If you want healthy eggs and healthy chicks, you must have healthy hens. Sounds simple, but not all hen keepers seem aware of this. Julie Moore explains

We all want our hens to be in peak health so that we know not only that the eggs we receive from them are healthy and nutritious but the future generations of our flock will also be healthy. There are many factors which affect the hatchability of chicken eggs, but perhaps the most important aspect is the health and nutrition of the laying hen. Basic health and nutrition directly impacts the proper functioning of the reproductive system whilst the digestive system requires a balance of nutrients to ward off diseases and parasites. In short, a successful hatch starts with healthy eggs laid by healthy hens.

But before a hen can lay a fertile egg, she must mate with a rooster – her egg may then contain both the female and male genetic material necessary to form an embryo inside the egg. Roosters commonly display a courtship dance, the Rooster Waltz, in front of a hen before mating with her. The hen, on seeing the dance, instinctively crouches down in a sexually receptive position so that the rooster can mount her to mate. With modern breeding, the Rooster Waltz has been bred out of many breeds. The hen no longer sees a dance so she does not crouch –the rooster simply grabs her by the back of her neck and uses the force from his spurs to jump on her to mate. This rather brash courtship can cause not only stress, but the hen may lose feathers from her back resulting in patches of bare skin. She is also prone to cuts and flesh wounds from the spurs and will usually stop laying eggs. In such circumstances, it’s essential to separate the hen from the rooster so that she can recover. If you have to remove the hen, sperm is stored in the hen’s oviduct and can remain fertile for an average of 10 days.

If a hen is to lay healthy and viable eggs, it’s essential that her reproductive system is functioning healthily – a balanced and adequate diet is fundamental to maintaining this. A diet deficient in calcium, phosphorous or vitamin D may result in soft-shelled eggs whilst hens that are too fat are at a higher risk of suffering from a prolapsed oviduct or simply won’t lay. Bacterial and respiratory infections can affect the egg laying process; misshapen eggs can be caused by infectious bronchitis or egg drop syndrome, both of which are causes for concern. Several sources of fresh, clean drinking water should be available to laying hens. If water isn’t available, a hen will simply stop laying. A hen’s reproductive system is very sensitive and any stresses whether from an inadequate diet, lack of water, new flock members or changes to the daily routine will cause the system to shut down.

A properly functioning digestive system ensures that pathogens and internal parasites are kept in balance. Some diseases, such as salmonellosis, can be transmitted from the infected hen to the egg whilst the egg is being formed. Offering crushed raw garlic mixed with drinking water at a ratio of one clove to one litre, is beneficial whilst you are selecting eggs for hatching as it can help stimulate the immune system whilst the antibacterial properties can fight bacteria such as salmonella. It’s important that your hens continue to drink normal quantities of water, so garlic water should be offered as an occasional supplement.

Healthy hens need access to clean, fresh water to facilitate both healthy digestive and reproductive systems. Water in the crop softens the feed so that the hen can digest her food. If a hen is without water, dry feed forms in the crop which may press against the carotid artery, decreasing blood flow to the brain which may cause paralysis and possible death. As an egg consists of approximately 75% water, a hen will not be physically capable of laying eggs if she does not have access to a clean supply of water.

Adding organic, cold pressed and unfiltered apple cider vinegar (ACV) to drinking water is beneficial to your flock for most of the year, except during periods of high temperatures. ACV inhibits calcium absorption during hot weather causing the hen to produce poor quality egg shells. ACV will, however, promote good gut flora which in turn aids the digestive system and also helps stop bacteria from growing in your water system.

It’s essential to keep the nest boxes of laying hens clean – dirty, fouled nests can pass pathogens through the porous egg shell to the embryo. Adding a blend of fresh or dried, highly aromatic herbs that contain strong smelling volatile oils to the nest boxes can not only affect the mood and stress levels of your laying hens by calming them, but some oils have anti-bacterial and anti-parasitic properties too. There are many herbs to choose from, each with their own beneficial properties. Toss a handful of fresh herbs into your nesting boxes and refresh as needed. It’s easy to cut and dry herbs for use in the winter and spring. Not only will you be providing a bit of aromatherapy for your hens, the hen house will smell wonderful too!

I resist putting fresh herbs underneath a broody because the warmth and humidity from her body may quicken the decomposition process and encourage mould growth which could be detrimental to the developing embryo.

A well balanced diet is essential if a hen is to lay a healthy egg. Hens have the ability to choose between channelling nutrients to themselves or their eggs. Each egg is protected by an egg shell made up entirely of calcium carbonate – the shell contains the entire amount of calcium the hen can carry in her bloodstream. A diet deficient in calcium will quickly deplete her calcium stores. As a hen’s bones are made up of calcium carbonate, it’s possible for her to rob her bones to make up the shortfall in order to continue laying. But the egg also needs other nutrients including phosphorus, protein and fat. Calcium can be supplemented in the form of oyster shell whilst we can look to herbs to supply the necessary minerals and protein.

The humble stinging nettle must surely be considered a true wonder plant that Mother Nature has gifted us with. It’s a nutritional powerhouse packed with calcium, manganese phosphorus, potassium, protein and vitamins A and C amongst others. If you can’t collect nettles from your own garden, take them from a wild place that has not been interfered with – do not pick nettles from roadsides or fields that have been sprayed with chemicals. Only pick the young top growth as the older leaves are toxic. Dandelions are another complete nutritional food, the leaves are packed full of nutrition, being high in vitamins A, B complex, C and D, as well as calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium and zinc.

Another common weed, fat hen, as its name suggests is used as a feed for poultry. High in iron, calcium, vitamins A, B complex and C, it’s a perfect tonic for the whole digestive system.

These ‘greens’ can be given fresh, dried or as a herbal tea on a daily basis. If making a tea, ensure that there is a source of fresh water nearby so that the hens can choose how much of the herbal tea they drink without overdosing on it. The teas can be given to chicks to help build a healthy immune system. Herbal teas are a great way of offering health benefits in a measured concentration.

You’ll notice that your best laying hens lose weight, becoming much leaner when they are in production as the nutrients in their feed are redirected away from their own bodies and into producing eggs. Your hens should be a healthy weight before they come into lay.

Over the winter months you can boost the immune system of your hens whilst also reaping the benefits of healthy fats to help keep them warm inside and set them up for spring. Periodically soak raw crushed garlic in olive oil and mix this with their favourite seed mix or even just sunflower seeds to eat before they roost. The garlic oil has antibiotic properties and can be used as a preventative measure against several poultry parasites including blackhead which affects the liver.

Wood charcoal and ash are other natural supplements that are beneficial for your hens. Charcoal works two-fold: firstly, it can absorb toxins and secondly, it acts as a laxative, thereby removing impurities from the body and helping to keep the digestive system in equilibrium. Wood ash is highly nutritious for chickens being rich in vitamin K, calcium and magnesium. Add some to their dust bath so that they can eat and bathe at the same time!

If you have an open fire or wood-burning stove, making charcoal and wood ash is easy. Charcoal results from the slow burning of clean, dry wood – leave the fire to die down overnight and by morning, if you smooth the coals out, you’ll find the ash settled at the bottom and pieces of charcoal on the grate.

By establishing a natural and herbalist approach to basic poultry care, you’ll be keeping your hens in the best possible health which will help to ensure the production of healthy and viable eggs for a succession of successful hatches. You’ll also be giving your chicks the best possible start to a long and productive life.

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