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Raising layer chicks and pullets

Quick facts

  • Small flocks require relatively minimal space. Chicks require ½ square foot of space each. Mature birds require up to 2 ½ square feet of space each.

  • Always thoroughly clean the poultry house before introducing new chicks or pullets.

  • One 250 watt infrared lamp is generally sufficient for heating 80 chicks with an average brooder house temperature of 50 F.

  • Complete feeds from the local feed store are a good option for small flock owners.

  • Practice good biosecurity to keep your birds healthy.

Selecting chicks and pullets

Under proper care, healthy, well-bred chicks make for good layers. Selecting the right type of chick is key to efficient production. Small-bodied commercial White Leghorns that produce a lot of eggs at a low cost are the best layer hens. Some commercial brown egg-laying chickens lay nearly as well as White Leghorns.

If you are interested in producing eggs and meat, consider raising some good egg-type pullets and some broiler crosses for meat, rather than trying to use a dual-purpose breed that isn't best for either purpose. Pullets refer to young chickens that are less than one year of age.

Order sexed pullet chicks when purchasing layers. You don’t need males in a layer flock unless you want fertile eggs for hatching and most city ordinances for backyard chickens prohibit roosters. Commercial hatcheries and jobbers can provide healthy chicks or pullets for layer flocks.

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Housing

Late spring and summer housing needs for brooding and rearing chicks and pullets are minimal. You can use any small building that meets the floor space needs of your chicks and pullets. After brooding, you can raise pullets in a fenced range or yard with a covered shelter for protection.

You can buy brooding, feeding and watering equipment from local feed and farm supply outfits. Some of the equipment you can build yourself. You can also check with local farmers for used equipment. Remember to always clean and disinfect any equipment before introducing the birds.

You may use roosts for pullets over 6 weeks of age. A roost is a perch that birds use to rest on at night. Use rounded, 2-inch, non-metal materials placed 12 to 15 inches apart. You can slant the roosting rack from the floor to about 24 inches high on the wall. You could also place it on a screened platform over a dropping pit. Allow 6 linear inches of roosting space for pullets.

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Feeding

Complete feeds from the local feed store are a good option for small flock owners. Farms that have good mixing facilities for other livestock can use local grains mixed with the proper commercial concentrate. Follow the directions provided by your local feed supplier.

A starter mash is generally fed for the first 6 to 8 weeks. Place the feed on chick box lids or trays for the first few days. Make sure the chicks have water as soon as they arrive. Provide 1 linear inch of feeder space per chick at the hoppers at first. You can increase the space to 2 inches once the chicks are 2 weeks old.

After 8 weeks of age, pullets are then given a grower or developer mash. You can then increase the feeder space to 3 to 4 inches per growing pullet. Once the pullets start laying (about 20 weeks of age) you can start the birds on a laying mash.

A hanging tube-type feeder 15 inches in diameter will feed about 30 birds. The birds will waste less feed if you fill the hoppers half full and adjust the feeder height or size to meet the birds’ size. You should have at least three sizes of hoppers to use for growing birds.

A yard or range can supplement pullet diets with green feed. Make sure chicks or pullets have chick- or pullet- sized grit available at the appropriate age. Try to keep your growing pullets within body-weight guidelines provided by the breeder.

Water

Provide a one-gallon water fountain per 50 chicks during the first 2 weeks. Increase the number or size of waterers from 2 to 10 weeks to provide 40 inches of watering space per 100 birds or 1 gallon capacity per 10 birds if using fountains.

Use a platform under waterers to avoid wet litter. Automatic waterers can save you labor, even with small flocks. Make sure chicks and pullets always have access to fresh, clean water.

Keeping the birds healthy 

Isolate your birds

  • Separate your birds from other flocks, pets and wildlife.

  • Limit visitors from entering your poultry house and yard.

  • Keep your flock’s area free of rodents.

  • Use screens to keep wild birds out of the poultry house.

Control parasites

  • Rotate yard and range areas so that birds aren’t on the same ground each year.

  • Routinely clean your flock’s housing area.

  • Use a low-level coccidiostat drug in the feed during the brooding and growing period.

  • Occasionally check birds for lice and mites.

Have a vaccination program

  • Obtain chicks or pullets that are from Pullorum-typhoid clean stock.

  • Use a vaccination program for Newcastle disease and bronchitis, especially if there are other poultry flocks in the area.

  • Have chicks vaccinated at the hatchery for Marek’s disease.

A local veterinarian, or county Extension educator can assist you with flock health and other management problems or will direct you to a competent source of help.

  • Separate and care for birds by their age as much as possible.

    • Care for the younger birds first.

Routinely clean the house

  • Clean waterers daily and periodically wash them with a sanitizing solution.

  • Keep litter in good condition and remove caked and wet spots.

  • Add fresh litter as needed.

  • Provide good ventilation to keep out moisture and prevent ammonia build-up in the house.

Preventing cannibalism

Cannibalism often occurs in growing and laying flocks and is hard to control once it starts. The following factors can play a role in cannibalism.

  • Crowding

  • Nutrient deficiencies

  • Poor ventilation

  • Too little drinking or eating space

  • Too much light

  • Idleness

  • The appearance of blood on injured birds

Proper care can often control most of these factors. You can use a pick-paste remedy in small flocks if the problem hasn’t gotten out of hand. Beak trimming provides a permanent solution. Many hatcheries will beak-trim chicks at one day-of-age, if you request. Birds can be beak- trimmed at any age if done properly, but it should be avoided at times of stress or when pullets are coming into production.

Melvin Hamre, former Extension animal scientist

Reviewed in 2018

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