Raising Chickens for Eggs: 15 Best Practices

How to Make Sure You and Your Hens are On The Right Path

by Leah Smith

Raising chickens for eggs takes a bit of earned knowledge, but you don’t have to learn everything the hard way. Here are 15 chicken-related words-to-the-wise that will set you and your laying hens on the right path.

1. Best Breeds

Raising chickens for eggs means first choosing the right breeds. It can be tempting to choose breed(s) based solely on looks, and it’s a plus to appreciate the appearance of the chickens you raise. However, chickens are more than looks.

Look at their egg-laying differences alone. Hens might be extremely prolific, maintain good production throughout the winter or tend to produce sizable eggs. Other characteristics relate to their dispositions, climate tolerances, and typical behaviors.

The value of these traits depends on your wants. Do you want chickens to hatch their own eggs (i.e., do you want broodiness or nonsetters)? Do you want chickens that love to forage (i.e., will your chickens remain penned or escape)? Even great egg production isn’t a good thing for everyone. Sex links (Red, Amber, and Black Stars) lay many eggs, but do you want to sell eggs or are you only interested in a personal supply? With chickens, you can select for what you really want.

Make sure you have enough space at your feeders and waterers.

2. Dietary Requirements

The composition of your birds’ diet is important especially when raising chickens for eggs. Offering commercially produced feed ensures hens receive the 16% to 18% protein they need for egg production. It contains carbohydrates as well, of course; important for energy but not egg laying.

Though chickens like treats of scratch grain, kitchen scraps, etc., these tend to be high on carbs and low on protein; overconsumption of them will reduce the amount of feed they acquire, leading to lower egg production. Chicken diets should be 9 parts commercial feed to 1 part other foods to ensure sufficient protein. Or, as a different metric, you should only put out as much “treat” as can be consumed by your flock in 20 minutes.

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However, if you desire to reduce your dependence on commercial feed and have other food resources available on your homestead, feel free to trial to see, for example, how the addition of cultured milk; fresh byproducts of on-farm slaughtering; a protein-rich plant such as moringa; the inclusion of other protein sources such as legumes, sunflower seeds and fishmeal; or insect foraging might reduce your need to buy feed while keeping up protein levels.

3. Supplement Needs

Additionally, there are other things to keep in mind when feeding your chickens. Calcium is important to ensure strong eggshells, so a supply of free-choice oyster shells is a good idea. Lacking teeth with which to grind food, offering grit will help with the proper breakdown of food in the gizzard — an essential when feeding scratch grain and other non-ground foods.

Lastly, regard it as a dietary supplement to have enough feeder space so that all chickens could conceivably eat at the same time, as limited space could lead to individuals going without.

Silkies aren’t known for their egg-laying abilities, but they will brood and hatch other hens’ eggs very well.

4. Just Add Water

When raising chickens for eggs, don’t forget that water is just as important as food, as going without could lead to stress molts or interruptions in egg production. It must be always kept fresh and unfrozen in the winter and provide enough waterer space so that all chickens have ready access as chickens can be territorial, and “guarded” watering spots may lead to deprivation for some.

Ironically, this important resource must be handled properly as excessive dampness is especially deleterious to bird health in the henhouse. Waterers must be at the correct height for the chickens, which is level with the height of their backs. Too high and they may not be able to reach it, but too low and water will dribble from their beaks as they stand to swallow, wetting the floor and bedding.

Breeds for Your Needs

The more suited a chicken breed is to your specific situation, the more you’ll benefit from its presence and the happier you will be; your hens will probably be happier, too! Here are a few chicken characteristics and the breeds (occasionally color-specific) that best embody them.

Broody: Cochin, Orpington, Plymouth Rock, Silkie

Nonsetters: Ancona, Dominique, Polish, Silver Gray Dorking

Cold-HardyAmeraucana, Black Australorp, Brahma, Delaware, Salmon Faverolle, Welsummer, Wyandotte

Heat-Tolerant: Ancona, Hamburg, Leghorn, Whiting

Mellow/Quiet/Family Friendly: Ameraucana, Bielefelder, Orpington, Langshan, Salmon Faverolle, Speckled Sussex, Wyandotte

Top Egg Producers (Asterisks are the very top egg producers!): Sex Link*, Pearl White Leghorn*, Whiting*, Black Australorp, Rhode Island Red, New Hampshire, Plymouth Rock, Welsummer

Sustained Winter Egg-Production: Brahma, Jersey Giant, Orpington, Salmon Faverolle

Dual-Purpose (raising for egg and meat production): Bielefelder, Delaware, Jersey Giant, New Hampshire, Orpington, Plymouth Rock, Speckled Sussex

Active Foragers: Cuckoo Maran, Dominique, Silver Gray Dorking, Hamburg, Whiting, Wyandotte

5. Chicken Checklist

You may be surprised by how much stuff chickens need – roosts, nesting boxes, feed, supplements, fencing, heaters for your waterers, and more. You’ll want them to have an area for dust bathing. And you may need a special area for confining an injured hen or a broody hen. Though it is doubtless impossible to anticipate all your future needs, a little research (via books, the internet, and/or visiting someone’s flock) can help eliminate the surprise at every turn!

Water is essential, starting on day 1. For every 25 chicks, fill two 1-quart waterers with room temperature water and place them in the brooder.

6. Molting Misinterpretation

For fledgling owners, molting can be an uncertain time as feather loss — and occasional weight loss — is disconcerting. For those raising chickens for eggs, it’s disconcerting because your hens stop laying. But molting is a natural process by which chickens replace old feathers with new ones. This renewal is often triggered by the decrease in daylight hours in autumn, an ideal time as their new feathers will arrive for winter.

