You’ve done the research. You’ve chosen your breeds, and your coop is freshly painted and ready to go. There are egg recipe books stacked high on the kitchen counters, and, if you’re anything like me with my first flock of chicks, tiny peeping noises are coming from the tub in your bathroom. So, what comes next?
Getting your laying birds off to a healthy start in life sets the stage for how well they’ll lay for years to come. As you’ll soon see, those tiny fluffy chicks grow in a matter of weeks. Their bodies are designed to grow rapidly and reach maturity quickly while still meeting developmental and physical milestones. But as their keeper, their surrogate mother hen, you have a big responsibility to feed those little bodies. Because one day, they’ll feed you.
Start at the Beginning
Chicks need all the elements for proper health and growth that adult birds do—just on a smaller scale. Chicks require adequate space in their brooder, roots to perch on (and practice flying up to, to strengthen legs and wings), fresh water, grit if given treats and, very importantly, the proper feed.
Chick food is different than any other feed your birds will get throughout their lives. They must have food designed especially for their growing bodies. Purchase only chick starter feed for very young birds. The protein level is higher than that for adult birds. The helps chicks keep up with the vast resources it takes to grow so big in a short amount of time while also growing feathers from scratch (so to speak).
Keep Stress Low
Chicks are initially raised in a brooder. Brooders are smaller quarters, usually with soft bedding. (Some people raise chicks on wire mesh, something I don’t recommend for long periods of time or the duration of their growth.) This housing is safe from predators—including children, if they live in your household, too—and should be warm, dry and full of fresh food and water at all times. Chicks need very warm temperatures to grow properly, and they need minimal stress. Keeping predator threats away will go far in raising calm, happy chickens, and less-stressed chickens lay more eggs.
Another factor in raising happy chicks is entertainment. Chickens are social birds, living in family groups or flocks. They establish a pecking order that begins in the first few days of life; watch your chicks in the brooder closely, and you’ll quickly begin to learn which is the alpha.
It’s important to have enough space in the brooder for the birds to move about freely. This gives the more submissive chicks a chance to move away and have their own space from the alpha. Cramped quarters lead to more bullying, and bullying leads to a lot of stress early in life.
Provide your birds with something to do. Give them tiny roosts, such as small tree branches
and twigs even when they’re tiny, to perch on and practice flying. Provide treats that are age-appropriate, such as blueberries and strawberry ends, as well as chick grit, a digestive aid, if you offer special treats other than feed.
Finally, there’s hydration. It seems so simple yet is often overlooked. Laying hens need large amounts of water, not just to fuel their own bodies but also to produce eggs, which are more than 70 percent water in themselves.
If a hen is dehydrated and goes as little as 24 hours without water, it could significantly affect her health and disrupt her laying for several weeks. Chronically dehydrated hens could be affected for life and never truly recover their egg-laying prowess. Keep fresh water available and accessible to your flock at all times, for their health as much as the eggs they lay.
At some time during the birds’ first autumn, they’ll lose all their feathers and look positively disheveled. But don’t panic. Unless you can confirm or suspect a true illness or disease, your birds are probably molting.
Molting is a normal process of shedding feathers and regrowing new ones that all birds do. During this time, most egg laying will cease because the process is so taxing on a bird’s body. Hens still need to eat quite a bit and probably even need a little protein boost. Mealworms are a great treat, and allowing a chicken to forage for her own bugs on pasture while molting will support her through this annual process.
Prime Time & Good Habits
Opinions vary among chicken keepers as to when it’s best to switch to layer feed. I switch my birds around 16 weeks of age, or about the time they begin to lay. You’ll notice your birds are maturing around this age: They’re fully feathered, their wattles are growing and they might even do a crouch position when you go to pick them up. A hen will assume a crouch position when a rooster is about to mate, and that’s a signal to you that your birds are sexually mature.
This is the time to have nest boxes ready. The best nest box is dry, warm, soft, dark, quiet and private. For most standard-size birds, 12-by-12-by-12 inches, or a few inches larger, in each direction is a wonderful size.
