But we’ve domesticated them. We’ve changed them from laying enough eggs to hatch and raise a brood, then go through that cycle another few times before the bad weather hits, to where many never go broody and lay practically every day when they are laying. We’ve done that by selective breeding. Also, food does not get scarce in winter anymore, we feed them. We’ve disrupted that cycle some but the base instincts are still there. Now pullets that first start to lay may (not always but may) skip the molt their first fall/winter and lay until the next fall whether we add lights or not. Especially if we add lights hens might go broody in winter. But the vast majority of adult chickens will molt when the days get shorter. It’s not length of day that is important but whether the days are getting longer or shorter.
Stress can disrupt laying and maybe cause a mini-molt, the right time of year it can even trigger a full molt. Stress can come from running out of water for a period of time, a predator scare, a change in environment like a different coop or modifications to a coop, a disruption to the pecking order by adding or taking away chickens, a change in lighting length, or other things. It can be something as subtle as you not having security or street lights when they had light where they came from. That may have made the days shorter. Sometimes when you move a hen that is laying she never misses a beat and keeps right on laying, but sometimes they stop until they get used to the new location and get the pecking order stuff worked out.
Are your older hens molting? Sometimes so many feathers fallout that there is no real doubt, but sometimes that’s such a gradual process you can’t tell by looking at the chicken. If you see feathers flying around down there may be the only way to tell.
There is something else going on with your flock. Who knew such a small flock could get so complicated? Mature chickens outrank immature chickens in the pecking order. It’s not a matter of size, it’s a matter of maturity. Until they mature enough to force their way into the pecking order they often form a sub-flock and just avoid the bullies as much as they can. Point of Lay pullets are not quite mature. Mine normally hit that maturity point and truly join the flock about the time they start to lay. Yours sort of free ranging together is a good sign that day is approaching but when it comes to them laying their first egg, everything is a sign they might be getting ready until you actually see an egg. That wait can be pretty rough at times.
There are a lot of different factors involved in when a pullet will lay her first egg; heredity, days getting longer or shorter, a peaceful environment, nutrition, and who knows what else. I’ve had pullets start to lay at 16 weeks at the height of summer. I’ve had pullets lay their first egg the first week of December when the days were pretty cold for here and the days were about as short as they are going to get but still getting a bit shorter. Those pullets were nine months old. I do not provide extra light. It’s really hard to say when a pullet will lay her first egg, especially when you only have two. You don’t have enough for the averages to mean anything.
Hens can lay a lot of eggs over a long period of time and do fine, but eventually their bodies just get worn out. The number of eggs they lay gradually drops and the egg quality can suffer too. I’m not talking a few months, I’m talking about over a year to maybe a year and a half. If you look at the weight of an egg and the weight of the hen it’s somewhat equivalent to a woman popping out a baby every week or two. It’s not the same but darn it, in my opinion sometimes a gal just needs a break.
I like for my hens to follow the seasonal pattern and molt when they days get shorter. When they start up again the eggs are generally larger and of top quality. They have recharged their system. That’s why I don’t manipulate my lights. But others do and I have no problem with that. We all have different goals and different systems. What’s right for me may not be right for others. Most of mine normally go back top laying when the molt is finished regardless of length of day. Most, not all.
So after all this, what can you do in your specific unique situation to start them laying, which to me is a worthy goal. If your older hens are going through the molt, they will finish that. It may take a month, it may take four months. It’s not so much how fast the feathers grow back, it’s how fast they fall out. Each chicken is an individual with their own schedule. Once they finish the molt and for your pullets to start laying they have to make certain changes internally. From when the triggers that start this process start until they actually start laying can take as long as five weeks if they haven’t already started getting ready. Don’t expect instantaneous results, but with your pullets especially it may not take that long. Constant light is not good either. Like us, they need some dark down time at night.
What I suggest is that you look at your current day length and using timers gradually (10 minutes at a time every couple of days) until you’ve increased their day length to maybe an hour at most. That should be plenty. The days will continually get shorter until December so you need to watch that a bit but don’t obsess over it. A few minutes a day won’t matter that much. Then maintain that day length unto the natural light is equivalent in the spring when the days are getting longer. If you stop too soon you might trigger another molt. You don’t want to do that when they are getting ready to hit peak production season. This should not only kick start your pullets into starting to lay but also trigger your older ones to start laying when they finish the molt.
I know this is very long but for such a small flock you have a lot going on. Good luck!