From Chicks to Laying Hens–Phase III (week 16 onward)

adolescent rooster otherwise known as a cockerel

adolescent rooster otherwise known as a cockerel

Finally–after nurturing your chicks through the first three weeks, and then spending the next 3 months feeding, watering, coop cleaning, perhaps naming, and certainly watching them grow–you get to start think about collecting some rent for services rendered.

The combs on these 15 week pullets are not yet developed. The Americauna on the far right will never develop much of a comb or wattle.

The combs on these 15 week pullets are not yet developed. The Americauna on the far right will never develop much of a comb or wattle.

At about four months you’ll notice changes in the chickens combs and wattles (not to be confused with their waddle, however this may change a bit as well!). The comb is the the rubbery bit on top of their heads and the wattle the rubbery bit that hangs like jowls off a man fortunate enough to live to be Very Old.

You can tell a lot by a chicken by the look of her comb and wattle. As she (males too) near fertility both of these odd bodily features “liven” up–that is, they’ll grow in size, the color will deepen, and the texture will look and feel supple and warm. The comb and wattle of a hen going into and during a molt returns to something more akin to this adolescent dormancy–losing suppleness, color and size.

Here's an example of a fertile hen's comb and wattle.

Here’s an example of a fertile hen’s comb and wattle.

 

If you have roosters in your mix, they will have shown themselves by now. The roosters grow bigger faster and can become strikingly beautiful. And eventually they start crowing, which can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you feel about crowing roosters. I like it, except that I worry (and Mark more so) that crowing will irritate our neighbor. Rooster tail feathers grow up toward the sky in iridescent hues, thin back feathers drape gorgeously over shoulders and cascade across broad backs, colors abound.

When hens get really close to start laying eggs they will start bowing for you when you reach down to pet them. Especially in the absence of a rooster, for whom bowing can become a bit of a pain, which in fact, appears to be literal. Roosters mount hens by grabbing the back of their necks with their beaks and climbing on top of their backs in a rather aggressive fashion. The hens remain docile and her bowing is a submissive, “I am ready to copulate even if it is somewhat unpleasant because I know it must be done.” Makes me glad for human sex, but I’m getting way off topic.

The upshot of all this bowing is that if roosters aren’t around to protect and look after their hens, the hens award this bowing honor to you.

In anticipation of all these changes you need to do three things. (I forgot to mention this first one in my initial post until the question came up in the comment section. My bad.)nesting

First, prepare to switch over from chick feed to layer feed. We do this between week 16-18–no more than a month before we anticipate the pullets to start laying. This gives them a boost in protein and calcium as they near egg-laying season, but not for too long before they start laying. Some hen keepers wait until the hens start laying to switch over, not wanting to risk the problems caused by giving pullets extra protein and calcium too early.

Second, get your nesting boxes ready. That is, bed them with fresh straw and make them open and available. We block nesting boxes off during Phase II because pullets get used to sleeping in them, and where they sleep, they poop. They are otherwise naturally inclined NOT to poop where they lay their eggs, having an instinctual knowledge that poop nesting with eggs is not an altogether desirable pairing.

When we open the nesting boxes to the hens we also place a couple plastic eggs filled with sand in the boxes. Plastic easter eggs you have on hand ought to do just fine. Hens want to lay their eggs off the ground, another bit of instinctual knowledge that has keep the species alive. So they will be looking for someplace a couple of feet off the ground when the urge to pop out an egg hits and you probably won’t have any trouble. Early on you might find an egg that gets laid here or there, or anywhere, but generally they catch on quite quickly.

The third thing you’ll want to do after they start laying eggs is to offer crushed oyster shell. We use the same built in container that up to this point we fill with grit. We switch over from grit to oyster shells once they start laying and figure they get enough grit from their yard. Oyster shell offers calcium enrichment that will keep their egg shells strong. The supplement is necessary if you supplement their diet with feed, because feeding them beyond what they’d get ranging on their own tends to boost egg production. Hens that are only fed what they can scrounge lay fewer eggs and likely won’t need added calcium. But from late spring to early fall most of our hens lay about five eggs/week, which takes a lot of calcium.

Some people recommend crushing chicken egg shells and adding it back to the feed, or offering it as you might oyster shells. This is a bad idea. However instinctual chickens are about keeping eggs poop-free and off the ground, they are not opposed to eating them–especially someone else’s. So feeding them chicken egg shells whets their appetite for eggs–and an appetite once whetted is hard to turn.  Dear Liza met her end because she could not contain her desire to break open eggs and eat the sweet goods inside. I tried reasoning with her, warning her. She just stared back in that head-cock way hens do. “Not a good choice,” as my granddaughter, Auden would say.

