Treating your layer hens to a little TLC will mean delicious, golden-yolked eggs for your morning breakfast.
Back in the days before my layer flock came to enliven life on our farm, I would have picked the egg for sure—or maybe the egg carton. After all, the runny, pale-yolked eggs I cooked came from cartons sold at the grocery store, not from any chickens that I could see. My perspective changed, however, when I brought home our first fuzzy chicks, watched them grow into gawky pullets and waited—and waited—with bated breath for our first farm-fresh eggs to magically appear.
I eventually learned that not only did you first need chickens to have eggs (obviously), but to start getting eggs, you also needed your pullets to reach about 20 weeks of age. And to get an ongoing supply of good eggs, your chickens needed the right food, clean nest boxes, sufficient daylight and more. In other words, because an egg’s quality reflects the care and management the hen receives, getting good eggs takes some work—and not just on the chicken’s part. Take it from anyone who has ever kept a layer flock, the delicious results are well worth the effort.
If you think fun chickens giving delectable eggs every day sounds like a recipe for hobby-farm happiness, our guide to getting good eggs will help you collect the right ingredients.
What’s In an Egg?
Before we look at what should go into a laying chicken, let’s talk about what comes out. That amazing chicken egg has a protective, external, porous shell consisting mainly of calcium carbonate covered with an invisible protein barrier called the cuticle that shields the interior from bacterial contamination.
These structures, along with an inner membrane, surround a cushiony, cloudy albumen (the white), composed mostly of water and protein. The albumen in turn envelopes the nutrient-packed yolk, the egg’s main nucleus of protein, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. On average, a chicken egg contains about six grams of protein and six grams of fat.
1. Provide the Basics
To keep its body functioning and to produce one of these self-contained, nutrient-rich units each day, it’s essential a laying hen receive a balanced diet with adequate levels of protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins and minerals.
For laying flocks older than 16 to 20 weeks, experts generally recommend a balanced layer ration containing 16- to 18-percent protein and approximately 3½-percent calcium to promote strong eggshells.
Many raisers also offer free-choice oyster shell for extra calcium in case their feed falls short of this important mineral. Calcium deficiency can result in thin-shelled eggs and leg problems. You may need to offer your birds the higher-protein feed during periods of peak egg production and when hot weather causes birds to eat less.
If you keep your flock confined, don’t forget to provide them with a source of insoluble grit to assist in grinding the feed in their gizzards. You’ll find oyster shell, grit, formulated layer rations and various types of feeders at your local feed store. Some even carry balanced, organic layer diets, if you prefer your flock dine on food free of antibiotics and grown in a sustainable fashion.
Chickens allowed to free-range pastures, orchards, gardens or other outdoor areas will consume a nutritious and diverse mix of insects, grains, berries, seeds and plants in addition to their formulated fare. Many chicken keepers treat their flocks to other goodies, too, from bread to surplus cow’s milk. However, a number of poultry experts advise against this practice.
“A lot of farmers try to save money by feeding scratch grains and household food scraps,” says Jacquie Jacob, PhD, poultry extension associate at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. “This dilutes the nutrition of the laying feed and can result in shell weakness or cessation of production altogether.”
Laying chickens also require a constant supply of fresh, clean water. Not only does a chicken’s body use this life-sustaining liquid for numerous physiological functions, but water also comprises more than half of an egg’s volume. You must ensure your birds have a reliable water source during both hot and dry periods and freezing weather or their egg production will suffer.
Along with a balanced diet and ample water, your chickens need protection from the elements, predators and disease to stay alive and healthy—and thus keep laying eggs. A cold, wet chicken, for example, will be forced to spend its energy reserves trying to stay warm rather than on egg production. A sick or stressed chicken will often reduce its egg output or completely quit laying. And it goes without saying that a bird killed by fowl cholera or a coyote will not be giving you any more eggs—ever.
A snug, secure, well-built and properly ventilated chicken coop will offer your flock shelter from inclement weather, give your birds a predator-safe spot to roost at night, and discourage the presence of disease-carrying rodents and wild birds.
Outdoor access into a covered coop or pen gives the chickens a protected place to dust bathe, scratch for bugs and preen in the sunshine. However, not all raisers keep their birds cooped round-the-clock; many allow their flocks to free-range around the farm during the day, while others utilize pasture-based systems that incorporate mobile chicken tractors or moveable poultry netting.
Chicken Laying an egg: