By KELLY KLOBER
After which came first, the chicken or the egg, the second most frequently asked poultry question may be, “Why aren’t my chickens laying more, better or any eggs at all?”
A chicken, properly fed and housed, will generally lay her first egg at between 20 and 26 weeks of age depending upon her variety, the breeding for egg production behind her, and the season of the year in which she was started. She should then produce eggs for the next 9 to 13 months.
For the first 30 days of her laying cycle the female may produce a number of smaller, “pullet” eggs. To definition, a female chicken is to be considered a pullet until she is 12 months old.
The chicken’s first laying cycle is the most productive and more eggs are produced in the first half of any laying cycle that in the second half. In the second half of the laying cycle the egg output will be more irregular and some differences in size and shell color may be noted.
With each following laying cycle a reduction of 1 percent to 15 percent per bird can be expected. There will also be a similar reduction in bird numbers due to needed culling and normal bird attrition.
Birds with shorter laying cycles and that are slow to molt should be culled from the flock as inefficient producers. Culling, removing birds from the flock for failure to develop properly or perform, has seemed troublesome to some producers. The needed skills are easily learned and individual birds can be evaluated rather quickly. The flock should be evaluated regularly beginning at hatching; it is a judgment call, and some will have trouble with the removal of a bird that at first glance, appears to be in good condition. The point is that the bird is retaining that look and that good condition at the expense of the egg basket.
When called to view a flock with egg producing issues a variety of causes, some great and some small, will often be encountered in a single flock. Among the more common are birds of a great many different ages including some truly geriatric hens, birds of breeds not known for egg production, an excessive number of roosters, birds that are poorly housed, that have experienced a recent stress load, that are being inadequately fed or that have never been individually evaluated.
Few are the health and performance issues that don’t have at least some nutritional roots. Poultry rations perhaps more than the feedstuffs for any other livestock species are meant to be fed in quite exacting amounts and to more exactly meet the needs of the birds at each stage of life and performance. They are consumed in amounts as small as fractions of an ounce per bird per day and because of that they must be fresh, highly palatable, and nutrient dense.
The feed store is not a place to bargain hunt. For example, it is now recommended that most starter/developer rations be fed until the pullets produce their first eggs and then be gradually changed over to a laying ration with a high level of crude protein. This means feeding a starter/grower ration until the birds are 22 to 26 weeks of age and can be a feed investment of up to 30 pounds of feed per bird. When asked to consult on performance problems I have seen birds taken off of feed by proper protein level by as early as six weeks of age, or birds being fed excessive amounts of grain rather than an age appropriate growing or laying ration.
Scratch grains are like candy to chickens and, if offered free choice, the birds will over consume them, knocking their diets badly out of balance. I have seen this especially with laying flocks. The feeding of scratch grains is best when kept to limited amounts and should never be used as a cost cutting measure. Scratch grain may be best offered in limited amounts that the birds will clean up in about 15 minutes each day.
The best way to save money on feedstuffs is to make sure that they are going only to those birds actually in production. This means taking each bird in hand and evaluating it for health, well condition, and egg laying condition. A bird approaching lay and continuing to lay well will present with a soft abdomen (a hard abdomen means the bird is putting on fat and no producing eggs), there will be good width between the tips of the pelvic bones measured in finger widths (2.5 to 3 finger widths), the vent will be moist and pliable, and the drain from the eggs output will show in the fading of skin color beginning around the vent and moving forward toward the head and then down the legs to the feet. This will be most noticeable on breeds with yellow skin and shanks.
Every bird in the flock will have a head in the feeder and adding to the costs of each dozen if eggs produced that day. It is also quite difficult to make an economic case for retaining a hen past her second laying cycle unless she is being retained for breeding.
In the Golden Era of poultry keeping most farm flocks were based on a single pure breed. Those farmers were purebred breeders as well as egg producers. A flock now is too often made up of birds of many different breeds and thus of different body sizes and nutritional needs, has birds of many ages, and is rooster heavy. A rooster or two will keep order in the hen house and in breeding season one rooster for every 8 to 12 hens should maintain desired fertility levels. They will take a toll on hen condition if left with them too long and can be a source of stress that eventually impact egg production.
Flock stress can take many forms and come from many sources. It might result from vermin or even a snake in the chicken house, a predator attack, a sudden weather event, mixing together birds, and many other causes. A friend once reported that a period of strong winds over a period of days shut down flock output,
Support care for birds that have experienced stress would begin with the addition of a vitamin/electrolyte product to the drinking water. This can be done for a period of three days. Boosting crude protein levels in the laying ration will help the birds when dealing with heat of cold.
Chickens can cope with temperature changes that are seasonal, that come gradually. Adult birds can cope with quite cold temperature if shielded from dampness and direct drafts. The birds’ quarters should be inspected regularly for signs of vermin and predator inroads and draft sources. Just remember that while humans experience environments at head and shoulder level the birds are at roost height and floor level. A dime size hole at roost level could allow drafts to chill birds roosting near it.
A successful laying flock is constantly being shaped and reshaped. Poor performance are found and removed, selection is being made to add ever better performing birds, and the success comes from giving better feed and care to better performing birds.
Kelly Klober specializes in raising livestock using natural methods. He is the author of Talking Chicken, Dirt Hog: A Hands-On Guide to Raising Pigs Outdoors … Naturally, and Beyond the Chicken available from Acres U.S.A.