My chickens! No eggs! WTF?
February 4, 2010 7:04 PM   Subscribe

Why have my fantastic hens stopped laying?

I've had a henhouse for almost a year now. Last spring, my partner and I bought 7 hens. Ssshhh, the limit in Portland is 3 (don't care, really, this doesn't need to be anonymous. My neighbors love me, no problem at all.)

They started laying last fall. Once they started laying, the daily egg take was about 5. That's because most hens lay on a 36 hour schedule. I love getting my eggs, I check almost every day.

The hens are in an old greenhouse. Shortly (as soon as I can afford it) they will be in a real henhouse. The main problem is rats.

I hate rats! Dang!

The jerk rats rats runnel into the henhouse and (mostly) eat the food. They also drink the water. Argh. There's no real solution except to build a better, more varmint-proof henhouse.

I'm planning to build a better henhouse this spring. I'd really underestimated the tenacity of rats. Dumb, I guess. I have purchased plans for a much better, more dedicated henhouse.

Until last week, this was more of a theoretical problem. I was getting 5 or so eggs a day. 4 days ago, abruptly, no more eggs.

None. Not one. Despite the fact that they are of three different breeds. Also, no detritus from eggs-eaten-by-rats.

I note that the rats-stealing-food level is significantly higher. In fact, if I miss a day, it is likely the hens are out of food. Is that it?

The hens look fine, no obvious bites, no lacerations. Just no eggs.

Do I need to move up the build of the new varmint-resistant henhouse, or am I missing something? Is it the season? Lack-of-light? I'd understand, but all the different breeds at once?

I think my hens are just being messed up by inconsistent food and water due to rats. Am I right? Am I missing something?
posted by Invoke to Pets & Animals (31 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Do your hens have a light in their house? The typical hen will lay only when the day length is long enough. Give your hens a light and put it on a timer, set to give them a total of fourteen hours of light each day, and they might start laying again.
posted by Ery at 7:11 PM on February 4, 2010

It's wintertime. Hens don't lay in winter.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:26 PM on February 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

i agree with trying to keep a light on in their house. egg production is based on how much light the hen receives - in cold northern areas some folks keep a light going on a timer. hens need about 16-18 hours of light a day to keep laying a steady stream of eggs. this recommends a 60 watt ceiling light for a small enclosure.

other than that, do you suspect rats are somehow taking the eggs? they're fairly smart animals. do the hens have raised nest boxes or are they laying eggs on the ground?

you might want to try the osu extension as a good source of local animal husbandry knowledge.
posted by chickadee at 7:30 PM on February 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

What Ery says, plus possibly a calcium deficiency - you can grind up your used eggshells and put it in their feed, or give them oyster shell.
posted by tomierna at 7:30 PM on February 4, 2010

I wouldn't force the egg laying with lighting until you deal with the stresses caused by vermin and inconsistent food, BTW. That's just not fair, and it is not good for their health.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:39 PM on February 4, 2010 [4 favorites]

You need to employ some cats. The rats are the problem. While they are not eating your girls, yet, the rats are really scaring the crap out of them and putting them into "survival" eggs.

The rats have to go and I suggest moving the roost (henhouse) repeatedly until you have the rats under control.

(Yes, I was once a suburban egg rancher.)
posted by snsranch at 7:44 PM on February 4, 2010

Your henhouse really does need to be rat and other critter proof. This means no wall cavities.
Here's some good ideas for chicken houses.
posted by ginky at 7:52 PM on February 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

I forgot to mention, and forgive me for yapping on, but the rats will eventually find their way into your house and your neighbors houses. For an urban or suburban chicken rancher, your greatest enemy are the rats. Please feel free to memail me about the details of rat eradication.
posted by snsranch at 7:53 PM on February 4, 2010

It could be the light thing but a friend of mine has 6 hens and, surprisingly, here in SC where it's been unusually cold this winter, they've still laid eggs like crazy despite the cold, short days (and no artificial light).

Have you seen any snakes? They love eggs and will eat them whole, leaving no trace. Don't know if they can get in your "coop" or not, but if rats can, then snakes can too. (And yes, some snakes eat rats, too, but others prefer eggs.)
posted by ourroute at 8:06 PM on February 4, 2010

We had the same problem, then one day a rooster came into our yard and caught those hens right off their guard.
posted by shii at 9:03 PM on February 4, 2010

Another vote against artificial lighting. It's natural for hens' bodies to stop laying in winter (they will also molt during this time - although many hens don't molt much in their first year). You can extend their laying season, but it's hard on them.

