Feeding Chickens for Optimal Eggs
By Karma Glos
Photo by Rosie Glos
“An orange yolk means a good egg.”
This commonly held belief is only partially true. An orange yolk means the hen ate food containing beta carotene or some other compound that colored the yolk. Beta carotene is found in flowers, grasses, forbs and vegetables, all of which a hen is pleased to eat. During the growing season my hens never lack for foraging choices as they roam across rich pastures and scratch up spent vegetable fields. This free-choice salad bar along with a full ration of organic grain results in those firm golden yolks we expect in a “good egg.”
When snow covers the fields and my hens move into the barn for winter, their eggs begin to change. The grain feed remains the same, but the fresh forage is gone and salad options are few. Our winter henhouse is a bright, roomy greenhouse running along the west side of the barn, bedded with a deep pack of organic hay and straw that is refreshed twice weekly. This offers a great substrate for digging, scratching and foraging throughout the long winter days when the hens prefer to stay indoors. Every day we open up their door to the pasture and nearly every day they just stay in the greenhouse. I have a similar habit.
While the bedded pack and the occasional snow-free pasture day offers a minimum of green feed, the hens’ yolks still grow paler. Now, even though we know that the egg quality is not actually diminishing that much, we still take measures to keep that yolk golden! These measures include offering the hens alfalfa hay, culled storage vegetables and drop apples. These food offerings not only improve the egg, but also the hen’s quality of life. There is nothing more exciting to chickens than a new food. These daily snacks break up the monotony of cold winter days and add some diversity to their usual ration. It’s like getting an apple with your daily oatmeal: It’s just so much better.
The simplest source of green, leafy feed we can offer the hens is a good second-cutting alfalfa hay. We purchase organic bales from a neighbor and store them for use throughout the winter and early spring. These bales can be broken up and hung throughout the henhouse in hay nets. The hay nets allow hens to pick out good bits of leaf and flower without soiling it. Once the hay has been picked through we spread it on the floor for a final scratching. Another, more perishable, snack is culled fruits and vegetables. These goodies come from a local organic veggie farm when they sort their produce throughout the winter. Fruits and vegetables, no matter how wizened or wormy, are relished by hens.
So while our practical goal for these extra foods is to improve perceived egg quality, it’s really about hen happiness. The winter here is long for everyone. Nobody, not even a chicken, wants to eat only oatmeal
Karma Glos has been an organic farmer for over 20 years and she has a serious plan- collecting habit.
This article appeared originally in our March/April 2019 issue.