Paul Donovan gives his slant on the reasons why your hens may suddenly have stopped laying.

We take it for granted that when we keep hens, they should be like a conveyor belt churning out egg after egg, day in, day out without fail. But of course they are not a machine, they are a biological organism just as we are, and things do go wrong from time to time; some of which may be medical environmental, or simply old age.

At around the age of 16-26 weeks, a hen will have the necessary mechanisms in place to begin producing eggs. An egg will be laid every 25-28 hours and will continue to be done so for three to five years, before it gradually begins to taper off. Of course, there are many factors such as the breed, quality of life, welfare, and dietary intake which will all contribute to the egg laying life span.

Failure to collect eggs

In my experience, failure to consistently collect eggs is the biggest cause for a hen to stop laying. Let me give you an example. I have a friend who bought 15 point of lay hens. When they began laying, their maid used to go in just before she started work, and collected the eggs. 15 hens, so 15 eggs. The novelty soon wore off, and she became lazy, sometimes leaving it until 10 o’clock, midday or even early afternoon before she would collect them. Occasionally, she wouldn’t collect them at all for a couple of days, expecting there to be twice as many to collect when she did. All of a sudden she saw there were less eggs to collect. My friend was ready to rehouse the hens in the oven, but when I pointed out the reason why they weren’t laying they were reprieved. When the maid began collecting them early in the morning again, egg numbers increased.

If you miss an egg, or don’t bother collecting them for a day, the hen immediately goes into brooding mode, and will stop laying. It is the physical activity of removing the egg which stimulates her to lay another. Even putting off collecting for a few hours from when you normally collect them can upset the laying cycle. It is therefore a wise idea to collect the eggs as early in the morning as possible, without fail, as this will ensure the next egg is in the reproductive system as early as possible for the next lay.

Once the hen enters the brooding phase, it can take some considerable time before she begins laying again.

Moulting

During the period when a hen is undergoing a moult, she diverts a lot of resources and energy into new feather growth. As a consequence, egg laying will begin to drop off, stop and then only recommence once the moulting cycle has been completed. The time frame for this can vary quite considerably. Generally, as a rule though, three weeks or so before a moult is due you will notice a slowing down of egg production. Egg production may stop for 7-10 days and then slowly commence again.

Seasonal changes

Along with the failure to collect eggs, one of the biggest external factors in egg reduction, is seasonal changes. As winter approaches and we lose that precious hour of daylight, the dark nights draw in and the mercury plummets. This change in the circadian rhythm can be quite instrumental in the egg cycle. Although it is less likely to affect hens kept in an artificially lit poultry house, it can free-range hens, particularly if they are left outside and have to adjust to the loss of light naturally. Obviously if we move our hens inside, we can artificially manipulate the lighting with artificial light; they require at least a 10 hours day. Bear in mind that you should also supplement warmth, as this will encourage the normal egg laying cycle to continue.

Do not be under the misapprehension, that just because the summer months are nice and warm, this won’t affect the laying cycle. It can. During a particularly hot spell, if the hen(s) suffer from heat stress, they will dramatically cut back on the number of eggs they lay.

This I have seen here in Botswana with my hens. Last year was one of the hottest on record, with recurrent daily temperatures  for several weeks on end, in excess of 40 oC; it seems 2019 could be another better. My birds are kept in a free range environment, but they spent most of their time resting in the shade – as I did! Because the air was static with no breeze, even in the shade, I witnessed a big decline in egg production. My birds would even come and stand under the garden sprinkler system to cool down, which was quite a sight. So, be aware that both the cold and hot weather can play havoc with egg production.

Pestering/stress

External stress can play a big role in reduced egg laying. Other than the stress of being stalked by the family cat, or chased by the family dog, being chased around or overly handled by children is extremely stressful and should be avoided. By all means allow children to have interaction, but carefully monitor it. Changing the hens surrounding can also be stressful. I know when I clean my chicken house an rearrange things, egg laying will decline for a day or two. Hens really do not like change. Also be on the lookout for rats or mice in the chicken house. Not only can they contaminate feed, but really freak out your birds.

Overcrowding, is something you should also be cautious of. This can be either through adding more birds to a flock or reducing the amount of space the hens have. Although sociable birds, chickens need their own space. Of course adding more birds to a flock, particularly if they are in a confined area, will result in establishing the pecking order all over again, and the squabbling this entails will see stress levels rise and egg production decline.

Diet

From my experience, hens kept in poultry house and coops tend to show non laying behaviour more than free range hens do. I think this may be down to diet choice. Although a commercial feed has been formulated to provide the bird with all its nutritional needs, in times when the bird is lacking a particular vitamin or mineral, it can be difficult for it to make up the deficit. In free range birds their diet, due to the nature of the way they are being kept, is often much more varied, so they do not suffer as much from deficiencies. To some extent with cooped birds vitamin/mineral deficiencies can be prevented by feeding them with leafy greens. Spinach and cabbage are perfect for this, as are garden weeds. Pull the weeds up and give them the soil as well. They will pick over this and gain all manner of goodness and nutritious bugs. When you cut the grass during the summer, throw some clippings in for them. Obviously make sure whatever you are feeding has not been treated with a weed killer or any other nastiness. Be observant of your birds if you suddenly change brands of food. All are not always equal and there can variations in their nutritional makeup. This can affect the birds laying behaviour. I have witnessed this with my hens. For almost tow months, all I could get was a cheaper brand of layers mash, and my birds didn’t take to it and I noticed a decline in the number of eggs I was collecting. In the end I let them out to free-range, where they still are and happy with it.

Calcium deficiency

A hen invests a great deal of resources in producing an egg, and one of these is the large amount of calcium it takes to form the eggshell. If a hen shows signs of pigment loss in the wattle and comb, the legs and earlobes and has ceased laying, it’s almost certain she is suffering calcium deficiency. A lead up to this could be detected by the formation of very weak eggshells, or inconsistent shell are thicker that others. If any of these symptoms are witnessed, supplement the calcium intake.

As with vitamin/ mineral deficiencies, a calcium deficiency is more likely to be seen in penned birds than free-range, as free range birds have access to a much more varied diet.

Parasites

External parasites such as fleas, ticks and mites can bring a range of problems with them. In heavy infestations, they may be so discomforting for the bird that it stresses her to the point where it impacts on egg production. Regularly inspecting your birds will help to catch pests long before they reach a level where they become a serious problem. When spotted, they should be dealt with swiftly and appropriately.

If a hen has gone off laying, and is loosing weight despite eating, then suspect tapeworm or roundworm.