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With the loss of Greta, we are now down to three hens.  Three hens who haven’t laid any eggs since September (actually, Liesl made a brief comeback in November and laid three eggs before she decided to quit again.  Little jerk.)

As the title says, we’re getting a bit desperate.  It’s not cool having to buy your eggs at the farmers’ market when you have three chickens living in your backyard.

We’re not the only ones looking for answers to this problem.  I went to backyardchickens.com (my go-to site for all my chicken questions) and the first thing I see is an article titled, “Why Aren’t My Chickens Laying?  Here Are Your Answers!”  Apparently, this question gets asked several times a day on the forum.

According to the article, these are the basic causes of decreased egg production:

Problem 1:  Decreasing day length.  Well, yes.  The daylight has decreased, but we’re now past the Solstice, so everyday is a little longer.  However, this shouldn’t have affected our girls as we put an artificial light in the coop when we winterized it, and set the timer to give them 14 – 16 hours of light per day.

Our one mistake here could have been putting the light in before the older girls finished their molt.  Having the light may have slowed down the molt, so that it wasn’t complete, and therefore the girls may never have restored to full egg production.

Remedy?  Turn off the light for a month.  We decided to cut the light entirely, giving Ginger and Liesl a chance to complete their molts.

Problem 2:  Molt.  Again, yes.  Greta and Liesl both went through pretty heavy molts in October, and sweet, stupid little Ginger decided to have her first molt in December.  Liesl and Greta had both finished by the end of October, and we thought Liesl had resumed laying in mid-November (turns out, she was just being a tease), but Greta never resumed laying at all.

Remedy?  See above remedy for Problem 1.  Hopefully, with the light gone, it’ll give Ginger and Liesl a chanced to complete their molts. Here’s the positive side of molting – not only does it replace the hen’s old, worn-out feathers, the molt also rejuvenates the oviduct (the part that makes the eggs), so that when the pullet does start laying again, she lays bigger, better eggs.  Hurrah!

Problem 3:  Broodiness.  Nope.  The stimulus for broodiness is usually a nest full of eggs.  No eggs = no broodiness.

Problem 4:  Flock health.  Oh boy, yes.  We’ve had some health issues in the flock.  Even today, I noticed that Liesl still had a bit of a runny nose, and Scruffy sneezed at me when I went in the run to give them some scratch.  Greta was certainly wheezing at times, too.  They seem to have caught some sort of respiratory virus.  I gave Liesl antibiotics when she was at her worst, to prevent any type of secondary infection.  Adding GermeZone to their water seemed to clear up the worst symptoms.

Remedy?  I’m going to try boosting their immune systems by giving them yogurt and apple cider vinegar. Some chicken keepers out there swear by it!

Problem 5: Age.  For the two older girls, yes.  We adopted Liesl and Greta when they were already three years old.  The woman we got them from raised them from day-old chicks, so I’m guessing that January 2013 would be their 5th birthday on this planet.  According to the article, chickens produce well until they are two or three years old, then egg production begins to decline.

However, this doesn’t apply to the babies.  Ginger will be a year old in January, and we have yet to see Scruffy’s first egg, even though she’s well past 20 weeks of age.  Is it possible the younger two aren’t laying because Liesl, the top hen, isn’t laying?  Do chickens behave like that?

Remedy?  Greta has already passed away, and we have made the sensible, but painful decision to dispatch Liesl in the spring.

Problem 6:  Poor nutrition.  The girls have unlimited access to a well-balanced layer ration that we buy from our local feed store, as well as a dish of crushed oyster shells.  In the winter, we give them vegetable scraps and old bread , as well as scratch (a mixture of cracked corn, millet, and black sunflower seeds) before bed so that their body temperature goes up a bit while they digest.  According to the article, all this supplemented food serves to unbalance their diet.

In late August of this year, our feed store changed the brand of layer ration.  We remember this because it changed from a crumble to a pellet, and the girls started making a huge mess of it, so Will built them a new feeder at the beginning of September.  September was also when egg production from all three laying chickens halted.  I thought it was because the older ones were molting, but perhaps it has something to do with this new brand of ration.

Remedy?  No more scraps and snacks.  Layer ration and oyster shell only. The article suggests supplementing only what the hens will clean up in 15 minutes or not at all, so we’re going to try NOT AT ALL.  I’m also going to investigate a new brand of layer ration.

Problem 7:  Stress.  I know that hens can get easily stressed out, but I can’t think of any huge stress factors that may be causing the lack of eggs.  It’s possible that taking Marianne away, and introducing Scruffy to the flock in late August caused the halt, but it’s been almost four months now, and things are pretty peaceful around here.  The lack of ventilation in the coop may also have contributed to some stress.

Remedy?  We added ventilation to the coop when we noticed frost building up inside, and after cutting a huge hole in the back wall, there’s been a noticeable reduction in the frost, as well as the smell of ammonia. Keeping the girls safe, healthy and dry are the best ways to reduce stress.

After all this analysis, my guess is that the lack of eggs is a combination of poor health, and possibly poor nutrition.  I’m definitely going to look into this new layer ration because I find it too much of a coincidence that all three stopped laying shortly after giving them the new feed.  But I can’t deny that their health hasn’t been the best either.  Hopefully with a balanced diet, and some immune system boosters, we’ll have eggs coming our way in the New Year.