickens can be also be beneficial for the garden?
When the gardening season has finished for the season, let the chickens into your gardening space and watch them go crazy! They’ll uproot the stems and stalks of weeds and gobble up any damaged or overripe garden remains. They’ll eat any weed seeds or insects they find in the soil, and will peck apart and digest vegetable remnants, especially broccoli stems, carrot tops, chard, and kale. After that, they’ll scratch the ground and peck out hidden worms or insects, mixing up the soil in the process — all with endless enthusiasm and curiosity. As they work in your garden, they will be pooping and fertilizing your garden at the same time, how wonderful.
Chickens don’t only provide a constant supply of fresh eggs — they produce an endless amount of manure, too. Luckily, chicken poo can be composted, aged, and eventually added to the garden. During your daily or weekly cleaning of the coop, collect and pile up the chicken droppings and used bedding materials. The best decomposition occurs when the pile is 2 parts droppings to 1 part bedding materials.
While it is not absolutely necessary, however, it is a great idea to keep records for your chicken farming project. This helps you analyse and plan or devise better strategies to run and manage your project.
Records to keep include:
– Production data such as number of eggs produced and number of eggs hatched.
– Quantity of feed eaten per day, week or other given period.
– Health interventions such as treatment.
– Deaths and sicknesses within your flock.
– Sales and purchases (that is income and expenditure).
Although there is a lot that I have talked about in this tutorial, there is also a lot to learn about chicken farming and therefore, one single tutorial is not enough. This was just a guideline to help you know what it takes to become a chicken farmer, the options you have and what to do to increase your chances of becoming a successful poultry farmer.
While chicken farming is a great project, I would also like to take this opportunity and encourage you to also venture into duck farming. There are so many duck breeds out there, but my favourite ones are muscovy ducks as well as pekin ducks. You can learn more about ducks in this video that I have already published. If you can raise free-range chickens, then you can also certainly raise ducks, because ducks are much easier to look after than chickens, and, generally, ducks eat what free-range chickens eat.