Egg production on a small scale is one of the oldest animal farming enterprises in recorded history. A small investment may yield several years of income.
Egg production is one of the oldest animal enterprises and is well-suited to a small-scale or part-time farm. In this system, birds are fed some grain and allowed to forage for the balance of their diet. Birds can be used for egg production and may be harvested later for food.
In the United States, egg production followed these principles until early in the twentieth century. Then, systems emerged for producing eggs in more specialized facilities, making the operation more efficient to feed a growing population shifting from farms to towns and cities. These changes encouraged many dairy farmers to include egg production as an additional enterprise.
The late 1950s and 1960s saw drastic changes in the industry. Co-ops, feed companies, and other private firms organized egg production into a coordinated industry. This shifted egg production from a secondary to a primary farming enterprise with specialized production methods. The result was a large reduction in small-scale egg producers.
Small-scale layer production has made a comeback since the 1980s because of changing consumer demands. Backyard egg producers may see a local market for their surplus eggs. New markets are continually being developed to supply specific niche market needs, especially for organically produced brown eggs (although white eggs are also popular). Layers raised organically and used for producing organic eggs can be more valuable at the end of their production cycle when sold as roasting chickens. Conventionally grown layers have less value because of their size and body structure and are generally sold as stewing hens or to make protein supplements for pet food.
Many states and private organizations certify organically produced meat and eggs. Check the U.S. Department of Agriculture Certified Organic website to find the certifying body for your state or area. To obtain organic enterprise certification in Pennsylvania, contact Pennsylvania Certified Organic by phone at 814-422-0251 or check the Pennsylvania Certified Organic website for more information.
As with any new enterprise, you should research markets before starting production. You should conduct some market research because many growers overestimate their ability to sell in given markets. The major markets for eggs from small flocks are specialty stores, farmers markets, roadside stands, and neighbors. Additional niche markets exist for people who want organic, fertilized and partially incubated, or free-range eggs. Since very little information about these markets is available for any given geographic area, developing markets requires research and time. Check with your state department of agriculture and local extension office to see if a marketing support program exists to help register you as a vendor of locally produced food.
Before making any investment, check for any local ordinances that may prohibit the keeping of poultry at your location. Often these ordinances either prohibit or limit the type or number of birds you can keep in one location. Residential associations for some communities may have even more restrictions on the keeping of livestock within their jurisdictions.
One of the most practical ways to get started is to start small and begin with a flock of 50 to 100 hens and use existing facilities if available. A unit of this size allows you to learn the necessary production and marketing skills without making a large investment. Costs are limited to a layer house, nests, and feed and watering equipment. Once you’ve gained production and marketing experience, you can expand your operation.
You can start your flock with chicks or started pullets (16 to 18 weeks old) from a reputable dealer. Raising laying hens from chicks increases your cost of feed and labor commitment but may be necessary if enough started pullets are not available in your area. Buying started pullets means that the birds are ready to begin producing eggs. Whether you buy chicks or started pullets, make sure the breeder is certified by the National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP) to be free of Salmonella pullorum, Salmonella typhoid, Salmonella enteritidis, and mycoplasma. A list of NPIP hatcheries from the USDA is available online.
Before your chicks arrive, ensure the brooding area is at least 95 degrees Fahrenheit at the chicks’ level, there are no drafts, and that fresh feed and water are not directly under the heat source. More information on brooding chicks can be found on the Penn State Extension. When pullets arrive, check that their litter is dry and all feeders and drinkers are clean and in good working order.
More than 60 breeds of chickens are used for commercial poultry production. Many breeds lend themselves to either egg or meat production and some breeds may be used for both (i.e., dual purpose). Most breeds that produce white eggs efficiently tend to be lean, lightweight, and do not lend themselves to meat production. Most breeds that produce brown eggs are larger, heavier-bodied, and when finished laying can be used as roasting chickens. Bantam chickens are not suited for small-scale egg production due to the small size of their eggs.
You will need at least 1.5 square feet of floor space per bird, covered with a litter composed of clean straw, wood shavings, or sawdust. One feed pan usually provides enough space for 20 birds. Sufficient watering equipment should be available for 20 birds per cup, 12 birds per nipple, or one bird per linear inch of trough space. Hens do not lay eggs at the same time, so nests can be supplied at a rate of two nests for the first four hens and then an additional nest for every four additional hens. Nest box bedding should be different from floor litter and must be kept clean and dry. Nest pads (made of plastic or artificial turf) can be used, but they must also be kept clean and dry.
