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Tips to keep chickens in a laying mood

Care for chickens correctly and they'll reward you with cartons full of fresh eggs. Get it wrong and the eggs stop coming.

The good news is that getting it right isn't difficult, said Jim Hermes, a poultry specialist for Oregon State University Extension Service. Give them appropriate feed, water and shelter from the worst weather of winter and you've covered the bases.

Make bagged feed from feed stores the food of choice. It's formulated for each stage of life – baby, adolescent and adults – with the correct nutrient requirements. Starter feeds are for chicks from hatching to about six weeks old; grower and developer mixes go to chickens from 6 to 17 weeks; and layer or breeder feed is made for those producing eggs.

If you can't keep your variously aged chickens separated, there are feed mixes labeled "general purpose" that are appropriate for all ages. For laying hens, though, you'll need to add calcium in the form of oyster shell or egg production drops.

The biggest mistake chicken owners make is to supplement too much, Hermes said. Don't consider leftovers from the kitchen or vegetable garden an important part of their diet. They'll eat those treats first and not as much as the chicken feed, which dilutes the amount of nutrients in their diet. When that happens, chickens are more susceptible to disease and will produce fewer eggs.

"If it's a high-fiber, leafy green vegetable, it sounds good, but it just has water, sugar and fiber," said Hermes, author of Extension's newly revised publication How to Feed Your Laying Hens. "The fiber goes through them, they already have water and they don't need sugar."

"If you're going to supplement, a little bit is OK," he added. "It's just like with kids, give them a little snack. What they can finish in 10 to 15 minutes."

Scratch – a mixture of grains, usually wheat and corn – is an acceptable supplement as long as it's not overused. A little tossed on the ground encourages chickens to scratch, which gives them exercise. In the process, they'll find nutrient-filled insects.

Chickens will eat little pebbles called grit if they need them to grind up wheat, corn or insects. It's available at feed stores, but often they'll find what they need on the ground. Unlike people, layer chickens don't overeat, so feed should be left out continuously.

"You'll rarely see a fat layer chicken," Hermes said. "They eat to satisfy their energy requirements. If they go without feed for a day, they'll go out of production. So keep feed in front of them all the time."

As winter approaches, be sure to have a place for your chickens to get out of bad weather. Though they have excellent down jackets, chickens suffer if their combs or feet get too cold. The tips of combs can freeze if temperatures dip to 10 degrees or lower. If they do, there's the chance of gangrene, which causes damage, pain and fewer eggs.

Hermes noted that hens need to nest in places that are a foot or more above the ground as protection against dogs, raccoons and other predators.

Be sure to keep water available. If it freezes, put out fresh water or break the ice. There are water pan heaters available or you can even put a light bulb in a coffee can and place the dish on top.

There's no need for heat lamps to warm adult chickens, but to keep hens laying you'll need to supply artificial light from about 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. The light needs to be just bright enough to read a newspaper; the type of bulb doesn't matter. Once started, the light program must be continued, Hermes said. Even a one-day lapse can cut down or eliminate egg production. He suggests using a timer to keep things on schedule.

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Kym Pokorny, Communications Specialist for Oregon State University

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