Why Some Chicken Lay More Eggs Than Others

Free range eggs in a nest. Credit: Getty Images


After which came first, the chicken or the egg, the second most frequently asked poultry question may be, “Why aren’t my chickens laying more, better or any eggs at all?”

A chicken, properly fed and housed, will generally lay her first egg at between 20 and 26 weeks of age depending upon her variety, the breeding for egg production behind her, and the season of the year in which she was started. She should then produce eggs for the next 9 to 13 months.

For the first 30 days of her laying cycle the female may produce a number of smaller, “pullet” eggs. To definition, a female chicken is to be considered a pullet until she is 12 months old.

The chicken’s first laying cycle is the most productive and more eggs are produced in the first half of any laying cycle that in the second half. In the second half of the laying cycle the egg output will be more irregular and some differences in size and shell color may be noted.

With each following laying cycle a reduction of 1 percent to 15 percent per bird can be expected. There will also be a similar reduction in bird numbers due to needed culling and normal bird attrition.

Birds with shorter laying cycles and that are slow to molt should be culled from the flock as inefficient producers. Culling, removing birds from the flock for failure to develop properly or perform, has seemed troublesome to some producers. The needed skills are easily learned and individual birds can be evaluated rather quickly. The flock should be evaluated regularly beginning at hatching; it is a judgment call, and some will have trouble with the removal of a bird that at first glance, appears to be in good condition. The point is that the bird is retaining that look and that good condition at the expense of the egg basket.

When called to view a flock with egg producing issues a variety of causes, some great and some small, will often be encountered in a single flock. Among the more common are birds of a great many different ages including some truly geriatric hens, birds of breeds not known for egg production, an excessive number of roosters, birds that are poorly housed, that have experienced a recent stress load, that are being inadequately fed or that have never been individually evaluated.

Few are the health and performance issues that don’t have at least some nutritional roots. Poultry rations perhaps more than the feedstuffs for any other livestock species are meant to be fed in quite exacting amounts and to more exactly meet the needs of the birds at each stage of life and performance. They are consumed in amounts as small as fractions of an ounce per bird per day and because of that they must be fresh, highly palatable, and nutrient dense.

The feed store is not a place to bargain hunt. For example, it is now recommended that most starter/developer rations be fed until the pullets produce their first eggs and then be gradually changed over to a laying ration with a high level of crude protein. This means feeding a starter/grower ration until the birds are 22 to 26 weeks of age and can be a feed investment of up to 30 pounds of feed per bird. When asked to consult on performance problems I have seen birds taken off of feed by proper protein level by as early as six weeks of age, or birds being fed excessive amounts of grain rather than an age appropriate growing or laying ration.

Scratch grains are like candy to chickens and, if offered free choice, the birds will over consume them, knocking their diets badly out of balance. I have seen this especially with laying flocks. The feeding of scratch grains is best when kept to limited amounts and should never be used as a cost cutting measure. Scratch grain may be best offered in limited amounts that the birds will clean up in about 15 minutes each day.

The best way to save money on feedstuffs is to make sure that they are going only to those birds actually in production. This means taking each bird in hand and evaluating it for health, well condition, and egg laying condition. A bird approaching lay and continuing to lay well will present with a soft abdomen (a hard abdomen means the bird is putting on fat and no producing eggs), there will be good width between the tips of the pelvic bones measured in finger widths (2.5 to 3 finger widths), the vent will be moist and pliable, and the drain from the eggs output will show in the fading of skin color beginning around the vent and moving forward toward the head and then down the legs to the feet. This will be most noticeable on breeds with yellow skin and shanks.

Every bird in the flock will have a head in the feeder and adding to the costs of each dozen if eggs produced that day. It is also quite difficult to make an economic case for retaining a hen past her second laying cycle unless she is being retained for breeding.

In the Golden Era of poultry keeping most farm flocks were based on a single pure breed. Those farmers were purebred breeders as well as egg producers. A flock now is too often made up of birds of many different breeds and thus of different body sizes and nutritional needs, has birds of many ages, and is rooster heavy. A rooster or two will keep order in the hen house and in breeding season one rooster for every 8 to 12 hens should maintain desired fertility levels. They will take a toll on hen condition if left with them too long and can be a source of stress that eventually impact egg production.

Flock stress can take many forms and come from many sources. It might result from vermin or even a snake in the chicken house, a predator attack, a sudden weather event, mixing together birds, and many other causes. A friend once reported that a period of strong winds over a period of days shut down flock output,

Support care for birds that have experienced stress would begin with the addition of a vitamin/electrolyte product to the drinking water. This can be done for a period of three days. Boosting crude protein levels in the laying ration will help the birds when dealing with heat of cold.

Chickens can cope with temperature changes that are seasonal, that come gradually. Adult birds can cope with quite cold temperature if shielded from dampness and direct drafts. The birds’ quarters should be inspected regularly for signs of vermin and predator inroads and draft sources. Just remember that while humans experience environments at head and shoulder level the birds are at roost height and floor level. A dime size hole at roost level could allow drafts to chill birds roosting near it.

A successful laying flock is constantly being shaped and reshaped. Poor performance are found and removed, selection is being made to add ever better performing birds, and the success comes from giving better feed and care to better performing birds.

Kelly Klober specializes in raising livestock using natural methods. He is the author of Talking Chicken, Dirt Hog: A Hands-On Guide to Raising Pigs Outdoors … Naturally, and Beyond the Chicken available from Acres U.S.A.

Brooder Management: Learn How to Keep Baby Chicks Happy and Healthy


Getting your baby chicks off to a good start isn’t rocket science, but it is literally the single most important component of being successful in a pasture-based broiler operation. Good or bad management decisions during the first three weeks of a bird’s life will follow them from the brooder out to the pasture and through maturity. Every step we take to improve those first 21 days will yield exponentially good results from a production and economics standpoint. The same can be said if the brooder environment is stressful, with exponentially poor results. If you have lackluster overall results with your chickens, there is a good possibility that the issue can be traced back to the brooder. It all starts here — so be in the mindset of doing it right from the beginning. You’ll thank yourself later!

Prior To Arrival

Well before your chicks are even shipped from the hatchery, you’ll want to have your brooder all prepared and ready to go. You might be using anything from a large cardboard box in your garage to the corner of a barn to a standalone building, like we use. Depending on the region you live in and the time of year, you might even decide to brood your birds outdoors.

Regardless of where you “brood” your baby chicks, the conditions that you’ll want to have in place are the same: an appropriately sized warm, safe and dry environment with the proper feed, water and grit. In addition to these requirements, you will also want to make certain that you have the ability to control ventilation in the area where the chicks are living.

Let’s break each of these requirements down so you can be well prepared for your birds long before they show up at the post office or you bring them home from the farm store.

Appropriate Size

The overall size of your brooder isn’t as important as maintaining a proper stocking density in each area where you have chicks. For this bit of information, I’ll reference the stocking density found in the book Pastured Poultry Profits by Joel Salatin. We have basically used what Joel suggests since day one, allowing roughly 0.25 square feet per chick in the brooder. This is based upon the assumption that you will be keeping them in the brooder for about 21 days. If you are going to keep them in there for a longer period of time due to a cold snap or heavy rain, and that prevents you from taking them out to pasture on schedule, just know that you may have to add brooder space.

One thing I want to mention here is that you’ll need to be very careful about just how many chicks you place into one area of your brooder. In time, you might scale up your operation like we have ­— from 50 broilers to a point where you are ordering 600 chicks or more at a time. Putting that many chicks together in one big group can be a huge mistake, as I learned the hard way many years ago. When scaling up, you would be wise to remember that what works well for 50 chicks doesn’t always translate when we are talking about anything beyond 200. To avoid having chicks “pile” and suffocate one another, we keep our maximum group size to about 200 using three separate areas. This helps to mitigate massive losses should a problem occur, such as a heat lamp failing or a waterer not work properly.

A heated brooder box ready for spring chicks at a small family farm. Photo: Getty Images

Managing The Brooder

You’ll want to make certain oyur brooder is a nice and toasty 90-95 degrees on the floor during the week no matter the time of year. But there also needs to bee enough space for the birds to get away from the heat when need be. It’s a delicate balance; if it’s too hot or too cold, they’ll pile up and suffocate one another in an effort to stay warm. To help maintain this balance, there are four basic tools at your disposal: wood chips, insulation, heat lamps and ventilation.


We begin by placing a nice, thick layer of wood chips down on the concrete floor of the brooder. You’ll want a thicker layer — 6 inches or deeper — if you start your chicks while outside temps are still getting down into the 40s or below at night. Cold from the ground temperature can be just as big of an issue as the cool ambient air temperatures outside. If it’s a warmer time of year, then 2-4 inches of chips might do the job. It’s very important to monitor and layer new chips on top of the waste as required while the chicks are in the brooder. This keeps the chicks clean and healthy and absorbs the nitrogen from the manure. This layering of nitrogen and carbon also creates a composting action, generating a small amount of heat to help keep the birds warm.


Using commercial insulation to seal up our brooder was one of the single best investments I ever made in any area of our farm. Our brooder exists in an old chicken house originally built for laying hens that my ancestors built well over 100 years ago. It has a concrete floor, and we’ve put a new metal roof on it since starting the business in 2007. But aside from that, early on I just built some ventilation flaps and patched it up as needed on the outside. After a few seasons of frustration from drafty, wet and cold air hitting the chicks, I finally ripped out the entire internal setup and started over from scratch, with the goal of building an insulated “box” inside of the old coop. The first step was to use 2-inch insulation and framing to build a 24-inch-tall structure inside the old chicken coop that I could better control. This also kept drafty, cold and wet conditions off of my birds, enabling them to thrive.


