This guide to raising laying hens will help you learn everything you need to know for raising healthy and happy chickens and it will help you get the tastiest eggs possible from your laying hens. Learn about what you need to consider before getting your first chickens, get a quick look at some of the best laying hen breeds, how to get different colored eggs, and how to keep your hens healthy all year long.
I have no self control.
If the feed store has chicks, I will buy them. Period.
And if they are on sale?
Forget about it.
I know that I’m not the only homesteader who gets tempted by those feed store chicks. There’s a common saying that goes something like “Chickens are the gateway livestock” and it is most definitely true. So if you’re a newbie homesteader, with a car full of impulsive-bought chicks (which I totally understand!), this post is for you.
(We won’t really be covering raising meat chickens in this post (you can read more about raising meat chickens here), but I will cover plenty of general information that you can use for raising any type of chicken.)
Let’s take a closer look at what you need to consider before getting chickens, the best laying hen breeds for optimal eggs, the different colored eggs you can get, how to help your chickens give you more eggs, and much more.
Questions to Consider Before Getting Chickens
Sure, those chicks are super adorable, but (preferably) before you bring them home, a bit of self-reflection is wise to make sure you aren’t biting off more than you can chew.
1. Are you allowed to have chickens on your property?
Check out the local laws and ordinances before you get your first chickens, as every suburb, urban area, and even countryside home has different laws to with which to contend. For example, some places will allow you to have chickens, but no roosters, or there might be a limit to how many birds you can have.
Unfortunately, some towns or HOAs (homeowner’s associations) have strict ordinances that doesn’t allow chickens at all. So always double check your local rules before you bring those adorable chicks home.
2. Can you afford to own chickens right now?
I hate to bust this homesteading myth for you, but for the most part, raising livestock isn’t going to save you money. It WILL give you better quality food and an empowering feeling of awesomeness, but it’s not exactly free.
The cheapest chicken feed at the store costs $12-$16/bag, and making your own chicken feed is still an investment (here’s my chicken feed recipe if you want to try making your own). You’ll also need to be able to afford housing your chickens, setting up a watering system, and more.
Therefore, if money is tight, consider getting your first chickens only when you can afford taking care of them.
3. Do you have a chicken coop and/or a chick brooder ready?
If you are getting chicks, you will need a chick brooder to keep them warm and safe until they are old enough for a chicken coop. Fortunately, I’m a pro at impulse-chick-purchases, and I’ve got this down to a science (learn more about easy DIY chick brooders you can make). Preparing for new chicks isn’t rocket science, but they are very dependent on you, so make sure you’ve got a safe and warm place for them.
After your chicks are too big for the brooder, you will need a chicken coop to for them live in. You can get a pre-made chicken coop if you want, but frankly, I’ve always found them to be pretty flimsy. My Guide to Chicken Coops article will help you figure out what you need in your chicken coop if you want to make one from-scratch. Basically, you need room for your chickens, a roost, nesting boxes, a waterer, and a food dish. Making a chicken coop from scratch will take some time, but it’s so worth it to know you’ve got a solid and good-quality coop for your new laying hens.
4. Should I get hatching eggs, chicks, pullets, or adult laying hens?
There are pros and cons for all four options of hatching eggs, chicks, pullets, or adult chickens. Let’s take a closer look.
Hatching Eggs. You can purchase fertilized eggs, usually from online sources, to hatch at home. These are fertilized eggs that you need to incubate. Due to the extra hassle from hatching eggs, I personally prefer letting broody hens hatch eggs over ordering eggs from a hatchery.
Hatching Eggs Pro: You can get the exact chicken breeds you want to raise. This can be especially important if you want to raise rare heritage chicken breeds.
Hatching Eggs Con: Hatching eggs in an incubator is a bit complex and you have to purchase additonal chicken equipment (the incubator and all the necessary gear for a successful hatch), so it can be overwhelming to newbie chicken owners. You’ll also end up with both roosters and laying hens, since there is no way to sex eggs.
