First Egg to Retirement: A Reference Guide to Keeping Strong, Productive Hens
Congratulations on your first egg.
Finding your first egg is a magical moment, and it’s just the beginning. With the right nutrition and care, you’re in for years of farm fresh eggs.
We’ve enjoyed being with you — from strong baby chicks to the comical teenage phase and now as you raise happy, healthy hens.
This brochure is a sequel to our My First Year with Chickens guide and offers tips for raising and caring for adult laying hens. Print and keep this guide near your coop as a quick reference.
Throughout this guide, we share learnings from our own backyard coops on our farm in Missouri where our team works with backyard chickens each day.
If you have any questions as you go, connect with us online or stop by your local Purina® retailer. We’re happy to be with you each step of the way. And, like you, we love talking chickens!
Enjoy the journey!
Your friends at Purina
Flock Strong™ Feeding Guide
The most important poultry decision you make is your birds’ feed. Choosing a feed is easy with the Purina® Flock Strong™ feeding program.
No matter the bird’s age, she requires 38 unique nutrients to start strong, stay strong and lay eggs with strong shells.
When you choose a Purina® complete poultry feed for baby chicks or laying hens, all 38 necessary nutrients are included right in the bag – no need to supplement.
The Purina® Flock Strong™ feeding program is simple:
• For layer chicks from day 1 through first egg: Choose a Chick Strong™ starter-grower feed.
• For laying hens, starting at week 18: Choose a layer feed that includes the Oyster Strong® System.
Fast Facts By Age
There are five primary stages to raising laying hens. During each stage, hens require different care and nutrition to stay strong and productive. Read this section for a quick overview of each stage. Then flip further through the guide for deeper dives on each topic.
Weeks 15-17: Egg-ticipation
If you haven’t yet found your first farm fresh egg, you’re likely experiencing a bit of “egg-ticipation.” This is the term we’ve given for weeks 15-17. Hens are nearly full grown and, depending on breed and individual bird, the first egg is just around the corner.
When pullets are nearing their first lay, their behavior changes. Signs it’s time to prepare for eggs, include:
• Spending more time with the rooster
• Crouching for breeding
• Investigating the nesting area
Prepare nesting boxes: If you covered or blocked off nest boxes for pullets, you can now remove the coverings and allow hens to explore the boxes.
Provide one 1-foot square nest box for every four or five hens, raised off the floor in the darkest corner of the coop. The flock will take turns using the boxes. Line each box with a thick layer of straw or other bedding to cushion the eggs and keep them clean and unbroken.
Be sure all nest areas have a uniform environment. Once a hen begins laying, it’s her tendency to lay in the same spot moving forward. If hens decide one nest is preferable to others, they may all try to use it, causing stress, which can lead to egg breakage or egg eating. On our farm, we built the nests on the sides of our coops for easy outdoor access. This way, we can easily collect eggs without disrupting the flock.
When hens show signs of laying, keep them in the coop for short periods of time. Place golf balls or decoy eggs in the nesting boxes to help hens understand how to use the boxes.
Pick a layer feed: Before the first egg arrives, continue feeding a complete starter-grower feed. Feeding layer feed too early can cause kidney damage to young birds. Plan ahead, and select a layer feed in advance for a smooth transition when the first egg arrives around week 18.
As compared to starter-grower, a layer feed has less protein and more calcium. This added calcium is important for egg production.
Look for a complete layer feed that matches your flock goals — whether it’s Purina® Organic Layer Pellets or Crumbles, Purina® Layena® Plus Omega-3 or Purina® Layena®. These complete layer feeds include the 38 unique nutrients and the Oyster Strong® System hens need to stay healthy and produce strong-shelled eggs.
Weeks 18-20: Welcome to adulthood
If raising a backyard flock was a treasure hunt, the ultimate prize would be a hen’s first egg.
The first egg typically arrives between week 18-22 (4-5 months of age) but can vary based on breed, environment and nutrition. A rooster is not necessary for egg production.
When birds reach 18 weeks old or when the first egg arrives, begin the transition to a layer feed. We’ve found the more similar the two feeds are, the smoother the transition goes. A typical transition from one feed to the next should take about a week.
If birds have not started laying by weeks 18-20, you can still switch to a complete layer feed that includes the Oyster Strong® System. The extra calcium in layer feed can help jump-start egg production.
The first eggs a hen lays may be irregular — possibly small, with soft shells, no yolks or double yolks. After a week or so, egg production should become more consistent. A hen will reach peak egg performance at about 30 weeks of age.
Begin collecting eggs regularly — every morning and evening — to keep eggs fresh and prevent hens from eating eggs.
Once hens start laying, you can also reward them with a few treats and scratch. Keep treats to 10 percent of the diet or less to prevent diluting the nutrients in their complete feed.
Years 1-6: The prime layer years
High-producing hens can lay up to 300 eggs per year. It takes approximately 25 hours for a hen to produce one egg; six eggs per week is an ideal goal. Hens are typically most productive in their first year and then produce fewer eggs each subsequent year. Production slows drastically in years four, five and six.
Season can also play a role in how many eggs your hens will lay. As days get shorter, hens will naturally take an egg break due to a hormonal response caused by a decrease in day length.
To keep your hens laying eggs, you can add supplemental light to sustain egg production when natural day light is decreasing. Use a combination of natural and artificial lighting to provide your ladies with a total of 16 hours of light each day. Without added light, egg production will slow as the days get shorter and will start to pick up again as the days get longer in the spring.
Month 18 and annually thereafter: Molting
When chickens are around 18 months old, feathers will begin covering the coop floor. Welcome to molting season!
Molt is the term for when birds lose and regrow feathers. The first molt usually occurs in the fall when days become shorter and then annually thereafter.
Hens will take a break from egg laying and shed feathers for a few weeks. Expect about 8 weeks of feather loss and regrowth with the process taking up to 16 weeks for some birds.
If you notice your chickens are losing feathers, you can switch them to Purina® Flock Raiser® if you are feeding your flock conventional feed or Purina® Organic Starter-Grower if you are feeding your flock organically. The higher protein and energy in these complete feeds can help hens channel nutrients into feather regrowth and get back to laying eggs.
While you have your birds on Purina® Flock Raiser® or Purina® Organic Starter-Grower, you shouldn’t expect a lot of eggs from your flock. There isn’t enough calcium in the feed to support egg production.
Feed hens the high-protein feed for two weeks, and then begin providing supplemental oyster shell for an additional two weeks to get your hens back in egg production. After all four weeks, transition hens back to your Purina® complete layer feed of choice to get eggs again. See further down for more molting tips.
Retirement: Years 6+
While the average lifespan of a chicken is 8-10 years, we’ve also seen well cared-for hens live well-beyond that. Just like people, as birds age they tend to slow down.
One day, the time may come for the veterans of a flock to take a vacation and retire from egg-laying. Although a hen will stop laying as she ages, she still has an important place in the flock as a steady companion who brings joy to the entire family.
At this point, transition to Purina® Flock Raiser® or Purina® Organic Starter-Grower for organically-fed birds. If you have younger laying hens in the flock, be sure they are still getting a complete Purina® layer feed high in calcium to keep them laying eggs.
Just like the other stages, be careful not to overdo treats and scratch as it dilutes the essential 38 nutrients in the complete feed. Limit treats and scratch to 10 percent or less of the bird’s diet.
What to Look for in a Layer Feed
The biggest contributor to hen health, happiness and egg production is their nutrition. Laying hens require 38 unique nutrients to stay strong and produce quality eggs.
Each nutrient plays a specific role and works in tandem with other nutrients to support hen health and egg production. If one is lacking or supplied in excess, the imbalance can quickly impact bird health.
