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Laying Hens

Egg Production
Healthy pullets will begin laying at about 20 weeks of age. It is not necessary for a rooster to be present for egg laying to commence, but without a rooster, all eggs will be unfertilized.  Hens will be at peak production at about 30 weeks. Excellent production would be considered 80% to 90%, but breed, housing, weather, management, parasite load, and nutrition can all affect rate of lay. 

Eggs should be gathered three times daily and more often in hot weather. Store the eggs at 55°F and 70% to 75% humidity if you plan to keep them for hatching. Eggs for eating should go in the refrigerator. Eggs are laid with a protective coating which helps to keep bacteria out, and it is best if this is not disturbed. Excessive washing can force bacteria through pores in the shell and into the egg and greatly reduce its chance for successful incubation and hatching. If washing is necessary, be gentle and quick, and use only water. Be sure to use water that is warmer than the egg. Dry and cool the eggs as rapidly as possible.

Frequent egg gathering serves two purposes:

  1. It helps to keep the eggs cleaner and prevent bacterial growth, thus eliminating the need for washing.
  2. It lessens the opportunity for hens to learn the bad habit of egg-eating (see Behavioral Issues).


Why do Hens Stop Laying?

Light: Many things can cause hens to stop laying eggs, but the primary reason is decreasing day length. Hens need a minimum of 17 hours of daylight to sustain strong production. If your hens are not provided with supplemental light, they will naturally stop laying eggs when daylight hours drop below 12 hours. Hens may also stop laying if light abruptly decreases by a few hours. This is a hormonal response regulated by a tiny gland (called the pineal gland) that responds to changes in light. One 40-watt bulb per 100 square feet of coop space is enough to keep birds laying. Use an automatic timer to keep light and dark hours constant. Just a day or two of too little light can end a laying cycle.

Nutrition: Inadequate nutrition is another reason hens stop laying and, surprisingly, the missing nutrient is often water. Hens need a constant source of fresh water. And they do not like it very cold, so it is very important to check and refresh waterers often in the winter. Cool water in the summer will help the birds combat the effects of heat. Never underestimate the importance or power of clean water at the right temperature!

Inadequate protein and/or energy can cause a production decrease. A shortage of dietary calcium will result in weaker eggshells and, eventually, weak bones as the hen robs her skeleton of calcium in an attempt to manufacture shells. Feeding too much “extra” feed, such as scratch grains or table scraps, can dilute and unbalance the complete nutrition in the hen‘s pellets or crumbles, thereby negatively affecting her production and health. Hot weather will inhibit a hen‘s appetite, causing her to eat less which results in a drop in egg production on even the best diets. Feed a high-quality feed and severely limit table scraps and alternative feeds to obtain maximal egg production.

Disease: Diseases and parasites will both reduce a hen‘s productivity, as well as her comfort. Build a relationship with a veterinarian who can help you establish a good flock health program. Never introduce new adult birds into your flock (without quarantine first), as adult birds can be apparently healthy carriers of a number of deadly diseases. Keep all premises as dry as possible to limit growth of coccidia, an insidious and stubborn parasite that flourishes in dampness and causes coccidiosis.  
 
Age: As with so many things, egg production too decreases with increasing age. Good hens will productively complete two egg-laying cycles of 50 to 60 weeks each. After that, production will drop off greatly.

Stress: Any kind of stress – extreme temperatures, excessive handling or moving, fright caused by predators or noisy children (they‘re all the same to a hen!) – can negatively impact egg production. Keep your hens‘ environment as serene and comfortable as possible to help maintain health and productivity.

Secrecy: Sometimes what appears to be a reduction in egg production is really the result of free-range hens hiding their eggs. Be sure you have enough nesting sites for the number of hens you are keeping, especially if you are allowing some to be “broody”. Make sure the nesting area is warm, comfortable, dimly lit, and well-bedded with clean litter. Give the hens lots of good reasons to lay their eggs where you want them.

Molting
Molting is the process wherein hens lose feathers and grow new ones. It occurs naturally after 10 to 14 months of production, or it can be caused accidentally by temperature extremes, running out of feed or water, a decrease in light, or disease. Hens will not lay eggs during a molt. Molting gives birds a chance to rest. After seven to eight weeks they will return to Speckled Sussex Hen production for a second cycle, though they will not be as productive the second time around. However, they will often lay larger eggs than during their first cycle.
 
Culling
If you don‘t want to wait through a molt, you can cull non-laying birds and replace them. You should also always cull lame or sick chickens, as they are not productive and may spread disease. A hen will give many clues that she is no longer laying. Non-laying hens have small, dull combs rather than bright red combs like layers. Their vents (where eggs come out) will be small and dry, not stretched by egg production. The width between their pubic bones will be just one finger, not two or more, and the depth between pubic and keel bones will be only a few finger widths rather than four or more. The feathers will be ragged, with no apparent new feathers. Culls that are not sick are still a good meat source.

On the other hand, culling may not be an option for less productive or non-productive hens that have endeared themselves as pets, or if your goals are primarily to simply watch and enjoy your birds rather than obtain maximal egg or meat production from them. With good care, many types of poultry can live 20 years or more!