The Principles of Rearing Laying Hens

There are many factors that contribute to the successful rearing of laying hens; different life stages require different types of care. This article serves as a guide on the main principles of rearing hens in a small holding setting.

There are many aspects to consider before the arrival of birds, including:

  • Cost – set up and ongoing costs
  • Facilities – animal housing, heat source, ventilation, pest and predator protection, feed storage
  • Equipment – suitable feeding/drinking sources
  • Disease control – biosecurity measures, parasite prevention treatments (worming)
  • Daily Management – husbandry schedules
  • Legal – documentation, regulations, inspections

0-2 Weeks old

Housing conditions for chicks

Very young chicks cannot effectively regulate their own body temperature – it is vital that they are housed in accommodations with stable environmental conditions. Appropriate environments include heated barns/rooms or smaller brooder rings in which a heat source is provided. It is advisable to monitor the temperature of the housing daily to assess any temperature fluctuations which could have an impact on the chick’s health.

Substrate

No bedding substrate should be used during the first 3 days of life. In replacement of heavy bedding materials, paper/cardboard should be considered, as these types of flooring can reinforce the chick’s ability to feed. To do this, sprinkle chick crumb across the floor so that when the chicks move around the crumbs flick and move about, catching their attention, therefore encouraging them to eat. Once chicks are feeding well from their feeder, add bedding, starting in small quantities. Use Soft wood shavings as they are absorbent. Chicks should also be supplemented with vitamin D when housed under artificial lighting. Very young chicks will often show little to no signs of ill health before death, therefore this stage of their life is an extremely critical period for close monitoring.

2-16 Weeks old:

The chickens will be better able to regulate their body temperatures so the heat can start being reduced (2 weeks). Ensure that the heat source isn’t abruptly removed but instead, the length of heat time is phased out accordingly. To help the chick’s adjust to this change, provide them with bedding which retains heat. It is important that the outside ambient temperature is considered during this period.

Enrichment for hens

Now you should be adding enrichment – at first this can be small additions such as bundles of straw. When the hens get older and become more developed add new features, such as low perches; perching is a very important aspect of chicken behaviour,  if unavailable it can cause a wide range of issues relating to the social structure of the group. lack of perches may also have physical implications. Chickens will naturally look for a perch at night and will become frustrated if they are not able to find one. Having perching provisions gives the animals a place of refuge and will reduce harmful pecking to each other. Perches also improve the bone and muscle strength of the birds as well as developing their balancing abilities. The height of these perches need to be increased as the birds in a flock grow to imitate real conditions.

Foraging behaviour

Foraging in laying chickens is another key element of their natural behaviour. When foraging, chickens will scratch and peck at the litter available to them and will exhibit foraging behaviours even when food is readily available in a feeder. Chickens spend the majority of their time foraging and therefore need environmental complexity in order to fully satisfy this instinct; it is good to provide a variety of litter materials such as sawdust, straw and hay to keep things interesting for the chickens. You can also provide mixed grit by either scattering it on the floor or putting it in troughs, this is good enrichment and grit is greatly beneficial to their digestive system.

After 16 weeks add nesting areas to allow birds to start expressing natural nesting behaviours in preparation for egg laying. See more in the second half of this article.

Written by ACT.