Laying hens are an asset to any homestead. We got our first chickens about 5 years ago, and we really enjoy raising them. I do have a son that is not fond of chickens (we had a mean rooster a few years ago that attacked him several times). But for the most part, they have been very valuable to our homesteading journey. Once you get chickens, you feel like a real homesteader! Then you want ducks, rabbits, turkeys, etc. That’s why they call chickens the “gateway animal”.
You can raise chickens for eggs or for meat. While we have chosen dual purpose birds, we will keep them mostly for eggs until they get too old and need to be culled.
Next year we are hoping to start meat chickens, but for this post we will focus on raising laying hens and roosters.
Chickens are good for so many things on the homestead: eggs, meat, fertilizer, bug control, tilling and entertainment.
Today we are going to discuss the common questions for new chicken owners.
When can chicks move to the coop?
Our new baby chicks we talked about in this post just recently moved out to the coop. Once your chickens can stand the outside temperature and they have their “real” feathers, it is time to let them go outside with the other chickens.
Since we lost all of our chickens (but one that we gave to a friend so she wouldn’t be lonely) to a fox in the fall, we didn’t have any older chickens in the coop. They have the place all to themselves.
But, if you already have older chickens in your coop, you need to give them space to get used to the older birds first.
You can do this in 2 ways:
- Leave the chicks in the cage and set it in the coop with the other birds. That way they can get used to each other, but the chicks are some what protected from the bigger birds.
- You can put them in a separate coop or atleast separate them by chicken wire from the bigger birds for a few days until they get used to each other.
Either way, when the birds do get joined together, a pecking order will have to be established. Usually, the younger birds will get pecked a few times and then get in line at the end of the order. But, just incase, keep a close eye on them for the first few days for harsh treatment.
What does a good chicken coop need?
- Access – There should be atleast 2 doors to your coop (one for you and one for your chickens). This makes the coop easy to clean for you and easy to get in and out of for the chickens.
- Nesting Boxes- There should be atleast 1 nesting box for every 4 hens. Hens actually produce better if they have to compete for box space.
- Ventilation-Your coop should have good cross-ventilation to keep your chickens healthy. If your coop is air tight, it will get stinky and could cause health problems for the birds.
- Insulation- Insulation in the coop (especially in cold winters) will help keep the chickens in a healthy temperature range.
- Lighting – There should be windows in your coop. As discussed below, hens need a certain amount of light in order to lay regularly.
- Roosts – Chickens prefer to sit and sleep on roosts, so providing many roosting spots in the coop will make them happy.
- Feeders & Waterers – Make sure your chickens have access to good food and clean water every day. In the hot months, you may need to refill water more than once a day. In the cold months, make sure your water doesn’t freeze overnight.
- Outside Run or Safe Area to Free Range – You need to have a run attached to your coop or an area that the hens can safely free range during the day. Make sure there is a fenced area for them to roam and that if they are free ranging they have somewhere to go if predators show up (including large overhead predators).
How should you feed them?
Just like baby chicks, older chickens need food, water and shelter to thrive.
When you are raising you own livestock, one of the advantages is that you can control what kind of food they eat. Because what they eat eventually you will eat too.
Therefore, you want to feed the best to your chickens to get healthier chickens and eggs for your dinner.
- You can feed them organic or regular chicken feed from the store.
- You can let them free range for their food (in the warmer months).
- They can eat kitchen and garden scraps (except for anything on this list).
- You can also make your own chicken feed (here is a great recipe).
When will hens start laying?
Young hens will usually start laying eggs at 22 weeks of age. These are usually cute, little eggs at first.
It may take up to 6 more weeks to lay full size eggs.
How long will they lay?
A hen will lay regularly for about 2 years, and then her production may slow down. She will lay eggs all of her life, but not at a steady rate.
How many eggs can you expect to get?
The average amount of eggs a hen will lay is one a day (in her prime). This can vary depending on age, breed and outside factors.
What conditions need to be right for egg laying?
Along with genetic factors, a hen needs 4 things for optimal egg production:
- Protein – A hen needs to have enough protein in her diet to lay eggs. You should be either be buying a egg layer feed at the store, or supplying extra protein by way of bugs, oyster shells, etc.
- Light – Hens need 15 hours of light for optimal egg production. During the winter months, egg production usually goes down and can sometime stop completely. You can supplement light in the coop during these short days to continue egg production. There are people on both sides of that debate and it can get heated (no pun intended). I will save that for another blog post.
- Stress – Happy chickens produce healthy eggs. Chickens under stress may lay less. If kids chase the chickens with sticks or a predator has recently tried to attack the coop, production will probably go down (atleast for a few days).
- Temperature – Extreme temperatures can also decrease egg production. Optimal temperature for laying is 50-80 degrees F. In the summer, you can cool off your hens with shade, ice and fans. In the winter, you can keep the coop warm with a heat lamp and deep, thick bedding. You can add a heat lamp, but be careful of fire danger in the coop.
How often should you collect eggs?
You should collect eggs atleast once a day. You don’t want to leave eggs in the nesting boxes for too long because they can be stepped on, pooped on or freeze in the winter time.
What do you do if you have a broody hen?
Some hens go broody (sit on a group of eggs in order to hatch chicks). This is great if you have a rooster and you want baby chicks.
If not, you will have to break her of the habit before it gets too far along. She won’t be happy, but it needs to be done.
If you want chicks, separate the broody hen and her eggs to another location where she can be sheltered and fed while she sits on her eggs. Twenty-one days later (if all goes well) you will have new baby chicks on your homestead.
What if I have a rooster?
When you get new baby chicks, it is very likely that you will get a rooster or two in a batch (even if they have been sexed at the store).
Advantages to roosters:
- They will protect your hens from predators.
- Roosters are really pretty.
- They are the romantic depiction of life on the farm.
- They will allow you to breed for baby chicks in the future.
Disadvantages to roosters:
- Some roosters can be really mean. They may attack small children or even adults.
- They can crow at all hours of the night and morning. I used to have one that like to stand outside our bedroom window and crow all day long.
- Roosters seem to want to mate with the hens a lot. They will jump on top of the hens and make a scene fairly often.
- Roosters eat food but don’t produce eggs (cost/benefit analysis may be needed).
- If you live in city limits, you may not legally be able to keep your rooster. You need to check with your community ordinances.
- If you choose to cull them, make sure you do it when they are fairly young. A mean old rooster takes awhile in the pressure cooker to become fit to eat.
Chickens are called the “gateway animal” because once you have learned to take care of chickens, a whole other life becomes available to you. Just make sure you don’t get carried away. I usually try to only add one new type of animal a year to our homestead so I can learn how to take care of them properly without getting overwhelmed. But once you have chickens, you will love them. They are fun to watch and they are very valuable to the homesteader.
Do you have any tips or tricks for raising happy hens? Please let us know in the comments below. Thanks!