If your new to owning chickens and bought chicks to start your flock, the first and most simple answer is, the pullets (what a female hen is called BEFORE she lays an egg) just aren’t old enough yet. Most, but not all breeds will begin to lay anywhere from 16-24 weeks of age.
As your pullets near the age of laying, you will want to switch them to a feed meant for laying hens. It takes a lot of calcium to produce an egg, so make sure you are providing a proper diet. You will want to feed a high quality layer feed and ensure each hen is getting enough to eat every day. Water is also very important and your layers need to have access to water at all times.
New layers tend to lay smaller eggs and are sporadic in their production at first. They also might not be using the nest box at all! Even my established layers like to go rough on me from time to time, so if you know your chickens are laying and you haven’t seen any in the nest box for a few days, it might be time to go looking for that secret nesting spot.
Ours either hid them in a nest in a back corner of our shed, under a lawn chair, or they like to stash their eggs in the straw bales. Our Ester is notorious for finding an open straw bale and just disappearing into it to lay. As you can see in the above photo, she likes to go deep into the straw! I have no clue sometimes why I bother keeping a nest box for them as they all tend to lay in the same secret spot.
If you know your hens are laying and they haven't hid their nest, then why might you still not be getting eggs? Well there is a laundry list of reasons....
Molting - Most chickens molt (the process of replacing old feathers with new ones) in the fall. While some chickens go through their molt without much notice, other explode like a pillow fight went down in your yard! Growing new feathers takes a lot of calcium and so hens stop laying during this time in order to divert the calcium need to growing new feathers.
Winter - Chickens naturally slow down egg production in the winter, it's normal. The decrease in daylight causes chicken to lay less. Heck, some hens may stop laying all together. It is the natural cycle for their bodies. Commercial egg farms provide artificial light during the winter months to keep egg production up. Since it is a natural part of a hen's cycle to slow down and conserve energy during the winter months, we do not provide supplement light to our girls. The decision is up to you.
Weather - Extreme changes in the weather can play a role in decreased egg production. In extremely hot weather, you may notice your chickens panting. That is stress. Make sure you provide your birds with cool water during these heat waves. Vice versa an extreme cold snap can cause the same stresses on your flock. Drafts are worse than cold temps, so make sure your hens have some where to get out of the wind.
Stress - Well we already talked about weather related stress, but chickens can be touchy on other matter too. Simply adding new members to the flock may be enough for more sensitive birds to take issue with. Relocating to a new coop, even if it is still in the same area as their old one. Don't even get me started on predators! When our Buffy was younger, she was such a spaz that if the dog even looked at her, she wasn't right for days. Could you imagine if a raccoon were to wander through our yard? Thankfully, with age, she doesn't stop laying every 5 minutes because the wind blows.
Broodiness - When a hen decides she wants to hatch some young (go broody) she will stop laying eggs entirely when she has the amount of eggs under her she feels is right. Yes, even when there is no rooster around, some hens will try to go broody. How do you know your hen is broody? Well, even if you are collecting eggs out from under her, she will sit, all day and all night if you let her. She may become more aggressive when you attempt to remove eggs from under her. Some hens will just puff up and may "talk" about the indignity of you stealing her eggs, while others can get downright nasty and start pecking the hand that feeds them!
Illness - Hens may stop laying eggs when they are ill. Chickens are really good at hiding their illnesses though. Many times you will not know your bird is ill till they are VERY ill. That is why it is a good idea to spend time with your flock. Get to know their personalities and behaviors, that way you can tell if something is "off." Common things to look for in an ill chicken are eyes that aren't clear and bright, weird sounds, such as a cough or sneezing, vent discharge/diarrhea, and over all droopiness to your bird due to lack of energy.
Recently we had to take our Alpha hen, Grumpy Goldie to the vet due to a "girly" infection. How did I know she had female problems? She laid a lash egg. She is already pushing five years old, so when the vet said she would probably never lay again, it was no big deal. We love her for her ability to keep the coop in line.
Age - Most hens lay well for about the first two years of their lives. By well, I mean steady and reliable. After about two years of age, a hen's productivity will decrease. That is why when the vet told me my five year old chicken would probably never lay again, well she hadn't been laying very well the last couple years, so it was no big loss in the daily egg total.
As you can see, the reasons why your nest box is empty could be one of many things. Understanding the simple rhythms of a hen’s life, from weather to age, can help you understand what is going on out there in your coop. And just remember, it isn’t easy popping out an egg every day! Keep that in mind the next time you collect your eggs and make sure you thank your egg producers! I have it on good authority that mealworms make a nice gift. *wink*