I’ve been keeping chickens for three years now, and I’ve learned so much during that time. I’m a researcher and a studier of all things by nature. And, for the most part, for the last three years, I’ve been obsessed with chickens.
It doesn’t help that there’s so much conflicting information out there in the world. When even the experts disagree, what can you do? For me, I’ve realized that I’ve had to turn to a whole lot of observation.
Now, I have to confess that I don’t always have time to study my chickens as much as I would like. I mean, I teach and home school my son and have a fairly busy life. But, this summer, my teaching load was reduced, and I was able to do some fairly intense study of my girls.
I learned some key lessons from my summer of study, and one of them was that egg laying is hard on these girls’ bodies. Of course, chickens have evolved to lay eggs, but they haven’t evolved to lay eggs at the rate in which humans have bred them to lay eggs. In fact, wild chickens lay just about 15 eggs per year, which is, of course, a long way from 250-300 eggs per year.
Of course, I am thankful we get more than 15 eggs per year, but you have to wonder, in our eagerness to make chickens into what we want them to be, if we considered the health of the chickens. I think the answer is a resounding no.
I mean, it’s this is not what humans are generally known to do, and you need only look at the situations in factory farms to see that it all too often the case that we put our needs above any consideration for the animal. And, of course, when I say “we,” I don’t mean all of us, but the humans “in charge” have a long history of this kind of behavior.
When we bought our girls from the hatchery online, we researched birds that would be intelligent, hardy in the winter since we live in Maine, and really good layers.
And good layers they were. I just didn’t realize laying this much was costing them. The first year everything was great! We had more eggs than we could deal with and were selling them left and right. I noticed that some of our girls seemed to kind of be born with some health issues, but it didn’t seem to bad and it didn’t stop them from laying.
I had so much to learn.
My epiphany came after we had a broody hen this summer, Lucy, who went broody and was able to sit on some fertilized eggs, as we finally got our first rooster. She was one of our Reds who had struggled with her health from the beginning, so I was really, really worried about her. I thought about trying to break her from being broody, but she was stubborn—and I was selfish. I wanted some babies and thought I could just help Lucy stay healthy with a lot of extra care.
We gave Lucy extra treats and vitamins in her water while she was sitting on her clutch. She took her breaks but always went right back to her eggs. When it was time for the babies to hatch, we ended up with just one baby but were able to add one more baby for her to adopt. With two babies, Lucy was in heaven, but she looked worn.
And with the babies now taking up so much of Lucy’s attention, I was worried that she wasn’t eating enough. She wouldn’t take any treats anymore because she was saving them for her babies. I was really worried about her health, and I remember telling my husband I was worried we might lose her.
After all, she wasn’t in the greatest health when this whole thing started. But over time, Lucy became healthier–much healthier. And, by the time Lucy’s babies were big enough to be on their own, Lucy looked better than any Rhode Island Red I had ever seen. I mean, she was calendar worthy.
It didn’t take long for me to realize why Lucy looked so much different. Maybe some of it was just that motherhood agreed with her, but I feel certain the biggest asset to her health was the 2 to 3 month break from egg laying. I couldn’t believe the difference.
Now, I have to admit that I didn’t just come to this conclusion without reading a lot about chickens and egg production. We had always added light to our coop in the winter, just a few additional hours, to keep egg production up. However, as our hens aged, I could see they were just kind of wearing out, which, thanks to my research, I’ve now learned is a common problem in hens bred to lay 300 eggs per year. Essentially, those girls don’t usually live very long lives, and, of course, the chicken industry in general doesn’t care.
But I care.
That research, plus my experience with Lucy, was all the evidence I needed. I talked to my husband about it, and I began to learn that other chicken keepers did not light their coops in the winter. They believe their chickens need the rest, and I now believe the same thing.
I understand that some people may have no choice but to light their coops. Some people rely on the eggs for income, and I can see that feeding your children or providing for your family would take precedent over the longevity and health of your chickens.
But, if you’re like me and thought that lighting your coop in the winter was completely harmless and without consequence, please know that it’s not that simple.
This winter, for the first time, we’re not adding light to the coop. We have 18 laying hens and, yesterday, we got 4 eggs. That has been our lowest number so far. I thought my husband might be having his doubts because our family eats a lot of eggs. But, no.
“I don’t mind,” he said. He agrees that our hens could use the rest.
We’re thankful to our hens for our food, but they are more than food to us. It seems giving them a rest is the right thing for our family. Though I know it’s not right for everyone, it may be the right thing for your family, too.
*Please note, if you have been adding light to extend the days for your hens, please do not just stop the lighting all at once. Lighting should be reduce gradually (about ten minutes a day) to protect the health of your layers.