How to Tell If a Hen Is Laying Eggs

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Brown Eggs

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)
The White Leghorn (in front) is more feed efficient than the Buff Orpington (in middle).

Most of these hens were quite productive at the time the photo was taken. Note the large red combs and wattles.

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

 


 

One of my Black Australorps struck a pose for the camera!

Black Australorp hen

 

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.

nesting hen

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.

A pot of winter vegetable stew slow cooking on the wood stove for the day.

Make a pot of soup!

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.

 

How do you tell if your hens are laying? What do you do with them when they stop producing?

 

 

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22 comments on “How to Tell If a Hen Is Laying Eggs

  1. Pingback: Using Our Farm Fresh Eggs - The Self Sufficient HomeAcre

  2. Debbie

    Hello Lisa Lynn,
    I recently started raising chickens (Mar.2015) I have a nice variety I think, 4Leghorns, 2 EE-?, 2Rhode Island Reds, 2 Austalorps, and 2Wyandotte roos. The leghorns started laying at 4mo, the rir 2weeks later, the ee?’s 2weeks after that and then the austalorps. The leghorn eggs are huge, the rir , when they lay, are also very good size. The ee smaller, as the australorps.

    I noticed you had a pic of an australorp. What I wanted to ask is, my australorps seem to be laying mor than one egg a day. At least one of them is. I search their area thoroughly, and i always seem to have 3-4 eggs every day. Their eggs have always been smaller, one is sort of rose colored and the other is a nice cocoa colored brown. My rir eggs started out larger and pretty brown. Is it possible that the rir hens are laying smaller eggs than they started out laying? I only get 3-4nice sized brown eggs a week. Everything I’ve read has indicated that the reds lay really well. Almost as well as the leghorns. Not the case for me. I was hoping.you might have some answers for me. Or advice. Thank you, I love your articles, they are so informative.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Lynn Post author

      Hi Debbie,
      Thanks for reading my articles! So glad to have you here!

      I have found that the best way to find out which hen is laying which egg is to separate them from the rest of the flock for a few days and wait for them to lay an egg. Normally a hen will lay eggs of about the same size, color and shape. When they are young (as yours are), they may have more variation in the size of their eggs, although the color and shape will usually stay similar. Sometimes you’ll have one that will lay double yolk eggs for a while, and although it isn’t common, I have had hens that laid more than one egg in a 24 hour period…but this usually doesn’t last for long. The first few months after she starts laying, a pullet (young hen) is still sort of ‘getting the hang of things’ and her system hasn’t quite settled into a groove. So it is possible that you have hens that are laying smaller or more eggs on occasion. If you don’t have a light on a timer, you may be seeing a decline in productivity due to the reduction in daylight hours with winter coming on. This can also cause a smaller size egg for a few days and then no eggs at all until you have lights on for 14 or 15 hours a day in the coop.

      You don’t mention if all of your pullets are together in one coop and pen or if they are separate. If they are together, you can try separating them to find out what’s going on. It may be difficult if your space is limited. But if you have a large dog crate or cage, you can put each hen in the cage with food, water and clean bedding for 2 or 3 days. This will allow you to find out who is laying which eggs.

      Normally a Rhode Island Red will be one of the best layers in a flock of heritage breeds. But each chicken is an individual and I have had chickens that never laid well, even though they were a breed that should have been very productive. There are no hard and fast rules!

      Reply
  3. Gabriel

    I want to start poultry business for both broiler and layers at the back yard so i want to know what type of feeds i should consider.most important vaccination program hope u will assist me with more information course i want to start very soon.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Lynn Post author

      Hi Gabriel,
      I don’t know if you have pre-mixed feeds in your area. If you do, you would want to feed the broilers a meat producer feed that has around 20-22% protein for quick growth. If you are raising Cornish X broilers, you probably don’t need to vaccinate for diseases unless you have diseases that are common in your area or you have had problems in the past. Layers can be fed a 16 – 18% protein feed with calcium for egg shell development. You may want to consider vacinating for Marecks disease if they will be outside.

      If you have any kind of farm services office in your area, check to see if they can give advice about common diseases and sources for chicken feed.

      I would also advise you to start out small and see how the eggs and meat sell before you purchase large numbers of birds. If you start with a dozen hens and one rooster, will you be able to sell all of the eggs? If you are starting with chicks, it will take 4-6 months before they start to lay eggs. You could purchase a small order of meat birds and see how that first order sells before you start raising a lot. This will also give you a chance to learn about the problems associated with raising chickens before you make a large investment in your chicken business.

      Best wishes!

