For more information, check out my articles How to Butcher a Chicken and How to Cull Your Old Laying Hens.
The Best Bang for Your ‘Cluck’
Keeping a flock productive is important to many chicken owners. Some folks don’t care how many eggs their hens are laying because they are pets. However, if you are raising laying hens primarily for the eggs, you want to get the best return on your feed costs. There are a number of things that you can do to increase the number of eggs you collect from your flock.
What Affects Production?
There are quite a few things that affect a hen’s ability to lay eggs, such as her age, genetics, nutrition, stress, and daylight hours. At the very tip top of production, a hen will lay up to one egg each day. Most will take a day or two off every week, even in the prime of their life. You can’t expect a hen to produce more than an egg a day. To improve your egg to chicken ratio, let’s look at what you can control.
This will depend on what breed you begin with and whether you raise your own replacement chickens. If you order chicks from a hatchery you have a wide variety of breeds and hybrids to choose from. Some of the best layers are the sex link hybrids, such as Production Red, California White, Production Grey, and a few others. If you wish to stay with heritage breeds, the White Leghorn or Rhode Island Red are touted as the best (and I can attest to their ability to lay very well). Black Australorps are also reputed to be great layers, but I have found the Rhode Islands to produce better in my flock.
Once you have an established flock, you may wish to hatch your own eggs and breed selectively for better egg production. Raising your own replacements will allow you to breed for the best disease resistance and overall health of your flock. You will need more space and, of course, you’ll need at least one rooster. Raising your own chicks will not work for everyone, but if you have the time and space, you may find it very rewarding. Remember, you will be buying additional feed for that rooster and any young roosters that hatch. A rooster doesn’t consume a great deal and any unwanted roosters can be butchered before they begin to fight. If you don’t want to deal with all of this, you might prefer to order replacement pullets.
Age of Your Hen
A hen’s egg production is at its peak from approximately 6 to 18 months of age. Somewhere around one and a half to two years after hatching, the average chicken will go into a molt and lose a lot of feathers and grow new ones. Their protein requirements increase to fuel the feather growth. During molt, a hen will lay few, if any, eggs. Once she gets back into the swing of things she will lay fewer, larger eggs. Some people like the larger eggs from their older hens, but you will be collecting less ‘egg mass’ per hen. With aging, hens will lay fewer and fewer eggs.
Our forefathers would generally put their older hens in the stewing pot and make a meal of them. Many modern homesteaders choose to do the same, and I’m one of them. I generally cull my hens sometime in their second year, unless they keep up better than average production. If there are a number of stewing hens ready to butcher around the same time, I might butcher one day and can the meat and stock the next day. If time is limited or the weather is hot, I stick them all in the freezer to cook up later.
Be sure to give your chickens the proper feed for best results. Young chickens should receive chick starter until close to laying age. Switch them over to a good quality layer feed to give them the vitamins, minerals, protein, and calories they need to lay those beautiful eggs for you. Free ranging or pastured hens with plenty of room to roam will scratch out a lot of their nutritional requirements, but they will still need layer feed to keep them in top production (unless you have a really awesome and huge compost pile!). They should have access to grass and will appreciate scraps from your table and garden.
Note: Do not feed your laying hens too many treats or they will have too much fatty tissue in their abdomen. This will cut down significantly on the number of eggs they are able to produce, plus it isn’t healthy for them. Corn and sunflower seeds are fine for providing extra calories during cold weather, but don’t feed these during the summer.
Chickens naturally lay eggs during the spring and summer when the days are long. Their internal clocks tell them that this is the best time to raise their young. You can trick them into laying eggs year round by setting up a light on a timer in their coop. Starting in the late summer, have the light turn on to mimic daylight for around 14 to 15 hours each day. Some breeds are more likely to produce well in climates with cold winters, such as the Turken, so be sure to choose breeds according to your conditions. Make sure you collect eggs several times a day during really cold weather, or they may freeze and crack. You don’t want to lose the eggs you have to frigid temps! Of course, if you live near the equator, you may not need the additional light hours to keep your chickens in production.
Just as we are less productive when we’re under stress, so are laying hens. If there are dogs and kids chasing them around the barnyard, or predator attacks, things of this nature, your chickens will be living in a state of fear and won’t feel the conditions are right for laying eggs and raising a clutch of chicks. It’s also important to note that if you purchase laying hens or point of lay pullets, they will lay a few eggs after bringing them home (the ones ‘in the works’ before they left their previous coop) and then they will stop laying for a couple of weeks. So expect a dry spell with new hens. In general, keep them happy and stress free for the best egg production.
Do What’s Right for You
You may hate the idea of butchering your old laying hens. That’s ok, no one says you have to. But you need to make the commitment of keeping them into retirement or finding someone who will take them and treat them humanely. Don’t dump them off in a field to fend for themselves. It would be much kinder to kill them quickly.
Personally, I prefer not to feed retired laying hens and I see nothing wrong with turning them into soup for dinner. By culling the older hens and raising young pullets to take their place, I keep a chicken rotation going. There are times when I don’t collect enough eggs from our hens to keep up with the demand from my family and friends, and there are other times when I have too many eggs in the fridge. During times of plenty you can store the extra eggs for later.
In general, I find that happy, healthy hens in the prime of their life are the most productive!
Do you have any hints or tips for making your flock more productive?