Getting started. Why raise chickens? 3
Requirements (parts list) for raising chickens 4
Basic breed types and their characteristics 2
Purebred flock vs. assortment 2
Incubators and hatching chicks 3
When things go wrong and predators too! 5
Processing birds 4
When There Are No Eggs
There are times that one will go to collect eggs and not find any. It’s helpful to know some of the reasons why this happens and be able to respond appropriately.
I can think of four basic scenarios for why there are no eggs:
- Your hens are too young to lay (haven’t started laying).
- Your hens have stopped laying.
- They’re laying, but not where you want them to.
- Something’s getting the eggs before you do.
Your Hens are too young to lay
This is primarily a concern for the person who is new to raising chickens and starting with a new flock. I remember in 2002, when we started with our first Kraienkoppes. Several months after receiving the chicks we began to wonder if they would ever lay! They looked like adults, but they didn’t lay for at least another month.
All things considered equal, most hens will start laying between 5 and 6 months of age. Some breeds (usually lighter breeds) may start laying at 4 months of age I say “all things considered equal” because there are a couple other factors which can combine with age, to delay egg laying. The primary factor is that of light. If one starts with day old chicks in March, for instance, then it’s quite likely they will be getting eggs at 5 months (August). When those birds reach maturity, it will be August and the days will still be plenty long for them to lay. In fact, they’ll probably lay eggs until sometime in November, when the days finally become so short that their ovaries shut down.
However, if one were to start with the very same kind of chicks, in June or July, they would reach maturity in November, when it’s getting dark (short days). These birds might not lay until they are 7 or 8 months of age. They’ll wait until the days begin to get longer. This is why most folk want to start chicks between February and May.
It’s possible that one may speed up one of these late bloomers, by putting a light in the chicken coop during the dark months of the winter. Some people leave the light on 24/7. However, it’s really only necessary that chickens get around 13 hours of light per day, to trigger egg production. My preference is to us a timer and arrange for the light to come on a couple hours before sunrise, so as to make a 13 hour day. I chose morning so that the birds will roost and go to bed naturally, without getting caught off guard when the lights go out. When the lights come on, they will have slept and feel that it’s time to get up and eat.
Having said that, we’ve gotten to the point that we prefer to let our birds have that time to rest from laying. Instead, we freeze eggs to pick up the slack when they aren’t laying.
Also, some breeds are better winter layers than others. Buckeyes generally start laying in January and Kraienkoppes start in February. I don’t have enough experience with other winter layers to discuss them.
Your hens have stopped laying
I can think of four reasons chickens may stop laying:
- Lack of light (which we discussed above)
If hens don’t get the right nutrition their production can drop dramatically. The protein level of their feed can greatly affect how they lay. Feeding straight corn, for example, is likely to cause a sharp decrease in egg production. No corn has enough protein for decent egg production. Commercial corn has even less protein. They need something to raise the protein level of their feed. For this reason, it is generally best to go with a specially mixed feed. Feed stores even have mixes specially designed to increase egg production.
A specially mixed chicken feed should include all that they need. However, if your egg production takes a dive and you’ve considered all the other factors, consider a change of feed. Sometimes something as incidental as a mineral deficiency in the feed can make a huge difference in egg production.
It’s really easy to let time slip by and end up with a flock of “geriatric chickens.” Some of the heritage breeds may lay well for a year or two longer than the more modern, high power laying breeds. However, as a rule most hens lay reasonable well for two summers and then decline in egg production. At some point it may be rare that a hen lays an egg. Before reaching this point, it is best to get rid of the old birds and bring in new. Flock rotation is the only way that I know to efficiently produce eggs. If age is the problem, consider … chicken soup. It’s good for what ails you!
When a hen’s “biological clock” says that it’s time to have babies, she will start sitting in the nest for prolonged periods of times. At first she may sit there for a couple hours and then get up to eat, etc. returning to the nest the next day. She may even lay eggs at this point. But eventually a broody hen will stop laying eggs. About this time she’ll suddenly refuse to leave the nest, making the typical “chirring squawk” when one reaches under her to check for eggs. She’ll puff her feathers out too. After a couple days of this one will find that she’s pulled most of the feathers out of her breast. This is a normal way the hen prepares to better incubate eggs. She’ll do this whether or not she has any eggs upon which to sit.