For heating we use 250W bulbs in aluminum spring-clamp heat-lamp assemblies. We use anywhere from five to eight lamps, placed about 18” inches above the birds at night, depending on the temperatures outside. If it is really chilly outside, we’ll leave all the lamps on during the day as well. For what it’s worth, for some unknown reason, we find that the chicks seems to perform much better if we have the red-colored heat lamps as opposed to the clear ones. I do not know the reason as to why the chicks prefer the red lamps, but my guess is that it has something to do with the frequency of the light emitted from the bulbs. Through years of observation, it is my strong opinion that the red bulbs are the way to go. We’ll only use the clear lamps if the farm store is sold out of the red ones, which occurs frequently. This also tells me that other folks are noticing the same things I am concerning the color of the lamps.

A group of baby chicks eating chicken feed in a brooder on a farm. Soft fuzzy chicks barely a week old. The bedding in the brooder is straw. Photo: Getty Images.


Ventilation also plays a key role in managing the overall brooder environment. Make sure your brooder is as air tight as it can be, within reason, because you never want to have cold and drafty air hitting the chicks directly. Think of it like building an insulated box (brooder) within another box (building). But in the same way that we don’t want that cold air hitting the chicks, we also need to have plenty of flaps we can open and close to offer ventilation when it’s warmer outside during the day — or even around the clock at the height of summer. If you are starting chicks in late March or early April, when the overnight lows can dip down near freezing and the spring winds are blowing, a drafty brooder will cause you lots of problems. Conversely, a batch started in August that doesn’t have good ventilation air will suffer just as much due to heat stress.

We’ve added flaps that can be propped open for cross ventilation to help aide in this. You want the air to move through the brooder, but not directly on the birds. I’ll also run a traditional box fan in the warmer months. I always have it set up on the south wall, oriented so that it is blowing out of the brooder. This is very strategic — the fan draws air through the brooder from the shaded and cooler north side of the brooder. We position the fan up high in an old window, with a flap down below the fan and another flap up high on the north side. This lets us move quite a bit of air through the brooder to help manage the temperature. It also helps to dry out the bedding and remove odors.

Hardening Off Your Chicks

After they are a week old, weather permitting, you can slowly begin to reduce the heat. If it’s in the warmer months of the spring or summer, you’ll most likel want to turn the heat off during the day and flip them back on at dusk. Once the chicks get to be around two weeks old, depending on the overnight temperatures, you should be able to remove the heat lamps completely — unless you have some really cold nights. Manyhatcheries will tell you to reduce the temperature by one degree per day after the birds are a few days old; this is not an obtainable goal if your setup is anything like ours. We don’t have automated temperature controls or thermostats connected to propane gas heaters in a well-constructed building to allow that degree of management. However, a carefully trained eye that can look in on the brooder three to four times per day can be just as effective at managing chicks.

While we aren’t able to lower the temperature down one degree per day, we can manage it carefully and still have excellent results. This is where all of our various tools for our brooder come in to play, particularly as the chicks age. Think of your chicks like tomato plants: before you take them out of their warm, cozy environment and place them in the garden, you need to harden them off. Depending on the high or low temperature, humidity, and other factors outdoors, we have a lot of variability within our system to manage our chicks. We can remove or add insulation and cardboard on top of our chicks, open and close our vent flaps, add fans and add or delete heat lamps. This helps us get the environment just right, no matter the weather. It has made our brooder operation much more successful, and our birds are performing way better than when we first began our business. Brooder management requires a careful eye, but these tools — along with daily observations — will help you get your chicks off to the great start they need to be successful.

Feed, Water & Grit Requirements

When it comes to feed, you’ll want to follow your hatchery’s recommendations closely. Most quick-growing meat birds of the Cornish Cross variety will require a minimum of 21% protein in the brooder. It could be more (and possibly less) depending on the particular strain, so ask your hatchery what to use. Laying hens, Freedom Ranger meat birds, turkeys, ducks and other poultry will undoubtedly have different protein requirements, and you’ll need to follow the directions for the starter rations carefully for the best results. Lack of protein early on can lead to developmental issues in the skeletal system and can wreak havoc on your birds, so don’t skimp out and try to save a buck here. A good-quality feed is absolutely essential to the development of your chicks!

There are two main issues we have seen with feed being effective in our chicks. First and foremost, you’ll want to make certain that the feed you are getting is finely ground and has a high-quality mineral supplement mixed in. Our grain mill uses non-GMO grains, along with a certified organic mineral mix and organic fishmeal, which we find extremely worthwhile in terms of the benefit to the animal. Healthy animals grow and gain weight, which at the end of the day is what we are really after. As such, the minerals, fish meal and other items more than pay for themselves. Having a certified organic mineral supplement also doesn’t hurt your marketing efforts, either, when speaking with customers and answering the numerous questions about what you feed your animals.

Secondly, you’ll also want to make sure and give the birds plenty of grit to get their gizzards going. Grit is simply small rocks that the birds pick up and have in their gizzards to help them “chew” and process their food. Buying small one-pound bags of chick grit at a farm store will run you $6-7 per bag. If you use the expensive store-bought grit, you’ll most likely find yourself doing what I did and cutting back on how much you use in order to save a dollar, when the opposite is what you should be doing. A healthy gizzard produces a healthy bird, which yields a better finished weight in a shorter timeframe. And isn’t that the name of the game? The change we made to combat this was to begin ordering 50-pound bags of the same small, crushed granite from our feed mill for about $7/bag. By simply having a conversation with our grain mill, we cut our cost by 98% and watched our birds flourish.

Lastly, keep lots of fresh, clean and cool water in front of your chicks and try to never let them run out! For watering during the first week, I use one-gallon drinkers and set them on top of some small wooden platforms I built out of 5/4-inch board. Otherwise those cute little buggers will fill the rim of that drinker with bedding and render it useless. The platforms keep the wood chips from clogging up the waterer and keeps the waterer level so it doesn’t spill or empty out onto your dry bedding. Water and nitrogen from chicken manure in the brooder make for a very smelly and toxic environment. After the first week or so you might consider switching over to a larger platform-based drinker, or even a bell-drinker. Filling up one gallon drinkers after the first week can be a huge chore, often taking place four times per day. If this is too much work, you or someone else is less likely to do it as often as you should, and that does not bode well for your chicks.

In Conclusion

No setup is perfect, and you will no doubt suffer some losses. A friend once told me that any losses the first 72-96 hours were due to shipping stress, but after that it was on him. I think that is a good litmus test for success, and anything under a 10% loss in the brooder is acceptable, especially early on in your career. In time, you will reduce your losses and increase your finished weights. But it all starts here, in the brooder — so do it right, and your bank account will yield wonderful results!

Living on his family’s seventh generation farm, Darby began his own farming enterprise in 2007 after reading Pastured Poultry Profits by Joel Salatin. For more information, visit grassfedlife.co.

Breaking into the Egg Business

By Kelly Klober

Perhaps the best place to begin a discussion about the egg business would be with the egg itself. There is just a nine-ounce difference between a dozen medium and a dozen jumbo eggs. A dozen large eggs, the standard in the retail mar­ketplace, weighs twenty-four ounces. A dozen medium eggs, commonly used in the food service sector, weighs twenty-one ounces—just three ounces less. These slight dif­ferences can become big factors when calculating what it costs to produce a dozen eggs.

Egg business growth needs improved production
A six-pound hen that lays two or three eggs per week will eat as much as one that lays five or six.

Egg grades—AA, A, and B—have nothing to do with egg size or shell color. Rather they are used to rate shell cleanliness and uniformity and the condition of the egg’s interior. Under examination and candling, an AA egg will have a clean, unbroken shell with even shape and shell surface. The air cell will be 1/18th-inch or less in depth, and regular in shape. The white will appear clean and firm, and the yolk will be centered and free of defects.

An A-quality egg will also have a clean and unbroken shell. The air cell will be 1/4-inch or less in depth and fairly uniform. The white should be clear, although not quite as firm as that of the AA egg. The yolk should be fairly centered, have a more defined outline, and should also be free of de­fects such as meat or blood spots.

The AA and A grades are re­ferred to as “table eggs.” The fancy, more naturally produced table egg is at the core of the modern rise in poultry keeping. For many it has been encap­sulated in the large and extra-large brown-shelled egg. These brown eggs are not always the most economical to produce, though, and neither size nor shell color are mandated in the production of heritage, cage-free, organic, or any other value-adding production mea­sure.

Egg Business: Improving Performance

“Brown-shelled egg” is a descriptive term that is becoming as commonplace and unexciting as “two-door sedan” or “generic peanut butter.”

Eggs from specific regional breeds appear to be an emerging market. An Amish client called with a question about poor egg production, and the solution we arrived at was to develop better performing Ameraucana chick­ens. The challenge was to find the necessary genetics and then to breed them up to levels of perfor­mance that will make his market niche truly profitable. We agreed that he would develop a green-and-blue egg true breed.

large brown eggs produced by less-productive breeds
The root to success with a laying flock, regardless of the breed, is to make the long-term commitment to careful breeding and performance upgrading.

