In the movement towards self-sufficiency, more and more people are choosing to keep some chickens in their backyards, or on their homesteads. The whole point is to avoid having to buy caged eggs that are produced by battery hens, with all the cruelty involved in such a system.
You may want to keep a few chickens for the table and for eggs, although many homesteaders find that the kids become so attached to the hens they are regarded more like pets than farmyard animals.
Whichever way it goes, you need to start right by choosing the best healthy and well-bred hens for egg production, obtained from a reputable supplier.
Once you have the right type of hens then all the other factors can be fairly easily handled. There are breeds best for cooler and warmer climates, and breeds that will give brown, white, blue and even green eggs, friendly calm breeds, and others that are more skittish.
It all depends on what you want from your chickens, and where you live. Yes, temperature can affect the egg production of some breeds more than others, and if you have neighbors close by, you’ll want the quieter breeds.
Best Overall Egg Laying Breeds
In the choices listed here, overall egg production was a deciding factor for the hens producing brown eggs, then there are a couple of breeds that produce white eggs, and a few that produce a variety of colors, from blue to olive green and, sometimes even pink.
Rhode Island Reds
- Number of eggs laid per year: 250-300
- Rate per week: 4 to 5
- Egg color: Brown
Rhode Island Reds make the top of the list for many reasons. They are tough, requiring no special attention. They are docile and friendly – the type of hen that kids will sometimes carry around with them.
Then they make the list of best chickens for both warm and cold climates, indicating that they are adaptable. They live for around 5 years on average, and their best egg production is during the first 3 years.
They do not go broody easily – for best egg production you don’t want them becoming broody anyway. But, if and when they do go broody, they will raise the chicks well.
- Number of eggs laid per year: 250 -300
- Rate per week: 4 to 5
- Egg color: Light brown
This Australian breed was developed from the British Black Orpington. They enjoy having some open space to forage. Their black color is shot with tinges of green and purple sheen as the sunlight falls on their plumage, making them an attractive hen for the homestead.
There are white and blue varieties too, but the black Australorp seems the most popular. Like the Buff Orpington they are docile and calm, and enjoy hanging around the homestead with the family.
They aren’t prone to going broody, so it may take some time to get them to sit on eggs. They are one of the quietest chicken breeds if you’re worried about neighbors complaining.
- Number of eggs laid per year: 180 to 190
- Rate per week: 3 to 4
- Egg color: Brown
The Buff Orpington is a British breed, which embodies the children’s storybook idea of a typical farmyard chicken.
The breed comes in a variety of colors ranging from white to buff, blue and black, but it’s the buff color that has captured the hearts of people including Queen Elizabeth.
They are exceptionally good with children, and will often seek human attention, plus they are a quiet breed, which means you shouldn’t have any issues with neighbors.
Their thick feather layers keep them warm in colder climates, in warm climates make sure they have deep shade and enough water in hot weather. They tend to go broody which is why they produce less eggs than some other breeds, so they are a good choice if you want to raise more chicks.
- Number of eggs laid per year: 250 to 280
- Rate per week: 5 to 6
- Egg color: white
If you are looking for white eggs then the White Leghorn is a good choice, having been a popular breed for a long time.
While the hens will get used to you these are somewhat excitable chickens that can get flighty. Their egg production is impressive and while they are heat-hardy they will also be able to tolerate some cold.
- Number of eggs laid per year: around 150
- Rate per week: 3
- Egg color: white
Originally from Spain these hens have attractive coloring with blue grey feathers, outlined with a darker gray. They are good on a free-range homestead where they will forage for themselves, and are reputed to keep laying eggs during the winter.
They enjoy treats, but generally don’t like being picked up. They are also known to fly over fences! And they can be quite noisy. Learn more about the blue Andalusians here.
- Number of eggs laid per year: 300
- Rate per week: 5 to 6
- Egg color: Brown
These chickens are prolific layers, and can start laying from about 16 weeks, but they are a hybrid and will possibly not breed true to type so don’t get them if you are thinking of letting hens go broody and raising some new chicks.
