It’s a question I get asked a lot. Professional farmers usually expand the question to “why aren’t they laying more”, or “why aren’t they laying bigger/smaller eggs”, or “why are they laying later/earlier in the day”. These guys know a lot, and hardly ever ask simple questions. Which is why I hardly ever give them simple answers (hah! take that ;) ).
Backyarder’s sometimes have less experience with Gallus domesticus (science speak for chickens). This gives me the chance to explain the basics of egg production, which is a pleasant change for me. Getting back to the title question, “Why won’t my chickens lay” is usually asked this time of the year, or a little earlier. Egg production is controlled by the season. Scientists and farmers discovered that the important criteria is daylength. Hens want to lay eggs in the spring, hatch em, and then have the summer to raise em before having to deal with cooler, wetter weather. (Note: in Southern Asia, Northern India, and the Philippines, where red jungle-fowl came from, winter is not snow and sleet and sub-zero temperatures….minimum temps there are about 10 C.)
So…if you want your chickens to lay eggs during our period of decreasing daylength (June 21 – Dec 21), you have to fool them into thinking its spring. Luckily, you don’t have to teach the chickens anything….if you’ve never tried to teach a chicken something…don’t…..one or both of you will get really frustrated.
Daylength is actually sensed directly by the brain….it doesn’t even take vision. The pineal gland in the birds brain actually reacts to light energy penetrating the thin spot in the bird’s forehead. Researchers use a strain of genetically blind birds to experiment on light impacts on hens. I don’t know about you, but I find that REALLY cool. Interestingly, it also corresponds to the location of the fabled “third eye” that psychics use to “see” things us Muggles can’t. Maybe psychics just have thin skulls? But I digress….
Back to practical. In Toronto, the longest daylength is 15h 26m on June 21. This is latitude dependant, so if you live somewhere else, you will have to look up your area (Saskatoon is 16h 45m for example). If you don’t want your hens to stop laying eggs, you need to keep daylength static. It’s easy enough….lights and timers are cheap and easy to install. They don’t have to be very bright either (the lights, I mean, not the chickens). The minimum is about .25 foot candles in intensity….the easy way to tell is to sit in the coop with a newspaper…..once you let you eyes adjust, if you can still read the paper, it is bright enough.
Soooo….if your hens are going out of lay, you should look up the daylength at your latitude (Google is magic!), set a light and timer up at that daylength. Then keep it set at that time for a week or two. Then increase the daylength by about 15 minutes per week until they start laying again. I should take less than a month before you see eggs again. One small point…when you set up your timer, make sure your lights come on before dawn and go out after sunset, or you will have really weird daylengths. Also, if your birds aren’t at least 18 weeks old, this won’t work either…..they have to be physically capable in other ways before light can have an effect.
Hope this helps.
Mike the Chicken Vet