Lighting stimulates hens to lay eggs. If you want to produce eggs year-round, you will need to install adequate lighting in your facility. Gradually increase the length of time hens are exposed to light when they arrive at your farm. About 5 minutes of increase per day is sufficient and not detrimental to the birds’ health. Start with 12 hours of total light per day at an indoor intensity that just allows you to read the fine print of a newspaper at night (0.5- to 1-foot candle). Increase the amount of lighting by 30 minutes per week until you reach 16 hours per day. Additional outside light exposure is fine; you should just have the supplementary lighting begin before dusk and remain on until after dawn. Utilize a reliable light timer because abrupt changes in lighting throw off reproductive cycles and can potentially be deadly. Never exceed 16 hours of light per day for laying hens.
Ventilation of poultry enclosures is necessary so adequate air exchange can take place to keep littered floors dry. Ventilation needs will vary with ambient temperature. If the temperature is too hot or cold for you, it will be for your layers as well. Misting water around the outside of poultry enclosures may be necessary to keep your layers cool during the extreme heat of summer months. Additional litter materials may be necessary during the winter to insulate hens from cold floors and drafts.
Conventional layer mash feed can be purchased at your local feed store. Certified organic, non-GMO, and vegetarian feeds are also available, but they are sometimes difficult to find and more costly. All hen mash should contain at least 3.5 percent calcium and 16 percent crude protein. Additional free-choice calcium may be provided after birds are 45 weeks old to aid in good shell formation, especially during hot weather. Water should be given free choice, and container-based watering systems should be emptied and cleaned every other day at a minimum. Use a bucket to carry wastewater away from living areas to reduce the potential for disease and prevent the litter from becoming damp or wet.
This publication outlines both conventional and organic cage-free production methods. The conventional method recommends molting the flock to stimulate a return to laying. Molting involves resting the hen for a short period of time with cessation of lay and replacement of feathers. This is done by reducing the hours of daily light back to the day length utilized during pullet rearing (10 hours) and feeding a lower energy and calcium diet—more like a pullet’s diet. This modification in feed and light will result in an involution of the oviduct and a rebuilding of this organ. After a period of rest and rebuilding, normal feeding and light schedules are resumed. This production practice extends the flock’s productive life without replacing the flock. Molting also increases egg size and quality for a period. Flocks may be molted more than one time, but this is not recommended for small flocks.
Biosecurity and sanitation are necessary to prevent disease outbreaks. Biosecurity involves isolating birds by age-group, restricting human access to buildings, keeping the buildings clean, and properly disposing of dead birds. To prevent the introduction of diseases, new birds should be isolated and observed for disease symptoms for one month before allowing contact with other birds. Because of cannibalistic tendencies often seen in poultry, housing of flocks should be done in an all-in, all-out fashion so that birds kept together are of the same age and size. If smaller birds are being raised as replacements, they should be kept in separate housing and seen first each day. Dead birds should be composted in a compost pile large enough to cover the birds with 6 inches of composting material surrounding the body or double-bagged if disposed of in municipal waste receptacles. Cannibalism can also be quelled with low-level light. Intense light or red light can lead to higher activity and therefore more undesirable behaviors like cannibalism and flightiness. Beak trimming can be done at between 7 and 14 days of age in the flock. Dog toenail trimmers can be used to remove 1/16 inch of the upper beak to render the tip of the beak dull. This will keep the birds from injuring neighboring birds if they do peck. Shiny objects such as plastic soda bottles and pie pans can be hung in the house for flocks that are exhibiting aggressive behavior toward one another. Consulting a veterinarian regularly is a good management practice. If high mortality suddenly appears in your flock for no apparent reason, contact your veterinarian and your state department of agriculture immediately. Most states have veterinary diagnostic laboratories that could aid in the diagnosis of any disease problems with your flock. In Pennsylvania, contact the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA) Bureau of Animal Health and Diagnostic Services (717-772- 2852) and see the diagnostic laboratory system online. Remember, if antibiotics are prescribed, follow all label directions. Viral diseases do not respond to antibiotics, so their use is not normally recommended.
Regulations for Selling Eggs from Small-Flock Producers
The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture regulates the sale of eggs from small flocks. If an egg producer has fewer than 3,000 laying hens and sells the eggs within five days from the date of lay predominantly within a 100-mile radius of the production or processing facility, then the following regulations apply:
- All eggs must be maintained at 45°F or below from within 24 hours of lay to the time of sale. This also applies to eggs sold at farmers markets or roadside stands. A thermometer must be available in the cooler to verify ambient air temperature.
- Each carton, flat, or container of eggs must be labeled with the producer’s name and address, date of lay, statement of identity (eggs), net contents (in letters that are 3/16 inch high), and “Keep Refrigerated.” The following should also be on the carton: “Safe Handling Instructions: To prevent illness from bacteria: keep eggs refrigerated, cook eggs until yolks are firm, and cook foods containing eggs thoroughly.”
