Egg production

The pattern and number of eggs laid depends on the breed and age of the bird. Most hens start to lay at about 20 – 22 weeks of age. A hen is born with a finite number of eggs in her body – when they’re done, they’re done.

Traditional breeds tend to lay fewer eggs per period over a longer period; the commercial hybrids lay copious numbers of eggs in their first season, a good number in their second, then very few thereafter. Egg production drops by about 25% each year; in its best season, a hen may lay 260 - 300 eggs.

Egg laying and the seasons

The number of eggs a hen lays varies from day to day and season to season. Laying is governed by day length, so can drop away to almost nothing over the winter, although the commercial hybrids are less affected than traditional breeds.

You can keep your hens producing all year by using artificial light in the roosting area; around fourteen hours of “daylight” are required. If you decide to do this, set the timer to turn the light on before the natural dawn and at a time that allows a natural dusk, so that the hens go to bed normally.

Tradition has it that egg laying naturally resumes on Valentine’s Day!

You can check if a hen is laying by assessing the width between the pelvic bones - as a rule of thumb (pardon the pun) if you can comfortably get two fingers between the bones, the bird is likely to be laying.

Colours of eggs

Almost all supermarket eggs are pale brown, but different breeds of hen lay eggs of other colours. It’s only the shell colour that is different – the nutritional value is the same regardless. The Mediterranean breeds – Leghorns, Anconas and Minorcas – lay chalky white eggs as do hens with white earlobes; Welsummers, Marans and Croad Langshans lay dark brown eggs and Aruacanas and Cream Legbars lay bluish-green eggs. There are also hybrids that lay white, dark brown and coloured eggs.

Storing eggs

Store eggs in a cool place away from pungent foods. If you aren’t sure if an egg is fresh or not, put it in a bowl of water – if it sinks immediately it is fresh; if it floats the air sac has had time to enlarge and the egg is, therefore, older. Older eggs are good for baking, but if you’re not sure, break them into a separate dish before adding to other ingredients, just in case. Eggs would normally be expected to last four weeks from the date of laying.

Broody hens

Occasionally, a hen may go broody i.e. decide that she’s going to hatch eggs. She may do this even if there is no cockerel around. You will know she is broody because she will sit tight on a nest-box (with or without eggs), will object noisily to being moved and may peck at you, will fluff up her feathers and make a “cloaking” sound.

Some breeds / strains are more likely to go broody than others. A broody hen will stop laying, so you have two choices - take advantage of the opportunity and put some fertile eggs under her or break the broodiness. If you decide on the latter, you can do it by lifting her repeatedly off the nest-box, until she gets the idea. Alternatively, you can build an anti-broody box – basically a nest box on legs with a mesh base. The hen gets cold and uncomfortable and gives up, eventually.

There are a number of other reasons why hens may stop laying – insufficient protein in the diet; moulting; bullying and stress; new surroundings or illness.

Rosemary Champion

About Rosemary Champion

Rosemary lives on a 12 acre smallholding in Angus, in the east of Scotland, where she keeps Ryeland Sheep, Shetland cattle and assorted poultry. She was destined to be a smallholder from an early age.

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