If you choose a Purina® complete layer feed, each of the 38 essential nutrients is included at the correct level – no need to supplement.
The feed you select can also impact the nutrition profile of a hen’s eggs. For added nutrition, look for a complete feed that includes omega-3. It’s been shown that hens fed Layena® Plus Omega-3 produce eggs with at least 250 mg omega-3 fatty acids per egg versus only 50 mg omega-3 in a traditional store-bought egg.
Crumbles vs. Pellets? The Great Debate.
This decision comes down to personal preference. Some birds prefer pellets while others love crumbles. Both pellets and crumbles include the same 38 essential nutrients laying hens require. Crumbles are simply pellets broken into smaller pieces to accommodate birds that prefer a smaller particle size. They are often a good choice for recently hatched chicks. Studies have shown less feed waste with pellets. On our farm, we start our chicks on starter-grower crumbles and then transition to pellets as they grow.
How to Switch Feeds
When you’re ready to switch feeds, sign-up for our Feed Greatness® Challenge to receive a coupon for layer feed. Then make the transition to a new feed slowly. Birds love consistency, so it may take a few days for them to acclimate to their new feed. If birds are used to crumbles, start with a crumbled Purina® feed. The same goes with pellets. The more similar the two feeds are, the more smoothly the transition will go.
1. Sprinkle a handful of new feed on top of the current feed.
2. Over the next several days, increase the proportion of new feed added each day. Mix the feeds together so birds eat both old and new feed.
3. By the end of the 7-10-day period, the feeder should contain only the new feed, and the transition is complete.
Why Hens Need the Oyster Strong® System in Their Layer Feed
The biggest difference from a starter-grower feed to a layer feed is calcium. Layer feeds include higher calcium levels to help hens form eggshells.
To make a shell, each hen needs 4 grams of calcium per day — slowly broken down over a 24-hour period. This calcium must come from the hen’s feed.
Most layer feeds include a source of calcium that is quickly digested and absorbed because of its small size. However, eggshell formation can take up to 18 hours; most of the shell formation occurs while the hens are sleeping and, therefore, not eating. Without a consistent supply of calcium, hens will pull calcium from their bones to make eggshells, which can weaken her skeletal structure.
Purina® layer feeds include calcium in varying particle sizes in our Oyster Strong® System. This helps the calcium break down slowly to ensure a supply of calcium is available at night when hens are forming eggshells.
If you choose a Purina® layer feed with the exclusive Oyster Strong® System, the necessary calcium is included in every bite— no need to supplement.
Why Strong Shells Matter
Strong shells directly impact egg safety. Strong eggshells are better able to keep bacteria out.
Let’s start by looking at the shell under a microscope. A strong eggshell is about 0.3 millimeters thick and has between 7,000 and 17,000 tiny pores2. These pores allow oxygen, carbon dioxide and moisture to pass through while working to keep bacteria out.
Eggshells with larger pores or thinner shells have less protective power. A strong shell can help deflect bad bacteria, while bacteria can fit through the larger pores of a weak shell.
The shell is then covered by a thin coating called the bloom, or cuticle, for added protection. Just inside the shell, the inner and outer membranes provide yet another layer of defense. These protective shields work together to keep the contents of an egg safe and healthy. However, none of these barriers are effective unless you start with a strong eggshell; it’s the egg’s first line of defense.
There is a direct connection between layer feed and shell strength. The major player in the equation is calcium with support from manganese and other trace minerals. Layer feeds with the Oyster Strong® System include these nutrients so hens can produce strong-shelled, protective eggs.
2 “How thick is an eggshell? “University of California-Santa Barbara. http://www. eggnutritioncenter.org/blog/fun-fact-friday-an-egg-has-7000-17000-tiny-poreson-its-shell/. 11 September 2017.
There are many supplements available to backyard chicken raisers. If you feed a complete layer feed for at least 90 percent of the diet, additional supplements are needed only on rare occasions.
Adding spices, supplements and additives to feed: There is no need to add spices, supplements or additives to a complete feed. Complete poultry feeds are formulated to provide all the nutrients birds require. Adding spices, supplements or additives can dilute these essential nutrients. If you feed a complete feed, this is all your birds need.
Grit: Chickens do not have teeth. Instead, they swallow food whole and break it down in the gizzard. Grit aids in this feed breakdown. If fed a commercially-prepared complete feed, grit is not needed since the ingredients in a complete feed are already ground into small enough pieces that a digestive aid is not necessary.
Oyster Shell: Laying hens benefit from a calcium source that is slowly released to produce eggs with strong shells. If you feed a layer feed that includes our Oyster Strong® System, there is no need to supplement. Supplement Purina® Oyster Shell to free-range flocks, during molt, during periods of heat stress, or when a complete layer feed is not available.
Probiotics and Prebiotics
Prebiotic and probiotic supplements are available on the market. If you feed a premium Purina® complete feed, the probiotics and prebiotics are included right in the feed to help maintain a healthy digestive system.
Millions of bacteria, known as microflora, live inside a chicken’s digestive system. Some of these bacteria are good while others can be harmful.
The success of the digestive system depends on a higher ratio of beneficial to harmful bacteria. Probiotics and prebiotics are included in Purina® feeds help maintain this balance.
Probiotics reinforce beneficial bacteria.
Probiotics are the beneficial bacteria that work to keep the digestive tract healthy. They support the other bacteria in the digestive tract while limiting the growth of potentially harmful bacteria that ultimately supports hen health.
Prebiotics strengthen beneficial bacteria. While prebiotics help support digestive health, they work differently than probiotics. Prebiotics are not actual live bacteria but are a form of carbohydrate that provides nutrition to support the growth of beneficial bacteria already inside the gut.
Treats and Supplements
Once hens start laying eggs, you can start offering treats. Treats, scratch grains and table scraps can be a fun way to spend time with the backyard flock. When you sprinkle scratch grains or place a Purina® Flock Block™ supplement in the coop, the flock comes running. But it’s not really the treats that make the flock come running, it’s the attention. Chickens will flock for complete feed just as they would for treats. This is because chickens have fewer than 350 taste buds compared to humans’ roughly 10,000 taste buds.
Still, treats and foraging can be fun pastimes for the flock. If you’d like to offer treats and free-range time, here are a few tips to keep in mind.
Follow the 90/10 rule
Limit treats to 10 percent of the diet. More treats than this can dilute the essential nutrients provided in the complete feed.
Think of treats, kitchen scraps and scratch grains as candy for birds; fun to eat and a nice treat, but you wouldn’t want to make a meal of them. Like candy for us, kitchen scraps and scratch grains are not fortified with vitamins and minerals.
Every time you provide unfortified treats, you dilute the complete nutrition of the layer feed and the hens may receive less nutrition than they would if they just ate their complete feed. If you feed high levels of treats, the hens will likely eat less fortified feed, causing them to miss out on the nutrients they need.
Corn, scratch grains, fruits and vegetables are all considered treats. Since we know it is fun to feed treats, view these items as special goodies hens get in small amounts a few times a week. Just be cautious not to over-treat.
What does the 90/10 rule mean? Laying hens eat approximately 0.25 pounds of complete feed each day, which is about the same as one-half cup. When putting the 90/10 rule into practice, this means treats should not exceed 2 tablespoons. A few small treats are all each bird should have per day.
Scratch grains should be viewed as a treat. Do not feed scratch grains for more than 10 percent of a chicken’s diet. Whereas complete feeds are fortified with all the nutrients chickens need, scratch is more like candy. Scratch grains are a nice treat that your hens will surely enjoy, but scratch grains should not be fed as a sole or primary component of your flock’s diet.
