My Chickens Aren't Laying! What Can I Do About It?

What to Do When Hens Aren't Laying Eggs
With the price of grocery store eggs jumping sky-high, many homesteaders feel especially pressed to get good production out of their laying hens...And a lot of you are asking me why your hens aren't laying well right now. Some of you are even complaining your hens aren't laying at all. Thankfully, this is usually a problem that's relatively easy to fix. In fact, if your hens aren't laying well, the solution is likely in this article. Just consider a few questions:

1. Are your hens getting enough sunlight?

Eggs are a seasonal food because in the winter, when the days are shorter and darker, hens naturally stop or slow their laying. The reality is, hens require 14 - 16 hours of sunlight every day in order to lay eggs. Lack of this sunlight is the most common cause for slow or non-existent egg laying.

If you want to induce your hens to lay eggs even when the days are shorter, you'll need to use supplemental light in your chicken coop; just a plain old light bulb on a timer will do the trick. (Do not use a heat lamp bulb.) You'll need to take into consideration both sunrise and sunset to determine how long the light needs to be on, always making sure the hens get at least 14 hours of light a day. For best results, be sure the light bulb comes on in the morning, when the hens are locked up in the hen house.

Do note that using supplemental light can be a fire hazard and that inducing your hens to lay during the winter may shorten their egg-laying years.

2. How old are your hens?

Most hens begin reducing their egg production after year three. Older hens will still lay - but not as often. If you have older hens in your flock and you aren't willing to deal with lower egg production, it's time to either replace the hens or add new, fresh hens to your flock.

3. Did you purchase the right breed?

When it comes to egg-laying, not all breeds are created equal. While it's fun to choose pretty hens or hens that lay fun-looking eggs, the best way to choose laying hens is to look for high production breeds. These include Aconda, New Hampshire, Australorp, Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island Red, and White Leghorn. (Here is a handy comparison chart.)

In addition, consider which breeds lay best during the winter months: Black Australorps, Rhode Island Reds, Buff Orpingtons, Golden Buffs, Columbian Wyandottes, Green Queens, Easter Eggers, Olive Eggers, and Blue Ameraucanas, for example.

Australorps are an excellent laying breed.


4. Are they eating right?

To lay at optimal levels, give hens laying feed. Yes, hens need 15 to 18% protein in their feed, but there are other nutritional elements that affect their laying, too. (For more info on that, click here.) 

If you have one or more roosters, you should use flock raiser instead of layer feed. (Because it's higher in calcium and may cause kidney damage in roosters. In addition, layer feed is not high enough in protein for roosters, which can lead to health problems such as stunting and muscle loss.)

If your hens aren't laying well on the feed you currently have them on, read the nutrition information on the package carefully. Even if the manufacturer claims the feed is balanced, consider switching brands. (Most manufacturers make feed for multiple types of animals, which can and has led to mistakes in feed makeup in the past.)

In addition, you'll need to ensure the feed is fresh. Don't stock up on more feed than your chickens can eat in a month or so - and once a bag is open, keep the feed in a sealed bin for freshness.

Also, for best egg production, don't give your hens lots of garden and kitchen scraps, mealworms, corn, and other treats. It's difficult for chickens to overeat because only so much food will fit into their crop - a "bag" in the chicken's digestive system where food is stored for about 12 hours before it slowly passes through the stomach (where it gets doused with digestive juices) and then the gizzard (where it is ground up, or "chewed"). If you fill your hens up with treats, they don't have room in their crop to eat pellets - and remember, their pellets are formulated to encourage excellent egg production. (If your hens are mostly free range, understand that you are trading off a more natural lifestyle for potentially slower egg production.)

5. Are your hens dehydrated?

When hens are dehydrated, their laying slows down considerably. Make sure your hens always have access to fresh, clean water.

6. Are they stressed?

Anything that stresses out hens, including predators, rodents in the hen house, having too large a flock for the space allotted, having too many roosters, having an overly-dominate rooster, having things around the coop that startle them, etc., can lead to lower egg production. Happy hens lay more eggs!

The most common stressor in chickens is molting - the natural loss of old feathers and growth of new ones. This usually occurs in the fall. It's perfectly normal and natural for hens to stop laying during this time and there's really nothing you can do to change that.

Check for eggs frequently.

7. Are they broody?

If you have one or more hens who insist on sitting on eggs, have plucked their breast, and/or feel warm to the touch, they will not lay. They are broody (i.e. wanting to hatch eggs) and their bodies are putting all their energy into that task.

You can either let the hens hatch the eggs (or let them naturally lose interest in hatching the eggs, which isn't uncommon), or you can break the hen of her broodiness by putting her in a plastic tote with no bedding. Give her pellets and water, but nothing else. Put the lid on the bin (make sure you've drilled many air holes in it) and place the bin in a cool location, like the floor of a garage. In a few days, the hen's body temperature will cool down and she'll no longer feel broody.

8. Are they ill?

Sick hens stop laying eggs, so when egg production drops, it doesn't hurt to look over each chicken in your flock, making sure they look and feel healthy. If you think any hen seems ill, isolate her from the rest of the flock, in case the illness is contagious.

9. Are they hiding their eggs? Or is something eating their eggs?

Another possibility is that either the hens are hiding their eggs in a "safe" location (like the bushes) or that something is eating the eggs they are laying. If you find empty eggshells in the coop or run, it's likely your chickens are eating their own eggs; for tips on how to change that, see this post. If you find eggs with small holes pecked in them, or you find no eggs at all, wildlife may be to blame; for tips on how to remedy that, read this post.

When you have a glut of eggs, preserve some.

Hedging Against Egg-Laying Problems

By understanding the above points, you can definitely help prevent a lack of eggs on your homestead - but it also makes sense to have a backup plan, in case you have an unexpected shortage. That backup system is preservation. If you preserve eggs when you have a glut of them (instead of selling them, giving them away, or feeding them back to your chickens), you can ensure you have eggs even when your hens aren't laying.

My favorite methods for doing this are:

1. Keeping unwashed eggs in the refrigerator. They easily last 6 months or longer.

2. Freeze drying eggs. When properly stored in Mylar bags with oxygen absorbers, these eggs will last many years. 

If you don't have a freeze dryer, an alternative I like is keeping eggs in the freezer.

For tips on freezing eggs, and for ideas about other ways to preserve eggs (including water glassing, coating in mineral oil, and more), click here.

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