Backyard laying hens are a fun and rewarding project for youth as well as grown folks. They eat many insects in the place they roam, their composted manure is a great soil amendment for home gardening, and the typical backyard breed will lay between 3 and 5 eggs per week if properly taken care of.
Good egg production begins with a solid diet for your hens. They require protein, starch, and fiber in adequate amounts to produce all the components of the egg. Other important ingredients to consider are grit, which aids in digestion; calcium, which is the major component in eggshells; and tender greens such as grass or weeds, which give the hen minerals and are a good source of fiber. A good layer feed has (depending on the brand) 16% to 25% protein and supplies loads of starch, a fair amount of grit, and many minerals the hen needs. Although layer feed can be given to hens without any supplements, the backyard chicken keeper usually gets better results by supplementing layer feed with ground oyster shells (both calcium and grit), adding an electrolyte solution (such as Sav-A-Chick) to their water in hot weather, and letting them free-range for at least part of the day to eat both insects and greenery.
Pullets purchased this spring are not likely to lay eggs until next spring or possibly late next fall depending n the weather. To get good production from your hens, they need at least 12 hours of daylight for their ovaries to begin working. Later in fall, through winter and early in spring, days are much shorter than this. In nature, if the chicken was raising a clutch of chicks, it would be harder to keep them alive in the winter months. She uses this to her advantage when living in cold places, not only to hatch more chicks but also to save her the energy of keeping them warm even in the cold. If the chicken keeper wants to make them lay through winter, all they have to do is add a light in the coop, and set it on a timer beginning at 4:00 in the morning. This extends the typical 10-hour daylight cycle to 14 hours, which is plenty of light for the hens. For practical purposes, this does not really hurt the hen, as long as she is getting a good diet and a place to sleep free of drafts, to reduce strain on her. And although she may produce less eggs than in the summer, she will still usually lay 2-4 eggs per week. A few things to consider are to collect eggs before they freeze (as the hen leaves the nest, they get cold), turn the light on in the morning instead of the evening, and be sure their nest is in a draft-free place in the coop away from feed and water sources, as the commotion of feeding can deter them from laying there. In addition, if you use red heat lamps instead of white bulbs, they will not have this effect on hens, as red light is not seen as daylight by the hen.
If you have questions about laying hens contact your County Extension Office or email me at [email protected].