Intro to Laying Hens: Coyote Creek Organic Feed Mill’s “Layers 101”
Keeping laying hens is an enjoyable and rewarding hobby. Fresh eggs, free garden labor (composting, insect control), and comic relief are right at hand when you’ve got a backyard flock. Many cities around the country are creating chicken-friendly ordinances so there’s never been a better time for urban homesteaders to try their hand at keeping chickens. At Coyote Creek Organic Feed Mill, we will do our best to help you get started on the right foot with nutritionally balanced organic feed for the birds and a strong knowledge base for the keeper.
Choose Your Breed and Buy Your Chicks
There are many varieties of laying hens available to today’s chicken enthusiast. White leghorns are the most common commercial laying bird. Tremendous layers, white leghorns have had a lot of their “chicken-ness” bred out of them. At Coyote Creek Farm, we keep Hyline Browns, an efficient layer which provides an extremely high quality egg but also has retained its “chicken nature.” If you’re looking for the best balance of egg quality and quantity, the Hyline Brown is our recommendation. Many hobbyists are not seeking maximum efficiency and egg production for their backyard flock, however. For novices, we recommend the silkie. Silkies are sweet and mild-tempered. Great with kids, they’re friendly and enjoy being handled. They also are great brooders so if you think you might like to try hatching out your own eggs, a pair of silkies or two is a great investment. Whatever your choice, your flock will have the same requirements for feeding, housing, and care.
Prepare Their Space, Keep Them Safe
A chick is a newly hatched chicken. Chicks must be kept in a warm, safe environment. A child’s wading pool is a good choice for brooding turkeys, chickens, and ducks as they can be easily cleaned and have no corners – spots where chicks can pile up and smother each other. Fill the pool with a few inches of straw or cob litter and cover it with paper for the first week or so to prevent them from eating the litter. The floor temperature of the brooder should be around 95 degrees fahrenheit, maintained through the use of heat lamps. Each week, raise the lamps a bit more to drop the temperature by 5 degrees or so.
Chicks need food and water available to them at all times. For the first day or two, sprinkle chick starter feed on sheets of cardboard, later moving to trough-style feeders. Each chick needs one linear inch of feeder space to start, but as they mature will require three to four inches per bird. Water should be fresh and waterers cleaned daily.
Observe your chicks closely: Are they drinking? Often baby birds need to be shown how to drink – just dip their beak in the waterer and allow them to tip their head back to swallow. You need not do this with each bird; their sisters will copy this behavior. Are they piling up on each other? The temperature may be too low. Hanging out around the edge of the heat lamps? The temperature’s probably too high.
Chicks should eat Coyote Creek Organic Chick Starter for the first six weeks of their life, a crucial point in their development. Chick starter has a high protein content to help the baby chicks grow quickly into the pullet stage.
The Coop and Run
After about 3 weeks, it’s a good idea to let your chicks start venturing outside of the brooder house. This will largely be determined by the outside temperature. Make sure that you have an extremely well-secured area for them to protect against predators. Your chicken enclosure does not need to be an elaborate or complicated affair. We recommend a minimum of four square feet per bird in the coop, with a run of ten square feet. Take your own needs into consideration when building your coop! Stationary coops that are difficult to muck out will quickly become a chore to maintain. Nest boxes which are difficult to access will make egg gathering difficult. It’s handy to have a fresh water supply and feed and tool storage nearby.
In the coop, you’ll need one nesting box for every five birds. Chickens like to lay in dark places, so nesting boxes should be placed so that bright sunlight does not shine in, curtains can help too. Chickens like a place to roost at night and roosts should be placed at two to four feet in height to encourage exercise. In general, your coop should be well-ventilated but protected from cold drafts and dampness. For stationary coops, a three or four inch deep layer of straw or hay will absorb urine and feces.
Egg production fluctuates seasonally as chickens adapt naturally to a circadian rhythm. Most factory farms take advantage of this and trick their hens into thinking that it’s always high production season by using artificial lighting to maximize daily production. While this is a bit extreme, good results have been achieved by adding supplemental light at the beginning and end of the day. This need not be an elaborate set-up: a single 60 watt bulb running for an hour before sunrise and an hour after sunset will suffice.
Chickens need a dust bath every day to keep clean, reduce parasites, and for mental health. A clean chicken is a happy chicken! Hardwood ash works great for this purpose. Build your dust box at least six inches deep and eighteen inches square. A section of barrel cut in half lengthwise will provide a handy roof to keep that nice ash from turning into muck. Watching chickens bathe is one of life’s little pleasures.
A chick becomes a pullet around 6-weeks-old. This is their long teenage stage. The pullets should eat Coyote Creek Organic Pullet Developer during this time, approximately 11 weeks or until they start laying eggs. Our pullet developer feed has a lower protein content than our chick starter feed; pullets fed a diet too rich in protein will have their long-term egg production stunted. Layer feed should not be fed to pullets as it is too high in calcium and can lead to kidney damage.
A layer hen is one who produces eggs consistently, usually beginning around the age of 18 to 24 weeks. Coyote Creek Organic Layer Feed has an optimal protein and amino acid level, as well as higher calcium content for shell strength and egg production. Typically a hen will produce one egg every 24-28 hours during high production times and every 32-36 hours during times of high stress (summer heat and winter cold, for example). Lay rates will change by breed. A hen’s production rate will begin to slow down once they approach the age of 2 to 3 years of age, and a hen can produce eggs up to 5 years or longer!
Feeding, Watering, and Care
Be sure that the waterers are always full! Dehydration is a major stressor. During the heat of the summer, you might consider adding one tablespoon raw organic apple cider vinegar or trace mineral salt to each gallon of water. This helps improve hydration and digestion as well. There are many types of chicken waterers out there; we prefer to make our own. Take a look at this feeder and waterer guide for ideas. Both feeders and waterers should be placed at a chicken’s shoulder height – too high and they can’t reach it, too low and they’ll end up sitting in it. Clean out waterers daily with a (purpose bought) toilet brush.
Please see this layer feeding guide for instructions on feeding your laying hens. Keep feed dry and clean; do not feed questionable or moldy feed to chickens.
When transitioning from one feed to another, it’s important to taper your hens off of the old feed slowly and onto the new feed by increasing the amount of it little by little over a period of about a week.
Stress and Illness
If your chickens show signs of illnesses, don’t rush to medicate them. We are glad to share some organic healing methods with you here. Adding one tablespoon raw organic apple cider vinegar to each gallon of water can help a myriad of issues including dehydration, digestion issues, and general immune system weakness. You can also add one teaspoon of garlic paste to their water to support their immune system and fight off infection or respiratory issues. Organic molasses can be added during times of high stress.