Also be prepared that the first eggs will be small. Maybe even shell-less, held together by a membrane that resembles an egg shell. Maybe you’ll see an egg with a tag of another egg attached. Hen’s bodies will figure everything out soon enough, and the eggs will get bigger as their first season progresses. We have two hens who, when they come off a molt, start by laying a few yolk-less eggs. These are Really Tiny (adorably so) and I add them to omelets or scrambled eggs as a way to add more protein-rich egg white.

So that’s what’s next. Enjoy the joy of finding your first eggs–and let me know how your chicken keeping is going! If you have questions I’ll try fielding them, but another excellent source and on-line community is Backyard Chickens. You’ll find lots of folks with more ideas (and questions) hanging out online there, plus wonderful resources.

Note the variety in both size and color. The little white one is from a newly laying hen.

Note the variety in both size and color. The little white one is from a newly laying hen.

 

 

 

 

39 Comments

  • Thanks, Lisa. We are about to get our first chicks sometime this week. I had considered offering crushed egg shells as a calcium source, but will now avoid this thanks to you experience and advice. Our winters are colder than yours, so we are going totally with dual-purpose brown egg layers (R,I. Red, Australorp, Rocks, Sussex and Easter Eggers for variety) that are supposed to be cold-hardy and not to fly. We do have varmints in nearby woods, so will need a protective fence/run for the day even though we lock them in at night. Do you let your chickens under the coop for shade in hot weather, or isn’t that an issue in the NW?

    • Hi Mike,
      Dual purpose are a great choice–we may move that way ourselves from here on out. Our NW summers are cooler, but they can hot enough that our hens need shade and lots of water. They have trees in their yards that provide some shade, as well as their hen houses. But our hens don’t have access to under the hen house, which would be an especially cool and delightful place on a hot day. Reminds me of the children’s book, “Go Do Go” and the page depicting a hot day with a dog on top of the house fanning himself in the heat, and a dog under the house, cool and happy!
      Enjoy your chicken adventure–and thank you for your comment and question!

  • Great article about what to expect from your chickens when they are at the “point-of-lay” stage. I have shared this article on my Facebook page, which is like a daily digital newspaper for chicken keepers and contains the best stories, advice, tip and tricks from around the web. Visit it yourself and see! Thanks.

  • Thanks for sharing my post on your site James–and for offering a good resource for chicken keepers with your facebook page!

  • At what age do you take them off the chick starter feed? We supplement with table scraps, mostly from salads. My girls are about 10 weeks and living outside. They have plenty of bugs and other yummies crawl through their pen.

    • Keep them on chick feed for 16 weeks, even though they don’t look like chicks anymore. At 16-18 weeks, which is about 4 weeks before they’ll start laying, switch them over to a layer feed. Layer feeds are configured for hens who have the demands of laying eggs. If you start pullets too early on it they get overloaded on calcium and end up with troubles. See my post for Raising Chicks to Laying Hens, Phase II and particularly Phase III for transitioning needs. Hope that helps! And I’m glad to hear they have plenty of bugs and other yummies in their diet! You will notice the difference in their eggs!

      • Thank you! I did read the article, but must have missed it. 🙂 I can’t wait until I get my first egg!

        • Actually your question showed me I had left that detail out! I meant to mention it, but got distracted. 🙂

  • My darling son (who works at Wilco) told me that his boss told him that we needed to start feeding our chicks Layena at about 8 weeks. I kept saying it was too soon but he insisted so I bought the Layena the last time. They won’t be 16 weeks until the first week of June so when I buy them more feed next week should I go back to the chick feed until the first week of June? I’m going to kick my kid in the shin!

    • Yes–I’d recommend switching back to chick feed and saving the Layena until the first week of June. And rather than kick your darling son in the shin maybe you should tell his boss to read up on chick and hen nutrition! 🙂 Although I could imagine the boss saying 18 weeks… maybe a miscommunication??

  • Thanks…I will get the chick feed then…and tell my sons roommates that no matter WHAT he says, don’t feed their chicks anything but chick feed until they are are 16-18 weeks. And the boss didn’t specifically say 8 weeks, he just said it was time to start feeding them the Layena. Being a first time raising my own chickens I’m kinda clueless but after reading your blog I have discovered I have been doing everything right and at the right times…except the chick feed. Haha.

  • That’s great you’ve been cluelessly moving in the right direction! Shows that keeping chicks is really somewhat intuitive and not that difficult!

  • Lots of good info about the transition into laying. I have a Wyandotte that just started laying this week and she has become very aggressive and protective of her eggs — biting us when we reach into the nesting box and pacing and scratching a lot when we get near the run. We have taken the eggs out each day and she is getting more agitated.

