All hens are born with their lifetime supply of eggs inside them.
Some of your chickens may be doing a great job of laying eggs, while others may be lounging in the nest box and not producing a thing.
So how do you tell which of your hens are laying eggs?
There are some ways to tell whether or not a hen is still laying.
This article aims to give you all the information you need in order to find out who the slackers are in your flock…
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Signs A Chicken Is About To Start Laying Eggs
Pullets will lay their first egg somewhere between 16 and 20 weeks old.
Some breeds take longer to get to the point of lay so check your breed to find out when she can be expected to start laying. Production breeds such as Black Stars, Golden Comets, Red Rangers and others are usually pretty quick to start laying eggs, while purebreds take longer to start up the machinery (some breeds can take up to 28 weeks).
We have a breed by breed breakdown in our article When Do Chickens Start Laying Eggs.
It is no good trying to rush the process along. Hens will lay when they are good and ready and trying to make them lay early will produce all sorts of problems for the hen further down the line.
So how do you tell when they are ready to lay that first egg?
You have to rely on your powers of observation mostly, but there are certain indicators that will tell you she is about to start laying:
- Reddened comb and wattles: You will see her comb and wattles will be larger and redder than they have been before. This is a signal to the rooster that she is almost ready to mate.
- Squatting: She will instinctively squat when you try to pick her up. She may also do the squat when you pet her. This is sign of a mature hen who is ready to mate and is laying, or a pullet that is about to start laying eggs.
- Eating More This can be a tough one to spot but her appetite will increase in order to provide the nutrition and energy required for producing a daily egg.
- Fidgety She seems to be acting a bit weird and will pile bits of bedding onto her back or walking around with it in her beak. She is not sure what is going on but the nesting urge is becoming very strong.
- Inspecting the nesting boxes: This sign links in with her odd behavior. She will start to check out the nesting boxes several times and even sit in them for periods of time.
- Getting more vocal: She will start to vocalize more and generally be more talkative than she has been.
How To Identify Which Hens Are Laying
How to determine which of your hens are laying can be time consuming and some of the methods have the potential for giving unreliable results.
You should rely on a number of factors to try and determine whether or not your hen is productive.
If like me you are retired then you have plenty of time to sit and watch your hens so you can mark down who is productive and who is slacking off.
You could also set up a hen cam to observe the nest boxes in use. This should be done for at least a week to give you an overall picture of which hens are your best layers.
A trap nest refers to a method of trapping the hen inside the nesting box with her egg, so you can tell who has laid what.
It can be used as a tool for checking which of your hens is laying regularly but can be time consuming since you have to release each hen after she has laid.
More frequently it is used as a way to tell not only which hens are laying, but how many eggs they lay and what weight the eggs are. These things are good to know if you are thinking seriously of breeding your hens for show or starting your own poultry line.
You can buy trap nests but they are also pretty simple to make. If you are only going to be using it occasionally then you might think about building your own.
Rules To Read
In addition to these observations you can also use some simple rules to give you a good indication if they are laying eggs.
Hens over the age of five years are highly unlikely to be producing a significant number of eggs each week.
They will still lay eggs but not as prolifically as before. So the older ladies are generally deemed non-productive. Read How Long Do Chickens Lay Eggs, for more information.
You should know your breed.
Some breeds are not made for a high egg output and subsequently, you should not expect them to produce lots of eggs per year. So be aware of the potential for the breed and how many eggs they are expected to lay.
Physical Signs A Mature Hen Is Laying
It can be a bit more challenging trying to find out which of your older chickens are still laying (especially if you have a lot of hens).
You can generally assume that hens under two years of age are laying, but there are ways to check. The years between three and five will likely be spotty in terms of laying but this will depend on the breed. You can reasonably assume that any hens over five years old are either laying very infrequently or not at all.
Here are some physical signs you can check:
- Vent: An actively laying hen’s vent should be large, pale and moist – you may notice it pulsing too. This lady is still laying eggs for you. If the vent is small and pinkish then she has not started laying yet. With hens that have stopped laying the vent is yellow and dry.
- Pubic bone: A laying hen should have at least two fingers width between her pubic bones. Any less and she is not yet mature enough to lay. Established layers will often have a much larger space between the bones. A gap larger than 2 inches tells you she is able to lay but not that she is currently laying.
