Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
I’m often amazed at the false expectations people have about a hen’s ability to lay eggs in family flocks. The two main false beliefs are:
1. Hens are regular egg machines providing consistent production year round — no matter what.
2. A hen that stops laying is done laying forever. For this, she is often prematurely sentenced to capital punishment; destined for the stewpot, or a one-way trip to freezer camp.
Chicken keepers need to know that there are many factors that affect a hen’s egg laying ability. Without this knowledge, many fine laying hens are put down too early in life.
The gold standard for egg laying are the high-production factory farm hens. These are bred to lay about an egg a day in their prime. But, unlike family flocks, commercial layers are kept in strictly controlled, indoor environments. They have constant access to feed and water and are forced into molting to control the timing of the replacement feathers. This gets all hens in sync for the second (and last) round of egg production. Commercial layers have a life expectancy of about 2 years before slaughter.
In backyard and truly free-ranging flocks (with access to grass sunlight and fresh air), hens usually do not produce eggs as consistently, or as abundantly as commercial birds. Some reasons are below.
• Family flock birds can be of different ages. My flock has baby chicks and mature birds up to 9 years old. The younger birds are not mature enough to lay eggs. It takes 5 to 6 months for a chick to mature and begin laying eggs.
• As hens get older they don’t lay as many eggs as in their first 1.5 to 2 years — which is their highest-production phase of life. After about 2 years old, a hen’s egg production drops around 10% per year. An older hen can still lay a significant number of eggs, but not as many as younger hens. The older hen’s eggs tend to be larger, but fewer.
• Hens in molt — growing new feathers — causes egg laying to decrease, and even stop until the new feathers grow back. Molting is usually in the fall, but it can happen at different times throughout the year. To a chicken, which is more important: using your body’s protein to grow a new suit of feathers to survive, or produce eggs? A hen chooses a new suit of feathers every time — it’s hot chick glamor thing.
• Many family flocks and small family farmers have heritage, duel-purpose chickens that produce both meat and eggs. The egg production in these flocks will be lower, but at the end of their egg laying, they can provide meat.
•Many private flocks have roosters to help with predator protection. Roosters can’t contribute to egg production, but they have charms and talents helpful to a flock.
•When a hen goes broody (wanting to sit on eggs) her egg laying ceases. Incubating eggs takes 3 weeks to hatch chicks. A hen mothering & mentoring her chicks takes 5 to 7 weeks until they are old enough to fend for themselves. This puts a hen out of egg production for about 2.5 months. It is unrealistic to expect a hen to produce eggs while she is incubating and rearing the next generation.
•Extremes in temperatures can cause a hen to slow, or cease laying. High summer heat and frigid cold in winter can put a hen out of production.
• Constant access to quality high-protein feed and calcium affects egg laying. I’ve talked with many chicken keepers who buy the cheapest feed they can find (with low protein levels) and still expect to get abundant eggs. If you were laying an egg, the size of your head every day or so, wouldn’t you need quality high-protein food—and enough of it?
• An egg is about 75 percent water. Hens need access to fresh, clean water to form their eggs.
• Changes in daylight affect egg laying. As the days get shorter — egg laying slows, and often stops. Then, as days get longer egg production increases. That’s Nature’s way. In winter, when the days are shorter and temperatures drop toward freezing, it is a hard time for a hen to incubate eggs, keep the chicks warm and find enough food for the babies to eat. Spring is the natural time for a hen to increase egg laying for rearing chicks.
With all these egg production variables in the free-range and family flocks how can you estimate the number of hens needed for your egg shed?
Below is a USDA poster from 1981 with the formula for how many hens are needed to meet a family egg shed. The USDA states that:
“ 2 hens per every member in the household
will keep a family in fresh eggs.” —USDA Poster, 1918
Why 2 hens instead of the 1-hen-per-capita in the egg shed formula from Part 1? Because, not all hens will lay consistently throughout the year for the reasons listed above. Weather, feed, exercise, brooding, molting, heat, cold, stress and other environmental factors affect egg laying.
The USDA advice of having 2 hens for every household member allows for the young chicks to mature, and the older hens to decrease or stop laying for a variety of reasons. This poster goes on to state:
“Uncle Sam Expects YOU to Keep Hens and Raise Chickens."
Notice that Uncle Sam didn’t just suggest, or imply it was a good idea. No! He “expects you to do your duty and keep a family flock. Be a responsible citizen and keep chickens. Our benevolent Uncle Sam continues to declare that:
“Even the smallest backyard has room for a flock large enough to supply the house with eggs. The cost of maintaining such a flock is small. Table and kitchen waste provide much of the feed for the hens. They require little attention — only a few minutes a day. An interested child, old enough to take a little responsibility, can are for a few fowls, as well as a grown person. Every back yard in the United States should contribute its share to a bumper crop of poultry and eggs.
Keeping chickens is: In peace a profitable recreation. In war a patriotic duty." — US Department of Agriculture or Your State Agricultural College, 1918.
In the next blog, we’ll explore egg miles — how you can determine how far an egg travels from hen to table.
May the flock be with you!