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There are so many exciting things about raising chickens, and to be honest, we were probably one of the rare farms that wasn’t all about that first egg that was laid. Sure, it was terribly exciting, but since we raise dual-purpose breeds, egg production wasn’t our only goal.
At least when we started out.
Fast forward. Today, our small little 25 meat-bird operation has turned into a full-fledged egg factory. We now raise chickens and sell the eggs to a local restaurant (as well as other customers), so we do get excited when we see an abundance of eggs in the nest boxes.
I use this handy egg collection chart to keep track of when and where we have eggs coming in. It helps make us super-vigilant of any potential issues in laying long before they become issues, and it also helps us see our progress as our flock ages.
That being said, when you are first starting out with your chickens, waiting for that first egg can be an anxiety-producing time. You have guided your chickens carefully through the chick stage, waited for them to feather out, moved them out into the coop…
And now you wait.
For what seems like forever.
You might be scouring the Internet looking for answers about when your chickens will start to lay, how old chickens are when they start to lay, miracle cures to get your chickens to lay sooner.
But alas, most of it comes down to…
You just need to wait.
Luckily, you can figure out when your chickens will be likely to lay (and find ways to encourage them to lay sooner!) by following this advice.
Factors That Affect Laying Age
The first factor that affects when your hens will begin to lay? Their age, of course! You aren’t going to see newborn chicks dropping eggs. Most breeds can’t lay eggs until they are at least six months of age. This does, however, depend on a couple of factors, including the breed of chickens you are raising, the time of year it is, and other external conditions.
Most hens start laying eggs at around six months of age, but this varies quite a bit depending on the breed of chickens you raise. Heavy birds like Plymouth Rocks, Orpingtons, and Wyandottes tend to lay later, while smaller breeds like Leghorns and AUstralorps lay sooner. There will also be a great deal of fluctuation within your flock – not all of your hens will start to lay at exactly the same time.
While there are some hybrid breeds, like Golden Comets, that are bred specifically to lay lots of eggs (and to start laying early), they usually won’t lay as long as other birds. They tend to have a shorter life span, too, so really your increased production in the early stages ends up being mostly a wash.
Remember, too, that your hens’ ability to lay eggs has an expiration date. Most hens can lay eggs for about five to seven years, but their egg production will drop significantly after several years.
Time of Year
Keep in mind, too, that the exact age at which your hens start laying may vary depending on the time of year in which they come into maturity. If they finally mature when winter is just beginning (which is generally the coldest and darkest part of the year), they might hold off on laying at all until spring arrives. Six months is an average time frame, and there are so many factors involved in when a hen starts to lay that you really can’t plan your schedule around it.
Some chickens will lay eggs throughout the year, but others will stop to go broody or stop laying when the winter begins. If you live in an area where day length or warmth doesn’t fluctuate much, you may not notice a huge difference in your chickens’ laying patterns.
How You Will Know Your Hen Is Ready to Lay
Keeping an eye out for early signs that your hen is ready to lay is a great way to prepare. First, maintain good records of the age of your chickens, as well as their overall health as they mature. Keeping good records on your farm is a great habit to get into, as it will help you to be more organized and productive in the long term.
Your hen will begin to develop larger, redder combs and wattles just before she starts laying. They won’t be as pronounced as those on your rooster, but you will likely notice a difference. She may also begin to display squatting behavior. She will hunker down and spread her wings, which is a good sign that she is reaching sexual maturity.
Reasons Why Your Hens Aren’t Laying
It’s Too Cold
Hens naturally lay more eggs in the spring and summer months because these are the times when their offspring would have the greatest chance of surviving. Most chicks wouldn’t make it through the cold winter weather, so hens are naturally more inclined to lay less during the winter.
Molting occurs once a year in adult birds, typically in late summer or early fall. At this time, your hens will lose most of their feathers and regrow new ones. While a molt usually won’t affect when your chickens first begin to lay, if they have been productive egg layers and suddenly stopped, it could be due to a molt.
