Life Stages of a Layer Flock

Published November 17, 2022 by Joyce
Chickens and chicks

Which came first? The chicken or the egg? The debate continues, but for our purposes let’s start with...

The Egg

Swedish Flower Rooster

There are two kinds of eggs. 

Fertilized eggs come from a flock with a (male) rooster. 

Add a sitting (broody) hen or an incubator and you get chicks. 

Sterile eggs come from a flock with no rooster. Hens (females) lay lots and lots of eggs. BUT… No chicks. No way. Now how. 

You can get fertile eggs from a farmyard. You can also get fertile eggs from a hatchery. Or from a local breeder. 

Eggs can be hatched under a broody hen or in an incubator.

Buffy the broody hen sitting on her clutch of eggs

While incubators are fun and educational, a sitting hen does all the work for you. Either can fail. With an incubator, a power outage can cause failure. Sometimes a sitting hen will simply abandon the eggs.  Regardless of which option you use, it is best to have a backup plan and be ready to tend to the process.

It is also important to remember that roughly half of the eggs you hatch will be roosters and you will likely end up with more than you want to keep.

Hatching eggs is a great experience for kids or just because you want to give it a go. You may love it and decide to hatch your own chicks every time you want to add to your flock. You’ll never know unless you try. 

Chicks

It is easy to bypass the complications of hatching eggs by purchasing them locally or online from a farm store that offers them in the spring and early summer. Shipping can be quite expensive, especially for small orders. My local farm supply store gets their chicks from a wonderful hatchery and I pay no shipping. Because my feed store requires pre-orders, they can supply dozens of breeds and the minimum order is 6.

Chicks have very specific needs. They are fragile creatures, especially in the first week or so. Make sure you have the time and resources to attend to them. If hatched by a broody hen, she will take care of them for you. But you will need to attend to her needs and watch for problems.

Brooder

10 chicks in 12 sq ft brooder box
10 chicks in 12 sq ft brooder box

A brooder is a home for your chicks once they are hatched (unless your broody is hatching and raising them). It can be very simple. You can build one with 2X2 lumber and 1/4” panels or simply purchase a large plastic “tote.” Chicks need about ½ sq ft each or 1 sq ft for 2 chickens.

How many chicks you want divided by 2 = the square footage you need.

This will be their home for about 6 weeks, so allow for them to grow. My wood brooder box (3'X4', ie. 12 sq ft) will keep 10 chicks comfy even if there is a delay in putting them in the coop.

Ample space gives them plenty of room to dash about as they do. It also gives them space to moderate their comfort by getting closer to or further away from their heat source.

A small chick
15 day old Butterscotch and her flock mates are quite capable of jumping/fluttering up 3 feet to the top of my brooder

Your brooder will need a ventilated cover.  Even small chicks can jump out, get hurt in the fall or endangered by a pet or by getting stepped on. . 

This can be accomplished by cutting a piece of ½” hardware cloth at least 3” larger than the brooder. Finish the edges by stapling it to a wood frame or covering the edge with a couple layers of duct tape to prevent getting scratched on the wire edges. 

Bedding

Bedding helps to absorb waste and any water that gets spilled. It also is very important for preventing splayed legs. Splayed legs happen when they are housed on slippery surfaces and in dashing about, their little legs slip out from underneath them (like doing a split).  It can cause lasting damage to their hips. Pine shavings work great for safe bedding. 

Newspaper and sawdust are NOT good choices for chick bedding. Newspaper can become slippery when moist from waste. The chicks will eat sawdust as it greatly resembles their food. They can die from impacted crops because they can’t digest sawdust. Pine shavings are too coarse to swallow.

4 small chicks huddled together
Comfortable chicks neither crushed together or against a cool wall

Warmth

There are several types of heat sources available. A simple, inexpensive choice is a red heat lamp. Red light is thought to help prevent chicks from pecking at one another. It can also cause fires and burns. Attach it securely to the brooder and make sure the chicks can move away from it and don't become too hot. An unbreakable thermometer securely fixed inside the brooder is a good idea. Heat lamps can get very hot! Test the temperature in the brooder before adding the chicks and keep a close eye on it. You want 90 - 95 degrees on the floor, at the edge of the heat source for the first week. 

