So you’ve made the decision to invest in a flock of backyard laying hens. Congratulations!
You have embarked on a journey that will, without a doubt, be rewarding and enjoyable.
Until you see that first egg sitting in the nest box, you will likely find yourself wringing your hands in anticipation of that exciting day.
So when do chickens start laying eggs?
The short answer is – it varies!
In general, chickens start laying eggs at 6 months old. That being said, some breeds start laying younger while others take a little longer.
Additional Reading: 20 Best Egg Laying Chickens
Signs Your Hen is Ready to Lay
Before trying to figure out whether your hen is ready to lay, make sure you first determine that you have a hen and not a rooster!
While hens can lay eggs without the presence of a rooster (albeit unfertilized eggs), a rooster will obviously not be able to produce any eggs for you.
So now, all that’s left to do is watch and wait.
While you won’t know for sure that your hen is laying until y you have seen the first egg, there are some telltale signs to watch out for in the meantime.
While the highest volume of eggs will come when your chicken is in the early stages of its laying days – think from pullet stage all the way up to three years of age – you might not find that all of your chickens have identical patterns, laying behaviors, or volumes.
Nevertheless, here are some of the signs to watch out for.
1. Consider the Age of Your Chickens
Hens aren’t born ready to lay eggs from day one. Just as humans need to grow to achieve reproductive maturity, so do chickens.
Pullets, or young hens, generally reach laying age at around sixteen weeks of age – although this can be slightly older or younger depending on the breed.
You can’t exactly set your watch by laying age, as it is highly variable.
2. She May Act Differently
How is your hen interacting with the rest of the flock? Is she hanging out more with the rooster? Poking around the nest box? Bickering more with the other hens?
You may notice that your hens are spending more time inside or engaging in other odd behaviors just before they are ready to lay their first eggs.
3. Look at the Physical Characteristics of Your Hen
While a hen will not develop the massive wattles and comb that a rooster has, she will develop wattles that are large and red just before she starts to lay.
A sexually mature hen will also look mature – there won’t be any bare spots in her feathers and she will look clean and shiny.
If you want to get more technical about things, pick your chicken up.
If she is ready to lay, her pelvic bones will have pulled apart in a slight separation -or they will be getting ready to pull apart.
Feel around for three prominent bones near the back of your chicken.
If the bones are crowded close together, laying is not going to be any time soon.
4. Your Hen Will Begin to Squat
Just as a hen squats to lay an egg, she will start to demonstrate this behavior just before she is ready to start laying.
Don’t get too excited -there may still be some time left before she begins the process of actually laying an egg.
However, when she starts to squat, it is a good sign that she is getting ready by acclimating herself to this kind of behavior.
She will squat close to the ground and spread her wings out.
Now, squatting is a behavior that you can encourage in your hens. All you need to do is put your hand out over her.
This behavior is often misinterpreted as a sign of affection when really, it’s a reproductive behavior and you are triggering it by serving as the dominant presence in the chicken coop.
When a hen squats, she is signaling to a rooster that she is mature enough to be bred – and she is essentially inviting him over for the act!
Again, it also signals that egg production is nigh.
5. She Will Start to Explore the Nesting Area
You may notice that your hen has become increasingly curious about your nest boxes.
She might hop inside, try to get comfortable, or even move around some of the bedding.
All she is doing is trying to familiarize herself with her new digs, and there’s nothing you need to do (or should do) to discourage or encourage this behavior.
You can, however, put wooden eggs, plastic Easter eggs, or golf balls inside the nest boxes.
This will help show your chickens where they need to lay their eggs, and will also entice them inside if they are having trouble figuring things out.
6. Your Hens May Be Hungrier Than Normal
If you find that your feed bill has suddenly gone through the roof, don’t panic! Increased hunger is a normal sign of impending egg production in layer hens.
Remember – they are doing some serious work here! Just keep in mind that you will need to adjust your feeding patterns slightly as your hens move into the laying stage – and we will address this particular issue later on in the article.
Different Breeds Start Laying at Different Ages
Most hens start to lay at around twenty weeks of age. Some breeds, however, can lay much sooner than others. Others are more delayed.
Silkie chickens, for example, take a while to lay and are therefore kept by backyard chicken keepers more for ornamental or showing purposes rather than for their egg production.
