Why have my hens stopped laying is a very common question. Julie Moore identifies some of the causes
Eggs are one of the most complete natural foods available, containing all the essential amino acids as well as a wide range of minerals and vitamins needed by the human body — a perfect reason to keep a few hens. But, at some stage, you are likely to experience a barren period devoid of those lovely fresh eggs that you have become so accustomed to and will be left wondering ‘Why have my hens stopped laying?’
A decrease in egg production can be caused by a variety of factors acting either individually or in combination, some of which are outside your control, although sound management practices can help to limit the impact. Some of the more common causes to a halt in egg production include: decreasing day length, inadequate nutrition, moulting, broodiness, increasing age, disease and stress.
Decreasing day length
Hens are sensitive to day length and in particular to the direction in which the daylight hours are changing. As hens require around 14 hours of daylight to maintain optimum egg production, once the natural daylight falls below 12 hours, production naturally tails off and will possibly cease altogether during the winter months. Come late summer and early autumn, a poultry keeper will notice a significant reduction in eggs laid compared to those produced in the spring and early summer.
Commercial producers overcome this problem by installing artificial lighting to maintain the optimal 12 to 14 hours of light, tricking the hens into laying continuously, thus maintaining maximum production regardless of the actual season.
There is a fine line between feeding poultry too much and too little. Hens need a balanced and adequate diet to maintain egg production. Each egg contains significant amounts of energy and protein which must be first ingested by the hen as part of her daily nutrition. Too little dietary energy, protein, calcium or salt can drastically reduce egg production.
As calcium is required for strong bones and good quality egg shells, it is beneficial to offer a coarse source in the form of oyster shell or limestone grit which provides a slow-release of calcium for the hens. Birds are then free to balance their own calcium requirements. Too much calcium in the diet may lead to misshapen eggs whilst a deficiency can cause soft-shelled eggs.
Nutritional imbalances can create other problems such as a prolapse. Prolapse occurs when a hen is too fat, eating a feed that has too high an energy level or she has laid too large an egg and part of her oviduct is expelled with the egg and remains outside the body.
Fresh, clean water is also crucial for maximum egg production and is often overlooked by poultry keepers. Many people do not realise how much water a hen will drink — anything up to 500ml! If a hen is without water, even for a short period of time, she will stop laying. Ensure that the birds have access to several sources of water. In hot weather, the water should be cool (even if this means replacing the water several times during the day) and in winter attention should be paid to prevent it from freezing over.
Free range hens who have not been subjected to artificial lighting generally moult in late summer or autumn, coinciding with the shorter daylight hours. Moulting is a very stressful time for a bird — as moulting and egg laying are not mutually compatible, egg production stops. It is common for all the flock to cease egg production and moult simultaneously.
The rest from egg laying allows a hen to restore her plumage and rejuvenate her reproductive tract. The time taken for birds to complete the moult and recommence egg production varies from 6 to 12 weeks.
Some breeds are more prone to broodiness, although broodiness has been bred out of many of the modern hybrid strains. When a hen becomes broody, she will cease laying. She accumulates a clutch of eggs and sits on them, incubating them whilst occupying the nest for an extended period and preventing other hens from laying. Collecting eggs on a daily basis will prevent the hen from building a clutch.
If she is left to sit out the hatch and raise the chicks, she is unlikely to return to egg production for several months. This is seen as an uneconomical nuisance by commercial producers. However, if you want to hatch your own chicks, having a broody hen to do the work for you is priceless — after all, she will know more about raising chicks than you do.
Age has an important influence on the number of eggs laid. Generally, a hen will lay more eggs in her first year than in subsequent years. In her second year, she should still continue to lay well, but won’t produce quite so many eggs. Beyond this, not only will you see a decrease in the number of eggs laid, but the egg shell and albumen quality will also decline. This is why commercial layers are ordinarily only kept for two laying seasons.
Diseases in which egg drop (a sudden drop in egg production or a failure to achieve a normal peak production) may be infectious or metabolic and can occur in even the best conditions.
Infectious diseases include: infectious bronchitis and Newcastle disease whilst metabolic diseases include fatty liver syndrome and intoxication from insecticides. It is important to consult a poultry vet if a disease is suspected.
Chickens are creatures of habit and routine. Stresses such as being moved, handled roughly, changes in environmental conditions or fright can contribute to a fall in egg production. Common stresses include:
Being too hot or too cold. Chickens are unable to cope in extremely hot weather as they have no sweat glands. It is essential that they have access to clean, cool water to spray over their bodies and shade to shelter from the sun.
Nor do they like damp, cold and draughty conditions, so ensure that your hen house is free of damp and draughts.
In cold weather, chickens spend a lot of energy just keeping warm so that they can maintain a body temperature of 41.7£C. In winter, the feed intake will increase and in warm weather, the need for energy decreases and with it the feed intake.
Limit any unnecessary moving or handling. Introducing new birds will temporarily disrupt the pecking order causing an element of social stress during which time egg production may decrease.
External parasites such as ticks, lice and mites will inevitably be picked up by your hens all of which can cause irritation and stress. Although you will never eradicate such parasites completely, sound management practices can keep them to a minimum.
Fright can also lead to a drop in egg production. Try wherever possible to limit: loud noises, dogs, livestock, vehicles and quick moving children around your flock. Likewise, predators such as birds of prey will also frighten your hens.
Other factors that can contribute to a reduction in egg production include:
Egg eating. Hens are naturally inclined to eat broken eggs. Once hens have acquired the taste of a raw egg, they may deliberately peck freshly laid eggs to break the shell and eat the contents — this can be a difficult habit to break. Good management, such as regularly collecting eggs, removing any broken eggs promptly, ensuring there is sufficient litter in each nest box and each nest is relatively dark are all preventative measures that can be easily taken.
Insufficient nest boxes. If there are not enough nest boxes, hens may lay eggs on the floor which are likely to be dirty and can be easily broken. As a general rule of thumb, allow one nest for every three hens.
Lost eggs. Some hens choose not to lay in the nest boxes provided, preferring instead to find their own nesting site. If this happens, you need to be extra vigilant otherwise you may not find the nesting site in a timely manner to collect the eggs.
By paying special attention to your girls’ needs, especially once the days start to draw in, the extra pampering will hopefully reward you with the odd precious egg throughout the bleak winter months. The eggs that you take for granted in the summer will become priceless gems in the depths of winter.