Why have my hens stopped laying eggs

Submitted by Neil Armitage on Mon, 01/22/2018 - 19:31

We are going to look at the reasons behind a drop in egg production.

If you are raising your chickens for the eggs then it is concerning when they stop laying eggs. It will make you wonder if everything is fine with your birds and may upset your customers if you can not supply in time. It could lead to a financial loss even if you are only running a small backyard chicken concern. It means spending money on feed and housing and getting nothing in return. 

Chickens may stop laying eggs for several reasons. It is still possible to make a recovery and return them to their peak performance. So don’t rush out yet to buy your eggs from the supermarket.

As a poultry keeper and as part of your day to day management of your concern, it is important to keep track of the number of eggs laid by your chickens. If there is a sudden drop you will know in an instant. A notice board with a 4 week grid that you can put your totals in is probably just the ticket.

Here is a look at the common reasons why your chickens are not laying eggs anymore:-

Yearly moult:

Eggs produced in a farm environment will often have extra light and control of their laying season. If you are producing eggs in a non commercial environment then you will need to budget for the yearly moult when hens take a break for around 6 weeks to change their feathers. In the Northern hemisphere this starts anytime from October and can last 6 weeks. Actual starting times and duration will vary with your location and conditions.

moulting chicken

Moulting can be quite drastic as this Andalucian hen shows. You can see the pins of the new feathers showing.

Moulting is a natural process's whereby a bird renews their feathers. As a rule moulting and egg production cannot happen together because of the energy and protein requirements. This means egg stop when the bird changes it's feathers.

Illness:

Chickens not laying eggs at all or a drop in production can also point to something more serious such as a sudden bout of infection affecting your flock. It could be viral or bacterial but either will need treatment even if it is supportive care.

Chickens will not always show the symptoms of a disease, there are types of Mareks that are mild enough not to affect the bird in a noticeable way.

wrinkled eggs may shown infection

Malformed and wrinkled eggs may be a sign egg tract infections.

Most poultry diseases and viruses will effect egg production and a chemical intervention will be likely for a satisfactory outcome.

Disease issues can occur on the best kept sites and are not a sign of inappropriate husbandry.

Parasites:

red mites

Red mites can be the bane of the chicken keeper.

Fleas, mites and ticks all effect the health of your flock. Some of the carry disease and they all compete with the chicken for it's resources. The itching and scratching can distract the birds and cause stress. Mosquitoes in large numbers can cause anaemia.

The heat:

Chickens have a higher body temperature than humans and suffer more in the heat than other farm animals. Excessive warmth also makes them drink more water which will flush nutrients out of the body.

happy hens

Keep cool fresh water and provide shade for the poultry. There is plenty of shade from the sun in this image.

The cold:

Severe cold freezes water and food as well and can prevent hens free ranging so can prevent them eating and drinking. A shortage of nutrients especially when they need more to keep their body warm will kick them out of lay quite fast.

a wyandotte bantam in the snow

As a rule chickens will cope the cold very well if well fed and watered. This little Wyandotte bantam is taking the cold in her stride.

The diet:

Chickens need a balanced and adequate amounts of feed. The egg a bird lays represents a specific quantity of protein, fats, minerals, water and the processing overheads to produce it.

Problems with their diet and feed is a common reason why your chickens may stop laying eggs. Look at your feeding practices and routine and determine if you have recently changed anything. Even the brand of your regular feed that you are feeding your chickens may need checking.

Changing the diet can lead to a drastic drop in egg production or even cause your chickens to stop laying altogether. Diets should  switch  in a gradual fashion and never an abrupt one.

Whatever you are feeding your chickens must also be well balanced as this will ensure their bodies will be well nourished to enable them produce eggs at the optimal rate. If your layers are struggling consider adding supplements that are rich in protein and calories like safflower or sunflower seeds.

Feed spoils over time and nutrients oxidise.

I had a friend who managed to get used malted barley from a brewery. He used to keep 600 hens to provide eggs for his milk round here in the United Kingdom. All was fine for about 10 days whilst he was supplementing about a third of the diet for spent brewery grains. Over the second weekend his egg production halved and he started getting thin shelled eggs. The reason is there was only a little protein left in the barley, no nutrients or energy, and it took his birds nearly a month to recover.

Shortage of calcium:

The skeleton of a typical modern egg producing hybrid contains about 30 grams of calcium. that means each egg represents about 7% of the birds total calcium reserve. The skeleton acts as a calcium reserve to supply the demands of egg production and this is rapidly depleted if there is not enough in the feed.

It is likely the hen will lay thin or soft shelled eggs or stop laying eggs. This also need to be easily absorbed by the chickens body and must be readily available.

Water:

Most commercial produced chicken feed like layers pellets contains around 1% salt. Eggs are about 70% water and A reliable water supply is very important for all chickens, not just the layers. If your chickens have no access to fresh water throughout the day, the egg production will drop like a stone in no time at all. 

Water from ground sources may be contaminated with heavy metals or dissolved salts. Better to use tap or rain water.

