Though it’s sometimes possible to buy five-month-old pullets that are ready to start laying eggs, it’s more likely you’ll need to raise your own hens from baby chicks. In that case, you need to plan on a five-month growing period before you see any eggs. Chickens don’t start laying eggs until they are around four months of age. Length of daylight must also be taken into consideration when planning for egg production to start. Purchasing chicks in the spring (April or May) will result in eggs appearing around July or August. If you plan to raise your flock from chicks, you can source chicks from hatcheries or local breeders. Consider your space, egg needs, and town ordinances when deciding on how many birds you want to have as adult chickens.
Ten hens should lay about nine eggs per day once they all get started. Daily egg production can vary — conditions such as bad weather, dark days, severe cold, frozen water, predators and lack of or poor quality feed will affect hens adversely and may reduce laying. As hens age, they gradually lay fewer eggs. A 10-hen flock will ease off to six to seven eggs per day after 13 months of production. Over that period, each hen should produce 20 dozen eggs or more and eat 90-100 pounds of feed during the same time. By this age, birds should be allowed to molt to regrow a healthy set of feathers.
Common New England Breeds and Yearly Egg Production Estimates
Barred Rock 200-280 eggs per year
Black Australorp 200-280 eggs per year
Ameraucana/Easter Eggers 180-200 eggs per year
Buff Orpington 200-280 eggs per year
Rhode Island Red 250-280 eggs per year
Standard Cochin 100-160 eggs per year
White Leghorn 250-300 eggs per year
Mature laying hens should have at least three square feet of floor space per bird. This could be a corner or room of a barn, or a small building by itself. The chicken coop needs to be tight enough to keep out animal predators, yet not so tight as to interfere with good ventilation. There should be a door and at least one window, preferably on the south side of the coop. If the flock is housed in a confinement situation, fans should be installed for good air circulation and ventilation in the summer. If you prefer to let them outdoors during good weather, make a small, well-fenced yard. Remember, everything eats chicken so they are very vulnerable to predation. A roofed yard is best. In addition, if allowed to roam free, hens may lay eggs under buildings or out in the bushes.
An appropriately-sized round metal hanging feeder and a metal trough work well to feed and water hens. Whatever type you choose, its design shouldn’t allow the hens to climb in and scratch around to waste feed or defecate in it. It should also be cleanable. Plastic feeders and waterers are also excellent options and are easy to sanitize. Bear in mind, plastic waterers may crack or become brittle during cold months if they are allowed to ice over.
Purchased or homemade nesting boxes should allow one opening for every four hens. Chickens have a natural instinct to roost; perches of 2” x 2” lumber or equally thick branches attached to the walls at about two feet, three feet, and four feet above the floor should be constructed. This tiered perch system allows for natural pecking order behavior. Dominant birds will roost on the top and most subordinate hens will roost on the lowest perch. You will need one linear foot of space per bird for roosting.
Since egg-producing hormones are triggered by light, you may decide to provide at least 14 hours of total light daily from September 1 to May 1 with a 25-watt electric light bulb to keep your hens laying through the shorter days in winter. However, this will interfere with the birds’ natural need and cycle of molting.
If lights are not turned on, by October 31st the days will be short enough to cause the flock to stop laying eggs and lose their feathers. In about 6 weeks a much-needed new set will have grown. Birds need a healthy set of feathers to cool them in the summer and insulate them from the cold in the winter. Molting is the only way they can maintain a healthy set of feathers. After molting and feather regrowth is complete, light can be reintroduced SLOWLY to bring the birds back into lay.
Feeding and Watering
Buy a complete laying ration, which consists of about 16-18% crude protein and 4% calcium. Store feed in rodent-proof containers in a cool, dry location to prevent nutrient losses.
For ease of handling and freshness, buy your feed in 50-pound bags for a small flock. Each bag should last two to three weeks for 10 hens If you use the 50 pounds in less than two weeks, the feeding system is either allowing your hens to waste food or there are other animals eating from your hens’ feeder.
