Laying Hen Care and Feeding for the Small Farm

Giving Your Flock What It Needs

A laying hen dust bathing
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Laying hen is a common term for a female, grown chicken that is kept primarily for laying eggs. Some chickens are raised for meat, while others are raised to produce eggs, and some are dual-purpose. People may use older laying hens for food, or raise roosters alongside hens but dispatch the roosters as young, plump birds for the table.

Raising laying hens is a different process than raising chickens for meat. Most laying hens will live five to seven years, laying eggs nearly daily for about three of those years. You'll need to consider whether you want to feed hens that no longer lay well or whether this is an egg-selling business where you really can't afford to have "grain burners" living in your coop, getting a free ride.

Housing Your Laying Hens

If you want to raise laying hens, decide what kind of chicken coop you will need for them. You will need to ensure you are meeting the laws of your city, county, and state. These may limit the number of animals you can keep, whether or not you can have a rooster, and where the coop can be located in relation to your property line.

Your set-up will also vary if you buy baby chicks, pullets (under 1-year-old), mature laying hens, and whether you will keep a rooster or not. Chicks need much more warmth to ensure their survival. Your chicken coop needs enough light, usually set on a timer, to mature your pullets to lay eggs and keep your hens producing throughout the year. If you live in a cold climate, you'll need to make sure that your laying hens are set up to be comfortable through the winter.

Laying hens need their nest boxes cleaned monthly. You will also need to clean and sanitize the coop thoroughly once or twice a year, taking everything out and washing it down with a 1-to-10 bleach solution.

Feeding Laying Hens

You need to feed a laying hen properly to keep it producing. For those older than 16 to 20 weeks, it is time to switch them to a layer feed, which has extra calcium to help in producing strong eggshells. This differs from a broiler feed, which is made for those breeding other chickens. The layer feed should provide a balanced diet with 16 percent to 18 percent protein and approximately 3.5 percent calcium to promote strong eggshells. Calcium deficiencies can result in eggs with thin shells and hens with leg issues, so you may want to offer them free-choice oyster shell for extra calcium. Some farmers feed the chickens higher-protein feed when they are in peak egg production or when they're eating less during warmer weather.

If you allow your chickens free-range privileges, they can eat anything from insects and grains to berries, seeds, and plants. Be aware that they will scratch at your decorative plants and in your vegetable garden, so you will want to be able to protect those areas. Some farmers feed their hens bread and extra cow's milk, though others advise against it.