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Egg Laying Hen Care Guide
Why did the little red hen cross the road…to lay an egg on the other side!! Seriously though, for decades, chickens have been considered a gateway species to acquire for back to the land hippies, homesteaders, and now suburban gardeners. To that end, many well-meaning bloggers will tout the benefits of keeping a flock, including year round egg production. They will also tell you that chickens are super easy to care for, and that home grown eggs save the keeper money in the long term. But are these claims really true? Read on in order to find out if laying hens are something to crow about.
Housing and Design
Chickens can be hilarious and productive backyard livestock, but they are far from free. The cost of a modest prefab coop and the attendant equipment will set the new owner back about $300 for a proper sized house for four hens. These four ladies will need at least 10 square feet a piece of yard space, and inside roosting space of at least 10 inches for standard sized breeds.
At least one window is a good feature to have, especially in rainy parts of the country. This helps keep the girls on track with natural day length exposure in the spring and summer months, although artificial lighting will still be needed in winter. Windows should be able to open for ventilation and humidity management. Once the coop has been built or purchased prefab and installed, you will need to provide nest boxes.
Prefab coops often come with standardize boxes that are all at the same height as each other. This isn’t always the best architecture, depending upon the size of the flock and even certain bird personalities. While these structures should never be placed right on the ground, where marauding rats can access them (or snakes), the new owner may find that offering some alternative heights can add a privacy factor. Some girls just don’t like their neighbors watching them when they perform their daily miracle. Bold birds don’t seem to care, but shy ones can feel vulnerable. If space is an issue because the coop is just barely big enough to accommodate, then little curtains can be helpful. Sounds silly, but a lot of keepers have found that it can make a difference and improve egg production.
The ladies will need constant fresh water. I have found out the hard way that the ones you set on the ground are a bad call most of the year. The flock will foul the water pretty quickly with their natural scratching behaviors. A waterer that hangs will save floor space and keeper time by needing to be filled and cleaned less often. However, in winter, if you live in a cold climate, the waterer will need to be placed on a heating pan to keep the water ice free and save the keeper time in winter maintenance. Although not cheap to purchase, under pan heaters are super energy efficient and well worth the expense.
A feature that I always include in any henhouse is lighting. In the summer, a low wattage bulb on a timer is used for nighttime illumination. Twenty watts is sufficient to give the birds a chance to see intruders and respond appropriately, yet dim enough to allow them a good night’s sleep. Like most gallinaceous birds (chickens, turkeys, pheasants, etc.) chickens are as blind as humans in the dark. This allows rats, cats, raccoons and skunks to pick them off like sitting ducks. Even a little bit of light can save the life of the flock.
In winter, the same socket can be fitted with a 250 watt red heat bulb. Many keepers feel this is unnecessary, and I would agree for the southern half of the country. I live in the Rockies where the winter lows can be unbelievably cold, if only for a few days. The red light keeps bored chickens from pecking each other to death (it camouflages wounds and any bloody areas so that the interest of flockmates is not attracted). Confined chickens can behave horribly to each other in winter, so I take no chances. The bulbs provide enough warmth that I know the girls will be OK even in single digit temps, as long as their door is closed. They take a lot more power than the heating pan, and use for three months will add about $20 per month to your electricity bill.
Bury The Chicken Fence
Many prefab coops come with pre-fenced yards. That’s all that’s needed, right? Just plop the coop on a patch of even ground and you’re good to go.
Not even slightly true.
Unless the coop is on top of a high rise building’s roof, the fencing will need to be buried. For a home made job, just adding 12 inches of chicken wire to the bottom will discourage most predators from digging under. Some predators like badgers are champion diggers, so 12 inches straight down is not enough. But wire that lies just slightly underground, stretching away from the coop frame at a 90 degree angle seems to befuddle them. They can’t tear through the wire, and they are not smart enough to back up and dig from further away. This approach has saved my flock many times over, which I seldom find out until the next day.
Chicken Coop Monitor
If you are a fuss bucket like me when it comes to animal care, who also loves a good night sleep, a monitor is a good investment. That way you can see whether any commotion is caused by a passing cat who will go away soon, because he or she always does, or a much more serious threat.
In general, the purpose of this section was to inform and myth-bust. Chickens are not a super cheap route to excellent eggs, they are definitely, however, a route to excellent eggs. The keepers need to understand the trade-off in order to enter a mindset of a fulfilling experience with animals who provide an amazing food source for their keepers, along with endless entertainment.
Diet is a huge subject. I will start with…it all depends.