Purina® Flock Block™ Supplement
The Purina® Flock Block™ supplement is a fun and healthy treat. Made with whole grains and fortified with vitamins, minerals and amino acids, it provides enrichment no matter the season while also providing more nutrition than scratch grains to keep your hens healthy and productive.
In the summer, place the Flock Block™ supplement outside to encourage natural pecking behavior. In colder weather, the Flock Block™ supplement can be a useful boredom buster — keeping the flock occupied and less likely to peck one another while in the coop.
It can also serve as a backup weekend or vacation feeder for your flock in case something happens to their regular feeder.
Birds love to explore the backyard and it can be quite entertaining to watch their adventures. If birds free-range, start by feeding their complete feed in the morning before they go out exploring.
Whistle or sing a consistent song when feeding the flock. Birds will get used to the sound and come running. This is a good way to train them to come back to the coop when called.
Chickens are natural foragers, so trying new foods is inevitable. They tend to avoid foods that are bad or harmful for them.
Install a chicken fence or tunnel in the yard to keep them from your favorite gardens. Consider planting a chicken-friendly garden for them to explore and placing a Purina® Flock Block™ supplement in the yard to encourage natural pecking.
Refer to the graphics on the next page as baseline foods to offer and avoid.
Whether your birds are foraging or spending more time in the coop, start with a complete feed as the baseline and then be careful not to over-treat your birds with goodies. The 90/10 rule still applies.
Signs of Good Nutrition and Healthy Birds
As you get to know your flock, you’ll learn your birds’ personalities and habits. If their attitudes, behavior or performance change, investigate your management and nutrition for possible gaps, or potential management stressors.
Many flock raisers begin by looking at nutrition as a first reason for flock problems. But if you are feeding a complete feed for at least 90 percent of the diet, nutritional deficiencies are unlikely. Evaluate other reasons that bird behavior and performance may change — from stress and predators to shorter days, illness or over-treating. See page 48 to help troubleshoot.
Always remember, a quality nutrition program is the cornerstone of bird health and happiness. Hens receiving the 38 nutrients they need are better equipped for success, because they channel nutrients directly into their eggs, appearance and health. You’ll be able to tell birds are receiving the nutrition they need by their appearance and behavior.
If you are feeding a complete feed and not over-treating, you should notice:
Strong eggshells: Strong shells are about 0.3 millimeters thick and serve to protect the inside of the egg. Strong shells often break in a crisp, clean line. Strong shells are an indicator of healthy birds and good nutrition, showing hens are receiving the calcium they need.
Consistent egg production: The number of eggs hens produce can vary greatly by breed, but most average to above-average egg-laying breeds will produce 5-6 eggs per week during their prime laying years. Expect peak performance in the first year, with egg production decreasing year-over-year as hens age.
Dark, golden yolks: Many flock raisers praise farm fresh eggs for their vibrant golden yolks. Rich yolks are a result of xanthophylls in their feed, a natural yellow-orange pigment found in plants and yellow corn. Pale yolks are a sign that hens may not be getting enough xanthophylls in their diet, which can be caused by too many treats or scraps. See page 20 for tips on treats.
Shiny feathers: When not in molt, healthy feathers have a sheen that gives birds a slick appearance. Healthy feathers are vibrant and sturdy. Some of our fans have referred to their bird’s feathers as having the “Purina® sheen.”
Brightly colored combs: When a hen begins laying eggs, her comb and wattles will get larger and blood flow will increase, which causes them to be a darker red color. When those hens molt or stop laying eggs, the combs and wattles will fade to pink or a pale red color and will also shrink in size. When she returns to laying eggs, the combs and wattles will change again.
High energy: Healthy chickens are social, curious and should feel energized to freely move throughout the coop, run or backyard. A lack of movement, low head carriage and overall depressed appearance may be a sign that something is wrong.
Coops and Comfort
As hens mature and spend more time in the coop, it’s important to keep the coop safe and clean. Here are some coop tips to keep your adult hens comfortable:
Space: Ensure at least 2 square feet of indoor space and 8 square feet of outdoor space per bird. The coop is their house, and the run is their playground. If you add more birds to your flock, provide additional space. Nest boxes and roosts: Hens spend a lot of time in nest boxes and on roosts, so check them regularly for cleanliness and quality. You should have one 1-footcube nest box for every four hens. If the nest boxes are free standing, then make sure that they are secure and will not fall over.
For roosts, at least 1 foot of roosting space per bird for sleeping is ideal. Chickens like to sleep off the ground. A two-by-four board with the wide edge facing up works well for a roost. Do not use metal or plastic for roosts as they can cause feet problems and will chill the hens in cold weather.
Predator proof: At least monthly, check the coop’s predator proofing. Check the screens, buried galvanized wire, latches and coop corners for signs of predators and replace accordingly. Do not use chicken wire as it can easily stretch.
Ventilation: Sit on the coop floor and smell the air. With proper ventilation and cleaning, you should not smell ammonia. Coops should have ventilation during all seasons with windows on all four sides and ventilation holes at the top.
Lighting: Laying hens require 16 hours of light for maximum egg production. We suggest an incandescent 25-watt or LED 9-watt bulb per 100 square feet of coop space. Put lights on timers for consistent sleeping schedules. Don’t leave lights on 24 hours a day. Hens also need a dark period to maintain egg production.
Feed and treats: Place the feeder, waterer and any treats in the run. This allows the coop to be a space or sleeping and laying eggs and encourages exercise. Offer complete feed and fresh water in the morning before hens explore. Place treats in a separate area after birds have finished eating their complete feed.
Monitor aggression: The pecking order can shift at times. If birds are becoming aggressive, place a Purina® Flock Block™ supplement in the run as an option to redirect that aggression. If one bird is overly aggressive, she may need to be moved to a separate coop. Also, ensure your flock is not too crowded, which can cause an increase in aggression.
Additional coops: As your flock grows, consider a second coop. Many flock raisers have second coops for broody hens, new birds, aggressive flock members or pullets. If you add new birds to the flock, keep the new group of birds in the second coop for 30 days as a biosecurity precaution.
Bedding: On our farm, we use pine shavings in the coop and gravel in the run. Another good option in the=run is construction grade sand. It is a courser material that allows better drainage than play sand.
Straw can work in the coop but be sure it is high-quality and stored in a clean, dry place. Wet or damp straw can lead to mold growth which can be a health hazard. Avoid cedar because of its strong odor and sawdust as it can become a respiratory irritant. The fine particles can be inhaled when sawdust is disturbed.
You likely built your coop when your chicks were in the teenage stage and moved them to the coop around 6-weeks-old. For our top coop building tips from the Purina Animal Nutrition Center, see pages 20-21 in the My First Year with Chickens guide. Click here to download that guide.
Flock Biosecurity and Coop Cleanliness
To help prevent diseases and parasites and to help keep birds healthy, focus on good sanitation and biosecurity.
Biosecurity is defined as a set of procedures intended to protect humans or animals against disease. The first step to a healthy flock is regular sanitation.
Start by adding absorbent wood shavings to the coop floor and nest boxes, 3 to 4 inches deep to keep the area dry and odor-free. Damp litter creates conditions perfect for parasites, viruses and bacteria to thrive. Cleaning the chicken coop can be a quick process if done regularly.
• Spot check for problem areas. Remove wet or soiled bedding.
• Replace bedding.
• Clean chicken waterers, chicken feeders and roosts. Choose a disinfectant that is safe for animals and doesn’t leave a residual film. A mixture of 10 percent bleach and 90 percent water can work well. Rinse thoroughly.
Twice per year:
• Perform a deep clean by removing everything from the coop and sanitizing with a 90/10 solution of water and bleach.
Other tips for keeping healthy chickens:
• Whenever working with backyard chickens or supplies, wash your hands with soap and water before and after handling birds and eggs.
