Production Guide

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Chicken breeds selected as layers tend to produce eggs more efficiently than meat. Also, some evidence suggests foraging in pasture occurs more among layers than broiler chickens raised for meat. This publication focuses on pastured egg production.

Although this publication focuses on egg production, note that producers should have a market mindset. Eggs have their highest quality at laying, so collecting eggs multiple times per day may maximize product quality and cleanliness. Then, after collecting eggs, producers must be able to candle them to ensure they meet quality standards, grade them and secure a license to sell them.


If starting with day-old chicks — an alternative to started pullets — to grow into layers, then the birds will first need a brooding site — a warm, well-ventilated setting where they will grow feathers and have ready access to food and water. The brooder should have rounded corners and dry bedding that provides a stable walking surface. Each chick requires about 1 sq. ft. of brooder space. When introducing chicks to the brooder, maintain a 90°F to 95°F temperature for a week. Then, cool down the space by 5°F each week. When the brooder and outdoor temperatures match, the birds may move from the brooder.

As they grow and lay eggs, pastured hens require indoor and outdoor space. Indoor housing may be constructed as a fixed or mobile coop, and it should have good ventilation and keep birds, as well as eggs, dry and secure from predators. Centrally located fixed coops have multiple pastures attached and doors to each paddock. Producers rotate layers through the paddocks. Designed as houses on wheels or skids, mobile coops move regularly to expose layers to fresh pasture spaces, which may be outlined with portable fencing.

Hens’ indoor space needs will depend on breed, but in most cases, plan to provide 2 sq. ft. of floor space per bird. Within the house, nest boxes — an estimated one or two boxes per four hens — provide an area for laying eggs. Using a high-carbon, dry bedding will help to absorb waste. Dirty bedding can lead to dirty or broken eggs, so change bedding as needed. Installing perches or roosts within the house at roughly 3 feet high will provide a spot for hens to sleep.

Outside, the space needed will vary by breed, but 8 sq. ft. per bird is a rough estimate. Adding shades or misters in the pasture can help with temperature control during warm weather.

Note, the site used to house layers should offer adequate light exposure. To lay eggs consistently, hens require roughly 14 hours to 16 hours of light per day. Producers should offer supplemental lighting as needed — particularly during the fall and winter.


Without adequate nutrition, layers will not grow or produce high-quality eggs to their potential. Therefore, provide birds with continuous access to feed balanced to meet their nutritional needs, which vary by the birds’ life stage. Chicks require a 19% to 22% protein feed. Protein requirements then decline as the birds mature — 14% to 16% protein for pullets and 15% to 18% protein at the laying stage. Hens laying eggs need a high-calcium diet because they use calcium to make eggshells. To help digest forages, layers will also require a source of grit.

Foraging tends to fulfill a small portion of layers’ dietary needs. Because foraging ability will vary by breed, consider this characteristic when selecting layers for your farm. Hens graze short to medium-length forage best, so manage grazing areas to provide this desired height. They also will consume seeds and insects while on pasture.

Providing cool, clean water is essential because hens that don’t drink enough will reduce their feed intake. Water should be available inside the coop and outside in the pasture.

Animal Selection and Care  

To start a laying flock, producers tend to purchase day-old chicks or started pullets, which are 17 weeks old to 22 weeks old and ready to begin laying. Started pullets cost more. Also, they may not be familiar with pasture, so they may have an abrupt transition to the outdoors.

When choosing a breed, consider how well it can adapt to your climate and systems. Also, understand market preferences for product attributes such as eggshell color. Other selection variables include foraging behavior and feed efficiency. Sex-link crosses make it possible to select for female chicks because the male and female chicks have varying feather color.

Pastured layers are vulnerable to diseases, such as avian influenza, fowl pox and coccidia; parasites; and mites. To keep layers healthy, establish a biosecurity plan with practices such as cleaning houses properly and limiting interaction with people or other birds that could introduce diseases. Vaccinations may protect against some diseases, and properly managing manure and disposing dead birds are other strategies to promote animal health.

At most, a hen may lay an egg every 26 hours. Egg production largely stops during molting — a once-annual period when birds lose feathers. Also, after laying about two years, hen productivity declines. Over time, producers must evaluate the cost to maintain a flock relative to the flock’s laying productivity. A culling schedule may be necessary. Conduct the needed analysis to inform whether to retain hens or cull them.


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