Food Schedule - morning, afternoon, and dusk
It is prudent to feed your egg laying hens every single morning with their lay mash or pellets of choice. They will be hungry after the night’s fasting, and will eat with vigor. Once they have dined indoors, which I recommend in order to discourage sparrows, who can and will get through chicken wire, they will want outside into the sun. Sometime in mid-morning, they will go aback inside the coop and occupy a nest box for a couple of hours. Feeding them just after dawn, and then putting scratch into their outside yard is a practical routine to meet their needs without disturbing that egg laying moment. Around noon, many people enjoy tossing out scratch and vegetable scraps. This is a good time to check the waterer and makes sure it is clean and mostly full.
Each girl is going to need a pint of water per day. If the waterer is small, then it should be refilled every other day or so. I have friends with an incredibly sturdy frame over their chicken yard. This allows them to suspend a 5 gallon bucket with sippers around the bottom for their flock, and it also allows them to go on vacation for a week without fear that their girls will run out of water in hot weather, and the pet sitter doesn’t notice.
Now, when it comes to baby chick diet it all depends on your budget and dietary demands.
There used to be an old boomer joke about something being as cheap as chicken feed. This old bromide is no longer useful, since the cheapest chicken feed at the store costs $16 for a 40 lb. bag, while scratch is around $20 for a 50 lb. bag. Therefore, what you feed will to some extent depend upon your budget and life style.
Keepers who want lots of fresh eggs and who are not concerned about nutrition above and beyond that included in every good egg need only supply inexpensive packaged feeds. While not super cheap, they are super convenient. You will get a high quality protein product out of the deal. The only thing you will absolutely need to supply in addition is oyster shell. Chickens use a tremendous amount of calcium in egg production. Oyster shell is an old standby that is cheap, safe and effective. A small bag will last those 4 hens a whole year.
Foodies who want exceptional eggs in terms of nutrition and flavor will need high quality lay formulation, and either a grassy yard, or lots and lots of green table scraps. It is access to greens that puts that cheddar color and exceptional taste into those eggs.
Chickens love to graze
Chickens are tremendous grazers. Sure, they scratch diligently for grubs, worms and of course, tasty crickets. But give them a pile of greens and they are in heaven. Grass clippings, as long as they are free from herbicides, pesticides and commercial fertilizer, are a perfect offering for those girls who cannot be allowed to roam freely.
Never Feed These to Chickens
Table scraps are a good way to provide variety as well. But there are some things that chickens simply should not consume in any form, cooked or raw. Some of the things that should not be fed to chickens include:
- garlic and onions
- dry beans
- leaves and stems from the nightshade family (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, peppers)
For a quick list of what they can have…
- Protein: this includes wheat grass, barley, kelp, and alfalfa.
- Herbs: fresh herbs can provide lots of nutritional value to your chicken’s diet
- Kitchen Scraps: vegetable scraps are a favorite treat for the chickens, especially greens (cabbage, kale, lettuces, spinach etc.)
- Garden Weeds: Organic only
- Mealworms, horn worms, and crickets.
- Eggs and Eggshells: boiled eggs cut up only, to discourage hen egg-eating behavior.
- Fruit: in moderation, fruit like watermelon can be a wonderful special treat for your chickens
Egg Laying Productivity
Yes, somewhat. Depending on the breed, laying hens will start laying eggs usually between 16 and 22 weeks old. Most laying hens will provide consistent eggs for the first 2 or 3 years. Oftentimes, older laying hens will produce fewer eggs, but they will also be larger eggs than normal. They will provide their owners with eggs for three quarters of the year in most parts of the country. The more northern the latitude, the more weeks off from production those girls will take every year. It is advisable to begin a lay mash or pellet regimen by 20 weeks, to prime their bodies for production demands. During the spring and summer months, all ages need to receive large quantities of lay formulation, less scratch. Once molting is completed, it’s OK to cut back on lay formulation, and feed more carbs in the form of scratch. Pullets and hens younger than two will need more lay formulation than older girls for most of the year.
More sun equals more eggs
The greater the amount of sun and access to fresh greens that layers have, the healthier they will be and the more flavorful their eggs. Those eggs will be naturally higher in vitamin D and Omega 3 than birds raised in close quarters, confined to a shady coop. My own girls have laid eggs with yolks the color of cheddar cheese, and the flavor was outrageously yummy to boot! Plus, freedom to roam, combined with safe table scraps, reduces feeding costs, while improving flock health and egg quality.
As the days shorten and hens get less than 12 hours of daylight each day, their egg production usually slows down. Generally, it’s a slow decrease over time before the egg production stops completely in the middle of the winter season (unless you get a rare hen or breed that keeps giving you a few eggs all winter long). Supplemental lighting can be provided to knock the birds off of their circadian rhythm to keep some level of egg laying happening, even if it’s a bit reduced. Some keepers refuse to do this, arguing that it prevents laying hens from following their natural reproductive cycles and resting their bodies in the cold months. They feel, correctly, that it is hard on the birds and causes them to “wear out” faster. Conscientious owners therefore often choose to go without eggs during the depth of winter if they are extremely fond of their ladies. But those girls still need to be fed, and winter provisions in terms of feed and possibly supplemental heat need to be factored into the total cost of their care, hence the cost per 1 dozen eggs over a year’s time.
