Saturday August 30, 2008 8:59 PM Article taken from www.backyardpoultrymag.com What's Wrong with My Layers? By Gail Damerow Reproductive issues can develop at any time from the moment a pullet starts laying until she becomes an old hen and decides to retire from egg production. Whether or not these issues are age related, many of them may be avoided through proper layer management. A pullet that starts laying at too young an age, that is too fat or unhealthy when she comes into production, or that lays unusually large eggs may experience egg binding or prolapse. You can avoid many reproductive problems in your layers by preventing your pullets from maturing too fast. Photos by Gail Damerow Egg binding occurs when a too-large egg gets stuck just inside the vent. To dislodge the egg, lubricate a finger with mineral oil or KY Jelly and insert it into the vent. With your other hand, push gently against the hen's abdomen and try to work the egg toward the vent. If you can see the egg but can't get it out, puncture the shell and remove the egg in pieces (taking care not to injure the hen with a sharp shard). Rinse away remaining egg bits with hydrogen peroxide in a squirt bottle. If any tissue protrudes through the vent, treat the pullet as you would for prolapse. Prolapse (also called blowout or pickout) occurs when, in laying an egg, a pullet pushes some of the pink tissue from inside the vent to the outside of the vent. If you catch prolapse in time, you may be able to reverse the situation by applying a hemorrhoidal cream such as Preparation H and isolating the pullet until she heals. Unless you catch it right away, the exposed tissue will attract other birds to pick, and the pullet will eventually die from hemorrhage and shock. Prolapse may be largely avoided by ensuring your pullets don't start laying too young; a pullet that starts laying before her body is ready is more likely to prolapse. Under natural circumstances, pullets mature during the season of decreasing day length. If you raise pullets in the off-season, the increasing day length that normally triggers reproduction will speed up their sexual maturity-the age at which they begin laying, the number of eggs they lay, and the size of their eggs-more so the closer they get to laying age. Pullets should be kept either on a constant 8- to l0-hour day or in decreasing light. Pullets hatched from April through July may be raised under natural light. Those hatched from August through March need controlled lighting to delay maturity. Consult an almanac to determine how long the sun will be up on days occurring 24 weeks from the date of hatch. Add six hours to that day length and start your pullet chicks under that amount of light, natural and artificial combined. Reduce the total lighting 15 minutes each week, bringing your pullets to a 14-hour day by the time they start to lay. When they reach 24 weeks of age, add 30 minutes per week for two weeks to increase total day length to 15 hours. A shell may get wrinkled if for some reason it cracks before the hardening process is complete. Floor eggs, or eggs laid on the floor rather than in nests, are likely to occur in a flock of pullets just starting to lay. Floor eggs get dirty or cracked, making them unsafe to eat. A cracked egg is easily broken, encouraging birds to sample the contents, develop a taste for eggs, and thereafter become egg eaters. To minimize floor eggs, prepare nests early so your pullets have time to get used to them before they start laying. Place the nests low to the ground until most of the pullets are using them, then raise the nests up 18 to 20 inches (or have two sets of nests and close off the lower ones) to discourage the birds from entering nests for reasons other than to lay. If pullets continue laying on the floor, perhaps you have too few nests; provide at least one for every four layers. Or perhaps the nests get too much light, causing pullets to seek out darker corners for laying. Since the primary purpose of laying eggs is to produce chicks, layers have a deep-seated instinct to deposit their eggs in dark, protected places. A nest that is properly designed and located offers just such a place. A nest egg, or fake egg, left in each nest shows a pullet the proper place to lay. When she sees an egg already in the nest, she says to herself, "Ah-ha, this must be a safe place for my own egg." Old golf balls make good nest eggs. You can find toy eggs in stores around Easter time; wooden eggs, available year-round at hobby shops, are better than air-filled plastic eggs because they won't as readily be bounced out of the nest. And by the way, it's an old wives' tale that nest eggs make hens lay more eggs. By encouraging a hen to lay in a nest, rather than hide her eggs elsewhere, the nest egg lets you find more of the eggs she does lay. Egg Problems An occasional misshapen egg is no cause for concern, but a hen that typically