The root to success with a laying flock, regardless of the breed, is to make the long-term commitment to careful breeding and performance upgrading. There have been a lot of fad breeds in poultry keeping of late, and many are not high per­formers in the laying house. Others have not been held to any performance standard for many decades or were not bred to maintain, let alone improve, per­formance.

Fortunately, there are a great many pure breeds with practical roots from which to select, and within these there are often a great many color and pattern varietals. The Plymouth Rock, for example, has name recognition on par with Chevrolet or Black Angus beef. The White and Barred varietals are the most generally recognized breeds, but are perhaps a bit too commonplace for some modern niche marketers.

There are, however, Buff, Silver Penciled, Partridge, Co­lumbian, and Blue varieties of the Plymouth Rock. All but the Blue have been recognized by the American Poultry Association for over a hundred years. The Buff and the Partridge varieties have the look and also the history to be highly marketable. The American Poultry Association Standard of Perfec­tion lists sixteen Leghorn varietals, and the Society for the Preser­vation of Poultry Antiquities has documented several more, including Duckwing varieties and the Exchequer Leghorn.

If we are to follow the historical example, the next step after selection and breed preservation should be the propagation of those breed-specific flocks for improving economic performance. Richly-colored eggs will be only a market of the moment if they cannot go on to be profitable.

A short burst of popularity is not enough on which to launch an egg business. Novelty will get you a look-see, but only by consistently delivering the goods is a business built. The Exchequer Leghorn—the ‘Scottish Leghorn’—had such a recent flower­ing of interest. It is one of the largest of the Leg­horn varietals, with a distinctive white and black hatched pattern. It has an appealing image, but there were only small populations, and early on in the flurry of interest many farmers encountered prob­lems with its color pattern, leg color, mature size, and genetic purity.

It was not the uber-Leghorn for range pro­duction and certainly suffered from too much early de­mand. A lot of chickens got shipped that shouldn’t have been hatched. It is still a worthy bird, though, for those willing to take the time to learn its his­tory and then get serious about making it an economically important breed again.

Many of these same points could be made about the much more common Light Brown Leghorn. Even within my lifetime, interest has fluctuated way up and down for this breed. When I was younger many hatcheries boasted about their strains of Danish Brown Leghorns and filled many catalog pages with their accomplishments.

It will take roughly fifty or sixty years before the Light Brown Leghorn and most other heritage breeds are restored to anywhere near their former levels of productivity. Consumers who buy these “special” eggs will reward producers for their good efforts and will again make the farm-fresh local egg a valuable resource.

Egg Shell Color & Productivity

Large brown eggs are generally pro­duced by larger, less productive chicken breeds. They require more feed per doz­en and housing space, and annual per-hen output is often much lower than with some of the white egg laying breeds. The large white egg is the traditional egg for many U.S. consumers, and the economic temper of the times could eventually point to a growing number of heritage-bred, white egg flocks profiting from the production of heirloom and natural large and even medium white eggs.

easter eggers produce colored eggs
There is a demand for colored eggs, but the birds that produce them have never been bred for increased productivity.

The bargain hunters and the price-driven consumers are going to shop the retail outlets where factory-farmed eggs are still treated as loss leaders. In these market outlets, eggs are sold at a loss to get people into the store; this is not the market venue for independent egg producers with their heritage breeds.

We are still in a somewhat flag­ging economy, and while the case can be made to price a dozen extra-large, brown, organic eggs at $4, fewer and fewer people have room in their budgets for this up­scale item. Consumers know that there are differences in eggs—the nightly news tells them that often enough—but not all the goodness and freshness is wrapped up in big and bigger brown-shelled eggs.

The small flock producer knows just how much individualized spin he or she can put on an egg and still market it profitably in optimal numbers. The transition from hen numbers in the tens to hen numbers in the hundreds is one very big step upward and outward, be­cause the producer will have to reach well beyond the farm gate to get those numbers sold. Farmers must acquire genetics with dependable productivi­ty, find steady buyers, and devise a plan of operation from breeding to marketing.

I recently fielded a call from an Amish farmer that had found a niche in the $2 to $2.50 per dozen range for green-hued eggs. He had invested in five hundred “Easter Egger” pullets and was encountering problems with per-bird productivity. The Easter Eggers too often skate along on the nov­elty of producing some green and a few blue eggs. There is a demand for such colored eggs, but the birds that produce them have never been taken in hand and bred for increasing productivity. A six-pound hen that lays two or three eggs per week will eat as much as one that lays five or six.

That said, I should add that you can’t starve a profit out of a bird. The benefit of putting layers on pasture is not that it drastically decreases feed costs, but rather that it allows birds exercise, exposure to sunlight, and access to additions to their diet in the form of insects, seeds, and greens.

Birds on range should be left on full feed. Ranging activities and weather stress may reduce or even increase food consumption. Either way, the birds need regular access to a well-formulated ra­tion offered as a full feed. Chickens are not grazers. They are omnivores with a strong reliance upon seeds and even some animal protein; too much greenery can bind their crops.

A neighbor feeds the same base ra­tion I do—a plant-based feed formula—and promotes his eggs as being produced on a vegetable diet. His birds also freely range and freely and eagerly consume any number of animal protein forms (worms, insects, and the odd baby mouse or small lizard). In other words, his birds are as bloody of beak and talon as any of the hunting raptors that soar above.

It is up to the individual producer to set the spin and find the niche that will enable him or her to profit from an egg venture. Organic is going to remain one of the priciest production methods, and cage-free eggs are be­coming ever more commonplace.

Due to the local and artisanal move­ments in foods and farming, what adds substantial value now and for the fore­seeable future is the presence of the producer’s hand on the egg carton. To express that most simply, the producer has to take a “my hens/my eggs” stance from farm to fork.

The best way for a consumer to know that an egg is farm-fresh is to buy it from the farmer. And the farmer has to establish a strong relationship with his or her customers. This can begin with a farm name, production data, and contact in­formation on the label atop each carton of eggs.

It does no good to make an egg special if you fail to inform the buyer why and how you made them special. Until the shell is cracked, the only thing that gives an egg business value is what the farmer says.

This article appeared in the February 2013 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Kelly Klober specializes in raising livestock using natural methods. He is the author of Talking Chicken, Beyond the Chicken, and Dirt Hog: A Hands-On Guide to Raising Pigs Outdoors… Naturally, all of which are available from Acres U.S.A.

Eggs: Tips to Boost Production

By Kelly Klober

The humble egg is one of the great staples of the human diet and a major pillar of the local food movement. Modern industrial farms have taken measures to increase egg production rates that go far beyond what we in the eco-agriculture movement would consider normal or humane. But even ecologically-conscious egg producers, whether at the commercial or homestead level, can implement measures to safely increase laying rates. The three most important  factors for increasing the productions of eggs are breeding, nutrition, and bird comfort and well-being.

Brown Eggs: The Foundation of the Natural Food Movement

Before discussing these three factors, we should mention a few words on the egg that, rightly or wrongly, has become key to the natural food movement: the brown egg.

Brown eggs can range in color from terra cotta and deep, chocolate brown to a very pale tan. Internally, of course, they are inherently no different from white eggs. Taste and nutritional value vary by almost exclusively by how the hens are raised.

Brown eggs are largely produced by breeds and crosses that were developed to be either meat or multi-use birds. Early in the last century, extensive work went into boosting the production of many brown egg laying breeds. Since World War II, though, most poultry breeding has utilized hybridization to produce an industrialized bird for the colony house and the laying plant. These hens look the part, but they aren’t what they once were, and may even be coasting along on performance data derived from birds of that earlier era.

The larger-framed, heavier-bodied brown egg hens were never meant to compete as layers with white egg breeds such as the Leghorn. They are larger-framed, slower to develop, consume more feed while growing, and need more housing and nest space to maintain condition. They also produce fewer eggs per hen. Their larger size can give them an element of durability that may be lacking in birds with higher metabolisms, among whom are even some brown egg hybrids.

The brown egg laying hybrids often have a rather rapid burnout factor, and many flocks are turned after just a single season of laying. Sadly, their smaller size and the wear and tear of heavy production tends to leave them with very little salvage value. The better laying lines of purebred brown egg layers tend to come from plain vanilla breeds such as the White Plymouth Rock, the Australorp, and the single comb Rhode Island White.

Boosting Egg Production with Breeding

Breeders can steadily make flocks of these traditional brown egg laying breeds more productive. A modest flock of closely-bred females can produce replacement pullet chicks for quite large laying flocks. Such a venture is truly sustainable because the most important input, the seed stock, comes from the original farm. It hinges upon identifying the most productive females and their male offspring and using these birds to create a line that performs uniquely on the home farm.

Boosting egg production with breeding
Boosting egg production begins with good breeding.

The Hogan method has been taught for decades as a tool to evaluate the layer potential of young stock and the continuing performance of production birds. It is a fairly easy method to teach, but is relatively labor-intensive, requiring each bird to be evaluated by hand. The laying flock should be worked at regular intervals to remove poor performers and ill or injured birds. This ensures that valuable feedstuffs are only going to those birds that are most fully and profitably utilizing them.

The egg producer needs to be as serious about breed choice and performance improvement as the producer of fine Hereford cattle or blooded horses. If your flock is rooster-heavy, is filled with hens past their second year of laying, has at least one of every breed in the big hatchery catalog, or if the only culling is done by raccoons and foxes… the answers to your laying performance questions are being answered before your eyes! To become sustainable and to build predictable performance, the good egg producer must become a good poultry breeder.

