Making the Switch: Chick Feed to Layer Ration

By Jennifer Murtoff, Home to Roost LLC

It’s always a big event when your chickens start to lay! You and your birds put so much hard work and dedication into that moment, and the feed you give your birds is an important part of that first egg, too.  As your birds mature from fuzzy chicks into fully feathered adults, their nutritional needs change. The chick starter/grower they were eating now needs to be replaced with layer ration. How can you support this transition and help them live their best lives as laying hens? 

As your chicks become young adults, their dietary needs change.

Why do I need to switch?

The feed switch from chick starter/grower is critical for the health of your growing birds. So how do the needs of chicks and laying hens differ, and what are the differences between chick starter/grower and layer ration? The short answer is that chicks need feed that supports healthy growth, and hens need feed that supports healthy egg laying.

In their first months of life, chicks’ bodies experience a lot of changes. They need a feed focused on muscle and skeletal growth. Because chicks develop so quickly, their feed requires higher protein, more amino acids, and higher phosphorus levels to support growth. Giving chicks layer ration too soon can cause kidney or liver damage and growth problems.

Layers, on the other hand, need feed that supports egg production. Hens put lots of nutrients into eggs, and the vitamins and minerals that form the shell and its contents come from the hen’s diet. In addition, minerals like calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus are important for powering  muscles to lay the egg. Adult laying hens also need higher levels of Vitamin D3 to support calcium absorption.

 

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Either way, you should start with a good layer ration!

When should I switch?

Now that you know the why of switching from chick starter/grower to layer ration, let’s look at when. Most breeds start laying between 20 and 24 weeks of age. It’s important to start providing your hens with a quality layer feed before they begin laying. To prime your hen’s bodies for producing great eggs in the healthiest way possible, you should begin the switch to layer ration at around 16 weeks.

How do I make the transition easy?

Chickens are creatures of habit who like routines and continuity. Because chickens like things to be the same, it’s important to maintain consistency in nutrition. The best way to make a diet transition is to introduce the new food gradually. If you attempt to switch too quickly, you may see the following effects:

  • Digestive upset: A new diet may cause intestinal distress. Signs include a change in the color and consistency of droppings: they may be darker or lighter, or drier or runnier. During a diet change, feeding too many treats also can cause digestive upset and affect the overall health of your birds.
  • Refusal to eat: Chickens like things to be the same. It’s part of being a prey species. Their need for consistency includes their environment, flock mates, feeding times — and their diet. If you switch out a food all at once, they may not recognize the new feed and may stop eating altogether!
  • Overall health decline: Birds who are not happy with their new feed may experience health effects or fail to thrive. They might eat less, thereby getting fewer nutrients. If they free range, they may eat too many things that do not contain the right nutrients, and their bodies will not be ready for the transition to laying.

Now that you know the importance of a gradual transition, you can keep in mind the following to help you transition from one feed to another.  

  • Taste and smell: Formulated feeds from different companies have different ingredients, and it may be easier to stay with one brand, rather than switching brands. For example, Nutrena’s new improved NatureWise line includes essential oils that improve the taste and smell of the feed. If you start your birds on NatureWise Chick Starter Grower, they may move more easily to NatureWise Layer Feed.
  • Visual appearance: The shape of the feed is important, too. Birds are very visual creatures, so they will move more easily to a new feed that looks familiar. Most chick feeds are crumbles, so your birds likely will transition more easily to a feed in crumble form, rather than to a pellet.
  • Nutritional quality: You also want to make sure the new feed is nutritionally similar to or better than your chick feed. If you are feeding a high-quality chick feed, you should seek to maintain the same level of quality in your layer feed. Or better yet, find a layer feed that offers more and better nutrition. A shift to a lower-quality diet could affect the health of your birds at a critical time in their lives.

 

It’s important to transition to a layer ration that is similar to the chick starter you have been feeding. The similarity in texture and nutrients between Nutrena NatureWise Chick Starter Grower (left) and NatureWise Layer Crumble (right) can help your birds make the switch.

What are best practices for switching from chick diet to layer feed?

