See also How to Feed Your Hens for Best Egg Production, How to Get More Eggs from Your Laying Hens, and Do Chickens Lay Eggs in Winter?
Are My Hens Laying Eggs?
One of the most common questions from chicken newbies is ‘How can I tell if my hens are laying eggs?’ You might have noticed that there are fewer eggs in the nest boxes and, naturally, you’d like to know who is slacking off!
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Before you start pointing fingers, ask yourself these questions:
- Are my hens getting enough daylight?
- Am I giving my hens clean water and the proper food?
- Are my hens stressed out by predators or changes to their routine?
If your hens are getting 14 hours of bright light a day, proper food and water, and there isn’t anything stressing them out, you may be seeing a decline due to molting or age. When chickens are about 18 to 24 months old, they will go into their first molt and they will repeat this each year. Molting is their body’s way of replacing old and damaged feathers with new ones to keep them warm and dry. During their molt, hens will stop laying eggs for 2 to 4 months and they will need increased protein to grow new feathers. You may choose to feed them through this stage, or you might wish to sell or cull them.
As your hens get older, their egg production will drop off. Also, some individuals and breeds will lay fewer eggs than others.
There are a number of different indicators to look for so you’ll know who is laying and who isn’t. Hens who are laying will have:
- waxy red combs and wattles (some variation will be seen in breeds with small combs)
- large, moist vents
- more space between their pelvic bones to allow eggs to pass through (3 fingers wide)
- abdomens that are large and soft (depends a bit on breed)
- feathers on back are damaged from mating (if you have a rooster)
These signs will help you distinguish between hens that are in production and those that aren’t. But you may want a more trusty method of testing for production. Some of the best ways to know for sure are:
- put each hen in a large cage or separate room and watch for eggs
- rig a door on their nesting box to allow hens in, but not out
- spend a lot of time in the coop, watching to see who visits the nest box
The Fool Proof Method
The most obvious way to tell if hens are laying is to separate them from the rest of the flock and wait a few days. I keep two large dog crates for this purpose. When egg production is down, I put a hen in each crate with food and water for up to three days. If they don’t lay an egg in that time, they aren’t productive enough for me to keep feeding them. You may decide that each hen should be allowed more or less time than that, but keep them in the cage for at least two days.
Although this fool proof method may cause some stress for the hens you are testing, they will still lay the eggs that are nearing completion. I’ve had hens lay for close to a week after a stressful event, but I wouldn’t count on more than 4 or 5 days.
What Hasn’t Always Worked for Me
I’ve culled more hens than I can count, and many times I didn’t want to take the time to put them into cages to test for productivity first. Instead, I relied on the idicators listed earlier. Most of them didn’t have very many eggs in later stages of development when I opened up their abdomens. But, unfortunately, a few were obviously producing very well and had many eggs ‘in the works’ when I dressed them out. So looking at the size of the vent, color of the comb, and width of the hip bones is not an exact science. These indicators will vary between breeds and individuals. So now I try to always use the cage system before culling.
But What if I Don’t Have a Cage?
You really should have some cages on hand for confining injured or sick chickens. (Be sure to disinfect.) If you don’t have any, do you have a separate room, stall, or coop for holding chickens for a few days? Check on Freecycle or Craigslist for free or inexpensive dog crates or other cages. You can also build a small enclosure in your coop from scrap lumber and chicken wire. A garden shed or dog house (minus the dog) with a run may also do in a pinch.
Using ‘Trap Nest Boxes’
I’ve never tried using nest boxes with a door that allows a hen to enter, but then traps her in the nest box. If your hens are like mine, they will lay eggs everywhere except the nest box! But if you wanted to try it, I’m sure they could be set up fairly inexpensively. Once in place, you could go about your business and come back every so often to pull out a trapped hen. Make sure she laid an egg, then mark her so you know that she is laying. You could even keep track of how many eggs each hen is laying by marking their legs with a permanent marker for each egg laid in a week.
If you use this method, be sure to check the nest boxes often so that hens aren’t in danger of dehydration or tempted into eating their eggs. This might also be a good way to find out who is eating eggs in your flock if you are having problems.
What Should I Do With Unproductive Hens?
Now that you know which hens are laying, what should you do with the ones that aren’t?
If there are no other reasons for poor production and your hens are just getting old, you will have to decide whether to keep them into retirement, cull them for stewing, or sell or give them away. Be sure to let new owners know how old they are and that they aren’t laying many eggs. Also, don’t take your hens out into the country and dump them on the side of the road. They will most likely be eaten by predators and it is better to end their lives quickly with an ax than to make them suffer needlessly.
If you can’t bear the thought of killing your old hens, you can put them into a separate coop and allow them to free range for more of their feed so that their retirement doesn’t cost as much. It is best to know ahead of time how you will deal with the eventual decline in egg production of your flock. I choose to turn my old laying hens into chicken soup to feed my family.