A note on ordering chicks: Good foundation stock does not come cheap, and better-bred pullet chicks may now cost $7 each or more. Of late, I have seen many trios of adult breeding birds (one male and two females) priced at $75 to $100 or more. For chickens? Yes – just try to keep in mind that this is still a lot less expensive than the going price for even the most commonplace feeder calf.

Boosting Egg Production with Feed

Good feed is the fuel from which eggs are produced, and a thoughtful plan of nutrition is essential for chickens at all stages of development.

Boosting egg production with feed
Never cut corners when it comes to layer feed.

Hens individually consume rather minute amounts of feed daily, and their rations must be nutrient-dense and consistent in form. Depending on her size and breeding, a hen at lay will consume between 4 and 8 ounces of feed daily. Those concerned with paring feed costs should thus begin with birds that will produce eggs in a truly feed-efficient manner. To that end, the producer must keep goods records so she can determine the actual amount of feed used to produce a dozen eggs.

Some rather exotic poultry ration formulations have been bantered about of late. These regimens may be appropriate for a few particular markets with customers that can afford to pay a sufficient premium to offset the added costs of such feedstuffs. Some can be quite costly to formulate. Components might not be readily available, and specially-designed rations may have to be bought in lots as small as one to three tons. The old rule of thumb is that, in order to be able to afford the on-farm equipment needed for processing, a grower has to produce a minimum of 100 tons of feed yearly.

Steady improvements in poultry ration quality have marked the modern livestock era. Advances in the understanding of nutrients were often applied first to rations for baby chicks and laying hens. Today we see some of the major feed suppliers offering all-vegetable blends of poultry feeds, feeds with bolstered levels of omega-3s, and rations fortified with components such as kelp and fish meal.

Here are a few key aspects of poultry nutrition:

  • Begin with a high-quality chick starter, purchased in small amounts to ensure the freshness of supply. Most starter/grower rations today are meant to be fed until the young pullets produce their first eggs. These high-quality feeds perform the twofold task of developing both the frame and the egg tract. After the first eggs appear, the young females should be gradually shifted to a quality laying ration. Some farmers are going back to the old practice of offering finely chopped hard-boiled eggs to their chicks several times each day. For wholesomeness, offer no more finely chopped egg than the chicks will clean up in 20 minutes or so at each feeding. This works especially well for chicks that have had a hard time in shipment or have otherwise been stressed. Within a short time they should be shifted over to a complete starter ration that is fed free-choice.
  • Laying rations formulated as small or mini pellets will help reduce feed wastage. Birds are better able to retrieve feedstuffs that they flip from the feeder if the feed is pelleted.
  • Buying feedstuffs at roughly two-week intervals, if possible, is one way to safeguard ration freshness and to even out costs over the course of a year.
  • Once home, all feedstuffs should be protected from vermin and dampness. A 55-gallon barrel will hold a bit over 300 pounds of most feed types.
  • Most complete poultry feeds are now fully supplemented and include needed minerals and grit. Though the offering of oyster shell was once widely prescribed, it was often sold in forms too large for chickens to adequately use.
  • Many old hands provide grit simply by dumping creek sand into low-sided wooden boxes that are accessible to the birds. Cherry granite grit of the appropriate size is a clean grit product and is available at a reasonable cost.
  • Scratch grain is not needed in many feeding programs today. Birds prefer it to the complete feeds that bolster egg-laying performance, and egg output may decline if too much grain is consumed. It may be best to provide no more grain than the birds will consume in 20 minutes or so, and to offer it at the end of the day to bring them back into the coop. This gives the birds an added boost of warming energy going into a winter night.
  • You can’t wring many eggs out of elderly hens or those bred for other purposes, but too many farmers still supply rather costly feedstuffs to birds that cannot make good use of them.
  • Feedstuffs and seed stock are never areas for cutting costs.Increasing egg output begins with practices as simple as supplying the birds with fresh and clean drinking water and feedstuffs. It continues with producers gaining the experience to know which birds to replace, knowing when to replace them, and developing better replacement birds.

Stress Can Slow Egg Production

Stress can slow egg production
Reduce as much stress from your hens as you can.

Seasonal stresses can affect egg production. Producers in the Southwest have long known that extended periods of wind and heat can send egg production into a nosedive. Hard, cold snaps of even short duration can similarly send egg numbers downward. Here in Missouri, we have the good fortune to often get long spells of deep cold and harsh summer heat within just a few months of each other.

Veteran producers have a bag of tricks to dip into when their birds are in need of a bit of a boost:

  • An increase of protein can often be helpful during these stressful times. Some farmers top-dress hens’ regular feed with a bit of gamebird breeding ration that is substantially higher in crude protein content. I prefer a laying ration that is 18 to 20 percent crude protein. This is much higher than many generic laying mashes that top out at 16 percent.
  • A bit of green feed can be offered in the form of leafy legume hay fed from a simple mesh feeder that is suspended just above the birds’ heads. Stalks of a green crop such as collards can be suspended above the birds in a similar manner. This practice works well in cold and damp weather and gives cooped-up birds a way to work off some energy. A flake or two of alfalfa hay offered every couple of days will also help maintain good yolk color and boost fertility. I had a vo-ag teacher who held that there wasn’t a ton of livestock feed anywhere that could not be made better by the simple addition of a bale of good alfalfa hay.
  • Include a vitamin/electrolyte product in the drinking water during periods of stress.
  • There are a number of appetite-stimulating/tonic-type products that producers can add to drinking water. These can range from simple concoctions of red pepper, garlic, and oregano to a wide array of commercial booster products.
  • Make sure that birds are free of performance-robbing parasite loads. Just arriving on the scene from oversees are wormers that can be used while the birds are in lay with no need to discard the eggs.
  • Another cold weather trick even older than me is drizzling a few ribbons of wheat germ or cod liver oil atop the laying ration several times each week.

Successful, profitable egg production begins and ends with the hen’s breeding, feeding, and care. I hope the tips in this article will help you sustainably and economically increase laying rates, no matter what scale you’re at.

Kelly Klober specializes in raising livestock using natural methods. He is the author of Talking ChickenDirt Hog: A Hands-On Guide to Raising Pigs Outdoors … Naturally, and Beyond the Chicken. All are available from Acres U.S.A. For more information visit www.acresusa.com or call 800-355-5313.

This article appeared in the August 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

How to Build a Portable Chicken Tractor

By Kelly Klober

When building a chicken tractor, keep in mind that in any type of poultry containment the old rule of thumb is to provide at least 4 square feet of floor space per bird, although up to 6 square feet might prove beneficial for some of the larger breeds. There should also be plenty of head space to allow for free movement and natural activity.

Chickens have been used frequently to follow cattle across pasture; utilizing some of the lower, finer stemmed plant materials left behind by the true grazers; feeding on some insect life; and even helping to break down manure pats. They will still need to be offered a full feeding of a good laying ration to maintain desired levels of egg laying performance, however.

The challenges will be how to best tend the birds so contained and to protect them from predation. One- x 2-inch or 1- x 1-inch patterned, welded wire is a strong, durable choice, although it will add to the initial cost of construction.

What many call a “chicken tractor” is actually a very old concept used for a very long time in Europe and Great Britain. There they are called “folds” or “arks”. They are rather solidly made structures, often holding up to 20 to 25 birds each and moved about with a draft animal or small tractor. They were of a size that generally allowed for them to be left in place a bit longer than the smaller “chicken tractor” structures now seen in the United States.

A few years ago, we received some SARE grant money to experiment with an A-framed, poultry ark (i.e., a chicken tractor). To best utilize available materials, we built units that were 54 inches wide and 8 feet long. We used treated two-by-fours for framing, ½-inch exterior plywood for the enclosed, nesting/roosting area and 1- x 2-inch wire mesh for the run floor and two angled sides.

DIY Chicken Tractor
A modified chicken tractor at 37 Acres Farm in Camden, Ohio.

Three triangular pieces of plywood were cut with a 54-inch base and a height of 48 inches at the peak. A pophole door, hinged and latched, was cut in each for the birds to move about and to allow better access to the birds. An A-framed housing unit with a width of 54 inches and a length of 4 feet was built on to one end of the frame. The front half was enclosed, sides and bottom, with 1- x 2-inch wire mesh.

Once positioned, I would simply give them a quarter turn to set the run on fresh grass every day for three days. To move them forward I used the old trick of sliding short lengths of 3-inch diameter pipe at front and mid points and pushing them forward on those simple rollers.

Their A-framed shape would all but preclude hoofed stock from rubbing against them and goats from climbing upon them. As winter approached, we brought them close to the house, elevated them on concrete blocks and wintered the birds in snug housing with all-wire sun porches for them to walk out on during even the snowiest of days.

As time passed, we found ways to lighten their weight, a major one being that 2- x 2-inch lumber would have been a good alternative choice for framing. The larger the unit the more difficult it will be to move, and the more birds contained in a single unit the more frequently it will have to be moved. Some units may have to be moved more than once per day if heavily stocked.

In the ark units described above we were able to place breeding groups of up to one male and three to five females of our larger breeds. Such a unit, with a bit of regular housekeeping, should well accommodate six Rhode Island Red hens.

This article was originally published in the June 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Poultry-Centered Regenerative Agriculture System
Workshop led by Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquinn, the chief strategy officer of the Main Street Project, at the 2016 Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show.