The other drawback is that, because they are such prolific layers, they don’t live much beyond 2 to 3 years.
After two years, their egg laying capacity will dwindle significantly. This is because they are bred to lay during winter – when most chickens have a bit of down time from egg-laying, and consequently they wear out faster.
They are good with children and if cared for well may live a bit longer – up to 5 or more years.
Best Breeds for Blue or Green Eggs
This list is not in order of egg production because I felt it necessary to explain the process from the pure Auracana chicken that has the gene for blue eggs, and how it has been bred with other more prolific layers to create the Ameraucana and the Easter Egger, then finish with the Cream Legbar, which also has Auracana genes.
The difference is in the egg shell color – the egg tastes the same, just as brown and white eggs taste the same. The only difference in taste will be dependent on variations in the hens’ diet.
- Number of eggs laid per year: 150 – 180
- Rate per week: 3 to 4
- Egg color: vibrant blue
The Araucana chicken originates from Chile and lays vibrant blue eggs, however they are hard to obtain in the US unless you come across a dedicated breeder. The reason the pure Araucana is hard to find is due to lethal alleles.
In the Araucana, the ear tuft gene (Et) is responsible for the fluffy ear tufts that gives them a distinctive and rather cute appearance, and the dominant rumpless gene (Rt) means they have no rump like other chickens and an absence of tail feathers.
If a chick has both copies of either gene (a lethal allele) it will not hatch, but if only one copy is present the chick will have that genetic trait. If you need scientific data read this article https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3402462/
These two lethal alleles make hatching Araucanas difficult as many chicks die during the incubation period and there is also the chance of post-hatching mortality. Araucanas lay mostly in the warmer months of the year, and while the hens are friendly the roosters can be aggressive.
- Number of eggs laid per year: 250 – 270
- Rate per week: 5 to 6
- Egg color: blue
The Ameraucana was bred in the US during the 1970s, and does not have the fatal genes of the pure Auracana, so it will have a tail and no ear tufts, yet still lay blue eggs.
The Ameraucana is bred to certain American Poultry Association standards. They lay best when they are younger but a five-year-old hen will still give around 1 to 3 eggs a week.
They do fairly well in cooler areas as their small combs are not as susceptible to frostbite as breeds with larger combs.
- Number of eggs laid per year: 250 – 270
- Rate per week: 5
- Egg color: blue, green, pink, brown
The Easter Egger is not bred to a certain standard and can be an Auracana or Ameraucana crossed with a hen that lays brown eggs, like the Rhode Island Red. You will find the Easter Egger will give are variety of colors ranging from blue to green, pink, and sometimes brown. They are friendly and docile.
By cross-breeding with other types the lethal alleles that reduce hatching rates due to the Auracana genes, have been eliminated from the Easter Eggers. The roosters are not known to be aggressive.
They’re great chickens for the unusual egg color but may not be quite as accommodating with children as the Buff Orpington and Rhode Island Red, for example. Learn more about Easter Eggers here.
- Number of eggs laid per year: 150 – 180
- Rate per week: 4
- Egg color: light blue
These are the result of cross breeding Barred Plymouth Rocks, Leghorns and Auracanas. You can charge more at farmers markets for their pretty colored blue eggs, thanks to the Auracana genes.
The hens are friendly, and are usually easily handled, but they do prefer to be free range. They are good at foraging for themselves and predators won’t get to these wily hens easily. The roosters are reported to be aggressive especially during the mating season.
Now that you may have shortlisted a couple of breeds for your chicken coop it is worthwhile determining what to do to get the best egg production out of them.
Feeding Chickens for Optimum Egg Production
You need to ensure chickens get around 20 g, 0.7 ounces, or 4.8 teaspoons, of protein per day, to ensure peak egg production.
Some people feed chickens a commercial layer mash, crumble or micro pellets, but others refer to mix their own so they know exactly what goes into the hens’ diet.
Don’t assume that if you feed your hens more, they will keep laying more. It’s like creating the right diet for an athlete, enough to encourage star performance, too much and hens put on weight and egg production drops!