• Minimize exposure to external sources of contaminants, both human and animal. This means reducing the flock’s exposure to visitors who may own poultry; if you or a visitor has been with another flock, change your clothes and shoes to prevent carry of disease. Designate a pair of shoes or boots to be worn only when you are spending time with your flock.
• Avoid wildlife and domestic pets by keeping food in safe areas, such as inside the coop or runs. Reduce contact with wild birds or their droppings by placing wild bird feeders far away from the coop and by constructing a roof or cover over the run.
• When adding new birds, follow a 30-day quarantine. Keep any new birds cooped in a different building at least 12 yards from your flock. Observe them for signs of illness and care for new birds last to help keep from spreading disease.
• Report sick birds. If your birds are sick or dying, call your local cooperative extension office, veterinarian, the State Veterinarian or State animal/poultry diagnostic laboratory or the U.S. Department of Agriculture at 1-866-536-7593. The USDA will put you in touch with a local contact that can help you.
Summer Flock Care
Summertime essentials are similar for both humans and backyard flocks: stay hydrated, protect yourself from the heat and maintain a complete and balanced diet.
Birds are unable to sweat. To cool down, they open their beaks and pant or spread their wings away from their bodies. If these cooling strategies are not enough, birds are more likely to become lethargic and may stop eating feed, which can lead to subsequent health challenges and reduced egg production.
Remember the H2O. Clean, cool water is essential. Provide at least 500 milliliters (17 ounces) of fresh water per bird per day. This equates to one gallon for every seven adult birds. In high temperatures, chickens will drink up to twice as much as temperate conditions.
• Provide extra waterers so each bird has access.
• Place waterers in a shaded area to keep the water cool and the coop dry.
• Offer fresh, cool water in the morning and evening.
• Freeze water in a storage container. Place the resulting ice in the waterer in the morning to keep the water cool.
• Place marbles in waterers to prevent splashing.
• Wash waterers weekly with a mixture of 10 percent bleach and 90 percent water. Rinse thoroughly.
Keep body temperature in check. If a bird’s body temperature climbs, it can cause a lasting strain. Create a cool and comfortable environment for the flock to enjoy.
• Provide shade by placing roofs on the run and/or shade cloths over the door. Add misters outside the coop that spray onto the roof or shade cover for evaporative cooling.
• Create airflow inside the coop. Open all windows and roof vents to allow hot air and ammonia to escape. Add a small fan for air circulation.
• Swap solid coop doors with screen doors and keep lights off during the day. Reduce bedding to two inches or less to avoid heat being trapped.
• Provide a peat moss dust bath. If mites are a concern, switch to a mix of 90 percent peat moss, 10 percent diatomaceous earth.
• Avoid overcrowding by providing at least 2 square feet of indoor space and 8 square feet of outdoor space per bird.
• Fill bottles with water and freeze them. Place the frozen bottles in the coop as cooling stations for birds to lay by.
Indulge a bit but keep a balance. Summer is the perfect time to give birds a few indulgent snacks, but don’t forget the 90/10 rule.
• Give fresh complete feed in the morning and evening in a shaded area, offering treats only after the flock has finished their complete feed.
• Offer cold or frozen fruits and vegetables as a summertime treat.
• Provide special treats such as Purina® Flock Block™ supplement or Purina® Scratch Grains as a complement to a complete feed. Treats formulated specifically for birds can provide beneficial nutrients while keeping birds active.
• Offer a dish of Purina® Oyster Shell to help maintain calcium intake and eggshell quality when birds may be eating less due to heat.
• Provide at least 6 inches of feeder space per bird.
Summer heat tends to reduce feed intake, so the complete feed should be the first dietary priority. When birds have a balanced diet, plenty of water and a cool, comfortable environment, they are better able to remain productive and enjoy a peaceful backyard summer.
Winter Flock Care
Raising chickens in the winter can be a lot of fun. Some hens love wandering around the yard and their first snow sighting can be quite entertaining. A bird’s thick feathers are a natural protective coat, so most breeds are well-equipped for winter.
Here are a few tips to keep your flock strong through the winter months:
Do not add heat lamps. Chickens, especially cold-tolerant breeds, can withstand winter temperatures without supplemental heat. A chicken’s body temperature is around 106 degrees Fahrenheit, and they have their own protective layer of feathers to keep them warm.
If you feel it is necessary to provide a source of heat, only provide enough heat to raise the temperature a few degrees. The hens will adjust to the cold temperature, but if it is 70 degrees Fahrenheit in the coop and 0 degrees Fahrenheit in the run, birds will not be able to regulate their body temperature.
Allow exploration. Birds can tolerate snow, cold air and ice water. There is very little muscle in the lower part of bird legs and feet. The movements are controlled by tendons that stretch from the upper part of the legs down to the toes. Secondly, the blood entering the lower legs and feet are cooled by the blood returning to the heart. The blood returning is thus warmed by the blood going to the toes. The tissue receives just enough heat to avoid frostbite while also being provided with enough oxygen to keep things functioning.
Collect eggs more frequently. Temperatures below freezing result in frozen eggs. As the egg freezes, the contents expand and will cause the egg to crack.
Keep the coop draft-free, but don’t seal it completely. Some air needs to be exchanged to prevent ammonia build up. Open the top vent or higher windows slightly so fresh air can enter and stale air can exit.
Keep the coop dry. Remove any wet spots daily. Provide more bedding than you would in other seasons so birds have a place to burrow and stay cozy.
Continue offering coop activities. Hens will spend more time in the coop, so offer enrichment. Logs, sturdy branches or chicken swings can work well and place a Purina® Flock Block™ supplement modifier in the coop for a nutritious place to peck.
Ensure feed and water isn’t frozen. Consider heated waterers. Feed and water birds more often when it’s below freezing. Energy needs increase in winter. Animals expend a considerable amount of energy to stay warm and will eat more feed. Complete layer feeds include all the energy hens need, the 90/10 rule still applies in winter.
Oatmeal not needed. A common myth is to feed oatmeal to birds in the winter. This is not a beneficial treat for chickens. Oats contain fiber they can’t digest and can cause the contents of the digestive tract to thicken. This leads to a reduction in the bird’s ability to digest and absorb nutrients.
Greens unnecessary. Hens may pick at hay and spread it around, but they are not going to eat it. Feeding a complete layer feed will provide the necessary nutrition hens need to get through the winter.
High-producing hens will lay up to 300 eggs per year. This is because it takes 24-26 hours to create each egg, and hens take a natural break each year for molting. Eighty to 90 percent is considered excellent egg production (100 percent = 1 egg per hen per day), but breed, housing, weather, management, parasite load and nutrition can all affect the rate of lay of your hens.
Within their first year of life, your birds will be at their peak laying production at about 30 weeks of age. The first eggs will likely be smaller and increase in size over time. As your birds age, egg size will even out and egg count will gradually drop.
At about 2 years old, you can estimate a hen will lay about 80 percent the eggs she did in her first year. So, if your hen lays 300 eggs in her first year, you can estimate she’ll lay about 240 eggs under idea conditions in her second year.
When your hen is in her third year of laying, you can estimate to have just under 70 percent the production of the first year, and in the fourth year of laying about 60 percent of the first year’s production. See the accompanying graph from the University of Florida to help estimate the number of eggs you can expect from your flock each year.
3 J.P. Jacob, H.R. Wilson, R.D. Miles, G. D. Butcher, and F.B. Mather. “Factors Affecting Egg Production in Backyard Chicken Flocks.” University of Florida- Extension. http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ps029. Accessed: 16 May 2018.
Egg Collection and Handling
The daily egg hunt can be a fun family activity. Kids love running out to the coop to find eggs in the morning.
