Layer Flock Management

Summer 2007
At the 2006 Farmer to Farmer Conference in Bar Harbor, Michael Darre of the University of Connecticut (and Extension Poultry Specialist for New England) and Ted Sparrow of Sparrow Farm in Gardiner, Maine, talked about poultry flock management and profitability. Sparrow and his wife, Karen, keep 200-plus layers to complement their market vegetable and cranberry farm in Gardiner.

Michael Darre. English photo.

Huge Industry, But Small Producers Essential

The commercial meat-bird industry raised more than 8.5 billion broilers in the United States in 2005. “It’s a huge industry,” said Darre. “They were hatching over 1 million chicks per hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, just to meet the demand for broilers for this country and what we export.” Darre sees small producers as essential to maintaining a diverse gene pool within the industry and giving consumers an alternative to large-scale producers. He knows someone, for example, who raises Americana or Auricana crosses for blue-green eggs for the specialty market, trying to sell them for about $1 per half dozen.

Over 300 poultry breeds are listed in the American Standard of Perfection, about 20 of which are commercially important for eggs, meat, feathers and other uses. The most common in the United States is the Single Comb White Leghorn, which came from the Mediterranean region and now produces over 90% of U.S. eggs. New England, parts of California and Texas have a brown egg market; most of the rest of the United States is white egg country. A lot of brown eggs come from crosses between Rhode Island Red males and Barred Plymouth Rock females.

A typical commercial farm for egg production used to house about 100,000 birds in a 60- x 560-foot house. Now, however, commercial houses are three times longer and hold about 300,000 birds in cages. Small farmers don’t have to raise chickens this way, Darre continued (nor does the University of Connecticut).

Meat birds are usually a cross between White Cornish and White Rock, with a few other breeds thrown in for egg production and other factors. Small, thin chickens usually produce eggs, and big birds are raised for meat.

Typically, 3,000 to 15,000 broilers will be raised in a building; they reach 5 1/4 or 5 1/2 pounds in six weeks or under, with a feed conversion ratio of 1.85 to 1.9. These birds are not genetically engineered – yet.

Of the 8.5 billion broilers produced in the United States in 2005, 37% were sold at retail; 35% to food services; 18% were exported; and 10% went into pet food and other products. In the United States, we each eat about 165 pounds of or turkey and chicken per year; turkey and chicken consumption surpassed our beef consumption a few years ago.

Darre suggested that local poultry producers may not have thought about some local markets, such as restaurants and nursing homes. “That’s a lot of market, for chicken and eggs.” Some markets have health code guidelines that require that they buy pasteurized, liquid eggs, but others don’t.

Basic Needs

The basic needs of poultry include fresh food, water and air; light; darkness; the proper temperature; protection from pests; and space.

Housing should protect poultry from the elements and from predators; it should be dry and draft free; and it should be flexible for possible future expansion. Chickens don’t necessarily need heat if their environment is dry and draft free, said Darre. They’ll generate their own heat; and if you give them a couple of bales of hay, they’ll make a nest and stay warm. If the weather gets very cold, thermal insulation is all you have to add. For ventilation, Darre suggested running a 500 to 600 cfm bathroom fan for 10 minutes every hour, at 2-minute intervals several times per hour, to get rid of excess moisture and ammonia. He noted that with little ventilation in winter, ammonia will build up. You don’t need the light that often comes with these fans. For an air inlet, you can use a dryer outlet but reverse it so that the hole where the dryer tube would be is outside, and the cap that goes outside is inside. A window at the top of the coop, or a ridge vent, can also provide ventilation.

If you’re going to run fencing, dig down 2 feet and make a “J” that goes out about 12 or 14 inches and is filled with rock. Most animals that dig do so by digging down and then back up – where they’ll hit the rocks and fencing. Electric fences also work well.

Birds require 1 to 2 square feet of space each, depending on the type of bird. Big broilers need about 2 square feet each of floor space; this area includes the waterers and feeders. So if you have 100 birds, you’ll need 200 square feet inside a building for the birds, feeders and waterers.

Poultry actually need more water in winter than in summer, because they lose a lot of moisture by breathing, and they don’t want to drink as much as in summer, because they’re not hot. Replenishing moisture by eating snow makes birds too cold, so they tend not to eat it. So, Darre cautioned, keep fresh water available all the time, and keep it from freezing.

New chicks need heat when they’re hatching and for at least the first week of their lives – either from lights or from a hen. “Be careful,” warned Darre. “I’ve seen people hang [lights] with rope – which can melt, burn or stretch. Always use chain or wire.”


Darre recommended as the best place for information about poultry housing. “A dog house with a roof that you can hinge and lift is good enough for half a dozen chickens,” he noted. “Make it simple.”