Should I just buy eggs from the store?
Let’s assume for the sake of discussion that you wish to give your ladies 2 months off for good behavior. Those 4 girls mentioned will still provide you with 325 eggs a year if they are leghorns, a bit fewer if they are dual purpose breeds such as Rhode Island Red or Barred Rock. If everything goes perfectly, and the birds are extremely well cared for, those 4 chickens will provide their owners with 108 dozen eggs per year, about 2 dozen per week. In today’s inflated market, feeding those 4 girls is going to cost an average of $30 month. This is when traditional, non-organic feed is purchased. If you want to give them high protein lay mash that is organic and supplemented with Omega 3, then you can triple that cost.
So for your average young laying hen on conventional feed, you can expect to spend about $7.50 a week in feed, or about $3.50 per dozen. Just about what you would pay for good quality eggs at the grocery store. However, they will be fresher, more nutritious, and tastier than store bought eggs.
Legally, at least in the US, farmers have 30 days to get their eggs to market. The market has 30 days to sell them. The longer eggs are refrigerated, the more likely the chance for salmonella, a pretty serious food poisoning type of disease. With fresh eggs, you never have to worry. And then there’s all the benefits that come with having eggs from truly free range chickens.
If you have back yard the size of a postage stamp or a fancy landscaping scheme that scratching chickens will destroy in 2 days time, then free range chickens may not be practical for you. If you simply cannot let them out to roam, and yet you want the most nutritious eggs they can produce, then it’s time to examine your budget for ways to upgrade their lay mash. After twenty years of raising chickens I find that scratch is scratch is scratch, and there is no need to get anything other than what is available cheap at the feed store.
Lay formulations are another matter. This is where the science behind the additives can justify the cost. Picky keepers will want to form an opinion on medicated vs non-medicated feed. The most economical feeds usually are medicated (which may seem counterintuitive, but it’s what most people want, so it sells a lot better). For instance, in accordance with my philosophy and life style, I start chicks out with medicated feed, then mix medicated with waterfowl feed (which is never medicated, it is fatal for them), and then eventually feed them a mix of commercial lay mash, some waterfowl mash, my own blend of chicken feed, and tons of scraps. This works for my comfort level, but some folks might want an even more pure food chain, and insist on organic and or non-GMO feeds. There is no right or wrong answer, with one exception. Chickens that have very little variety in their diet will not thrive, and will burn out early. A ‘spent hen’ can be identified by a floppy comb. Commercial enterprises find that their hens must be rotated out just after two years old, whereas hobby farmers with truly free range birds find their old gals are vigorous and productive at age 5 and even 6 years of age.
Sanitation and husbandry considerations
A clean coop is a joy for man and bird. Dirty, poorly ventilated coops lead to mites, respiratory infections, and many other diseases. Especially in the winter months, when the ladies are cooped up in the coop, good sanitation is essential.
All dropping should be removed once per week in winter, every two weeks in summer if the coop is dry and well ventilated (another reason for a window). In winter, once the coop has been cleaned, fresh bedding on the floor (pine shavings are great, and make awesome garden compost later) and in the nest boxes should be provided.
Avoid these parasites
Before bedding is applied to the nest boxes, dolomite powder can be sprinkled on the bottom of the box. This discourages a buildup of mites in the nesting area, a source of torment and feather loss for those girls. A clean coop retards populations of a number of nasties. The most common external parasites that bother a chicken are: lice, fleas, bedbugs, mites, and ticks. All of these parasites can cause the follow symptoms: itching, excessive preening, broken/missing feathers, weight loss, reduced egg laying, anemia and, in serve cases, death.
Flies can prove to be a torment in the summer months for both the girls and their keepers. The misery they cause if allowed to swarm in huge numbers will effect egg production. A good hanging trap with an effective stink bait takes all the work out of fly control. This should be suspended 10-12 feet from the coop, in order to draw flies away from the poultry living area.
Once a year the coop needs to be completely gutted of all bedding, and the roosted heavily sprayed with 10% bleach solution. The nest boxes and all corners and crevices as well. Once a year is sufficient for this treatment, as long as continual weekly and monthly maintenance appropriate for the season is performed.
A dolomite dust bath is a sheer joy for a chicken and helps to keep all of the external parasites in check by suffocating them. It’s cheap and effective, so like grit for their crops (aids in grinding action necessary for processing hard foods), the dust bath should be replenished once a month. Yearly worming for internal parasites is easy and advisable. It can be done using a liquid product dissolved in their drinking water.
Other than that, they really are a pretty user friendly adventure in farming for the nervous newbie.