So how do you switch you birds from chick starter/grower to layer ration? The following are some tips that will help make the transition as easy as possible. You should always start by reading and following the instructions on the manufacturer’s label. Nutrena recommends starting the transition at 16 weeks, and your birds should have made the transition by 18 to 20 weeks. Your chickens may be just fine with this transition, but just in case, we recommend the following protocol.

  • Transition slowly: Mix 25% layer feed with 75% starter/grower feed for a week. Then change to 50% layer feed and 50% starter/grower feed, again for a week. Next, provide 75% layer feed and 25% starter/grower feed for a week. And then finally provide only layer feed.
  • Observe your birds: Monitor the birds closely. Check their crops, watch them eat, and check the feed levels to make sure they are eating. If they are not fed too many treats, layer hens should self-regulate their diet, eating about a quarter pound (1/2 cup) of food per bird per day. You may also want to weigh them every few days. You will need to adjust if there is any sign of weight loss.
  • Slow down the transition: If they stop eating or start losing weight, return to the previous percentages of new and old feed and continue for a few more days. Then try to increase the percentage, and continue increasing, but at a slower rate.
  • Observe nutritional needs: The layer feed should provide about 90% of your hens’ diet. Limit scratch and treats to no more than 10% of their diet. Feeding too many treats reduces the amount of nutrition your birds get from their feed. Limit treats to every few days, and then feed only about 2 tablespoons.
  • Be consistent: Your chickens need consistency, so provide them with fresh food and water at the same time each day, preferably morning and afternoon. They should have both feed and water available at all times.
  • Offer extras: Provide grit — small pieces of granite or other stones — to help them grind up their feed. Also offer oyster shell or limestone, which is slow-release calcium, as opposed to the calcium in their feed, which is absorbed quickly by the body. These supplements should be provided free choice, in separate dishes from the feed, and available at all times. The birds are self-regulating and will eat as much grit and oyster shell/limestone as they need.
  • Remember water: Fresh water is important to proper egg formation; eggs are mostly water. Make sure your birds have water at all times, even during the winter.
It’s important to observe your birds’ eating habits when you start a new feed.

How do I choose a layer ration?

How do you select a layer ration for your birds? First, think about your expectations for your birds and find a feed that will fit those needs. You have a number of options, from bare-minimum feeds that offer very basic nutrition to feeds that are finely crafted for top performance.

Pullets like this one need optimal nutrition to get their bodies in shape for laying.

For backyard flock owners, the goal is usually eggs. If this is your goal, choose a layer diet that will support your pullets as they make the transition to layers and prepare them to live healthy, productive lives. At the very least look for the minimum requirements of layer feed — 16% protein, 0.70% lysine, 0.30% methionine, 3.0% calcium, and 0.40% phosphorus.

Some premium feeds provide additional ingredients for optimal flock performance. For example, in addition to providing a solid nutritional foundation, Nutrena NatureWise includes the following:

  • Pre/probiotics support good bacteria, prevent colonization of bad bacteria, and aid with absorption of nutrients.
  • Yeast culture supports the immune system and gut microflora.
  • Essential oils are plant extracts that provide several benefits:
    • Provide nutrition to support healthy immunity
    • Maximize egg production
    • Support healthy digestion
    • Encourage healthy growth/bone formation
    • Enable superior eggshell strength
    • Enhance feed taste and freshness
  • Vitamin D3, an important vitamin related to calcium absorption, has the following roles:
    • Helps body absorb and use calcium
    • Improves hardness of eggshells
    • Supports stronger bones
    • Contributes to eggs that contain 37% more D3 than eggs from chickens fed a standard diet
  • Tagetes meal (Aztec marigold) helps the hens produce golden egg yolks.
  • Yucca schidigera extract reduces the amount of ammonia in your hens’ droppings, which minimizes coop odor.

 

Essential Oils: Helping Your Birds Live Their Best Lives

While there is still skepticism around the use of essential oils and more research to bespring chicken bantam hen conducted, some poultry farmers have integrated essential oils and other natural ingredients into their birds’ diets to promote flock health. Let’s look at these amazing natural compounds and how they can help your birds live their best lives.

