How to Maintain a Productive Laying Flock

In this article, based on a talk that I’ve given for several years at the Homestead Fair, I’ll give you a basic framework and some techniques to help you keep a productive laying flock. This is written for small-scale production, on a family homestead or small farm, not for large-scale commercial egg laying.

What does productivity mean?

When we talk about productivity, we need to define it a bit, since a productive flock may mean different things to different people. Your sense of what “productive” means to you will be based on your goals and reasons for raising chickens. Some people raise chickens mainly for the experience. The chickens eventually become pets that lay few, if any eggs. If that is your goal, you may not find this article very relevant.

Your goals may differ from mine. To give sort of a baseline, I’ll briefly describe my goals, which are to raise enough eggs and meat to feed my family, plus have a small surplus of eggs and chickens for friends, neighbors, and others. My other goal, which I cover in other articles, but not in this one, is to improve my flock over time, adapting them increasingly to thrive and produce well in my locale (central Texas) and under my management style.

With these goals, productive means that a hen lays well during prime laying season. I expect fewer eggs during the summer months because I’m raising larger, dual-purpose birds that undergo more stress during the heat than lighter birds. I encourage some broodiness, but not excessive. I don’t vaccinate. Instead, I keep birds that show natural disease resistance, and I seek to perpetuate this through hatching chicks each year to perpetuate and renew my flock. These all factor into what I consider a productive or non-productive bird.

Each hen needs a purpose

I’m not a commercial producer, so I’m not focused on getting absolutely the most eggs from the fewest birds with the least feed. But at the same time, I do want each bird to have a purpose. If a particular chicken in the flock doesn’t have a purpose or can no longer fulfill her purpose, then I feel like I’m being wasteful if I keep her in the flock long term. Again, I may keep a hen for other reasons than strictly egg production, such as excellent ability to hatch and raise chicks.

If a hen’s main purpose is to lay eggs, and she’s not doing that or not doing it very well, then she’s not fulfilling her purpose. So I want to identify unproductive hens and remove them from my flock.

Otherwise, I am using up some of the space and feed that could go to more productive hens, and I’m increasing the risk of disease and injury while also reducing the quality of care to my better hens. If I were to give the better hens extra space by removing the non-producer, then the better layers may be even more productive. Removing a non-producer also reduces my feed costs.

Again, a hen could have a different purpose—maybe she’s great at hatching eggs and raising babies, but just not a good layer. If so, I may keep her for that purpose. So again it goes back to what your goals are for your flock and what the purpose is for each of your hens.

Five essentials for a productive laying flock

Here are five basics that we need in order to have a productive flock:

1. Start with good stock

2. Raise replacement layers

3. Keep records

4. Cull non-productive chickens appropriately

5. Provide excellent care

If you practice these five things, you can have a productive flock for years to come. Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

Start with good stock

What do I mean by good stock?

First, get a breed that lines up with your goals and purpose. If you want lots of eggs, don’t get Dorkings or Dark Cornish. Stick with a breed that’s known for egg laying.

ISA Browns (aka Red Stars or Red Comets) are a good brown egg layer. They’re not very useful for meat.

Leghorns are excellent white egg layers, but they’re very flighty and not that pleasant to raise.

Some of the dual purpose breeds mentioned below are good for both egg laying and meat, but if you choose those, you will sacrifice some eggs in favor of getting more meat.

Australorps, Delawares and New Hampshires are good dual-purpose breeds for both egg and meat production. They all lay well or reasonably well. Of these, Black Australorps and New Hampshires tend to be the best layers. And they grow quickly for a heritage breed (though much more slowly than Cornish broilers). If you buy from a good line, the chickens will reach a large size in a reasonable amount of time. Birds purchased from most hatcheries will be slower growers, but Claborn Farms has good lines of these breeds available at times.

Other things to consider are temperament and (as already mentioned) tendency toward broodiness. Leghorns have a poor temperament. ISA Browns have a good temperament, especially if you work with them to tame them. Black Australorps have a pretty good temperament for a good layer. White Silkies have wonderful temperament but lay very little.

No breed excels at everything. There are always tradeoffs. That’s why it’s important to know what you’re trying to accomplish and get a breed that will be a good fit.

Raise replacement layers

Your hens won’t lay well forever. Though a hen may live for 12 years or longer, she will only be productive for the first few years.

You’ll get the most eggs from a hen in her first year of laying. This starts when she is about 6 months old (a little earlier than that for hybrids, like ISA Brown and White Leghorns) and goes until she’s about 18 months old.

Sometime around that point, in the fall, she’ll go into a molt. A molt is when chickens start growing new feathers and dropping their old ones. It’s triggered by the shorter daylight hours that begin to occur in the fall, though other things (particularly stress) can also trigger a molt. During the molt, hens will slow or completely stop laying for 4 to 12 weeks. Afterward, they should start laying again, and they’ll have a beautiful new coat of feathers.