Rats will absolutely kill and eat chickens. Happens all the time. You definitely need to step up your schedule for moving your hens to secure housing.
posted by ErikaB at 9:08 PM on February 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm not planning to force the laying via artificial lights. I think it far more likely it is rat problems.

My plans say that 2 foot deep fencing is enough. but I doubt it, these rats are very into the chicken food stealing, thoughts?

I'm thinking 2 foot deep plus a 2 foot perimeter of fencing. Anything easier in mind? These Portland rats are very insistent!
posted by Invoke at 9:58 PM on February 4, 2010

Instead of breaking your back digging two foot trenches for wire, why not just lay a sturdy mesh floor in the henhouse, fix it to the interior walls, and cover it with deep litter?
posted by flabdablet at 10:09 PM on February 4, 2010

I am also a Portland chicken law violator who has done battle with our vigorous NW vermin in the past. We re-sited and built a new hen house that was off the ground and well constructed, eliminated nearby woodpiles and other good spots for rat warrens and most of all we stopped feeding kitchen scraps to the ladies. The rats were pretty much gone in couple of months.

We also have a really good cat who loves to leave us little half rat finger puppets and neatly arrayed displays of tiny internal organs on the front step. Gross but also a little weird/cool if you think about it from a cat psychology point of view.

Good Luck and don't worry they will start laying in the later spring especially if they have a nice new house and no rats .
posted by ijustwantyourhalf at 10:13 PM on February 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Like the others said - chickies take winterbreak. Get 'em that comfier, safer henhouse and they'll be back to normal when the warmer part of spring starts.
posted by batmonkey at 11:50 PM on February 4, 2010

It's true that hens take a winter break, but it's usually more of a slowdown than a complete cessation. The fact that you were getting 5 eggs a day up until a few days ago (which some of the readers above seemed to have glossed over) confirms that your weather is mild enough and your hens fresh enough that winter is not the problem here.

One likely scenario is that the hens have learned to eat eggs. This is all the more probable given that you do allow them to run out of food occasionally. Too bad, because it's a hard habit to break. If they are eating the eggs, the rats are probably cleaning up the remains, if there are any. Try checking the hens' bills closely for signs of egg yolk.

It could also be that something larger has moved in Possums will eat eggs, and they will also eat chickens.

Lastly, I hope you aren't planning on controlling the rats with a fence. That absolutely will not work. If you built an enclosure that went, as you say, 2 feet underground, and was completely enclosed over the top as well, and was sheathed, not with chicken wire, but with half-inch hardware cloth, it would work. But a fence? They will just go up one side and down the other, and they can squeeze right through 1" chicken wire.
posted by bricoleur at 3:23 AM on February 5, 2010

Our chickens slowed down a little bit when the days started to get shorter, but then they picked back up again. It was sort of nice to have a break. You have to eat a lot of eggs to keep up with four a day.

We converted a raised garden bed into a chicken run, so the base is pressure treated wood, but we did have rats squeezing through some cracks. So we plugged the cracks with hardware cloth and started setting traps. After about a week of getting one rat a day in the traps, things cleared up pretty nicely.
posted by electroboy at 7:46 AM on February 5, 2010

Hens need a rooster around to keep them laying regularly. Roosters aren't a requirement for hens to lay, but something about his brood tending and establishment of the pecking order keeps them laying in an orderly fashion (I'm not a poultry psycologist so I don't know exactly why). Clearly you would need a rooster for them to have chicks.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:50 AM on February 5, 2010

Hens need a rooster around to keep them laying regularly.

Eponysterical, but untrue. Hens will lay right along without a rooster. And in a very small flock, they are arguably happier without a rooster, too, as one rooster can spread himself over a lot more than six hens in a day. If there are only six, the consequent recycling tends to get on the hens' nerves.

Another scenario, along the lines of what snsranch suggested, is that they've had a fright. Any new dogs in the neighborhood? Can coyotes or foxes come around. Something like that can put them right off laying for several days.
posted by bricoleur at 8:21 AM on February 5, 2010

Hens will lay right along without a rooster.

Hens will continue to lay, but it can get irregular or even stop for a time. With a rooster present they will continue like clockwork (cluckwork?). In order to keep the hens happy with a rooster around, you should establish yourself as the alpha and him as the secondary. He will still strut around and brood, but will not be overbearing and, as bonus, will not try and attack you. The minute he looks to establish himself as the alpha (coming at you, mounting hens, pecking hens too aggressively) you scare the crap out of him with a scream or a (feignting) swipe with a switch. If this does not work, then this method is foolproof.
posted by Pollomacho at 9:03 AM on February 5, 2010

Sorry, pollomacho, but you're just kind of wrong. Hens will ovulate regardless. No rooster required. They slow down in winter, regardless of whether a rooster is around. The rooster is superfluous unless you want to make more chickens.