Generally, chickens that are heavier will also take longer to start laying eggs.
Which Breeds Lay the Earliest?
Sex link chickens tend to lay much earlier than other types of birds.
These are often considered hybrid breeds, and they start laying at around sixteen to eighteen weeks of age.
If you want to raise a breed of chicken that will lay eggs very young, consider raising a newer breed like Golden Comets.
Other breeds, like Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rocks, and Delawares also lay eggs relatively early – usually around eighteen weeks of age.
Other breeds, like Easter Eggers, will produce plenty of eggs for you. However, they will take more time to start laying (though not quite as long as breeds like Silkies).
If you have Easter Eggers or similar breeds of chickens, you can expect to start getting eggs at around twenty weeks of age.
How to Prepare for Laying
Still waiting impatiently for that first egg? Luckily, there are some preparatory steps you can take now to make the waiting (a little bit) easier.
Prepare Your Nest Boxes
Take the time now to prepare your nest boxes for your girls.
If your hen does not have the appropriate place to lay her eggs, particularly a place that is private and secluded, she might not start producing eggs right way – or she may lay them in an undesirable location.
Nest boxes should provide at least one square foot of area for every four hens.
They will take turns using the boxes, but you can add additional boxes for extra hens if necessary.
These boxes should be elevated off the floor in the darkest corner of the coop.
For added privacy and a reduced likelihood of egg breakage or eating, you can also hang curtains over the entrance of the box.
As previously mentioned, you can put fake eggs of some sort in the boxes to encourage your hens to lay in the proper area.
You should also make sure that your nest boxes are filled with plenty of soft nesting material.
Here are some good choices for nest box material:
- Old towels
- Nesting pads
- Pine shavings
- Shredded paper
- Grass clippings
- Shredded leaves
- Cedar shavings (be careful using these, as the scent can be too strong at times)
Daylight hours are critical when it comes to encouraging a hen to lay.
You want to increase day length in order to drive your hens to lay.
Laying hens prefer about sixteen hours of sunlight – which can be tough to come by in most climates.
A hen who reaches maturity in the summer should be just fine with the amount of daylight provided naturally, but if your hens reach laying age during the fall or winter, you might want to add supplemental light to your chicken coop.
You only need about 25 watts of incandescent light for every square foot to encourage your hens to lay.
Switch to a Layer Feed
Nutrition is of paramount importance when it comes to good egg production.
While you need to maintain good nutrition throughout every stage of your hens’ lives, providing adequate nutrition during the pre-laying days is exceptionally vital.
While you should be feeding your birds chick starter for the first six weeks of life, which has up to twenty-two percent protein, you will need to adjust your feeding schedule and type once the birds surpass six weeks.
At this stage, you should feed a formulation with less protein – no more than sixteen percent – until they reach twenty weeks.
Once your hens reach maturity – twenty weeks of age – you can feed them a more balanced feed that has up to eighteen percent protein.
Don’t choose a feed that has any less than fifteen percent protein.
Too much or too little protein can cause a delayed onset in the time of laying.
Remember that the quantity and freshness of your feed matter, too.
Even if you are feeding the perfect layer feed, if you aren’t providing your chickens with enough of it, you may run into problems. Providing free-choice access to feed is your best bet.
You should also avoid feeding food that is super old. Feed can lose some of its nutritional quality and vitamin content over time.
Add a Calcium Supplement
In addition to switching your girls over to a layer-specific feed, you should also add a calcium supplement.
You can use crushed oyster shell or even crush up eggshells to feed back to them.
This should be fed free-choice (meaning, available at all times) in a separate container.
It should not be mixed into the feed because this will limit their intake.
Calcium helps support the development of strong egg shells.
Often, chickens who are deficient in calcium will lay eggs that are weak, misshapen, or malformed in some way.
Why Has My Chicken Not Started to Lay?
Remember that each chicken is different and her egg-laying capacity may vary drastically from that of her peers.
Most eggs lay about four to six eggs per week, but this is largely dependent on the health, genetics, and breed of the specific chicken.
It’s a Bad Time of the Year
If your chickens are coming into maturity or point of lay in the winter, know that you could very well see a delay in initial egg production.