Keep feed in front of the hens most of the time. If they run out every day, they’re probably not getting enough. Birds eat about ½ cup of feed per day, depending on size. It’s good practice to let them empty the feeder for a few hours once a week so the feed doesn’t become stale. At the other extreme, don’t overfill the feeder to the point where feed is spilled onto the floor and wasted. Don’t feed extra cracked corn – this can unbalance the ration and increase the visceral fat in the birds, which can interfere with egg laying.
You can feed some kitchen scraps (veggies or grains are best), but care should be taken to make the scraps small enough to pass through the chickens’ digestive system to get to the gizzard where it can be ground, or digestive blockages can occur.
Always make clean potable water available for your birds. Once a week, disinfect waterers with a solution of one tablespoon of chlorine bleach to a gallon of water. Animals, including birds, drink more water in winter if it is 50° F., and birds will consume 25% more water when temperatures soar over 80° F. In cold weather use a water heater or empty it at night and refill in the morning. One day without water for any reason will result in less egg production the next few days as eggs are 75% water.
Laying hens sometimes become cannibalistic or begin eating eggs, especially if the birds are stressed by boredom, crowding, excessive heat and too-bright light. If you notice your hens picking at each other, check for factors such as overcrowding or lighting that’s too bright. Sometimes darkening the pen, tossing a few handfuls of salad greens, or even a few pine branches, into the pen will distract birds from pecking each other or eating their eggs. Diversions like hanging some cabbages or putting a bale of hay in their yard with bird seed laced in it will help satisfy their natural instinct to search and peck something.
Fresh wood shavings or sawdust six to eight inches deep make excellent bedding or litter and are preferable to hay or straw, which is difficult to clean up once soiled. Stir the litter frequently during the winter to keep it as loose and dry as possible and help keep the hens’ feet and their eggs clean.
Don’t let the nest boxes run out of shavings either - bare nesting box floors result in broken, dirty eggs. Very wet litter near the water or feed should be replaced. If managed properly, cleaning out and changing the litter only needs to happen monthly or as needed.
Once a month, check a few birds for lice or mites, tiny parasites that live on the hens’ skin, particularly around the vent area under the tail. Mites are transmitted by wild birds and can result in lower egg production or death if not controlled. Most farm supply stores carry pesticides registered for poultry parasites. If you do use one of these pesticide products, read and follow the label directions explicitly. Chickens that have daily access to loose soil, sand, or bare ground will often dust bathe. This helps to manage parasites and adds to the overall well-being of the animal.
Try to collect the eggs at least twice a day. Hens generally lay in the morning hours, but afternoon is not uncommon. There will be less breakage and fewer dirty eggs if you can gather them at noon. If you need to wash dirty eggs, NEVER soak or leave them in standing water, as eggs are very porous. Use warm (110°-115° Fahrenheit) running water and a scrubbing pad.
General Flock Health
Knowing what a healthy bird looks like can help you recognize sooner what unhealthy looks like, so you can manage accordingly. Healthy laying hens should eat and drink frequently and they should stand erect with head and tail elevated. Their feathers should be smooth and clean, their combs and wattles bright, clean and red. Eyes should be bright and open with no discharge or crust. The scales on feet and legs should be clean and waxy, cool to the touch, with smooth joints. The legs, beaks, combs and wattles of egg-producing hens will be paler. Manure should fall in a neat pile and not be stuck to feathers around the back end. If any birds have soiled feathers, they should be cleaned immediately with a mild soap and warm water to avoid flystrike or infection. All birds should be active, calm and interested in foraging.
Occasionally a bird may die for no apparent reason; this is most commonly seen in ornamental varieties that tend to be more fragile. Consult your veterinarian if other hens look sickly — there may be disease in your flock. Be sure to keep records of any instances of unexpected death in your flock as well as records pertaining to any dewormer or pesticide use in, on, or around your poultry area.
Consult local zoning and building ordinances before beginning any household livestock operation. Laws and ordinances in some communities may prohibit or restrict such activities in your neighborhood. Also, consider the impact of your poultry operation on your neighbors. Develop a plan for manure management that will prevent odor and pollution problems and take care in siting and constructing housing for your chickens.
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