Thursday, October 20, 2011

Ranch questions: chickens and egg production

A two-part ranch question today:

What does it mean when you say, "the chickens are molding"?
Haha. Well if the chicken is molding, the leftovers have probably been in the fridge too long and it is time to toss out but I suspect that this question relates more to chickens moulting than molding. Moulting simply refers to shedding old feathers and regrowing a new set. Of course they can't drop all their feathers at once or they would have no way to keep warm so they moult in stages. Chickens moult about once a year, usually in the fall as the number of daylight hours wanes which is related to the second part of the question:

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And how does moulting influence egg production?
In the fall months, the change in daylight hours triggers a change in the chicken's biological clock. If we think of chickens outside of the commercial egg production system and just look at their "chicken goals in life" they are to lay a clutch of eggs in the spring and hatch a batch or two of chicks during the long, warm days of summer. Once that task is complete and the seasons change, she stops producing eggs, sheds and regrows her feathers and packs on a little extra fat for the cold winter months. Come spring time she is ready to start again.

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The key element here is the number of daylight hours. In the chicken brain - if days are long, it is time to lay eggs but if days are short, it is time to rest. Commercial egg operations have lights in the hen house to mimic the hours lost in the winter months.

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Egg production can drop for a variety of other reasons including stress or changes in diet but for the most part, it drops in the fall because the hens are going through their annual moult. Some hens will jump right back into laying after their break but others will not start laying again until the spring.

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Here at the ranch the chickens are moulting in full force and there are feathers everywhere! They blow into corners like dust bunnies and litter the entire barnyard. For the most part we let our girls take a rest and don't force increased production with extra lighting but this comes at an extra cost. We have a layer flock of about 75 hens. In the summer months when everyone is laying like crazy I have an abundance of eggs and the cost of feed per egg produced is low. However, yesterday I collected only 12 eggs yet I'm still having to feed the entire flock, making those few eggs much more expensive to produce. Egg numbers should pick up in December as some of our girls finish moulting and hopefully dive back in to laying.

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