lays odd-shaped eggs will pass the trait on to her progeny. Bloody shells sometimes appear when pullets start laying before their bodies are ready, causing tissue to tear. Other reasons for blood on shells include excess protein in the lay ration and coccidiosis, a disease that causes intestinal bleeding. Cocci does not often infect mature birds, but if it does you'll likely find bloody droppings as well as bloody shells. Chalky or glassy shells occasionally appear due to a malfunction of the hen's shell-making process. Such an egg is less porous than a normal egg and will not hatch, but is perfectly safe to eat. Odd-shaped or wrinkled eggs may be laid if a hen has been handled roughly or if for some reason her ovary releases two yolks within a few hours of each other, causing them to move through the oviduct close together. The second egg will have a thin, wrinkled shell that's flat toward the pointed end. If it bumps against the first egg, the shell may crack and mend back together before the egg is laid, causing a wrinkle. Weird-looking eggs may be laid by old hens or by maturing pullets that have been vaccinated for a respiratory disease. They may also result from a disease itself, such as infectious bronchitis. Occasional variations in shape, which can be seasonal, are normal. Since egg shape is inherited, expect to see family similarities. If you do your own hatching, select hatching eggs only of normal shape and size. Thin shells may cover a pullet's first few eggs or the eggs of a hen that's getting on in age. In a pullet, thin shells occur because the pullet isn't yet fully geared up for egg production. In an old biddy, the same amount of shell material that once covered a small egg must now cover the larger egg laid by the older hen, stretching the shell into a thinner layer. This flat-sided turkey egg appeared after the hen crash landed off the barn roof. Shells are generally thicker and stronger in winter but thinner in warm weather, when hens pant. Panting cools a bird by evaporating body water, which in turn reduces carbon dioxide in the body, upsetting the bird's pH balance and causing a reduction in calcium mobilization. The result is eggs that are thin-shelled. Thin shells also may be due to a hereditary defect, imbalanced rations (too little calcium or too much phosphorus), or some diseasethe most likely culprit being infectious bronchitis. Soft or missing shells occur when a hen's shell-forming mechanism malfunctions or for some reason one of her eggs is rushed through and laid prematurely. Since the shell forms just before an egg is laid, stress induced by fright or excitement can cause a hen to expel an egg before the shell is finished. A nutritional deficiency, especially of vitamin D or calcium, can cause soft shells. A laying hen's calcium needs are increased by age and by warm weather (when hens eat less and therefore get less calcium from their rations). Appropriate nutritional supplements include free-choice limestone or ground oyster shell, and vitamin AD&E powder added to drinking water three times a week. Soft shells that are laid when production peaks in spring, and the occasional soft or missing shell, are nothing to worry about. If they persist, however, they may be a sign of serious disease, especially infectious bronchitis, Newcastle disease or infectious laryngotracheitis, all of which are accompanied by a drop in production. Broken shells often result when a thin or soft shell becomes damaged after the egg is laid. Even sound eggs may get broken in a nest that's so low to the ground the chickens are attracted to scratch or peck in them. Hens and cocks may deliberately break and eat eggs if they are bored or inadequately fed. Boredom may result from crowding or from rations that allow chickens to satisfy their nutritional needs too quickly, leaving them with nothing to do. A chalky egg (right) occasionally appears as a quality control glitch in a hen's reproductive system. If your coop is small and well lighted, discourage non-laying activity in nests by hanging curtains in front to darken them. To allay a hen's suspicions about entering a curtained nest, either cut each curtain into hanging strips or temporarily pin up one corner until the hens get used to the curtains. Hens may break eggs inadvertently. Such accidents commonly occur if nests contain insufficient litter, eggs are collected infrequently enough to pile up in nests, or nests are so few that two or more hens crowd into the same nest at the same time. Sometimes timid birds seek refuge by hiding in nests, and their activities may break previously laid eggs. Reduced Egg Production Too few eggs being laid can result from so many different causes you practically have to be Sherlock Holmes to determine the reason. For starters, you may be raising the wrong hens. Although production varies among individuals, strains, and breeds, if you want lots of eggs you