When egg production is in full swing, you can collect about one egg per hen per day.
Egg laying schedules vary. Some hens tend to lay in the morning while others lay later in the day. If you are planning to eat or hatch eggs, it is important to collect eggs regularly and store them properly.
Collect often. Gather eggs two to three times per day, at least in the morning and evening. Collect even more often during extreme warm or cold weather. This helps keep eggs cleaner and reduces chances for eggs to get cracked by hen traffic in the nests.
Egg cracks can allow bacteria access to the interior of the egg. Always discard eggs with noticeable cracks. Microscopic cracks and large cracks can be a result of an inadequate diet and infrequent egg gathering.
Frequent collection can also help prevent egg eating. Egg eating generally occurs when a hen finds a broken egg, tastes it, likes it and begins searching for other broken eggs, then learns to break them herself.
If eggs are not collected, hens are also likely to go broody. A broody hen is a hen that sits to incubate her eggs and hatch chicks. A broody hen will stop laying eggs. If there are no roosters in your flock, the eggs are not fertile and will never hatch.
Store properly. A common egg question is to wash or not wash eggs. There are solid points for both sides, so it comes down to personal preference.
Unwashed eggs have a protective layer called a cuticle and can be stored on the counter. This protective coating helps keep bacteria out. It is best if this is not disturbed. Brush any foreign material off the shell with your finger or a soft brush. Leaving manure on the shell can provide a source of bacteria to get into the egg.
Washing eggs removes this cuticle; therefore, washed eggs should be refrigerated to prevent contamination. If washing is necessary, be gentle and quick, using water only. Use water warmer than the egg. Dry and cool eggs as quickly as possible and then refrigerate between 32 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Whether you wash or not, always practice good food safety when storing and cooking eggs. If refrigerated, farm fresh eggs can last up to 45 to 60 days. When kept at the proper temperature, eggs do not go bad; however, the interior quality deteriorates, and the eggs will dehydrate.
Eggs for hatching: If collecting eggs for hatching, you must have a rooster in the flock for the eggs to be fertilized. If storing for incubation later, wash any foreign material off the shell and refrigerate at 55 degrees Fahrenheit with 70-75 percent humidity. Prior to incubation, store eggs point down for a maximum of one week. The older a fertilized egg, the less likely it is to hatch. Store eggs at an angle (\) and change the angle once a day (/). This will keep the yolk from sticking to the side of the egg.
When you’re ready to incubate, let the eggs warm to room temperature, then give them to your broody hen or place in an incubator. After eggs have been stored and incubated, 70 percent hatchability is considered very good.
See further below for tips on hatching eggs with a broody hen or incubator.
Getting More Nutritious Eggs
At just 70 calories, we can enjoy the health benefits of eggs guilt-free. Each large 2-ounce (57 gram) egg provides 6 grams of digestible protein. With 18 of the 20 amino acids and all 10 essential amino acids in abundance, eggs are known as one of nature’s most perfect protein sources.4
The most tangible benefits of farm fresh eggs are freshness, flavor, color and nutrition. Farm fresh eggs are known for having rich, vibrant yolks and firm, clear whites. This is because specific feed ingredients are responsible for taste and appearance. For example, marigold extract impacts yolk color while calcium promotes strong shells.
One way to level-up your eggs’ nutrition is by feeding for added omega-3’s. Many institutions, including Harvard School of Public Health5, have listed benefits of consuming omega-3 fatty acids. Traditional sources of omega-3’s for humans include fish, nuts and green, leafy vegetables. Today, you can add farm fresh eggs to that list.
Feed for more omega-3’s. Hens are excellent converters of feed nutrients. They can channel specific nutrients directly into their eggs. If their layer feed is fortified with omega-3-rich nutrients, their eggs are more likely to have higher omega-3 levels.
In Purina’s research trials, hens fed Purina® Layena® Plus Omega-3 feed laid eggs with 250 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids6. Conventional, store-bought eggs only contain around 50 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids.
Purina® Layena® Plus Omega-3 feed also includes our Oyster Strong® System and the 38 essential nutrients hens need to stay strong and healthy.
4 “Egg Nutrition Center.” American Egg Board. http://www.eggnutritioncenter.org/ egg-101/. 10 June 2016.
5 “Omega-3 fatty acids: An essential contribution.” Harvard School of Public Health. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/omega-3-fats/. 9 December 2016.
6 When fed a diet of Layena® Plus Omega-3 exclusively for at least 3 weeks. Based on a large egg (56 g). Results may vary with factors such as total diet and hen health. A typical store bought egg contains 50 mg of omega-3 fatty acids per large egg (USDA: National Nutrient Base).
Shell-less Eggs and Egg Oddities
Once hens start laying eggs, they typically lay consistently. However, every hen will occasionally lay an egg with some abnormality. Egg oddities can be an outlier, or they could be a sign of a serious issue.
Shell-less eggs: An egg with no shell is often referred to as a “rubber egg.” These can be caused by numerous issues.
• Age of the bird: New layers may produce a shell-less egg because their bodies aren’t quite in tune with the egg making process. Older birds or birds approaching a molt may also produce shellless eggs as their reproductive tract tires.
• Nutrition: Not enough calcium or vitamin D can lead to a shell-less egg. Shell-less eggs tend to appear more in summer when birds are laying regularly but not getting enough calcium because they are too hot and don’t want to eat.
• Too many treats: Consider cutting back on scratch grains and treats when these eggs appear so the hen receives the nutrition she needs from her layer feed. Be sure to follow the 90/10 rule for treats.
• Stress: Stressed hens may lay the egg before it is fully formed. This is common when predators are in the area. The predator harasses the hens at night while the shells are being formed, which causes the hen to lay an incomplete egg.
• Disease: If shell-less eggs become a common occurrence or happen several days in a row, take a closer look at the hens to see if anybody isn’t looking 100 percent. Consult a veterinarian to determine if this is a health issue and develop a treatment plan.
Calcium deposits: Some eggs are laid with calcium build up on the shell.
There are several reasons this could happen. It could be a genetic issue. It could also be that hens are beginning to age and need a break. This break usually occurs in the form of a molt. The eggshell gland may be getting “tired” from laying so many eggs, and it may be time for your hen to stop laying eggs for a few weeks. This break will occur naturally and allow her reproductive tract to rest and rejuvenate itself. Although the egg doesn’t appear as you would expect, there is nothing wrong with these eggs other than appearance and they can be eaten.
Small, misshapen or discolored eggs: You see most of the eggs that come out of your hens and you are going to notice not all eggs are uniform. Abnormalities tend to appear more often in hens coming into production and for older hens approaching the end of a laying cycle. Early on, the hormones aren’t quite right, so you get some interesting looking eggs. As the hens age, abnormalities reappear because the reproductive tract is getting older.
Abnormalities in older hens may be a sign more calcium is needed for consistent egg producer; provide a complete layer feed for at least 90 percent of the hen’s diet.
If the shell is still intact, there is nothing wrong with eating what’s inside the egg. If the shell is cracked, then you are best to throw away the egg as it may be contaminated with bacteria.
From olive to blue and speckled to chocolate brown, colored eggs make for great conversation.
Eggshell color does not change egg nutrients. The color of the shell is simply decoration.
Towards the end of shell production, pigments, called porphyrins, are secreted from cells within the uterus to add color to the egg shells. Hens that produce eggs with white shells do not produce any of these pigments.
Each breed has specific genes that affect egg color. The hen will not change egg colors throughout her life; although, toward the beginning of a laying cycle the hue may be darker than towards the end of the cycle.
When breeding hens and roosters, both parent’s genetics contribute to the eggshell color of their offspring.
