When your chickens aren’t laying eggs, or when they aren’t laying as frequently as they used to, there are a number of possible reasons.
Chickens, like people, are affected by stress, and hens that are under stress don’t lay as well. Stress, in more extreme cases, can cause them to stop laying.
What types of things can stress your chickens? First, anything that causes them physical hardship — not having enough water or feed, inadequate hygiene, diseases or parasites. Noisy dogs or predators could stress them, too.
Some breeds of chickens don’t seem to mind handling as much as others. Those that do mind can be stressed by too much handling or by being chased excessively in an attempt to catch them.
Second, anything that you do to disrupt their normal environment and their pecking order can introduce stress. Something as simple as moving them to a new coop, or even not having enough roost space for them all to get settled at night can introduce stress.
In the same way that making a drastic dietary change can cause one of us to have digestive problems, changing your chickens’ diet drastically and quickly could cause them unnecessary stress. If you need to change to another type of feed, you can mix in a little of the new feed with your existing feed and do that increasingly over a few days or a week to ease the change.
Third, anything that causes the chickens to be more aggressive than usual to each other could cause stress. Introducing new birds to your flock can cause this. To alleviate this problem, see our article on how to introduce new birds with as little stress as possible.
Not having enough space for your chickens can also cause stress.
Amount of Daylight
The amount of daylight that your hens get has a big effect on their ability to lay. They need 14 or more hours of light per day to lay their best. During the fall, from about mid-September through December, the shorter days are one of the first things I would suspect. We discuss lighting more in part 1 of this article, where we also discuss the option of using artificial lighting.
Shorter daylight hours can also cause your hens to molt, which will slow their laying.
Weather That’s Too Hot or Too Cold
The optimal temperature for laying is around 55° to 90° (F). Though your chickens can survive hotter or colder weather than this, they will tend to not lay as well. Lighter breeds, such as White Leghorns will tend to be more affected by cold temperatures than heavier, dual purpose breeds like Barred Rocks or Delawares. It also helps if your chickens can acclimatize to weather changes gradually, so you may want to protect your coop if you expect a sudden cold snap.
In cold weather, a humid environment makes it harder for chickens to stay warm, so it can make matters worse. You also don’t want the coop to be drafty. Good ventilation is important to keep humidity down, but not cross-ventilation.
As an example, consider what you do in the winter if you want to cool the house down a bit or make it less stuffy. On a cold windy day, you may open a window on one side of the house, and that will cool the house down slowly and freshen the air. But if you open a window on both sides of the house, one facing the wind and the other away from the wind, it may get windy enough to start blowing papers and other things around. Cross-ventilation like this is what you should avoid in the chicken coop.
Hens need a good balance of carbohydrates, protein, vitamins and minerals, and you can get that by using a good quality layer ration.
If you feed your chickens a lot of table scraps or scratch grain, that can throw off the balance, so it’s good to use moderation when supplementing with table scraps.
Layers use a lot of calcium when they form egg shells, so for laying hens, it’s important to have an adequate supply of calcium. Typically, if you’re using a good quality feed designed for layers, it will contain plenty of calcium (check the label for calcium content), but if your chickens are allowed to free range or given a lot of pasture (which won’t contain as much calcium) you can also supplement with free choice oyster shells.
Once your hens start to lay, they’ll lay their best for the first 2 years. By year #5, they will generally lay about half as many eggs per year as they did in the first year of laying. They may continue to lay for as many as 10 years, but their egg production will drop off to about one-fifth what it was in year one. Replacing your older hens with started pullets that will soon be laying is a good way to keep your egg production up to the level that you need.
If you’re getting fewer eggs than you expect, the problem might not be that the hens are laying less. It might be that something else is happening with the eggs.
One such problem is “egg eating”. Sometimes a chicken will develop the bad habit of breaking and eating the eggs. This can happen when an egg accidentally gets broken and the hen sees it and tastes it and likes the taste.
With egg eating, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Keep plenty of nesting material, such as straw, in the nest boxes to provide plenty of cushion to reduce the chances of having an egg break. If you have an egg break in the coop or pen, clean it up immediately and don’t give the hens a chance to access it. As mentioned above, provide adequate calcium to enable the hens to form strong eggshells. And don’t let eggs pile up in the nest boxes. Check the nest boxes frequently, once or twice a day, and remove all the eggs each time.
If your hens do develop the habit of egg eating the most effective way to fix the problem is to cull the hen, though there are a number of other things you may want to try first.
In addition to egg eating, if your hens free range, they may start a nest in a hidden spot where you don’t notice the eggs. That can account for you receiving fewer eggs.
Last, snakes and skunks can and will eat eggs if they have a way to get into your coop and nest boxes.
I’ve heard it said before that, “the best fertilizer for the garden is the gardener’s footsteps.” This principle of participation holds true for chickens as well. If you are having trouble with your flock and they aren’t laying as well, one of the best answers is to spend some time with them, watching them to determine what may be causing the problem: Are they acting like something is causing them stress? Are there signs of predators trying to break into or dig under the coop at night? Are the chickens showing any signs of parasites? Is it fall, and the days are getting shorter? Are they entering their normal molt cycle? Is it time to get some younger pullets?