So you have hens that aren't 'giving the goods', eh?
Maybe this information can help you to make adjustments that will encourage them to lay.
First and most obviously, some hens are better producers than others. Assuming that you've already done your research to figure out which hen best fits your expectations for egg laying, we can instead move on to some other factors that you will want to keep in mind. Note, these aren't all inclusive, but they will hopefully put you well on your way to having a productive flock.
Egg laying depends on a number of factors. However, three of the most important factors are diet, lighting, and environment.
On the diet issue, make sure your girls are receiving a good complete feed like a "laying" feed. This usually comes in either a pellet or a mash, the pellet being the least wasteful and least likely to degrade, nutrient wise, because of it's solid form. Despite what a feedstore clerk may tell you, scratch isn't a complete feed, but only a treat or something that you throw in their bedding by the handful to encourage them to 'scratch' around in the bedding to fluff and aerate it. It just doesn't have the 'stuff' a hen needs to be a good layer.
A complete feed, on the other hand, will not only have the sufficient protein for layers (around 16-20 percent) but also a vitamin/mineral package. The labels are usually clearly marked for the feed's purpose. If you have a question about whether or not it contains the vitamin/mineral package (which is what makes a complete feed 'complete') then read the ingrediants. If you see alot of mumbo-jumbo that looks like chemical names, that's going to be the v/m package. :)
The feed should be fresh so that the nutrients haven't degraded. Remember, these are the building blocks of eggs. Check either for a date of manufacture on the bag, or inspect each bag carefully for telltale signs of oldness like excess dust, musty smells, etc.
Also, to produce good eggs, your hens should have some form of calcium available to them, even if they're eating a laying feed that has added calcium. The calcium in a laying feed helps you hedge your bets, but the hens themselves are the experts as to what their bodies need, calcium wise, so give them ground livestock grade oyster shell free choice. You can mix their grit in there and serve it free choice as well to help them grind their feed (yes, even if they free range).
The success of your laying "team" also depends on lighting. To keep up good production, hens depend on 14 hours a day of light. That's why so many people find their hens shut down their laying in the winter; because that's the time of year when we experience less daylight hours. You can 'trick' them into believing that there are 14 hours of light by turning the lights on earlier in the morning to make up a full 14 hour daylight day. Best in the morning, rather than evening, because the hens can wake up quickly, but finding roosts after the evening "blackout" can be stressful to them. Most people just use the good old flourescent light and just don't 'tell' their hens.
Sometimes the gals will decide that conditions aren't right for egg laying despite your good feed and proper lighting. Sometimes they feel that they might be too vulnerable while laying and so they just don't lay. You can help alleviate their shyness by providing little "nooks" in which they can lay. I've heard of people successfully using covered cat litter boxes, dog crates, commercially available nest boxes, and home made laying nests that have a back entrance only with a locking front flap where you can gather eggs.
If their privacy issues have already been taken care of, try encouraging them by putting 'fake' eggs in their nests. You can buy ceramic eggs at many feedstores, or even at the local craft stores. If you want to make sure they're good and clean, buy either glazed eggs, or try buying wooden eggs and shellacing them yourself so that you can wipe the poop off. I've even used plastic easter eggs for my lighter breeds. They don't seem to mind the difference and sometimes you can lure the stubborn hen into laying by placing the fake egg into the nest while she's looking. The girls usually stop all that they're doing, start to cluck a bit, and immediately examine the egg.
Fake eggs have the added benefit of telling the hens where you WANT them to lay (rather than on the floor or behind doors as they're more apt to do). Also, you should pick up the eggs daily to keep the hens from developing the nasty habit of eating eggs. A few pecks at a porcelain egg will quickly repremand them.
Remember, your hens aren't going to usually lay during times of stress like molt or illness. Their bodies take care of the problems first before they start up the egg assembly line again. Otherwise, once you've set up your coop for your girls' comfort and health, you should hopefully see the eggs soon.
Good luck with your flock!
Nathalie Ross in Houston TX