Fall is the time of year when, not only are the days getting shorter, our flocks’ egg production starts to drop. I’ve noticed a number of conversations on Facebook chicken sites about the dramatic decline in the number of eggs folks are getting. I even have other chicken keepers buying eggs from me because their birds aren’t producing enough. My own numbers have fallen, which is typical for this time of year, when there is less daylight and our birds are molting.
There are a whole host of reasons why your birds may not be laying their optimal numbers. Here’s an overview of the factors that impact egg production are:
- Chickens, especially heritage breeds, can live, and lay, for many years. Most hens start to lay when they are 5 ½ – 7 ½ months old and peak after laying for a year, when they go through their first adult molt.
- Pullets lay smaller eggs, which will increase in size as they age.
- Lower production layers and older hens will molt more often and lay less consistently.
- Both underweight and overweight birds lay fewer eggs. Proper management and the correct amount of feed are necessary in order to achieve optimum body weight.
- Some breeds (ISA, sexlinks, Hyline, Lohmann Brown) are produced to start laying early, lay large eggs and many eggs.
- Heritage breeds tend to start laying later, lay fewer eggs, but for longer.
- Illness and parasites can result in declining egg production.
- Strengthen your birds’ immune system by feeding a balanced diet and offering prebiotics and probiotics, which make them more resistant to disease.
- Add apple cider vinegar and crushed garlic to their water which deter internal parasites.
- Treat birds for illness and parasites.
- Remove sick birds from your breeding stock.
- When I first got chickens I allowed them to free-range on my acreage. It was great for them, not so good for me. I lost many eggs due to them laying in the woods or the tall grass. Since I’ve penned my birds (protection from predators) the number of eggs I collect has shot up.
- I also have a ton of broody hens. Popular belief says that if you collect eggs several times a day that will discourage birds against going broody. It seems my birds don’t need to see a clutch of eggs to encourage their maternal instincts, but it might work for you.
- Collecting egg several times a day helps keep them clean. If there are a number of eggs in the favourite nest box, they may get inadvertently broken, and get eaten. You want to prevent egg eating before that behavior sets in.
- Make sure you have enough nest boxes – competition might cause some hens to lay elsewhere.
- There are a number of factors in your coop that can impact egg production: stress, bullying, pecking, vulnerability to disease and parasites; overcrowding within the coop or on the roost bars and nest boxes; unhygienic conditions; competition for food or water.
- During their annual molt, birds will lose a large number of feathers, during which time protein is diverted to feather production. This period can last several weeks so expect a natural decline in egg laying.
- Feed your birds additional protein to help them through their molt.
- Optimal amount of daylight is 14 hours.
- Hens exposed to only natural light would be expected to slow egg production until the spring.
Diseases that impact egg production:
- Infectious Bronchitis
- Fowl Cholera
- Infectious Coryza
- Egg Drop Syndrome
- Avian Encephalomyelitis
- Fowl Pox
- Avian Influenza
- Mycoplasma Gallisepticum Infection (MG, chronic respiratory disease, PPLO infection, airsacculitis)
- Newcastle Disease
Food & Water
- If hens are out of feed or water for several hours, a decline in egg production will probably occur. Hens are more sensitive to a lack of water than a lack of feed.
- Avoid moldy or wet feed.
- Vitamin potency in feed decreases with lengthy storage.
- Egg production requires a high level of calories, protein and calcium, so it’s critical to feed your birds a nutritionally balanced feed.
- Water represents about 70% of a chicken’s total body weight.
- Clean, cool water must always be available to avoid heat stress or dehydration.
- If you have pH levels above 7.6 you can add apple cider vinegar to their water (1 tbsp./gallon) to acidify their water.
- Clean your coop regularly to keep mites and lice in check.
- Don’t allow the build-up of poop, which produces ammonia.
- Avoid stress (e.g. introducing new birds, changes to the pecking order).
- Heat stress has an impact on appetite, egg production, egg size and hatchability. Shade, ventilation and a plentiful supply of cool water help reduce the adverse effects of heat stress.
- An eggshell is composed primarily of calcium carbonate. Young birds don’t require large amounts of calcium, but layers do. Inadequate calcium consumption will result in decreased egg production and lower eggshell quality.
- Hens store calcium in medullary bone, a specialized bone capable of rapid calcium turnover.
