Eggs and raising laying hens have become a hot topic among the masses these last few months. Everywhere you turn there is a conversation or comment about the rise in egg prices and “ adding laying hens to a backyard”.
It is great that there are so many people taking an interest in starting a backyard flock of laying hens. But it is essential to have a basic understanding of what is needed to have happy healthy hens. This beginner’s guide was created to give you all the necessary information to build your backyard flock and start collecting eggs.
Can You Have Backyard Chickens?
The first thing you must do before adding laying hens to your backyard or homestead is find out if you can have them. More and more areas are getting on board with backyard chickens, but not everywhere will allow it. If you are in town you will need to ask the city, if you are part of a Home Owner’s Association you will need to check their rules.
You may be able to have laying hens in your backyard but there might be restrictions. I have seen where there is a limit on the number of chickens you can have and also where you can’t have roosters. To be safe, before you add chickens, make sure you know your specific rules and regulations. I would hate for you to get all the things and then later find out you have to get rid of them.
How Many Laying Hens Do I Need?
The number of chickens you need will depend on the average amount of eggs your breeds lay and how many eggs you would like per week. Keep in mind most backyard chicken breeds lay an average of 6 eggs per week. A more mathematical way to figure out the number of laying hens you will need at one time is by using this equation:
Breed Average Eggs Per Year x The Number of Chickens / Weeks in the Year = Eggs Collected per Week
For Example, if your chosen breed is Barred Plymouth Rocks then your equation would end up like this: Barred Rocks lay an average of 200 eggs x 3 Laying Hens divided by 52 Weeks will give you roughly 12 eggs per week.
The equation gives you an estimated number of eggs collected per week for the number of chickens you have. This number can be affected by many different factors, like the age of your hens, time of year, nutrition, and their overall environment.
What Age to Buy Laying Hens
When you are buying chickens you have the option to buy them as chicks, pullets, or mature laying hens. All of these options have pros and cons, you will need to decide which life stage will best fit your situation.
Starting with Chicks
Starting with chicks is how many people start laying hen flocks. There are a wider variety of breeds available as chicks, so if you are looking for a specific breed it will be easier to find. There is also a larger number of chicks available, so you can buy as many as you need for your homestead.
If you start with chicks you will have to know How to Raise Baby Chicks and be willing to wait until they are mature enough to start laying eggs. Depending on the breed of laying hen you decided on, the growing process from brooder to egg laying can take up to 22 weeks.
Begin with Pullets
Pullets are young hens that have not started laying eggs. Starting with pullets would mean that you skip over the brooder phase but these may not be as available as chicks. Some hatcheries or farmers will have pullets available but the breeds may vary.
Adding Mature Laying Hens
Every now and then I see people selling flocks of laying hens for various reasons. If you are looking for a starter flock that is already producing then this might be a good fit. But remember as the hen ages the number of eggs will decrease and you will need to add younger hens sooner.
Note: Before buying mature laying hens get an age range, if it is an older flock you may end up buying chicks or pullets in the near future anyways.
Laying Hen Life Span and Productivity
Thanks to modern chicken-keeping practices laying hens can live anywhere from 8 to 10 years. The breed of chickens you own, the environment they live in, and the feed they are consuming can all contribute to the lifespan of your laying hens.
Most chicken breeds will start laying eggs anywhere from 18 – 22 weeks of age. (The amount of natural daylight hours can affect this). As chickens age their egg quality and production decrease, reaching peak productivity around the age of 3.
Note: To keep your flock producing eggs regularly you will need to add younger additions every couple of years.
Where to Buy Your Laying Hens
There are different methods that can be used to buy your laying hens, where you get them may be determined by what breed is available and what life stage you are looking for.
1. Order From Hatcheries
Hatcheries are a great option if you are looking for specific breeds and you don’t mind your future laying hens being shipped through the mail. If you decide to use a hatchery you will most likely be starting with chicks and raising them into laying hens. In the past, I have seen some hatcheries offering pullets and breeding pairs but only for certain breeds.
Hatcheries that We Have Used:
2. Facebook & Craigslist
Facebook and Craigslist are good options to find different life stages in your area for local pickup. I have seen barnyard mixes and specific breeds of laying hens available. There are many different hobby farm and homesteading groups on Facebook that provide chicks, pullets, and mature laying hens.
Note: Remember to ask about the ages of mature laying hens, you do not want to purchase an old hen that is past laying.