But most hens have their first molt at 18 months (regardless), and spring or summer molts are far from unheard of. Also, molts can be soft (losing only a few feathers) or hard (losing almost all feathers) and can take anywhere from 8 to 12 weeks or more. So there is some variation in molting. However, note that “unnatural” or stress molts (typically out-of-season) can result from disease, chilling, and going without water or food, indicating a separate issue that must be dealt with.

7. Brushing Aside Broodiness

A broody hen wants to hatch eggs, which is a problem if it isn’t what you have in mind. Though often triggered by the increasing day length of spring, hens may become broody at any time.

You can spot a broody hen easily: She seldom leaves her nest, and when she does, she’ll fluff her feathers, fan her tail, and cluck incessantly to create a “fierce” appearance; eats and drinks little; and makes grumbling sounds and is prone to pecking when you approach her. Her egg production will drop off; plus, she is blocking a nest from used by others.

Even if you think you can manage one broody hen, broodiness can be contagious and spread through a flock. One hen can quickly become four, and your egg production will really suffer.

To end broodiness, try repeatedly removing the broody hen from its broody stop and/or blocking her access to it; carrying her around, especially to the food; placing frozen bottles under her to create discomfort; and if all else fails, putting her in “jail”— an unstable or swinging, airy cage with food and water but no bedding in it. Check every day to see when the broodiness has taken wing.

Dust bathing is essential for a flock’s health and happiness.

8. Nifty Nesting

Whether your chickens are confined to a yard or allowed to range freely, you want to know where to gather your eggs. So it’s important to make your nesting boxes inviting to encourage their use. They should have a 1-foot square base and measure 18 inches high.

Ideally, their location should be slightly darkened and secluded; ours have curtains of tarp-like material to help obscure the opening of each (and discourage egg eating). One box per quintet of hens is recommended.

9. Act Your Age

When raising chickens for eggs, know that hens will begin laying eggs at around 6 months and can continue for 5 to 10 years. However, peak production is for the first 2 years, leaving you to decide how long to keep your hens around. No matter your decision, you must know how old each hen is, or rather, if she is still laying eggs.

We have always bought (never hatched) our laying hens and thus have been able to have a yearly changing succession of our favorite breeds. It was easy to know which ones were 2 or 3 years old. If your flock has a single breed across multiple generations, checking vents is your best bet to know who is laying or not. The vent (call it the egg opening!) of a laying hen will have a moist appearance and a paler color than her other skin surfaces. Also, her rear underside should feel soft if she is laying; a tight underside probably means no eggs.

Don’t skimp on the roosting space! Hens require 1 foot of roost per bird minimum.

10. Room to Roost

Roosting is an important chicken activity. Perched on a roost, hens can cozy together and feel safe and protected. Roosting space is a good way to signal to your flock that this is where they are to spend the night. Hens require 1 foot of roost per bird, and roosts should be arranged at least 18 inches off the ground.

11. Nighty Night

Many people make the mistake of thinking they don’t have any nighttime predators on their property. Then, they don’t shut their chickens in at night; the chickens come inside to roost and that is that.

Rest assured, even if you don’t begin your chicken-keeping career with raccoons, opossums, or other nocturnal nuisances visiting your henhouse in search of eggs or the chickens themselves as a meal, you eventually will. Even if you don’t attract those animals, even benign nighttime visitors (cats, rabbits, etc.) will still disturb and stress your flock. So be sure to lock them up!

12. Keep it Clean

Your henhouse should be as spartan as possible to allow for quick visual assessments that it’s secure. If you have never had rats on your property, this is good news. You want to keep it that way, and you never know when they might wander through the neighborhood (rural or urban) looking for a new home.

Don’t have stray boards, boxes, barrels or other items in or around your house that might offer locations for them to hide. Don’t leave food in the house or yard overnight to attract animals of any kind.

It’s easier to avoid pests in the first place than to rid yourself of them after they have arrived.

Don’t let your chickens free-range at night. Lock them up for their safety.

13. On the Job

Though this isn’t the sort of mistake that will harm your chickens, it’s certainly one that will do you a disservice. Not making proper use of your flock as garden insect-pest removers, compost-pile turners, weed-seed eliminators, even agents of fly control in the barnyard, means you aren’t using them to their full potential. Chickens are omnivores, with a taste for everything from meat to seeds to plant biomass, so make good use of them, and hopefully less work for you.

14. Social Director

“Pecking order” got that name for a reason, so it should come as no surprise that you must watch your birds’ behavior. Providing sufficient space and food usually prevents any major problems. However, roosters can help you here; they’re important members of the flock even if fertilized eggs aren’t desired.

A good rooster (not all are good at their job) will break up hen fights, find and “announce” food sources, signal when danger is around and, of course, be the alarm clock! The size of your flock dictates the number of roosters you should have. Generally, one rooster for every 10 to 25 hens is correct, the higher end of the spectrum working well if fertile eggs aren’t required. Too few hens (or too many roosters) can lead to rooster fights, so always pay attention to your rooster numbers and dispositions. If you happen to get a rooster with an unfavorable disposition (one that jumps at humans, for example), it won’t improve its behavior and should be removed.

If you live in a cold climate, a breed such as the Orpington is ideal. It has soft feathering that masks its true size and allows it to endure cold temperatures better than other breeds.

15. Space Out

When working on building/fencing projects, construct not for the current size of your flock but for the size you intend it to be. Probably one of the simpler tips included, it is also one of the best one for saving time and unneeded expenses. If you plan on having a larger flock in the future than you are housing currently, or want extra space for hatching or other special undertakings, keep this in mind. Yes, be realistic and practical about your target goals. But always be mindful of what you are working towards, too.

This article about raising chickens for eggs was written for the January/February 2024 issue of Hobby Farms magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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