What are essential oils?

Essential oils are plant products are distilled from leaves, flowers, stems, and roots and can be combined with a carrier oil or other liquid. They can also be used in dried form. In humans, essential oils are used as liniments (external) or infusions (internal/external).

Essential Oils and Chickens

Some backyard chicken owners regularly use herbs such as oregano, thyme, and rosemary because they believe they have antimicrobial, astringent, and antifungal properties, as well as the ability to repel insects. Essential oils from these plants are also making their way into chicken feeds.    

Essential oils are part of a class of plant extracts called phytogenics (FY-toh-JEN-ihks). Poultry farmers are starting to use phytogenics, including essential oils, in their feeds. They are also using phytogenics in feeds to support healthy growth. Proprietary research has shown that essential oils benefit the digestive, reproductive, and immune systems in laying hens. The following are a few examples of essential oils and their benefits. 

Oregano

oreganoStudies show that oregano oil extracted from two species, Origanum vulgare and Thymus capitatus, have antimicrobial and antiparasitic properties. However, these oregano species are not sold in traditional grocery stores, so finding a source of the right varieties is important. 

 

Rosemary

A member of the evergreen family, this common medicinal plant can protect poultry livers from toxic molds. Other benefits to chickens include high levels of vitamins A, C, and B, as well as magnesium, calcium, copper, iron, and manganese. Its strong smell also acts as an insect repellent.

Thyme

thymeThis member of the mint family is a medicinal herb in many cultures. In poultry it acts as an antioxidant that protects the intestine and boosts the immune system. Other effects in poultry include improvement in growth and digestive and antioxidant enzymes.[1]   

Star Anise

Star anise is the seed pod of an evergreen shrub native to China and Vietnam. It is commonly used as a flavoring and a scent for products such as candles. Oils extracted from star anise were shown to improve laying as well as growth. The use of star anise oils in poultry also increases antioxidants in the liver and egg yolk and stimulates the immune system.[2] It also aids in production of digestive enzymes and increases liver function. 

Nutrena Introduces Essential Oils in NatureWise

Nutrena is now offering new feeds that tap into the amazing powers of essential oils. Using a combination of oregano, thyme, rosemary, star anise, these new poultry diets support the digestibility of crude protein, amino acids, fat, calcium, and phosphorus. Essential oils and other phytogenics will maximize your birds’ laying performance and reduce ammonia emissions. New research shows that layers that were fed oregano essential oil produced 13 more eggs per hen over a period of 81 weeks. The overall quality of eggs improved by 1.6 percent. Cargill’s own research has shown that nutritious feed with essential oils results in healthy birds who lay eggs with a healthy weight and strong shells.

Giving Your Flock the Good Life

Our new product line with essential oils offers you and your chickens multiple benefits:

  • Better feed taste and resulting in better feed consumption
  • Enhanced freshness
  • Healthy digestion from increased enzyme production and nutrient absorption
  • Support for a healthy, strong immune system
  • Higher feed-to-meat conversion ratio in broilers
  • Support for healthy growth and bone formation
  • Promotion of healthy egg weight and size
  • Aids with maximum egg production
  • Stronger eggshells

Read more about our new product line that includes essential oils. 

[1] “Thyme: Thymus vulgaris,” accessed May 17, 2021, http://www.poultrydvm.com/supplement/thyme

[2] Caiyun Yu, et al., “Effects of Star Anise (Illicium verum Hook.f.) Essential Oil on Laying Performance and Antioxidant Status of Laying Hens.” Poultry Science 97, no. 11 (2018): 3957–3966. 

Top 3 Poultry Myths – HENS

Let’s bust some myths on laying hens. The internet is filled with lots of information on hens, some are true some are opinions. In this video Twain Lockhart, Nutrena’s Poultry Expert, debunks the top three myths on hens.

Have Incubators Given Broody Hens the Pink Slip?

Anyone who keeps chickens is likely to occasionally have a hen go broody. She’ll make a dramatic mood change, stop laying, fluff her feathers, change her vocabulary, and spend all day and night in the nest. Her life’s goal is motherhood.

