Most people who have backyard flocks do so because they enjoy chickens….or want to get closer to nature….or want their kids to understand where their food comes from…..or mistakenly believe that home-grown eggs are healthier…or want a self-sufficient ecosystem in their back yards. Despite the myriad of reasons cited to keep laying hens, the major benefit to keeping chickens, indeed, the defining one is this: they produce a small, self-contained, portable, single serving of nutritious, delicious, low-cal goodness….almost every day. If it weren’t for eggs, there would be a LOT less backyard chickens around our cities and towns.
With respect to coop design, the nest area needs to be a small, discrete, shaded area that gives the hen privacy for the period directly leading up to oviposition (egg laying), and provide a comfortable surface upon which to lay the egg. Several hens can share a nest,
but there should be at least 1 for every 3 hens, since often the hens will all lay their egg within the first hour after sunrise. Hens prefer a nest box with solid sides and a soft (ish) floor, such as Astroturf, straw or wood shavings. It is also important to have a design that you can easily clean, since anywhere that a chicken spends time will eventually get turned into a toilet.
Hens are attracted to a dim space to lay their eggs. If there is not sufficient nest space for the hens to all lay eggs in a nest, look for extra eggs in the dimmest corners of the coop, or underneath anything that will cast a dark shadow.
Laying hens typically reach sexual maturity at 15-20 weeks of age. Until then, they are referred to as pullets. Professional egg farmers keep pullets and laying hens in separate barns. Pullets need much warmer temperatures, and very different diets than laying hens do. In fact, laying hen ration is harmful to pullets, and vice-versa.
In order to get laying hens to start laying, chickens need a few things. They need good nutrition, including enough calcium to form the eggs. They also need to be convinced that spring has arrived (or at least not left). This means that chickens need to have increasing
day length in order to start laying eggs. If the number of hours of light start to decrease (June 22 here in the Northern Hemisphere….), hens will stop laying eggs. In order to keep birds producing all year-long, it is necessary to maintain a consistent day length….if the hours of daylight don’t decrease, there is nothing that pushes the hens to stop laying. Light intensity has a bit of input into this, but not nearly as much as day length. More intense light helps promote egg production, and more diffuse or dimmer lights cause the birds to go out of lay….but again, this has a much weaker effect than daylength.
So…if your flock is not laying well (or at all), ask yourself if the hens are getting enough feed, and is it good quality (I have some basic outlines in a couple earlier posts). Then consider the time of year, and relative amount of daylight the girls are getting. If you need to, putting a light on a timer in a coop is usually not difficult, and will maintain day length, if the hens are in the coop in the evenings and mornings. If all these factors seem to be in order, consider the breed of hen you have….some are more ornamental than functional, and will not lay very well, even in the best of conditions.
Mike the Chicken Vet
Mike, I am a commercial producer of cage free eggs in southern California. I would like to talk to you about methods of reducing floor eggs in my flock. I just housed 40,000 Hyline Browns.
I’m not sure how experienced you are with free run production….there is a good chance you know more than I do. The first thing is to house the pullets before they start to lay, if you can, so they can lay their first eggs in the nest. Once they’ve come into lay, pick up the floor eggs as often as you can….5-6 times per day for the first month or so (the idea of a “nest egg” is pretty accurate…if there is an egg somewhere, it encourages them to lay more there). In the evenings, turn your lights off sequentially….the furthest from the nest first, then then middle row, then the ones over the nests….this will encourage the flock to “bed down” close to the nests and make it more convenient for them to access the nests first thing in the morning. Don’t run the feeders during the first couple of hours of daylight…you don’t want to draw hens away from the nest or interrupt their “nest seeking” ritual, or they may not re-start it. I have had some success leaving a row of Christmas tree lights (LED rope lights work great) over top of the nests all night….any hens that have the urge to lay in the dark will be attracted to the nests. Finally, make sure your lights in the lay house come on as early or earlier than they did in the pullet house…..if a hen is in the process of producing an egg to lay at 5am, but the lights don’t come on until 7, she will lay in the dark, and once that starts, it may become a habit.
I hope some of this may help. If you have any more questions, please let me know. If any of the changes make a dramatic change for you, please let me know that too!!! Thanks