It is relatively easy to determine whether or not a hen is in production. Check the condition of the comb, pubic bones, abdomen, and vent. If a hen is laying, her comb and wattles should be large, red, soft, and waxy; the pubic bones should be flexible and wide apart; the abdomen should be full, soft, and pliable; and the vent should be large, moist, and free of pigment. A good layer should have more than two fingers spread between the pubic bones and three or more fingers spread between the pubic bones and the tip of the keel.
When a hen is out of production, her comb and wattles may be small, pale, and shriveled; the pubic bones are rigid and close together; the abdomen is hard and tight; and the vent is small, dry, and pigmented. Do not confuse a fatty abdomen with one that is soft and pliable due to laying condition.
You can estimate past production from the amount of yellow pigment left in the bird's body (in yellow-skinned breeds). A hen will have yellow pigment in the vent, eyering, earlobe, beak, shanks, and feet when she begins to lay. Less pigment is deposited in these body areas as she goes into her egg production cycle, so the yellow color gradually fades.
The yellow pigment is bleached from the body parts in a definite order. After a hen has laid just a few eggs, the pigment is bleached from the edges of the vent. The edges of the eyelids (called the eyering) will be bleached next, followed by the earlobes. The pigment of the beak fades first at the corners of the mouth, progressing toward the tip as production continues. Complete loss of pigment in the beak takes 4 to 6 weeks.
The feet and shanks take from 4 to 6 months to completely lose their pigmentation. Color is first lost from the bottoms of the feet, then from the front of the shanks, then from the rear of the shanks, and finally from the tops of the toes and the hock joint.
When a hen stops laying, the pigment returns to her body parts in the same order that it leaves, but at a much faster rate. Pigmentation is a good indicator of egg production for the first six months a bird has been laying. And, when a bird has stopped production long enough for pigment to return to some body parts, it is an indicator of how long the bird has been out of production.
Rate of lay and individual variations between birds can influence how rapidly pigmentation changes take place. The more pigment there is at the start, the longer it will take for all the pigment to fade. Pigmentation changes generally take place faster in small hens than in heavies. Low vitality birds may also have faded pigment due to abnormalities or disease and yet not be good producers. Even though variations do exist, pigmentation is still a good estimate of past production.
A hen that shows characteristics of being in production by an enlarged and moist vent, well developed and waxy comb and wattles, an active and alert appearance but little loss of pigment, and very little feather wear, has probably been in production for only a short time. On the other hand, a hen that appears to have been in production for a long period of time but has not lost much pigment (a hen with bleached vent and beak but with shanks still showing pigment long after other hens are completely bleached) is probably laying few eggs.
Cindy Lou Willson
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