Tips and Tricks for Feeding Laying Hens

Amy Barkley, Livestock Specialist
Southwest New York Dairy, Livestock and Field Crops Program

January 16, 2024
Tips and Tricks for Feeding Laying Hens

Over the past month, I've been asked about feeding laying hens both now and in the summer months. This article shares some of my thoughts on feeding these feathered critters including guidelines for feeding and information about alternative feed sources (kitchen scraps and pasture).

 

What do I feed laying hens?

 

For a small pastured laying flock, my recommendation is to not look to much into the nutrition aspect of their whole ration unless you're considering feeding to achieve a specific parameter like a specific egg size, nutrient density, or shell strength or are mixing your own diets. There are a lot of really good complete feeds on the market that achieve optimal nutrition for laying hens. The highest quality ones are those which list the individual grain ingredients, rather than saying things like "plant by-product" or "grains" or "grain byproduct". The mills that formulate with specific grain ingredients are going to have the most consistent quality. Those that have the other products are still absolutely fine to feed, but there is going to be more nutritional variation from batch to batch.

 

Here are some general guidelines when it comes to nutrition:

 

  • Laying hens need a complete feed, meaning that it's formulated to be their sole source of nutrition.


  • Protein content can range a little bit, but according to the resource, Commercial Poultry Nutrition 3rd Edition, hens need the following protein by age:
    • 18-32 weeks: 19%
    • 32-45 weeks: 18%
    • 45-60 weeks: 16.5%
    • Older than 60 weeks: 15%
    • Flocks that are of mixed ages do fine on a diet with an average protein content somewhere in the middle.


  • Find a diet formulated with amino acids in addition to protein containing grains, since this makes for consistent egg size and less wasted indigestible protein. Organic feeds don't use additional amino acids, but may have a higher overall protein content than standard feeds to compensate.


  • Calcium in the feed should provide about 4.2 grams/day, and most laying feeds meet this. However, offering supplemental large particle calcium free choice in the form of oyster shells will help maintain egg quality, especially in times of stress and as the birds age. Many companies don't add large particle calcium to complete feeds because it's extremely damaging to their pelleting and crumbing equipment.


  • The general rule is that hens should be fed between 1/4 - 1/3 pound of food per hen per day. Free choice feeding is ideal, but if you're looking to feed what can get eaten up in a day, aim for this measure.  Formulated diets contain salt to restrict intake to what hens' bodies need, which reduces overconsumption. Production strains like Leghorns and Production Reds are going to eat closer to that 1/4 pound in ideal conditions, whereas the heavier heritage breeds will eat closer to 1/3 pound. Winter feeding increases energy needs, which means hens will likely eat more then than they do in better weather.



Supplements and Snacks:

 

Many folks supplement calcium by feeding dried, crushed eggshells back to their hens. This is absolutely fine, and a great way to recycle nutrients. That said, the hens will still need supplemental oyster shells for optimal eggshell quality.

 

Kitchen/garden scraps are another common supplement for hens, as are scratch grains. These treats should make up no more than 10% of the feed offered by weight, or you'll end up with smaller/fewer eggs and a delay coming into lay for the younger birds. Hens that consume more than 10% of their diet in scratch grains tend to use the extra carbs to put on fat, which can cause mobility issues as they age and potential problems with laying, such as an increased incidence of egg binding.

 

Pasture Nutrition:

 

Many poultry keepers free range their hens on pasture as a way to decrease feed needs and increase egg nutrition. However, it's not a panacea. Research indicates that if you restrict hens' feed requirements by more than 10% to force them to forage to make up the difference, you start seeing drops in egg production and egg size. So, while egg nutrition will improve because the hens are getting more carotenoids and other vitamins/minerals from the forage, their lack of gut fermentation means they're not getting much else out of it… the plant starches and proteins are too complicated for their monogastric gut to break down efficiently. Therefore, to keep production and egg size up, feed your hens free choice complete feed, and whatever they get from the pasture they get. As a rule of thumb, chickens tend to eat the younger sprouts and seeds from forages, so select which pasture to provide them that way.

 

If you have any questions about this article or poultry nutrition in general, you can reach out to Amy Barkley at amb544@cornell.edu or (716) 640-0844.

 




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