Egg Production - problems and solutions

My main egg production bird, the Black Australorp.

If you raise chickens, egg production could be your primary goal. Unfortunately, chickens have times when their egg laying ability diminishes, sometimes a little and sometime seemingly altogether.

Don't worry, there are ways you can get your girls back into production.

Let's look at the issues surrounding why the production of eggs slows or stops, and what can be done about it. There are many reasons, so let me address those that are most common. Some of these might be "no-brainers" but I want to address them nonetheless, just to be thorough.

Before we start, keep in mind that when egg production falls off, it's generally a symptom of a common cause. In other words, whatever is causing a reduction in output is affecting most if not all of your flock. Chances are that it's not a wide range of problems -- a different one affecting a different bird in your flock -- but it is possible that more more than one issue can broadly affect egg output. So, look for issues that are common across your entire squad of egg layers.

Let's examine why egg production diminishes.

Here's your chance to be an investigator. Let's see if we can sort this out.

Pullets and Cockerels

When you buy chickens as day-old chicks, be sure you've purchased pullets -- young females -- as these will mature into egg-laying hens. If you purchase cockerels, these are male birds and they don't lay eggs. When mature, they become roosters. While they can fertilize a female bird to provide you with fertile eggs for hatching, they are not capable of laying eggs.

No rooster, no problem. Hens don't need a rooster to lay eggs, so don't worry if you only have a flock of hens...they'll lay eggs even if they have no idea what a rooster is. Their biological internals are geared towards egg production.

If you suspect that your egg production problems are associated with having all or mostly male birds, it's usually easy to identify them because they're more showy than the females, they crow, they're aggressive, you won't find them spending time inside a nest box, and they'll be the ones mounting your hens, trying to mate (assuming you have females in your flock).

Roosters on the left and a buff colored hen.hen

Photo left shows two roosters of the same breed and a hen from another breed. Notice how large the combs and waddles are on the roosters. Also, notice they have showy, long, arched tail feathers too. Roosters also have a large spur on their legs that look like spikes. These are for fighting.

Such differences become more noticeable as the birds mature.

Breed Influences Egg Production

Much of your egg production will be determined by the breed of chicken. Some breeds are good egg layers, but not great. I like Buff Sex Links and Black Australorps for egg layers. The Sex Links lay a large eggs and do very well in cold weather. The Australorp lays large and extra large eggs, and do very well in cold weather too. They also hold the record for the most number of eggs in one year...364 eggs in 365 days. Their cousin, the Buff Orpington is also a good and strong egg layer.

If you start with an average (or unknown) egg laying bird, don't expect great shakes. Research the type of chicken so you know you're getting a bird with a reputation for high egg production.

All good egg production chickens; Black Australorp, Buff Orpington, Buff Sex Links, and Barred Rock hens.

The photo above shows good laying hens, from left to right: Black Australorp, Buff Orpington, two Buff Sex Links, and two Barred Rocks.

Give Them Time to Mature

Egg production isn't something that happens right away. Just as with humans, a female has to reach a certain maturity before she can have offspring of her own. If you get your pullets as chicks, expect egg production no sooner than five months from when you bring them home, more likely six months.

Pullets too young for egg production...they need to be 5 to 6 months old before they start laying eggs.

The girls at left are immature...they have no combs or waddles to speak of. Don't expect eggs from these gals. Compare with the laying hens shown above, and you can see clear differences in their level of maturity.

Be patient and you'll be rewarded. You can't encourage, cajole or intimidate eggs out of your hens, and you certainly can't squeeze them out either. Take good care of them and they'll provide you with nice eggs when they're ready.

Make good use of this waiting time to prepare them for superior egg production. If you give them good food and good care, they'll give you eggs in good time.

Good and Ample Food Supports Egg Production

When chickens run low on food (or have less than optimal nutrition) their egg production will suffer. The quality of eggs is reduced as well. Even when you pick back up on rations, expect it to take about a week before egg laying improves. You're dealing with an animal that naturally responds to the availability and quality of food. They're not like a switch that can be turned off or on.

Good quality eggs is just as important as good egg production.

Photo above shows four eggs, the two above are from my young birds, just starting to lay. The two below are each from the grocery store, representing two different brands of cage free eggs. Look for the rich, dark egg yolks and that will show you which chickens have had superior natural feed. Good and ample food results in higher egg production and better quality eggs.

If you free range your chickens, expect lower egg production unless you have excellent grass and other vegetation and organic matter for them to eat. If your chicken yard is mostly bare, you'll need to supplement their feed for optimum nutrition. I find that my flock loves garden vegetables, especially green leafy crops. As long as such food is readily available, they'll have little interest in and use for commercial feed.

Water is Key

It may seem obvious, but water is key to just about everything, including making and laying eggs. Since almost everything about chickens and their eggs involves water, make sure your flock has plenty of clean and fresh water available all the time. If your flock goes without water, expect your source of eggs to dry up as well.