You may be able to tell the shell color by the hen’s earlobe. Hens with white earlobes typically lay white or lightly tinted eggs. Hens with red earlobes most commonly lay brown eggs.
Have you ever seen eggshell colors like deep pink, dark green or speckled? Crossbreeding can add unique colors like these to your basket.
Crossing can result in uniquely colored eggs laid by their offspring because genes from both parents contributed to the eggshell color. One of the most popular crosses is called an Olive Egger. Olive Eggers are aptly named for the olive-colored eggs they lay and are a result of crossing a brown egg layer with a blue egg layer.
Multi-generational crosses can create many unique eggshell colors. It is important to remember, though, there are dominant and recessive genes at play and you could end up with a color you weren’t expecting. Keep in mind it may take several generations to achieve the exact color you’re looking for.
How Chickens Digest Feed
Chickens digest food through a unique pathway for digestion with each ingredient serving a specific purpose. Hens are excellent converters of feed, channeling those nutrients directly into their eggs.
Benefit of calcium in multiple particle sizes. Small particle calcium is found in most layer feeds and breaks down quickly. This provides the hen with a quick release source of calcium that is important for bird health but can leave a void after hens have eaten and are forming eggs at night.
Large particle calcium (oyster shell) breaks down slowly so hens can channel the calcium when they need it most for shell development. Think of oyster shell as a slow-release source of calcium. The Oyster Strong® System, found exclusively in Purina® layer feeds, provides both small and large particle calcium to hens.
How Hens Make Eggs
The magic behind each farm fresh egg is a 24-26-hour process. The biggest involvement for the hen is creating the eggshell. The shell defends the yolk from bacteria and keeps the chick or yolk safe.
Hens spend much of the process making sure the calcium-rich shell is strong and protective. When the lights are off, and the hens are sleeping, that’s when most of this internal work happens. Here is an approximate timeline of the egg production process:
Why Did My Hens Stop Laying?
Hens might take a short vacation from laying eggs; the reasons range from life stage to the rising and setting of the sun. First, confirm your hen isn’t hiding her eggs and creating a nest outside the coop.
If your hen is not laying eggs, here are some areas to evaluate.
Daylight: The most common cause of decreased egg production is light. Hens need a minimum 16 hours of daylight to sustain strong production. Without supplemental light, they may naturally stop laying eggs due to a hormonal response as days get shorter.
Hens lay best when provided at least 16 hours of day light, whether natural, artificial or a combination of the two. Some flock raisers use winter as a period of rest for their hens without supplemental light.
If you’re looking for consistent egg production through winter, provide additional light to encourage birds to keep laying. We recommend one incandescent 25-watt or LED 3- to 9-watt bulb per 100 square feet of coop space. If supplementing with artificial light, put lights on timers for a consistent sleeping schedule.
Coop Environment: If birds are stressed, egg production may suffer. Stress comes in many forms — predators, over-crowding, aggressive hens, loud noises, too much heat or cold, poor nutrition and illness. Check the environment for stressors in the area. Keep temperatures comfortable in the coop but not drastically different than outdoors. Chickens, especially cold-tolerant breeds, can withstand winter temperatures without supplemental heat.
If you feel providing a source of heat is necessary, only raise the temperature a few degrees. Hens will adjust to the cold temperature, but if it is 70 degrees Fahrenheit in the coop and 0 degrees Fahrenheit in the run, they won’t be able to regulate their body temperature.
Nutrition: Another reason for decreased egg production is over-treating and over-supplementing hens. Added treats and scratch can dilute the nutrients in a complete layer feed so the hen is less able to produce eggs consistently. A general rule is the 90/10 rule. This means the hen’s diet should be made of at least 90 percent complete feed.
Molt: Around 18 months of age and annually after, chickens go through molt or a period of feather loss and regrowth. Molt usually occurs in autumn and is associated with a decrease or cessation in egg production.
Molting chickens redirect their energy from laying eggs to growing feathers. This results in a brief break from egg production. A molt can last from 4 to 16 weeks depending on the bird and how she is managed. Once she has rested and her feathers start to regrow, she will return to egg production.
To help hens through molt and return to laying eggs, switch to Purina® Flock Raiser® for higher protein and energy. Once egg laying resumes, transition back to a complete layer feed.
Hen age: Egg production will peak at about 250-280 eggs during the first year laying eggs. After that, the number of eggs produced each year declines until she retires. A hen can continue to be a valued member of your flock after her peak production has passed. Retired hens provide great companionship and often become leaders in their flocks by showing younger birds the ropes.
Comb and wattle color are an easy way to determine if your hens are actively laying eggs. When a hen begins to lay eggs, her comb and wattles will get larger and the blood flow will increase, which causes them to be a darker red color. When hens molt or stop laying eggs, the combs and wattles will fade to pink or a pale red color and they will also shrink in size. When a hen returns to laying eggs, the combs and wattles will change again.
Shorter days often signal time for a break. Birds may stop laying eggs, lose old feathers and grow new ones. This annual vacation from egg laying is called molt.
Molt is driven by season and usually occurs in the fall when the hours of sunlight decrease. Fall means it’s time to prepare for winter, which requires quality feathers. That’s why hens take a vacation from laying eggs and redirect their energy to regrowing feathers.
The first adult molt happens when birds are approximately 18 months old and then occurs annually. Expect about 4 weeks of feather loss and regrowth, but a molt could take up to 16 weeks for some birds.
How long chickens molt depends on factors such as age, consumed nutrients and the environment. You’ll often first notice feathers are losing their sheen. Hens may then gradually lose a few feathers, or it could happen overnight. We’ve noticed more productive egg-layers and younger hens recover from molt more quickly than older or less productive hens.
Proper nutrients and management can help birds through molt. Here are some tips for molting chickens:
Pack the protein: When you notice your chickens losing feathers and egg production begins to slow or stop, switch to Purina® Flock Raiser®. Flock Raiser® is a complete feed that’s 20 percent protein and includes probiotics, prebiotics and key vitamins and minerals. The high-protein and energy in this feed can help hens channel nutrients into feather regrowth and get back to laying eggs.
For organic flocks, try switching hens to Purina® Organic Starter-Grower when molting begins to maintain organic status and provide a higher level of nutrition they need for feather regrowth.
Keep stress low: During molt, the area where the feather shaft meets the skin can be very sensitive, so reduce handling and provide plenty of clean bedding. Offer enough space for your birds to rest and relax in private.
Provide access to plenty of fresh, clean water and proper air ventilation. Hydration and ventilation can help keep the backyard coop spa-like for feather regrowth. Avoid introducing new flock members during this time, as adding in new friends and potentially re-shuffling the pecking order could add stress.
Transition back to layer feed: Once birds are ready to return from vacation and begin producing eggs, switch back to a complete layer feed.
Once they’re back on a complete layer feed and have vibrant new feathers, get ready again for farm fresh eggs for your family.
Preventing Hen Pecking
Boredom can bring out changes in behavior such as pecking.
Chickens are naturally inquisitive and use their beaks to explore. Pecking is a natural chicken behavior that allows them to check out their surroundings and flock mates. Though pecking is natural, the nature of pecking can change when birds spend more time inside during the fall and winter.
Not all pecking is bad. When it is gentle, this behavior is fun to watch. If pecking becomes aggressive, it can be problematic to other birds.
Here are a few tips to keep a peaceful backyard flock:
Investigate the reason for pecking. Start with a list of questions about the environment: Are the hens too crowded? Do they ever run out of feed or water? Are they receiving too many treats or scratch? Are they too hot or cold? Is there a predator in the area? Is something outside the coop causing them to be stressed?