Free-range chickens need to be in peak condition for laying, but also not too lazy to forage for some insects. If you feel your property doesn’t have enough to provide the protein the hens need then you can supplement with any of the following items that are high in protein.
- Mealworms – containing 50% protein, hens only need a couple of these per day
- Chia seeds – full of omega-3 fatty acids, and containing 17% protein
- Amaranth – containing 23% protein the grain and leaves for amaranth cannot be fed fresh. Grain needs to be heat treated and amaranth leaves dried. The reason they must be dried is that although the leaves are high in lysine, an amino acid that promotes biosynthesis of various amino acids, amaranth also contains phytic acid which can inhibit starch digestion and by forming complexes with proteins and digestive enzymes can also inhibit protein digestion. Heat destroys these anti-nutrients.
- Moringa oleifera – native to India but also grown in Asia, Africa, and South America. Scientific studies indicate that moringa leaves help improve egg production.
- Lentils – don’t feed dry lentils to chickens – soak them for at least five hours in water then they can be given. Sprouted lentils can also be given, or they can be cooked as a treat as they contain around 26% protein.
- Hemp seed – 10 % protein.
- Watermelon – chickens need extra moisture in summer when watermelon abounds – being 92% water it will refresh them. It’s not particularly high in protein containing just 6%.
- Spirulina – 60% protein
Daylight and Vitamin D
Apparently there is a receptor near the chicken’s eye that triggers ovulation when exposed to sunlight. Hens lay more in summer because there are more hours of daylight. In winter you need to be sure they get enough sunshine in order to encourage good laying.
So, in winter you have to let the hens out to get their vitamin D from the sunshine, and get busy finding enough food. Keeping them in dark sleeping quarters when the sun is up is just going to inhibit egg production.
However, don’t do what commercial breeders do and give them artificial light, unless you really feel you need to.
If you do give them a couple of hours of extra light provide it early in the morning to stimulate egg production in winter. Just as humans need a few more hours of sleep in winter, so do chickens.
After a bit of a break, they will be fresh in spring and ready to lay. Just imagine going a whole year without any weekends or holidays – you’re not going to be as productive at work – so don’t begrudge chickens their egg down time in winter.
It’s important no matter what type of chicken housing you provide that it is secure against predators – from rats and snakes to raccoons and foxes as well as predators from the skies like eagles.
This video shows how to install a predator apron, because many predators like to dig their way in:
For snakes, a fine bird netting will stop most of them getting through but you have to be aware that snakes can flatten themselves and get through very small cracks, so doors should fit snugly on their hinges and into the frame, otherwise they will find a way in.
The chicken run may need a mesh / hardware cloth roof as well to keep predators like hawks out.
This video explains how to design a coop that’s fairly predator proof, and the deep litter method, which also makes clean up easier:
Deep litter involves placing a clean layer of litter material on top each day so that chickens always have a dry area that’s free of poop. When you clean the coop the litter can go to the compost heap.
To encourage hens to use their nest boxes, put an egg or two in there and they’ll get the idea. Sometimes, they hide their eggs around the coop making it a bit of a hunt to collect the eggs, so nest boxes they will want to use are a good idea.
It is not necessary to supply a separate nest box for each hen – often they will all want to use two or three of the favorite nest boxes and ignore the others.
Egg laying takes its toll on the hens, so especially in warm weather you need to give them a shady spot to rest, and make sure they always have clean water that is not in the sun.
Some people add aloe vera to hens’ drinking water – just one drop to the whole container. It’s said to increase the egg size, but this could be because of the anti-bacterial effects of Aloe vera – making them healthier, therefore increasing egg size.
Aloe vera is also said to help against Newcastle and Marek’s disease among others. A little apple cider vinegar can be added to the water instead of aloe vera if it’s easier to procure.
Cleaning the Coop
Good hygiene is important to keep hens laying well. Their litter should be cleaned out regularly. Whether you use the deep litter method or not depends on personal preference.
What’s important is keeping any litter dry – if it gets wet – and this is usually due to water containers being knocked over or rain getting in, you need to clean it out and replace with dry litter before it goes moldy and chickens slip around in it.
