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When does a chicken start laying eggs? In this article, we cover the usual timeline for hen development, as well as some things that owners can do to keep chickens healthy and prevent delays in that development.
Many people keep backyard chickens as a combination of beloved family pets and financial contributors, in the form of egg-layers. As such, new chicken keepers are often torn between wanting their adorable new chicks to stay young, small, and fluffy forever and wanting them to start producing eggs as soon as possible. Sooner or later, though, every chicken keeper will have to start wondering: When will my chickens start laying eggs?
As with most things with chickens, the answer to this question depends on your breed and their conditions and diet. It can also vary a bit between individual birds regardless of circumstance. In this article, we will cover the basics of hen development, some simple ways to tell when your hens are about to start laying, some common problems that can delay the start of laying, and generally give you all the information you need to answer the age-old question of when your hens will start laying.
When Do Most Chickens Start Laying?
Most hens will start laying eggs when they’re about 18 to 20 weeks old, although it may take more time for them to reach their peak output. Often, the first eggs are laid irregularly or are smaller or oddly shaped when compared with a typical egg. This is nothing to worry about! Once a cycle is established, most hens will lay one egg per day.
Some hens will start earlier or later than 18 weeks, and this is not usually a sign of an illness or problem. If your hen hasn’t started laying by about 6 months old, it may be time to start looking at other reasons for their lack of production; some of these are covered below.
Best Egg-Laying Chicken Breeds
The biggest cause for variations in when hens start to lay is the breed. The breeds that start the earliest are the industrial-oriented production breeds, whether that’s a hybrid purpose-bred for maximal production or just a production strain of an older breed, like the Rhode Island Red. This makes sense if you consider that these birds are only profitable for the companies that typically own them when they are laying as many eggs as possible.
These breeds tend to start laying early and to have high production values in their peak years – between 5 and 7 eggs a week – but the price you pay for this sky-high production rate is a much shorter period of productivity. Production hybrids can have a peak laying period of as little as 18 months before they start to fall off dramatically. Older production strains can lay at peak rates for up to three years, but this is still shorter than the laying periods of heritage and other, less fantastically productive breeds.
As well as Rhode Island Reds, the highest-producing breeds include White Leghorn hybrids, Plymouth Barred Rocks, and Blue Andalusians (white eggs).
How To Tell When Your Hens Are About To Start Laying
Before a chick can become a laying hen, she first has to become a pullet, which is essentially a chicken teenager. There is some disagreement among experts and chicken keepers about what “officially” constitutes a pullet, but most hobbyists and all but the most dedicated of farmers don’t need to worry about these distinctions. The key thing to know is that pullets are the awkward, gangly stage in between chickhood and adulthood.
It can be hard to tell when a pullet is about to start laying, especially because there’s so much variation between individuals. You can be sure she won’t start laying until she’s finished her second molt, usually around 10 to 12 weeks old, and probably not until a month or two after that. If a pullet is taking an unusually long time to grow in her adult feathering, it may be a sign of a calcium deficiency, which will prevent or delay her from laying eggs. Luckily, this is easily remedied by adding more calcium to their diets, either by transitioning to layer feed or offering them calcium carbonate.
In this time, introducing her into the main body of the flock will help her to establish a place in the pecking order, the hierarchy within the coop, and to know where to lay her eggs when the time comes. This will also allow a pullet to transition from grower feed to layer feed, which has the extra calcium and nutrients hens need to develop eggs and grow strong shells around them.
Common Problems and Causes For Delays
Remember that all of the timeframes supplied in this article are averages and approximations; a hen who doesn’t start laying or developing within a certain time frame is not necessarily ill or in trouble. Use your own judgment for when other symptoms, like an overly skinny, featherless, or lethargic hen, are causes to contact your vet. For my money, I would always err on the side of contacting a vet if you aren’t sure about a pullet or hen; it’s much better to pay the bill for what turns out to be a non-problem than to wake up to a seriously ill or even dead bird.
All that said, there are plenty of minor issues that can cause a pullet not to lay until later in her development. Perhaps the most common is inadequate nutrition, usually a lack of calcium. Calcium is the main ingredient in eggshells, and egg production in general is a very energy and nutrient-intensive activity – remember the old adage that a woman who’s pregnant is eating for two, then remember that a hen laying regularly essentially becomes pregnant every other day.
One common cause of nutritional deficiencies is bullying or aggression from older, bigger hens. The pecking order is a cutthroat business, and the aggressive behavior that accompanies these social dynamics can sometimes prevent a smaller, younger bird from getting the food she needs. The stress from these interactions can also interrupt a hen’s laying cycle and delay egg production. Keep an eye on your flock, and if this seems to be the problem, separate the bullied bird from her aggressors and make sure she gets the food she needs while you work to re-establish a healthy social order.
Another way to make sure your hens have enough calcium in their diet is to provide calcium carbonate, usually crumbled oyster shell, for them to eat as needed. Hens are very in-tune to their own nutritional needs and will take as much oyster shell as they need to sustain their egg production. Unusually soft-shelled eggs, feather loss or slow feathering, and egg eating are all signs of a calcium deficiency.
It can be stressful waiting for your hens to start laying, especially when you’ve already paid for them and spent a lot of time and money raising them from chicks to the cusp of adulthood. It may take longer for some hens than others, but remember that laying is what hens’ bodies are naturally designed to do. As with all natural processes, if you’re patient, it will happen in its own time.
If you’re reading this article because you have older chickens who have stopped laying eggs and you’re wondering why, read our article, “When Chickens Stop Laying Eggs.”