While broody, a hen won’t lay eggs. No big deal, right? After all, “I have other hens.” However, with certain breeds, like the Kraienkoppe, broodiness seems contagious. Once one bird goes broody, most of the others will too!
There are a couple of ways to deal with this.
- Have some chickens from a breed which rarely goes broody.
- Save some excess eggs by freezing or some other method, so you have them when the hens stop laying.
- Have enough hens, so you still get what you need, if some go broody.
They’re laying, but not where you want them to.
Sometimes the egg supply will apparently dry up. Yet, if you’re home during the mid morning hours, you hear hens cackling and announcing that they are laying eggs. For me, this occurs most often on a Saturday, when I don’t have to go to work or church. It’s important to pay attention to that cackle. Follow it immediately. The hen will stop cackling within about two minutes, so hurry! Chances are you’ll find a cache of eggs:
- in the bushes
- behind scrap lumber
- in a hollow log
- in an abandoned shed
- in the front seat of your farm truck
- in a briar patch
- up in the crotch of a tree
- in the rafters of an out building
These are all places we’ve found chickens’ nests and eggs!
Unless your chickens are penned, be prepared to have to look for eggs.
Something’s getting them (the eggs) before you do.
- Black snake (a.k.a. chicken snake or rat snake).
Black snakes can eat a LOT of eggs. They can also polish off a clutch of chicks in a single night. These snakes are often 3 to 5′ long and look really scary. More than once I’ve heard a commotion in the chicken coop and gone in there with a flashlight. While looking around I’ve come face to face, as in only inches between his face and mine, with a black snake! This might give a person a heart attack. But I can about guarantee that the snake itself is harmless. I have grabbed them by the tail and pulled them out of the coop without the snake even offering to bite.
Black snakes are generally beneficial and should be encouraged on the farm. But sometimes an individual snake finds that the easiest pickings are in the chicken coop. If possible, then, re-home it. I used to kill them. But frankly, unless there’s no other way, I won’t do that again. We need them for rodent control.
Opossum, raccoon and skunk will eat eggs. They’ll also eat chickens. If they get eggs in your coop, that generally means that you didn’t collect eggs before dark. Listen for panic stricken shrieking from your chickens if these get into your coop at night. If you find a skunk or raccoon walking around during the day, assume that it is rabid and avoid any physical contact with it. Preferred control of these vermin is either a livestock guardian dog or live trapping.
Rats are ubiquitous, meaning they are found just about everywhere, even if you don’t see them. Sometimes, when an infestation is particularly bad and some rats are particularly large, they will start eating eggs. As with any marauding mammal, rat eaten eggs will turn up with a hole broken in their side. The shell will be empty and laying in the nest box or nearby.
Preferred method of control: a cat. An outdoor cat will strike terror into the hearts of all nearby rats. I’d swear that rats communicate, “Look out! There’s a cat here!” Within a couple weeks of getting a cat, our rat problems decreased enormously. Apart from a cat one may use traps, though rats are notoriously quick about figuring out and avoiding traps. A small terrier type dog might help. Rat poison does help. But with rat poison it is all too easy to poison other animals.
Dogs will often eat eggs if they can get to them. They usually eat the side out of the shell and lap up the egg, leaving the shell. They may carry them to some other part of the yard before eating them, which is different from what other predators do. Probably the best thing you can do is keep the chickens penned, especially early in the day, when they do most of their laying. Try to keep stray dogs away, as they’ll also eat chickens themselves.
A special case which I’ve observed over the years, is that livestock guardian dogs, coming up on a year of age, become terrible “egg suckers.” That means they steal and eat eggs. They can be so bad about it that one might despair, thinking t”there will never be any eggs for me if I keep this dog.” I believe what happens is that I use a lower protein food for these dogs, and at that age, they CRAVE more protein. So, one might try feeding a bit more protein. Just be careful, as too high protein levels in the diet of these giant puppies can cause problems. The other thing is simply: don’t sweat it.
Here’s what I do with livestock guardian dog puppies when I find them stealing eggs:
- I let them know that I don’t like that.
- I don’t get hysterical about it. I treat it as a minor matter, as it appears that they can barely help themselves, and every one of my dogs has grown out of it.
- I try to get the chickens to lay in a safer place (more dog proof).
Yes, neighbors! We haven’t had this problem. But I’ve heard of it. Be aware of the possibility . Perhaps a good dog might deter such unwanted guests.