3. Local Farms & Neighbors
Local farms and neighbors are always a great option when you are adding new things to your homestead or farm. Not only can they provide you with your future laying hen flock but they can also be a great source of information. Many of our local chicken owners have a mixture of breeds in their barnyards so if you are looking for something specific this might not work.
4. Feed Supply Stores
Feed supply stores in the area usually have chick days where you can pick out chicks of different breeds and take them home that day without worrying about shipping. Again you will have to start with chicks and the breed selection may be limited. Feed stores may also be able to help you order the breed you are looking for and have them shipped there rather than to the post office.
5 Common Laying Hen Breeds
Over the last ten years, there have been many different laying hen breeds on this farm. Currently, our coop is full of Salmon Favorelles but other common laying hen breeds that have lived there include:
Leghorn Laying Hens
This breed is the commercial egg production breed laying between 280-300 eggs per year. They are white egg layers that are an average of 4-5 pounds. This breed is extremely active, great foragers, and is known for being flighty independent birds. If you are looking for a hands-off breed ideal for egg production the Leghorn breed might be for you.
Ameraucana Laying Hens
The Ameraucana chicken breed is an American breed that originated from the Araucana chicken breed (the breed’s name is a combination of “America” and “Araucana”). These laying hens come in eight different colors, but we have only ever had the brown versions here. They are blue egg layers that can lay an average of 200 eggs per year.
The Ameraucana is a small to medium-sized chicken weighing an average of 5 1/2 pounds. They are good foragers and do well when they are free ranging. In my experience, they can be a curious, sociable breed that does well in cold weather because of their feathered face and pea comb.
Rhode Island Red Hens
This large reddish brown chicken is the state bird of Rhode Island that was developed to be a dual-purpose breed. The laying hen averages 6 1/2 pounds and lays around 250 eggs per year. The Rhode Island Red is a brown egg-laying breed that lays large to extra-large eggs. These hens are full of personality but can be a bit bossy with other more docile breeds.
Barred Plymouth Rock Hens
The “Barred Rock” is another American dual-purpose breed of laying hen. At one point these laying hens were the most widely kept breed for meat and egg production in the United States. This breed of chicken has all the best characteristics one could want in a backyard chicken. They are docile, easy keepers, and great for beginner chicken keepers.
The Barred Rock is a light brown egg-laying breed that lays an average of 200 eggs per year. They are a heavy breed of chicken with laying hens weighing an average of 6 pounds. Even though they are docile they are very active foragers and easy to keep through cold winter months.
Buff Orpington Laying Hens
These golden orange laying hens are a great option for someone just getting into chicken keeping. They are very docile, easy to handle, and extremely kid friendly. If you are in search of a family-friendly breed with great egg production qualities then this breed is for you. The Buff Orpington enjoys human contact and gets along with other breeds easily. The only time I have witnessed any aggressive behavior is when they turn into protective broody hens.
This is a heavy dual-purpose breed with the hens weighing around 8 pounds and can lay between 200-280 eggs per year. Even though they are on the larger side they thrive in a coop environment or free ranging. Their excess amount of feathers makes them excellent for cold weather but will require a good amount of shade in hot climates.
What to Feed Your Hens
Naturally, chickens are omnivores that will seek out grains, grasses, and bugs when allowed to free range. For laying hens that you wish to have optimum egg production free ranging alone may not provide adequate nutrition. The average mature egg layer will consume about a 1/4 lb of chicken feed per day and need 16 – 18% protein (these amounts can vary depending on the breed’s energy level, age, and time of year). That is why it may be best to provide a prepared feed from a local feed store with the correct amount of vitamins, minerals, and protein.
When you are purchasing layer feed from your local source they should be able to provide you with a feed in the form of crumbles, mash, or pellets that has the correct amount of protein. Along with your choice of feed, you must provide water and can supplement their diets with snacks and treats.
Additional feed items can include:
- Scratch Grains
- Table Scraps
- Chicken Garden
- Feed Supplements
- Oyster Shells
Chicken Coops and Nesting Boxes
Chicken coops are built to shelter your hens from the elements and protect them from predators. Thanks to modern homesteading and backyard chicken keeping there are a number of different options when it comes to providing shelter for your flock.