      Reply
        1. Lisa Lynn

          Hi Tania,
          I usually check to see which hens are laying when I am ready to cull the non-layers. I don’t go by the time of the year so much. If you don’t want to feed them through the winter, you can check to see which ones are laying late in the fall (maybe November for you) and the ones that are not laying may be sold or used as stewing hens.

          I hope this helps…Lisa Lynn

    1. Lisa Lynn Post author

      Hi Irma,
      I have no idea why someone would say that…it is not true. The only reasons that you might need to throw away eggs are: The chickens have been given medications that should not be consumed by people; The eggs were cracked open and contaminated; Embryos have started to develop in the egg (which is more of an ick factor rather than being inedible); or The hens have some sort of disease or parasite that could infect humans.

      When pullets (young female chickens) first start to lay eggs, they will be rather small and sometimes they might not have a yolk or it might be only partially formed. But they are still edible. Sometimes there is a blood spot or meat spot in the egg, but these eggs are still edible, just scoop out the little blood spot if it bothers you. Hens of any age may lay eggs with blood or meat spots.

      I hope this helps. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

      Reply
  4. Anonymous

    Thank you for such an educative program.
    God Bless You.
    What can be done to increase the size of eggs in layer birds?

    Iam Mephebosheth from Uganda.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Lynn Post author

      Thank you for reading, Iam. 🙂 The size of the eggs has to do with their age and breed. Some chickens will never lay large eggs, due to the breed. Young hens will lay smaller eggs and the size will increase with their age. The best thing you can do is make sure they have enough protein, calcium, and clean water to be sure they continue to lay well and the size is up to them. Best wishes!

      Reply
  5. Jeff Bushman

    Great article. I am really liking this blog. Thank You!
    My two girls (Peeka and Boo) are not laying right now. Boo has some bare patches and new feather growth so I think she may be molting, but that strikes me odd because it is still fairly cold out.
    The winter of 2013/2014 was awful but they laid so many eggs I was shocked. In my experience hens slacked off in the winter but not these two. This year? Almost nothing. I bet I haven’t collected two dozen eggs all winter. I’m really starting to think they are older than what I am guessing. I picked them up off Craig’s List 2 years ago.
    I think instead of a stew pot I may let them live out their years as they have been great yard birds and quite friendly.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Lynn Post author

      Thank you very much, Jeff! I’ve often had hens that started molting in the winter. It’s tough on them and I think it takes a little longer for them to come back into production. Give her extra protein if you can, to help with the feather growth.

      It’s tough to tell how old a chicken is when you get them ‘used’…but they were most likely getting a bit old for their original owners. So you probably won’t get very many eggs from them. But two hens don’t eat a lot and if you are attached, there’s no shame in keeping pet chickens! I try not to get attached to my chickens, but I put off butchering even when I know I should get the deed done. Especially with the friendly ones 😉

      Reply
  6. Therese

    On average what age do you end up butchering your hens due to lack of production. Is there a point when the hen is too tough even for soup?

    Reply
    1. Lisa Lynn Post author

      Hi Therese,
      I’m sorry I didn’t see your question sooner. I normally butcher my hens somewhere in the 2-3 year age range. They are tough at that age, but I usually pressure can them in broth and it always comes out tender and delicious.

      Reply
  7. Danielle

    Our girls have been on a continued sabbatical! hahaha..
    The lack of light has been a huge issue as it is at this time of year every year.. We have not supplemented light.
    It is natural for them to stop laying as in nature it wouldn’t be too smart for them to be raising chicks in the middle of winter, BUT we really miss having eggs & the store bought are less than desirable.
    We have come to the mind set this year that we will be providing more light so as egg production for our own personal use may increase.
    We have Wyandottes, a nice dual purpose bird & Marans, considered dual purpose, but clearly smaller then the Wyandottes. I believe they are a better, more consistent layer than the Wyandotte. This is just our experience with them though.
    This is only the second winter for this particular group, depending on egg production next year will determine whether or not they help to fill the freezer/pot/pantry.
    Loved the article! Thank you-Danielle

    Reply
    1. Lisa Lynn Post author

      Hi Danielle,
      I just read somewhere that it doesn’t stress the hens out to have the supplemental light in the winter, so it won’t hurt them any. And you can set the light up anytime and you’ll see eggs soon after. I try to make sure that my birds get extra feed in the winter to help them stay warm and put energy into eggs too.

      You are keeping some of the breeds I’m interested in trying someday! I’d love to have the dark brown eggs. 🙂

      You could keep eggs to incubate from your girls before they go in the freezer…if you have a rooster, that is! Best wishes with your flock 🙂

      Reply

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