Thinking about raising hens to provide your home with fresh eggs? Or maybe you’re a farmer and want to get a larger-scale egg operation going. Here are a few tips we’ve learned to keep your girls happy, healthy, and laying.
1. Skip the vaccinations only if you’re breeding
Some people might come after my head for saying this, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with vaccinating your chicks if you’re raising a small flock just for home egg production and don’t intend to breed them.
Skipping the vaccinations to rely on deep bedding and natural immunity is appropriate if you’re a farmer looking to improve the breed over time by allowing birds without good natural resistance to be culled. Farmers have the space for deep bedding and free ranging/pasturing that makes such a thing possible. But if you’re raising these girls in small space available in your home and yard, you’re simply not likely to have the room you need to do things all-natural.
Having all of your tiny flock of birds die of Mareks after carefully raising them to the 20 -25 weeks required to get them to laying age is devastating, and it would be horrible to have to start over. Farmers, on the other hand, with a flock of 200+ birds withstand the loss of a half-dozen animals – in fact it’s a good sign that the culling and breed improvement process is working. So ahead and get your girls treated for Mareks and Cocci if you’re raising birds from chicks for home use – it won’t kill you, and if you’re not breeding them, then you don’t risk weakening the breed.
2. Give them light all day and night when they’re young
Birds are highly prone to suffocating if they a.) get cold, and b.) have corners to pile up into. On a cold night in a dark hen house, your girls will more than likely find a corner, pile up into it and, if the circumstances are just right, promptly suffocate whoever’s unfortunate enough to be on the bottom. This seems to become less of a problem as they mature, but in our hoophouse in winter we still leave a single brood lamp on to provide light so they can see exactly what they’re doing.
Some folks will install boards to reduce the sharpness of corners, but I’ve found it’s less troublesome to avoid pileups by just providing a little light.
3. Don’t bother with starter feeds
When the arrival of our Rhode Island Red chicks was imminent, we were at a loss for what to feed them. Layer mash isn’t appropriate until 16 weeks of age and, as usual, the henmasters of the Internet offered no shortage of advice, all of which contained the addendum that if you didn’t do it their way, all your chicks would die and you’d be audited by the IRS.
We started the girls on broiler feed because it’s fairly high protein, and because we had plenty of it left over from the broiler season. They did just fine on it, and I’m grateful to this day we didn’t go through the trouble and expense of purchasing some Cadillac starter feed.
4. Avoid crowding and roosts
Because of a series of mishaps with our hoophouse (the cover blew off in a windstorm, among other things), all 140 of our hens wound up boarding in our 480 sqft brooder until they were about 14 weeks old. Some might say that 3.4 square feet per bird is more than adequate, but I’ll tell you right now that for us, it wasn’t.
Pale combs, large variations in bird size, pulled tail feathers, and restlessness are among the more obvious signs of crowding stress, and these girls had it in spades. Once 2/3 of the girls were finally moved to the 960 sqft hoophouse, their performance went through the roof: tails grew back, sleep was easier, and combs turned ruby red.
One more thing that I’ve heard: when the birds are too young to lay eggs, don’t introduce roosts. Apparently that’ll accelerate the formation of pecking orders and your girls will be fighting a lot more than if they’re all sharing the same level ground. Once they’re of laying age and you introduce nests, you’ll need to put in roosts to keep them from sleeping in the nests.
5. Don’t let them get comfortable with you
If you’re planning to introduce your mature birds to a pasture or free-range situation, then don’t let them get comfortable with you when they’re chicks. You want your girls skittish and terrified of anything that might even be close to a predator, so if they wind up getting comfortable with something as large as a human, then they won’t learn that shaking hands with a fox or raccoon is a bad idea until it’s way too late.
This may sound… mean… but when you enter the brooder to feed, keep the girls away from you. If they approach, lunge at them. Don’t hit or abuse them, but give them the impression that big things are after them and aren’t to be trusted.
Furthermore, if you’re looking for a free-range/pasture situation, stay away from docile, friendly breeds. If they’re going to survive out in the elements with predators all around, you want birds with aggressive roosters, flighty/skittish single hens, and broody mothers. This will, of course, make the harvesting of henfruit more difficult, but it’s a worthy sacrifice in the name of undoing the damage done to breeds adapted to unnatural confinement environments.