Collecting eggs is one of the joys of raising your own chickens. Whether you are a new chicken keeper or a seasoned veteran, finding the first eggs of the season when your flock starts laying is an exciting time.
Many things can affect egg laying in chickens. Temperature, light levels, lack of water, disharmony in the flock, too many roosters, illnesses, parasites, and external stressors like predators can all cause changes in the number of eggs being laid.
But one of the cornerstones of good egg laying productivity is good feed.
Let’s take a look at what your hens need to produce eggs and how you can help them start laying and keep laying productively.
What’s in that egg?
A chicken egg contains all the elements for life. Think about it. From that egg, if it’s fertilized and incubated properly, a new bird can hatch. Everything necessary to create a chick must come from within the egg.
According to UDSA FoodData Central, a large Grade A egg is 86% water, 11% protein, 2% carbohydrate and less than 0.8% fat. Eggs naturally contain all 20 amino acids needed to build proteins in the body, and they are loaded with important vitamins and minerals (Nutrition Data).
To produce an egg, a pullet’s ovaries need to have matured. That means she must have reached the “right” egg-laying age for her breed which can vary from 21 weeks in a Leghorn to more than 30 weeks in some heritage breeds. The start of laying can be affected by access to enough feed containing at least 15%-18% protein (or more) because eggs take a lot of protein to make!
On average, larger sized hens lay bigger eggs than smaller sized hens of the same breed, and larger chicken breeds lay bigger eggs than smaller chicken breeds. That means if you want large eggs you need to select and keep the biggest hens in your flock over time, or switch to a breed known for producing large eggs.
The first few eggs a pullet produces will be small. Within a matter of days or weeks, depending on the breed and the feed, this same bird will produce normal sized eggs. There is nothing you can do as a chicken-keeper that will prevent those first eggs from being small. That is a natural part of a chicken’s egg laying cycle.
However you can influence how quickly those eggs become full-sized, and how quickly your pullet reaches her expected rate of egg laying, by ensuring your pullets are getting enough high quality feed.
The question always comes back to what type of feed is best for laying hens?
Commercial Feeds vs Homemade vs Both?
Laying Pellets and Crumbles
The standard chicken keeping advice for laying hens goes like this:
- Feed only commercial pellets that are a “balanced diet”
- Use layer formulated feed that is 15-18% protein starting at 20 weeks of age
- Feed a ration of 1.8 to 2.4 lbs per bird per week
- Minimize all other forms of supplements or treats
This typical advice will minimize your workload, ensure your hens lay some eggs, and will keep you as a steady customer at the feed store buying products.
Commercial layer feeds are designed to be conveniently used and easily stored. They are unlikely to cause illness in your flock as long as they are used as directed. However, they may or may not result in the best egg production possible for your flock, in your location, and with your type of flock management. Commercial layer feeds are meant to maximize egg production in commercial flocks, which are typically Leghorns housed in temperature controlled facilities. If you are reading this blog, then that probably doesn’t describe your operation.
Different brands of laying pellets and crumbles offer different advantages to backyard and small-scale poultry producers. Don’t be fooled into thinking that price is an easy way to determine what is best for your flock. While more expensive feeds typically offer “organic” and “all natural” on their labels, you should also consider whether the egg production results with your flock are worth the sticker price.
Experiment with the brands available in your area and see what works best for your flock.
My flock prefers something sold here as an “18% short pellet”. They eat these with little wastage while leaving other brands to sit and go to waste in their dishes. In the end, it doesn’t matter how “good” or how “prestigious” the brand is if your hens won’t eat it. In my opinion, offering chickens access to at least some laying pellets is an easy way to ensure they don’t suffer from a micro-nutrient deficiency.
Although commercial laying pellets and crumbles are easy to use, you still need to keep in mind that these are “Processed” chicken feed. This means that they are an amalgamation of nutrients and foods that have been mixed together and extruded into a pellet. They are somewhat of a mystery food because (organic or otherwise), the feed bags often only list values like crude protein and not the actual ingredients. This can make it challenging to know what you are really feeding to your birds.