Disinfect the coop with a solution of chlorine bleach – a tablespoon of bleach to a gallon of hot water in a spray bottle, to get to hard to reach spots in corners and treat perches, the floor and the walls.
Twenty Tips to ensure hens keep laying
They are any number of reasons hens go off laying, so go through this check list to see what you can do to make them happy little layers again.
- Moulting – when chickens moult, they will go off the lay for a little while as they put the effort into growing new feathers.
- Stress from predators – if the chickens are nervous at night with predators like foxes, raccoons, and others prowling around, they won’t lay.
- Dogs – if you have dogs that are convinced chickens look like a good meal and spend their time watching them and trying to get into the coop, it will affect them. If the dog is chilled with them then there will be no down time!
- Lack of calcium – leave oyster grit in the chicken run for them to help themselves.
- Overcrowding – if you can’t function in an overcrowded office, just imagine the chickens. Make sure they have enough space to roam around, enough places to roost and sufficient nest boxes.
- Introducing new flock members – chickens have their pecking order and when new members are introduced it takes a little time to sort out the hierarchy, especially if they are different breeds – some are more aggressive and others more docile, so watch the integration. If some chickens are just being beaten up all the time maybe it’s time to separate them so they can all get back to laying instead of fighting.
- Moving the coop – if moving home for humans is stressful, imagine what it’s like for chickens who are uprooted – they may need a few days to adjust.
- Not enough water – specially when it’s hot, hens need their water, and it needs to be kept fresh so algae and other microorganisms don’t form.
- Not enough protein – you may need to give them more protein-rich items like mealworms, or let them forage more for insects.
- Boredom can lead to egg eating, so make sure they can go forage and be busy, also that nest boxes are up above their line of vision when they’re on the ground and that eggs are collected daily, or even twice a day so temptation is not possible.
- Hiding eggs – hens can be clever at concealing their eggs, going off into the garden or forest to lay. Only let them out later in the morning to forage once they have laid their eggs.
- Extreme heat can stress hens and they may go off the lay – particularly if there isn’t good ventilation in their coop at night.
- Age is a factor – after 2 to 3 years on average you can expect egg production to decline by as much as 50%.
- Sneaky predators like rats or snakes may be taking the eggs without you knowing.
- Noisy children playing and dogs barking can affect hens.
- Going broody – once a hen goes broody she wants to sit and hatch rather than lay more eggs. To stop them going broody take eggs away on a daily basis.
- Lack of greens – hens require a balanced diet, so fresh greens can help with egg production.
- Disease – watch out for chickens looking ‘off-color’ and treat for disease.
- Egg-bound. Watch this video to see how to help using a warm Epsom salts bath. If left without any intervention the hen may die. Becoming egg-bound can be the result of a calcium deficiency, so you’ll need to up the calcium intake.
How Do I Get Deeper Color Yolks?
Naturally darker yolks are higher in lutein. Some commercial egg producers feed chickens dye to make yolks more orange, but this doesn’t mean they are better for you.
What the chicken eats will raise the lutein content – vegetables like carrots, pumpkin, and butternut that contain carotenoids will help change the color and improve lutein levels.
How Long Do Hens Lay Eggs?
The hens come into lay at around 18 weeks of age and the first three years of their lives are probably the most productive, as they will usually lay about 250 eggs in their first year, moving up to around 300 at peak production in some breeds.
Some breeds like the ISA Brown come into lay earlier at 16 weeks, and some like the Cream Legbar at only 20 weeks.
Although hens live for an average of eight years, you will find egg production will decline significantly after 3 or so years … probably not so much so that you want to get rid of your backyard chickens, but you may need to introduce a few younger hens to ensure egg production needs are met on a homestead.
When running a commercial egg production unit the hens are slaughtered at around 72 weeks. Some homesteaders have chickens that live up to ten years or more but by then they have probably become pets and will not be laying eggs, which brings us to costs.
Are Commercial Eggs Cheaper?
