Laying-hen numbers have soared in recent years. Today, laying hens can be found all over the country. Hens have become so popular because they’re small, low-maintenance, fun, beautiful—and they lay eggs. As it turns out, nutrition significantly affects the taste and quality of those eggs.
A hen’s egg-producing ability is determined by her genetics, and some breeds, such as Leghorns, will lay an egg almost daily if given proper care. But regardless of breed, nutrition matters: Egg-layers must be fed correctly to achieve their potential, and when their dietary needs are met, laying chickens supply homegrown eggs that are far tastier and more nutritious than typical store eggs.
From Chick To Layer
As female chicks approach laying age at 5 to 6 months of age, depending on the breed, their nutrition and dietary needs change. They don’t require as much protein, but they need much higher levels of calcium, which is necessary for hens to produce eggshells, along with phosphorus and vitamin D.
Commercially available layer rations are designed to provide optimal nutrition for laying hens, and all feeds sold in the U.S. must have a nutrition label. So when purchasing feed, read the label to make sure it’s specifically a layer ration and that it provides protein levels of 16 to 18 percent. Additionally, the percentage of calcium should be in the 3 1⁄2 percent to 4 1⁄2 percent range while the level of phosphorus should be 0.4 percent or higher. Young hens may be started on layer rations at about 18 weeks of age, or when the first egg arrives, whichever comes first.
A basic layer ration that contains appropriate amounts of protein, calcium and phosphorus should provide adequate nutrition for egg-producing hens and be the most economical option. Suppliers also offer more expensive feeds that contain additional vitamins and minerals or are specialized in some way. There are feeds with vitamin or omega-3 enhancing supplements, as well as natural, soy-free, non-GMO, organic and others. Choosing among these higher-priced rations is a personal choice based on your chicken-keeping goals.
Feed costs vary widely depending upon the type of layer feed—basic, organic, and so on—and the region you live in. Pelleted feeds are considered more economical than crumbles (aka broken pellets) because adult birds waste fewer pellets. Where I live in Northeastern Ohio, a 50-pound bag of natural layer pellets is about $15. It’s recommended that laying hens have free-choice access to feed, and on average, you can expect them to consume about 1/4 pound per day.
Given the parameters listed previously, a pound of feed costs 30 cents ($15/50 = .30) and 1/4 pound costs 7.5 cents (.30 x .25 = .075). That means it would cost about 53 cents (.075 x 7 = .525) to feed a hen for a week. If that hen laid six eggs per week, then it would cost $1.06 (.53 x 2 = $1.06) in feed for a dozen eggs. This demonstrates how economical home-produced eggs can be and one reason laying hens have become so popular.
In addition to free-choice rations, egg-layers should have constant access to clean water, oyster shell and grit, if they are eating anything other than commercial rations. Eggs are primarily made up of water, so water is critical to a laying hen. Just a few hours without water can result in reduced egg-production.
Although layer rations contain extra calcium, it’s a good idea to offer oyster shell or calcium grit. Top-producing hens may need more calcium than what is in the feed and will self-regulate the amount of additional calcium they consume. If you are feeding supplemental foods or hens are foraging, then they need grit, too. The only mechanism chickens have for grinding food into pieces small enough to digest is grit.
It takes just a few basic elements to ensure that laying hens receive an optimal diet. The reward for meeting their nutritional requirements are happy hens that provide homegrown, wholesome and delicious eggs.
This story originally appeared in the July/August issue of Chickens.