So while you CAN feed nothing but commercial pellets and expect to get eggs from your chickens, my question always rolls back around to: should you?
There is nothing living or vital about chicken pellets. If you had to eat nothing but processed human-food pellets because they offered a “balanced diet”, would you?
It’s little wonder that chickens go wild for some lettuce or fresh fruit, and that as individuals some will do better on one type of food than on another. A strict adherence to commercial feeds can limit your flock productivity in some cases if your flock needs don’t match the standard commercial approach favored by manufacturers.
Advocates of homemade feed argue that you can create a whole food diet for your chickens relatively easily. Typical homemade feed recipes include:
- Grains – Wheat, Field Peas, Corn, Barley and/or Oats
- Proteins – Sunflower seeds, mealworms, or fish meal
- Supplements like mineral salt, kelp, oyster shells or flaxseed
In addition to the above mix, many homemade advocates use alternative feeds such as fresh fruit and vegetables, access to grass or gardens, kitchen scraps, and even alfalfa hay to help feed the flock.
Because chickens are omnivores that consume both plants and animals as part of their normal diet, the exact components of the homemade diet are not what is important.
Omnivores require a balanced diet over time. This is how they take advantage of whatever food is currently in large supply. That means you can mix things up a little over the course of a week or more when feeding your chickens and not worry too much about upsetting the “balance”.
Of course if you feed your chickens nothing but fruit one day and nothing but protein the next, you are going to cause diarrhea and other digestive problems in your flock. That’s not the point either.
The point is that you can feed apples more often when the tree fruit is ripe and pumpkins more in the winter, and still end up just fine. The need to calculate precise daily nutrition quotients for chickens is really unnecessary for all but big profit-driven egg facilities.
A diet that is completely homemade is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the flock raised on nothing but commercial lay pellets or crumbles. Chicken keepers have a tendency to fall into one or the other school of thought when it comes to feeding birds. But this doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game.
Can’t You Just Do Both?
If feeding only commercial feeds sits at one end of the spectrum and feeding homemade feed sits at the other, then you really have to ask – can’t you just do both? Isn’t there middle ground where the best feed for laying hens combines these two ideas?
The short answer is YES! – Yes you can mix and match.
Advocates of each mainstream feeding philosophy will shout out “Blasphemy!” in unison, but the simple truth goes right back to chickens being omnivores. Chickens will live, and live well, on many different types of diets. There is truly no one size fits all here.
And the good news is that chickens will also LAY WELL (not just live well) on many different diets too. Chickens could not follow their chicken-keeping humans around the world if they were not adaptable and amenable to many types of feed while still producing the eggs that humans value.
I have raised hundreds of chickens now over the last several years feeding both commercial pellets and a substantial amount of homemade or home-grown foods.
And the News Flash? . . . . The sky did not fall!
My hens did not suddenly become “unbalanced” and stop laying eggs.
They did not die or suffer from strange diseases.
They did not produce cartons of mishappen eggs, or hatch chicks that died prematurely, or any number of the other tragedies said to befall the unwise flock keeper who adds more than a handful of treats to their birds’ pellets each day.
In fact, what happened is that my egg production went up.
I end up with more eggs per hen on less cost feeding a mixed diet, then when I feed commercial feeds alone. I don’t choose a 100% homemade diet because it is simply easier to always include some pellets which helps to prevent micronutrient deficiencies and makes it easier if I need to go away for a few days.
This is my experience with mixed diets
Typically my flocks (consisting of Barred Rocks, Marans, Americanas and Olive-eggers) produce very few eggs when they molt in the fall and typically don’t start to lay again because winter comes quickly after their molting time. I avoid egg production crashes by strategically timing my hatches and pullet maturity dates to keep myself and my clients in eggs year round (stay tuned for a post on this one!).
But my main flock typically takes a much needed egg production break early in the winter. I do not provide artificial light or heat for my birds. Instead I wait until after the winter solstice, when the daylight naturally begins to increase, and start offering my flocks more protein.
