Oh, no! The hens have stopped laying!
Few chicken-keeping problems are as bewildering as this one. So many variables affect egg production. How do you sort through them all?
The quickest way to solve a laying problem is to keep good records well before the problem arises. Every day write down:
- the number of eggs you gathered;
- the outdoor temperature;
- the amount of feed, scratch, and kitchen scraps you put out; and
- any anomalies you might want to remember later on.
You should also keep track of the age, breed, and number of your hens. These records may seem tedious or superfluous at first, but they are invaluable when you are trying to solve a laying problem. The more information you have at hand, the faster you will be able to sort through the possibilities and arrive at a solution.
But now that you have an egg shortage, it’s time to start sorting through the possibilities.
Optimal egg production requires the right balance of nutrients. Many layer rations have been concocted to try to achieve this balance, but in the end the chickens know best. Provide them with access to plenty of fresh grass and bugs, and supplement their diet with layer feed, scratch grains, and kitchen scraps.
No formula can precisely calculate how much you should feed your chickens. The best way to balance the feed and the scratch is to simply watch what the hens are eating. If they are just picking at their feed or leaving pieces of grain on the ground, give them less. If they are devouring one or the other, or maybe even both in the winter, give them more.
After you change the hens’ diet, they should gradually lay more eggs starting in three to four days. If there is no improvement, you’ll have to seek another solution.
Chickens usually don’t lay well in extremes of either heat or cold. If your laying problem coincides with a summer heat wave, there isn’t much you can do except to provide your flock with shade and cool water, and ride it out. In the winter, give the hens wind-proof housing and plenty to eat. The scratch in particular gives them the energy they need to stay warm. Periodically give them an additional boost with a high-protein treat like beef liver or a ham bone with meat scraps still attached.
The age of your hens plays a significant role in how many eggs they will lay. If your whole flock is more than two or three years old, you will probably notice a sharp drop in production. In that case, consider buying or hatching some new hens.
Be aware that breed can affect the hen’s laying rate drastically. Heavy breeds typically lay better in cooler weather, while light breeds prefer warmer weather. To keep egg production reasonably steady all year long, either buy a mix of hot- and cold-weather layers or choose breeds that can tolerate a wide range of conditions, such as Australorps or Plymouth Rocks. Also keep in mind that some of the ornamental breeds will never be stellar layers even under ideal conditions.
If All Else Fails…
If none of these variables seem to account for your production problem, thoroughly inspect your flock and their living quarters. Are the chickens in poor health? Do you see signs of parasites? Are the hens hiding their eggs in some bizarre, out-of-the-way location? Is something eating the eggs?
If you see chickens with yolk on their heads, you’ve got a real problem. The egg-eating habit is difficult to stop, so take pains not to let it start. Make sure your hens have enough fresh range to keep them entertained and enough feed and scratch to keep them full. Pad the nesting boxes with plenty of straw to avoid accidental breakages. Setting out a pan of oyster shell as a calcium supplement will also help.
If you break an egg in the chicken pen, don’t let the hens clean it up. Bury it with dirt or hay before they can eat it and get any not-so-funny ideas. Sometimes a hen will acquire a taste for fresh egg and become an inveterate offender. When this happens, your only choice is to remove it from the flock.
Again, the best way to solve an egg production problem is to keep good records well before the problem starts. That way if laying rates suddenly start on a downward spiral, you’ll have a much better chance of identifying the difficulty and solving it quickly.