Eggs are a precious treat at the moment. Despite having almost a dozen hens, I'm collecting only a couple of eggs every few days. Rather than feel deprived, I like that the girls are enjoying a deserved respite and appreciate being reminded just how amazing eggs are. But they've been on holiday long enough. We've passed the winter solstice and it’s time for the girls to get back to work.
Chickens naturally stop laying in winter.
The coldest months are not the ideal time for a hen to be raising chickens. A hen’s body recognises this and shuts down egg production.
Moulting, the shedding of old feathers and growth of new ones, also reduces laying. The protein that was being used to produce eggs is diverted to growing new feathers. Moulting can take a month or two – and chickens end up with a healthy new thick coat of feathers and improved disease resistance.
So how come there's still plenty of eggs in the supermarket?
If you buy your eggs from the supermarket or keep hybrid utility breeds, you may not even notice that eggs are seasonal.
Chickens bred for productivity tend to keep on laying through winter.
And commercial egg farmers use lights to ensure year-round laying. Shortening day length is what tells a hen’s endocrine system that it’s winter and time to stop laying. Artificial lighting can be used to extend day length and trick hens into laying through the darker months.
Hens need time off
Forcing hens to lay through winter comes at a cost.
Hens are born with their full quota of eggs. You don’t get more eggs by forcing them to lay through winter, you simply get all your eggs quicker.
The increased productivity reduces life-expectancy and resilience. Almost half my flock are hybrid utility hens bred for productivity and the rest are heritage and pure breeds. My poor hybrid girls literally lay themselves to death, not even stopping to moult. A couple didn’t last two years and the scruffy thin feathers of the remainder suggest they won’t last three years. In contrast, I have a couple of Langshans still laying the odd egg at nine years old and my young Australorp girls are looking strong and healthy after taking time off to moult.
But it’s time for my girls to get back to work.
We've passed the winter solstice – the shortest day of the year. From here on the days start getting longer and my hens should start laying more eggs.
Natural tips for encouraging hens to lay
1. Feed them plenty of protein..
To encourage my girls to get back on the lay, I'm feeding them plenty of protein. Growing new feathers and keeping warm in winter requires a lot of protein. I'm being generous with free range time and feeding them plenty of high protein treats like worms and sunflower seeds.
2. and calcium
To ensure hard strong egg shells, I've also made sure they have access to plenty of leafy greens and shell grit or finely crushed dried egg shells.
3. Ensure they are warm and safe
We've had some foxes in the neighbourhood. Lurking predators, dampness and cold drafts will stress hens and reduce laying, so I've checked that their shelter is warm and safe.
4. Make sure they are healthy
To ensure my girls are in tip top condition I'm also adding a dash of apple cider vinegar (packed with vitamins and minerals and a good immune tonic) to their water and am sprinkling diatomaceous earth in their nest boxes to deter lice and mites.
I'm eagerly waiting for the return of omelettes and frittata.
Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 22nd June 2015.