Finding the Non-Layer in Your Chicken Flock
By Lana Beckard, Nutrena Poultry Expert
It’s not unusual for one or two hens in a small flock to eat their share of feed, relax and rarely lay an egg. Although most flock owners don’t attempt to make money selling eggs, spotting and eliminating freeloaders saves feed dollars and keeps the eggs coming.
The trick is figuring out which hens aren’t laying. There are several ways to spot the lazy hen, and backyard flock owners have an advantage. Unlike large laying operations, backyarders normally only keep a few hens and visit the coop regularly. Even better, small flocks are usually composed of several different breeds with varied colored and patterned feathers. That makes it easy to identify specific hens and helps track down a non-layer.
How Many Eggs Should a Hen Lay?
The number of eggs a hen lays in each week varies greatly depending on the breed or strain, nutrition, weather, age of hen, and season or day length.
Hybrids developed for maximum egg production are laying dynamos, as are many white egg breeds. If well nourished and healthy, each bird will lay five or six eggs a week and sometimes more. In contrast, fancy and exhibition breeds are often poor layers and may go for weeks without producing a single egg. Even when they are in full production, two or three eggs a week per fancy bird is normal. Hens of any breed lay the most eggs during their first lay cycle and produce fewer eggs as they age.
Most backyard flock owners keep time-tested, standard brown-egg breeds such as Barred Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, New Hampshire Reds and Wyandottes, among others. They are good layers that may not be quite as productive as hybrids, but each should lay four or five eggs a week.
Observe Your Birds
Even the most productive breeds and hybrids sometimes include a slacker. Here’s how to find her.
Anyone with only five or six hens of varied breeds can usually pinpoint the non-layer through observation. Typically, hens sit in the nest for several minutes before laying. Take note of which hens never seem to be in a nest and the culprit may be found. If the entire flock is of one breed and they all look the same, it’s harder to find a non-layer by observation. In contrast, if a six-hen flock is composed of six different breeds or strains with different colored feathers, no bird has a look-alike. That helps identify the individual that never seems to be in a nest.
An easier way to spot a non-layer is to configure a flock with birds that lay distinctively colored eggs. For example, Ameraucanas lay blue/green eggs, Rocks or Orpingtons produce light brown eggs, while the eggs of Marans and Welsummers are dark brown. Leghorns and Minorca produce snow-white eggs. A flock of hens that each lays eggs of a different hue makes it easy to tell which one isn’t working.
Experienced flock owners use several techniques to spot a non-layer, even if all birds are of the same color. Here’s how they do it.
The Eyeball Test
Hens that are run down, lethargic and sickly looking usually aren’t laying. In contrast, birds that look great with healthy feathers, are a good size, and have bright yellow legs and beaks may be prima donnas, putting all their nutrition into looks rather than eggs. It takes much work and nutrients to produce plentiful eggs, and working girls show the strain. As the months go by, their feathers get worn. Breeds with yellow legs and beaks gradually see this color diminish as egg laying drains pigments from the body. Also, good layers usually have healthy combs, while the combs of non-layers are often shrunken.
A Physical Examination
The best physical way to locate a non-layer is to enter the coop at night with a battery lantern, flashlight, or headlamp so you can use both hands. Hens are easiest to handle when they are sleepy. Gently pick up each bird. Position her between your elbow and ribs with her head facing backwards. It may take gentle pressure from the arm to keep her wings from flapping, and by holding her feet between your fingers she’s not mobile and will likely sit quietly. Gently place the palm of the other hand on her pelvis. Bones that are easy to feel span the cloaca, where both droppings and eggs emerge. If a hen is not laying, the bones will be close together. If she’s laying, they will be three or four fingers apart, providing plenty of room for the egg to pass out of her body. A laying hen’s vent or cloaca is usually moist and pale in color. A non-layer’s may appear yellowish.
What to do with the Non-Layer?
For many flock owners, a non-layer is quickly destined for the stew pot. Usually non-laying hens are plump and delicious, but are old enough to have tough flesh. They are best stewed. Yet, some flock owners would never dream of butchering a bird. It’s okay to let a non-layer stay in the flock. Sometimes, the value of her companionship trumps even the tastiest of eggs.
To find a Nutrena dealer near you, visit NutrenaPoultryFeed.com. You can subscribe to the Nutrena poultry blog at ScoopFromTheCoop.com.