In some instances yes, if they come from battery hens, but ethically this is a system you probably don’t condone.
There are a number of factors to weigh up when considering store-bought eggs versus keeping your own chickens. The costs depend on your choices. You also need to consider the side benefits like their ability to keep down insects, and the way they help improve the soil.
First off is the cost of the coop, and the nesting boxes, the feeding stations and water containers. If you can re-purpose existing items then it will definitely help rather than buying a commercially made chicken coop and all the other chicken paraphernalia.
Secondly what type of hens you buy can vary – rarer breeds cost more. The age is also a factor – day old chicks will be cheaper, but you have the chance of losing some, and have to feed them for up to six months before they produce an egg.
Buying starter pullets is more expensive but a shorter time to a payback in egg production. To save money in the long run, make sure you buy chicks that are already sexed (they’re a little more expensive) so you don’t end up with roosters in the mix.
Thirdly what you feed matters – if you have a large family and plenty of kitchen and veggie garden scraps, as well as place for them to forage you could spend very little on feed.
Consider nesting material – do you have access to any of the following free:
- Pine or cedar shavings
- Coarse sand
- Shredded paper
- Lawn clippings
If the answer is yes then you will save by not having to buy these materials.
Check out this video which calculates the basics of the profitability of keeping hens:
… BUT you also need to watch this other video that shows you how to use the land and resources you have to feed your hens using the permaculture system, and how little they can actually cost:
Should I Deworm My Hens?
Usually this isn’t necessary. The natural way is to give your hens the common wormwood plant (Artemisia absinthium) to peck at as it will help clean them of internal parasites. Feed hens regularly on one or more of the following to keep worm under control:
- mustard greens
- chili peppers
Also, cut and dry some leaves and place them in the nesting boxes to repel mites and other insects. Allow the hens to peck at a little diatomaceous earth to help clear worms.
How Do I Get Rid of Mites and Lice?
If there are mites visibly crawling on the chickens’ feathers and around their eyes spring into action because their activities can weaken the hens and lead to more serious disease.
1. Provide the chickens with access to a dust bath to which you have added diatomaceous earth( DE) – 1 part DE to two parts sand. DE is a natural product made up of the remain of diatoms that lived in the oceans and which have become fossilised over time.
DE contains silica which has sharp edges, and the earth is ground into a white powder which has desiccating properties due to the abrasive nature of the silica and will dry out the mites/lice and kill them by absorbing the natural fats and oils in the insect’s exoskeleton.
It’s a natural pesticide which also provides minerals that help them with laying healthy, big eggs and it acts as a natural dewormer.
If the chickens don’t want to take a dust bath, then you may have to dust them thoroughly with DE yourself.
2. Keep chickens out of the coop for the day – free foraging or in a chicken tractor.
3. Remove all litter from the coop and burn it, or if you are in a suburban area bag securely and put in the garbage bin. Do not add to the compost heap – you don’t want to give the mites a nice, new home.
4. Clean their coop with a high pressure spray, or if you don’t have one a spray container with very hot water and chlorine bleach, making sure you get it into the cracks where the mites and lice will be hiding.
5. Apply lime, to the inside of the coop by sprinkling, then wash off after an hour so it’s clean and no lime is left. The lime can also be sprinkled on the soil in the coop and raked in. It will kill the mites, lice and even fleas without harming the chickens.
6. Allow the coop to dry, then sprinkle some diatomaceous earth around to desiccate any nasty critters that may have escaped.
7. Clean the nesting boxes more often, and keep providing DE in dust baths on a regular basis, as well as sprinkling in the coop.
How Can I Prevent Hens Getting Diseases?
Keeping hens for eggs is pretty easy and very rewarding in terms of having fresh eggs for those fluffy omelettes, scrambled eggs, and for baking cakes, cookies and pies.
You’ll know that kitchen scraps are not being wasted, that many insects will be kept under control by the chickens, and that their manure and litter will help build up your soil.
You’ll be relieved that you are not contributing to the inhumane commercial caged egg system and your family will probably form strong bonds with these gentle creatures.