After the stressor has been identified, remove the problem and the aggressive behavior may go away or diminish. To maintain this newfound peace, make sure your birds have a minimum of 2 square feet indoors and 8 square feet outdoors per bird. Adequate feeder and waterer space is also critical.
If a new hen is added to the flock, there may be a period of uneasiness. The new addition(s) will cause the rest of the flock to adjust the pecking order. Some of the hens will naturally be dominant while others will be less aggressive. This is how the pecking order naturally works. There are typically one or two boss hens who rule the roost. Once the pecking order is determined, the birds usually live together peacefully.
Chickens take baths, too. Chickens take a different type of bath than you might expect. They often dig a shallow hole, loosen up all the dirt and then cover themselves in it. This process is called a dust bath. Dust bathing is an instinct that helps keep birds clean.
On our farm, we make dust baths for our hens by following these three steps:
1. Find a container at least 12 inches deep, 15 inches wide and 24 inches long.
2. Fill the container about 1/3 full of peat moss. If you’d like, you can also use an equal blend of sand, wood ash and natural soil.
3. Watch your birds roll around in the bath and clean themselves.
Dust baths can also prevent external parasites such as mites and lice. If external parasites are an issue, supplement your chicken dust baths with a cup or two of food-grade diatomaceous earth (DE). If you add DE, mix it in well. DE can be harmful if inhaled in large amounts. By mixing the DE into the dust bath, it is less likely to become airborne while still helping prevent external parasites.
Offer an alternative place to peck. Interactive objects can make the coop more complex and exciting for your birds. Logs, sturdy branches or chicken swings are a few flock favorites. These toys provide unique retreats for hens who may be lower in the pecking order.
Another flock boredom-buster is the Purina® Flock Block™ supplement. You can simply place this block in the coop for hens to peck. The Flock Block™ supplement encourages natural pecking instincts. It also contains whole grains, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and oyster shell to provide nutrients that contribute to the hen’s well-being.
Rooster Care and Feeding
Before you add a male bird to your backyard flock, weigh the pros and cons and be prepared to manage him differently than your hens.
Is keeping roosters legal? Check any applicable regulations to determine if it is legal to have a rooster. Roosters tend to crow often including overnight and early morning hours, and some towns have noise ordinances that prohibit the keeping of roosters. Roosters crow in response to noise and to announce their presence. In the rooster’s mind, the loudest bird wins. De-crowing a rooster is not an option, as the surgery is very dangerous and would generally be considered inhumane.
Are roosters aggressive? A rooster’s instinct is to protect the flock and help ensure hens are well taken care of. Many take this job very seriously. Unfortunately, a rooster’s methodologies are not always friendly. He may view you, your children or other pets as a threat to the flock and act hostilely to protect the hens. Behavioral training can help, but sometimes you just need to find a mellow rooster.
At night, it may help to keep roosters in a separate coop away from the hens. Crowing and aggression can sometimes be reduced this way.
Are there rooster breed differences? In general, some breeds have a reputation for producing more docile roosters than others. These include the Langshan, Silkies, Brahma, Orpington and Cochin.
Leghorns, Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds and Minorcas are typically more active. Roosters raised from the time they hatch are sometimes more docile. Aggressive behaviors are also lessened when hens are not present; however, there are no guarantees on how a bird will behave with maturity.
So why keep a rooster? Roosters are good protectors and can earn their keep when you have a large area in which your hens free-range. Roosters will also seek out and alert hens of the best food finds and tasty treats. If you wish to breed your hens and hatch baby chicks from your flock, a rooster is required to fertilize the eggs. Aesthetically, roosters are quite stunning, with their long, colorful feathers and stately presence.
A rooster need not be present for hens to lay eggs, but you will need a rooster if breeding for live chicks is a goal.
How many roosters? To prevent fighting, consider owning just one rooster. Keeping multiple roosters is usually not recommended unless you have a large flock of hens or no hens at all. One rooster per 10 hens is a rule of thumb. This will help prevent over-breeding. If you have a rooster and fewer than 10 hens, consider housing the rooster separately.
Always have a game plan for how to deal with a rooster that does not fit in with your flock or family. Re-homing an aggressive rooster can be challenging, so have a plan before you get the rooster.
What do roosters eat? Roosters require higher protein and less calcium than laying hens. We recommend feeding roosters a separate diet of Purina® Flock Raiser® feed. You can either feed roosters in a separate pen or raise one of the feeders so only the roosters can reach it.
If you’d like to feed one feed to all adult birds, you can also feed Flock Raiser® to both hens and roosters and then supplement with oyster shells to give hens the added calcium they need.
Adding New Birds to Existing Flocks
Whether you are adding new adult birds or baby chicks to your flock, integrate them gradually to keep both sets of birds healthy.
Manage new birds separately. Keep new birds separate from the rest of the flock. New birds have often traveled a fair amount and been near other birds – and your existing flock may have built immunity to germs in your area.
Keep new birds in a separate room or coop for 30 days and monitor them to make sure they are free of disease and to acclimate them to your backyard. Work with the existing flock first and wash your hands between groups to prevent any cross-contamination.
For chicks, though, we recommend waiting until they are 18 weeks old before introducing them to an existing flock so birds reach mature size and transition onto a layer feed.
Start new chicks in a brooder away from the flock. This allows you to provide supplemental heat and feed a Chick Strong™ starter-grower feed. Once they are ready to enter a coop, raise them separately until they reach the same size as the mature birds.
Introduce birds in groups. After the quarantine period, gradually familiarize new birds to the existing flock. Introduce groups similar in size. Provide plenty of space to prevent overcrowding.
One way to acclimate groups is to place the groups in side-by-side runs, next to one another for one week so birds form bonds. It can also alert you to potential personality clashes.
Another strategy is to let the new group free-range first and then introduce the existing flock. This strategy places focus on new surroundings rather than new flock members.
In either case, add additional feeders and waterers to the run to prevent new birds from being deterred from eating and drinking.
During the introduction period, the new pecking order will be established. In most flocks, one bird is dominant
and the remaining birds will fall into an order below her.
Occasionally two strong-willed birds may consistently
fight to gain the lead position. In this case, you may
need to find a new home for one of them to maintain
peace in the flock. The pecking order is a very stable
structure in the group until a bird is removed or new
birds are added.
Monitor for success. Watch for fallouts or mistreated
birds. Content birds will continue routines without
changes in personality or feed consumption.
No matter where you are in your chicken raising journey, it’s always possible to produce organic eggs in your backyard.
Both traditional and organic feed options provide the same nutritional value. However, organic chicken feed ingredients are sourced differently.
For a feed to be considered organic, the ingredients must be raised and manufactured according to the requirements established by the USDA’s National Organic Program. Feeds that meet these criteria, like Purina® Organic chicken feed, are typically certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and will carry a seal from the certifying agency that verifies their authenticity.
Choosing between organic and traditional feeds comes down to personal preference. Two reasons to transition to an organic feed include:
• To produce eggs for your family from organic-fed hens;
• To market certified organic eggs.
The distinction between these two options is very important and will impact your transition process.
Producing organic eggs for your family: To produce eggs from hens fed organic feed, you can start chicks on organic starter-grower or transition to an organic layer feed later in life.
If you are making a transition, the process can happen quickly. Simply mix organic chicken feed with your previous feed over the course of 7-10 days.
Selling certified organic eggs: Raising certified organic chickens has a longer commitment with specific requirements. In addition to checking into the National Organic Program requirements and any state regulations, below are a few points to consider.
The USDA requires that for farm fresh eggs or meat to be certified organic, it must be from birds that have been under continuous organic management beginning no later than the second day of life.