What Type of Chicken Coop
Two of the main types of chicken coops that are being built are portable coops and permanent structure coops. Portable chicken coops (also known as chicken tractors) are coops that contain all the essentials but can be moved around to provide fresh forage. Permanent structures are coops that are built to stay in one place. When a permanent coop is built chickens usually have a run or are allowed to free range.
Once you have an idea of what type of coop you would like, you will need to determine if you will invest in a prebuilt coop or build your own. Buying a prebuilt coop is a good option if you don’t have the resources or time to build your own. Before you purchase a coop check the quality some can be a little flimsy. Building your own coop is great because you get to design and build the coop you would like. It also allows you to control the quality of materials being used.
What Size Coop Do You Need
No matter what type of coop you choose you will need to make sure it is the correct size for the number of hens you have. The recommendation for a confined coop is 10 sq ft per bird, this allows each chicken enough space and also helps prevent bad coop behavior. So if you have 3 laying hens you will want a space of 30 sq ft.
Note: Another thing to consider when designing your coop is future additions. Will you eventually want more chickens than you have right now? If yes, then you may want a larger coop.
Chicken Coop Essentials
No matter what type of chicken coop you have or what size it is you will need to provide the following coop essentials:
A chicken coop needs ventilation to supply your chickens with fresh air, remove moisture during cool weather and allow heat to escape during hot days. This also helps different chicken illnesses.
Bedding in a chicken coop is used to help absorb wet manure, provide cushion, and insulate the coop. Two options that are used regularly here are pine shavings and straw.
Chickens naturally roost to protect themselves from predators, if a roost is not provided they will seek out something off the ground to perch on. When you are adding roosts to your chicken coop you will want to make sure there is enough room for all of your laying hens. There are many different options, we have used an old ladder, handles that have broken from shovels, and also old boards that have been rounded.
Nesting Boxes for Your Laying Hens
Chickens will naturally seek out a comfy safe place to lay their eggs, that is why nesting boxes have become an essential part of a coop design. Nesting boxes make collecting eggs much easier and usually keep them debris free until they can be collected.
Your Nesting boxes should be at least 18 inches off the ground for easier collecting. They also should be positioned lower and opposite your roosting bars. (Remember chickens look for the highest place to roost). The number of nesting boxes you need will depend on how many laying hens you have in the coop. A good rule to go by is to have a minimum of 2 nesting boxes and 1 nesting box per 4-5 hens. The size of your nesting boxes will depend on what breeds of chickens you have for smaller bantams a 12in x 12in the box will be sufficient but for larger breeds go with a 14in x14in box.
Just like coops, you can purchase premade nesting boxes, and you can make your own or repurpose things that you already have. No matter what you choose you want them to be heavy-duty enough to hold chickens and be easy to collect eggs from.
Do Hens Lay Eggs in the Winter?
Winter is a natural time for a laying hen’s reproductive system to take a break. It is a time when the hen’s body focuses on warmth and feather regrowth. During the winter shorter days mean less light and this is what signals a hen to slow down egg production. Some laying hens will lay less while others will quit until the optimal 16 hours of light a day returns.
Every chicken keeper is faced with the same issue when it comes to the winter egg-laying Hiatus. Many try to find ways to continue collecting eggs in the winter.
Ways to Keep Hens Laying in the Winter
- Add New Chicks in Early Spring
As mentioned earlier chickens start laying around 22 weeks of age. Young hens tend to lay continuously throughout their first year, so adding chicks in early spring will give you young hens to lay through winter.
- Look for a Winter Hardy Breed
There are breeds out there that are known for laying eggs through the winter. They may not lay as many during the winter but they don’t just stop.
- Add Additional Lighting
Some will add artificial lighting to their coop to trick a chicken’s body into laying all year round.
Do I Need a Rooster?
Many people are under the impression that you need a rooster in your flock to have productive laying hens. This is not true, your hens will lay eggs just as frequently without a rooster in the coop. So it is not necessary for you to purchase a rooster if you plan on just collecting eggs for your kitchen. On the other hand, if you plan on hatching chicks at home a rooster will be required to have fertilized eggs.
Are You Ready to Raise Laying Hens?
If you are interested in raising laying hens for fresh eggs from your backyard, then I hope you found everything you needed to know here in this post. Before you buy your first flock additions make sure that you can keep them where you are and that you are prepared with all the essentials for raising laying hens.
Do you already raise laying hens? What tips and tricks do you have for raising a backyard flock?