 

Stress:

Bad weather and storms with thunder and lightning will disturb their rest. You know how you feel getting up in the morning without any sleep - pretty crap. Predators prowling around like foxes scratching or rummaging can disturb them every night.

Rough handling or kids or pets chasing chickens can put them off laying. Scratching from parasites is damn annoying at the best of times. If you even seen a bird with bad scaly leg mite it is very distressing. Imagine the unscratchable itch. 

Not being able to roost naturally or have areas to scratch in or take a dust bath will stress chickens. Fighting with other birds upsets the whole flock. Few things are as disruptive as adding new birds to the flock.

happy grower perching

This happy young grower has plenty of space and a perch. Stressed birds will not settle easily

Make sure the nest box is a comfortable place and try adding a few fresh herbs like sage, rosemary or thyme to the hay in the nest.

Cramped or hungry hens will squabble.

The full list ( in no particular order) of things that cause stress in chickens:

1. Moving or mixing flocks.
2. Heat, cold or draughts.
3. Injury or debeaking.
4. Cramped, damp or wet conditions.
5. Illness.
6. Predation.
7. Build up of ammonia in living quarters.
8. Insufficient feed or water

Insufficient daylight:

Chickens are sensitive to day length and in particular the direction in which is it changing. Lengthening days in spring trigger the reproductive cycle and shortening days in autumn bring about a cessation in laying.

Sometimes, your chickens may be getting the right diet and right amount of water but still not laying due to insufficient light. For your girls to lay plenty of eggs, they need lots of NATURAL daylight exposure. At least 14 hours a day of exposure is ideal and hens tend to stop laying completely below 10 hours daylight.

Natural daylight does not always mean only the sunshine, it means in one chunk at the right time and above a specific light level. This level is about what it takes for the average human being to be able to read easily.

During the winters when your chickens have less exposure to lighting, you can supplement the lighting with some artificial lighting for optimal laying performance. Always get them up in the morning with extra light and let them roost in a natural manner in the evening. Never leave them rooting around the floor and just turn the lights off. That will stress the birds. 

You can put artificial lighting in the chicken coop and set up some automatic timer to switch it offer after a set number of hours. This will help keep your egg production high. However, during the winters, your chickens also need plenty of rest so that they can recover the following year so it is not always advisable to push them to the limit.

I prefer mine to take a natural break in the depths of winter.

Egg hiding:

Free and pasture raised chickens may begin to hide their eggs in covered places like hedges and under thick shrubbery. In the past I thought I had lost birds and then the magically reappear with chicks in tow demanding to be fed.

They are not hiding them to get one over on you, it is part of their natural behaviour. Listen for the egg chorus or hunt around if you suspect and indulge in some coop training by keeping them in till they have laid their egg for a few days.

 

Egg eating:

Check weather it is actually your hens eating the eggs. If it is they may need protein, calcium or adjustments to the nests to make them darker.

In depth article on egg eaters and the cures.

Your hens are broody:

Egg laying will stop if your chicken is broody. They may be well fed, have plenty of fresh water and good exposure to sunshine but still fail to lay eggs if they are exhibiting broodiness. A hen gets broody when it wants to hatch her own chicks. 

It can happen anytime but in nature it occurs in the spring.

There are various ways through which you can break the broodiness so they can continue laying.  a dog crate raised of the floor is the standard method. It deprives the chicken of the warm nest to rest in. 

Alternatively, you can loan them out or sell them when they become broody. I have a friend who borrows a broody every year to raise a batch of chicks.

a broody hen in a cage

Some of the signs of a broody hen include the following:-

They sit in their nest boxes for the whole day.
The hen becomes territorial and will get aggressive at anything getting close to her eggs.
The hen will shed off the breast feathers so she can give the eggs the heat from her body to create conducive condition for hatching. This shows as a baldish spot called the brood patch.
Sometimes they are plain grumpy and bad tempered.

It can take up to 6 weeks for a hen that has been broody to begin laying again.

Age:

Chickens live for many years. I myself have forgotten how old some of my hens are and it is not unusual for a backyard chicken keeper to have many generations of birds and lose track of how old some birds are. 

As in every other type an ageing hen will lose its ability to reproduce and stop laying eggs. This varies depending on the type of chicken and in the commercial production environment chickens are only kept for up to 80 weeks before being sent for slaughter.

In your homestead or smallholding situation you can expect 5 years productivity from quality stock.

egg production over years chart

Chart giving an idea of the likely decrease in egg production over the years. Hybrids and heritage breeds lay about the same number of eggs, hybrids do it faster.

 

Egg  binding:

This is a thankfully rare condition that physically blocks the egg duct with an egg. Sometimes it is a broken egg. It normally kills the bird but it can be treated.

 

The breed is the problem.

Certain breeds do not lay as many eggs as other types. A modern commercial hybrid for example will lay 300 or more eggs in their first year. Japanese bantams on the other hand may only lay 160 a year. I have silkies and whilst the egg is fantastic they rarely lay more than 120 eggs a year.

In finishing I need to say that on a few occasions I have had hens that have never laid and egg. it is rare but there are a few conditions that mean they never start.

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