There are three types of molts in chickens. A hard molt involves your hens losing most of their feathers all at once, which can be quite shocking to look at but luckily ends relatively quickly. A soft molt involves feathers being lost and regrown gradually, while the third type of molt is more sequential and occurs several times during the first year of a bird’s life.
Molting chickens usually won’t lay eggs because their bodies are using so much energy on the molt. This is a pretty stressful time. It can cause a loss of egg production for a few weeks or more, but you can help reduce the impact of molting by providing more and higher quality feed to your flock.
Again, you probably won’t notice broodiness affecting chickens that haven’t laid a single egg yet, but if you have an older hen that has stopped laying, it might be because she has gone broody. That being said, it’s not impossible – hens will frequently become broody on eggs that they didn’t even lay themselves.
Some breeds of chickens are more likely to go broody (or to go broody more often) than others. Broodiness will rarely last over 21 days- remember, this is the time that it takes for a chicken egg to hatch normally.
They Have Parasites
There are a number of parasites that can affect chickens, and if your hens are displaying signs like pale or discolored combs, watery feces, and, yes, a drop (or delay in starting) egg production, parasites could be to blame.
Most people (us included) don’t give our chickens a deworming medication because most dewormers are only effective on certain strains of parasites. Unless you know EXACTLY what kind of parasites your chickens have you can actually make your chickens sicker by giving them a type of medication they don’t actually need.
Your veterinarian can provide tests to determine whether parasites are to blame for your lack of egg production, but you can also engage in preventive care to avoid the problem altogether. Many people swear by diatomaceous earth mixed with feed at a ratio of two percent. We also use garlic on all of our animals as a natural dewormer, and have never had a single issue. Remember, rotational grazing and proper hygiene practices can also help keep parasites and other issues at bay!
They are Sick or Stressed
If your chickens are sick or stressed out in the slightest, it can cause a delay in egg production. While parasites and infections like lice and mites are the most common health issues in chickens, there are plenty of diseases like fowl pox and coccidiosis that can permanently affect a hen’s laying ability.
To avoid this, make sure you always buy your hens from a reputable source, and be careful when introducing new birds to a closed flock.
Other stressors can delay laying, too. Adding or removing birds from a flock changes the pecking order and affects the dynamics of the group. This can cause a lot of anxiety among your flock, so you need to take care to introduce new chickens properly.
They Have Poor Nutrition
Nutrition plays a huge role in when your chickens are ready to lay. You need to make sure you aren’t cutting any corners with supplementation, and that the feed you are providing is well-balanced and nutritious.
Calcium deficiency is a common culprit behind delayed laying, and so you may need to supplement with oyster shells or ground up chicken egg shells.
Reasons You Might Not Find Eggs
Your Hens Are Eating Them
If you keep finding signs that there perhaps was an egg, but there is no longer, there’s a possibility that your hens are eating them. Having to deal with hens who eat eggs is no fun,and it will certainly cut down on your egg production. Here are some tips on how to determine whether your hens are eating egg, as well as how to stop them from doing it.
They Are Laying Somewhere Besides a Nest Box
This is one of the most frustrating things for a chicken keeper to deal with. You spend so much time building beautiful, functional nest boxes…and your hen continues to lay her eggs in a pile of poop underneath the roost bar.
Luckily, it’s easy to remedy a hen’s refusal to lay in a nest box. First, make sure there is plenty of room inside the box. Insufficient nesting space doesn’t just encourage your hens to find a new place to lay – it also results in crushed or broken eggs as the birds don’t have anywhere to sit down. This, in turn, can lead to unwanted behaviors like egg eating.
The worst case scenario is if your hen has decided that she wants to lay her eggs somewhere else entirely – for example, in a hidden nest outside in the yard. You may think your hen has stopped laying, but really, she’s just found a better spot to lay her eggs. To remedy this behavior, try keeping your hands in the coop for a few days to encourage them to lay inside.
