Raising Laying Hens

Individuals and families are raising laying hens in larger numbers as he back-to-the-land movement and growing whole food nutrition education coincide with a weak economy. More people are cognisant of the need for self-sufficiency and desire more nutritious foods, making backyard chicken flocks an ideal situation for many reasons.

Raising laying hens in your backyard requires a few things for success:

  • adequate shelter
  • nesting area
  • proper nutrition
  • protection from predators
  • free range or scratch yard

A solidly built chicken coop will provide shelter from the elements for your birds. They may choose to hide in the underbrush in the woods during storms, if you let them free range, but a warm, welcoming coop may prove their best bet depending on the terrain and whether they are able to move at will about the property.

The chicken coop needs a secure, secluded nesting area where they can settle down to lay their eggs. They won’t lay if there are too many distractions or disruptions, so a set of boxes lined with straw and closed off on three sides is ideal. Some flock owners hang fabric across the box openings to make the areas even more private for their happily spoiled hens.

When you are raising laying hens, make sure that the birds have access to grain, either chicken scratch or, preferably, a laying mash mix. Laying mash pellets have extra protein and thus make a better feed choice for the laying hens. You’ll also need to supplement with calcium, usually sold at feed stores as crushed oyster shell. Chickens will also enjoy garden and table scraps — as long as it is vegetarian (a little fish is okay, but never chicken meat).

To protect laying hens from predators, such as foxes, opossums, hawks, raccoons and other havoc-wreaking creatures, keep their pen shut tight at night and check it regularly for entrance areas, loose wire mesh or broken boards. If hawks, dogs or cats threaten them during the day, be sure to look after them while they are free ranging, or build an enclosed pen that allows them sunlight and access to grass without danger from animals looking for a warm chicken dinner.

When raising laying hens, a scratch yard, ideally one that is moved to fresh grass periodically, or the ability to free range, is best for your poultry. They need grass and live bugs to round out their diet, as well as the variety of the outdoors to keep them interested and prevent boredom (which can lead to hen-pecking and fighting).

Your own backyard chicken flock may prove itself a constant source of enjoyment as you learn through trial and error how to care for your poultry while maximizing their production. Keeping a variety of different breeds makes the flock more interesting, colorful and unique.

Why Chickens Quit Laying

When chickens quit laying, it can be frustrating to families and farmers counting on the eggs for food and income. There are a number of different factors that influence laying hens and can disrupt their production or even cause it to cease for a period of time. These variables include:

  • Shorter day length
  • Molting
  • Broodines
  • Age
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Stress

As the days shorten in the summer and fall, egg production typically drops off accordingly. Hens respond to the amount of sunlight to which they are exposed each day. Instead of the 16 hours of light they receive by the end of June, in late December light is confined to a mere eight hours a day. As the days decrease, so does egg production.

Provide additional artificial light to the hens to bring their total lighted hours closer to 14 hours per day, using a low-watt light bulb in their henhouse and a timer to keep the hours consistent.

Molting happens about once a year, generally in the fall, when the hen replaces her old feathers and rejuvenates the organ where eggs are made, the oviduct. Allow this process to occur by eliminating the light protocol for about six weeks in the late fall before resuming light to increase egg production.

A hen that is broody, that is, setting on eggs and trying to hatch them, will cease laying. While Leghorn hens rarely go broody, Barred Rocks and Cochins will much more easily. Some breeds are just more prone to broodiness. The problem with a broody hen is that she stops laying eggs. To cure broodiness in hens, collect eggs daily or even twice-daily, look for hidden nests, and remove broody hens form the nesting area when you catch them there. They will start laying again when they break their broody habit.

Age is another factor that leads to decreased egg production and eventually a cessation in egg-laying altogether. If your chickens quit laying eggs, consider their age. Peak production occurs when the birds are just shy of a year old and then starts to slowly decline. By age 2 to 3, production slows down considerably and may even cease, depending on the chicken and her own health. Once hens have ceased laying completely, they are typically culled from the flock (unless the family wants to keep them as pets).

Because laying hens require a balanced diet to maintain egg production, feed them laying mash rations and oyster shell calcium supplements. Both should be available to the hens at all times. Supplements such as table scraps and scratch mix should be minimum to avoid unbalancing their diet.

Stress on a hen can cause the cessation of egg production. Theses stresses can come from moving the birds. overheating, lack of food or water during the day, thread of predators and other unnoticed factors. Keep hens protected from the elements and predators, well fed and in clean, ventilated coops to encourage consistent egg laying.

Young hens properly fed and cared for will produce quality eggs in quantity for the family and for sale. If your chickens quit laying, look into the factors noted here to find the likely cause and get them laying again.