We can consider broody hens either a problem or an opportunity. Since they don’t lay while in the mothering mode, a broody is a problem for someone who needs plenty of eggs. Yet, watching her incubating eggs and raising chicks is a fascinating, especially for children, and an easy way to add replacement layers to the flock.

 Broody hens perpetuated chickens for most of the thousands of years they’ve been domesticated. Before artificial incubators, they were the only way to hatch eggs.  

In those pre-incubator days chicken keepers needed some hens to go broody and raise a new generation. It worked, but was woefully inefficient. At best a broody can hatch and raise only about a dozen babies, making mass production of chickens and eggs impossible. Because of this inefficiency eggs and chicken meat were scarce, expensive and only served on special occasions.

The ancient Egyptians figured out that eggs could be artificially hatched if kept at just the right temperature and humidity for their 21 day development.  For hundreds of years in those pre-modern technology days they used incubators to hatch chicks.  In the rest of the world broody continued to do the work.   

Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit helped launch today’s chicken industry by inventing the mercury thermometer in 1714. Sealed in a glass column the liquid metal expands when warmed and contracts when cooled. A scale on the mercury column enabled a person to accurately measure temperature for the first time in history.

Eggs must be kept precisely between 99 and 102 degrees to hatch, so accurate thermometers and thermostats were essential technologies needed to make an incubator work. It took a while for them to be perfected. The first successful incubator was produced 167 years after Fahrenheit invented the thermometer. That invention   changed chicken culture and the American diet forever.

Today’s modern hatcheries use massive incubators to hatch tens of thousands of chicks every week. Fertile eggs are kept at precisely the right temperature and humidity and nearly all hatch. Most chicks coming off incubators end up at either massive egg production or broiler facilities that house thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of birds.  Even smaller hatcheries that sell diverse breeds directly to customers hatch them in incubators.  

With the coming of incubators broody hens became obsolete and a problem for commercial egg farms. They wanted high egg production, and since a broody stops laying, she’s not adding to the bottom line. Poultry scientists used their understanding of genetics to develop breeds and hybrids that rarely go broody. So huge incubators combined with non-broody hens enabled mass production of chickens and eggs, and broilers for consumers. Today these are the most inexpensive protein for sale at the grocery store.

Broody hens aren’t needed anymore to perpetuate chickens. So, have incubators given them the pink slip?  Maybe not. 

Scan a hatchery catalog or website and breeds will be described as “broody” or “non broody.”  If customers want maximum eggs, they can buy non broody types, but many people keeping just a few hens in the backyard can choose broody breeds to help them enjoy one of the most enjoyable aspects of chicken rearing. Broody hens are as fascinating as they are educational as they hatch, protect, and educate their babies.  Broodies are just plain fun.

Hens can become broody at any time of the year and once in awhile one is downright silly and tries to bring babies into a frigid January world, but it’s more likely in spring and summer. Older hens are somewhat more likely to be broody than young pullets and generally classic brown egg laying breeds are more prone to have the mothering instinct than small agile white egg laying breeds. But there are always exceptions. Sometimes a non-broody hybrid, like a California White Leghorn, decides she wants to be a mother and becomes broody. It’s rare but happens and sometimes breeds described as being broody decide they want nothing to do with mothering and refuse to incubate eggs.

Breeds famous for broodiness are Silkies, Orpingtons, and Brahmas. Most of the larger bodied brown egg breeds have a tendency to hatch eggs and raise young.  Brown egg laying hybrids, like ISA Browns and many white egg laying breeds and hybrids tend to not go broody, but the important word is “tend.”   Exceptions rule.

Preparing for a Broody

Managing a broody is a fascinating experience for anyone raising a small flock in the backyard. Nothing’s quite so endearing as seeing a peeping baby chick poking it’s head out of its mother’s fluffy feathers or watching mom teach her babies how to find food and stay out of trouble. It’s a great process for children to be part of.

