I have 21 chickens at the moment. Two are cockerels who are staying, 5 are cockerels looking for homes, and the remaining 14 are hens and pullets. Yet, I am only getting about 2 eggs a day. Where are my eggs?!?
Molting: Right now, most of my older hens are molting and few of the pullets have hit point of lay. When chickens are regrowing feathers, their protein intake is diverted to making new feathers. To help them through the molt, I make sure they have plenty of protein.
Age: The pullets will begin to lay when their bodies are ready. At about 20 weeks, I switch them to layer feed, although sometimes I wait until the first egg is laid before switching (and I’ve never had a soft-shelled first egg.) The layer feed contains extra calcium which can be damaging to non-laying pullets’ kidneys, so it’s best not to rush the transition. If you have a group of mixed-aged hens and pullets, you can provide calcium free-choice in the form of oyster shells. As hens get older, their productivity declines. You can read more about declining egg production in the molting article.
Stress: One of my pullets, a Basque Hen, had begun laying but stopped a few weeks ago and hasn’t restarted. She was grabbed by a hawk in the yard and somehow got away. When we saw the feathers everywhere, we looked for her everywhere and couldn’t find her. I thought she had been taken until my husband found her hiding as far underneath the coop as she could wedge herself. Although she was physically unhurt, the stress of the incident halted her laying. In time, she will begin again. Any stressful event, such as a predator scare, move, or the introduction of new birds can halt laying.
Diet: So, hens need both protein and calcium to make an egg. Of course, they also need other things in a good, balanced diet such as fiber and trace nutrients. Greens are nutritionally important, not only for the hen, but for you if you want healthy eggs with bright orange yolks. As the green season passes, you can supplement with sprouted grains, alfalfa, or cut greens. Be sure that your chickens are on a complete laying ration and supplement as needed. Too much scratch and treats will dilute the percentage of protein in the diet and cut into egg production.
Water: Not only are our bodies about 70% water, but eggs are 74% water. If a hen doesn’t have enough fresh water to drink, she won’t be laying any eggs. This time of year, the biggest challenge is keeping water unfrozen. A heated dish works well, but I just take my waterers in at night and add warm water in the morning. Beware of fire hazards if using a light bulb. When it stays below freezing during the day, we just change the water frequently.
External Parasites: Last night, I did go out and check for mites, lice, and fleas. These pests basically live off of the chicken’s blood and are very taxing. Not only could an infestation cause a decrease or halt in laying, but could actually kill a badly infected chicken. These pests often live in coops and on birds and can be hard to spot during the day. The easiest way to check for pests is to go out at night with a flashlight. Look around the base of your walls and on the underside of your roost. You may find mites in these places. Look at the chickens’ feet and make sure there is no swelling or flaking that would indicate scaly leg mites. Lastly, part the feathers around the vent of each chicken. Make sure you can see down to the base of the feathers and the skin. Make sure there is no irritation, redness, flaking, scales, crusts, eggs, or bug excrement at the base of the feathers. If you do find evidence of mites, lice, or fleas, take a look at this PDF to read about different pests and treatments. Most require dusting the chicken in a powder. Natural pest-control dusting usually utilizes wood ashes or diatomaceous earth. Watch a video on dusting chickens here. You can also add wood ashes or DE to their dust bath as a preventative.
Internal parasites also sap a chicken’s energy and can interrupt laying and decrease health. Many poultry keepers deworm their flock twice a year, but I am opting not to do so. Everyone looks bright-eyed and healthy, so I see no need to tax their systems with medicine. As with many things, opinions on deworming vary. A natural option is to feed plenty of raw pumpkin and pumpkin seeds which you can read more about here.
Day length: Not only are my hens molting, but here in the Northern Hemisphere, the days are getting shorter and shorter. You can read about day length and latitude in my post from last winter. Basically, sunlight stimulates laying and shorter, winter days bring fewer hours of sunlight. Some people supplement light with light bulbs, but others believe that this stresses the hen and reduces the number of productive years she has in her. Whatever you decide to do, beware of fire hazards. Opting for an LED light might not provide warmth but it would reduce the risk of fire.
Brooding: Last year at this time, my EE hen Olive, then a pullet, decided it was a good time to have chicks. She went broody in November and tried to hatch her chick in December, which did not go well. A broody hen will stop laying and start sitting. A fluffed-up, clucking, sitting hen is broody and will not lay eggs until she’s done.
Why no eggs? Well, my chickens have plenty of access to fresh water and fantastic feed. They range outside and are still getting exercise and greens. None are brooding, and there is no evidence of internal or external parasites. Some are too young to lay, and most are molting. One experienced a highly stressful event. Also, the year is winding down and there are fewer hours of sunlight to stimulate production. I think I will just need to be patient and dream of egg-filled days ahead when I will once more be able to eat eggs any time I want! If I had frozen my eggs or coated them with mineral oil this summer when I had plenty, maybe I wouldn’t be without them now!
Resources: Read “Why Did My Chickens Stop Laying?” for a detailed discussion of this topic.