Originally Posted by Fred's Hens
With so many folks new to keeping hens, I've been contemplating writing this column for some time. Some new flock keepers seem awfully disappointed in their various chosen breeds. Some are surprised and shocked to discover that their hens, in the second year, go into moult and virtually stop laying. Others discover that shorter autumn days brings production to much lower levels, even to a virtual halt. Others are caught off guard, perhaps, of how poor laying can be in the dead of winter. I wonder how many threads have been started under the title, "When Are These Pullets Ever Going To Start Laying?" The answer, of course, is simple. When their bodies tell them to start and not a day sooner.
Chickens Aren't Vending Machines Speckled Hen gets credit for that quote, and I agree. I should disclose, I suppose, that I assisted in keeping chickens for my grandmother in mid-1950's and began to be responsible for my own flock in 1959 or 1960. (the memory fades). You can do the math as to my age. Just make sure you do it using Chicken Math so I'll only be in my 30's.
If the flock is populated mainly by pullet-year Red Sex Links, commercial strains of Leghorns, production reds, ISA's, certain 'Lorps or certain Barred Rocks you can be pleasantly surprised just how well they lay in that pullet year. You can get spoiled by that seemingly consistent supply of 6 eggs, per hen, per week and begin to imagine this as the new normal. But even those hens will go into moult their second autumn if not before. Production can slow dramatically the second and third years. Soon, such a hen is only laying every other day, and that means 180 eggs per year, not the nearly 300 she once laid. Some breeds are notorious for virtually taking every winter off. They may as well have gone to Florida for the winter and played Canasta.
Other breeds are simply not "wired" to lay more than 3 eggs per week, or 150 eggs per year. Plus, once you deduct moult days, poor stretches, or even times of turning broody, that annual number can easily fall to something akin to 120 eggs or less per year. Flock keepers do "chicken math" about the egg laying too, not just about buying more chicks to raise. Just because a hen lays 4 eggs per week in spring doesn't mean she is truly a 200 egg per year layer. In all honesty, if accurate charting is done, after deducting all the off days, for all the reasons there are off days, (winter, moulting, predator scare, brooding, soft shell or broken shell days) she may well be a 180 egg per year hen or even less.
We flock owners also suffer from amnesia. If a hen lays for two days and takes off a day as her routine, we can have in mind that she is laying very, very well, and quite likely, she is! We forget about all those off days. But a hen that lays two out of three days is not likely to lay more than 220 eggs per year, at best.
More experienced flock keepers find a big, knowing grin spreads across our faces as we read excited and proud new posters exclaim, usually in defense of or in support of a breed they were fortunate enough to have chosen, "My (fill in the blank) lays an egg everyday for me" We cannot help but smile, and inwardly chuckle just a little bit because we know, of course, that no hen lays an egg everyday or that person should absolutely call the poultry press or alert the media because we would have some real news! What the proud poster means, of course, that right now their favorite breed of hen that they own is laying very, very well. I've had ISA's lay 40 to 50 in a row and turn around and do it again. But even an ISA or production strain of Leghorn won't lay everyday, ie 365 eggs per year. The best these hens will lay is 330+ eggs per year, thus, not laying almost 35 days per year. Chicken math is a funny thing. Oh, and even that quality layer will not, can not keep that rate of production up in the out years.
Some folks take on a "heritage" breed, perhaps to take part in perpetuating the old breed and then are quite disappointed to find the laying is sub-par. In all honesty, it may only be sub-par to one's expectations not sub-par to the heritage breed's intended dual purpose ability. If the old breed was bred to serve also as a full bodied, eight pound meat bird as well it is only reasonable that we not expect the egg production of a tiny, 3 pound lithe of a Leghorn or ISA.
Indeed, chickens are not vending machines. My gentle suggestions might include the following. Enjoy chickens for all the reasons you do beside the eggs. Their entertainment value is high. The compost they produce is invaluable to an organic gardener such as myself. They provide meat, if you eat the birds or donate them to a someone who is in need of food. The pictures on your walls are there to please you, to bring to your mind joyful, peaceful or inspiring thoughts. Likewise, chickens provide other tangible and intangible benefits besides the eggs. Learn to "count" those blessings as well as counting the eggs.
If you are serious about operating economically or with a business edge to your enterprise, you'll have to have your knowledge base in place. Be realistic about the breeds you choose and keep meticulous records as to your feed, electricity, and bedding costs. Keep strict accounting on your egg production and use real math, not chicken math.
I do not expect my more heritage type birds to compete one-on-one with my ISA's and Bovans.
Thus, I have two flocks, really. One flock is stocked with production birds. That is a business and it can be no other way. But the other flock is for enjoyment, eye candy and yard art. They please me. I am a small scale organic farmer. There is a need for the farm to be profitable. I do not overly apply anthropomorphic traits to the birds. I rather prefer they remain chickens. My chickens are not my pets, but I am rather affectionate to them and they bring much to the fabric of my life. So, it is a balance. A balance that , at this point in my life, I enjoy very, very much.