To enjoy the brooding experience, choose some chicks of breeds that tend to be broody. Usually a young hen will lay for several months before the mothering instinct kicks in. Be prepared to help her successfully hatch eggs and raise babies by doing these things:

  • Have a nest box ready and a place where it, with the broody hen inside, is separated from the rest of the flock. A large hen, like a Plymouth Rock should be able to incubate about a dozen fertile eggs.
  • Put a small feeder and waterer near the nest. The broody won’t eat or drink much but needs a snack and water once in a while.
  • Have chick starter mash and a chick feeder and waterer ready for when the babies hatch.

If all goes well, eggs will hatch 21 days after mom started incubating. Chicks will soon scamper all over the coop. Continue to keep them separate from other chickens, and let the mother hen care for her babies. She’ll keep them toasty warm, even on cold nights, and give them a better lesson in survival than any human can.

What If I Don’t Have a Rooster?

Infertile eggs won’t hatch but a broody doesn’t know that and will sit on them anyway.  Fortunately, she can’t count so doesn’t know how many days elapse. This gives a helping person time to do one of two things:

  1. Get fertile eggs from a friend or neighbor or order them immediately. Many hatcheries sell fertile eggs, which are also available on eBay.  While waiting for the fertile eggs to arrive put golf balls under the hen. She won’t know they aren’t eggs!  Or, let her sit on infertile eggs until the fertile ones arrive.
  2. Keep the broody on golf balls and in two to three weeks buy chicks at a farm store. Or, as soon as she goes broody place an order at a hatchery for delivery in two to three weeks. When the baby chicks arrive bring them to the broody after dark. Gently remove the golf balls or infertile eggs under her and replace them with live chicks. She’ll immediately adopt them as her own.

Incubators have given broody hens the pink slip for commercial chicken production.   They just aren’t needed anymore, but a good old fashioned broody is ready to both raise chicks and give the flock owner a fun and educational experience watching her bring babies into the world and raising her chicks.  No pink slip for her.

Why Do Hens Stop Laying Eggs? Nine Reasons Hens Stop Laying Eggs

It can be quite alarming when a poultry owner gets a consistent five eggs, daily, from five hens, only to find just one egg for a few days. This sudden drop in egg laying takes us all into detective mode – are they hiding the eggs? Are they sick?

Below you’ll find some of the most common reasons for decreased egg production to put your mind at ease and hopefully get your girls laying consistently again.

Why do hens stop laying eggs?

  1. Molt. At 15-18 months of age, and every year thereafter, chickens will replace their feathers. Feathers will fall out to make room for new feather growth. During this time, hens will stop laying eggs.
  2. Lighting. Chickens need about 15-16 hours of light per day to produce eggs. The first year, most laying breeds will lay through the winter without artificial lighting.
  3. Too many goodies. Think of kids, if you unleashed your kids at a buffet, and told them they could get whatever they want, most would load up at the dessert table. Your girls will do the same thing, filling up on bread, table scraps etc. they may not be getting what they need to produce eggs. This is usually a slowdown, more than a stoppage.
  4. Too much lovin’. One rooster can easily handle 12-18 hens. If this ratio is too low, he will over mount the girls and bare patches will appear on their backs and the backs of their heads. This stress can drop them out of production.
  5. Dehydration. It doesn’t take much water deprivation, especially in hot weather, to take your hens right out of production. Many times alpha hens will not allow submissive hens (bottom of the pecking order) to drink. They are attempting to “vote them off the island”, but the first thing that will happen is an egg stoppage. We recommend adding water stations during warm weather.
  6. Any undue stress. Maybe the coop is secure, but they are still being harassed by raccoons, neighbor’s dogs, or other predators.
  7. Egg eating by the hens, or theft by 2 or 4 legged scoundrels! They may be laying, but the wrong critter is getting the eggs. Believe it or not, human egg stealing is more common than people think – I’ve even seen it on a game camera.
  8. Change in the pecking order. Adding new hens, a new rooster or removing a hen can cause a power void and/or drama. Drama=stress=egg production drop
  9. Illnesses/parasites. The reasons above may likely be the cause but parasites or illness can also cause stress on a hen.

We’ve got a whole section on our blog dedicated to diseases and disorders of chickens.

Chickens: Finding the Non-Layer

Chicken Non-LayerIt’s not unusual for one or two hens in a small flock to eat their share of feed, relax, and rarely lay an egg.

