Thursday, September 29, 2011

Not Exactly Spring Chickens Anymore

Over two years ago, ten baby chicks arrived at the Ledyard Post Office in a box addressed to me and we became backyard chicken hobbyists. I still have seven of those chicks and have since added more. Along the way, the rooster and two hens were sold, we lost a couple of hens to predators, hatched a couple of chicks and gave them back when they turned into little roos; now we have a flock of 13 hens. To those who may still wonder, yes, hens lay quite well without a rooster. We have a diverse flock of four Americaunas, two Silver Spangled Hamburgs, a Silkie, Jersey Giant, Light Brahma, Rhode Island Red, Red Star (a mixed breed), Plymouth Barred Rock and our favorite, Buffy the Buff Orpington.

Foster, one of our Americaunas as a baby chick
Last spring as the days became longer and the snow finally melted, egg production got up to nine eggs daily. Now we’re averaging four eggs per day. My original hens are reaching the age of less egg production, chicken menopause if you will. Chicken farmers often routinely cull the flock every two to three years and replace them with new pullets. That way their egg production keeps up with demand and they don’t end up with hundreds of less productive hens. We, however, have chickens as pets so although Foster hasn’t laid an egg in weeks, there are no plans to “off” her.

The Americaunas - Flo, Foster and Billie, Faye in back
I was aware that hens’ egg production slacks off considerably after a few years, but was curious as to other causes of fewer eggs. I turned to the Back Yard Chickens website and found an article written by J.C. Hermes which goes into more detail. In general, egg production is affected by age, temperature (hot or cold), breed, light, nutrition, stress, broodiness and molting. The article is written about the White Leghorn chicken, an excellent egg laying breed normally used for commercial production. The author states that the young hen starts laying at 35 weeks old, lays 265 eggs annually, her peak production lasting 10 weeks after which the eggs gradually come less frequently.

The egg production from my girls has slacked off more than normal even taking the shorter days into consideration so I’m leaning toward age as a cause. A couple of hens are molting so they are excused from laying for a few months. A molting chicken has to put all her energy into growing new feathers, not making eggs. Pilgrim, my Plymouth Barred Rock hen, is currently broody. Pilgrim prefers to sit on the nest than lay eggs, so she’s excused for now also. Once Pilgrim gets past this hormonal phase, she’ll go back to laying again.

Kelsey with the Peeps
As for other possible causes, I don’t regard my hens as stressed birds. They range freely in our yard and have continuous access to layer pellets, oyster shells for calcium and water. They come running to us in the yard, a behavior reinforced by the receipt of our leftovers. They don’t peck each other’s feathers out until bald spots show, a sign of overcrowding or an active rooster. I did notice that after Hurricane Irene came through, egg production dropped markedly for days afterward. The storm followed by the constant noise of my neighbor’s generator probably caused them more stress than it did my family.

I have a heater in the chicken coop for the cold winter nights which keeps the temperature above 35 degrees. I do this not for egg production, but to prevent my girls from getting frost bite on their combs and wattles. This year I may add a light. Egg production is definitely influenced by the amount of light exposure with the normal recommendation being at least 12 hours daily for maximum egg laying. I’ve noticed that if the weather is overcast and rainy, the following day’s egg production will be smaller. Likewise, sunny days yield more eggs.

Backyard breeds like mine are not expected to be major egg layers. My hens all look different and their eggs reflect their diversity; they can be small, large, white, blue-green, brown or freckled. I usually know each egg’s creator by name. I got the chickens for several reasons; pets, pest control, garden fertilizer and the most delicious, beautiful eggs. We don’t need a bunch of eggs, but it’s kind of special when your breakfast has been produced by someone you know personally.

1 comment:

  1. I did notice that after Hurricane Irene came through, egg production dropped markedly for days afterward. The storm followed by the constant noise of my neighbor’s generator probably caused them more stress than it did my family.

    Judging from what you wrote in your Hurricane Irene blog entry, there may have been a little stress caused by the author who referred to the generator as her "nemesis" (not that chickens can pick up on human emotions like that).