Q&A on backyard FLOCKS
A quick look at common problems
WWhy are my chickens not laying eggs?
ith many people keeping chickens to produce eggs to eat, many backyard flock owners want to know why their hens stop laying eggs. There are many reasons for this and all cannot be answered here. However, some causes are more common than others and the flock owner should consider these in finding a solution.
Declining day length
Short day lengths are one reason why birds may stop laying eggs. Poultry typically need 12 to 14 hours of light each day to stimulated egg production. For flocks on natural daylight, egg production will decline in winter and increase in spring. Reducing day length can initiate moult during which egg production stops. Providing artificial light can correct this situation.
When it comes to laying eggs, hens are sensitive to day length, and particularly to the direction in which day length is changing. Declining day lengths discourage egg production. It is not unusual for a flock owner to have hens go out of production in the latter part of summer and in the autumn because the days are getting shorter.
Commercial egg producers avoid this problem and maintain egg production year round by using artificial lighting to give hens a long day length - no matter the season. A backyard flock owner can do much the same thing if the flock roosts inside a building by keeping lights on long enough to simulate an appropriately long day length. A good rule of thumb is that the total length of light per day, both artificial and natural, should be no shorter than the longest natural day length the hens will experience. Therefore, the amount of artificial light needed will be minimal in summer and greatest in winter.
Nutrition is another issue to check in the cases of poor egg production. Hens should be fed a layer ration specifically formulated for egg layers. Layer diets typically have more protein, energy and calcium than meat bird diets to meet the demands that egg production places on the hen’s body.
Hens need a balanced
and adequate diet to maintain egg production. Each egg contains significant amounts of protein and energy, which must first be eaten by the hen as part of its daily food intake. Too little dietary energy or an imbalance of amino acids can cause depressed egg production.
Many backyard flock owners don’t realise how much calcium a hen needs. The shell of each egg contains roughly 2 grams of calcium. Since the skeleton of a typical modern egglaying breed of hen only contains about 20 grams of calcium, each egg represents 10% of the hen’s total bodily calcium. While the hen’s skeleton acts as a calcium reserve to supply the demands of egg production, this reserve is rapidly depleted in the absence of an abundant calcium source in the feed eaten by the bird. In this situation the hen will stop laying eggs. To maintain egg production, flock owners should feed only a prepared layer ration balanced to meet a hen’s nutritional requirements, or at least provide a particulate source of calcium, e.g. suitably sized ground limestone or oyster shell that the birds can eat selectively according to their needs. The layer ration or calcium source should be available from a local feed supply store.
Some breeds of hens are prone to become broody, meaning they will try incubate eggs to make them hatch. When this happens, they stop laying eggs. They are more likely to become broody if allowed to accumulate eggs in a nest. The problem is most prevalent during Spring under natural daylight as the hens come into production due to the stimulating effects of increasing day length. To avoid this, it is best to pick up eggs at least once a day to prevent the hen from building a clutch. Daily egg gathering is also an important practice to preserve the safety and quality of eggs for human consumption.
After a hen has been producing eggs for several months, she becomes increasingly likely to moult. Moulting and egg production are not mutually compatible, so when moulting occurs,→
egg production ceases. The rest from egg-laying allows the hen to restore its plumage condition by shedding old feathers and growing new ones. At the same time, the hen’s reproductive tract is rejuvenated, allowing it to increase its rate of egg production and produce higher quality eggs when it returns to lay.under natural day lengths, moulting tends to coincide with the change in season so hens moult in autumn after they cease egg production due to declining day lengths. In these circumstances, it is normal for all the hens in a flock to go out of production and moult more or less in synchrony. However, if artificial lighting is provided, a hen may moult at any time of year and not in synch with other hens. If this happens, she should return to lay in several weeks.
Ahen can live for many years. It is not unusual for a backyard flock owner to keep several generations of birds and lose track of how old some hens are. Much as in other species, an ageing hen eventually will lose its ability to be reproductively active and stop producing eggs.
Many poultry diseases will affect egg production. Often birds show symptoms of illness, but sometimes they do not. If a disease is suspected, it is important to consult a poultry veterinarian without delay. A timely diagnosis may allow effective treatment for some diseases.
In the case of certain virulent diseases such as highly pathogenic bird flu, a speedy diagnosis may prevent losses of whole flocks in entire regions, and minimise the risk of zoonotic transmission of deadly disease from chickens to humans.
Why do chickens lose feathers?