Flock Management for Increased Production

By Kelly Klober

Prior to World War II this country was liberally dotted with family farm-based breeder flocks of 100 to 500 birds supplying hatcheries; producing chicks, hatching eggs, and breeding birds for direct sale to other farmers; and to market table eggs in the off-season. In that 1885 magazine a setting of Light Brahma eggs (13-15) cost $2, and a breeding trio of birds of the year was priced at $4 to $8. And those were gold backed, pre-inflated dollars.

A large breeding flock established under the classic model will have 50 females and five to 10 breeding males. From such numbers separate breeding lines can be maintained, multiple small matings can be tried (termed side matings), and overall flock vigor is more easily maintained.

Even at a most modest level of productivity and fertility this number of breeding birds could easily produce 225 or more baby chicks week-in and week-out for many months each year.

The traditional hatching season for producing baby chicks for sale and for flock replacements is mid-February through mid-June. Exhibition breeders with large sized or more elaborately feathered breeds might start hatching as early as December of the year before. Most begin the task of putting together breeding pens in the weeks between the two major holidays at the end of the year.

Chicks of the early hatches have greatest value as pullets to be well grown and in place for fall and winter laying. The later-hatched chicks are more targeted for those with simpler brooding and rearing facilities or are producing meat birds for the barbecue and fried chicken seasons of the year. We once had a neighbor that bought 50 to 100 heavy breed cockerels, generally Buff Orpingtons, each mid to late July.

These he grew out to sell as heavy roasters to market to those who wanted an alternative to turkey at one of the holiday season meals. This would still be a neat side market to be explored by producers with a brown egg laying flock based on one of the larger breeds; one that answers, in part, the question of what to do with surplus cockerel chicks.

There are far fewer hatcheries and farmer/breeders now, but with the growing interest in poultry keeping even reaching into the backyards of suburbia and urban terraces there is a very real need for those again doing serious work in the poultry yard for the “good” of their chosen breed. It is, after all, the logical next step in the preservation of rare and heirloom poultry breeds.

Poultry-Centered Regenerative Agriculture System
Workshop led by Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquinn, the chief strategy officer of the Main Street Project, at the 2016 Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show.

Granted, it is a legitimate question as to how many breeder flocks of White Faverolles or Blue Hamburgs are really needed. Some “rare” breeds have always been rare. Most are going to need substantial breeding up to restore them to former levels of productivity and thus increase their demand.

The more widespread and popular breeds would benefit from friendly competition between breeders working steadily to make them evermore utile and productive. Some hatchery catalogs may speak of Rocks or Reds laying in excess of 240 eggs per hen per year, but not only is that data decades-old but was compiled from only the more elite flocks of that era.

The concept of a “thoroughbred” chicken may be 125 years old, but it is where all independent producers with poultry now must be aiming. To preserve the breeds was the first step.

Best of the Best

To advance them is the next step and the really big one. To that end a farmer/breeder must:

  • At the onset the producer must assure the genetic purity of the birds with which he or she is working. Begin with the best stock you can afford from established breeders, cull ruthlessly for good type and performance while building numbers, and breed to the type standards set down for the breed in the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection. The type and weight trait standards set for the breeds in those pages are there to guide selection for performance type of the role for which the breed was developed.
  • Select for vigor and growth. Select keeper pullets from the fastest growing and most well formed one-third of the chick crop and breeding males from the elite, top 10 percent of the crop. This is also natural selection for general good health, breeding vigor and that all-important and hard to define will to live and thrive.
  • Evaluate the birds often as they develop, possibly as often as every two weeks from hatching to entering the breeding or laying flock at 22 to 24 weeks of age. Take each in hand, examining for the most basic flaws such as crooked keels and foot ills to the frame and body dimension that lies beneath the feathers.
  • Invest in a good set of scales and weigh the birds often as they grow. You can’t just eyeball the liveweights of developing meat birds or laying birds. When developing a purebred broiler line it is crucial that growth rates and feed efficiencies be closely monitored. Such data will both protect your bottom line as a producer of meat birds and increase sales to others wanting to establish meat bird flocks of their own.
  • Selective breeding will require being able to identify and quickly access each individual bird in the breeding program. This is perhaps best done with a system of colored and numbered leg bands. Breeding pen assignment, ancestry, hatching year, and the like can all be denoted with a banding system and good flock records. It can begin with simple toe punches or even regularly touched up paint or ink marks atop the heads of different hatchlings. At that state of life they are not easily banded.
  • Achieving exacting performance data on egg production once involved the trap nesting of all hens in a breeding flock and recording pedigree mating data on each egg laid with light pencil strokes. This was time-consuming and challenging to do even when flock care was the near full-time job for at least one family member. In trap nesting the hen enters a nest with an auto-closing door released by some sort of trip mechanism. She is then held there until her egg is gathered, her leg band number can be transferred to the eggshell if being kept for hatching, and the production of the egg logged into her performance record. It is time-consuming work, but does yield exact performance data on every female in the breeding flock, allowing the producer to create pedigreed matings and quickly pinpoint the most productive birds.
  • With many farmers working away from home for at least some hours each week there are some ways to simplify this procedure and still gather much meaningful data including:
    • Trap nest only for about 30 days or so at about 90 days into the flocks’ laying cycle. It won’t give a complete picture, but can help to pinpoint many of the better-performing birds.
    • Trap nest for just the second or third week of each month for several months during the laying cycle. Again, don’t start until about 90 days into the flocks’ laying cycle. Even with trap nesting, the birds should be taken in hand at different times to evaluate individual bird condition and to weed out poor-laying or poorly developing individuals.
    • Break the flock or at least select elements of it into small breeding pens of three to five females each and one male. Couple the egg production rate with rigid culling for birds not demonstrating desired vent condition, abdomen feel, width between the pubic bones, and head and leg color intensity in keeping with the bird’s point in the laying cycle.
  • Breed only from the best performers, cull the rest, and steadily build up a breeding line based on your best-performing birds. It will take time, and you may have to sacrifice much in the way of numbers in the early stages of the flock-building process.
  • Testing measures and individual bird evaluations should be ongoing, and it will take years to restore some breeds to their former levels of production. Actually, it never ends as your goal as a breeder should be to produce a new generation better than the one before it. There is that for-the-good-of-the-breed thing again.

This article appeared in the June 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Kelly Klober specializes in raising livestock using natural methods. He is the author of Talking Chicken, and Dirt Hog: A Hands-On Guide to Raising Pigs Outdoors … Naturally, and Beyond the Chicken available from Acres U.S.A. For more information call 800-355-5313.

Winter Poultry Care

By Kelly Klober

The answer to the poet’s ques­tion of, “What is so rare as a day in June?” was, until recently, a farm fresh egg in the middle of winter. Egg laying was essentially a seasonal activity and was greatest only when the hours of daylight lengthened.

Egg output increased as producer experi­ence and skills increased and were motivated by the demand for eggs in the cooler months when baking is increased and appetites are heartier. Take stock of your flock facilities and management techniques for successful winters to come.


Earlier egg producers learned to make the most of what nature of­fered them. Poultry houses were built with larger southern-facing walls, of­ten with large numbers of windows to catch as much of the thin winter sunlight as possible. They were white­washed inside each fall as both a sani­tary measure and to further amplify the light factor inside the building.

When electricity became more available many began to light their laying houses to stimulate egg produc­tion in the darker, gray months. It is a practice that continues with good effect though not always done well.

For greatest benefit, henhouse lighting need not be elaborate nor blinding, but does need to be brought into use in a more thoughtful manner:

  1. A single clear 40-watt bulb should be adequate lighting for up to 100 square feet of housing. One bulb might then be enough for a small house.
  2. Be careful with long life and shat­ter-resistant bulbs as they may be treated with substances that could be harmful to birds coming into contact with any shards of broken bulbs. There are bulbs now that produce light wavelengths compa­rable to those of sunlight that can be used to benefit both growing birds and layers.
  3. The house, if it is to be lighted, should be lighted to the length of the longest day of the year, the first day of summer.
  4. Artificial lighting could come on early in the morning and go off well before natural sunlight ends each day. The hens should also be held in the house until mid-morn­ing, when there is good daylight outside. It is also a measure that facilitates egg care and collection. There is an old rule of thumb that hens that don’t lay before 10 a.m. should be culled. Henhouse light­ing should be timed to prevent the house from going dark with the hens not settled in and on the roosts.

Traditionally, pullet chicks were started as early as mid-February to be of good size and at point-of-lay as the fall season begins. Pullets will reach point-of-lay between 22 and 26 weeks of age with the lighter-weight egg lay­ing breeds beginning lay at the earli­est ages. Some of the larger brown egg laying breeds may not reach point-of-lay until 26 weeks of age, and poor quality starting and growing rations will both delay the start of laying and the level of egg production.

Generally, the later a bird is started in the year, the slower its growth pat­tern. This is due to the declining hours of sunlight, the growing chill of the seasons and the need for more feed­stuffs to go to the bird to simply main­tain condition. Development of the reproductive tract will be slowed the most, and the darkening of quarters has been used to boost frame growth and feather quality at the expense of sexual maturity. It has even been used to “turn off” older layers and push them into a molt.

A spring-hatched pullet should be­gin a laying cycle of 9 to 13 months’ duration sometime the following fall. A natural molt will then occur late the next summer or fall. The molt is not seasonal, but comes at the end of each 9 to 13-month laying cycle, and its onset will hinge on when the females started laying.

