Anyone who has ever experienced their hens going off lay will know it can be extremely frustrating. You can go through months of bountiful egg production, only for things to come to a screeching halt. So why does this happen, and especially so during the summer months? It probably won’t surprise you to learn that this is yet another way mother nature ensures the survival of a species.
It makes sense to lay eggs (nature assumes they are fertilised) during the spring and early summer to give chicks the best chance of survival, thanks to the warm weather and plentiful food supply. Later in the summer and into fall, the days get shorter, and hens instinctively go off lay because raising chicks is less likely to be successful during the colder months of the year.
Tricking Mother Nature into Boosting Egg Production
To get around mother nature’s impositions you have to trick your chickens into thinking it is spring or summer even when it is not, which means simulating the environmental conditions of the warmer months.
The most important thing to do is replicate the duration of daylight naturally experienced during the warmer months (typically between 14 and 16 hours). When the days are shorter you can fit and run electric lights in your chicken enclosure to extend the day, which should help keep your hens laying all year long.
Conditions are Too Hot or Too Cold
We know that egg production slows down when daylight hours reduce, but drastic changes in temperature can also cause hens to go off lay, either because they are distressed by the change in temperature, or because instinctively they believe it is the wrong time of year to lay.
Whilst it isn’t practical to heat an outdoor run during the colder temperatures of fall and winter, it can be useful to heat your hen house with the aid of heat lamps (which have the secondary benefit of simulating sunlight to some degree), or other devices such as space heaters. Obviously whatever you do it is important that your solution is electrically sound and doesn’t pose a fire risk.
For times when temperatures get scorching hot it can be more difficult to regulate the ambient air temperature short of plumbing in air conditioning. Nonetheless, a fan to keep air circulating and plenty of fresh cold water can do wonders to ensure your hens don’t get too hot during heat waves.
Other Factors That Affect Egg Production:
Anyone who has ever experienced stress will know that in small doses it can be a motivator. Tipping the balance to a severe amount however can have a severely detrimental effect on both mental and physical performance, from lack of concentration and focus, to poor quality sleep and even physical illness.
Well your hens can suffer from stress in much the same way, with traumatic events leading to physiological effects such as laying soft shelled eggs, or indeed not laying eggs at all.
Be aware of stressful events that could throw your hens off lay altogether, such as moving them to a new home (when you first purchase them for example) or if you introduce a rooster or other hens to the enclosure. You might find such events cause them to go off lay for several weeks before normal service is resumed.
Obviously no hen can go on laying forever, and just like humans hens only carry a finite amount of egg cells. Whether fertilised or not, these will eventually run out, although most hens will usually die before they physically run out of eggs.
Any hen that has an egg laying career so prolific that it spans 2 years or more of laying more or less daily can’t be expected to continue laying with the same frequency of her younger counterparts. By the age of 5 most hens will only lay half as frequently as they once did, but it’s unlikely they will stop laying eggs altogether even as they reach the end of their lives at somewhere between 8 and 10 years of age. Older hens will still likely lay an egg on occasion, but not often enough to be a reliable source of eggs.
Most species of hen take about 6 months to reach developmental maturity, but before they do they won’t produce eggs. If you want to get an indication of when they will start to lay, there are a few visual clues that start to develop; the reddening of the comb on the head, widening of the pelvis and a moist and pink cloaca. These physiological changes take place in order to signal to a rooster that the hen is fertile, but they also show you as an owner that eggs will be produced imminently.
Incidentally older hens will exhibit the same transition in reverse, losing their deep red comb and wide pelvis as their fertility decreases.
On occasion I’ve opened up my layers boxes only to find a stubborn (or should I say broody) hen sat incubating her egg, despite the absence of a rooster to make it at all worthwhile.
This type of behaviour typically happens when the hen is ready to go off lay due to the natural seasonal changes in daylight and temperature. Artificially modifying the conditions in your hen house as described at the top of this article can help to some degree, although you might need to take more drastic measures, particularly because broodiness leads to the hen neglecting to drink and feed herself.
There are a number of things you can try to get a hen to snap out of her broody spell, from preventing her from accessing the nest she has set up, removing any straw and nesting material she has put in place, to solitary confinement.
Whilst this all sounds extreme, it might ultimately be necessary. In the first instance however I would simply try removing the hen and placing her in amongst the rest of the group, a process which you may need to repeat several times a day. Beware as you do so however, broodiness can result in defensive behaviour, so which out for beaks and claws!
Molting can happen for a number of reasons, from stress to the same instinctive mechanisms that send a hen off lay under normal circumstances. In any case you’ll find your hens tend to molt at least once per year, which is perfectly natural, as it allows them to shed old feathers and grow nice new ones.
Molting and regrowing feathers takes up much of the energy and resources that would normally be ring fenced for growing eggs. Whilst this means you won’t get regular eggs for the duration of this process, the good news is that it does resolve itself after a few months.
Clearly anything that compromises the health of a hen will also compromise how effective she can be at producing eggs. Most typical poultry ailments will affect egg production, from avian flu to coryza, but this is easily mitigated through vaccination. Whilst vaccination isn’t usually necessary if you’re running a small backyard operation, they are a good idea if having hens struck down by illness is literally going to be the difference between you being able to make a living or not.
Common parasites such as fleas and lice can also cause problems within a flock, but I’ve always found that as long as my hens are able to give themselves a good dust bath whenever they need to, critters such as these are kept firmly at bay.
No I’m not talking about the balaclava wearing, crowbar wielding type, but other animals that think they can make a tasty snack out of your eggs, such as rats and other rodents, racoons, coyotes, snakes, and some birds.
You’ll know this is happening by the traces of egg and shell strewn across your chicken enclosure. To resolve the problem you might need to rethink the security of your enclosure, whether that’s with the aid of smaller chicken wire, covering the enclosure if it is open topped, or repairing any obvious signs of entry.