Chicks huddled in a big pile are too cold and in danger of smothering each other. Chicks that are panting or gasping with their beaks open are too hot. Reduce the heat immediately by moving the heat source further away from them. Given enough room, chicks will move in and out of the heat as they need to.

Small chicks under a heat plate
1 day old chicks needing their heat plate lowered in the back for more warmth

Chicks that are comfortable will generally sleep together but not in a crushing pile. When awake, they will trot around pecking and cheeping. Birds bunched together are generally too cold. If they can’t get away from too much heat, they may gather around cold outside walls. 

Learning what comfortable looks like is an even better indicator than a thermometer.

Reduce the heat by 5 degrees F per week until 70 degrees is reached. After 6 weeks, 65 - 70 degrees is optimal.

A warming plate type heater is safer than a heat lamp, easy to use, but considerably more expensive. They are adjustable and must be adjusted about once a week. I keep mine with the back low and the front higher so the chicks move toward or away from the heat to regulate their temperature. In this photo, note how the birds are squeezed together and up high on their feet pressed against the heat source. Lowering it a bit in the back, lets them relax and lie down under the warmth.

Chicks at a feeder

Knowing what is normal for your chicks is a great way to spot problems before they get out of hand.

Water

Chicks need a small waterer that they cannot fall into. Chicks drown easily and a wet chick will become too cold very quickly. When you get your chicks, as you take each one out of its box, dip its beak into the waterer and watch to make sure it tips its head up and swallows. It might take a couple tries. Do this BEFORE putting them in the brooder so you can make sure each one is drinking. 

Wash the waterer carefully every couple of days.

If you use a shallow (!)  bowl of water, you must put stones in it that are too large to swallow so that they cannot drown in it during the first few days.

An elevated chick feeder
Elevate feeders on a sturdy box 2” 0r 3” prevent clogging with bedding

Feed

Your farm store will direct you to the proper grower mix for your chicks. I feed an organic grower mash which has a fine consistency reminiscent of cornmeal. 

It is critical to have a way to elevate the feeders. Within a day, the chicks will begin kicking and digging in their bedding and easily fill the openings in the feeder/waterer with sawdust. While this is excessively cute, it can also prevent their being able to eat and drink.

After about a week, a new food can be introduced. Scrambled egg is a good choice as it is easily digestible. 

Chick grit ( much finer than layer grit) can be introduced in the same type of feeder or simply sprinkled on their bedding. They will find it. You must introduce grit before giving them anything more substantial than scrambled eggs. This is the only way they can “chew” their food!

A hand holding some chicken grit.
Chick grit is very fine. If you're unsure of whether your chicks – pullets – layers are ready for the coarser layer grit, offer a mixture and they will pick what they need.

Some feel that introducing chickens slowly to the natural bacteria in the soil is helpful in preventing disease and digestive overwhelm later on. To do this, at 3 or 4 weeks, making sure they first have had access to grit for a few days. Then pull one small weed, shaking off most of the dirt from the root but leaving some and simply lay it in the brooder. Continue doing this as greenery and small amounts of lettuce or other greens are great for them.

Entertainment

Chicks tend to entertain themselves pretty well but it can help to have some climbing entertainment which also serves as training them to roost. It is good for the development of their feet.

A homemade roosting toy with chicks on it
A simple roosting toy made from scraps and smooth branches

As for your entertainment, the chicks will do. It is almost guaranteed to bring some cheer. Handling your chicks and talking to them from the start will help to ensure that they are friendly adults that are easy to handle. 

Image babyBuffyTransparent_Edited1.jpg (caption: Buffy at 1 week at ease on my hand)

Hens that are accustomed to being handled are much easier to deal with in the case of injury, illness, treatment for mites, etc.

Pullets (about 6 - 16 weeks of age)

Pullets are half grown chickens. They are fully feathered, but still quite small and slender. Their combs and wattles are undersized and they have not begun laying. Roosters are just beginning to show larger combs and wattles, distinct saddle and tail feathers.

