Silly as it sounds, I have been struggling a bit lately with the idea of raising our animals in the all-natural way we dreamed of. Our chickens were the final clincher. Those pesky girls almost stopped giving eggs nearly 2 months ago thanks to our natural-as-possible viewpoint. That’s right, out of 16 hens of laying age, I was getting about 3-4 eggs per week! Since we can easily use 2-3 dozen eggs a week, this was a big problem! In the mean time, they were free-ranging to their hearts content, and eating up over $40 in organic feeds each month. They were hardly paying for themselves. In fact, I even had to go BUY eggs several times!
My empty nest boxes. The eggs you see are the wooden eggs we keep in the boxes to encourage laying there.
You see, we had done our research. We knew that hens would decrease the number of eggs they laid in the shorter day-light hours of winter. I figured, however, that God had allowed their little bodies a period of rest, and I wanted to respect that. I knew the decreased laying could be overcome by artificial lighting, but we had decided we didn’t want to go that route. We would learn to simply reduce our egg usage a bit in the winter. In order to prepare, though, we tried to increase our chances for as many winter eggs as possible by having a variety of laying hen breeds, a nice coop, and a variety of ages that should all be laying by winter.
We first realized we had a problem when our spring pullets, the main ones we were counting on for winter eggs, turned 26 weeks old in September, and still weren’t laying. I continued monitoring, looking for pullet eggs, as the older girls’ egg numbers started to decrease each week in the decreasing light of day. Finally, one day in mid November, I got an obvious pullet egg! I was so excited! The pullets were laying! The next day, we got no eggs. The day after that we got another pullet egg…just one, though. I figured that since that one girl had started, it was no big deal that the older ones seemed to have stopped. I just knew all those other pullets would start up and follow suit any day! Weeks passed, and still no more eggs. Just our one, faithful, little Light Brahma pullet, providing us with our one egg, several days a week.
Now, in all my research, I not once came across a situation where the hens stopped laying entirely, so I feared it might be a dietary or altitude issue at first (we do live at 7500 feet!). I started talking to our friends who, for the most part, were also of the all-natural mindsets. The more people I spoke with, the more stories I heard about entire flocks ceasing to lay in winter. Then, I discovered that even our all-natural friends were using artificial lighting to get eggs.
S and I talked about it, and came up with a few conclusions. First of all, our older hens had laid just fine until the winter light hours, so that pretty much ruled out dietary issues. I had also read that young pullets who don’t start laying before the winter light hours arrive, may NOT start until spring–thereby causing almost 4-6 months loss in production. Considering the average homestead hen only lives 2 years before being turned into stew, this is a huge portion of her productive life! And we were half-way through it already!! Finally, it dawned on me that, yes, God designed hens to have a break. But, he also designed them to potentially live 10 years, and possibly more. So, if we plan to butcher the hen around age 2 anyway, then perhaps she doesn’t need that much of a break each year?
Finally, although I knew that it is impossible to be all-natural with each type of animal, I garnered a different perspective. Everything is different in nature. Horses are not ridden by people in nature, goats can find their own food, animals roam for miles, and most of today’s chickens would not have even existed in pure nature. They have been bred through domestic need. In addition, God blessed us with animals, and gave man dominion over them. For the first time, I felt like it was OK to find the compromise where we work to keep our animals happy and healthy, thereby being good stewards, but also expect to get something out of them in return. That is where the dominion comes in. That is why we can have the right to disbud goats, castrate animals, use cages and pens, saddle and ride horses, and even slaughter animals for meat to feed our families. We simply must find the balance to keep them as healthy and happy as possible in the mean time.
Suffice it to say, out of desperation, we finally gave in. We ran an extension cord out to the coop, set it up with a timer and light, and took the girls from 11 hours of light each day to about 15 hours of light (the minimum we felt would help jump start egg laying). The first day, we got nothing. The second day, we got a new pullet egg (different than our previous laying pullet), and the third day we got 3 eggs all total. You could say it is coincidence, but considering we haven’t gotten 3 eggs in a single day in almost 2 months, this is a big deal! Today, we only got 1 egg, but I know it can take a couple weeks for newly laying pullets to become consistent. I am very excited at the hope, though, that maybe we will soon be getting eggs since it looks like the young pullets are finally coming around.
Between our over-sized flock of not-laying hens, and our 5 not-milking goats, we are planning to do a lot of things differently to prepare for winter next year!!