What came first, the chicken or the egg? Neither, what came first was water.

Winter Woes

When it gets cold and dark, chickens slow down their egg production. This is very common. The key to egg production is light. It's the shorter days that cut down on egg production much more than cold weather. If you think about it, commercial egg production is done in large buildings that can be lighted for most of the day, so the number of eggs isn't dependent on the length of the day so much as other factors such as breed, food supply and general health of the chicken.

You can see below that despite a healthy pile of snow at the entrances to the nesting boxes, my birds are still cranking out the eggs.

Evidence that egg production continues, even in the winter.

I believe that chickens can be somewhat adversely affected by colder temperatures, but I think it has more to do with lower activity levels in colder weather. Lower activity require less food consumption, and that in turn reduces their ability to lay eggs. If you were going to lay eggs, hatch them, and raise a family of vulnerable chicks, would you be encouraged or discouraged by cold weather?

General Health, Comfort and Protection

My experience shows that chickens are either healthy or they're unhealthy. I've never had sick chickens, at least not to speak of, but it can happen. As one might expect, a sick bird won't eat as well, won't feel as well, and she won't give you optimum production of eggs either. Get your chickens back to good health, and their production of eggs will rise accordingly.

Also, if your hens experience some change in the environment that affects their comfort or security, it may delay egg laying until they "get back in the groove." Usually, this won't take more than a few days.

Adequate protection from wind, rain, sun, predators and other harsh elements has an effect on egg production as it supports overall comfort. Allow your girls to focus on cranking out eggs instead of trying to survive and be comfortable, and you'll promote better egg production.

In the summer, exceptionally high temperatures as well as high humidity can reduce egg production. In moderate climates this usually isn't a problem. Look for when your birds are panting and lifting up their wings, this is a sure sign that they're too warm and need a cooler environment to maintain comfort.

Hide and Go Seek

If chickens are allowed to run loose, they'll lay eggs in places other than the nest boxes. Check around to see if they're finding spots to lay eggs, thus leading you to believe their production has diminished. When I say that chickens will lay eggs anywhere, I mean literally ANYWHERE they can. You'll even find them in places you'd never imagine, so look carefully.

The photo below shows my neighbor helping me take out a thick and nasty row of juniper bushes from my front yard. What a mess that was, and what a bunch of eggs we found deep inside the bushes. The snarled mass of junipers seemed impenetrable, but not for my free ranging chickens...a couple of spots under the bushes were their favorites. And to think that I had previously wondered why I wasn't getting my fair share of eggs.

A problem with egg production turned out to be my chickens hiding eggs around the house instead of laying them in the nest boxes.

Once your flock finds a good spot to lay, many others in the flock will follow suit. So, don't be surprised if you find a large clutch of eggs somewhere unexpected. The hens know where the secret egg depository is, even if you don't. Look high and low, and inside of things as well. If there's room to squat and drop, they'll do it.

Three Strikes and You're Out

Don't count on much in terms of egg production in year three of a hen's life.

Older chickens don't lay well. If these birds are on their third full year, then they need to be replaced, as egg production is optimal for only the first two years. After that, you'll have poor production even in the summer.

So, after two years, your laying hens ought to become pets or placed in the stew pot because they're not going to give you good return on the investment you'll make in feed.

There is nothing wrong with butchering your chickens when they start to poop out in laying eggs. Just consider it part of their you food primarily in the form of eggs, and in the end, they provide you with meat for soup and stew. It's probably better to use them in the pot as older chickens tend to be stringy and won't be nearly as appealing on the grill or in the oven.

Egg Binding

Once I had a hen that was clearly uncomfortable and not doing well at all. I terminated her uncomfortable life and performed a rudimentary autopsy. What I found was her insides were bound up by something that looked like a giant yolk the size of a softball. Apparently her egg-making internals were messed up from birth and it led to her making one giant egg, instead of hundreds of smaller ones. She was never was able to pass the egg, and it never formed a shell either. It just kept growing and it would have killed her eventually.

Traditionally, egg binding takes the form of a single completely formed egg getting bound up inside the egg duct. This halts production of eggs and can easily lead to death of the chicken if not addressed. So, egg binding isn't a problem for your flock so much as it's a health risk to perhaps one member of your flock. Except for the giant yolk issue in one of my hens, my chickens have never had an episode of egg binding.

What's Your Diagnosis?

So, there you have a good list of many of the problems that can lead to diminished egg production in your laying flock. Look for issues that are common and persistent across your flock. If you focus on breed, light, food, water and age of your birds, you'll be much more likely to determine the cause.

Done with Egg Production, take me back Backyard Chickens

Treat your gals right and you'll get your fair share of eggs. The key is good food, light, water, a productive breed, and a young flock.

Here are some products that might help you keep your girls comfortable, and otherwise support your egg-cellent adventure in cackle berry production.






If your girls don't know where to lay, sometimes it helps to give them a suggestion by simulating a nest of eggs.