My friend Alan and I were discussing our financial situations—griping might be a better term—and I noted that things were especially difficult with our poultry farm not yet producing income this year. “Oh, no!” Alan replied with concern. “Why no farm production?”
I imagined that Alan quite possibly envisioned raccoons running off with our layers or some other barnyard catastrophe.
Or perhaps he thought it might be the weather. It’s currently April 25 and blizzarding outside (hardly the weather to snuggle down on a nest to lay eggs). The truth, however, is much more mundane yet also quite insightful about the life of a laying hen.
Let There Be Light
A chicken’s reproductive cycle is extremely photosensitive. In other words, it reacts to light. A hen needs a minimum of 14 hours of consistent daylight to jumpstart her egg production, with 16 hours of light providing optimum conditions for egg laying. This ingrained behavior ensures species survival by making late spring and early summer the optimal time for hatching.
Prolonged periods of continual light are typically accompanied by the warmth necessary for chicks to thrive and grow. As winter approaches, both daylight and temperatures decrease, creating chillier conditions in which chicks flounder and fail.
The Chicken & the Egg
What does optimum chick survival season have to do with egg laying? Everything, actually.
Avian physiology modified itself over the millennia to make a hen’s reproductive system go dormant during the colder months, when hatchlings cannot survive. Since there’s no need for species propagation during this time of year, there’s no need for eggs, which are essentially oval nurturing pods that house infant poultry until they are ready for release into the world.
It just so happened that someone somewhere in history discovered the tasty content inside the shell, turning eggs into a staple in the human diet.
I’m sure Alan wondered why I simply didn’t install artificial lights inside my coops to create the light necessary to keep hens producing. While this is popular with backyard and hobby-farm owners, there is a huge downside to this practice.
It negatively impacts a laying hen’s health.
The best layers aren’t cover models for Chickens Magazine. The most productive hens look like they’ve been through the ringer: scruffy, with droopy or broken feathers and, quite possibly, bald patches. This is because hens draw on the protein and calcium from their own bodies to provide the building blocks necessary for successful egg production.
Without their natural winter dormancy period, chickens literally wear themselves out years faster than if they were given the low-light months to recover and rejuvenate from the expectation to lay eggs.
So when can I expect the first egg of the year? Any day now, I assume.
Our Alexa announces when it’s time to lock up the coops a half hour before sunset, and lately those announcements are creeping up on 8 p.m. With dawn breaking at about 6:45 a.m., we’re drawing closer to that 14-hour sweet spot that will trigger our girls’ egg laying. We’re not there yet, but just in case I’ve started checking the nest boxes.
After all, chickens didn’t read the manual to learn that they’re not supposed to lay the day the calendar winter is over.
As for Alan, he learned something new today. “It just goes to show you what I know about farming or raising chickens,” he quipped. That’s all right, Alan. I’m more than happy to help you learn what you need to start your own backyard flock.