This starts their second year of laying. But this second year, you’ll only get about 80% as many eggs as you got the first year.

The cycle repeats itself, and in year three, you’ll get maybe 60% as many eggs as you got in year one for any given hen.

It’s not very practical to keep layers longer than 3 years unless you need them for breeding or other purposes. Or unless you’re raising them as pets.

The way to keep your overall flock laying well is to raise new hens every year. Rather than replace all your hens at once, I recommend that you replace one-third of your flock each year. This way, you’ll have strong laying from your new layers starting at about 6 months and reasonable production from the other 2/3 of your flock.

Which hens should you replace? The ones that are not producing. We’ll look at how to tell that shortly, but first, let’s discuss how to plan for raising replacement layers.

Raising replacement hens

To raise replacements, you’ll need to start about 6 to 7 months before you need new layers and either get new chicks or even better, hatch them yourself. Another option would be to buy started pullets.

I’ll go into more detail on hatching chicks in other articles. It’s not difficult, it doesn’t require much equipment, and it’s very rewarding.

How many replacements should you raise?

If you’re hatching them yourself or starting with a straight run, count on about 50 or 60% of them being males (roosters). The overall quality and productivity of the females will vary. About half will be above average, and the other half, below average. To give you the flexibility to pick out and keep the best ones, I suggest that you aim to hatch twice as many females as you actually need for replacement layers. You’ll end up keeping the best, and the others you can either cull for meat, or give away or sell. They are perfectly good chickens and if you’ve invested a lot of effort into improving your flock, they may be much better than people will be able to get elsewhere. They’re just not the best birds in your flock.

If you buy chicks or started chickens from a major supplier, you can specify “just pullets” (females). If you do that, I’d recommend purchasing 20-30% more than what you need to give you the flexibility to keep only the best.

Let’s look at an example.

Suppose you want to keep a flock of 12 hens. If you’re going to replace a third of them each year, you’ll be replacing 4 hens.

So in order to have plenty of extras to choose from you’ll want to hatch eight females (twice what you’ll keep). If you’re hatching them yourself or buying a straight run only about 40-50% will be females. The other 50-60% will be males, so in order to get 8 females, you’ll need to hatch 20 chicks.

Raise the roosters up and eat them when they’re about 20 weeks old, keeping only the best rooster or two in case you decide to add them to your flock. Raise the pullets up, and when they start laying at about 6 to 7 months of age, add the best of them to your flock, culling the others.

Repeat this process every year.

If instead, you’re purchasing just female chicks or started pullets, and you want to keep a flock of about 12, again we’ll be replacing 4 hens.

Purchase 5-6 pullets (20-30% extra). Raise them to 6-7 months of age, then introduce them into your flock.

You can see how this part of keeping a productive laying flock goes hand-in-hand with raising some chickens for meat as well, since you’ll be culling regularly.

Recordkeeping

How will you know if you’re improving or maintaining the productivity of your flock?

How will you know what’s a normal level of productivity for your flock?

That’s where recordkeeping comes in.

As mentioned, in order to keep the flock productive, we need to cull the non-producers and the poor producers. To give us some sort of benchmark to go by, we also need a way to assess productivity. So we’ll keep some records.

Recordkeeping can be pretty simple. Just keep a chart or write on your calendar how many eggs you’re getting each day. Calculating an average for the week is also helpful. Then, when the average starts to drop, it’s time to find out which hens are not laying and consider culling them. If you keep more than one pen of chickens, you’ll probably want to keep separate totals for each pen.

What does “culling” mean?

Simply put, culling just means that you remove the bird from your flock. Many of the birds that I cull, I use for meat. That’s one of the big reasons that I recommend using dual-purpose breeds because then the birds that you cull will be a nice size and worth your while to process. Again, keeping a productive flock for egg laying goes hand-in-hand with producing meat.

When to cull?

It’s good to cull at various points throughout the year, but there are times when you should be careful not to cull non-layers.

Why?

Because at certain times, particularly during a molt, even your best layer won’t be laying much, if at all. And in the tests that I’m going to cover shortly to tell if she’s laying, she’ll be indistinguishable from a poor producer (because for right now she isn’t producing).

So don’t cull when your best layers are molting. And don’t cull when none of your hens are laying. It may simply be too hot or too cold. Or there may not be enough sunlight for them to lay right now.

It’s best to cull when laying has just started to decline. You find out when that is by looking at your egg laying records.

Then continue to cull every so often, particularly if the lay rate continues to decline.

How do I tell which hens aren’t laying?

There are three main things to check to tell which hens are laying and which ones aren’t:

  • The vent
  • The width and flexibility of the pelvic bones
  • The crop (at night)

Examining the vent

The easiest way to tell if a hen is laying is to examine her vent.

If the vent looks moist and open, in other words, if it’s large and wide, then she has laid an egg recently.

If the vent is dry and puckered, she’s not laying.