A chick eating scrambled egg from a hand
Besty gets her first taste of scrambled egg

Pullets need to continue on a grower mix of feed. Mix half and half chick grit and layer grit and observe which they consume. If they are using the layer grit, you can begin to transition them to it.

Pullets are active teenagers. They may seem less friendly than they were as chicks, but that will return, if you continue handling them gently and keeping them accustomed to your voice. 

Because of their increased size, make sure your pullets have ample room to move around. This will help prevent pecking problems. Allow 1 - 2 sq ft per bird depending on whether they have an outdoor run. It is a good time to make sure there is ample space for them as adults ( 4 sq ft / bird) and 10 - 12” of roost space.

Roosters: Here is where we separate the men from the hen

2 chickens in their outdoor run
Butterscotch as a pullet

Between 12 and 16 weeks, you may begin to notice some differences between your chickens. You may notice the large feet, comb and wattles, big glossy neck and saddle feathers and the long, drooping tail feathers. And one morning you will wake to that crowing which will remove all doubt.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CKE3NIvFKuM/

Layer Hens ( about 16 weeks on depending on breed)

And then, one day, the moment you’ve been waiting for.

The first eggs may be small and are typically called “pullet eggs.” Over the next few weeks, they will gradually increase in size and frequency to what is normal for the breed. 

Hens may stop laying eggs in winter. This is triggered by the shorter days and less direct sunlight. You may be able to prevent this drop in production by putting a light on a timer in your coop to simulate longer days. I choose not to do this. Egg laying is taxing on hens and the off season allows them to rebuild their stores of calcium and their overall strength. A hen has a predetermined number of eggs in her ovaries and will produce that number of eggs over her lifetime regardless of whether you push her to lay all winter or not. 

Grit stone under a chicken feeder
Layer grit

A hen can live 4 - 7 years and be very healthy during that time. There are many risks to health and many problems that can come up. Eventually, chickens simply get old and die. But with proper care, it is possible for them to have vital, healthy, productive lives. Drop us a line with questions.

Hens need calcium. A high quality organic layer feed is worth a few dollars more. Layer feed has calcium in it and is formulated specifically for hens producing eggs. 

Your brand new layers may lay right through winter for the first year. Or they may not start laying at all until spring.

A fresh chickens egg
The long awaited first egg!

I choose to feed oyster shell in a separate feeder as well. If the hens need it, they will eat it. If not, they will ignore it. It is quite inexpensive and a good way to ensure that hens are getting enough calcium that they don’t become deficient or produce shells that are weak and tend to crack in the nesting box. It is roughly textured like layer grit. Its size allows it to sit in their crop and leeches calcium slowly into their body. 

Chickens do not have teeth! Their food is swallowed into their crop. You can see this bulging just below their neck after feeding. The food then slowly moves into the gizzard. The gizzard is a muscular organ where stones (grit) are stored. The mechanical movement of food against these stones grinds the food. 

I also like to provide layer grit. If hens have access to an outdoor run, they may find enough little stones to fulfill their needs. But having grit available is good insurance against impacted crop, which can be deadly. If your hens do not go outdoors and eat anything besides grain,, it is absolutely critical that they have access to grit. 

A chicken eating from a bucket
Lucy is very eager for breakfast!

Broody Hen

Broodiness is a huge hormonal surge in a hen that drives her to hatch eggs. It has been bred out of many breeds of hen. Buff Orpingtons are a heritage breed of hen that has retained this tendency. The hormonal surge is greatest in a young hen. The first signs are the removal of the feathers on the breast. This creates a warm zone for the hen’s body to rest against the eggs and keep them toasty. She may lay on a group of eggs and protect them from the other hens and from you, pecking at your hand when you reach into the nesting box. She may strut around and exert her dominance in the flock. This is all natural behavior intended to set her place in the flock as protector of the chicks. 

If you have a rooster, you can simply let her hatch some eggs and  raise some chicks. If you don’t have a rooster and want to let her raise chicks, you will need to get some fertile eggs. You will need to isolate her. 

