How Long do Chickens Lay Eggs? Breeds that Go the Extra Mile!
Even hens from the best egg-laying chicken breeds eventually stop producing.
How long do chickens lay eggs? At some point, even the best egg-laying chicken breeds stop laying. A new pullet has 15,000 (or more) microscopic eggs in her ovaries at the time of hatching but will not actually lay that many as an adult. Some research indicates that the average hen will produce about 600 eggs in her lifetime. Though lots of research has been done on this, there is still much we don’t know about why hens gradually stop laying, even when all nutritional and environmental factors should be in their favor.
Many new poultry owners often ask questions, such as, “How long do chickens lay eggs” or in the event of a slowdown in egg production, “Why have my chickens stopped laying?” While we won’t delve into more complex questions such as, “How do chickens lay eggs,” we will look at how long most chickens will lay and why chickens often stop laying. Additionally, we will look at several breeds that are not only excellent layers but will often keep laying for a year or two after many other breeds have quit.
Backyard poultry keepers may hear two commonly used terms in the egg-production industry: “rate of lay” and “longevity of lay.” Simply put, “rate of lay” means how many eggs a chicken will produce in a period of time, usually the first year of actual laying. It is often expressed as a percentage. A commercial White Leghorn laying 335 eggs in her first laying year is at a rate of 92% (335 eggs divided by 365 days). A Brahma laying 180 eggs in her first year is producing at a rate of only 49%. The term “longevity of lay ” refers to how long a bird or flock will produce. Commercial flocks are usually done laying by the end of their second laying year, and sometimes sooner. Chickens kept in home flocks with low stress, good care, and lots of love often lay eggs for at least three to four years.
Most chickens begin to lay at about 20 weeks of age. Many commercial strains have been bred to start laying as early as 18 weeks. A few larger breeds, such as Brahmas, Cochins, and Jersey Giants may not start producing until 26 or even 28 weeks of age.
Some people use a 600-egg lifetime-average, as a rule of thumb, for planning how long a bird will lay: If a breed is known to lay 150 eggs in a year, they figure it will lay for four years. If it lays 300 eggs in a year, they estimate the production life to be two years. In reality, most birds’ second-year production will drop to 60-70% of what it was in the first year, then to about 40% in the third year, and as low as 10-20% in the fourth and subsequent years.
One of the biggest reasons that hens, including the best egg-laying breeds, stop laying is that they get older and reach the end of their production life. This can be subjective, as some birds quit production after two or three years, and others may still faithfully pump out a few eggs every week, even at six or seven years of age.
After eight to 10 months of laying, most hens go into a molt for a few weeks. They lose old feathers and start growing new ones, usually in late summer or fall. During this time protein is put into the developing feathers, and egg production diminishes greatly or ceases entirely. Once feathers regrow, egg production resumes.
Light hours are very important. Hens lay best with 15 to 16 hours of light per day. In commercial egg farms, artificial lighting is used when there are not enough daylight hours. However, young Australorp pullets sometimes start laying in wintertime, with only 10 to 11 hours of light, so even this factor can be variable.
For optimal egg production, hens need adequate protein levels, as well as calcium and trace minerals. Commercial laying feeds normally contain about 16% protein. If you feed a lot of table scraps, the hens may eat more of the scraps and less commercial feed. There is nothing wrong with nutritious table scraps, but if protein levels drop, so will egg production. If you want more eggs, decrease the table scraps and increase the laying feed. Production should pick up in about five days. Also, make sure they have enough calcium. Even though laying feed contains about 2% calcium, it may not contain enough for older hens, who do not process calcium as well as younger hens. If hens produce soft-shelled eggs that break, they will start eating them. They will also begin eating the ones that don’t break. Additional calcium can be very important.
To keep hens productive and laying, a lot of cool, clean water is also important. Hens prefer cool water instead of tepid or warm water. Dry housing is also important. If you live in an area where housing and birds become wet from a lot of rain, production will often drop during the damp periods and birds may succumb to illness more readily.
Now that we have looked at how long chickens lay eggs and why chickens stop laying, let’s look at breeds that can “go the extra mile!”
I polled a large number of veteran chicken keepers as to what they believed were the best egg-laying chicken breeds. For a breed to even be considered, one stipulation was that the breed had to lay at least three or four eggs per week and had to keep laying fairly consistently for at least three or four years. Most breeds chosen were brown-egg-layers, so if you are wondering “Which chickens lay brown eggs” or “What are some of the best egg-laying chicken breeds,” at least one or two breeds, listed here, may be exactly what you are looking for:
Rhode Island Reds: An old-time farm-favorite, this was still the favorite of most veteran chicken keepers who responded. Given high marks for laying lots of large to extra-large, brown-shelled eggs throughout the first three or four years of production, many people stated their hens were still laying strong at five and six years of age. Some also reported good production from hens seven and eight years old.
Barred Rocks: The popular black-and-white-striped Barred Rock received high praise. This brown-egg-laying breed got marks for overall production in the first few years of laying. Many owners also bragged about their girls laying for five or six consecutive years.
Australorps: If you are looking for high production, even into the fifth and sixth years, and calm dispositions with friendliness and personality to boot, you cannot go wrong with Australorps. These little black hens received praise from many longtime chicken owners. Known to be magnificent producers of light brown eggs, they are a breed that is easily handled. They can become pets that perch on your shoulder and will make their way into the house to see you, if you leave the door open.
Dominiques: Very close in appearance to a Barred Rock (same roots), these calm little black-and-white striped hens are known as one of the oldest breeds in America. Not quite as productive as many Barred Rock strains, they are still excellent layers of light-brown, medium-to-large eggs. They received excellent ratings for not only longevity of lay (five to seven years), but also hardiness and resistance to disease.
Buckeyes: Similar in appearance to a Rhode Island Red, but a totally separate breed, Buckeyes garnered many accolades. Excellent rates of lay, longevity of lay, hardiness, and disease resistance were just some of the praises sung about this breed.
ISA Browns: While the ISA Brown is a fairly modern laying hybrid developed for commercial brown-egg production, these little hens received excellent reviews and praise from small flock owners. Originally developed in France at the Institute de Selection Animale in the late 1970s, they are a production strain, of closely guarded genetic secrets, available to both commercial egg producers and home-based small flock owners. Also known as Hubbard Browns, they received praise for high rates of lay, longevity of lay, and sweet, curious personalities. The only downside reported was a potentially weak immune system.
Turkens or Naked Necks: Responding owners of these unusual-looking birds praised their dispositions, hardiness, consistent brown-egg-laying abilities, and longevity of lay. Add in their uniqueness and the questions they will generate, and they appear to be a winner for almost any flock. (As an additional note of interest, Turkens in Australia have been bred to produce blue and green eggs.)
Easter Eggers: Not a true “breed” (and not to be confused with purebred Ameraucanas), “Easter Eggers” received overwhelming praise from veteran poultry owners (especially “Green Easter Eggers”). Usually mixed-breed birds, sold by the hatcheries, that will lay blue, green, olive, or sometimes brown eggs. Many respondents said their Easter Eggers still produced faithfully at five and six years of age. As there is no set industry standard for producing these birds, it is hard to say whether you will have the same happy results. However, with all the praise they garnered, all I can say is, “Why not give them a try?”
Originally published in the August/September 2019 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.