Monday, January 2, 2012

Chicks, Hens, and Daylight

A box of chicks ready to be shipped.
The green stuff is "Grow Gel" that
keeps them hydrated during the trip.
A dear friend of mine commented about a Facebook post this morning, asking me "There's a chick season?" She had thought I was hatching and shipping chicks out to customers now. While in theory, I could, I choose not to this time of year. Here's my reply to her (hi Zen!)

Yep, there's a "chick season." Egg production ebbs and flows with the length of daylight, which also coincides with temperature. Hens, especially in natural environments, usually take a break in laying when the days get short and it gets cold (it makes no sense for them to have chicks then, natch.)

They lay more in the spring, as the days get longer and it gets warmer. If I wanted to hatch now, I'd have to put lights on in their coops to give them a minimum of 14 hours of daylight a day. I choose not to do that.

Hens are born with all the eggs they will ever lay stored up in their tiny newborn chick ovaries. As they grow, their laying pattern will be dictated by their genetics and their environment. If they are bred for production, as in the common White Leghorn or Golden Comet or Black Star, they will start laying sooner, at around four months, and will provide the best "feed to lay ratio" of any breed of chicken. This means that they produce the most eggs for the least amount of feed, which is why they are commonly used by large production farms to lay eggs for commercial markets.

A White Leghorn in with
some Buckeyes in the snow.
We have about six White Leghorns, left over from A's 4-H project this past summer. Those girls lay up a storm, and at this point, when the light is lowest and temps are cold, are still laying. We're glad of that, as it means we don't have to buy grocery store eggs (we're spoiled, I admit.)

Our heritage birds, the Buckeyes, start laying a little later in their lives (at about five months), and lay between 150 and 200 eggs per year (as compared to a Leghorn, which can lay up to 300 or more!)
They have all but stopped laying at this point. I don't mind, as I feel it's a good thing to give them a rest, and I want to keep the hens as long as possible. If you put lights on birds, you force them to use up all their available eggs that much sooner, and they become "spent" hens at age two or three. I like to keep my Buckeyes until they are four at least, as an older hen will lay a larger egg, and that will produce a larger, healthier chick. So I don't force my birds to lay when they'd rather not. It just seems more "natural" to me that way.