Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Return of the Mojo

The hens had stopped laying.

This didn’t come as a shock—experience and research had taught us the drill: Late fall to early winter, hens start molting—that is, their feathers gradually fall out, with a new set growing in during the shortest days of the year. And during these short days, egg production drops. Last winter, our 6 “girls” went from producing 3-6 eggs per day to 1-2 per day—I think we’d had 2 or 3 days total with no eggs at all. Since we had only 5 hens this second winter of keeping chickens (after the hawk attack last spring), we figured the numbers would be slightly different for the winter months: Maybe a half dozen per week, with 5 or 6 days with no eggs.

But no problemo: by early December we were prepared—the three dozen eggs stashed in the fridge would provide a nice cushion for holiday baking. I didn’t mind fewer eggs: I was actually looking forward to having a short break from trying to figure out what to do with all of them!

Only…things were different this year. While egg production steadily declined through December, and the birds looked scraggly, just like last year, they were acting kind of…squirrelly. Instead of scratching around the yard no matter what the weather, they spent most of their time in the covered area next to the coop. If there was any snow on the ground, you couldn’t coax them out into the yard for love or money. The scratch we tossed out got ignored—okay, I could understand that. Plain ol’ grain wasn’t too exciting. But shockingly, I got the same reaction with leftover salmon bits that had previously sent them insane with chicken food lust. Even more puzzling, they were so…quiet. No brassy cackling and complaining. Plus they spooked so easily you’d think they were purebred racehorses. What had happened to our feisty, active girls?

Then, in early January they took to spending all day inside the coop, venturing out only to peck at their feeder a few minutes, then back in they’d go. Were they chilly? Freaked out by the neighborhood bobcat that still might be lurking around? Or just bummed out by winter? By now, with the hens hanging out in the coop practically 24/7, it was awash in feathers—clearly molting was still going great guns. But how could they lay if they weren’t getting any natural light, sitting around in dark all day? (I guess if I lost my clothes during the coldest time of the year, I’d be staying inside too, but still.)

Fleetingly, I wondered if they were sick, but they were still eating like troopers. Whatever ailed them, by mid-month, they weren’t only laying fewer eggs, they’d stopped laying altogether.

Three weeks into the egg drought, we were getting a little concerned. “They’re only a year and a half old,” I said to John one day, since we’d read that laying hens’ output decreases a little bit each year. “They can’t be too old to lay, can they?”

“I always heard they’d be good for at least four or five years,” John said, looking thoughtful. “Must be something else going on.”

Then at a family gathering that weekend, we met a young gal who’d kept a home flock, and asked for advice. “Oh, they’re just cold,” she said. “Put a heater in the coop, and they’ll start laying like that!” She snapped her fingers.

As soon as we got home, John re-installed a rudimentary heater he’d rigged up during a northeaster last year: a 60-watt incandescent bulb set inside a coffee can, with holes punched in the can to let the heat escape. The next day, with high hopes, we checked the nest boxes, but they were empty. And they stayed that way.

“Maybe it’s a light issue,” I said to John. “Didn’t we read somewhere that artificial light is how commercial egg producers keep the hens laying?”

“Seems worth a try,” he replied, so I went straight out to the coop and re-positioned the light bulb, so the light shone full-on their roost. Now, with the inside of the coop as sunny and warm as the tropics, I figured we’d see eggs within hours…

But no. With our stash of eggs nearly gone, we broke down and bought a dozen from our local drive-through dairy stand. I hoped our purchase would prompt the chicken gods to send out some egg-laying vibes, but still no action. Two more weeks passed, with that darn 60-watt bulb burning night and day. The girls must’ve liked it, since they continued to hole up in the coop most of the daylight hours—even the fully-feathered hens.

Okay, maybe they were just being stubborn or something. Time for tough love. So, filling the hen’s feeder with their no-soy, balanced organic feed, I’d scold, “You slackers are getting this expensive food—we want a return on our investment!” John’s warnings to the hens were even more dire: “Come on, girls, let’s see some eggs or it’s the stew pot for you!”

Joking aside, we actually started some soul-searching: What would we do if they really had stopped laying permanently? Would we look for a new source for buying pullets? Or did we want to give up keeping a flock entirely? We’d gotten so discouraged we even quit checking the nest boxes.

It had now been six weeks since we’d seen an egg. While John and I like to figure out things for ourselves, it was time for drastic action: Google our no-egg problem. With the search prompt, “When chickens stop laying eggs,” the sites we pulled up pretty much told us what we already knew:

*Hens might be chilled
*Hens might be afraid
*Shorter days = fewer eggs

Then we came across something new:
*Feed wasn’t balanced.

Uh-oh. “John, maybe that’s our problem,” I confessed. “I’ve been cheating, mixing in a lot of scratch.” Apparently trying to stretch our $30/40 lbs. layer mix with generous amounts of scratch was a big no-no.

More discouraged than ever, I was ready to sign off…then I saw the word Molting—with a new insight: the process wasn’t simply to grow another set of feathers, but to give the hens’ reproductive systems a break. Once their egg producing innards were rejuvenated, they’d get back to laying. Could there be hope after all?

The next morning, the last day of February, I went out to feed the chickens (with 100% feed, by the way). Just for the heck of it, I checked the boxes, and what do you know: there lay one medium-sized, lovely brown egg. “John,” I called, bursting into the house. “We got an egg!” We were as proud as if we’d laid it ourselves. The next day, there was another egg, and two days later, a pair more. For insurance, we kept the light running another week, but clearly, we were back in the egg game.

One month later, the fridge is filling up fast. Now that we’re getting 2-4 eggs a day, John and I are back to powering down the omelets and egg salad. And along with their egg-laying talents, the hens have regained their mojo—back to scratching rain or shine, cackling and squawking whenever they hear us outside. I occasionally long for the serene, peaceful weeding sessions I had B.C. (Before Chickens), but I’m so glad to have our lively girls—and their eggs—back at Berryridge Farm.