The next laying cycle may be somewhat hastened with lighting and added protein in the ration, but the birds must have some rest to re­new and restore their bodily reserves drawn down in the season of lay. Egg production per bird is usually less in the second half, and early-molting birds should be culled as poor per­formers. Expect to have culled at least 10 to 15 percent of the flock by the end of each laying cycle.


Going into the cold months, poul­try housing needs some weatherizing, but should not be swathed in plastic and insulation like some sort of co­coon. Good bird health will depend upon regular exchanges of fresh air within the poultry house. A building with a strong ammonia smell is a poultry house where health problems arise.

chickens in winter
The birds are not hothouse orchids to be protected at all costs. They will come through the cold fairly well if allowed to adapt to it as the seasons change.

Chickens can withstand a sub­stantial amount of cold if protected from dampness and drafts. They will largely harden to it if allowed to expe­rience the natural changing of the sea­sons. Not that long ago, virtually all poultry housing, with the exception of brooder houses, was cold housing. Laying house heating can increase egg production somewhat and fertility levels very early in the year, but its cost-effectiveness must be determined very carefully.

In weatherizing any livestock building, it must be borne in mind that the birds or animals experience that environment at very different levels than their human caretakers. Humans experience such environ­ments largely at head and shoulder level. Chickens live at floor and roost level and it is there where sources of chilling drafts and other problems must be addressed. Even a very small popped knot hole along the north wall at roost level can cause a lot of winter problems if it goes undetected.

Heavy plastic sheeting can be used to cover doors, windows and pen fronts before the cold weather ar­rives and will seal out drafts. Again, be careful not to seal up too tightly lest air quality issues develop. I have seen pen fronts covered with old feed sacking with good results, and it can then be taken down and disposed of each spring.

The birds are not hothouse orchids to be protected at all costs. They will come through the cold fairly well if allowed to adapt to it as the seasons change. There are no grasshoppers for them to chase through the snow, but as long as they are protected from chilling drafts and kept out of the mud and slop they will fare quite well.

Many now use what is termed a deep litter system in the floors of their winter housing, generally over dirt floors. Early in the fall a layer of bed­ding material at least to the depth of 4 inches will be applied. This may be shavings, chopped straw or a similar cost-effective material. Straw should be chopped as problems with damp­ness build up under long-fibered litter material can occur.

I believe it is best to give the hen­house a good cleaning and the house floor a healthy sprinkling of ag lime before applying the litter material. Producers lay down litter material at varying depths with 4 inches being a minimum. A fresh topping up layer can be applied as needed, and wet spots in the floor litter can be lifted with a fork as detected and added to the manure stack or compost pile. Spring and fall used to be the tradi­tional times for a full clean out and the laying down of a new application of lime.

Those first pretty days of spring and last days of fall warmth would have me sent to the henhouse with pitchfork, scraper and scoop shovel in hand. When all of the surfaces were scraped down, everything would get a fresh coat of lime whitewash — includ­ing me. A continuing practice to keep the floor litter fluffed and fresh is to strew a bit of scratch grain atop it each day. The scratching action of the birds turns the floor litter.


Scratch grain is something that I believe can be overfed. Chickens pre­fer the grains to their complete laying ration (I think of it sort of as candy for chickens). If allowed to overconsume scratch grains, their diets will become unbalanced and egg laying perfor­mance will decline.

A suggested practice is to offer scratch grain only at the end of the day, in amounts that the birds will clean up in 20 minutes or so. It will be the needed incentive to draw ranging birds back into the house at the end of the day.

chickens eating
This light feeding of grain at the end of the day can give them a bit of added food energy and body heat generated by digestion for the winter night to come.

A supplemental feeding practice that will help to maintain rich yolk color through the winter months is to offer the hens a bit of good alfalfa hay two or three times each week. Flakes of such hay can be suspended just above the birds’ heads in mesh bags or basket-type feeders. It will prevent waste and give the birds some added stimulus. Green, leafy hay and other dietary boosters and treats offered on the ground are often trod in and wasted.

Stalks of collard greens and other greens crops can be suspended above the birds’ heads in a similar manner. They too will boost yolk color.

Non-flavored cod liver oil and wheat germ oil, and more recently, olive oil, have been used to bolster winter layer rations. Once or twice each week a couple of pencil-thick lines of one of these can be drizzled atop troughs filled with the birds’ regular laying ration. A quart of wheat or oats, to which a cup of one of these has been added forms a ration bonus that can boost winter performance and bird appearance when offered once or twice weekly.

Water Wisdom

Water has nutritional value, it aids in digestion, and the birds must have it for their health and well-being. We once had a waterer that dated from early in the last century. It was heav­ily insulated and was filled by turn­ing it on its side and pouring water in through the drinking fountain. It never froze, weighed a lot, and it was a far cry from so much of the plasti­cized feeding and watering equipment that we see now.

There are still metal waterers, along with some plastic ones, that will hold 10 gallons or more of water. They will all freeze up on a January night in eastern Missouri. I have seen plastic watering bowls with attached heating coils and pan-looking heaters on which to set metal waterers. Both require an electrical outlet in or near the henhouse and are generally only effective down to about 10°F. Some will provide the birds with heated water, claiming numerous benefits. Water drawn from a deep well will have a temperature of about 55°F — the constant soil temperature below the frost line.

A winter watering system I have seen employed over the years is to set 3-gallon or larger watering pans into shallow pits or old truck tires. Beneath them is a layer of sawdust or other insulating material and such material is also packed in tightly around them. It will measurably slow the freezing process if they are well maintained.

Here it can get very cold including a fairly regular early-March cold snap that will turn your head around and give you fits when tending poultry breeding pens. I water twice a day in black rubber water pans (they are inexpensive, durable, and a capful of hydrogen peroxide will keep them free of algae in the summer) that will hold from 1 to 3 gallons of water — no need to overwater in cold months. The second watering is done later in the afternoon to give the birds a good drink before roosting up for a long winter night. They can be freed of any accumulating ice by flipping them over and stomping on them or by sharply tapping them with a rub­ber mallet.

Tips for Preventing Freezing Damage

One of the real concerns of winter poultry care is protecting the birds from freezing damage to combs and wattles. Such damage is not just unsightly, but can cause loss of tissue such as comb points due to sloughing following freeze injury. Such birds can no longer be exhib­ited in competition, and until fully recovered are generally infertile as the birds may run a fever as part of the healing process.

Breeds with rose and pea combs and smaller wattles are much less likely to experience freeze dam­age, and some breeds were devel­oped for cold weather.

I have bred from many a bird showing freeze damage to the head appendages, but it can be many months until fertility is fully restored to an injured male. The males are more vulnerable because when on the roost they don’t tuck their heads under a wing as hens do. It is the male’s nature to keep the head up and to remain more alert.

Here are some points of winter care and management that can help address this potential problem:

  1. In those areas where winter weather is most extreme, breed choice is the place to begin. Some breeds have large combs and wattles that will make them vul­nerable to such injury.

A veteran breeder with experi­ence in cold climes once outlined to me an interesting factor in his selection process. When evaluating single comb birds he sought those with a wider base to their combs. This, he believed, gave increased blood flow into the comb, keeping it warmer.

Breeds with rose and pea combs and smaller wattles are much less likely to experience freeze dam­age, and some breeds were devel­oped for cold weather. The prime example of this is the Chantecler breed that originated in Canada. The Wyandotte also has northern origins. There are rose-combed va­rieties available in breeds from the Rhode Island Red to the Leghorn and Wyandotte, though many of them currently have rare or minor status. Some old-timers also favored black-feathered breeds in very cold climes.

  1. Select winter watering equipment that is less likely to cause water to splash on the face, comb and wattles. Many farmers position waterers so that the birds will have to reach up and into them to drink, reducing splashing.
  2. Combs and wattles can be pro­tected on very cold nights by a liberal application of petroleum jelly, but be careful when apply­ing it around the nostrils.
  3. Because males are especially vul­nerable to this type of injury, in extreme weather it might be nec­essary to relocate them to warmer quarters.
  4. Round roost poles are more apt to cause freeze damage to toes and feet because the birds must grasp them and cannot fully hun­ker down on their feet and legs to warm them.

Two-by-fours and two-by-sixes turned wide side up are better choices for roosting. The boards’ edges should be slightly rounded. The birds can better nestle down on their feet and legs on the wider surfaces.

  1. With heavy breed brown egg layers, roost height should be no greater than 18 inches or so. This is to prevent foot and leg injury as the birds come down off of the roosts, a primary cause of a condition known as bumblefoot.
  2. Baffling and offset doorways into poultry houses and the openings into the sleeping and nesting areas in smaller growing and breeding units will greatly re­duce drafts. It is a practice that also helps to create a warmer and more secure microclimate for the birds.

This article appeared in the March 2016 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Kelly Klober specializes in raising livestock using natural methods. He is the author of Talking Chicken, Dirt Hog: A Hands-On Guide to Raising Pigs Outdoors … Naturally, and Beyond the Chicken, available from Acres U.S.A.

Poultry Hacks for the No-Fuss Flock

By Kelly Klober
From the December 2017 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Lately, I have been seeing a lot of articles and even entire books written about what are called “hacks,” bits of wisdom and common sense that tend to accumulate around one subject or another. In other times it might have been called lore, the experience and the essential skills and knowledge that have grown out of a particular calling or pursuit.

Chickens standing in a field

Yes, even concerning chickens, there are practical hacks — hacks and what old-timers might call tricks of the trade. One that comes to mind is the practice of wing clipping to prevent fully feathered birds from flying up and over enclosures.

