Springtime is when egg layers are most prolific but occasionally problems can occur. Eggs can be extremely small, misshapen or with virtually no shell.

There are several possible reasons for any egg problem but thin shells are most commonly produced by young pullets that are not fully mature. The condition can also be brought on through fright, poor nutrition, disease or overcrowding. Misshapen eggs can be produced by pullets just coming into lay or much older birds late in lay. Sometimes, a chicken will produce a tiny egg with no yolk inside it. When the female ovaries ripen, each ovarian follicle is full of yolk. Should a ripe ovarian follicle not be released into the infundibulum, the cycle will still continue but without a yolk.

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An exceptionally small egg next to a normal large fowl egg

Tiny eggs can also be the result of a lack of protein in the diet and it is worth checking on the feed label of your layer pellets. The higher the protein ration, such as 18%-20% the increase in egg size, whereas a ration of 15%-17% protein, which is quite adequate, will help to prevent very large eggs. Double yolk eggs are produced when ovulation is too rapid and two ovarian follicles are released at once. Subsequent eggs laid can be normal.

Although rare it is possible to find roundworms in eggs. When infestation becomes serious the worms can move from the cloaca into the oviduct, where they can infiltrate the egg. Worms will also debilitate laying birds and affect their ability to lay, so it is important to worm regularly.

The egg laying cycle also needs to be taken into consideration. In the first year it is unusual for a bird to moult but come the second summer, it will go into a moult and lose most of its feathers. During this period the birds do not lay as the body goes into a shut down mode to grow new feathers.

Correct nutrition is vital for recuperation from the moult and for egg production. The birds may look healthy enough but if not sufficient protein, minerals, vitamins and calcium are absorbed it cannot produce eggs well. There are plenty of breeder and layer rations on the market for all species of poultry and these supplemented with wheat later in the day should provide all the essentials required. Birds out at grass will also find the necessary grit and green stuffs that support the diet. If birds are housed inside or in yards then it is important to add a little mixed poultry grit to the feed, or provide it separately. Do not give oyster shell only as this is too smooth and can cause compaction in the crop.

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A hen sitting a lot could indicate an abdominal problem

When birds are managed well it reduces the risk of eggs problems but naturally some will still occur. If a hen is seen to be visiting the nest often but not laying, is looking uncomfortable and hunched up, it could be that she is trying to pass an egg but cannot. Obstructions and irregularities in the organs – even obesity - can upset the egg production route. A calcium imbalance, stress or fright can also bring on this condition. Sometimes the size of the egg is unusually large or misshapen which makes it extremely difficult to pass. When an egg is lodged in the cloaca and cannot be passed the bird is said to be egg bound. There are various old remedies for this but keeping the bird isolated, warm and putting some warm olive oil on the vent area could help. Depending on the condition of the bird specialist poultry veterinary advice for the individual situation would be wise.

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Gently feel the bird's abdomen for any swelling

Gently examining the bird externally and feeling the abdomen could tell you whether the bird was suffering from egg peritonitis. If it is bloated and hard, like a drum, this could well be the case. Egg peritonitis is when the egg yolk misses the infundibulum and falls into the abdominal cavity. The body then begins to reject the ‘foreign body’ and infection arises. A bird with peritonitis will be lethargic, depressed and may have a penguin-like stance and could be gasping. This gasping is through pain. There is no cure for this problem and the bird should be culled rather than letting her die in agony.

Egg laying birds may also succumb to a prolapsed oviduct. This is more likely to happen in young birds that have not developed fully before egg laying commences. The vent tissues exude with an egg likely to be still inside the bird. If you can see the egg it is possible to gently break the shell so that the egg can be extracted. This should obviously be done with great care, cleaning the exposed area with mild disinfectant and then isolating the bird so that she may recover. If it is a serious prolapse then veterinary attention should be sought.

Poultry should always be checked thoroughly for problems around the vent area. If there is any red around the vent other birds will begin to peck it. When a bird is laying her egg the oviduct is extruded through the cloaca thus protecting the egg from any contamination. If there is a lack of nestboxes and a hen has to lay in front of other birds, attention is drawn to this area of the body. Also, if there is flesh showing - as in a prolapse - or the vent is messy, this will attract flies so clean a dirty vent but cull the bird if there are maggots.

Egg eating is a vice that should be stopped as soon as possible. The perpetrator should be removed from the flock and she usually gives herself away by having yolk on her beak. China eggs can be used to help prevent the problem, as can an egg shell filled with mustard. It is essential to halt the problem quickly, before the eater has passed on the habit to the others around.

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This article was first published in Smallholder magazine. For your copy subscribe here or buy from your local newsagent.