- Calcium is a key ingredient in layer pellets, but can also be given as oyster shell, yoghurt, cottage cheese, kefir, cheese, cooked beans and legumes, nuts, seeds, soy/tofu, broccoli, cauliflower, dark leafy greens, collards, kale, mustard greens, okra, arugula, oranges (in moderation), butternut squash, sweet potatoes, figs and egg shells (dry, crush and feed back to them)
- Young birds should not be fed a high calcium layer diet because the calcium/phosphorus ratio will be unbalanced, resulting in increased morbidity or mortality (including gout).
- Particle size affects calcium availability. The larger the particle size, the longer it will be retained in the upper digestive tract and calcium will released more slowly.
- Dolomitic limestone should never be used in poultry diets because they contain at least 10% magnesium, which inhibit calcium absorption sites in the intestines.
- Is a source of energy and linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid.
- Dietary fats also serve as carriers of fat-soluble vitamins and are necessary for absorption of vitamins.
- A fat deficiency impairs the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K)
- Required by 22 essential amino acids in body proteins.
- Chickens can’t synthesize some of these, or not rapidly enough, to meet metabolic requirements so require them in their feed. Methionine is the amino acid most often deficient in laying rations.
- When pullets begin laying, there is an increase need for protein, vitamins and minerals. Low protein or amino acids result in poor egg production and lower hatch rates.
- Chickens require some salt in their diet; a deficiency can lead to increased feather pecking and a decline in egg production.
- Most animal feeds contain added salt in the form of sodium chloride, an essential nutrient, which plays a major role in maintaining body fluid volume, blood pH, and proper osmotic relationships.
- Sodium deficiencies adversely affect appetite, utilization of dietary protein and energy and interfere with reproductive performance.
- Vitamin D is required for normal calcium absorption and utilization.
- Anticoccidials are used in medicated feed to prevent coccidiosis and have an adverse effect on egg production.
- Acute intoxication from consuming a neurotoxin produced by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum, occurs when birds consume decomposing carcasses, spoiled feed, or other decaying organic materials. Ponds and other stagnant water sources are often areas of decaying materials that may contain this toxin.
- Molds can produce mycotoxins can interfere with the absorption or metabolism of certain nutrients.
- Calcium and/or vitamin D3 deficiencies can occur when mycotoxin contaminated feeds are given to laying hens.
- Some have hormonal effects, which impact egg production.
- Major mycotoxin of concern with corn is aflatoxin, produced by the mold Aspergillus flavus, which infects corn, both in the field and in storage.
- Required for bone development
- Ratio of dietary calcium to phosphorus affects the absorption of both these elements; an excess of either one impedes absorption and can reduce egg production, shell quality, and/or hatchability.
- Plays a primary role in carbohydrate metabolism, is active in fat metabolism, and helps to regulate the acid-base balance of the body.
- Chickens require salt, but excessive amounts are toxic.
- Too much salt causes wet droppings and wet litter. Avoid high amounts of fish meal, corn gluten meal, meat meal, whey, and sunflower meal which contain high levels of sodium.
- Excess vitamin D3 leads to increased calcium absorption resulting in high levels of calcium in blood, gout, heart and liver damage. One sign of excess calcium in your birds are eggs with tiny bumps, which can easily be scraped off with your fingernail.
- Numerous plants are toxic to varying degrees.
- Pesticides, herbicides, disinfectants, fertilizers, drugs, antibiotics and other chemicals, including oils and antifreeze.
Other Problems to Consider
- Predators and snakes consuming the eggs.
- Egg-eating by hens in the flock.
- Excessive egg breakage.
- Free-ranging hens who hide their eggs instead of laying in nests.
Many people refer to their girls as ‘slackers’ – the idea that our birds are free-loaders who are getting room and board for free and not offering us eggs in return. It makes me cringe a bit when I hear that: we have bred this species to lay far more than they would naturally and that has an impact on their health. Egg production takes a large amount of calcium, which is stored, then drawn, from a hen’s medullary bones. Hopefully her calcium loss is replaced, because if not that bone loss results in osteoporosis. Another by-product of laying a phenomenal number of eggs is issues with their reproductive systems: egg-binding, egg yolk peritonitis, prolapsed vent, ovarian cancer and tumours.
A couple of years ago, I found a lost hen at the side of the road and took her home. I was impressed that a relatively small production bird could lay extra-large eggs, day after day, seemingly without end. The sad downside of that ability is those breeds also die young.
I am content with some pretty cool looking birds, middle-of-the-road layers of great looking and tasting eggs. I don’t use lights to force my girls to continue laying through the dark months. I accept that their egg production will fall (sometimes drastically), but allow them the opportunity to take a break. Above all, I appreciate the biological marvel egg laying is and don’t push them beyond their capabilities.
Credit for featured photo at top: The Bothy