    She has been laying less than a week. Any suggestions to make her more comfortable?

    • Thank you for the question, Andrea. One thing to keep in mind is that your Wyandotte is acting like a normal, healthy hen who hasn’t had her maternal instincts breed out of her! Whether or not her eggs are fertilized, she’s just acting on instinct.

      I do two things, the first may sound woo-woo. When I bring our chicks home and begin handling them I sing to them. I want them to come to know my voice and associate it with good will, warmth, food, etc. When I go into the hen house to collect eggs I sing to them, and I’d like to think my voice is calming. At least, I get pecked less than any other of our egg gatherers! Second, I put my hand on a hen’s back first, and then slid my hand under her to get eggs. This is less startling than being grabbed. If she does peck at me I gently hold her head for a few seconds, which she doesn’t like. Hens have a clear pecking order, and this establishes me at the top of it.

      I talk to them (when I’m not singing), tell a bird not to peck at me who does, and thank them for their eggs as I leave. Even if you don’t do any of that, likely she will get used to you coming and taking her eggs over time. But the calmer you can be when you do it, the calmer she will also be.

  • You’ve mentioned that feeding chickens too soon the feed meant for laying hens is a problem. I’me wondering, what kind of problems.

    • My understanding is that layer feed has calcium, which laying hens need for strong eggshells. If pullets get too much calcium before they begin laying eggs it can create some problems (shells too hard?) when they begin to lay eggs. Hope that helps!

  • I have (3) 16 week old pullets and they are quite docile in the evening after the sun goes down. I wait until they are on the roost then I go out and talk to them, tell them how pretty they are and that I hope they lay eggs soon. They never peck at me during this time and allow me to pet them, especially the neck under the beak and they still don’t even try to peck me. So if you haven’t established a good relationship by singing from the beginning I would suggest you start every evening after sundown. I probably do have the advantage of my coop having a hinged lid over the roost so all I have to do is open the lid and starting singing, petting and flattering.

    • You and I are on the same wave-length! I do think hens learn to respond to specific humans. Since we are dealing with 25 hen flocks (we have two of them), I know longer get to know them individually, but I know they know the difference between the four of us that collect eggs and give them care.

  • Thank you for the info. I just recently (in March,for my 50th birthday) got my first chicks. They have started laying, the last week of July. So excited!!! The ones that are laying are leghorns, and have always been on the more aggressive side. Since they started laying even more so. They are less aggressive with me than they are with my husband. I might also add I have 4 leghorns, 2 Rhode island reds, 2 americaunas, and 2 astrologers. As well as 2 wyandotte roos. I do believe it is because I have been the one to clean the coop and feed and water them. As well as talk them. I have talked to them from the start, because I just felt that when the time came to take their eggs they would feel less animosity. Sorry I’m rambling. I guess what my question is, is this: since they started way sooner than I expected, I have yet to start them on the layer feed. And there is about a Month difference in the age of 4 of my hens. What should I do about the feed? Right now they are on grower/finisher.

    • What a great 50th birthday gift! I like hearing stories of people who are new to hen keeping, and engage it enthusiastically and with a desire to have some sort of relationship with their birds. I’d go ahead and switch to the layer feed by mixing what you have left of the grower feed with the layer feed. Your other hens are likely close enough to laying that the extra calcium will be fine.
      Good luck with your flock!

  • Thank you for the info. It was the best birthday gift I have received, I think. I really love them. The roosters are a little loud, and they crow all day long, but they are fun, they drive my husband crazy, which is a plus. Thanks again for your advice.

    • Ah… roosters! Just a heads up that one rooster can “service” 10-12 hens. I wouldn’t want more than 2 roosters for that many hens unless you have a dominant male that won’t let the other roosters have their way with the hens!

  • I would really prefer to have only one rooster, if any. But my husband is apparently attached. More likely, he just doesn’t want to give away something he paid for. I also wanted to ask, what kind of scraps should I not feed my chickens. So far I have just been giving them veggie scraps from the garden, and produce that has gone soft. Is there any types of things I should avoid?

    • Great question Debbie. We avoid feeding our chicken egg and chicken products mostly, and don’t generally give them bread. Otherwise, they get left-over rice and other grains, veggies (cooked and raw), fruits, etc. We don’t eat much meat, so meat scraps are not much in their diet from our tables, though chickens are omnivores like us, and could eat scraps of meat.

  • Hello again Lisa. I will probably drive you nuts with all of my silly questions but I have many, and you actually answer them. I thank you very much. Plus we live in a relatively close geographical area I believe. I was wondering if chickens can have onion peels, potatos and potato peels and avacados and their peels. Also you mentioned you give your flock cooked veggies, what if they have butter on them. Thank you again for your help.

