Raising Pullets for Your Small Farm or Backyard Coop

How to Get From Chick to Pullet to Hen

A black pullet in front of a wooden fence
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The term pullet refers to a young hen, usually under one year of age. Once a chick develops feathers rather than down, it is then called a pullet if it is female or a cockerel if it is a male. Pullet can refer to a laying hen or a meat chicken but it is more typically used for a laying hen.

If you are interested in keeping chickens on your farm or in your backyard, you need to know about the proper lighting, feeding, and nest boxes that will help them mature into healthy laying hens.

The Basics on Pullets

When buying chicks you can purchase straight run chicks that aren't sexed, or you can buy sexed chicks. For egg production, choose chicks that have already been identified as pullets. You don't need males unless you want fertile eggs to hatch; they consume feed and take up space that you could more profitably use for hens.

Healthy chicks that are raised under sound feeding and management practices will produce healthy hens. Purchasing the right type of chick is important when starting or managing a chicken coop. If you want the best type of hen for egg production purposes, choose the small-bodied commercial White Leghorn strains. There are a few commercial brown egg-laying strains available that lay nearly as well as White Leghorns and are satisfactory for small-flock production. Consider raising both some good egg-type pullets and some broiler crosses for meat, instead of using a dual-purpose breed that is not ideal for either purpose.

You can also buy ready-to-lay pullets who are 17 weeks old. They may begin producing eggs a few weeks after you receive them. As pullets can transmit diseases, you need to ensure they have been vaccinated and tested or you will need to quarantine these new birds from the rest of your flock.

Delaying Sexual Maturity of Pullets

You may be excited for the pullet to become mature so it can begin production, but it's better to delay the sexual maturity of pullets. This will allow them to grow better before egg production.

Increasing day length triggers early sexual maturity of the pullet. Chicks hatched between April and August can be exposed to the natural day length because the day length goes down during the latter part of the growth period. As well, consider starting chicks after March because you will require less heat to brood them.

When your pullets have reached 3 pounds, they are ready to produce and it is time to begin light stimulation. A suggested light schedule is 13 hours at 17 weeks, 14 hours at 18 weeks, 15 hours at 19 weeks, and then increasing the light 1/2 hour per day per week. You will reach 17 hours of light at 25 weeks, which should then be maintained. A schedule of light from 4:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. is suggested. You will only need about a 60-watt bulb for a coop of 12-by-12-feet in size. Once the pullets laying, do not allow the day length to decrease.

Are Your Pullets Producing?

If your pullets are well taken care of, they can start laying eggs when they are between 16 and 24 weeks old. When they begin laying, they will need extra nutrition, so be sure to choose the right feed for hens. An 18 percent layer ration is suggested for pullets from 18 to 30 weeks.

Here is how to tell if your pullet is a laying hen:

  • The chicken will be between 16 and 24 weeks old.
  • It will appear to be full grown with clean, new feathers.
  • The chicken's combs and wattles will be swollen and look red.
  • The hen's pelvis bones will begin to separate. You can tell if this has happened by cradling the hen and holding its feet so it cannot kick you, then place your hand gently on its rear end, and see if three prominent bones feel close together. If so, it will be a few more weeks until she begins to lay eggs.

If your pullet is ready to start laying eggs, make sure to give her some privacy. It's vital to have nest boxes in place before the first egg arrives. Line them with straw, wood chips, dried grass, or shredded paper to make sure the eggs stay clean.

Using Pullet Eggs

The eggs your pullets lay will be smaller than those of a mature hen. In commercial production, these small eggs go to other purposes (such as powdered eggs) since the market prefers large and extra large eggs. But they are perfectly fine to eat. In fact, some chefs seek out pullet eggs because they have more yolk and they think they are richer in flavor. Be careful in cooking them as they cook quicker than larger eggs.