Getting good laying habits established right away is so very important. It’s worth repeating: Start your birds off right as soon as you see those first eggs. For the first few weeks of laying, monitor your pullets closely. Look under the roosts, in the corners of the coop and run, and other places a new pullet might make a nest and tuck her eggs. Even if your nest boxes are by-the-book perfect to you, a novice layer might think otherwise.
If you have a wayward layer, try to catch her in the act and move her to a nest box. You might have to do this every day for several days or weeks before she gets it. But this is an important step in ensuring she knows where to lay. Also try putting some “dummy” wooden eggs or golf balls in the nest boxes to encourage all of the new pullets to lay where you’d like them to, especially
if there are no mature and experienced hens already in the flock.
If your pullets free-range, keep them in the coop or in outdoor runs connected to the coop where the nest boxes are for the first few weeks until they get used to where to lay. Hens usually—though not always—lay in the mornings, so you can also keep them confined to the coop through the morning for the first few weeks to encourage laying in the right location.
Lastly, keep a close eye on young pullets for bad behaviors, such as egg eating. Often, a young pullet will lay an egg, stand up, surprised, turn around and investigate the egg with her beak. If she breaks it open, she might discover the delicious contents inside, and you’ll have an egg eater on your hands in no time.
It’s critical stop this behavior right away by collecting eggs frequently and keeping dummy eggs in the nest boxes for them to peck at. It’s virtually impossible to “break” a hen of egg eating behaviors. Start early so the habit doesn’t spread to other hens. Egg eating is a contagious habit.
Eggs for Days
You’ve put in the time, effort, resources, blood, sweat and tears, so now it’s time to sit back and let the eggs roll in—but for how long?
Like any of us, chickens have a prime sexual maturity and prime years of health. The difference, of course, is that chickens’ prime years are shorter—much shorter.
Depending on your birds’ breed—which determines quite a bit—chickens might lay vigorously from two to six years. Admittedly, two years of prime production is quite conservative; that is usually the timetable for a factory farm hen to go from layer to “retired.”
The great news for you is that hobby and backyard flocks typically lay for a lot longer than factory-farm hens. I have 8-year-old birds that are still laying an egg or two per week, and my 3-to-5-year-old birds lay as many as four eggs per week each.
Your backyard chickens live healthier and happier lives, so they continue their egg laying longer than the factory birds. Count on vigorous laying for at least three years, with a steady decline thereafter. Reference your breed’s egg-laying estimates for a better sense of when they’ll slow down egg production.
What to Expect When You’re Expecting
There’s no disappointment like discover your first egg and it’s only about an inch long and without a shell. What is that thing, anyway?
In our easy-access, grocery-store world, we’ve all been sheltered from the strange and misshapen eggs that young pullets often lay. Sometimes they’ll lay teeny tiny “starter” eggs that are no bigger than a nickel. Some birds will lay a gargantuan egg and you’ll wonder how it came out of that tiny, young creature. Some eggs are laid without shells, some have rough spots or calcium deposits, while others might have blood spots on the shells or no yolks at all. Each of these possibilities is normal, especially for first-time layers.
To get your pullets accustomed to laying the best eggs possible, make sure they have a high-quality layer feed, as well as calcium and grit supplements, and are kept as stress-free as possible. Naturally, hens that are allowed access to grass and pasture and are allowed to stretch their wings and legs and free-range are happier and lay better quality eggs.
After the first year, a pullet becomes a hen, and her laying is established. As long as the days contain about 14 hours of sunlight, she’ll lay quite regularly and as often as her breed dictates.
Be prepared for laying to slow down in the winter, as the days get shorter, and just like us, chickens need a bit of a break. A well-cared-for hen will lay reliably, and if she gets a nutritious, varied diet, she’ll share the wealth by giving you the healthiest and tastiest eggs you’ve ever had. Y
This story originally appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of Chickens magazine.