In the first part of this series we talked about general selection and culling information to use when breeding your chicken flock. In this second part we’ll be focusing on selecting the best egg layers for you. In the third part we discuss breeding for meat production.
What Makes Good Egg Layers?
Good egg layers are chickens who, obviously, lay a lot of eggs on little feed. The important things to look for in egg production is laying frequency (how many eggs), egg size (how big are the eggs), reproductive lifespan (how long does the chicken lay eggs), and feed efficiency (how much does the chicken need to eat to produce an egg). Other important factors include the age at point of lay and the length of molt.
There are 2 primary time frames to look at laying frequency – the pullet year and the first hen year. The highest egg production for all chicken breeds is in the pullet year which runs from the day they lay their first egg to exactly 1 year later. The first hen year is less productive than the pullet year because they will spend 8 or more weeks in the fall molting. We begin counting the first hen year as soon as the pullet year has passed.
Henny Penny lays her very first egg on September 1st, 2016. On September 1st, 2017 she lays her 332nd egg. She laid 332 eggs in her pullet year. On September 2nd, 2017 her first hen year begins and on September 2nd, 2018 it ends. She laid 300 eggs her first hen year.
Select for laying frequency by tracking egg production of your flock, removing under performing birds, and using males hatched from your most frequent layers.
A good layer lays a large egg compared to her body size. Egg size will increase with a hen’s age with the smallest eggs being laid during the pullet year. Select for egg size when breeding by only setting the eggs that fit your size criteria.
One thing to note: Double yolked eggs are NOT a desirable trait. They are a sign of a malfunction in the reproductive system. While common in pullets who have just started laying, they are a sign of a problem in an older bird. Do not attempt to hatch double yolkers and do not hatch from a hen who frequently lays double yolked eggs.
Each year a hen’s egg production will slowly but surely decrease. If she lives long enough she’ll reach a point where egg laying is just a random occasion occurring once or twice a month (or less). Most hens will be productive for the first 3 years of her life. Over the next 2-3 years the laying frequency will drop even more. After 6-7 years most hens will reach the point where they are no longer productive enough to “earn their keep”.
Select for hens with a long, healthy reproductive lifespan by keeping your best laying hens until at least 3 years of age and noting laying frequency and any issues that arise as they age. Track these stats through each generation and cull out lines that under produce or have reproductive health issues.
This is probably pretty self-explanatory. The chicken that lays the most eggs on the least amount of feed wins the egg producer of the year award. Track feed amounts and cull out your poor producers.
Point of Lay:
Pullets don’t start producing eggs right away. You have to feed them, water them, clean their coop, etc. even before they start giving you eggs. The sooner a pullet starts laying means less you have to spend on them before they start producing.
Select pullets that start laying within your ideal time frame or as close to it as possible if you’re just starting to work with your breed. Generally, the bigger the breed the later it will reach point of lay. I aim for 20 weeks with lighter breeds (like Leghorns and Hamburgs), 24 weeks for medium breeds (like Plymouth Rocks and Sussex), and no later than 28 weeks for heavy breeds (like Brahmas and Cochins).
Length of Molt:
After the pullet year, each hen will go through a seasonal molt around the Fall. During this time, egg production will wane and then stop as the hen puts all of her resources into growing new feathers. Good egg layers have a short molt which means they start laying again sooner.
Select hens that start to molt the latest and return to laying the soonest to maximize egg production.
What You DON’T Want In A Laying Hen
#1 Broodiness. Okay, I’m not going to lie here. I love a good broody hen. Really, I do. But, sitting, hatching, and rearing a clutch of chicks usually takes a hen 6 – 9 weeks, if not longer. And lots of broody hens really like being broody. It seems like no sooner have they fledged their chicks then they’re off looking for another dark nesting spot and stealing eggs. Needless to say, broodiness really does some damage on a chicken’s laying frequency. Avoid broody breeds if you’re looking for good egg layers.
#2 Heavy Bodies. Those great big butts aren’t the best layers. Sorry Sir Mix-A-Lot, but (hehe) it’s the truth! A large, heavy bird will spend more of its energy maintaining and growing it’s body than a smaller, trim bird. In an egg production flock it’s really NOT all about that (b)ass. While you do want your chickens to have a wide spread pelvis, you also want a bird that has a smaller, densely fleshed body.
#3 Wry Tails. A wry tail is a tail that is turned a bit to one side instead of being in a straight line with the spine. When a chicken has a wry tail their whole pelvis is slightly twisted which can result in difficulties passing an egg out of the body. Cull birds from your breeding program that have a wry tail.
Best Breeds for Eggs
If you’re focused purely on getting as many eggs as you can, choose a Mediterranean or Continental breed. These white egg layers are rarely (if ever) broody, tightly feathered, densely fleshed, and feed efficient. They are alert birds and excellent foragers. Many of the best white egg layers come in either single comb or rosecomb varieties, which makes them well-suited to most any climate.
My Favorite White Egg Layers:
- Blue Andalusian – mine have been excellent layers of large chalk white eggs and have proven to be pretty predator-proof.
- Leghorn (especially the more interesting colors like Exchequer and Isabelle) – they’re such good layers that even the big corporations use them for egg production. They come in both single and rosecomb, not to mention several colors besides white.
- Hamburgs – these little birds lay a medium sized white egg and used to be called “The Dutch Every Day Layer”. Mine are excellent layers and I often use their smaller eggs for egg washes or to add a little extra fat and moisture to baking recipes.
- Anconas – This Mediterranean breed is a lustrous black with white mottling. They lay lots of white eggs.
If you’re looking for a brown egg layer, I would recommend trying to find a non-broody line from a breeder. Most brown egg layers have the potential to go broody, so finding a line that doesn’t go broody is key to maximizing egg production.
My Favorite Brown Egg Layers:
- Speckled Sussex – Mine were regular layers and never went broody. One of mine laid her first pullet egg before a Leghorn of the same age.
- Australorp – Bred from Orpingtons, the Australorp (Australian Orpington) can be an excellent layer of brown eggs. Ours tended to be broody, but if you can find a line that isn’t they’re super at egg production.
- Black Langhsan – One of my very favorite breeds, many Langshans lay an egg with a slight plum tint. My Langshans are prone to going broody. The Langshan was used to develop both the Orpington and Marans breeds.
- Rhode Island Reds – A well-bred Rhode Island Red is such a dark mahogany red that it almost appears black in color. These are great layers of brown eggs, so much so that a production line was created (you can easily tell you have a production RIR because they are a rusty red in color, instead of the correct dark mahogany red).
If you’re looking for a blue or green egg layer, keep in mind that almost every breed can be broody. Find a breeder who has bred away from broodiness if you want to maximize egg production.
My Favorite Blue or Green Egg Layers:
- Crested Cream Legbar – This autosexing breed lays a blue egg and is less likely to be broody thanks to the use of Leghorn in its development.
- Isbar – This green egg layer is a good producer of eggs. The creator, Martin Silverudd died before breeding in the autosexing feature that he was trying for.
- Ameraucana – Not to be confused with an Easter Egger. This blue egg layer is fairly prone to broodiness.