Chickens need light to facilitate their sight; to stimulate internal cycles due to daylength changes; and to initiate hormone release – i.e., to make them lay eggs. “They’re very light sensitive,” said Darre.

Light is described by its wavelength (the color that you see). Red light has a long wavelength and penetrates tissue (as seen when you put a flashlight in your mouth and red light shines through your cheeks). Red light also penetrates the skin and skull of a chicken, hits the pineal and pituitary glands in their brains, and stimulates chickens to lay eggs. Compact fluorescent bulbs work well for chickens and are better than incandescent bulbs, but Darre said to use 2700 K bulbs; these have a balanced light with lots of red and work well for stimulating birds. If you have an 8×10 building, one 9-watt compact fluorescent in the middle of the building is all you need. That will put more than half a foot-candle at floor level. If it’s too dark for you to read newsprint at the birds’ level, the house is too dark for the birds. If you’re shading your eyes from reflection of the light off the paper, it’s too light. Arrange light that’s comfortable for you to read by. The new LED lighting is good but expensive. Cold cathode tubes (CCTs) from FarmTech use about 1/10th the energy of an incandescent and more than half as much energy as a compact fluorescent, and they’re full spectrum, like an incandescent.

Light is also described by its intensity, often in foot-candles. At 0.2 fc (which is too dark for humans to read a newspaper), chickens start eating. (In fact, chickens will eat in complete darkness; if they have complete darkness all day and night, every day, eventually they learn where the food and water are as them move around the coop.) At 0.3 fc, chickens start fighting. At 0.5 fc, they start producing eggs. An intensity of 0.5 to 5 or 10 fc is good for egg production, but more than 10 fc can cause behavior problems. Outside, in the daytime, the light intensity can be 1,000 to 1,500 fc. Chickens crowded in a small area under very bright light get very neurotic and start pecking one another. They’re very nervous, their eyes hurt, and they don’t know what to do, said Darre.

Much of the industry starts its birds on 24 hours of light for the first two or three days, or at least a day; then it’s dropped to 23 hours, then maybe to 20. “My problem with that is, chickens don’t develop fear until about three days,” said Darre. “By exposing them only to light for the first three days, when they’re developing their responses to their environment, and then, on day four, finally showing them darkness, they’re going to freak out. I say let them see darkness when they hatch. Then bring them out in the light. They get used to both. So give them at least one hour of darkness in the first few days.” The birds will require another source of heat during that hour; and in a small, home flock, where the birds are used to a varied environment, getting them used to the dark in the first few days may be less important than in a more controlled, less stimulating environment, Darre added.

From day four until 13 weeks of age, chickens should get 8 to 10 hours of light so that egg production isn’t stimulated too soon. When they’re in production, bring that up to 15 1/2 to 16 hours of light per day, and maintain that throughout their production period. They’re long-day breeders. If they see decreasing light during the production period, that tends to throw off production.

So, never increase the duration or intensity of light during the growing period, until you want chickens to start producing eggs. Many of the newer commercial breeds start laying at 18 weeks. You may want to hold off until 20 to 22 weeks, to get better egg size. Start stimulating about four to six weeks before you want the first egg.

Also, never decrease the duration or intensity of light during the production period – unless you want to molt the birds. (Molting is decreasing the size of the ovary and reproductive tract, leading to a halt in egg laying.) To molt chickens, decrease light to about 8 hours, take their food away for a couple of days (but never take water away from them), then bring them slowly back onto their feed. You can also let them molt naturally in the fall.

If your birds aren’t laying eggs but haven’t lost their feathers, don’t worry, cautioned Darre. The idea of a molt is to give them a rest and to get rid of excess body fat. Even wild migratory birds molt; they go into a period when they don’t eat; they start using their reserves of energy and fat, becoming trimmer, so that the body fat in their abdominal cavity is not pushing on the reproductive passage. “That’s what you’re trying to do,” said Darre. “A fat old bird will lay eggs sporadically, or she may end up being egg-bound from the pressure.”

Health Management

Sanitation is the way to prevent diseases in poultry, said Darre. Keep buildings clean. Don’t bring birds in from an outside flock. If you can keep human, bird and other animal traffic away from your birds, you’ll have a healthier flock – especially with the threat of Avian Influenza.

Once in a while, said Darre, clean the poultry building. He recommended dry cleaning – shoveling out as much bedding and manure as possible and scrub brushing, especially in a wooden structure. Next, clean with soap or detergent and water, and a scrub brush, to get organic matter out of the cracks and crevices. Then spray a sanitizing agent, such as a quarter cup of bleach in a gallon of water, on the surfaces of the house and rinse it after 15 minutes. Bleach and some other cleaners may corrode metal, so rinsing is important. Oxidizing agents such as OxiClean and acetic acid may be used in place of bleach. Applying cleansers and sanitizing agents with a high-pressure sprayer will control about 99% of problems.

