One of the best reasons for having backyard hens is that they provide your family with a regular supply of tasty fresh eggs. But when do hens start laying, how many eggs can you expect, and how should you deal with problems? This article provides some of the answers.
The number of eggs a hen can lay each year depends on her breed. Commercial hybrids should lay about 280 eggs a year, light breeds about 240 and heavy breeds 200.
In a backyard situation, hens tend to lay fewer eggs than they might in commercial houses where artificial lighting is used to increase egg production. Free-range hens in winter take longer to manufacture each egg and they will not lay every day.
Commercial birds come into lay at about 5 months old - even 4 months old in summer - with other birds laying from about 6 months of age. Commercial strains usually lay well throughout the winter if they have a warm house and an adequate diet, but most hens will not lay so well during the colder months, simply because they are using food energy to keep warm.
Pullets coming into lay have a peak laying period within the first 6 weeks, possibly laying an egg a day. This then drops off to the average of the breed, possibly 5 eggs per week, and as hens get near the end of their laying cycle, the number of eggs reduces.
Egg quantity and quality
Consumers often prefer brown free-range eggs, but shell colour is determined primarily by genetics. So if it is important to you, buy the types of birds that lay brown eggs, not those that lay white ones. There are even some strains of some breeds that lay green or blue eggs. This often attracts comment and concern, but the eggs are perfectly good.
Grass and maize both contribute to a good yolk colour, but most layers’ meals contain additives to enhance colour. Free-range feeds usually contain natural colour enhancers such as marigold and capsicum extracts.
Large eggs get better prices, so aim to produce the maximum number of eggs in the top three weight bands.
For large eggs, hens must be well fed with adequate amounts of good quality compound feeds. In some areas, some feed companies produce specific free-range feeds. These may contain more protein content than normal, with extra linoleic acid for large egg production.
Good hygiene is very important if you are selling eggs. Eggs have a natural and protective 'bloom' that helps protect them from external contamination. Once they have been washed, this protection is removed, so free-range eggs that are offered for sale should not be washed.
Every effort should be made to produce clean eggs by maintaining a high standard of management, and by using rollaway nest boxes. If eggs are dirty or cracked, they shouldn’t be sold.
Hands should be washed before eggs are collected. The eggs should be used or sold as soon as possible, but if they have to be stored, it should be in a cool room where the temperature is between 10 and 12°C, for example in a clean dust-free pantry or outhouse. They can be stored either in egg boxes or in paper-fibre trays.
Wild birds and rats can carry potentially dangerous bacteria that can contaminate eggs, so it is important to try to keep these animals away from eggs at all times.
Problems with eggs
Good management is crucial if you want lots of good quality eggs. Your hens will need comfortable quiet housing, good feeding and good company (this means other sociable hens). But things do still sometimes go wrong. Here is a list of some of the most common problems and a summary of the causes.
- Hens that are too fat (especially pullets)
- Too thin
- Not enough water (make sure drinking water is fresh and palatable)
- Too much stress (for example rowdy children, close proximity to dogs or noisy machinery, rats or mice in the house)
- Parasites such as lice, mites or internal worms
- Nest-box problems - such as wet nest boxes or one hen preventing others from accessing a nest box
- Very cold, wet or windy weather
- Fighting between hens (a rooster in the house may help keep hens in order)
A small number of eggs
- Unsuitable breed (replace with modern commercial hybrid strains),
- Not enough food (feed layers’ compound ration with an adequate level of protein),
- Cold weather (increase grain ration in cold weather),
- Not enough water,
- Not enough light,
- Predators taking eggs,
- Eggs that are being laid elsewhere (make more nest boxes available).
Pullets coming into production sometimes lay double-yolked eggs. Once their egg-laying hormones have settled down, normal egg-laying continues. It is not usually a problem and is rather popular with consumers.
Abnormal egg size
Oversize eggs can be caused by overfeeding protein, or the hens may be too old, or they may be diseased (if there is also blood in droppings suspect coccidiosis)
Small eggs can be due to low protein in the diet, or hot conditions in the house.
Shell strength and texture both deteriorate as the bird gets older, so for optimum egg production, it is best not to keep old birds in the flock.
This can be a sign of infection (see your veterinarian) or oviduct injury due to mild trauma to the abdomen.
Thin or soft-shelled eggs or shell-less eggs
The cause here may be low calcium/phosphorus/vitamin D intake or imbalance, or salt in the drinking water. It is more common in older birds but can be a temporary fault in pullets.
Pale yolks can be caused by coccidiosis or inadequate pigment (carotenoid) in the diet
Discoloured yolks may be the result of the hens eating plants like shepherd’s purse or acorns
An abnormal flavour can be caused by the hens eating yarrow or wild garlic, or excess fishmeal in layers’ ration.
A mouldy taint can be caused by chlorinated phenols in shavings
Off-smells can be caused by bacterial contamination, often the result of very dirty nest boxes.
Blood spots are usually the result of a mild injury or trauma to the hen when the egg was forming so that a drop of blood becomes part of the egg. It doesn’t mean that the egg is fertile. They are more common in older hens.
The stringy white things attached to either end of the yolk are the chalazae. They are there to anchor the yolk to the centre of the egg, and they often become twisted because of the rotation of the yolk. The presence of chalazae indicates that the egg is fresh. As the egg ages, the chalazae become less noticeable.
The presence of a developing embryo means that the egg has been fertilized, and the solution is of course not to allow roosters access to the hens
Watery whites can be a sign of disease in the hens (see your veterinarian) or low protein in their diet
O'Byrne, Glenys. Backyard Poultry. Fraser Books. 2002. ISBN 0-4774105540.
Thear, Katie. Free-Range Poultry. Farming Press Books, Ipswich. 1990. ISBN-0-85236-190-4