Wing Clipping

Most know to clip just one wing to make the bird unbalanced and un­able to get aloft, but which is the best wing to clip? Can it possibly matter? Clip the bird’s left wing. The internal organs on the left side of a chicken’s body are generally more developed, making that side of the body a bit heavier. By clipping that wing the rea­soning is that the bird is made more imbalanced for flight.

Heirloom Breeds

A lot is now being made of a bird being in an heirloom variety or a heri­tage breed, but, what exactly, do these terms mean? Perhaps the best defini­tion for them was established by the Livestock Breeds Conservancy when they defined such birds as being of pure breeding and of one of the pure breeds recognized by the American Poultry Association by no later than the year 1950.

A heritage broiler must be taken a step or two further and not harvested from a range situation until they are 16 weeks old. The added time on range affects muscle development and gives the resulting broiler meat the color and flavor more traditionally associated with chicken.

Limit Scratch Grain

Scratch grain, rather than being fed with a heavy hand to pare down mash consumption and feed costs should be used as not much more than a treat fed for a very short time each day. Grain to a chicken is like ice cream to an old farmer and they will fill up on it if it is freely offered. The result is that they will not eat enough of the complete laying ration to assure good egg production and body condition.

Most layer rations are offered as complete feeds needing little or noth­ing in the way of supplementation. A light feeding of grain in cold months will give the birds a bit of added en­ergy, may be strewn across the floor litter to encourage the birds to scratch and turn the litter material and, in small amounts, may be used to draw the birds back into housing at the end of the day.

New Arrivals

Chickens are the creatures that defined the term “pecking order” and the task of introducing new birds into an existing flock can be a rather chal­lenging one. Roosters will quickly challenge each other, and serious in­juries caused by fighting can result. More likely though, a bird will suc­cumb to the heat stress or other stress factors stemming from the fight.

Even females will scuffle, and new­comers can be pecked and held back from feed and water. Some will posi­tion newcomers in a fairly open coop set in the housing for a few days. It should offer them protection from pecking but still allows the birds to see and somewhat interact with each other. After a time, the new birds should be placed on the roost with the established group after dark.

The old joke is that the intellectual properties of the chicken are such that it wakes up in a whole new world ev­ery day, but new introductions must be monitored carefully. Ahead of add­ing birds, some will try to break up the pecking order by removing the two most dominant hens to be reintro­duced later. There should be sufficient space for chased birds to have a place to escape to, and some birds may never make a successful transition.

Drinking Water

The most important of all feed­stuffs is the drinking water. In very hot weather it may be necessary to change or freshen the water pans up to three times a day to encourage con­sumption and the needed hydration for birds in production. A vitamin/ electrolyte product is an inexpensive addition to the drinking water during times of stress on the birds when they will drink but won’t eat.


Sooner or later a problem with egg-eating by the birds on hand will emerge. I once wrote an entire article on just this subject, and there have been some rather elaborate nest de­signs and practices employed to stop it.

Most important is to bring the problem in check as soon as possible after it is first detected. It is a practice that can be learned by other birds in the flock if exposed to broken eggs in the nests or on the house floor. It is a bad practice that may begin with just a single bird.

The producer should always be on the watch for birds showing signs of egg-eating activity. Look for birds with egg-related staining around the beak and head and down the feathers of the breast. There are many ideas on how to break them of this behavior, but the best recourse would be to turn them into chicken salad for a Satur­day night supper. The chicken salad solution actually has a great many applications.

Easier Monitoring

With any number of chickens on range, even day ranging, there is always the questions of, are they all there, and is all in good order with them? The addition of a few birds of a distinctly different color can make a rapid head count of at least those birds possible. If you can only count four of the eight white ones it is a safe bet that even more of the red ones are missing.

Think At the Chicken Level

When human beings enter a farm building most of their senses are fo­cused at head and shoulder level. Chickens, on the other hand, live their lives at floor and roost level. A popped knothole the size of a nickel can allow a chilling draft to blow across the birds at roost on a winter night. And minor changes in a floor’s surface in a far corner may be the first indication of problems with predators.

Pullet Development

In growing out a set of as-hatched chicks remove the first few males that reveal themselves in their develop­ment. They should be the first consid­ered for retention as breeding males due to that rapid development, but their presence will discourage second­ary sex character from developing in other males in the group. On more than one occasion, and especially with very large-breed birds, I have had the pullet count change once I began removing the early developing males from the group.

There is growing evidence that young pullets and cockerels should be separated and grown out in differ­ent groups. They will certainly grow at different rates and may respond differently to feeding practices. The presence of young males as pullets approach point-of-lay may become a source of stress on the females.

Buying Chicks

Before going all in on baby chicks from a single source it might be best to buy small lots from multiple sourc­es to do one’s own on-farm genetic tri­als. Closer to home is always the best place to buy as those chicks should be from flocks acclimated to the region.

That is not always possible if some­thing very rare is being sought or new blood for a complete outcross is needed. It is the task of the good pro­ducer to find and match the needed genetics to his or her farm environ­ment and farming practices as closely as possible.

Transporting Birds

Though not always possible, it is al­ways best to move chickens after dark. I once received a set of Wyandotte hens that were moved across three states in the course of a single night. They were transported in boxes that were painted black and topped with a fine black wire mesh. One egg arrived that morning, and the hens continued to lay well after their arrival.

Transporting can push a bird into molt, and a change in water source and feed can dramatically affect bird performance. Any changes in rations are best done gradually over a period of seven to 10 days. Some will buy a portion of the ration birds are current­ly being fed to assist them in adjusting to a new farm environment.

Better Breeding

When taking up birds to breed from, I prefer buying adult birds over chicks. On a per-bird basis the costs are substantially higher, but there is a finished product to view before any money changes hands. It also cuts down the time to get into production by as much as a full year.

Further, a trio or even a pair of well-bred birds can produce substan­tial numbers of chicks in fairly short order. They are chicks from birds that are better known and understood by the producer.

Started Pullets

A growing number of people want­ing a few layers for a small flock or family needs are opting again for what were termed started pullets. They are doing it for many of the same reasons that I gave for buying older birds for breeding. You see what you’re buying. Many don’t want the bother or aren’t equipped to grow out baby chicks; they want birds in such small numbers or want the eggs to begin arriving right away. And there is no doubt about their gender.

A started pullet in the 12- to 20-week range is no small investment, but convenience has always had a price. The started pullet business has legs, many commercial hatcheries are already offering them despite high shipping costs, and it may be one more way for the more experienced poultry producer to be paid for what he or she knows and puts into the birds developed for sale to others.

It is the little things that are learned in the course of the farming life that often prove to be of the greatest value.

This article appeared in the December 2017 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Kelly Klober specializes in raising livestock using natural methods. He lives in Silex, Missouri. He is the author of Beyond the Chicken, Talking Chicken, and Dirt Hog, available from Acres U.S.A.

Read an excerpt of Beyond the Chicken here.

Feeding Chickens

By Kelly Klober

Ration tweaking has been a longtime practice among small scale, purebred poultry producers. Most have a trick or two for use in each and every season of the year. I pull dandelion plants (roots and all) and give them to our birds as a bitter green throughout the spring, summer and fall. As long as the birds consume them eagerly then they are providing for a nutrient need.

A hard and fast rule to be noted here is that feedstuffs are never a place for cost cutting. They must be fresh, properly formulated, and in a form that encourages consumption and reduces waste — such as crumbles for young birds which progress to small pellets as they mature. Cut bird numbers before feed quality is reduced.

If you do need to feed a grit product, or feel the need to do so, cherry granite grit in the size appropriate to the age of the birds is the best choice. 
Read and follow closely all company directions on how best to use grit with their feeding products. From time to time we will go to a nearby creek and scoop up a bucket or two of sand to dump into our pens to give the birds something to scratch through and gather some grit.

chickens eating
When consumed, grit moves to the bird’s gizzard where it is compartmentalized to help with the breakdown of grains in the digestive process.

A good heirloom poultry farmer is like a good chef. He or she seems to know just when the birds need a little extra soup can of something. The heirloom and rare breeds often seem to need something in the way of a boosted ration to compensate for a lack of vigor or libido that can stem from an overly narrow genetic base.

Quite often it is a nutritional problem that sets the stage for a great many health and performance ills. Ration boosting can be quite simple and involve the most basic of items. The key is to use them in a timely manner and not in a way apt to cause any further upset or stress. Sudden, drastic changes in rations, even if intended for the best, could be very upsetting to a bird’s well being.

Poultry are fed to improve their performance, to advance the birds, and not to simply save money. Good feedstuffs are an investment in the current and future productivity of the flock or flocks.

Along with good variety, you should be concerned with the freshness of their feed supply. Feed left stacked for extended periods in the far corner of a warehouse will suffer nutritional and quality breakdowns. Problems can develop with dustiness (fines), caking, water damage, vermin contamination, mold, and the like. Buying in modest amounts that will be used in rapid order will do much to assure that fresh supplies of feed are on hand at all times. This is a practice that can also help to even out the highs and lows in feed prices.

All birds consume feeds in such small amounts that every measure possible should be followed to assure that they get maximum benefit from their feedstuffs. With smaller numbers the higher costs of commercially prepared feed products is generally offset by convenience and versatility in their use.

Optimizing Commercial Poultry Rations

The following are some tips to get optimal value from commercially available poultry rations.

