The Key to Happy Hens and Healthy Eggs
When you think of a healthy, fresh egg, what do you imagine? Probably something along the lines of a tough, clean shell, clear, firm egg white and a dark, strong, tasty egg yolk. While this may seem like the perfect egg, what if I told you it was possible to have this kind of egg everyday? Backyard hen eggs usually are many times healthier than any kind of store bought egg. The reason for this is because hens raised in the backyard have access to sunshine, grasses and bugs and normally have room to roam around. Whereas eggs in the grocery store generally come from hens kept in cramped factories with little access to natural light, let alone freedom to run, stretch their wings and hunt for insects. However, just because our hens are kept in the backyard, doesn’t mean their eggs are as healthy as they could or even should be. There are certain, key nutrients hens should be receiving on a daily basis to ensure optimal health in not only their eggs, but also themselves. What are these nutrients? Well, besides the obvious essentials of nutrition like protein, water, grit, layer feed and the occasional vegetables, fruits and dairies, hens must have a certain concentration of calcium, phosphorus, vitamin E and vitamin D in their diet. In this article, you will learn about each of these nutrients, why they are imperative and how they should be given.
Calcium is definitely one of the most, if not THE most, important nutrient a hen can have in her diet while she is “in lay”. Assuming your hens are fed a layer feed, they will most likely not require as much calcium as they would otherwise. The reason why calcium is so important for laying hens is because calcium is what makes up most of the eggshell. The eggshell alone is roughly 90-98% pure calcium carbonate! (Hens who aren’t receiving enough calcium might lay soft-shelled eggs or smaller eggs than usual.) There is about 56mg of calcium inside a single, uncooked egg. Hens’ bodies also don’t function well without calcium. For example: without calcium, a hen’s uterus and oviduct won’t work correctly. If she isn’t getting enough calcium, her body will drain calcium from anywhere it can in other parts of her body, which can lead to brittle and weak bones and an unhealthy hen. She also will have a very high chance of becoming egg bound. Now, stop and think about that for a minute. Not only is the eggshell around 90% pure calcium, but also the hen’s body needs calcium to form the eggs, lay the eggs and stay healthy. Please note that hens need more calcium in hot weather because they won’t be eating as much layer feed.
Now that you understand how crucial the role of calcium plays in a hen’s diet, you need to know how much, how often and how to provide it. Calcium is most often provided in two forms: Oyster shells or eggshells. Oyster shells are pricier but eggshells are more time consuming. Oyster shell generally ranges in price from $10.00- $15.00 for a 5lb bag. (You can find Oyster shell at most farm supply stores or online.) Eggshells are a very resourceful form of calcium for hens. Simply, rinse and crush your hens’ shells after cracking them open. Why must they be crushed and rinsed? Hens are sometimes known to eat their own eggs. If they get a taste of raw egg or see the shape of the eggshell, they might start eating their eggs as soon as they lay them. That is why it’s very important to rinse and crush the shells before feeding them to your hens. It’s recommended to add 2 pounds of calcium for every 100 pounds of complete layer feed. I like to keep a small container of eggshells near the layer feed all the time. That way, the hens can come and eat as they please. (Hens have a remarkable way of regulating their own calcium levels and know how much they should eat at one time.) If you have a reasonably small flock, there is no need to give them a lot of oyster shell or eggshell. They don’t eat it the same as they do layer feed. They come and go and eat bits at a time. I fill my little feeder only about once every 2-3 weeks. Never try and force your chickens to eat calcium, as too much can cause problems. It’s best to let them eat as much or as little as they feel they should. Do NOT give calcium to pullets under 18 weeks. Too much calcium too early can damage their kidneys. Older hens need more calcium than their younger counterparts. Also, laying hens require THREE times the amount of calcium than non-laying hens do.
While vitamin E isn’t necessarily required to actually LAY an egg, it still plays a huge role in a hen’s well-being. Vitamin E helps to prevent some diseases and keeps hens feeling and looking great. Additionally, it’s required for chicken fertility and helps keep eggs strong and firm. It helps keep chickens’ eyes and skin healthy as well.
Vitamin E can be found in many every-day foods such as sunflower seeds, apples, blueberries, mango, sweet potatoes, kale and some pastas. Chickens can eat all these foods as treats. Treats should not be given freely but should only take up 10% of a chicken’s daily diet. So, when choosing your flock’s next treat, be sure to throw in some of these vitamin filled foods.
Phosphorus is also a very important mineral that should be included in a hen’s diet. It’s necessary for healthy, strong bones, energy metabolism and an overall healthy chicken. Luckily, it can be found in cereals and grains that make up most of any chicken formulated diets. As long as they are receiving the right form of feed, you probably won’t have to worry about a phosphorus deficiency within your birds. However, if your bird’s diets are too HIGH in grains, the phosphorus levels can cause an imbalance which will have to be fixed. If the phosphorus levels are too high, the hen’s body will draw calcium out of her bones.
Although it has been stated that too much calcium in a young pullet’s diet can cause weak or damaged kidneys, they do still require some calcium AND phosphorus in their diet or else they might contact Rickets. Rickets, a nutritional issue in young chickens, is caused by a lack of calcium, phosphorus or vitamin D. It is treated (or prevented) by changing/using the correct feed and once the birds are 18 weeks, making sure they have oyster or eggshells provided alongside.
After all this talk about feeding the correct food, you are probably wondering what actually is the correct food. Thankfully, nowadays there are MANY food choices to choose from. Some very reliable chicken feed companies include: DuMOR, Nature Wise, Manna Pro, Nutrena Country Feeds and Purina. I’ve always used Nature Wise and have never had any issues such as Rickets with my five girls.
When you think of sources of vitamin D, you’d probably think of sunlight and you’d be right. Just like the sun is good for us as long as we are protected with sun block and don’t spend too much in it, it’s good for chickens too. In fact, most chickens will sunbathe in bright, direct sunshine. Chickens are normally wise enough to not stay in the sun for too long but if for some reason a chicken is sunbathing and not moving for a long period of time, you should move her yourself. Too much sun can harm chickens just like it can us.
Other sources of vitamin D include: cod liver oil, fish oil, sardines, herring and salmon. Cod liver is your best bet. However, your flock doesn’t need any of these foods necessarily if they have access to the sunshine. If they aren’t receiving enough vitamin D, their eggshells will be weak and thin. They also will have a higher tendency to become egg bound. Also, chickens’ immune systems will be stronger with vitamin D.
Vitamin D3 is a vital partner in the absorption of calcium. It, like phosphorus, can be found in a balanced chicken feed ration. Again, make sure your chickens have access to the outdoors and sunlight so that their bodies can receive vitamin D and D3. Vitamin D3 also helps the hen with eggshell production.
Occasionally adding a supplement such as Calf Manna to your hens’ diet helps reduce chances of vitamin D deficiencies without throwing off the overall balance.
In summary: Hens don’t lay perfect eggs by themselves. They require many nutrients to lay eggs easily and frequently. Calcium, vitamin E, phosphorus and vitamin D are some of the nutrients most crucial to a hen’s diet. Understanding the necessities of nutrients and how to provide them are key to keeping your hens happy and productive. Given these keys, any hen can lay those perfect, healthy eggs we talked about at the beginning of this article. Remember: if you want healthy, strong eggs, you need a healthy, strong hen.