Outstanding In Their Field

Outstanding in their field Stng Head-WEB

I hesitate to even write about a current theory being bantered among chicken owners. I fear that even putting unsubstantiated statements in print will somehow validate them. I also run the risk of alienating some readers. Well, here goes:

A laying hen can lay eggs for several years. The first winter for a hen usually does not produce a molt. The molt is a time when most mature birds shut down production and grow new feathers. It is believed to be nature’s way for the birds to shed old, worn-out feathers and grow new feathers to better insulate them for winter. There are many factors to cause a molt in chickens in addition to the most common, the shortening of daylight.

Prior to World War II, most farms kept chickens for meat and eggs. Many of those farms did not have electricity. That means using artificial lighting was not possible to keep hens from molting when fall came and daylight became shorter. Researchers had learned that baby chicks, like plants, grow faster when daylight was becoming longer each day versus shorter. This meant a chick hatched in May or June would grow slower and lay its first egg in 7-8 months, versus a chick born in February that could lay its first egg in as soon as 5-6 months of age.

Since mature hens would start to molt as early as October, it was common for there to be a dearth of eggs each fall in the country. It was also common practice for many farmers to wait until later in spring to buy or hatch chicks. They did not want to lose chicks due to colder weather since most farms had very few options to heat henhouses without electricity. However, research had proven that if chicks could be started earlier, before warmer weather, the young hens would start to lay before the older hens went into molt and ensure a steady supply of eggs.

The War Department printed posters to help educate farmers to place chicks earlier in the year and eliminate egg shortages. After World War II, egg production was transitioning to large, indoor barns that could use artificial light and heat to prevent wild extremes in egg production.

There are now millions of consumers raising backyard hens who do not know much of the history or research in egg production. This winter there has been much speculation among novice chicken owners over a recent lack of eggs. I could not believe it when I was first asked if I had heard that feed mills had altered their feed so that chickens would not lay eggs.

What I thought was a joke I now realize is a conspiracy theory believed by some chicken owners. I have quit trying to explain the molting process. More than once, my science has been disputed by emotion or frustration. It is very conceivable that the brutal cold wave 2 days before Christmas forced many birds into molt. It was also well documented by weathermen that Christmas was followed by an exceptionally cloudy and sunless stretch of weather well into February. Could the long stretch of days with no sunshine have also caused a molt?

In addition to these logical explanations, Mycoplasma easily spreads in backyard coups and will easily result in a serious reduction in eggs from flocks. It probably should not surprise me that so many would not look for a scientific reason and embrace an unsubstantiated rumor and help perpetuate it.

I must also state publicly that I am so happy I exited the egg business in August. I will gladly pay $5-6 a dozen for eggs for a few months until the shortage is over versus cleaning that chicken house all winter.

That was not a fun job!


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