Looking at the vent tells you what’s been happening recently, maybe today, yesterday and in the last few days, but what we really want to know is — is she a consistent layer? Any hen may take a few days off at times, and we don’t want to fault her (or cull her) for that. Instead, we need a measure of how she’s doing more long term.

Examining the pelvic bones

To tell this we examine her lay bones — that is, her pelvic bones — and we measure how far apart they are.

Can you fit several fingers between them? If so, she’s probably a good layer. Or can you only fit one finger? Or not even one? Then she’s probably a poor layer.

This is a bit subjective. It’s something you have to get to know for your flock. You should check all the hens in your flock to get a feeling for which ones have widely spaced lay bones and which ones have narrow lay bones.

Also, check the flexibility of those bones, can you move them or spread them with gentle pressure? Is the ligament that goes between the lay bones flexible? If so, then she’s likely laying well.

The reason that this works is that the egg comes out through that channel. In order for her to lay, those bones have to spread out. If she stops laying for days or weeks on end, or if she’s a very sporadic layer, those bones will close up, and you’ll be able to detect that.

Examining the crop (at night)

Once you’ve found a hen that seems like she’s a non-producer, check her crop. The best time to do this is in the evening, shortly after dusk after the hens have gone up on the roost.

Feel her crop. Is it packed full of food?

Good layers need to eat well because it takes a lot of energy and nutrition to make eggs, so good layers will go to roost at night with a full crop.

Poor layers go to roost at night with a partially empty crop. By checking your hens, you’ll be able to tell the difference.

If you found a hen with closed up lay bones that are fairly rigid and inflexible and a half-full crop, then she’s probably not producing.

Detective work to determine why a hen’s out of production

Now it’s time to do a little detective work. We need to decide whether she’s out of production for a good reason or a bad reason.

A number of different things can cause a hen to stop laying. Some of these are a good reason to cull, but others are not.

First off, is she missing feathers on her chest? Is she acting a little bit huffy? Is she hanging out in the nest box a lot? If so, she’s probably broody. Broody hens generally stop laying, but as soon as she’s done brooding she may go back to laying. So you probably shouldn’t cull her just because of broodiness. In fact, that may be a good trait to cultivate in your flock, depending on your goals.

Next, feel her abdomen. Is she fat? Overweight? Maybe she’s eating too much and not getting enough exercise. Seriously. If so, putting her on a leaner diet and providing a way for her to get out and get some exercise and forage may help her recover back to laying.

Cull or use a safety net

After you’ve done these tests, you’ll know whether to keep her, possibly work with her more, or go ahead and cull her. If you’re unsure of your accuracy, you can always separate her into another pen and give her a few weeks to prove herself. Then, if you start finding eggs, maybe you need more practice assessing your hens. Otherwise, if you don’t find any eggs (or very few), then you chose correctly.

You can greatly improve the overall productivity of your flock by culling the non-layers.

Provide excellent care

We’ve covered how to narrow your flock down to just the most productive birds and how to replace layers and renew your flock each year so that none of your layers are getting too old.

The other thing to provide is excellent care. Your birds need:

  • a reliable supply of fresh water
  • fresh, good-quality layer feed — feed freshness is important. Start with a good quality feed that has been formulated for layers. But also make sure that the feed is fresh. Two ways that I recommend doing this are: 1) buy feed frequently, and only store enough feed to last about 1 month; store it in a container that keeps out moisture; 2) only set out enough feed in the coops for 1-2 days; feed in the feeder stays nowhere near as fresh as feed in the storage bin. For more information on feed and nutrition, please see the article How to Feed Your Hens for Best Egg Production at www.theselfsufficienthomeacre.com.
  • fresh ground to forage on — fresh ground accomplishes several things. It gives the chickens something to do, reducing boredom and giving them exercise, as they scratch and search for bugs and seeds and eat grass, clover and other plants. These fresh greens supply additional nutrients. It also reduces the likelihood of problems with parasites, such as worms. And it’s healthier for the soil where the chickens are because it gets a chance to rest from the chickens foraging and depositing manure on it. Giving your chickens fresh forage regularly is one of the best things you can do for them.
  • a place to get in out of the rain and cold wind
  • shade in summer
  • good air quality
  • plenty of space where they can get exercise and sunlight

Conclusions

It’s possible to greatly increase your flock’s productivity and maintain a productive flock by practicing the things we discussed. First, give some thought to what your goals are — what does a productive flock mean to you? Second, choose a breed that lines up well with your goals and purpose. Next, raise replacements each year for a third of your flock. Keep records so you can chart your progress and know when to cull. Cull non-productive birds, but be careful during the molt or when none of your hens are laying. And finally, take excellent care of your hens.

If you’re interested in taking this yet another step, you can learn to selectively breed your birds to improve them with each successive generation. This is a long-term project that takes some extra dedication, but it’s rewarding and adds another aspect of sustainability to your flock.

Further reading

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