When a chicken is this happy and eggs are this fresh, does it really matter which one came first? Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

While it’s not necessary to have “the talk” with your hens when they reach puberty, it is a good idea to prepare them as they reach the egg-laying stage of their lives. This includes taking both environmental and nutritional steps to give your hens the start they need as productive layers.

Feed, housing and hygiene are all key when it comes to caring for young hens. Here’s what you need to know to get them started so you can reap the benefits of daily fresh eggs.

“We call it ‘conditioning’ the chicks,” said Dr. Anne Lichtenwalner, director of the University of Maine veterinary diagnostic laboratory. “The animal is like a teenager and getting ready to reproduce, so they need to learn some behaviors to be successful.”

Proper feed

It is crucial for all poultry and livestock to be on feed that is age and stage appropriate, according to Lichtenwalner. Milk-producing dairy cows, for example, should be fed a feed based on the specific protein, carbohydrates and fiber needed for maximum milk production, and also to maintain the health of the cow.

Egg-laying hens typically begin producing eggs when they’re between 14 and 15 weeks old, but the time to modify their feed is when they’re between 10 and 11 weeks old.

“When a hen starts laying eggs, suddenly her body has to produce a ton of calcium,” Lichtenwalner said. “This happens at the time of puberty and when they have attained most of their adult size.”

For the first three months of their lives, juvenile hens should have been eating “grower” feed, which is formulated with the protein ratio they need for optimum growth. A month before they enter the egg laying stage of their lives, it’s time to begin gradually introducing them to a calcium-rich laying feed.

“You can do this slowly,” Lichtenwalner said. “You can start adding the layer feed into the grower feed and keep reducing the amount of grower feed until the hens are 17 weeks old and they are getting 100 percent layer feed.”

Laying-friendly environment

As the hens begin to mature into layers — but before egg production begins — you should make sure their coop is an inviting place to lay eggs.

According to Lichtenwalner, this means creating space in the coop that is slightly isolated and quiet, with good, clean, cozy bedding. One of the best ways to do this is to construct and install enough nesting boxes at a ratio of four birds to every one box. With small flocks, you can install one box for every hen. The boxes should have clean bedding like pine shavings or straw at all times.

“Your birds don’t need to be in the nesting boxes very long, maybe an hour or so every day,” Lichtenwalner said. “But you want them to know it’s a place they can go and not be bothered.”

Hens seem to especially like nesting boxes with some sort of covering above them that can keep the nesting area darker than the rest of the coop.

Once your hens start laying, nesting boxes should be checked at least once a day, and all the eggs collected. Once the eggs are removed, Lichtenwalner recommends taking a few moments to scoop out and dispose of any chicken manure that has collected in the nesting box.

“I like to toss in a handful of fresh shavings after removing any manure,” she said. “I like pine shavings in particular because they are somewhat antimicrobial, clean and easy to replace.”

The alternative is disaster

If hens don’t get accustomed to nesting boxes before they start laying, they may end up laying eggs wherever they happen to be at that moment — on the coop floor, outside under bushes if they free range or even on pieces of farm equipment.

This can be annoying at best, given the challenge it presents for finding and collecting eggs, and disastrous at worst, especially for eggs laid on coop floors, out in the open.

According to Lichtenwalner, a hen can come along, spot that lone egg and decide to peck and break it open. That can quickly escalate into consistent egg-pecking behavior among multiple birds in the flock.

“This can be a disaster,” Lichtenwalner said. “You can end up with a non-productive flock.”

Luckily the steps to ensure happy, healthy and productive layers are not that difficult. By paying attention to their growth stage needs and spending some time with coop preparation, the odds are greatly in your favor for years of fresh eggs from your flock.

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.