How to Feed Your Laying Hens for Best Egg Production
Back in Great Grandma’s day, the chicken flock was often expected to forage for most of their feed. Kitchen scraps, a few scattered grains and crushed oyster shell may have also been offered. On small farms with a few head of cattle, horses, and pigs, there were enough insects to supplement the protein needs of laying hens, but these homestead chicken flocks weren’t nearly as productive as today’s hens. Usually the hens laid best in spring and production tapered off in late summer.
With the hybridization of production layers, formulation of layer rations, and the onset of factory style egg farms, we have come to expect an egg almost every day from our laying hens. Most hens won’t lay each day, averaging somewhere between 200 and 320 eggs a year from good laying breeds.
Proper Nutrition for Laying Hens
Your laying hens need certain nutrients, not only to lay eggs, but also to keep the hens healthy and stress free. Protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins and minerals are the basic building blocks of a healthy diet. Here is the basic breakdown of what their diet should contain (percent of feed by weight):
- Protein – 16-18%
- Lysine – .75-.79%
- Methionine – .3%
- Fat – 3.5%
- Calcium – 3-3.5%
They also need the following vitamins (per pound of feed):
- Vitamin A – 5,200 U.S.P units/lb
- Vitamin D3 – 1,000 ICU (some may be supplied by sunlight)
- Riboflavin – 1.37 mg
- Pantothenic acid – 4 mg
- Choline chloride – 450 mg
- Niacin – 17 mg
How Much to Feed?
How much food your laying hens need to consume will depend a great deal on their breed, how much forage they have available, and how warm they are. In the summer they will have more grass and insects to eat, plus they eat less in hot conditions. In the winter they will have fewer opportunities to hunt for extra calories and they will burn more energy staying warm in northern areas. In general, laying hens need between a quarter of a pound and a third of a pound of feed per day to keep them in good health, if they don’t have acess to a large pasture.
Check the Label
Bags of chicken feed will have labels attached that list the ingredients and the nutritional makeup. Check to make sure that the above list of nutrients are supplied in proper amounts. Too much or too little can have an adverse effect on the health and production of your flock.
Keep it Fresh
Don’t stock up on more ground, pellet, or crumble chicken feed than you can use up in one month or the nutrients may break down and the fats can go rancid. This may lead to deficiencies and illness in your flock. During the cold winter months you may be able to keep feed longer and in hot weather it may need to be used faster to prevent degradation.
Whole grain feeds will keep longer than ground grains, but it is more difficult to keep mineral and vitamin supplements from settling down to the bottom of the bag or bin. Mix these ingredients back in each time you scoop feed out.
Fresh foods such as dark green leafy veggies, fruits, and foraged insects, will provide extra calcium and micronutrients. You may also improve the health of your chickens by feeding them sprouted wheat, barley, or oats. Check out my post, Sprouting Wheat for Chicken Feed, to see my el-cheapo sprouting system.
Too Many Treats?
We all like to spoil our animals, but it can cause serious issues with their health. Too many scratch grains, treats, and fatty foods will create problems for your flock. Because the hens like these foods best, they will consume as much of them as they can, leaving their layer rations in the feed dish. That may lead to thin shelled eggs, fewer eggs, and possibly even no eggs at all! The extra calories and fat is stored as fatty tissue under the skin on their breast and in their abdomen. A fat hen can’t produce eggs like a hen that is a healthy weight. So don’t give your chickens more than a very small handful when you call them in to roost at night. You may give a bit more of the high calorie foods, such as corn and sunflower seeds, in the winter if your hens are trying to stay warm.
Always keep fresh, clean water available for your flock. A lack of water will reduce production due to dehydration. Remember, the hen needs to maintain her own health first and egg production suffers if she doesn’t have enough water in her system.
If the water supply is softened (with a water softening unit in your home), the hen’s salt levels could be thrown off balance. Can you give them water that hasn’t been treated? If your water source is from a municipality that treats with chlorine, allow the water to sit over night, or boil then cool it before filling the water dish for your chickens.
Keep crushed oyster shell available free choice so that your hens may consume extra calcium if they are not getting enough from their feed. If they have oyster shell, plenty of layer feed, and they are laying thin shelled eggs, or very few eggs, try adding more vitamin D3 to their diet. This vitamin is necessary for proper absorption of calcium.
I have attempted to mix up my own chicken feed in order to save money, but with pretty poor results. Egg production slumped and the shells were very thin. I think if you are able to grind your home raised grains and add in the necessary vitamins and minerals, you could produce your own feed for less.
What do you feed your laying hens?