Many Americans are embracing a trend of self-sufficiency, and backyard chickens are one of the easiest and most rewarding steps a family can take toward leading a frugal lifestyle. Chickens are hardy birds, with few needs and a friendly disposition. Their owners value them for their meat, eggs, companionship and pest-control abilities. Most backyard chicken owners choose to raise chickens for the fresh eggs they provide, which are chemical free and taste better than anything purchased from a store. Once, chickens had a productivity cycle that only allowed them to lay eggs for certain parts of the year. Maximum production occurred in summer, and egg laying often stopped altogether in the dark winter months. Modern hens, however, can lay an egg almost every day of the year if managed properly.
The first step in maximizing your hens’ output is to choose a breed designed for heavy egg production. Rhode Island Reds are famous for their egg-laying capacity, laying approximately 250 to 300 eggs per year. Leghorns are another popular choice, as are hybrid varieties. Hybrid chickens are a cross of two breeds with an even greater egg output than either parent. It’s not uncommon for some hybrids to produce 300 to 350 eggs per year.
Next, it’s important to keep adding chicks to your flock every year to maintain egg production levels. Chickens reach their peak fairly early in life and begin to drop off after a few years. Whether or not you choose to give older birds away, eat them or keep them as pets is a decision you will have to make as your flock grows. If consuming your older chickens in an option, consider a dual-type bird that will produce less eggs, but also have better meat, such as the Plymouth Rock.
Even chickens specifically bred to lay a lot of eggs will be affected by environmental factors. Light plays a big role in production, so have a bulb on a timer in the coop, and keep the interior comfortable and dry. This will fool hens into thinking its summer year-round, thus minimizing their winter slow-down. It should be noted, however, that a significant temperature difference between the interior of a coop and a run can be harmful to birds. Unless you experience sustained temperatures well below freezing in the winter, it’s better to let hens adjust to the cold than heat a coop.
Hens also require a balanced diet to convert their energy into eggs, so provide feed meant for laying hens at all times, even if your hens forage in a yard. Most feed stores sell specially-prepared pellets and crumbles that will deliver every nutrient a hen needs in an easily-digestible format. It’s also wise to leave out oyster shells as a calcium supplement for sturdy eggs.
Water is vital for hens producing an egg every day, so ensure that they always have access to fresh, clean water. Hens drink twice as much water as they eat, and can be quite picky about what they will drink. This means emptying and refilling the trough daily to eliminate any debris that falls in over the course of the day. If your hens are not staying hydrated, egg production will dry up to accommodate. Clean water also helps prevent disease and parasites, which drain the energy of hens and can also slow down egg-laying.
Back in the days when many families relied on chickens for their very survival, maximizing egg output during the winter months could mean the difference between a meal or starvation. Nowadays, most urban homesteaders aren’t in quite so dire circumstances, but would still like to achieve the best results possible for the resources they put into their chickens. With these simple guidelines, a small flock of five hens should be easily able to provide for a family of four every day of the year. Before you know it, you may find yourself with more eggs than you know what to do with!