Thursday, March 17, 2016

Why aren't my hens laying?!

This is a common question seen on forums and Facebook groups. Sometimes, when people's birdies aren't producing as much as expected, owners get baffled. There are a few things to consider when figuring out why your chickens aren't laying, such as age, time of year, stress level, behavior, and symptoms of illness.

How old is she?

We all get a little impatient while waiting for our pullets to start laying eggs. They can start as early as 16 weeks if she is an egg production breed, and 32 weeks or later for meat and ornamental breeds! Most of the time, layers and dual-purpose breeds will start laying between 20-28 weeks old, and it may depend on the time of year they reach laying age. If they reach 20 weeks in the dead of winter, they may hold off a few weeks before they start laying!
Old hens will eventually stop laying. The age at which this happens can vary greatly. Laying varieties such as the Leghorn or red sexlink may quit laying as early as 3 years of age, while dual-purpose and ornamental fowl may be six or seven years old before they completely stop laying. This is because, although laying breeds lay more in there first year or two, they "burn out" quickly. At this point, it is up to the owner to decide whether to keep the chicken as a pet themselves, re-home them as pets, or cull the old hens. Age, either too young or too old, is a likely culprit as to why your hens aren't laying. 

What time of year is it?

Most hens will lay less or stop laying altogether in the winter, unless they are specifically bred not to. There are two reasons for this. If a chicken were to be living in the wild, they would need to conserve as much energy as possible to deal with the cold and little food of winter. Second, while we have bred chickens to lay eggs for us, the real purpose of those eggs is reproduction. How likely is it for a hen to successfully hatch and raise chicks when it's -5 degrees out and there's no food because everything is dead? Not very. So, when the days start getting shorter, the hen's body reacts to the lessening ultraviolet rays by releasing hormones that stop her laying. In order to prevent this, you can add supplemental UV lighting in the fall and provide it through winter. Personally, I prefer to give my hens a break in the winter. They deserve it! 

Choco the Sebright, clearly bewildered by the snow, did not lay a single egg until March! This is very typical, especially in  ornamental breeds.

Is she molting?

Chickens generally molt once a year, and that is usually in the fall, although I have had them do it in the winter. When a chicken molts, she will lose a lot of her feathers and grow new ones. They look terrible, but I assure you, it's natural! Growing new feathers takes a lot of protein, and so does laying eggs. In order to put energy into the task at hand, a hen will stop laying until her feathers have grown back in. In fact, if a hen continues laying while she is molting, that is cause for concern, because producing both eggs and feathers at the same time is extremely hard on the hen's body. To help your chickens with a molt, you can temporarily switch to a high protein feed, such as game bird feed, or offer high-protein treats like cat food or mealworms daily. Be careful with cat food, as too much can make your chickens sick!

Has there been stress on the flock?

There have been several times now that my girls have stopped laying for a couple of days due to stress. Have you moved coops? Added new birds? Was there recently a predator attack? Is there a sudden, drastic change in weather, such as a bad winter storm or a heat wave? Are there signs of illness? All of these things can cause stress on your birds and temporarily halt their laying. Generally, they will continue laying when the stress subsides. 

Is she acting broody?

Goose the chicken, growling at me as her first chick was hatching!
Is she sitting in the next, puffed up, maybe getting off every other day for a few minutes, and growling and biting at you? Congratulations! You have a broody hen! "Broody" describes a hen that is trying to hatch eggs. She will stop laying, and sit on the nest. It does not matter if the eggs are hers, or if they are fertile, or if they are even eggs at all! I truly broody hen will try to hatch golf balls, round stones, or anything vaguely egg-shaped. Your options are either breaking her from broodiness, letting her hatch eggs, or letting her adopt chicks. Waiting it out isn't a viable option, because most hens will keep sitting until they have chicks. Broodiness is very hard on the hen, and she's not meant to stay on the nest for more than three weeks, so she must be either allowed to hatch, given chicks, or broken from broodiness! Note that some hens will not adopt chicks, always supervise when first introducing them! 

Are there any symptoms of illness? 

Chickens will often stop laying when they're ill. It takes a lot of energy for the immune system to fight off infection! Is your hen sneezing, wheezing, lethargic, or weak? Does she have swollen eyes, or are her wings droopy? Is there discharge coming from her eyes, nose, or mouth? Is she puffed up, but not sitting on a nest? Are the other chickens picking on her, yet she barely reacts? Is she eating and drinking okay? Does she have diarrhea or bloody poop? Looking for additional symptoms can help you determine whether she is not laying for one of the above reasons, or if she is actually sick.

Egg binding 
A sudden stop in laying could be a symptom of egg binding. An eggbound hen has an egg lodged in her oviduct that she is unable to pass. Any bird can become eggbound, but high-production birds, such as Leghorns and red sexlinks, are more susceptible to the condition. 
Symptoms of egg binding include:
Not eating or drinking
Straining, as if trying to lay an egg
"Waddling" or penguin-walking
Leaving an entering the nest box multiple times
Acting "droopy" and slow
A hardened abdomen
A pale face and comb
Diarrhea OR constipation, and a full crop

If your hen is exhibiting these symptoms, please refer to this BYC article about egg binding. Your hen's life could be in danger! An eggbound hen needs immediate treatment!

Did this shed some light on your egg-laying predicament? I hope so! If you still have questions, feel free to leave a comment! Also be sure to like our Facebook page and follow our Instagram where we post regular pictures of our farm! Thanks for reading!