The number one question posed by Chicken Owners is of course - 'When will my hen begin to lay?'. It's a great question that we have gone to great lengths to develop methods that help us determine this. Many Chicken Owners are anxious to know when their hens will start laying so that is what we will go through in this article; the many tips and tricks we have created to help us soothe our anticipation!
Typically, once a hen has reached 18 weeks old it can be referred to as 'Point of Lay' but this does not necessarily mean that she will lay soon - which I found out the hard way! While hens can lay at 18 weeks the typical average is 6-7 months but this can be earlier for a hybrid or much later for a pure breed. I have had a Black Star hen lay at 20 weeks and an Appenzeller Spitzhauben that took 52 weeks to lay! The wide range of normal goes from about 18 weeks to 12 months. Every hen is different, even within breeds so it is important to take this into account when you are looking for signs. The same breed of hens that are the same age in the same conditions can still take greatly varying time to lay!
My Black Star
HOW CAN I HELP THEM ALONG?
Apart from age, many other factors determine when you chickens will lay : Hormones, Breed, Stress, Diet, Overall Health, Weather and Lighting Conditions all play a role.
As I noted earlier, the hen's breed will often dictate how soon she will lay. Hybrids such as Golden Comets, Black and Red Stars lay more eggs per year than Pure Breeds and as a result begin laying earlier because that is what they have been bred to do. Fancier Pure Breeds such as Polish, Silkies and Araucanas take longer to lay because they are not bred to be egg layers, their purpose is usually ornamental.
If a hen becomes stressed her body will postpone laying an egg until she feels safe (unless she already has one developing in which case she will lay that egg and then stop laying). In the wild this was a useful adaption to prevent a hen from raising chicks in a potentially dangerous environment. Eg - during a food shortage or after a predator attack. This is why if you purchase a hen that is already laying, the change in scenery may make them take a few weeks to resume laying again. This is also why egg production can reduce after a predator attack.
If you want to help reduce stressful factors, you can limit activity around the coop in the morning when they are most likely to lay and schedule coop cleaning chores until later in the afternoon. Also make sure that their coop is clean, spacious, predator free and pest free and that they have enough space to lay - a general rule of thumb is that a chickens need one nesting box per four laying hens. They may choose to share a nesting box, but don't force them to as it could easily cause disputes. Curtains around the nesting box may also help them to feel more secure in their environment. You may also find that even if you have multiple nesting boxes available, certain hens favour particular nesting boxes.
A beautiful curtained nesting box, photo courtesy of Peastix
Another important factor is food. After hens are 18 weeks old, they need to be eating layer's pellets for the extra calcium content. Like all animals, they also need access to clean water - eggs are 75% water so without out it, hens are physically unable to produce eggs. It is also a good idea to give your layers supplementary calcium such as crushed oyster shells. This should only be available to hens over 18 weeks and served in a separate container so the hens can decide how much to eat.
SIGNS OF READINESS
There are many signs that your pullets are close to laying:
Firstly, their combs and wattles will grow and become plump, bright red and shiny - they should not be wrinkly or pale. However this isn't the most reliable method of determining readiness because sometimes they look red and shiny one moment and pale the next due to exertion or excitement.
Secondly, the method I find most reliable is squatting. I think it is the best indicator that a Pullet is close to laying - usually an egg can be expected within 1-2 weeks of their first squat. This is because a hen performs the submissive squat to provide a stable platform for the rooster during mating - it's reliable because if the hen can't produce eggs to be fertilised then there is no reason to squat! She does this by spreading her wings out, crouching down and lowering her tail as shown in the photo below. You can see if your Pullet will squat by simply stroking their back.
They will also begin to explore the nesting box by walking in and out, rearranging the bedding material and practicing sitting in them when they are near laying.
You can also look at the width between a hen's pelvic/pubic bones to determine how close they are to laying. If you can fit two or more fingers between them then your hen's pelvic bones are wide enough to pass an egg. This varies as an indicator based on the breed and what size egg they will lay: for example - Leghorns will have a larger gap in between their pelvic bones than Polish Hens because they lay larger eggs. Where to look is shown in the diagrams I drew below:
SHE LAID AN EGG!
If your hen finally lays you an egg then you should celebrate! Every single egg is special. The first egg a pullet lays will be small and will gradually increase in size as she ages. It also may not be in the nesting box the first time but don't worry! She will get the hang of it especially if you have other laying hens that she can learn from or fake eggs/golf balls on the nesting box. For the first few weeks you may receive some malformed eggs but yet again this is completely normal. It takes a while for your pullets' reproductive organs to work out any kinks so you may find a shelless egg, a double yolker or another unusual egg initially.
Double Yolker. It was delicious!
A beautiful first egg!