How long chickens lay eggs is a question we often get and the answer is – it really depends on the chicken breed. Chicken life expectancy (if properly nurtured) is from 8 to 15 years, and chickens can continue to lay into their teens.
If the chickens are from one of the hybrid egg-laying breeds, then although they are capable of laying eggs for many years, they’re seldom kept that long.
Heritage or traditional breeds, on the other hand, are often kept much longer and will lay eggs into their old age.
Chickens are born with the capability to produce a set number of eggs over their lifetime, and it’s sometimes reported that keeping coop lights on in the winter to maintain egg production reduces the number of years that a chicken will lay. However, there’s no evidence to support this and chickens will lay eggs until they die of old age without running out of them.
Egg-Laying Hybrid Breeds
These breeds (Golden Buffs, Red Comets, Black Sex Links, etc.) are meant to produce eggs as quickly as possible with minimal feed input. They were bred to maximize production while minimizing costs.
They are the breeds that most commercial egg producing operations use and they usually keep the birds for about two years before replacing them. During those first two years, these breeds will produce nearly an egg a day (so 300+ eggs per year is typical) making them the best producers, but after that, they slow down so significantly that they’re not financially viable for the commercial egg producers. These breeds may also produce through winter (when young) without the addition of added light.
They are very lightweight birds, so commercial operations generally cull them and don’t make any attempt to use them for meat. Since they are commonly replaced so young in commercial situations, some believe that they quit producing eggs after about two years. However, that’s not true and they will continue to produce eggs for a couple more years – just not nearly at their initial rate.
Traditional Laying Breeds
Traditional breeds (like Buckeyes, Barred Rocks, or Rhode Island Reds) typically hit maximum production at around two years and then decrease about 10% a year after that. They won’t ever produce eggs at the initial rate of the egg-laying breeds but can easily produce a fairly consistent number of eggs for the first four to five years.
These were the breeds that were traditionally kept on small farms to provide eggs for the farm and they are well adapted to foraging and changing climatic conditions. They make great backyard chickens but generally won’t lay through the winter months unless a light is added to the coop to maintain at least 14 hours of day length (see Maintain Winter Egg Production – Add Artificial Light).
Many of the traditional breeds are also considered “dual-purpose” birds, meant that they were intended to produce both eggs and meat for the table. Once they were too old to produce reliable numbers of eggs, then they went into the stewing pot because they were large enough to make using them for meat worthwhile.
What’s Best for Backyard Flocks?
What’s best for your backyard flock depends on your goals. If getting lots of eggs so that you can provide for your family and sell eggs to your neighbors and community is important, then clearly the hybrid breeds are a good place to start. Just remember that after around two years, these birds will need to be replaced if you want continued high production.
If having a few chickens to produce eggs and meat for your family is the goal, then the traditional birds are probably a better place to start. Exactly how long they will continue to do that depends on the traditional breed chosen and the individual bird, but they will generally keep producing eggs for many years if allowed to stay.
Many chicken-keepers like to keep a mixed flock of both hybrid birds and heritage birds. That’s what we’ve chosen to do. Each year we incubate a couple of heritage Buckeyes (see About Buckeye Chickens) but also buy a couple hybrid day-old Golden Buffs. We’ll raise the chicks together and add them to the flock while removing some of the oldest Golden Buffs and Buckeyes to use for the stew pot. That way, all our birds get to live a long and productive life foraging in their pasture regardless of exactly how many eggs they are producing.
Like us, many backyard chicken-keepers get attached to their birds and find that as they age, egg production is not their top priority. In these cases, the birds may live a long time and although they may only produce one egg a year, they’ll keep laying!