It rarely takes more than a few days or sometimes a week for at least some of my mature hens to respond by laying eggs. I increase their protein levels by offering extra protein-rich foods one or two days a week. That extra protein might be beef or chicken scraps from butchering our own meat, mealworms, sunflower seeds, alfalfa hay, etc.
Before using this method, when I fed only commercial laying pellets, my flocks did not lay eggs in the winter. I would have to wait until March before egg production would slowly increase.
Heritage birds are known to need higher protein levels than commercially bred laying stock like Leghorns. In the summer, my flocks regularly supplement their feed through their foraging activities and bug eating. But in the winter, the birds can’t do this readily. That is likely why few heritage birds lay eggs in the winter when kept exclusively on commercial pellets. But when you boost their protein levels by even a little bit, you usually see egg numbers go up.
It’s important to note that boosting protein does mean that more is always better. There is such a thing as too much protein.
Chickens cannot store protein in their bodies once they have finished growing. If they eat too much protein their body (i.e. the kidneys and digestive tract) has to work hard to remove it from their system. That means some extra protein is good, but too much just goes to waste.
How do you know if you have given your birds enough protein or too much?
Take the test
So here is a little test you can try with your hens. If your hens are mature and have stopped laying, but are not currently molting, then you can check to see if adding more protein will boost egg production or not.
Try adding extra protein and wait two or three days to see if egg production starts or your egg count goes up. If there is no change after a few days, try adding extra protein again. And so on . . . . adding extra protein every few days until you see egg counts start to rise.
For example, if my birds are on winter rations of layer pellets (18% protein) and not laying, I will add some chopped up beef or chicken scraps (cooked – I don’t feed raw meat) to their feed. I usually estimate what it would take to give a small piece or two of meat to each bird in that pen when deciding how much to add. If I don’t have any meat scraps, I will add sunflower seeds (which contain up to 24% protein) or a flake of leafy alfalfa hay (18% protein) to their diet or use other protein rich options.
If egg production has been zero or very low, adding protein nearly always boosts up those numbers. I will continue to add protein to the diet once or twice a week until half or more of the hens are consistently laying in that pen.
Once egg production is consistent, then I test in the opposite direction and see if I can take the extra protein away without dropping egg production. Sometimes I do this by feeding a 15% pellet instead of an 18% pellet for example. The goal is to feed the hens well without wasting food by providing excess of any particular nutrient, including excess protein.
In summary, to test if food is limiting your egg production:
- Add additional protein one or two days a week and see if egg production increases.
- If yes, then your flock can benefit from adding protein and you will see improved egg counts.
- If there are no changes in egg production after several cycles of adding more protein, then feed limitation is not the reason your hens are not laying. Look for other possible reasons that may be contributing to your low egg counts.
- Once you are getting consistent egg production using extra protein, try reducing the amount of feed and/or the amount of protein, until you see egg production start to drop. This will help ensure you are not wasting feed or oversupplying protein.
The Art of Consistent Egg Production
If you are keeping a mixed flock of chickens, or breeds other than dedicated egg layers like Leghorns or Production Reds, then chances are you will not see consistent one-egg-per-day rates of production no matter what type of feed you provide or care you give. Breed plays a strong role in overall productivity.
But often you can influence egg production rates by adjusting feed seasonally and periodically boosting protein levels. I have 4 and 5 year old Barred Rock and Barred Rock-cross hens that consistently lay eggs all winter long without extra heat or light. These girls are gems and part of my breeding program at Rose Hill Farm. They can do this because I have learned how to adjust their feed and keep them happily producing through much of the year.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with different feed brands, rations, supplements, and management strategies. The combination that works perfectly for you and results in great egg production from your flock, may or may not work for someone else.
That’s the beauty of chicken keeping – there are plenty of exceptions for every rule. If you find something new that works for you, be sure to let the rest of us know!
Looking for tips and resources that make chicken keeping easier? Visit the Rose Hill Farm SHOP page for great ideas of how maximize your farm production.