Finding the Non-Layer

Crowded_Coop_WhiteIt’s not unusual for one or two hens in a small flock to eat their share of feed, relax, and rarely lay an egg.  Although most flock owners don’t attempt to make money selling eggs, spotting and eliminating freeloaders saves feed dollars and keeps the eggs coming.

The trick is figuring out which hens aren’t laying. There are several ways to spot the lazy hen, and backyard flock owners have an advantage. Unlike large laying operations backyarders normally only keep a few hens and visit the coop regularly. Even better, small flocks are usually composed of several different breeds with varied colored and patterned feathers. That makes it easy to identify specific hens and helps track down a nonlayer.
.
How Many Eggs Should a Hen Lay?

The number of eggs a hen lays in each week varies greatly depending on the breed or strain, nutrition, weather, age of hen, and season or day length.

Hybrids developed for maximum egg production are laying dynamos as are many white egg breeds. If well-nourished and healthy, each bird will lay five or six eggs a week and sometimes more. In contrast fancy and exhibition breeds are often poor layers and may go for weeks without producing a single egg. Even when they are in full production two or three eggs a week per fancy bird is normal. Hens of any breed lay the most eggs during their first lay cycle and produce fewer eggs as they age.

Most backyard flock owners keep time tested standard brown egg breeds such as Barred Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, New Hampshire Reds, and Wyandottes among others. They are good layers that may not be quite as productive as hybrids but each should lay four or five eggs a week.

Even the most productive breeds and hybrids sometimes include slackers. Here’s how to find her.

Observation

Anyone with only five or six hens of varied breeds can usually pinpoint the non-layer through observation.  Hens usually sit in the nest for several minutes before laying. Take note of which hens never seem to be in a nest and the culprit may be found. If the entire flock is of one breed they all look the same, making it harder to find a non-layer by observation. In contrast if a six hen flock is composed of six different breeds or strains with different colored feathers no bird has a look alike. That helps identify the individual that never seems to be in a nest.

An even easier way to spot a nonlayer is to configure a flock with birds that lay distinctively colored eggs. For example, Americaunas lay blue/green eggs, Rocks or Orpingtons produce light brown eggs, while the eggs of Marans and Welsummers are dark brown. Leghorns and Minorca produce snow white eggs. A flock of hens that each lays eggs of a different hue makes it easy to tell which one isn’t working.

Experienced flock owners use several techniques to spot a nonlayer, even if all birds are of the same color. Here’s how they do it.

The Eyeball Test

Hens that are run down, lethargic, and sickly looking usually aren’t laying. In contrast, birds that look great with complete healthy feathers, good size, and bright yellow legs and beaks may be prima donnas putting all their nutrition into looks rather than eggs. Hard working laying hens gradually get a little rough looking. As the months go by their feathers get worn. Breeds with yellow legs and beaks gradually see this color diminish as egg laying drains pigments from the body. It takes much work and nutrients to produce plentiful eggs and working girls show the strain. Good layers usually have healthy combs, while the combs of non-layers are often shrunken.

A Close Examination

Hens are easiest to handle when they are sleepy. So, the best physical way to locate a non-layer is to enter the coop at night with a battery lantern, flashlight, or headlamp so you can use both hands. Gently pick up each bird. Position her between your elbow and ribs with her head facing backwards. It may take gentle pressure from the arm to keep her wings from flapping, and by holding her feet between your fingers she’s not mobile and will likely sit quietly. Gently place the palm of the other hand on her pelvis. Bones that are easy to feel span the cloaca, where both droppings and eggs emerge. If a hen is not laying, the bones will be close together. If she’s laying they will be three or four fingers apart, providing plenty of room for the egg to pass out of her body. A laying hens vent or cloaca is usually moist and pale in color. A non-layer’s may appear yellowish.

What to Do With the Non-Layer

For many flock owners a non-layer is quickly destined for the stew pot. Usually nonlaying hens are plump and delicious but are old enough to have tough flesh. They are best stewed. Some flock owners would never dream of butchering a bird. It’s OK to let a non-layer stay in the flock, even though she’ll continue to eat expensive food without returning eggs!

How to introduce new birds to your existing flock

 

Birds of a feather truly do stick together. That’s why it can be a challenging task to bring new birds into your established flock – new flock members often get picked on and harassed by hens who don’t want to share their territory. For a seamless integration of new birds into your flock, there are a couple of tricks that work well. All you need is patience – and some ninja-like moves.

To start with you want to make sure that your coop/run setup is large enough to accommodate the new birds that you are adding. Each adult bird will need 3-4 square feet of space. If bringing in birds from another flock, make sure they have been through a quarantine period of at least 30 days and are healthy.

Keeping new birds in a cage will let them interact with the flock without being harmed.

You’ll want to introduce birds to each other gradually and let them interact without the opportunity of pecking or abuse. To do this, place your new birds inside the run or coop in an area where they can see and get to know each other but where they are still separated. A wire cage works well, but you can also put new birds into a dog crate or use chicken wire to fence off a portion of the area and make two separate spaces. If introducing new chicks to your flock, you’ll want to make sure they are fully feathered and acclimated to the coop temperature.  You want to keep new birds in their own area and let everyone get to know each other for at least two weeks. Patience is key here, so don’t rush the “getting to know you” phase.

The ninja moves come into play when it is time to introduce the new birds into the existing flock. Wait until night, when it’s dark and all birds are sleeping comfortably. Moving quickly and quietly, you want to take the new birds from their resting spot and put them on the roosts next to your other sleeping birds. When the birds wake up in the morning they are next to another hen that they are familiar with (because they’ve been in close proximity, although separate areas, for several weeks) and they are often tricked into thinking that they’ve always been together. You’ll want to carefully monitor the everyone during the next week while the pecking order is reorganized, but this approach should give you a fairly seamless merging of your flock.

The right nutrition at the right time for layers

Timing is everything when it comes to feeding your laying hens. Ensuring they have the correct nutrition at just the right time is an important part of having a happy and healthy flock.

Hatch to approximately week 6: Provide free choice access to a quality chick starter ration and make fresh clean water available at all times. Proper nutrition in this critical growth stage will impact the performance of the chicken for their entire lifespan. Use a heat lamp to keep birds warm and provide 1 sq. foot per chick.

Approximately 6 weeks to 16 weeks: Continue to provide free choice access to chick starter and water. If you choose to feed treats (scratch grains, kitchen scraps, etc.), put out what birds will consume in about 15 minutes once per day. This a good guide to follow to make sure treats don’t exceed 15% of the total diet. Add treats only after week 6. If birds have access to anything other than a crumble or pellet, provide grit free choice in a seperate feeder.

16 weeks +: Now is the time to switch to layer feed! Provide layer pellets or layer crumbles and grit free choice along with access to fresh clean water at all times. Treats can be provided at no more than 15% of the diet. At this point it is also important to make oyster shell available free choice to provide supplemental calcium for hard-shelled eggs. Adult birds require approximately 3-4 sq. feet of space per bird in the coop; you also need to plan on one nesting box for every 4-5 hens.

Winter Lighting in the Chicken Coop

Do you wonder why your chickens stop laying eggs in winter?  And is there anything you can do about it?  Good news, friends!  Watch this video from Nutrena Poultry Specialist Twain Lockhart for everything you need to know about lighting your chicken coop to keep the girls laying eggs!

Leave comments below, or questions if you’ve got some!