The excitement of buying chicks is usually only surpassed by the arrival of that first egg!
While you are caring for them as chicks, there is much to do and think about. It isn’t until they become ungainly ‘teenagers’, eating us out of house and home, that our thoughts turn to the question- when will they lay?
You have steered them carefully through the brooder stage, they have feathered out by 12 weeks or so and have been moved into the grownups’ coop- so now what?
Surprisingly, there can be quite a wait for some hens to get into egg ‘production mode’.
Depending on which breeds you have will determine how soon they lay and, lots of small steps need undertaking before your hen will start to lay, so let’s look at each step by step.
Feed That Gets Your Hens Laying
Nutrition can have a huge effect on the egg laying machinery.
If you want your hens to lay eggs, it is very important to maintain good nutrition through the formative weeks of the birds’ life.
Cutting corners with supplementation, can lead to problems other than delayed egg production too, many of them growth related. Equally as bad for them is too many treats, fat hens are unhealthy and won’t be as productive as you would like.
You should feed your chicks starter feed for the first 6 weeks of life. Chick starter has 20-22% protein for rapid development of feathers and bones.
Young pullets require slightly less protein, 14-16% from 6 to 20 weeks, or until the bird starts laying.
Layers are 20 weeks or above and require 15-18% protein in their feed.
Any slight variations in their protein can result in delayed onset of laying. Ensuring that the feed you buy is fresh is important since many vitamins lose their effectiveness over time. That great deal on 4 bags of feed may not be so great if it’s old feed.
The Importance of Water
Clean, fresh water, is an often overlooked necessity. Chicks can drink a surprising amount of water for their size, but the main problem with chicks is that they foul their water almost nonstop!
Between scratching up the litter into the drinker and pooping in it, the quality of the water needs to be constantly monitored and changed often. You can buy plastic, elevation stands which will help to keep feed and water fresher or you can even make your own wire stand.
Elevating the drinker slightly will help, but you will still be changing the water frequently. Once they get bigger, this becomes less of a problem as you can suspend the drinkers and feeders higher.
If you are a fan of nipple drinkers the good news is they can be used with day old chicks apparently. All you need to do is show them how and where and they quickly get the hang of it.
As a precaution, I would still put in a small regular drinker for a couple of days to ensure hydration is adequate.
Different Breeds Start Laying at Different Ages
Which breed of chicken you chose will also come into play.
Genetically, some of the newer breeds, such as the Golden Comets, have been bred specifically to lay lots of eggs. They may begin laying as early as 16 weeks! The downside of this is that they usually don’t live much longer than three years and production drops off in the second year.
Rhode Island Reds, Delawares’ and Barred rocks are also early to lay- usually around 18-20 weeks. They are good, proven layers and can lay into their fourth or fifth year, although not consistently.
However, there are some breeds, mainly the larger, heavier fowl that can take up to 28 weeks before they produce an egg.
Illnesses Can Delay Egg Laying
Parasite infestations such as lice, mites and worms can cause a delay in egg production.
Regular, hands on health checks for your birds should be done monthly, more frequently if you suspect a problem. You can take a poop sample to the veterinarian for a float test for worms if you think you have a problem.
Certain diseases such as fowl pox, coccidiosis and infectious bronchitis can affect the bird significantly. If they contract the illness while still a pullet, it’s possible that they will lay poorly for the rest of their days.
Not only does illness stop/delay them laying but so does the daylight.
What time of year are they coming to point of lay? The amount of available daylight will affect how quickly they start to lay. If a pullet is ready to lay in December, she may not actually produce an egg until the days start to lengthen.
Access to the Nesting Boxes
In a previous article we talked about stress in hens. The younger pullets who want to desperately lay an egg for you may be kept away from the nest boxes by the older hens!
The simple remedy for this is to make some temporary nest boxes for the new girls.
Things like an old wooden box, cardboard box, cat carrier with some straw/nesting material can make very nice impromptu nesting boxes.
Once the pullets get the hang of it, things will relax a bit. I have noticed with my flock that once a pullet starts to lay regularly, the flock dynamic changes a little. The older hens are slightly more accepting of the now laying pullets.
If you think you should have more eggs than you can find, check around the area for likely nesting spots. Hens have been known to find some strange places to lay in! Compost bins, under bushes even on seldom used shelves!
When Will They Start to Lay?
So, to answer the original question- broadly speaking the majority of breeds will start to lay around 16-20 weeks. If they don’t start quite that soon, don’t despair! There is some evidence that hens that start to lay later, live longer and have more productive lives.
Never, ever try to force your hens to lay sooner than they are designed for. This will lead to all sorts of reproductive problems such as vent prolapse, which can make the hen prone to illness.
I have a few Mille Fleur D’Uccle bantams because they are so adorable. It took six months for the first egg to appear! Another month went by and a second egg appeared!
Naturally I assumed they were going to be poor, sporadic layers. Over the last two to three months the four little ladies have produced 3-4 eggs daily.
What’s the moral of the story? Never assume that a hen goes immediately into full production mode.
The breed of chicken you have will ultimately determine when she will lay- there is nothing to be done about that.
As we have seen, other things can affect the health and development of the chick and can result in a delay in egg production. It is up to us as keepers of the flock, to ensure we have done our part to maintain and promote the health of our flock.
Most hens will start to lay at 20 weeks old, but some take longer- the key is Patience! And lots of it! It can be hard waiting, especially not knowing when the first egg will come, but it is worth the wait.
Do you have stories to share? How old were your chicks when they started to lay eggs?