From shorter day lengths to nutritional deficiencies—or serious health issues—there are many reasons hens stop laying. Understanding why your flock has gone on strike is critically important—especially if you hope to get things back on track.
Whether they’re wild bluebirds or your favorite buff Orpingtons, light triggers specific responses in all birds.
“As the day length gets shorter, they think it’s time to start getting ready for winter and migrate,” says Darrin M. Karcher, an associate professor and extension poultry scientist at Purdue University. “[Chickens] are going to shed some weight by no longer producing eggs. The reproductive tract regresses and becomes very small.”
They’ll also lose old feathers and grow new ones. As fall turns to winter and winter to spring, the hens, now exposed to more daylight, begin to lay again. Rather not go eggless? You can stimulate egg production with artificial lighting.
“Maintain about 16 hours of daylight for laying hens every day,” Karcher says. “That doesn’t mean you have to have a light on for 16 hours. It just means that, between artificial light and Mother Nature, you need to add up to 16 hours of light.”
You can put your light on a timer that comes on early in the morning, shuts off during the daytime, and comes on again in early evening. Just make sure the duration of daily light is consistently 16 hours.
(A malfunctioning timer can cause enough disruption to send some hens out of production.)
Eat This, Not That
Recent changes in your hens’ diet can also halt egg production. Did you switch to a new feed? Have you been offering too many treats?
“You may inadvertently be changing what they’re consuming, so they’re not getting a balanced diet anymore,” Karcher says.
Be consistent with the type and amount of food you provide. You might also want to supplement their protein occasionally.
Eggs contain lots of water, and, without fresh water, your hens won’t have what they need in order to lay. During warm weather, algae can bloom in poorly maintained waterers. In winter, water supplies can freeze.
To keep yourself in eggs, make sure your waterers are clean, full and flowing.
Hens with external parasites like lice or fowl mites can also stop laying. To check for these pests, you need to examine your hen’s hindquarters.
“You would invert the bird, look at the cloaca, and, if you have lice, you’d see them on the skin,” Karcher says. “There would be small white nits at the base of the tail feathers and surrounding the cloaca.”
As for fowl mites? “You’d see what appears to be dirt on the feathers, and, if you pull a feather and look really closely, you’ll see all that ‘dirt’ is moving,” he continues. “Those are northern fowl mites.”
In the case of ectoparasites, prevention’s worth a pound of cure. Keeping your chicken’s run, roosting areas and nest boxes clean and dry is paramount. But, if you discover lice or fowl mites, there are organic and chemical treatments you can apply.
Some creepy-crawlies aren’t as obvious. Gastrointestinal issues like necrotic enteritis—an irritation of the gut lining—and tapeworms, roundworms and other internal parasites, can also hinder egg-laying.
If your chickens’ litter is especially wet or if their droppings look runny or bloody, they may be hosting some of these parasites.
As with ectoparasites, various organic and chemical treatments are available. If you use a chemical de-wormer, you’ll want to deep clean the coop and replace all of the hens’ litter.
“We’re essentially paralyzing the worms,” Karcher explains. “It doesn’t kill them, so it doesn’t do us any good to worm our birds, have all of those worms go into the litter, and then have the chickens reinfect themselves as they pick through the litter later.”
The Spooky Coop
If you noticed some soft-shelled eggs leading up to the cessation of laying, you might have a peeping predator.
“Your coop could be predator-proof from the standpoint that nothing can get in, but can something come up to a window and spook them?” Karcher asks. “What can happen is, if predators startle those birds, the birds may quickly pass the eggs through the shell gland, and you won’t get a complete shell.”
Stressed-out hens eventually may stop laying altogether.
Hens that are 2 years old and younger should lay reliably, but egg production naturally slows in older hens. You can choose to replace your birds every couple of years or enjoy them as pets—whether they’re laying or not.