Invoke, you want to be listening to bricoleur. Wintertime = slowdown. Also, are they molting, or beginning to? They'll stop laying when they molt so that they can put that energy into producing feathers, rather than eggs.

Do they free range at all? If so, they could well be laying, but hiding their eggs from you. Mine started hiding eggs after they realized that someone (i.e., me) was stealing them.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:19 AM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, using artificial light is one of those issues that people disagree on. Plenty of people do it and have no problems, others say it stresses the chickens out. I haven't really seen strong evidence to support either position.
posted by electroboy at 9:44 AM on February 5, 2010

Also in the Pacific NW, just down the road from you, and our hens are continuing to lay throughout the winter, albeit a little less frequently (each has stopped while molting, too). We let ours freerange during the day, so that may increase the light they get. If you see a lot of feathers around, that means they are molting. But yeah, my guess is it's rat related. They suck
posted by purenitrous at 9:50 AM on February 5, 2010

Forgot to add, while we certainly had rats, I don't think they were responsible for the egg eating. It looks like the hens got low on calcium and started eating the eggs. People had warned me that once they started eating eggs, they basically turned into mindless egg-eating zombies, but once we added some oyster shell to their food, it stopped happening.

It looked like the rats were mostly after scratch that the chickens had missed, or some of the vegetable scraps. Because of the neighbor's cats, we elected to use a live trap to catch the rats, rather than poison or snap traps.
posted by electroboy at 10:02 AM on February 5, 2010

Hens will continue to lay, but it can get irregular or even stop for a time. With a rooster present they will continue like clockwork (cluckwork?).

Sorry, this is not true. We had plenty of hens and roosters of all types running around our little ranch, and then hens still stopped laying in the winter. It's natural and normal, because baby chicks have a much harder time being born in the winter than they do the spring.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:08 AM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all your help. Here are the plans I'm planning to use shortly to build the new henhouse. I think the Garden Coop looks great, and will be quite secure.

I do have a supposedly great live rat trap I've been somewhat loathe to put in place, since I don't relish the idea of throwing it in a bucket to drown the captured rat. I guess I need to do that.

Now off to Foster's Feed to get more food. Damn rats eat a huge amount.

I don't think the hens are low on calcium. I put oyster shells in the feed and those eggshells were noticeably thicker than store eggs.
posted by Invoke at 10:44 AM on February 5, 2010

I do have a supposedly great live rat trap I've been somewhat loathe to put in place, since I don't relish the idea of throwing it in a bucket to drown the captured rat.

That's what we did. Didn't especially like the idea of the neighbor's cat having it's leg broken by the snap traps, nor did we want to spread rat poison around near our coop. Drowning isn't instantaneous, but I can't imagine that dying of massive internal bleeding is any picnic.
posted by electroboy at 10:52 AM on February 5, 2010

Embed wire into the floor of the coop. Otherwise, the rats and other creatures will just keep digging deeper and deeper.
posted by stoneweaver at 11:02 AM on February 5, 2010

I'd also recommend checking for eggs more often. You mention that you check for eggs "almost every day." Fellow Mefite clucksters, feel free to correct me, but I think most chicken owners check at least once or twice a day.

Having eggs just laying there is an open invitation to egg-eating, whether it's by the rats or the chickens. After all, an egg can't be eaten if it's already been collected! I have often been told that eggs shouldn't be left in the coop overnight, because the smell can attract predators.

The BYC Forum has a vast and varied collection of advice on the topics of rat-proofing, preventing egg-eating, and much more.
posted by ErikaB at 11:48 AM on February 5, 2010

Two things I forgot to add:

1. Check out the hardware store. They have snap traps that are fully-enclosed now. You set the spring with a lever on the outside, and when the lever has moved, you throw it away. It's the best of both worlds - a quick death with no involvement on your part, and no risk for pets/kids.

2. Just as a data point, I live a little bit north of you. I have 4 hens, which are about 10 months old (i.e. this is their first laying season). They laid a total of 52 eggs in January:

Week 1: 15
Week 2: 17
Week 3: 16
Week 4: 4
posted by ErikaB at 12:03 PM on February 5, 2010

And one thing I forgot to add -- the rodents can and will transmit mites to the chickens. They're hard to get rid of once you get them. (And they'll bite you too. Those things itch like hell.) So, you now have an even more compelling reason to get rid of the rats.
posted by mudpuppie at 12:05 PM on February 5, 2010

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