When we moved our family from the city to the farm our first goal was to be as self-sufficient with our food as possible. We decided to start our farming adventure with laying hens. Farm fresh eggs have always been our passion. Even when we lived in the city it was worth the Saturday morning trip to our egg farmer instead of buying them from the grocery store.
As luck would have it the first spring we were on our farm the lady we had been purchasing our eggs from, since our move, decided to retire and asked us if we would be interested in her hens. They were lovingly cared for and as a giant bonus for us, she was willing to mentor us. It may seem easy for those who have raised chickens their whole lives but believe me when I say, we really didn’t know a thing about raising these birds. All I could remember from being a child was being attacked every time we visited the neighbours and their daughter took me to pick eggs.
That spring my husband took a week of vacation time and built our chicken facilities. The nesting boxes were strong enough for an elephant to sit in but at least we wouldn’t have to worry about them falling over. Then the lady came to inspect and we were so happy to pass. That Saturday they brought over our new birds.
The children were so excited to collect those first eggs and to actually watch an egg be laid. Wow, those were the days. I didn’t even have to ask them to check the chicken house for eggs! Then the day came when we had to clean them. Now that was not a favourite chore. We didn’t have a manure spreader back then so we loaded it all onto the back of the pickup and Daddy spread it over the cow pasture from the back. The children and I drove really slowly. Every once in a while I forgot he was back there and swerved for a rock or stopped abruptly, much to the entertainment of the children, and was quickly reminded we had a passenger. That was how we got convinced that composted manure really does make a difference on pastures because a few weeks later there was a bright-green path everywhere we had driven and broadcast the manure. Luckily, now we have a manure spreader, but it isn’t nearly as fun as before.
The feeling of security that came from having a steady supply of eggs at our fingertips fuelled my youngest son’s desire to try breeding his own hens. He was gifted with some Bantam hens years ago and has, by crossbreeding them and using them to hatch chicks, developed a hardy little chicken that we are happy with. We still buy chicks in the spring to supplement our flock because these little hens don’t lay as prolifically as the commercial breeds, but they are very pretty and are quite willing to hatch eggs.
With spring on the way, now is the time to order chicks to start your own egg-laying flock. A few things to remember are:
- Chicks need to be kept at a floor temperature of 86 F until they are feathered and can regulate their heat. Raising the heat lamp about one inch every few days will wean them off the heat lamps when they start getting bigger.
- Hens will need three to four square feet per bird so consider that when building or renovating your chicks’ future coop.
- Hens start to lay at about 20 weeks so spring chicks will deliver fall eggs.
- Supplying nest boxes and roosts will help to keep eggs clean.
- Consider investing in an outdoor light timer to use artificial light once the natural daylight drops under 14 hours a day. There is a school of thought that it is more natural to let the chickens rest in the winter but around our farm we can’t afford to feed chickens and buy eggs so our chickens have artificial light in the winter to stimulate their ovaries to produce eggs. A 40-watt bulb suspended about seven feet off the floor will provide enough light intensity to substitute for daylight in a small chicken coop of roughly 100 square feet (10×10 feet or so). For a larger coop of up to 200 square feet, use a 60-watt light bulb. Consistency of light is important — so if you choose to act as the timer instead of buying one, you must turn the light on and off at the same time each day.
- Roosters are not necessary for hens to lay eggs but if you want to breed your hens or really love their crow the recommended ratio of rooster to hen is 1:5.
We used to use commercially prepared feeds for our hens but have switched to organic grains and mixing our own ration. This is the one that was recommended to us by Rochester Hatchery.
Homemade Laying Hen Ration:
The grain content of the feed should be based on the following proportions:
Barley — zero to 15 per cent (hard for birds to absorb and hard on their livers)
Oats — zero to 25 per cent
Wheat — 65 to 100 per cent
For 100 lbs. of grain, add 40 per cent poultry supplement as follows:
Grower for layers — 9.5 lbs.
Laying ration — 16 lbs.
When our children were younger, the chicken chores were always delegated to the youngest because they couldn’t get hurt and it was easiest for them to crawl under the roosts to collect eggs that may have rolled under. Now our youngest is 19 and can hardly wait till he has nephews/nieces to give this chore to. To be honest, I am looking forward to seeing that look of wonder on little ones’ faces when they find their first egg again. It’s been a while. †