need a flock of hens that have been developed for egg production. Even if you have a breed specifically developed for high egg production, you'll get few eggs if your hens are old. Most hens lay best during their first year, although a really good layer should do well for two years or more. As hens age, they generally tend to get fatespecially when fed too much grain by well-meaning keeperswhich significantly impairs their ability to lay. During the molt, laying strains slow down in production and some breeds stop laying. Low production as a result of an out-of-season molt is a sure sign of stress. Stress itself, with or without an accompanying molt, can cause hens to slow down or stop laying. Common stress situations are listed in the accompanying table. You may get too few eggs if one of your hens hides her eggs where you can't find them or if she lays her eggs and then turns around and eats them. Egg eating, a form of cannibalism, is a management problem that usually starts when an egg gets broken in the nest. Once chickens find out how good eggs taste, they break them on purpose to eat them. Despite plenty of folk remedies for curing egg eaters, the only sure way to stop them and keep the habit from spreading is to identify and remove the culprit early. Unless you catch the egg eater in the act, literally look for the chicken with egg on its face. An egg eater won't necessarily come from within your flock, but may be a wily predator (see "Poultry Predator Identification: The First Step To Deterrence" in the August/September 2007 issue of Backyard Poultry). Improper nutrition can cause a drop in production. Hens may get too little feed or may be fed rations containing too little carbohydrate, protein, or calcium. Imbalanced rations often result from feeding hens too much scratch and from failure to offer a free-choice calcium supplement when the diet includes grain or pasture. Low temperatures increase a chicken's requirement for carbohydrates, and unless rations are adjusted accordingly, low production may result. Dehydration due to lack of water for even a few hours can cause hens to stop laying for days or weeks. A hen drinks a little at a time, but often during the day. Her body contains more than 50 percent water, and an egg is 65 percent water. A hen therefore needs access to fresh drinking water at all times for her body to function properly. If she is deprived of water for 24 hours, she may take another 24 hours to recover. Deprived of water for 36 hours, she may go into a molt followed by a long period of poor laying from which she may never recover. Pullets and hens may suffer water deprivation if the water quality is poor or they simply don't like how it tastesa good reason not to medicate water during hot weather. In winter you may provide plenty of water, but if it freezes, egg production will drop. In summer, deprivation occurs when water needs go up but the supply remains constant. A non-layer will drink one to two cups of water each day. A layer drinks twice as much, and in warm weather may drink up to four times more than usual. During the summer, put out extra waterers and keep them in the shade, and/or frequently bring your hens fresh, cool water. They will thank you by continuing to lay those wonderful eggs you prize them for. Disease and Egg Laying If you can find no other cause for a drop in production, consider the possibility your hens are coming down with a disease. Reduced egg production is often the first general sign of disease, soon accompanied by depression, listlessness, loss of appetite, and weight loss. Diseases that affect egg production, and their characteristic symptoms, include: Campylobacteriosis shrunken combs, possibly diarrhea containing blood or mucus, sudden deaths; sometimes the only sign is a 35 percent drop in production. Chronic respiratory disease coughing, gurgling, swollen face, frothy eyes, sometimes yellowish droppings. Infectious bronchitis coughing; gasping; eggs with soft, thin, misshapen, rough, or ridged shells and watery whites; sharp drop in laying to nearly nothing. Infectious coryza watery eyes, swollen face, foul smelling nasal discharge, sometimes diarrhea. Infectious laryngotracheitis watery inflamed eyes, swollen sinuses, nasal discharge. Lymphoid leukosis no visible symptoms (internal tumors). Mild Newcastle disease slight wheezing; eggs with soft, round, or deformed shells; temporary drop in production. Paratyphoid no symptoms other than a drop in production (signs of septicemia include purplish heads and sudden deaths). Salpingitis (oviduct infection caused by E. coli) u pright penguinlike posture, failure to lay, death. Tuberculosis gradual weight loss, prominent keel, pale combs, and persistent watery diarrhea in hens two years of age and up. Visceral gout depression, desire to hide, darkened head and shanks, white pasty diarrhea, drastic drop in production soon followed by death.