Asked about simply leaving a house empty for a period, Darre said two weeks would eliminate some pathogens, but others produce resting spores or otherwise last for much longer periods. Mold, for instance, won’t just go away over time; it may even get worse. The only way to get rid of it is to clean the mold from the house – or put a strong ultraviolet lamp in the house.

Recently Darre and his coworkers at the University of Connecticut tried various methods of cleaning poultry houses. Dry cleaning got rid of about 20% of the pathogens; hot water from a high pressure sprayer gave 98% reduction; soap got rid of another 1%; and following this with a disinfectant got rid of 99.9% of the pathogens. Darre believes that taking 15 minutes or so now and then to clean a house with a high pressure sprayer and soap and water is worth the peace of mind achieved, because organisms such as Salmonella and Campylobacter can live in small amounts of dirt and dust. “All you need is one outbreak of Salmonella in your eggs or your poultry, and you’re branded; no one’s going to buy your stuff,” he pointed out.

Environmental Risks for Birds

Outdoors, too much sunlight can harm birds through burns, blisters and heat stroke. “They need some shade; they need some protection from direct sunlight.”

Temperatures outside of an optimum range can harm poultry and/or increase your bills. If it’s too cold, you can heat your house or offer more feed – whichever is cheaper. Excess air flow (wind) can harm birds, as can rain and snow (which also affect the number of disease organisms present; when it’s wet outside, worms and Coccidiosis build up), mud or dust, toxins and predators. Chickens will peck at anything, including mercury-containing batteries, Styrofoam, and toxic plants. “The biggest thing we worry about [regarding toxins] are aflatoxins and mycotoxins,” said Darre. “Moldy feed, moldy hay, moldy grains.” Those molds can make toxins that are invisible to our sight, so even if you remove some moldy grain or hay and give the “clean” portion to birds, you may be giving them toxins. “We see a lot of aflatoxins. After a wet growing season, you have a lot of wet hay, wet grain, we see a lot of aflatoxins.” Symptoms in chickens include bopping their heads around, looking at the ceiling or the sky, getting an awkward gait, and, occasionally, death. Aflatoxins can get into chickens’ eggs, too, in small amounts. For perspective, however, Darre noted that peanuts are the primary source of aflatoxin poisoning in the United States, especially if you buy your own peanuts to make your own peanut butter. Some of those peanuts are seconds rejected by big companies and may contain allowable levels of aflatoxins.


Coyotes, fisher cats, raccoons and woodchucks can get into coops and chicken yards. Fishers will even climb trees to get chickens that may be nesting there. Raccoons can climb but, oddly, don’t climb trees to get birds.

Free-range chickens may get internal parasites; some organic growers use diatomaceous earth as a partial control. Chickens with roundworms are unthrifty and pale and have low egg production. Darre recommends deworming once in spring and once in fall with Piperazine (which is not approved for organic production) in chickens’ water for 12 to 24 hours at 50 mg/lb. body weight, and repeating the dose 21 days later, since Piperazine works only on adult worms. The chemical paralyzes the worms, which are excreted and then die from dehydration. Adequate vitamin A and B complex in the diet, and sanitary conditions, help prevent roundworms.

Free-range chickens may be more susceptible to Avian Influenza, said Darre, because they’re exposed to wild ducks.

If scales on chickens’ legs are popping out, check underneath the scales for small, white mites. Affected chickens are in pain and walk very stiffly.

Grower Jo Barrett said she treated chickens for leg mites by paintinga mixture of olive oil, tea tree oil and eucalyptus on their legs with a paint bush, then putting the chickens back on their roost. The oils drip onto the roost. “If you do it a couple of times a week for a few weeks, they’re gone.” Darre sometimes recommends dipping chickens’ legs in gasoline for a severe case, but Barrett noted that that treatment wouldn’t be acceptable to chemically-sensitive people. In the past, kerosene was used, but it stinks and doesn’t dry as fast as gasoline. Two treatments of gasoline, every other day, said Darre, dehydrates the skin enough to kill mites. This is not an option for organic growers; and it kills mites only on the legs. If you don’t intermix flocks, you may avoid mite problems; and some individual birds seem to be more susceptible than others.

Ted Sparrow. English photo.

Sparrow’s Birds

Ted Sparrow has been raising certified-organic laying hens (Comet; a crossbred, similar to a Leghorn) for about four years. He keeps about 800 laying hens of which about 200 are pullets that start laying at the end of December or January. “The thing that concerns me most is educating the public,” said Sparrow. “There are a lot of eggs on the market claiming to be “grass-fed,” “cage-free,” “free-range” and so forth. I think the general public is confused when they see an organic egg. It’s more pricey because the feed is three times as much.”

