How to Tell a Laying Hen from a Non-Laying Hen

Since I keep a fairly large flock of laying hens to have enough eggs to sell at my local farmers market, I cannot afford to keep too many non-productive hens around that eat feed but don’t lay many eggs. Here are a few tips on how a flock owner can generally tell which laying hen is likely to still be laying eggs and which ones have taken a break from laying or may have completely stopped.

First, we will assume some best practices for optimal laying hen flock management. Briefly, these will include providing an adequate feed ration for laying hens, no heavy parasite loads, no threat from predators, there is an adequate photo-period each day, and that fresh drinking water is available at all times. If any one of these criteria are lacking, it can cause hens to drastically slow or stop laying altogether.

A hen’s age will be a good indicator of her likelihood of still being in lay. A laying hen will typically begin by 5 to 6 months of age. She will usually continue to lay throughout the next 12 months or so without stopping to take a break. By around 18 months of age, a hen will usually molt her feathers and stop laying eggs for a period of a few weeks to a few months. From that point on, a hen will take an annual break to molt her feathers each fall as she prepares for winter. It’s at this age that I will usually cull my less productive birds and only keep the best layers for the lean winter months.

Feather Condition and Timing of Molt

Usually, the “scruffier” a hen’s feathers are the better layer she is. Feathers are made of mostly protein, and a hen that has nice beautiful feathers is sending more protein and energy into nice feathers instead of eggs. Also, the better producers will molt later into the fall. So those hens that may have already began molting in late summer before the first leaves turn red are not the better layers. Secondly, a hen that has lost the vibrant red in her comb and wattles may have stopped laying.

Pigmentation and Bleaching

In yellow-legged breeds, the yellow pigment will return back to their vent, eye-ring, beak, legs and feet (in that order) when the hen is no longer laying.

Hands-On Observation

Put your thumb and middle finger on the points of her pubic bones on either side of her vent. They should be flexible and wide; about 3 fingers should fit between them. If they are close together and not flexible, the hen is not laying. Also, the vent on a laying hen is moist and oblong shaped. A dry and puckered vent would be an indication of a non-laying hen.

By using these guidelines and taking a little time to observe your flock, you can determine who are your better egg layers and who may be getting the free ride in your coop.

Happy chicken keeping!

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