This week I had a question about laying hens who are only 18 months old and have dramatically dropped their egg production. The change occurred after their housing and feeding went from a completely free range system to a fixed coop with a large run area. After the move, the hen’s egg production, which had been pretty steady, declined greatly and continued until it was nearly zero. In addition to ranging, the owner also feeds some mixed/bagged chicken feed as well as corn, both of which are from a local tractor supply. He was pretty stumped as to why the sudden drop in production occurred and wanted to know both what had happened and what he could do to fix the situation.
So what happened?
What occurred is that by moving the birds from their free ranging situation to the coop and run, the owner unknowingly stressed his hens. And when laying hens get stressed even a little, it can show by the amount of eggs they produce (or lack thereof). Layers are extremely finicky about everything in their environment: their surroundings, habits and routine. Even a little change can have a dramatic impact on egg production. A major change like switching up their entire living environment will have profound implications on them. And, in this case, while he didn’t mean to, he also changed their diet greatly because they can’t free range as much as they used to and are eating more grains to make up for the lost grazing. Couple with that with the fact that we are losing daylight as the winter solstice nears, and production will go down this time of year anyway. The changes he made simply accelerated the entire situation. When it comes to laying hens, anytime you make a change – where the nest box is located, where they roost, where they live, what the eat, etc., it is going to negatively affect production. The more you change, the worse it will be and the longer it can take for them to bounce back. Eventually they will get used to their new surroundings and come out of the production slump, but it could be spring before they totally recover. At a year and half of age, they could also be going into a molt, which will almost halt production in and of itself. One other thing I’ll mention is that if the area they were moved to and are now using as a run has at anytime in the recent past been treated with chemicals or roundup, that could also play a role in egg production going down.
What can he do to fix this current situation?
The short answer is simply don’t change anything else for a while and implement new changes slowly. And when the weather permits, he should let them range outside of the run by using portable netting, if at all possible. They will deforest the run in no time next spring, turning it into a mud lot in short order. If they are out ranging like chickens are wired up to do, they will be happier and hence the more eggs they will lay. And, obviously, the eggs will also be healthier as they contain more nutrients. This also cuts down on the feed bill as well, so it’s the best all around solution. There is nothing wrong with using the fixed run during the day when you are not around to keep an eye on things, but when you are home open up that run and let them out.
Concerning the store bought feed
I would encourage anyone feeding grain to livestock to buy a high quality feed that is consistent in content of inputs and nutrients. Pre-bagged, off the shelf feeds can be very inconsistent in quality and quantity of inputs. Try and find a local source that makes its own rations using GMO free grains and high quality organic inputs for the fish meal, minerals and vitamins. Sure it will cost more, but your health, the animals health and the production of the animals will all be better off for it. If you live in Central Indiana, I would highly recommend you contact Central Indiana Organics and get a bag of their organic 16% layer ration if you have laying hens. I think you’ll find it doesn’t cost much more than a bag of questionable feed from a box store. In my experience, inconsistency in feed is the fastest way to negatively impact egg laying production.
Now while switching feed can be a detriment on production, you aren’t going to get much worse results than you are currently and, if there is a time to change, it’s now while the winter solstice is close at hand and production is already low.