This means chicks must be fed organic feed from the beginning for their eggs to be considered fully organic. Organic poultry, including birds used for meat or eggs, lose organic status if they are removed from the organic farm and managed on a non-organic operation. You can return them to organic feed but they cannot be rotated back into certified organic production.
No matter the way you choose to raise your flock, choose a complete feed that matches your birds’ stage of life. Purina® complete poultry feeds — whether they are conventional or organic — are formulated to provide everything birds need.
Feed a complete starter-grower feed to layer chicks from day 1 to week 18 and then transition to a complete layer feed at week 18 or when the first egg arrives. View Purina® Scratch Grains as a treat for adult birds.
Hatching Eggs at Home
If you want to hatch eggs, you will need a rooster in the flock to fertilize the eggs. Roosters fertilize eggs by mating with hens prior to egg formation. If you do not have a rooster, you can purchase fertilized eggs from a hatchery or reputable breeder. Either way, make sure your fertile eggs are coming from a National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP)-certified flock to help reduce the risk of disease.
Two ways to hatch eggs at home are with a broody hen or in an incubator.
Caring for broody hens: “Broody” is the term for a hen who sits on a nest to incubate her eggs. If you would like a hen to hatch eggs, set up a clean, draft-free and predator-proof nest for her to start laying eggs. Set a feeder and waterer near the nest.
Without a built nest, a broody hen will likely build a nest in a secluded location, adding another egg to the nest each day until she fulfills her clutch of eggs. Most hens will build a clutch of about 12 eggs.
Once the clutch is built, a hen will spend nearly all her time sitting on her eggs and keeping them warm for the 21-day incubation period. Most hens will naturally keep eggs between 99-102 degrees Fahrenheit and rotate the eggs to distribute heat and keep the yolk from sticking to the shell.
Broody hens will not remove bad eggs from her nest, so consider candling the eggs and removing any eggs that are not developing.
Broody hens may not always leave the nest to look for feed and water. It can be helpful to bring fresh, cool water and complete feed to the nest. The hen will consume about 80 percent less feed because she is expending less energy and focusing on incubating her eggs.
Since broody hens are no longer laying eggs, they no longer need added calcium in layer feed so switch to Purina® Flock Raiser® or a complete starter-grower feed. Avoid feeding treats and scratch to broody hens. Since they are eating less, it is easier to dilute the nutrients in their complete feed.
Not all hens are naturally broody. Make sure to have incubator access in case hens don’t sit on eggs. Similarly, maternal instincts are not guaranteed. Your hen may abandon the eggs or peck eggs and newborn chicks. If your hen behaves poorly towards eggs or chicks once, she will likely behave that way again. Pay close attention to your hen around day 19 until hatching to make sure she isn’t pecking at the eggs when the chicks start chirping in the egg.
Once chicks hatch, provide a Purina® Chick Strong™ starter-grower feed to start them strong. The hen will teach them how to eat and drink. The hen can eat chick starter at this time but will need a supplement as she nears laying again.
Most hens start laying again about 5 weeks after becoming broody.
Using an incubator to hatch eggs: Eggs can also be hatched at home in an incubator. An incubator is an enclosed structure with a fan and heater to keep eggs warm during the 21-day incubation period.
We recommend purchasing an incubator with some automatic features, such as egg turning (which is critical to chick development and to keep the chick from sticking to the inside surface of the shell) and a fan to facilitate even heat distribution. For our complete 21-day incubation process, click here.
Odds & Ends
We receive a lot of great questions from the Purina Poultry community and are always happy to answer. Here are a few common hen questions we receive.
Egg eating: Egg eating can become a bad habit in the flock if it’s not stopped quickly. Once a hen gets a taste for eggs, she can teach others to do the same. If you notice a hen is cracking eggs, first find the culprit. One way to do this is by blowing out the contents of an egg and then putting dye or food coloring in that egg. The next day, see which hen has a colored beak. Because this is a learned behavior, consider separating her from the flock.
You can also teach hens not to crack eggs a few ways:
• Place ceramic, wooden eggs or golf balls in the nest.
• Blow out an egg and refill it with mustard. When the hen cracks into the egg, the mustard can deter her from eating other eggs.
Hens not using nest boxes: Once hens start laying, they typically lay in the same spot moving forward. However, they can create secret clutches if they are trying to go broody. If you want hens to lay in their nest boxes, show them where the boxes are by placing decoy eggs or golf balls in the boxes. If they continue to lay outside or in other areas, consider keeping them in the coop to break the habit.
Nest box competition: It is common for one nest box to get the most use. If the birds aren’t fighting or harming each other, this is probably not a big issue. However, if you are concerned about it, you could block access to the preferred nest box and guide the hens to use one of the other available nest boxes. Once the hens have decided the other nest boxes work just as well, allow them access to the original nest box.
Breaking a broody hen: Collect eggs as often as possible. Limit her access to nest boxes. If she always goes to one specific nest box, then board that one up so she can’t get into it. Don’t let her stay in the nest box overnight. Pull her out and place her on the roost with the rest of the hens when the lights are out. If it is dark enough, she is unlikely to go back to the nest box.
When all else fails, try using a wire cage to isolate the hen. The floor should be wire as well. Place feed and water in the cage for her and leave her in there for 2-4 days. If she was broody, you shouldn’t find any eggs in there. If she does lay an egg, you can let her out. Once out, if she continues to be broody, then you may have to repeat this process a few times.
Convincing a broody hen to not be broody is a difficult task. Persistence on your part is going to be key to success. Be sure to wear gloves when you are working with broody hens as they can be aggressive.
Hen acting as rooster: This is not an unheard-of occurrence. In the absence of a rooster, the head hen may try to fill the void by becoming more vocal (even start crowing). You may notice “mating,” which is a hen’s way of exhibiting her dominance over other hens. This is a common behavior seen in animals.
Feeding eggshells to hens: Some flock raisers feed eggshells to their hens as a calcium source. Be aware of the following issues:
• The calcium in eggshells is not as available to the hen as it is from oyster shell and it may break down quicker than the large particle calcium in the Oyster Strong® System.
• Your birds will need to eat more eggshells to get the same amount of calcium as from oyster shell.
• You could be teaching your birds that eating eggshells is okay, which could lead them to start eating the eggs they lay.
• If you decide to offer eggshells, dry and clean the eggshells prior to giving them to your birds. You could be feeding the hens bacteria you do not want them to have and potentially make them sick.
Remember the Oyster Strong® System is incorporated into Purina® layer feeds. In most cases, you should not need to supplement oyster shell or eggshells when you are feeding a complete layer feed that includes the Oyster Strong® System.
Mixed flocks: Mixed flocks and unique poultry are an exciting part of the chicken math equation. Contact us online or visit your local Purina® retailer for specific feeding recommendations. For mixed flocks with multiple species, Purina® Flock Raiser® is a good all-flock feed.
Purina® feed trial: You can try Purina® through the Purina® Feed Greatness™ Challenge trial program. We designed this trial program to give backyard flock owners an opportunity to try our layer feed for 90 days. After signing-up, you will receive a feed offer and tips throughout the trial.
To sign-up, go to www.purinamills.com/flocktrial.
Local poultry resources and celebrations: Local Purina® retailers often have backyard chicken keeping experts as part of their teams. Contact your local Purina® retailer to learn about their Purina® Flock Talks™ workshops and annual Purina® Flock-Tober® festivities.
You can find your local Purina® retailer here.
We are happy to be with you each step of the way — celebrating memorable moments, answering questions and sharing in the joy of backyard chickens.
We would love to hear your story and share more flock fun with you online. Each of our channels offers a unique, educational experience. Please connect with us on the platforms that work best for you.
For additional and more in-depth chicken raising information, visit www.purinamills.com/chicken-feed.
Download our My First Year with Chickens flock guide.