Getting Chicks. Purchasing chicks is the most common way to get new chickens. You can usually purchase chicks at a local feed store (my weakness), but you can also order them online. However, since taking a trip through the mail can be stressful on live chicks, this option isn’t without occasional issues (including some deaths and weak health from trauma). You might want to have some homemade electrolytes for chicks on hand for that, just in case.
Getting Chicks Pro: Usually, getting chicks is the best financial option. It is also the most recommended option for beginner chicken owners.
Getting Chicks Con: You will need a chick brooder to help protect them and for optimal health. The timing can be important, too. With chicks, you’ll be waiting about 6 months before you get eggs. If you want eggs ASAP, then pullets might be the better choice.
Choosing Pullets. Pullets are chickens between 4 months and a year old. Basically? They are teenage chickens that are just about ready to lay their first eggs.
Choosing Pullets Pro: Since laying hens start laying eggs at around 6 months old, your pullets will be ready to give you eggs almost right away. You also won’t have to deal with chick-care with brooders, or egg-care with incubators, so you will need less equipment and less hassle right away.
Choosing Pullets Con: Pullets cost more than eggs and chicks since they are about to enter their prime egg laying time. It can also be harder to find pullets for sale.
Purchasing Adult Laying Hens. Adult laying hens are chickens over 1 year old.
Purchasing Adult Hens Pro: If you get a young adult chicken (between 1 and 2 years old), you’re getting them right at their prime egg-laying stage of life.
Purchasing Adult Hens Con: It can be difficult to find good-quality laying hens for sale. Many adult hens that you will find are often past their prime, so you’ll just be taking care of them in their old age without the reward of getting eggs.
How Many Chickens Should I Get?
Since chickens are social creatures, I recommend at least four to six chickens, however, this also depends on the amount of eggs you want. Depending on the chicken breed (more details below), you should get, on average, 4 or 5 eggs per week per adult laying hen.
So you’re gonna need to do some chicken math to figure out how many eggs your household wants to have each week. You’ll also have to remember that laying hens lay the most eggs from approximately 6 months old to 2 years old. After that, they start slowing down in their egg production.
You might want to get at least 3 to 6 chickens this year, and then add new ones to the flock each year or so, in order to continue getting the right amount of eggs for your family’s needs.
Best Chicken Breeds for Laying Hens
Just like with cats and dogs, there are tons of chicken breeds and each type of chicken has it’s own personality, benefits, and disadvantages. Some of the things you’ll want to consider when purchasing your laying hen chicken breeds include the number of eggs they produce, the color of the eggs, their preferred environment, and the temperamant of the breed.
Here’s a list of some of my favorite laying hens (based on amount of eggs, hardiness, and temperament). You can’t really go wrong with any of these!
The Ameraucana chicken breed was developed by American scientists around 1970 in order to get the blue-colored eggs of the Araucana while eradicating the genetic issue that often caused Araucana chicks to die inside the egg.
Eggs: You’ll get approximately 150-200 eggs per year from each Ameraucana laying hen. Their eggs are usually light blue and medium to large in size.
Environment: Ameraucana chickens can tolerate all kinds of weather, and are not prone to frostbite issues.
Temperament: They are considered curious, friendly, and easy to handle, although I’ve noticed our Ameraucanas to be slightly more broody than other breeds.
The Australorp, aka the Australian Orpington is a chicken breed that is originally from Australia. This is a dual-purpose breed, and produces not only a great amount of eggs, but also good quantity of tasty meat.
Eggs: They average about 300 light brown eggs per year.
Environment: Australorps can handle most types of weather, thought they do prefer more space if possible. For this reason, they make a great free-range breed.
Temperament: They are very sweet, friendly, and docile. Australorps often get along with other livestock compared to other breeds.
3. Isa Brown
The Isa Brown, once known as the Institut de Sélection Animale Brown, was developed in France in the 1970s.
Eggs: Isa Browns were developed for their egg production, and they are heavy egg layers, giving you about 300 large brown eggs per year. They often start laying earlier than other chicken breeds and they are less likely to dramatically drop egg production in the winter.
