Small-scale egg production increasing

PENNSYLVANIA FURNACE – From production chickens to exhibition birds, poultry operations are growing in popularity, but not necessarily in size.

An increasing number of families are choosing to raise chickens right in their backyard. Phillip Clauer, instructor and extension specialist at Penn State University, said there has been a trend developing toward chicken products from local, small-scale poultry operations. During Penn State’s Ag Progress Days last week, he addressed a room full of current and prospective producers.

Clauer said almost anyone can successfully raise chickens, but he encouraged hobbyists and producers to research the breeds or crosses best suited for their purposes.

Red Sex Link and Ameraucana chickens are recommended as egg producers, he said. Reds make it easy to determine gender and cull the flock from a young age – females are red, and males are white. He said they’re docile and “awesome producers” of brown eggs. Ameraucanas lay blue and green eggs, he said. Though the colors vary, there is scientifically no difference among eggs of differing colors.

All birds should be housed in an enclosed area, Clauer said. Even free-range chickens should be confined by a fence. These boundaries keep chickens safe from predators, but also play an important role in the health of backyard flocks.

Clauer said sick birds usually leave the flock to die. By the time a producer realizes the missing bird was sick, it may have infected the entire flock, he said.

Coops, which are indoor shelters provided for chickens, should provide two square feet of inside space per bird and more space to move outside the coop. Coops should provide adequate ventilation – sealed tight to keep weather out, but allow air flow through vents – and access to fresh feed and water.

Clauer said aesthetically pleasing coops are often more accepted in backyard operations. Neighbors may have issue with housing constructed using old recyclables and tattered tarps, for instance.

Clauer recommended specific feeding instructions for the best yield from laying hens.

“Feed is 70 percent of the cost of raising a chicken,” he said.

Utilizing correct feeder sizes and settings increases efficiency and prevents waste.

Clauer said chickens require free-choice feed, and the lip of the feeder should hang at the bird’s back height. He suggested using complete pellets formulated by feed companies. “Crumbs,” which look like granola, and “mash” also are complete diets and work well, he said. Cracked grain and human scraps are not complete diets and are not recommended.

Chickens typically start laying between 18-20 weeks old, he said. At least four nestboxes should be available at this time to flocks greater than one bird. Clauer suggested adding one more box per 4-5 additional hens. Boxes should be filled three or four inches deep with straw or shavings and placed several inches above the floor to prevent rodents from getting to the eggs or contamination.

All chickens lay eggs, but some breeds are more productive than others. Clauer said purebred, heritage breeds typically produce 50-100 eggs per year, and commercial hybrids produce 240-280 eggs per year.

Laying hens produce eggs for up to 55-65 weeks before starting to molt. Molts last for 8-14 weeks, then a new laying cycle begins. Clauer said each laying cycle is shorter with decreased egg quality. Most flocks are good for three cycles, or three to five years.

Eggs are best collected in the mornings and washed in water 10 percent warmer than the eggs. However, a clean nestbox equals clean eggs that don’t need to be washed.

If backyard producers (less than 3,000 chickens) choose to sell their products, eggs must be sold within five days of laying. The packaging must be original (other companies’ cartons may not be reused) and include the seller’s name, address, date of packaging, statement of identity, net contents, “Keep refrigerated” and “Unclassified.”

For more information about small-scale poultry farming, visit the Penn State Poultry Department’s website at