Feathers on chickens provide protection and insulation for the body. Too much feather loss makes it more likely that injuries will occur to the exposed flesh, resulting in infections or bruising of the tissues. In addition, excessive feather loss can result in higher energy utilisation needed to maintain body temperature. As a result, birds with excessive feather loss often require more feed to produce the energy necessary to compensate for the heat lost from the exposed areas.
This condition can also adversely affect feed conversion and result in greater feed costs. Preventing excessive feather loss can, therefore, have an important impact on flock health and profitability.
There are several possible reasons why chickens may be losing feathers, including inadequate nutrition, feather pecking, moulting, disease and stress.
Good feather growth and maintenance requires adequate amounts of proteins, amino acids, vitamins and minerals. It is not unusual to trace a feathering problem in a backyard flock to inadequate feeding. A well balanced poultry feed formulated for appropriate age and type of bird will assure that the flock is receiving the necessary nutrients to maintain feather growth and maintenance.
Feather pecking and pulling
Loss of feathers from birds can sometimes be associated with feather pecking and pulling by other members of the flock. This can also be the result of poor nutrition as inadequate intake of nutrients can trigger this type of behaviour. If, however, the appropriate feed is being provided and feather loss is occurring, it may be a result of aggressive behaviour by some members of the flock.
Feather pecking and pulling can be a learned behaviour and is usually the result of one, or a few members of the flock, exhibiting this behaviour. Birds are curious animals by nature and will pick at objects that attract their attention. Should their attention focus on the feathers of their flock mates and pecking/pulling begin, it can become a habit that spreads to other members of the flock.
Birds are also somewhat territorial and pecking/ pulling of feathers can be a manifestation of this behaviour. If feather loss is observed with only a few members of the flock rather than all the birds, it is likely the result of these types of behaviour. Ways of determining if feather loss is a result of this type of activity is to observe the birds for a period of time and determine if certain birds in the flock→
are being overly aggressive with their flock mates or have developed feather pulling behaviour. If so, the best remedy is to remove the bird(s) instigating the problem from the rest of the flock. A few weeks in isolation may reduce the expression of this behaviour. If not, the remedy for this problem may require permanent removal from the flock. For flocks of birds where pecking and pulling are chronic problems, beak trimming at an early age may be necessary. Beak trimming may be done at about six weeks of age by removing about 3/16 in. from the tip of the upper beak. This can be done using a toe nail clipper, but care must be taken not to injure the tongue of the bird.
Moulting is a natural process whereby laying birds will cease egg production and lose feathers from their neck, breast and back areas for a few weeks to a few months. Moulting occurs most often in natural environments where the birds are exposed to natural day lengths. Decreasing length of day light in the fall will trigger the onset of moult. It is nature’s way of providing laying birds a rest period prior to the stimulus for maximum reproductive performance in the spring.
Moulting is eliminated in commercial flocks by providing long day lengths using artificial lights for approximately 14 hours every day. Many backyard flocks are kept under natural day light fluctuations and thus moulting can be a common cause of feather loss.
Disease and Stress
Unhealthy birds or birds that are under stressful conditions may also exhibit feather loss. Using best management practices and observing your birds for possible disease conditions can be important for your flock. Stressful conditions such as heat, cold, disease, and lack of adequate amounts of feed and water can result in feather loss and poor feather quality with your birds.
What environmental temperatures are best?
The environmental temperature requirements for birds decrease as they mature. Chicks, poults and ducklings are incapable of maintaining a steady body temperature when they hatch. Body temperature regulation develops between 10-14 days of age depending on the breed and species. Bird body temperatures are higher than that of mammals and for chickens it typically is around 40°C. Since these young birds cannot maintain their body temperatures, they are dependent on room temperature. If the room is too cool, then their body temperature will drop, and if the room is too hot their body temperature will rise. Typically we look for a floor temperature of 32-35°C for optimum brooding conditions. This temperature can be reduced 2 degrees each week until a temperature of 21 degrees is reached. By this time the birds should have significant feather coverage which will insulate their body, keeping the warmth in and the cold out. At this point they should be able to withstand some of the variations experienced in daily temperatures. In winter time, efforts should be made to keep birds inside shelters that will prevent drafts and hold in heat but at the same time provides good air quality.
Are males needed for egg production?
No. This is a common misunderstanding. Hens will lay eggs in the absence of a rooster. However, if hatching eggs are the goal, then a rooster will be needed to obtain fertilised eggs.
How do I deal with rodents and insects?
Maintaining a clean environment not only helps keep birds healthy, it is a crucial to prevent attracting vermin to areas where poultry are kept. Feed supplies should be stored in a sealed container. Proper disposal of dead birds and manure are also good preventative measures. If rodents become a problem, bait stations should be placed around the area to control these.