Environment: They can easily adapt to almost any environment and are one of the most hardy breeds for both cold and warm climates.
Temperament: Isa Browns are considered very friendly with people and can be quite affectionate as well. They are calm and mellow, so it’s a great breed to have around young kids.
The most common Leghorn today is the Brown Leghorn. It originated from Italy in the 1800s. I like to think of them as the Holstein cows of the chicken world, as they are commonly used in commercial farming.
Eggs: Leghorns lay between 280-300 white eggs per year.
Environment: This older breed has been around long enough to have become adaptable to almost every type of weather and climate. However, their combs are susceptible to frostbite.
Temperament: This is an active and skittish breed. Leghorns are considered flighty and nervous, and they have very little interest in people or other livestock. They prefer to be left alone. If you’re looking for a rather independent breed that doesn’t need much social connection from you, consider Leghorns. Bonus: they are really good foragers, so you might have to feed them less in the summer.
5. Plymouth Rock
Plymouth Rock chickens are the second most popular laying hen option (after Rhode Island Reds). They originated in America in the 19th century but became very popular during World War II.
Eggs: They lay approximately 200 large brown eggs each year.
Environment: Plymouth Rocks are quite hardy and known to lay eggs even in the winter (they are not as affected by seasonal shifts). Roosters of this breed do have large combs that can be susceptible to frostbite.
Temperament: Plymouth Rock chickens are known for being quite mellow and docile. They generally get along with other chickens and livestock as well. Due to their calmness, they are good around children. They are known for being very curious and love free ranging and foraging.
6. Rhode Island Red
The Rhode Island Red chicken breed is one of the most popular breeds of laying hens and was developed in Rhode Island. It is popular due to their pretty appearance and laying ability. We’ve had RIRs for years, and I absolutely adore them.
Eggs: Red’s produce approximately 250-300 medium light brown eggs each year.
Environment: Rhode Island Red’s are laid back and happy-go-lucky in any weather or climate.
Temperament: They are usually an easy-going chicken breed, however, Rhode Island Red’s have a tendency to be a noisy breed. They are docile and good with people, making them a great first-choice for newbie chicken owners.
The Sussex chicken breed is an old breed that gained popularity in the mid-19th century in England. The breed then lost popularity for a while, but heritage chicken breeders have helped Sussex chickens make a bit a recent comeback.
Eggs: You will get approximately 200-250 eggs per year from a Sussex and they range in color from white-ish to a shade of brown.
Environment: They are quite hardy and can handle the cold very well, but they need shade and constant access to water in the summer to escape the heat.
Temperament: Sussex chickens are incredibly curious, to the point where they like to follow people around the farm to see what you’re up to. They are gentle and friendly chickens and they should not be combined with chicken breeds that are more aggressive because they can suffer from bullying (from being at the bottom of the pecking order).
The Wyandotte was a dual-purpose breed developed by Americans in the 19th century and the most common variety of this breed is called the Silver Laced Wyandotte. (These are my #1 favorite- don’t tell the others….)
Eggs: They produce approximately 200 large eggs each year, and they come in a variety of brown shade colors.
Environment: They are a hardy breed and can do well in any climate. They are, however, big fans of being free-range or having some extra space to forage.
Temperament: Wyandottes are normally docile and friendly, however, they do have a dominant and confidant personality, which can lead to fights with other breeds to be the top of the pecking order. Male Wyandottes can sometimes be prone to be aggressive and should be watched around children.
All About Different Colored Chicken Eggs
The colors of chicken eggs depends on the genetics of the laying hens. If your goal or hobby is to get a vast array of colored eggs from your laying hens, here’s what you need to know.
Do different colored chicken eggs taste differently? Nope. If some eggs taste different than others, it has to do with what the hen was eating, not the color of the eggshell (more details below on what to feed your laying hens).
Why do you get different colored eggs from various laying hen breeds? In order to figure out the colors of the eggs and how to change them, some science is required. Basically, all chicken eggs start out white inside the laying hen. As the egg travels through the hen’s oviduct, it can pick up different pigments (more science details on this egg coloring here).
