Most flock owners keep hens as either pets, or for their eggs, the latter being the highest priority. Often flock owners ask why their hens are not laying, not laying often, or stopped laying completely. There are a number things that affect a hen’s ability to lay eggs, such as her age, genetics and breed make up, feed and nutrition demands, stress and comfort, and daylight hours. In the best egg laying breeds, a hen in her prime productive period will lay around 90%, or near daily, only taking a day "off" now and then. The conditions need to be right for her to be able to do so though. I have discussed the reasons hens do not lay in this article. Now let's look now at what you can do to get the most out of your layers.
Pic by @RobG7aChattTN
Breeds and Genetics
There are a lot of different chicken breeds, each with their own unique make up of good characteristics. Some are excellent layers, some are better for meat production, some are "dual purpose", others are lawn ornaments that lay the odd egg and are kept mainly as pets or for exhibition purposes. If you wish to start a flock with good egg production as the goal, it's recommended that you carefully research the different breeds' characteristics and egg laying abilities before buying any hens. Once you have an established flock and are permitted to keep a rooster, you may hatch your own eggs and then breed selectively for better egg production. Raising your own replacements will also allow you to breed for the best disease resistance and overall health of your flock. Raising your own may not work for everyone, but if you have the time and space and of course a rooster, you may find it a great option. Remember though that hatches will produce a percentage of roosters, who will need to be rehomed, or processed for the table, if you feel you can or want to do so. Many people, myself included, find it hard to eat our flock members.
A hen’s egg production is at its peak from approximately 6 to 18 months of age, though some breeds start sooner and some may start laying actively later. Somewhere around the age of 18 months to 2 years, most chickens will start molting and lose a lot of feathers, before growing new ones. During this period, which lasts a few weeks, a hen will lay few eggs, if at all. Once she gets back into production she may lay fewer, larger eggs and after each subsequent year, hens will lay fewer and fewer eggs. For this reason commercial egg producing farms and factory farms replace their hens once they have passed their prime egg laying age. Flock owners are generally more laid back and keep their hens for longer periods, some until they pass on from old age, which can be at more than 10 years!
Many homesteaders choose to cull and make stock of their older hens instead. It is a personal choice and either option is good.
For help choosing breeds for egg production and other characteristics see here:
Pic by @Kluk-Kluk
Feeding the laying flock
In order to produce good quality eggs on a regular basis, layers need a good quality layer feed to give them the necessary nutrients and calories and equally, if not more importantly, access to clean, fresh drinking water all day. Free ranging or pastured hens will find a lot of their nutritional requirements by foraging for food, but they will still need layer feed to keep them in top production. Free ranging hens generally produce a nicer quality egg than cooped up or battery hens, but it is important to make sure they get what they need, in addition to what they find themselves.
Many of us like spoiling our hens a bit with treats such as table scraps and scratch grains. This is fine, if fed in moderation and should at maximum not make up more than 10% of the hen's daily food intake. Too many treats will reduce the nutrients the hens need for body maintenance and egg production and can also make them fat. Fat hens cannot lay well and it is unhealthy for them too.
For more on feeding chickens see here:
Daylight and egg laying
Chickens naturally lay more eggs during the spring and summer when the days are long. Their instincts tell them that this is the best time to raise their young. You can encourage them to lay eggs year round by setting up a light on a timer in their coop, extending their light hours to around 14 hours daily. Some flock owners feel that hens should get a break over the winter months and lay naturally and when they feel like it.
Some breeds and younger hens, in their prime, are more likely to produce well in climates with cold winters and very short day, so again do research and choose breeds according to your climate and conditions. Make sure you collect eggs several times a day during very cold weather, or they may freeze and crack in the nest boxes.
The hens' wellbeing
Healthy, happy hens who have what they need and feel comfortable in their environment will reward us with eggs. Stressed, unhealthy, or parasite laden hens will not and cannot produce eggs at an optimum. If there are things stressing them, like kids or dogs bothering and chasing them, constant changes in the coop, etc, they will feel it's unsafe to produce eggs and raise young, which is why hens lay, for reproduction. Many flock owners found that after a traumatic, or stressful event such as a predator attack, or a move to a new home or coop, their hens will cease production, sometimes for weeks. What hens want is a safe, comfortable, dry area (the coop), with a designated area designed for them to lay eggs in (nest boxes), as well as shelter from adverse weather conditions and possible predators. Make sure the coop is spacious enough for the number of hens you are housing (at least 4 sq feet per hen, more if possible) and that they have adequate space to roam outside. If not allowed to free range, provide at least 12 sq feet of space per hen in the run, more if possible. More is always, always better when it comes to space and chickens. Also make sure you have a nest box for every 3-4 hens, though you may find that they'll pick a "favourite" box to lay in and ignore the others.
Unhealthy or parasite laden hens cannot produce good quality eggs at a regular basis. It is important to do regular checks on your hens, make sure they are treated as a preventive for intestinal worms, mites and lice, etc. Spend a bit of time regularly observing the flock and take note of any usual behaviour, changes in their appearance etc. As you get more familiar with your flock, even small changes will become more noticeable in time and enable you to catch and take care of any illnesses, or issues as early as possible.