Sparrow noted that some big houses hold thousands of birds, have a door at the end of the building, and call the system “free range.” He recommends educating customers that this is not really free-range; and that most nonorganic grain is genetically engineered. Sparrow gets his grain delivered, bulk, every five weeks, from Northern-Most Feed. “It’s a Maine product, and I want to promote Maine agriculture.” Other growers may use Nature’s Best from Pennsylvania, which is sold through Paris Farmers Union; Blue Seal also has an organic line.

Organic growers have to explain to people what an organic egg is, Sparrow emphasized, and why it is better. “Organic chickens have to have organic grain and have to be raised organically – unlike just free-range chickens. I’ve seen free-range eggs for about $2.50/dozen; I sell mine for maybe $3.50/dozen retail [at their farm and at farmers’ markets] and $2.80/dozen wholesale.” When selling directly to consumers, Sparrow emphasizes that their products, and the grain their chickens eat, are Maine-grown products.

“We deliver to Spice of Life in Skowhegan, Uncle Dean’s in Winslow, Harvest Time in Augusta, Farm Fresh in Portland, and we go all the way to Portsmouth, New Hampshire,” Sparrow continued. “I think there’s more of a market than that.” He’d like to see people making organic chicken pot pies from birds that are no longer laying.

Deep Litter

“We use the deep litter system,” said Sparrow. “We put lime down after we clean out. We don’t use any special sprays. We have what we call a “chicken inn,” which is a 26 x 30 plastic house that will hold 900 or so chickens. It’s on gravely sand with lime and litter (newspaper – but not colored sections – and wood shavings, about 50-50, and a couple of grain bags full of dry leaves; more paper would bind and make a solid mat) on that.” (Lime raises the pH, preventing excess ammonia; it dehydrates the litter so that fewer organisms grow; and it acts as an antibacterial.)

Darre pointed out that wood shavings absorb water and then re-release it to the environment, so that bedding dries out. Paper, however, holds moisture, “and then you get paper mache. So be careful about how much of that you put in. If you have a little rototiller, rototill your litter to break it up and mix it every couple of weeks, then put fresh litter on top of that. Corn cobs and rice hulls work ok, too. Straw needs to be chopped fine. Darre doesn’t like using hay or straw as bedding unless it’s going to be cleaned out regularly, because it can mold easily once it gets wet, and then you can get Aspergillosis (brooder pneumonia) in the birds. Darre said that if water comes out when you squeeze a ball of litter, it’s too wet. If it forms a ball that stays for a couple of seconds, it’s just right. If it falls apart right away, it can be too dry and cause a dust problem.

To clean his poultry area, Sparrow scrapes off the deep litter and puts more sand down. “We do raise a few (about 100) meat birds outside in an A-frame house,” he added.

Other Practices

Sparrow doesn’t use any heat. Automatic waterers are used in the summer and plastic tubs that hold about 5 gallons of water are used in the winter. They seldom freeze; if they freeze a little, the birds peck and break the ice.

Sparrow thinks the two most important aspects of raising poultry are sanitation and water. He also said to keep the birds in a dry environment, and to keep nesting boxes clean. “We usually try to collect eggs twice a day: once in the morning, and again by 1 o’clock.” The sooner eggs are collected, the less time is spent cleaning them.

Darre warned about Marek’s Disease, a cancer of chickens caused by herpes virus. “If they’re vaccinated at the hatchery, chances are you won’t have much problem. But even vaccinated birds, when they’re 3, 4 or 5 years old, start losing their protection.” The first symptom is limping that is not due to a problem on the foot pad or leg. In that case, check for a tumor, especially of the sciatic nerve.

Darre also said that when birds drop below 60% of their maximum egg production, you’re losing money, and that would be the time to use the birds for meat (if they’re a dual purpose bird). Grower Richard Rudolph countered that he believes animals have a right to live out their natural lives.

If your birds peak at 96% production the first year (96 eggs per day from 100 hens), Darre continued, you’ll lose 5 to 10% the second year when they come out of a molt. You’ll also lose 4 to 5% production each year if you’re inbreeding your flock, until you bring new blood in. You’re not going to get 290 to 300 eggs per year from a 4- or 5-year-old bird.

A molt takes about six weeks. To induce molting, Darre said to give just eight hours of light per day for at least a week. Take feed away for three days, but never take water away. Then go to half feed, then bring feed back up to the previous level over the next two weeks. On week three, start bringing lights back up slowly, adding 15 minutes a week. By six weeks, you’ll be back in production.

Sparrow questioned some marketers use of the term “grass fed,” since grass can meet only part of chickens’ feed requirements, and they’re eating other organisms as well. Paul Volckhausen had the same criticism about cartons promoting “vegetarian” chickens. Darre suggested the alternative phrasing, “They’re on grass,” but quickly withdrew that suggestion.


Michael Darre, Ph.D., P.A.S., Dept. of Animal Science, Univ. of Conn., [email protected]

– Jean English

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