Can you breed for different colored eggs? Remember art class, when you learned how red and yellow gets your orange? Well, dust off your art pigment knowledge and combine it with some chicken breed information and you can indeed change your egg colors over time. Here’s a little bit on how it works.
A brown egg breed combined with a blue egg breed will get you green eggs. Now you have four colors of eggs to play with (white, blue, brown, and green). You can then cross those different egg colored breeds together to produce various shades of those four colors. Just realize that it takes several generations of chickens in order to get special or specific colors.
Nesting Boxes Tips
Nesting boxes are crucial as they provide a clean, safe, and private area for your hens to lay their eggs.
Bonus: it makes it easier for YOU to find their eggs, too. There’s nothing worse than chickens who lay eggs all over the place. Well, aleast, in theory nesting boxes can make it easy to find their eggs. Just because you provide the laying hens with nesting boxes doesn’t mean they won’t decide to hide their eggs.
So you will need to watch the chickens closely as you provide them with nesting boxes. Try different types and see which ones the chickens prefer, or what spot in the coop they like the boxes, or, if they are sneaking away to have their eggs somewhere else on the farm (which happens occasionally over here).
It’s okay to have more laying hens than nesting boxes, but try to keep the ratio around 1 nesting box per 3 laying hens if you can (overcrowding tempts them to hide their eggs more).
Here are some more nesting boxes tips:
- Line the nest with plenty of shredded paper, sawdust, grass clippings, or something else that is non-toxic and soft (for both the chickens and to prevent egg damage).
- Consider adding herbs to your nesting boxes for cleanliness, nest box lining, and more.
- Keep the nesting boxes clean and tidy for optimal hen and egg health.
- Place the nesting boxes in a safe place in the coop that keeps them protected from predators and fellow chickens. You can help with this by keeping them directly off of the ground.
- Consider adding curtains to the front of the nesting boxes to give them privacy and to also discourage them from loitering in the nesting boxes.
You can use many creative DIY nesting box ideas, from antique milk crates, to buckets and storage containers, and more.
Laying Hen Egg Production Cycle
Here are a few of the most common questions (and my answers) about egg production.
When do hens start laying eggs?
Depending on the breed, laying hens will start laying eggs usually between 20 and 22 weeks old. Their first eggs are small (and super cute!), but they become standard sized (for their particular breed) about 6 weeks after that.
How long do laying hens give consistent amounts of eggs?
Most laying hens will provide consistent eggs for the first 2 or 3 years. Oftentimes, older laying hens will produce fewer eggs, but they will also be larger eggs than normal.
Can I prevent my laying hens from slowing down in egg production in the winter?
Winter is a tough time for chicken owners. We become accustomed to the levels of egg production in the spring and summer, then suddenly it comes to a screeching halt.
As the days shorten and hens get less than 12 hours of daylight each day, their egg production usually slows down. Generally, it’s a slow decrease over time before the egg production stops completely in the middle of the winter season (unless you get a rare hen or breed that keeps giving you a few eggs all winter long).
There is a lot of debate in the chicken world about supplemental lighting in the chicken coop. In theory, by giving the chicken coop certain lighting, it can increase their egg productivity. However, some chicken owners argue that it prevents laying hens from following their natural reproductive rhythm and that it is hard on the birds and causes them to “wear out” faster. Check out my article on supplemental lighting to get more details on this topic.
What time of day do chickens lay eggs?
In general, most hens lay their eggs in the early morning, usually within the first 6 hours of sunrise. Of course, this will depend on your breeds and your personal flock. Sometimes they make up their own mind about when to lay eggs. I would start by looking in the morning, and peek on them during the day until you’ve figured out the rhythm of your chickens.
One of the most annoying habits of chickens is egg eating. You can prevent this bad habit from forming if you try your best to gather the eggs soon after they are laid.
Tips for Getting Your Chickens to Lay More Eggs
If your chickens aren’t laying as many eggs as they should be (according to their breed), it could be for a number of reasons.