- If you do not weigh the eggs or they are of mixed size, and you do not wish to assign a grade, they must be labeled as “Unclassified.” You must also remove dirty, leaker, or loss eggs. Loss eggs are inedible or contaminated eggs discovered when held to a bright light (candling).
There are three consumer grades of eggs—Grade AA, Grade A, and Grade B. To market your eggs with these terms, they must meet the requirements for the consumer grade. If you would like to grade your eggs and need further information for consumer graders, contact the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s Egg Division at 717-787-5107, write to Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Eggs, Fruits, and Vegetables Division, 2301 North Cameron Street, Harrisburg, PA 17110, or find them online.
- For sale to grocery stores or restaurants, new cartons and/or filler flats must be used and properly labeled. The Retail Food Code requires that eggs must meet U.S. Consumer Grade B or better standards to be able to be used in retail food facilities. Eggs from small flocks that meet the above requirements may be sold to and purchased by food processors, restaurants, and other retail facilities for use in their manufactured products/facilities, or sold directly to consumers.
|Size/Weight class||Per Dozen||Per 30 Dozen||Minimum Weight|
|Jumbo||30 oz||56 lb||2.42 oz|
|Extra Large||27 oz||51 lb||2.17 oz|
|Large||24 oz||45 lb||1.97 oz|
|Medium||21 oz||39.5 lb||1.92 oz|
|Small||18 oz||34 lb||1.42 oz|
|Peewee||15 oz||28 lb||—|
All agricultural operations in Pennsylvania, including small-scale and part-time farming enterprises, operate under the Pennsylvania Clean Streams Law. A specific part of this law is the Nutrient Management Act. Portions of the act may or may not pertain to your operation, depending on whether you have livestock on your farm. However, all operations may be a source of surface water or groundwater pollution. Because of this possibility, you should contact your local Soil and Water Conservation District to determine what regulations may pertain to your operation. All farms with any livestock in Pennsylvania are required to have an approved manure management plan in place.
You should carefully consider how to manage risk on your farm. First, you should insure your facilities and equipment. This may be accomplished by consulting your insurance agent or broker. It is especially important to have adequate levels of property, vehicle, and liability insurance. You will also need workers’ compensation insurance if you have any employees. You may also want to consider your needs for life and health insurance and if you need coverage for business interruption or employee dishonesty. For more on agricultural business insurance, see ” Agricultural Alternatives: Agricultural Business Insurance .”
Second, check to see if there are multiperil crop insurance programs available for your crop or livestock enterprises. There are crop insurance programs designed to help farmers manage both yield risk and revenue shortfalls. However, individual crop insurance coverage is not available for all crops. If individual coverage is not available for what you grow, you may be able to use the Whole-Farm Revenue Protection (WFRP) program to insure the revenue of your entire farm operation. Information from your Schedule F tax records (or a “Substitute Schedule F for WFRP Purposes” if you do not file a Schedule F) from the past five consecutive years is used to calculate the WFRP policy’s approved revenue guarantee. Operations that have expanded over time may be allowed to increase the approved revenue amount based on an indexing procedure. Depending on the number of commodities grown, you have the choice of coverage of 50 to 85 percent of your approved revenue. Coverage and premium costs depend on the level of diversification in your operation; the maximum level of insured revenue is $8.5 million (based on maximum adjusted gross revenues of $17 million and the 50 percent coverage level). WFRP also provides replant coverage if it not already covered under an underlying individual crop policy. More information on WFRP can be found online.
Finally, the USDA Farm Service Agency has a program called the Noninsured Assistance Program (NAP) that is designed to provide a minimal level of yield risk protection for producers of commercial agricultural products that don’t have multiperil crop insurance coverage. NAP is designed to reduce financial losses when natural disasters cause catastrophic reduction in production. A basic level of coverage (50 percent of expected production at 55 percent of the average market price) is available for a fee of $325 per crop per county (fees are capped at $825 per producer per county, but they are not to exceed a total of $1,950 for producers growing crops in multiple counties). Higher levels of protection at the 50, 55, 60, and 65 percent levels at 100 percent of the average market price are available for additional premium. NAP coverage is available through your local USDA Farm Service Agency office. The application fee for this program may be waived for eligible limited-resource farmers.
Sample enterprise budgets for small-scale production of a conventional white-egg flock and an organic brown-egg flock, plus information on initial resource requirements, are included in this publication. The budgets assume the purchase of 100 birds, a 400-square-foot building, nests, and feeding and watering equipment. All other budget factors not listed in the budgets (e.g., land) are considered to be constant over time and are not listed. The budget assumptions for each production system are as follows:
- Conventional small-scale production: Assumes that birds are housed at 18 weeks of age, molted at 70 weeks of age (after 52 weeks of production), and sold at 110 weeks of age (providing an additional 30 weeks of production). Feed for the entire period amounts to 142 pounds per bird. Spent layers are then sold as stewing hens.