A Red Rooster in the coop
Rhoda the Rhode Island Red becomes Prince Phillip

https://www.instagram.com/p/CPjfl09lt3c/

You’ve got to isolate her with the eggs. As soon as the eggs hatch, the other chickens will likely kill them. A good broody hen will be fiercely protective of her chicks but against an entire flock, she may have little hope of keeping them safe. A large dog crate with a pine shaving lined cardboard box makes a good, safe nest.

She will need the occasional break from nesting to get outside, eat, poop, drink, usually at roughly the same time each day. When done, she will become frantic if she cannot get back to her eggs.

It is best to keep her nest within sight of the flock and to allow her out with the flock during her breaks. This will eliminate the need to reintegrate her later.

In about 21 days, you will see an egg beginning to hatch. It is best not to interfere. 

Usually within a few hours, 

Chicks breaking a hole in their shell
pipping - the chick is breaking a hole in the shell

Once the chicks hatch, she will come back to life and consume her days feeding her chicks, although with the occasional breaks as when she was sitting. She will likely crave dust baths.

 She will call to her chicks and peck at the food to show them to eat it. Chicks are, as soon as hatched,  able to eat on their own, but the mother will continue to direct them to food for several weeks.

Once her chicks are 3 or so weeks old, she will transition away from feeding them. Watch for this and when she seems more annoyed by them and less wanting to protect, feed and coddle them, it is time to return her to the flock. Keep the chicks isolated until they are full sized (about 16 weeks) and then integrate them to the flock.

A chicken and her newly hatched chick
Buffy’s first chick, Stormy, newly hatched

If you have purchased chicks and grown them to pullets, likewise, it will be time to integrate them onto your existing flock. 

A NOTE ON BROODY HENS:  If you don’t want to raise chicks with your broody hen, you will need to break the broody cycle. While broody, she will not eat or drink or behave normally and it is very stressful on her body.

What I have found most successful is putting a frozen water bottle wrapped in a cloth under the broody in the nesting box. The cloth is critical so she doesn’t get frostbite burns on her bare breast. Fix it with rubber bands. This may sound cruel, but it is not. If she didn’t like it, she could simply get off it. She will likely enjoy  it, like you would an icepack on a headache. Broodiness is an intense hormonal surge and not necessarily pleasant. Nor is it a psychological event of a hen longing for a family. If you are not going to have her fulfill the biological event, it is most humane release her from it as quickly as possible. 

Integrating Chickens

When combining chickens, care must be taken to prevent bullying and fighting that could cause injury or death.  This is done in stages.

A chick next to a chicken and some food
Buffy showing Stormy a tasty tidbit

The coop is divided, as is the run, so that the chickens can see each other without fighting. Each group must have food, water and roost space that they can get to without interference from the other group. At first there may be some sparring, chest bumping through the fence and standoffs. When this has settled down, likely a few days, offer the same food on both sides of the fence. If there is a lot of agitation, they need more time. When they will easily eat on both sides of the fence without pecking at each other, you can begin to consider the next step. I would provide this opportunity to eat together to continue for several days. 

It is best to open the divider in such a way that you can put it back if the integration fails. When you open it, there will likely be a bit of bullying, even some nips and tugs. Do this on a day when you can be nearby and monitor their behavior. If any of the hens are being very aggressive, you may need to close the barrier and give them more time. 

What you don’t want is bloodshed. Once a hen is bleeding, she will become the target for more aggression and will possibly be killed. If any hens do get injured, you must isolate them until the injury heals. Plan ahead for this possibility.

What you do want is to allow them to do what they need to do. Some bullying will occur. It is necessary for chickens to know where they stand. You can provide treats outdoors to help this process along. When you widely scatter a big handful of mealworms or sunflower seeds, scratch or other small treats, the hens get the chance to get used to mulling about together.

Keep an eye on them as dusk approaches to make sure there is no severe bullying at the roosts. Likely each will return to their accustomed roost for the first night. 

There you have the stages of a laying flock. Got a question? Drop us a line!

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