Among the top reasons for owning backyard chickens is being able to harvest fresh, nutrient-rich eggs on an almost daily basis. There are several questions that often arise, however, pertaining to hens and their egg-laying capabilities, as well as how to provide. Here I hope to address a few, and clear up some facts.
Eggs layed by backyard chickens will not be as white as store-bought eggs
When will my hen start laying eggs? This depends on several factors, particularly the breed of chicken. Each breed is different, but breeds of larger birds tend to take a little bit longer, and smaller-sized breeds tend to take slightly less time. Usually, when a poult reaches an age of between 4 and 6 months, it will begin to lay eggs. Time of year, nutrition, environmental conditions, and the birds general health are also major factors.
Should I be concerned if my hen does not lay eggs by that age? If your birds take slightly longer than mentioned above to start laying eggs, there is no reason to be concerned. If it takes significantly longer, check on their health and the condition of their environment, making sure everything is ideal. Many factors affect egg laying, including genetics and seasonal factors— it is not uncommon for hens to not lay eggs during, winter particularly during their first winter.
What conditions are ideal for a hen to lay eggs? Many things make up a good egg-laying environment. Make sure the environment is as stress-free as possible. Dogs or children chasing them around or inclement weather (even if they are protected from it) can cause stress and fear in hens and decrease egg production. Aside from offering shelter and protection, a coop will help maintain a stress-free environment (however, make sure it is well ventilated). The more securely and snugly the coop is built, the better egg production will be. It also helps prevent disease. A protected outdoor area is also important to egg production, one of the reasons being that exposure to daylight is an important component of good egg production. Many hen owners set up artificial lights during winter months to keep egg production up. If you can, also allow your hens to free-range. Make sure the coop is clean and pest-free. You will also want to provide 'nest-boxes' for the hens to lay their eggs in.
A Nesting Box does not necessarily have to be a 'box'
What are 'nest boxes'? A nest box is an area for the chicken to safely lay their eggs. If done right you will not have to search for the eggs each day. You can buy nest boxes from the store or make your own. Many people make them of wood, but this is harder to clean than metal or plastic. Each box should be built to hold one to four birds. Place the boxes around the edges of the coop a 18-24 inches above the floor, and place a thick layer of soft litter in the bottom of each box. Make sure the nest boxes stay as clean as possible, particularly if they are lined with hay, which many experienced chicken owners discourage, because it is more likely to become moldy or diseased. A nest box does not need to be fancy, and there is no specific way to build it. A nesting box doesn't necessarily need to be a 'box'.
What if my chicken won't lay eggs in the nest box? It is often necessary to teach the chicken that the nesting box is where it should lay its eggs. Most people put dummy eggs in the nesting box. The chickens see the eggs and think another bird layed them there, so it must be a good place to lay eggs. If this doesn't work, try temporarily simulating the conditions of where they currently lay their eggs, until they become used to using the nesting box. For instance, if they lay their eggs under a tree, try scattering some of the leaves in the bottom of the nest box. If the boxes are portable, you might want to try placing them above or near where the hens tend to lay their eggs. Once they get used to using the boxes, put them back where and how they belong.
How can I help the nest boxes stay clean? Most importantly, make sure the boxes are only being used for laying eggs (unless the eggs are fertilized and the hen is sitting on them). This will help keep dirt and droppings out. Nothing can guarantee that the hens won't loiter in the boxes, but there are several things you can do to help. Start by developing good habits with the hens. If they loiter in the boxes, shoo them out, and over time they will learn to stay elsewhere. Keeping the boxes in darker areas of the coop also help, as will placing a flap of burlap or canvas in front of the boxes.
What diet should my hens be on while laying eggs? First, make sure the feed your hen's diet is on is rich in protein, calories, carbs, vitamins, and minerals, particularly calcium, which will strengthen the eggshells. Make sure they do not get too much fatty food, which is a particular problem if you feed them a lot of table scraps. Some manufacturers sell specific egg-laying feed formulas. Even if they free-range, supplementing their diet with high quality feed can benefit egg production quantity and quality. Conversely, do not feed them only manufactured food-- the stuff they naturally scavenge and table scraps should make up a portion of their diet. They should have all-day access to their food. A constant supply of fresh, clean water is also vital. This affects more than just the hen's overall health, as eggs are composed primarily of water.