- Organic small-scale production: Assumes that birds are housed at 18 weeks of age and sold at 70 weeks of age (after a total of 52 weeks of production). Feed for the 52 weeks amounts to 90 pounds per bird. Spent layers may be sold as organic roasting chickens and are more valuable than commercial stewing hens. Mortality is estimated at 4 percent of the flock.
These budgets should help ensure that you include all costs and receipts in your calculations. Costs may be difficult to estimate in budget preparation because they are numerous and variable. Therefore, think of these budgets as an approximation and then make appropriate adjustments using the “your estimate” column to reflect your specific production situation. More information on using livestock budgets can be found in “Agricultural Alternatives: Budgeting for Agricultural Decision Making .”
You can make changes to the interactive PDF budget files for this publication by inputting your own prices and quantities in the green outlined cells for any item. The cells outlined in red automatically calculate your revised totals based on the changes you made to the cells outlined in green. You will need to click on and add your own estimated price and quantity information to all of the green outlined cells to complete your customized budget. When you are done, you can print the budget using the green Print Form button at the bottom of the form. You can use the red Clear Form button to clear all the information from your budget when you are finished.
Sample Budget Worksheets
Initial Resource Requirements
- Land: 2 acres (needed land includes building and waste disposal)
- Labor: 180–200 hours
- Egg collection and grading costs: $1,500–1,800 per flock
Pullets: 1,000 birds × $4.00 = $4,000
Buildings, equipment (including egg cooler): $7,000–8,000
- Land: 2 acres (needed land includes building and waste disposal)
- Labor: 180–200 hours
- Egg collection and grading costs: $1,100–1,500 per flock
Pullets: 1,000 birds × $7.00 = $7,000
Buildings, equipment (including egg cooler): $7,000–8,000
Total capital investment: $38,000–41,000
For More Information
Bureau of Food Safety and Laboratory Services
Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture
2301 North Cameron Street
Harrisburg, PA 17110-9408
Department of Animal Science
The Pennsylvania State University
335 ASI Building
University Park, PA 16802
Penn Ag Industries Association Poultry Council
2215 Forest Hills Dr., Suite 39
Harrisburg, PA 17112
Mills Selling Organic Feed
These mills also sell organic pullets, but they may not sell to producers whose goal is less than a 1,000-bird laying flock.
Kreamer’s Feed Mill
215 Kreamer Avenue
PO Box 38
Kreamer, PA 17833
120 Liberty Street
Alglen, PA 19310
Powls Feed Mill
1934 Lancaster Pike
PO Box 15
Peach Bottom, PA 17563
“Choosing a Chicken Breed: Eggs, Meat, or Exhibition,” by Doug Akers, Pete Akers and Dr. Mickey A. Latour, Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service.
“Poultry Breeds for the Small Farm,” by Jonathan Moyle, Poultry Specialist; F. Dustan Clark, Extension Veterinarian; Scharidi Barber, Instructor in Poultry Youth Programs; and Tom Tabler, Extension Professor.
“Proper Handling of Eggs from Hen to Consumption,” by Phillip J. Clauer, Poultry Extension Specialist, Virginia Tech. This article will discuss how you can ensure that your eggs will be of the highest quality and safe for consumption.
“Rearing Chicks and Pullets for the Small Laying Flock,” by Melvin L. Hamre, Department of Animal Science, University of Minnesota. Good layers develop from healthy, well bred chicks raised under good feeding and management programs. Buying the right type of chick is important for the most economical production.
“Small Laying Flock,” by Melvin L. Hamre, Department of Animal Science, University of Minnesota. A well-planned and well-managed small laying flock can be a source of fresh eggs, personal pleasure, and, sometimes, profit.
“The Small Laying Flock,” by Fred Thornberry, Extension Poultry Specialist, Texas A&M; University.
“Small Poultry Flocks” (requires Acrobat Reader). Very good older USDA publication. Covers all aspects of small-scale poultry production.
Prepared by Paul H. Patterson, professor of poultry science; Gregory P. Martin, extension educator in poultry; Emily
K. Shoop, extension educator in poultry; Lynn F. Kime, senior extension associate; and Jayson K. Harper, professor of agricultural economics.
This publication was developed by the Small-scale and Part-time Farming Project at Penn State with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Extension Service.
This fact sheet, including its text, graphics, and images (“Content”), is for educational purposes only; it is not intended to be a substitute for veterinary medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a licensed doctor of veterinary medicine or other licensed or certified veterinary medical professional with any questions you may have regarding a veterinary medical condition or symptom.