A Predator is Getting the Eggs
If you let your chickens free range – or even if you don’t – there’s a chance that predators could be stressing your chickens to the point where they aren’t laying. Alternatively, a predator could be snatching up all the eggs before you can even get to them!
If this is the case, there are a couple of ways to detect whether a predator is causing your drop in egg production. Aside from actually seeing a creature like a raccoon, fox, or weasel threatening your flock, you might also notice that eggs are being laid with ridges halfway down the shell. This is what is referred to as a body checked egg.
These grooves usually occur at the pointed end of the egg and are a result of the hen’s body innately trying to repair any eggshell damage induced by stress. This is almost always caused by disturbances in the coop.
Keep an eye out for areas where a predator may be making it into your chicken coop. Make sure the coop and run are secure and don’t let your chickens free range (wing clipping may be necessary to keep them contained!) if you suspect a predator may be making his rounds.
How to Encourage Laying
Many people disregard the importance of clean, fresh water in encouraging hens to lay. During particularly hot and dry periods of the summer, it is not uncommon for us to see a slight drop in egg production. The same rule applies if your water supply because dirty or filled with chicken poop.
Make sure your hens have constant access to water – and keep it clean at all costs. Elevating a waterer so that the chickens can’t poop in it can help you keep it clean, and building a fully enclosed waterer with nipples is an even better way to keep things clean.
For the first six weeks of life, you should be feeding your chicks chick starter feed. This has about 20 to 22 percent protein, which encouraged the rapid development of bones and feathers. As your chickens age, you can get away with smaller quantities of protein – think fourteen to sixteen percent – until they start laying. At laying age, they can be given slightly more protein. We like to feed an egg producer feed that is formulated with all of the nutrients and calcium that laying hens need.
Make sure your feed is fresh and fed in good supply. We always provide the hens with as much food as they can eat, and we don’t restrict them in this regard. A lot of people don’t believe in this, as they think it’s a waste of money to provide your hens with open access to feed. However, our theory is that a lot of diseases, unwanted behaviors, and health problems can be prevented by allowing the chickens to decide when they’ve had enough – and not the other way around.
Appropriate Shelter and Nest Boxes
Remember, building appropriate nest boxes is critical to ensuring that your chickens lay where and when you want them to. An overcrowded coop can delay laying, as can one that is not adequately protected against stressors like the weather and predators.
And don’t forget your nest boxes! You need one nesting box for every four chickens, and nesting boxes should be at least eighteen inches off the floor. They should be a foot wide to give your hens enough room to lay down. Replace the bedding in your nest boxes and coop often, as these can harbor parasites that can make it unpleasant for your chickens to lay their eggs.
Fake Eggs and Other Tricks
If your hens simply haven’t figured it out yet, you can encourage her to lay in a nest box by adding golf balls or wooden nest eggs to the nests. This will trick your hen into thinking that the nest box is a go-to spot. You might also consider hanging curtains to keep the nest box dark and quiet, which is the ideal spot for a hen looking to lay an egg.
You can also use a light in the coop to simulate laying during the colder winter months. While many people who raise chickens are adamantly against this (it does reduce the overall longevity and productivity of a laying flock), for us it’s an absolute necessity as we have the same amount of demand for eggs over the winter as we do during the summer – and we can’t afford for our production to stop entirely.
That being said, it’s best not to try the light trick on hens that have not yet laid, as this could affect their natural processes later on. Instead, keep an eye on your chickens daily, and take notes on their progress as part of your daily homestead to-do list.
What tips do you have for raising laying hens? Be sure to weigh in by leaving a comment, and subscribe to our email newsletter for regular tips and tricks on homesteading – wherever you are. You can also follow us on Instagram (@jrpiercefamilyfarm) and Pinterest (J&R Pierce Family Farm) for frequent updates. Happy homesteading!