Have your chickens ever gone on strike?
It’s frustrating when your flock stops laying, especially if you’re not sure why… or when they might start up again. If you’re new to keeping hens, or you just acquired a few new ones, a lapse in production is especially disconcerting.
Hang in there. Chances are, there’s a reason behind the strike, and once resolved, your ladies will get back to work. Here are a few things that might be going on:
First things first: some breeds are just more productive than others. A Rhode Island Red will lay a lot more eggs in her lifetime than will a Polish.
→ If you feel your chicken isn't laying what she should, double-check what she's producing against the expected annual egg count for that breed (for instance, here's one chart). You might find she's right on track.
Second things second: age is probably the biggest factor in your chicken’s productivity. It’s important to understand how this plays into your flock’s daily egg-count.
As a pullet comes of age, she’ll start laying sporadically with small, spherical eggs. Gradually these will become bigger, oval-shaped and more consistent. You’ll notice her comb will get larger, too, and turn red: a signal to any resident roosters she’s ready to become a mother.
→ If you're concerned your pullet isn't laying, she might still be in the sporadic phase. Or she might be "at the point of lay," which means she's still just getting ready. Give her time.
After she’s been laying for a full year, your pullet is officially a hen. She hits her peak immediately: she’ll lay more eggs over the next year (or two) than she ever will again. Afterward, she’ll gradually lay fewer and fewer; however, the eggs she does lay will get bigger as she ages.
TAKING A PERSONAL DAY
Chickens follow a cycle. Like everything in the natural world, they go through periods of productivity followed by periods of rest.
A good layer will usually produce an egg a day for four to 6 days running, then take a day or two off. Once or twice a year, even the best layers might take a whole week.
→ This is normal. We like our weekends and vacations, too.
IT’S THAT TIME OF YEAR
In addition to their own personal cycles, chickens follow a bigger cycle, too. Their laying can slow down drastically as fall sets in.
Again, it depends on breed and age.
A prolific layer at the peak of her production might continue to lay four to 6 eggs a week, while an older bird, or a less productive breed, might lay only one egg a week – or none at all.
You can offset the effect of winter by putting a lamp in the henhouse. Set it on a timer, so it adds at least three extra hours of light per day. Give your hens a few weeks to adjust, and they should start laying again on a more summer-like routine.
Before you do, though, consider:
→ The winter slack-off is part of your hens' natural cycle, possibly an important part.
Adding light will definitely up the egg-count – this is one way large-scale egg operations maximize productivity. Then again, those operations also replace their birds after only 18 to 24 months.
For backyard chicken keepers, who generally keep their hens through their whole lifespans, it’s worth asking whether this is the right approach. Perhaps extra light is harmless; then again, there may be consequences to not letting your flock have any downtime. What do you think? Post a comment and share your thoughts.
One more cycle to be aware of. Chickens molt about once a year, and they don’t lay while they’re molting. Growing new feathers is hard work. They’re pretty much made of protein, and it takes all a hen’s bodily resources (and about two or three months) to put on her new coat.
→ If you see a lot of dropped feathers, and your chickens look tatty and ragged, don't plan on eggs for breakfast.
Rather, support your molting chicken with extra protein: grubs, slugs, worms… even cat food. It’s not necessary, but it’ll make her job easier on her.
Worms, mites, bacteria… if your chicken is fighting off pests, her priority will not be on her eggs.
→ She'll deal with her body's problems first, and go back to laying when she's feeling comfortable and well again.
There are several things you can do to help:
- Add some food-grade diatomaceous earth to her feed; this will kill any pests living inside her body.
- Dust her feathers with diatomaceous earth. Or, if you’d rather, add it to her dust bath, and she’ll dust herself with it next time. It’s also a good idea to sprinkle it in her nesting box. Diatomaceous earth kills crawling bugs, such as mites, keeping your hens pest-free.
- Add 1 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar to her water font to fight bad bacteria – but only if it’s made of glass, plastic or stainless steel. Vinegar will corrode galvanized steel, leaching zinc into the water and potentially poisoning your flock.
- Add a few cloves of garlic to her water font; this also fights bacterial problems.
- Keep a clean coop. Periodically rake out droppings, scrub perches, and if you can, set perches in the sunlight from time to time. When you scrub, make sure to add some apple cider vinegar to the soapy water.
Hens want to be mothers. Some breeds are more apt to try than others.
When a hen goes broody, she sits on her nest and stays there. She doesn’t eat, drink or get up. She single-mindedly decides to wait it out until the eggs hatch.
Assuming you don’t have a rooster, this isn’t going to happen.
You can do two things with a broody hen. Get some fertile eggs, put them underneath her, and let her hatch them. Or, convince her it’s not possible. Take her off the nest morning and night, collect the eggs regularly (a big pile of eggs can make a chicken feel hopeful), and keep at it till she’s walking around with the rest of the flock again. Expect her to be grumpy about this. She’ll chide you, and she might hiss or peck when you interrupt her efforts.
SHE’S KEEPING A SECRET
We’ve covered all the most common reasons a hen will stop laying. Now, what if it’s summertime, your hens are healthy and in full feather, they’re not broody, they’re not old, and they’ve still stopped laying?
One last question: are they free-range?
You might want to check the bushes for a hidden stash.
Do remember, too, when you’re collecting eggs, always to leave one behind. You can leave one of their own, or plant a fake egg in the nest (ceramic, wood, even plastic ones can work). The point is, if your hens feel their nesting box is an insecure place to leave their eggs, they’ll find somewhere else. Leaving an egg behind can prevent secret stashes.
And since they can’t count, you don’t have to leave more than one. As long as there’s one egg in the box when they come back, they’ll feel secretive and safe.
If you didn’t find the answer to your chicken’s laying problem here, please comment! We would love to help you troubleshoot what’s going on.