  • Smaller pellets, sometimes called mini-pellets, seem to be consumed better by started and adult birds than meal or crumble type rations. Pelleting has also reduced feed wastage for us as pellets tossed or scratched from the feeder are often retrieved and eaten by the birds later in the day. I would like to see a grower feed offered in a pellet and would not be surprised to see the development of a gel-type starter product one day. A gel-type hydration product is now available for birds of all ages when in transit.
  • Unmedicated chick starter feeds are now much more widely available than even a few years ago. A great many will carry some level of the product Amprolin that is used for the control of coccidiosis. This product is said not to harm baby waterfowl.
  • Follow feeding instructions to the letter. The same is true for all drug products. Do not make any abrupt changes in ration types or sources. Achieve such changes gradually over a period of three to five days.
  • Many poultry rations are now built entirely with vegetable matter that can add to costs. Also feed with higher levels of crude protein may be harder to obtain. Some producers will even provide added vitamin and mineral supplementation when feeding with these products. In times of stress or change we always add a vitamin/electrolyte product to the birds’ drinking water. Birds will drink when sometimes they won’t eat.
  • Many still believe a source of animal protein is needed if the birds are to achieve optimal levels of performance. Birds left on their own will eat a lot of “meat” whether it is worms, insects or any other creepy crawlers. If feeding from a totally distinct species such as fish, I feel there should be no real concern for any special crossover from potentially harmful organisms.
  • Most feedstuffs for young birds are designed to be fed to birds of specific ages. Follow those recommendations and possibly even extend them a bit for late-season hatched birds.
  • Commercially available feedstuffs from a company working to stay current in the field is a good base from which to begin building an heirloom breed feeding program. There are supplementation measures and specialty products that individuals can use to further ramp up performance from their birds.

On Feeding Broilers

Broilers, as fast growing birds, need access to a carefully formulated ration that accounts for their growth rate and frame development. With the “fast broilers” many producers now limit their birds access to feed after they are about four weeks of age. They will pull the feeders away from the birds from roughly seven in the evening until seven the next morning.

broiler hen on grass
Broilers on range really get very little benefit from green feeds. The real pluses for them are really the fresh air, sunshine, and exercise.

Shop carefully for broiler growing rations and match the rations carefully to the breeding behind your birds. Don’t assume that because they’re on grass that they will self-balance their rations. What goes into that feeder has to meet one hundred percent of a fast growing bird’s needs.

Don’t Forget the Water

Many don’t think of it as such, but drinking water is also a feedstuff. In fact, it is one of the most important of all feedstuffs.

Water should be before the birds constantly and in containers that will keep it clean, fresh, and appealing. In very hot weather it may even be necessary to offer the birds fresh water two or even three times a day. In winter many will offer warmed water twice a day. In cold weather I’m a firm believer in the old practices of giving everything a good drink and plenty to eat before the long winter night falls.

Hen with chicks
It has been my experience that keeping the birds hydrated, well fed, dry, and comfortable is the big half of chicken health care.

Also, just as with their rations, some producers like to tinker a bit with the drinking water. I have already outlined our reliance upon vitamin/electrolyte products in the drinking water for all classes of birds. We use this product almost daily in one pen or another and reach for it at the first sign of any sort of stress or health ill. Just as with baby chicks, we will use hydrogen peroxide in the drinking water of both growing and breeding birds.

I have also encountered drinking water infused with a number of different things. As noted earlier, white sugar will boost energy levels and can be used with debilitated birds as well as baby chicks. Two other common infusion products are red cider vinegar and dried hot pepper.

We have used both and generally have on hand a gallon of vinegar steeping with the addition of a couple of heads of garlic and a large, dried pepper. We add two to four ounces of this per gallon of drinking water a couple of times a week. Six ounces of red cider vinegar per gallon of drinking water is held to be a good natural treatment for coccidiosis. The garlic, pepper, and vinegar mix seems to contain a natural antibiotic that invigorates our birds. We use the mixture to help them maintain condition when under stress.

Source: Talking Chicken

Starting Your Flock the Fast Way

By Kelly Klober

Adult or started birds will give the beginning producer the fastest start. It is also the start that can be made with the greatest assurance of quality as you are beginning with made birds and in the desired ratio of the sexes. It is also the most costly way to make that start. Their worth is determined by the quality they manifest and their producer has a substantial investment in bringing them to a more developed stage. With adult birds you can be into production in literally a matter of weeks and with birds over which you have had great control in selecting. Factored into the costs of this option must be shipping fees, too. These can be very nearly as great as the cost of the birds themselves.

There are, roughly, two seasons of the year when adult birds are most readily available. The first is late-May to late-July when a lot of hatcheries and higher volume producers are dispersing their breeding flocks for the year. These are birds with a lot of lay left in them, but are no longer needed because the chick-shipping season has largely come to an end. A few of these adult birds will continue to hatch into the early fall and a very few hatch the year around.

pullet and cockerel
A Delaware cockerel and pullet.

The second adult bird season is in the late fall after all breeders have broken up their breeding pens and are making the final culling of the birds of the year. At this time you may access older birds that are being replaced by younger ones or the adult birds may be the last to be culled from birds that were being grown out as replacements.

These are generally good birds, but just not the elite of the year. You cannot expect another breeder to let go of his or her very best. However, much can be done with birds that are slightly past their prime or are the sibs and cousins to an established breeder’s better birds. Birds bought in the summer can actually produce a goodly number of chicks in the weeks that follow.

Such birds should he transported gently, handled with no break in feedstuffs variety, and be kept comfortable and well supplemented through any hot weather stress. A few years ago we traded some Buff Wyandottes for Blue Wyandottes from a breeder in Ohio. They were birds coming straight away from a show there. He placed them in solid-sided transport boxes, loaded them in his van in the evening, and pulled into my front yard at daybreak the following morning. One hen laid the second day, both were laying steadily within the week, and we had chicks less than a month later.

A good “starting to breed” age bird now will cost from ten to one hundred and fifty dollars. Yes, this is quite a range in price, but there is also quite a range in birds now available. Factors like rarity and quality enter into the pricing along with the cooperative nature of some producers anxious to see their chosen breed placed into more hands. The first pair of Penedesencas that I was aware of being offered for public sale brought a bit over seven hundred dollars at auction. They were a young pair of around eight weeks of age. Two years later similar pairs were selling for twenty dollars at our local farmers’ market.

Adult trio prices normally fall into the thirty-five to one hundred dollar range. I once paid thirty-five dollars for a young pair of birds I thought I absolutely had to have and have sold a couple of seventy-five dollar trios. If sending such birds through the U.S. mail, expect to pay ten to twenty dollars per bird for postage and the proper shipping container.

java birds
Java birds.

The U.S. Mail will accept live, adult birds if shipped in containers with the approved liners designed to check microbe spread. The boxes with replaceable liners can be reused with fresh liners. The boxes are sent as high priority mail and should be sent no farther than distances that can be covered in forty-eight hours or less. Into the boxes will be placed a couple of apple halves or some of the new hydrating gel products to keep the birds content and hydrated while in transit.

With the purchase of adult birds you gain at least a full year of production time. Also, you can acquire birds of proven conformation and color and in the exact numbers desired.

Ideally, you should acquire pairs or trios from two or three distinct genetic sources from which to then begin assembling your own breeding line. If finances won’t stretch that for — mine seldom do — try to acquire a trio of not too closely related birds from a single source. You don’t want to begin with a complete outcross, but rather from a base that will support heavy breeding pressure while maintaining a fairly high degree of genetic consistency. The good ones will be truly prepotent for the traits that really matter.

Keep the new arrivals isolated from other birds on the farm for at least thirty days after their arrival. During that time monitor them carefully for health matters while really studying their type and breed character. Tend them last each time you do chores as an additional health control measure. Try to continue the new arrivals on the same ration they were receiving prior to being moved and enrich their drinking water with a good vitamin/electrolyte product. To smooth their transition, keep them dry, protected from drafts, well fed and watered, and in a unit that provides them with both adequate headroom and floor space.

There are several steps to acquiring the best adult birds possible for your needs.

  • Begin by preparing a list of potential breeders to be contacted. Such names should be available in periodicals like the Poultry Press and Poultry Enthusiast, the state and national directories for the Poultry Improvement Plan, and the American Poultry Association and breed groups. Much help is also available from the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and the Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities.
  • Contact prospective buyers with an early evening phone call or by mail with a letter including a return self-addressed stamped envelope.
  • Be very clear as to your wants and realistic in your price expectations. 
    Give yourself plenty of time for this shopping process.
  • Always seek quality over quantity, even if it means starting with as few birds as just one good pair.

As a group, poultry producers are good people and I have had only one bad experience with ordered birds from a private source over the years. Generally, when filling an order they have nearly all followed the old timers’ policy of “heaping the measure.” I once scrimped and saved to buy a trio of Rhode Island Red bantams when adult birds had to be sent by air freight only from one large airport to another. When the shipping box was opened, there was my good breeding trio exactly as promised and another good pair, a gift from the breeder.

Don’t count on there being a great distance between sources to assure that you are getting birds or eggs of different backgrounds. You must ask questions of even the largest of hatcheries. If they can’t or won’t answer your questions then they don’t need your money.

Neither live birds nor hatching eggs should be a spur of the moment purchase. Order them for a convenient delivery date, be fully prepared for their arrival, and communicate often with the supplier as questions arise.

Source: Talking Chicken