    • That’s a good clarifying question. What I should have said was that we feed them anything we would eat within those parameters! Humans (unless they are desparate) don’t eat eat onion skins, banana, orange, or lemon peels, or avocado skins. I do like potato peels, and so will your chickens. If it’s hard (raw carrots or beets) they’ll have a hard time pecking it, but they’ll love cooked carrots or beets. If the veggies have oil or butter on them, I figure it’s like frosting on a cake for chickens… Since high quantities of straight up fat isn’t much in their natural diet, I wouldn’t overdo on butter or oils. Or sugar for that matter. Seems that would be a pretty good guide for us all!

      You say we’re close in proximity–where do you live? I’m in Oregon, about 30 miles west of Portland.

  • That is a huge help thank you. I live just south of Yreka, CA. not close as in a couple towns away, but close enough that I know the type of weather you get. You are probably a little closer to the coast than we are, and it probably gets a lot hotter here, but the cold snaps are probably pretty close though. With in a days drive easily. I hope you don’t mind all the questions, but even though I have wanted chickens for about 11 years, this is very new territory.

  • my nuff hens are around 5 months old and have not started laying should i be conserned i already put 2 real eggs in their nesting box and the rooster is started mounting them? thank you,Gary my 1st chickens

    • I imagine they will start laying anytime. They may not lay in the nesting box at first though, so depending on how much free ranging space they have, you might find yourself hunting for their eggs! The eggs will start quite small, and get larger over time.

  • thank you so much actually i meant to spell buff hens and yes they are extremely free range chickens as i only have one of those sams club chicken coops but they all 3 buffs and 3 bannies.it would be almost impossible to find their eggs as they go to the woods and bushes.
    thank you so very much
    gary

    • Good luck on your egg hunt! Typically they’ll lay in the same spots–so you’d likely find a clutch of them if you go looking. If you don’t, I imagine raccoons, skunks, and other critters will take a liking to them…!

  • Hi Lisa – I have 5 chicks and they’re 3 months old. It’s driving me crazy not being able to tell the difference between roosters and hens. I keep thinking what if they all wind up being roosters? Yikes! Any sure-fire way at this stage to tell them apart?
    Thanks!!

    • Hi Sean–There’s no sure-fire way to tell at this point–hang on another 4-8 weeks and you’ll know. Depending on the breed roosters will start growing out combs earlier, and will begin to develop longer and more colorful tail and neck feathers. At this point they may be the biggest and most aggressive/inquisitive birds in your little flock, but you can’t count on that–especially if it turns out you have no roosters. The telltale sign is when they begin to practice at crowing. They’ll sound like adolescent boys at first, with crowing sounds that crack up a bit but don’t really sound like the cackling yours hens will begin doing. Within a couple days they figure it out, and you realize their sounds are not merely the cackling of maturing hens… Good luck!

  • Hi Lisa,we have had the nesting boxes blocked off. My chick’s are 13 weeks and I just opened up access to one of the boxes just so they could check it out. Is it too early for that? Should I close it back up?Thanks for your advice!

    • I imagine its fine–my concern would be that they not get in the habit of sleeping and pooping in there. Since they are still 6-8 weeks off from laying if it was me I’d keep the nesting boxes covered another month. Good luck!

  • Actually hens eat their eggs when they are lacking in calcium. Which is why you give oyster shells prior. We don’t have laying hens but show game fowl. It’s not bad t9 give them egg shells but they need to be baked in oven first. If you give oyster shells you MUST provide lots of clean water. As for biddies, they also need electrolytes and probiotics in first couple of days along side fresh water.

    • Thank you for your response and advice, Tiffany–it’s always good to hear what others are doing.
      We’ve unfortunately discovered that once our hens discover the delectable taste of their eggs they continue to eat them (shell, yoke, white) even when they have a steady supply of oyster shells (which we start supplying from about a month before they started laying onward). Usually we only have one or two egg breaker/eaters, but we try to nip the practice in the bud by removing eggs twice a day and keeping them supplied with oyster shell. And yes, always hens should be provided with lots of clean water–whether or not their diet is supplemented with oyster shells.

  • Hi, I have a question. I have 5 hens, all 7 months old. They all have combs except my barred rock. It just won’t grow! Just a little nub. I have searched the web endlessly with no answers. Can you help me? What is wrong with my little girl?

    • Perhaps your barred rock is a mix of something else–like an Americauna? Those hens don’t have much of a comb. Combs vary according to breed and can vary from being very large and multi-lobed to rather stubby nubs–called pea combs and rose combs. I wouldn’t worry about it–just celebrate it as some of the unique diversity in comb types!

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