They might be dealing with lower egg production due to these reasons:
- Their age (optimal egg production is between 6 months and 2 years old)
- Decrease in daylight
- They are molting (losing old feathers and growing new ones)
- They are broody (here’s my guide to broody hens for tips)
- Your laying hens have a health issue or insufficient nutrition
While some of these reasons are naturally occurring and cannot be fixed, there is plenty you CAN do to increase their egg productivity:
1. Give them plenty of good-quality food.
Make sure you get the best quality food for your chickens that you can afford. Cheaper chicken feed might not have the best nutritional benefits for optimal egg laying (or for your hens’ health).
On top of good chicken feed, you should give your chickens mealworms, vegetable food scraps, and other healthy treats that give them a nutritional boost. I like to make this suet cake recipe for my chickens in the winter.
2. Add calcium to their diet.
Try to keep a dish of crushed oyster shells in the chicken coop for your laying hens to seek out when they need a calcium boost, or feed eggshells back to them. Since eggshells are 95% calcium, laying hens can find themselves depleted of own calcium over time.
3. Provide a clean, well-ventilated chicken coop.
A clean chicken coop makes a huge difference to the overall health of your chickens (here’s a video of how I recently cleaned up our chicken coop). Keep their nesting boxes clean and full of comfortable shavings and make sure your chicken coop is properly ventilated (here’s my guide to chicken coops) so your chickens don’t get respiratory diseases.
4. Make sure they get plenty of fresh water.
Chickens stay healthy by having access to fresh water. You will need to change out their water daily in order to keep them happy and healthy. And make sure their water feeder stays clean throughout the day.
5. Look over your chickens for parasites.
If you keep your chicken coop clean, you can prevent major issues with parasites. However, parasites love chickens, especially mites, and they can become an issue quickly if you don’t inspect your chickens often to stay ahead of the problem. Mites are tiny and look like red-brown spots running all over a chicken’s body and head. Look for mites during the night when they are the most active.
6. Keep your chicken coop safe from predators.
When a chicken is stressed, it can slow down their egg production cycle. Make sure predators cannot break into the chicken coop at night to help your chickens feel safe and secure.
7. Let them be free-range.
Free-range chickens are typically happier and healthier, resulting in them laying more eggs. Of course, not everyone wants to have free-range chickens, since they can wreak havoc on the garden or yard. Also, not everyone is allowed to have free-range chickens due to neighborhood rules, not to mention it makes them more susceptible to predators.
You can always make a chicken run (here’s a good chicken run plan), which gives them some extra space to run and forage, but prevents them from being able to wander your entire yard or space.
What to Feed Your Chickens (for Good Tasting Eggs)
Besides good quality chicken feed, there are some things you can feed your chickens for better tasting eggs:
- Protein: this includes wheat grass, barley, kelp, and alfalfa.
- Herbs: fresh herbs can provide lots of nutritional value to your chicken’s diet
- Kitchen Scraps: vegetable scraps are a favorite treat for the chickens, especially greens (cabbage, kale, lettuces, etc.)
- Garden Weeds: weeding the garden is *slightly* less awful when I know I can bring the bucket of weeds to the chickens
- Mealworms: mealworms give a great protein boost, but remember that they are just a treat (too many can be bad for them)
- Eggs and Eggshells: that might sound crazy, but chickens can get a calcium boost from eggs and eggshells (as well as oyster shells)
- Fruit: in moderation, fruit like watermelon can be a wonderful special treat for your chickens
What should you avoid feeding your chickens?
As a general rule, chickens can eat the same things we can. However, there are a few things you should NOT feed your chickens, including the foods: avocado, rhubarb, garlic, sweets, and heavily processed food. Read more here about what you shouldn’t feed your chickens.
My Final Thoughts on Raising Chickens for Eggs…
It can seem like a leap at first, but all in all, keeping chickens isn’t difficult, and it’s by-far, one of the most rewarding homestead skills you can cultivate.
My family has officially turned into egg snobs, and my children will refuse to eat store-bought eggs… And there’s nothing like baskets on your counter overflowing with eggs and knowing you helped provide your own food for your household.