Care for chickens correctly and they will reward you with cartons full of fresh eggs. Get it wrong, and the eggs stop coming.
Getting it right isn’t difficult, says Jim Hermes, poultry specialist for Oregon State University Extension Service. Give chickens appropriate feed, water and shelter from the worst weather of winter, and you have covered the bases.
The food of choice is bagged feed from a feed store. It is formulated with the correct nutrient requirements for each stage of life: baby, adolescent and adults.
Starter feeds are for chicks from hatching to about 6 weeks old; grower and developer mixes are for chickens 6 to 17 weeks old; and layer or breeder feed is made for those producing eggs.
If you cannot keep your variously aged chickens separated, feed mixes labeled “general purpose” are appropriate for all ages. For laying hens, though, you will need to add calcium in the form of oyster shell or egg production drops.
The biggest mistake chicken owners make is to supplement too much, Jim says. Don’t consider leftovers from the kitchen or vegetable garden an important part of their diet. They will eat those treats first and not as much of the chicken feed, which dilutes the amount of nutrients in their diet. When that happens, chickens are more susceptible to disease and will produce fewer eggs.
“If it’s a high-fiber, leafy green vegetable, it sounds good, but it just has water, sugar and fiber,” Jim says. “The fiber goes through them, they already have water and they don’t need sugar. If you’re going to supplement, a little bit is OK. It’s just like with kids—give them a little snack. It should be what they can finish in 10 to 15 minutes.”
Scratch—a mixture of grains, usually wheat and corn—is an acceptable supplement as long as it’s not overused. A little tossed on the ground encourages chickens to scratch, which gives them exercise. In the process, they find nutrient-filled insects.
Chickens eat little pebbles called grit if they need them to grind up wheat, corn or insects. It’s available at feed stores, but chickens often find what they need on the ground.
Unlike people, layer chickens don’t overeat, so feed should be left out continuously.
“You’ll rarely see a fat layer chicken,” Jim says. “They eat to satisfy their energy requirements. If they go without feed for a day, they will go out of production. So, keep feed in front of them all the time.”
During winter, be sure to have a place for your chickens to get out of bad weather. Although they have excellent down jackets, chickens suffer if their combs or feet get too cold. The tips of combs can freeze if temperatures dip to 10 degrees or lower. If they do, there is a chance of gangrene, which causes damage, pain and fewer eggs.
Hens need to nest in places a foot or more above the ground as protection against dogs, raccoons and other predators.
Keep water available. If it freezes in winter, put out fresh water or break the ice. You can buy a water pan heater, or put a lightbulb in a coffee can and place the dish on top.
Find more information about raising chickens in these publications:
“Living on the Land: Backyard Chicken Coop Design,” https://catalog.extension.oregonstate.edu/ec1644
“Raising Chickens in Urban Environments,” https://catalog.extension.oregonstate.edu/em9089
“Why Did My Chicken Stop Laying?” https://catalog.extension.oregonstate.edu/pnw565