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Dublin: 13°C Tuesday 20 October 2020
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Gardening column: How to keep hens, plus a kale and cheddar cheese risotto recipe

Keeping hens is a fast growing pastime. Find out how to do it well with Michael Kelly.

Michael Kelly Grower

WE ADDED TEN new hens to the flock here at home this week, ostensibly so the Eldest Child could satisfy his entrepreneurial instincts and start to sell our excess eggs. We had 5 hens up to now: 4 Rhode Island Red hybrids and a beautiful little white Leghorn who produces equally beautiful white-shelled eggs.

They were reliable layers for most of last year, but went off the boil (see what I did there?) over the last few months and we were down to one or two eggs a day over the winter, a serious thing in an egg-obsessed house like ours.

After several consecutive days of me cutting one poached egg in half to share between our two children for breakfast, Eldest Child decided to take matters into his own hands and buy new hens to get things back on track. As we debated how many to buy, he explained that ten extra was the perfect number, so that he could start selling eggs once we’d satisfied requirements at home.

He intends to do so at the gate here or at the service entrance door at GROW HQ (Head Chef JB beware). He’s even started to stockpile egg cartons, a signal of the seriousness of his intent. Since he intended to buy the hens with his communion money, I could hardly refuse.

Choosing hens

So, last weekend we took ourselves off to Kehoe’s poultry farm just outside New Ross with a poultry crate in the boot of the car. As luck would have it Mr Kehoe had a grand selection of “point of lay” (ready to start laying) hens ready to go.

Picking breeds of hens is usually a tradeoff between beauty and egg-laying reliability. You generally sacrifice one for the other. You can have a beautiful Columbian Brahma with a mad array of white feathers along its legs so it looks like it’s wearing leg warmers, but it probably won’t result in much income for the egg business.

Given the quantity of hens we were buying, we reckoned we had some artistic licence, and opted for two each of Marans, Bluebells, Black Rock, Amber and Speckled Diamond. This required a communion money investment of €130 but with (potentially) 70 eggs to sell a week, he won’t be long making that back.

shutterstock_141030520 Source: Shutterstock/ddsign

Introducing new hens to the flock

It is always a fun if slightly turbulent time introducing new hens into an existing, well-established flock. Hens quickly and often brutally establish and enforce a rigid pecking order so that everyone knows their place in the grand scheme of things.

The best time to introduce them to each other is at night-time, so they get used to each other’s sounds in the dark when they are roosting, more placid and less prone to aggression. Closing the door, we listened and giggled at the sounds of restrained discontent and growling murmurs of “bok bok bok” from the elder lemons inside. Then Eldest Child went off to bed, no doubt to dream of all that egg money.

I will be giving an Introduction to Hen Keeping class at GROW HQ on Wednesday February 8th, priced at €20. For more information and to book, visit www.growhq.org or call 051 584422.

Bringing New Hens Home

1. Young hens (called pullets) will start laying eggs generally at about 6 months. At this stage they are called “point of lay” pullets. It’s an ideal time to buy them. Any earlier and you will be feeding hens that aren’t giving you an egg return. Expect to pay between €10 to €15 for a hen, depending on the breed.
2. Hens are best transported in a specialist crate or carrier, or a cardboard box if you don’t have one (firmly closed so they can’t get out, but with ventilation holes). Line the base of the box with newspaper and straw.
3. Leave new hens in their house for a few days to acclimatise and get used to their new home, particularly if they will eventually be free ranging. They need to get used to their house as their new base. Minor skirmishes are unavoidable when you bring new hens into a flock, and it takes a few days for them to establish their pecking order.

Recipe of the Week – Kale and Smoked Cheddar Risotto

shutterstock_362075504 Source: Shutterstock/Martin Rettenberger

JB Dubois, our Head Chef at GROW HQ delivered a course on vegetarian cooking last week. The idea was to show people that introducing a couple of veggie dinners to your repertoire each week can be healthy and delicious. This was one of the recipes featured. Don’t be turned off by the idea of making your own stock . It takes just half an hour to make and makes all the difference. Serves 4.

Ingredients

Veg stock

  • 1 small carrot
  • 1 sprig thyme
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 small leek
  • 1 stick of celery

Risotto

  • 250g arborio rice
  • 20g butter
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1l veg stock
  • 100g kale
  • 1 carrot
  • 100g Knockanore cheese (or other smoked cheddar)
  • toasted sesame and poppy seeds

Directions

First make the veg stock. Wash, peel and roughly chop the vegetables. Place them and the thyme in a pot, cover with 1.5l of cold water and a pinch of sea salt.

Bring to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to infuse for another 10 minutes. Then pass through a fine sieve.

Wash and chop the kale. Peel and grate the carrot. Peel and chop the garlic. Grate the smoked cheddar. Sweat the garlic with the butter in a large pot, on a low heat for 2 minutes.

Add the rice and sweat it off for 2 to 3 minutes (keep stirring to avoid sticking). Add a good pinch of sea salt and pepper. Add the veg stock little by little, stirring every few minutes. The rice should be cooked when all the stock has been absorbed (15 to 20 minutes).

When the rice is cooked, add the kale, the grated carrot and the grated cheese, give it a quick stir and serve immediately. Garnish with the toasted seeds. Add a squeeze of lemon.

Michael Kelly is founder of GIY and GROW HQ. 

Click here for more GIY tips and recipes.

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Michael Kelly  / Grower

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