Although most flock owners don’t attempt to make money selling eggs, spotting and eliminating freeloaders saves feed dollars and keeps the eggs coming.

The trick is figuring out which hens aren’t laying. There are several ways to spot the lazy hen, and backyard flock owners have an advantage.

Unlike large laying operations backyarders normally only keep a few hens and visit the coop regularly.

Even better, small flocks are usually composed of several different breeds with varied colored and patterned feathers.

That makes it easy to identify specific hens and helps track down a nonlayer.

How Many Eggs Should a Hen Lay?

The number of eggs a hen lays in each week varies greatly depending on the breed or strain, nutrition, weather, age of hen, and season or day length.

Hybrids developed for maximum egg production are laying dynamos as are many white egg breeds.

If well-nourished and healthy, each bird will lay five or six eggs a week and sometimes more. In contrast fancy and exhibition breeds are often poor layers and may go for weeks without producing a single egg.

Even when they are in full production two or three eggs a week per fancy bird is normal. Hens of any breed lay the most eggs during their first lay cycle and produce fewer eggs as they age.

Most backyard flock owners keep time tested standard brown egg breeds such as Barred Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, New Hampshire Reds, and Wyandottes among others.

They are good layers that may not be quite as productive as hybrids but each should lay four or five eggs a week.

Even the most productive breeds and hybrids sometimes include slackers. Here’s how to find her.

Observation

Anyone with only five or six hens of varied breeds can usually pinpoint the non-layer through observation.

Hens usually sit in the nest for several minutes before laying.

Take note of which hens never seem to be in a nest and the culprit may be found.

If the entire flock is of one breed they all look the same, making it harder to find a non-layer by observation.

In contrast if a six hen flock is composed of six different breeds or strains with different colored feathers no bird has a look alike.

That helps identify the individual that never seems to be in a nest.

An even easier way to spot a nonlayer is to configure a flock with birds that lay distinctively colored eggs.

For example, Americaunas lay blue/green eggs, Rocks or Orpingtons produce light brown eggs, while the eggs of Marans and Welsummers are dark brown. Leghorns and Minorca produce snow white eggs.

A flock of hens that each lays eggs of a different hue makes it easy to tell which one isn’t working.

Experienced flock owners use several techniques to spot a nonlayer, even if all birds are of the same color. Here’s how they do it.

The Eyeball Test

Hens that are run down, lethargic, and sickly looking usually aren’t laying.

In contrast, birds that look great with complete healthy feathers, good size, and bright yellow legs and beaks may be prima donnas putting all their nutrition into looks rather than eggs.

Hard working laying hens gradually get a little rough looking. As the months go by their feathers get worn.

Breeds with yellow legs and beaks gradually see this color diminish as egg laying drains pigments from the body.

It takes much work and nutrients to produce plentiful eggs and working girls show the strain.

Good layers usually have healthy combs, while the combs of non-layers are often shrunken.

A Close Examination

Hens are easiest to handle when they are sleepy.

So, the best physical way to locate a non-layer is to enter the coop at night with a battery lantern, flashlight, or headlamp so you can use both hands.

Gently pick up each bird. Position her between your elbow and ribs with her head facing backwards.

It may take gentle pressure from the arm to keep her wings from flapping, and by holding her feet between your fingers she’s not mobile and will likely sit quietly.

Gently place the palm of the other hand on her pelvis. Bones that are easy to feel span the cloaca, where both droppings and eggs emerge.

If a hen is not laying, the bones will be close together.

If she’s laying they will be three or four fingers apart, providing plenty of room for the egg to pass out of her body.

A laying hens vent or cloaca is usually moist and pale in color.

A non-layer’s may appear yellowish.

What to Do With the Non-Layer

For many flock owners a non-layer is quickly destined for the stew pot.

Usually nonlaying hens are plump and delicious but are old enough to have tough flesh. They are best stewed.

Some flock owners would never dream of butchering a bird.

It’s OK to let a non-layer stay in the flock, even though she’ll continue to eat expensive food without returning eggs!

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