BEN SOUTH SAYS: It’s important to understand that hens will nest where they feel most comfortable, are least likely to be disturbed and in an area that is lit correctly.
The first challenge is to make your nest box as attractive as possible to your hens. Nest boxes should be raised above the floor of the coop and positioned in a quiet area. Avoid disturbing your hens in the early morning and ensure that there aren’t other noise disturbances from nearby. Hens will soon become unsettled by human movement and loud noises.
Ensure that the nest box has a suitable substrate for the hen to nest into, such as clean sawdust, shredded paper or chopped straw. Water should be available close to the nest box as hens will drink immediately after laying before venturing outside to forage.
Nest boxes need to be darker than the outside but not pitch black. Low-lux LED lights are a good way of attracting hens into dark nest boxes and these often run on solar panels. An important aspect of nest-box design is to ensure that there is enough space for all your hens to lay. It’s far better tohave too many nest boxes than too few. The commercial recommendation is to aim for at least 125cm² of nest space per hen.
In my experience, a common reason for birds not using their nest boxes is the presence of drafts. Hens won’t tolerate a nest box that is exposed to drafts and will soon seek less cold, windy places to lay. Ensure that there are no breezy air gaps in and around the bottom of the box that may disturb your hens. Once you have the right environment for your hen to lay in, it’s time to train them to use it.
The most critical time for this is during rearing, when the young pullets must have access to raised-nest platforms, so that they are confident and experienced to jump up and use these areas. Buying hens from reputable pullet rearers is always my recommendation as they will often have been reared on multiple-tiered systems. If hens haven’t learnt to overcome height differences before they come into lay, they are going to feel a lot more comfortable laying on the ground.
It’s therefore a good idea to try and make other areas of the housing less attractive for the hens to lay in. This may include increasing light levels, for example under the coop by raising it up higher, or by using bright lights. You can also ensure that the substrate on the ground isn’t attractive, friable and deep for hens to nest in.