One common fixture on many hobby farms and homesteads are small livestock. Chickens are one of the favorites. They are easy, inexpensive and serve many purposes. Most people like to have chickens about simply because they like fresh eggs. Others raise chickens for meat. If your goal is eggs, you need to know how to keep your chickens healthy in order for them to have steady egg production. Believe it or not, chickens do not automatically lay eggs.
One of the things people tend to look over when they are buying their first laying hens is the breed. Not all hens are created equal. Some are prolific layers while others tend to be a bit lazy and are best raised for meat purposes. If you are opposed to brown eggs, your choices are going to be sorely limited.
The following are some of the best breeds of laying hens.
- White Leghorns — produce large white eggs, expect 6 a week or anywhere from 250 to 300 a year. These gals are prolific layers.
- Golden Sex Links — Produce large brown eggs and are a favorite. Produce anywhere from 250-300 eggs per year. These are often chosen simply because you know from the get go if you have hens or roosters.
- Rhode Island Reds — Another favorite that produce large brown eggs. Rhodies are known for their huge eggs, some are so big they won’t fit in the egg carton.
There are a few hybrids that some will opt for, but you can expect to pay a little more initially. The three mentioned above are the most common and what you will typically find at your local co-op during chick days. All are fairly hardy and do not require a lot of extra care. Bantam chickens are a homesteading favorite because of their looks and their tendency to be very friendly. However, the eggs are very small.
Hens require a diet high in protein in order to keep up a steady production of eggs. You can buy something at your local feed store called layer pellets. These are pellets of food that are high in protein and will generally take care of your layers’ protein requirements. Along with the pellets, you will want to add in some scratch grains during the early spring, late fall and winter months when there is very little greenery for your chickens to scratch in. Scratching is necessary for your chickens to stimulate egg production.
You can also supplement your hens’ diet with yogurt, boiled eggs (seriously high in protein) and meal worms are all extra treats your hens will love and will help them give you a steady supply of eggs. You can also give your hens some crushed oyster shells to help harden up their egg shells. Sometimes, you will discover the shells of the eggs your hens lay are especially brittle or break easily. The oyster shells given once a week or so will help take care of that problem. Brittle or thin shells is caused by a lack of calcium. You can add a supplement to your hens’ diets if needed. Typically, the layer pellets, scratch and some daily foraging are all your hens will need.
Kitchen scraps are optional and really personal preference. Some experts will tell you not to, while others will say go for it. Avoid feeding the hens bones, moldy food and raw potatoes. Cooked potatoes are fine. Feeding the hens leftovers from the kitchen is generally okay and a very common practice. Just be sure you don’t overload them with fruit, which will cause them to stop laying. As with everything when it comes to raising chickens, some people are quite strict and only feed their chickens pellets while others are more relaxed and feed them whatever. You will soon get comfortable with your own hens and be able to decide what is best for them.
Lighting and Heating
During late spring and throughout the summer, your hens will do just fine on their own with the heat and light from the sun. In the early spring, late fall and throughout the winter, you will need to supplement these things to keep your hens laying. This is fairly simple and can be done with a single heat lamp. It is best to use a red lamp. The red will provide plenty of heat, without producing so much light that the chickens’ sleep schedule is thrown off.
Laying hens need about 12 to 14 hours of sunlight a day or in this case, artificial light. It is a good idea to put your heat lamp on a timer and forget about it. You will need to adjust the timer every couple of weeks as the days get shorter before they start getting longer. During the winter, when there are extreme cold snaps, you will need to leave the lamp on all day. The red light is not as harsh as the typical light and you can still get a pretty good production of eggs.
You can help your chickens stay warm during the winter by ensuring their coop is well insulated. Do not go overboard sealing up cracks around the door and what not. The coop needs plenty of ventilation. Chicken manure is very strong and without ventilation it creates a rather toxic environment. Opting for a deep bedding method in the colder months will also help keep your chickens warm. Layering several inches of pine shavings on the coop floor will help provide insulation and warmth.
Building a chicken coop can range from easy to advanced depending on the style and size you choose. There is a cheap book on amazon that I found to be invaluable when building our coop. Pick up a copy of “Cheating on a Chicken Coop: 8 Cheap Ideas to House Your Backyard Hens and Save Money.”
The book goes into the essential parts of building a coop including:
- How much room you need per bird
- How to build nesting boxes
- How to build roosting bars
- Protecting your girls from predators
- A whole lot more
A few years ago when I decided to start raising chickens, I struggled with the type of coop I should build. After reading the book, I converted an old dog house into a home for my girls. You can read that article here. Doghouse to Chicken Coop Conversion
We also just added Free Chicken Coop Plans.
Your laying hens will give you eggs all year if you follow these tips. There is a molting period every year your mature hens will go through. During this period they will not lay eggs but they will resume as soon as it is over. This is completely normal. Do not be alarmed when they start losing feathers. Continue feeding them a high protein diet throughout the molt. Some hardier birds will lay while molting, but production will slow down.