- Coloration: You will notice that as the hen progresses through the laying season that her color will leach out of her legs. This means she is laying as the laying process depletes the body of the necessary nutrients. The color will return for the next season once she has rested and restored her health after the molt. If you are part-way through the laying season and your hen still has beautiful unbleached legs then she is likely not laying eggs.
- Wattles and Comb: Large, soft, red and vibrant comb and wattles indicates that she is still laying. When you touch the comb it should feel soft and plump and slightly waxy. If her comb and wattles are small and shrunken with poor coloring then she is not laying.
- Abdomen: Her belly should be round, soft and pliable. All of these are good indicators of a laying hen.
- Feathers: Similar to her legs, the egg laying process takes a toll on her feathers too. By the end of the season her feathers will be broken and look dull and tatty. If your hen has sailed through the egg laying season with beautiful feathers that still look in great condition then she is probably not laying eggs.
- Demeanor: A laying and productive hen has a spring in her step and is active and alert. She has energy, her eyes are bright and she is full of life. Older hens will be moving around like a grandmother and be slow, hesitant and sit around a lot. This hen is not laying.
Why Do Chickens Stop Laying Eggs?
There are a few reasons why chickens suddenly stop laying eggs.
One of the most common reasons is that something has changed. Maybe new hens were added to the flock, or a different type of feed was used. Chickens are notorious for being routine oriented and anything that startles them or changes the routine can cause a decline or stop in laying.
Of course, if they get broody then they will stop laying once they have enough eggs to hatch. A broody will not lay again until her chicks have grown up and this is usually around two to three months. If the timing is right, she may go straight into a molt too which means you won’t see any eggs for several months.
Illness or injury may stop them laying eggs too. Always check over your hens that suddenly stop laying stop just in case there is a physical reason for the sudden stop – perhaps she could be egg bound.
Finally if your flock is moved to new surroundings then they may go off lay for a few days until they get comfortable in their new surroundings. It takes time for them to become acclimated to a new coop or area.
You can read 11 Common Reasons Why Chickens Stop Laying Eggs for more.
5 Ways To Get Your Chickens Laying Eggs
You cannot force a chicken to lay an egg, she will lay when she is good and ready.
However there are a few things you can do to persuade her.
The best way to encourage your hens to lay eggs is to feed them a high quality feed which has a 16% protein content.
You should also provide fresh water and healthy living conditions. Also remember that when she is laying eggs her body will need calcium too so you can give extra calcium in the form of oyster shells. I also provide a vitamin/electrolyte supplement in the water once a month to help give them the trace elements that their body needs. Read How Do Chickens Make Eggs for more guidance.
A happy and healthy hen will lay well for you.
Hens that are kept in poor conditions and not fed an appropriate diet will lay but not as well as her healthy sisters.
You should also check frequently for parasites (both internal and external). Health checks are a necessary part of their care and it is something that you can do mostly by observation.
Finally, there must also be enough nesting boxes for them to choose from. Bedding in the boxes should be comfortable enough for sitting and should be changed regularly.
The best way to tell which of your hens is being productive is by being observant.
Even spending a small amount of time with them every day gives you great insight into their everyday lives and whether or not they are healthy and active.
We sometimes expect a lot from our hens.
Just remember that each hen is unique and whilst some can lay 5 eggs a week, some may only lay 3 eggs a week.
You cannot encourage hens to lay more eggs than they have.
The major difference between production and heritage hens for the purpose of this article is how quickly they lay these eggs.
Production hens have been selectively bred to lay those eggs in a shorter amount of time. This is how some breeds can lay in excess of 300 eggs per year. Heritage hens on the other hand, have not been selectively bred in this manner. Over their lifetime they will lay roughly the same amount of eggs but over a more natural, extended period.
The quality of stock that you buy will also influence how many eggs they will lay.
Many of the so called designer breeds are not great layers. Their laying ability has been sacrificed for other attributes such as coloring.
As you already know, once the younger girls start laying eggs they will settle into a routine and provide lots of eggs for the first year or so.
Older hens slow down dramatically around year three (depending on breed), but may still lay.
If like me you keep chickens for yourself then you are probably are not too concerned about productivity.
However after reading this article you know now how to tell the freeloaders from the working girls.
Which method do you use to tell if a hen is laying eggs?
Let us know in the comments section below…