Hens tend to slow in their egg production during the colder months, not just because of the temperature, but because the amount of available daylight is drastically reduced.
Even if your pullet is ready to lay in January, she might wait until the days are longer.
A sick chicken will lay poorly. Anything from parasite infections (like lice, worms, or mice) to transmittable diseases can delay or stop egg production entirely.
You should check your birds once a month for any outward signs of illness, and bring a fecal sample to a veterinarian if you think you have a problem.
There are some diseases, like coccidiosis, bronchitis, and fowl pox that cannot only delay egg production, but can also kill your birds.
Usually, these diseases are not a problem in a closed flock as long as you purchased your chicks or pullets from a reputable source.
However, take all appropriate precaution -such as making sure your coop is clean and your chickens are well fed- to prevent any diseases or parasites.
It Has Poor Nest Box Access
If your hens can’t get into a nest box, they may hold off on laying until they find a suitable location.
You don’t need to be an advanced carpenter in order to provide suitable nesting areas – you can even use milk crates, old wooden boxes, cardboard boxes, or cat carriers as temporary and nesting sites.
Once your hens get used to the new nesting boxes, they will rely on them as their favorite spots to lay.
Surprise! It’s Laying Somewhere Else
If you don’t have good nest boxes – or, perhaps, if your chickens are slow learners! – take a moment to think things through.
If your hens should have started laying weeks ago, but you’ve yet to see any signs of egg production, think about whether they are laying eggs somewhere besides the nest boxes you’ve created.
Chickens will lay eggs anywhere that seems safe and private – so it’s not unheard of to have eggs hanging out in your compost bin, under your porch, or even beneath a bush.
Chickens don’t generally start molting until they’ve already gone through an egg production cycle, but if your hens came into maturity late in the season (when daylight hours were shorter, for instance) it could be that they are entering a molt.
If your hens have displayed a change in appetite or behavior, and if they are missing patches of feathers all over their bodies, they could be molting.
Molting redirects energy from egg laying to growing feathers so it can cause a brief halt in egg production.
Molts usually last about eight to sixteen weeks.
There’s not much you can do to get through a molt besides wait– but remember, this is unlikely unless your hens are older.
It is Malnourished or Doesn’t Have a Good Water Supply
We already mentioned the importance of providing your hen with proper nutrition in the days prior to, and during, laying.
However, if your hen is lacking a good supply of water, this can also affect his or her laying patterns.
Weather, too, can play a role – extremely hot or extremely cold weather can cause a fluctuation in egg production.
Clean, fresh water is important at all times of the year, but particularly during these extreme weather conditions.
Between the natural tendency of chickens to scratch bedding (and poop) into their waterers, you should make your best efforts to elevate your waterer and keep it clean.
Change the water frequently and consider using nipple drinkers to streamline the process.
It’s Scared or Threatened
If a hen is stressed or frightened in any way, it may hold off laying eggs until it senses that the danger has passed.
If you have frequent predator problems – or suspect them- know that your hens might not lay until they feel secure.
A good way to resolve this is to provide your hens with proper housing via chicken tractors or enclosed runs or to lock them in the coop until there is no longer a threat.
What If My First Few Eggs Look…Weird?
Don’t panic! The first few weeks of egg production may be a bit irregular for your hens.
Your first eggs could be small in size or have soft shells (which you can combat with an extra calcium supplement).
The eggs might even have double yolks – or no yolks at all.
Don’t worry – production will peak in about ten weeks, and the eggs will also start to look more normal after the first few days.
When Do Hens Stop Laying?
While most chickens can live for eight to ten years when raised in proper conditions, you won’t get eggs from a hen for this long no matter what you do.
Egg production drastically drops off after the first couple of years of maturity.
As chickens age, they naturally slow down.
Most hens will only produce about three solid years of egg production before they begin to decrease.
So how do you know that your hen has laid her first egg – beyond actually finding it in the nest box, of course?
You will likely hear her!
A triumphant hen will often sing an “egg song” as soon as she has dropped her first egg. It is almost like a proud mother announcing the birth of her new babies.
Prepare yourself for some celebratory cackling from the chicken coop, and make sure you have lots of egg cartons on hand.
You are about to reap one of the biggest benefits of owning and raising chickens – farm fresh eggs every day of the week!