By Joel Salatin
As an example of how deep seasonal cycles can go, let me describe the egg production cycle. It starts when little chicks hatch and begin growing. These pullets (young female chickens) begin laying at about their 20th week. At first, they lay what are called pullet eggs, which are very small. Then the size increases, so that within about a month, more than half their eggs are large.
The birds lay for roughly a year before molting. That’s when they lose feathers, stop laying, and essentially go through a two to four week dormancy period. Then, sporting a new suit of feathers and looking rejuvenated following this rest period, they begin another production cycle. As with nearly all biological systems, the egg production cycle follows an escalating curve early on, plateaus for a couple of months, then gradually drops during the molting period.
That’s the bird’s natural physiological production cycle. But other factors play a key role in production, which, at its plateau, can be five to seven eggs per week. One factor is temperature. A chicken, being a bird, has a high metabolism. In cold weather, a bird uses all the calories it can ingest just to keep warm, so there aren’t enough left to produce an egg. The second factor is day length. Light stimulates the glands that secrete hormones that make the hen lay eggs. As days get shorter, production wanes. On our farm, December 21 is a red letter day because it’s the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. After that, day length and egg production increase. Egg production then drops off in the fall when day length is shorter.
In a natural setting, peak production is in the spring and the lowest is in the fall. But culturally, our demand for eggs peaks in the fall and wanes in the spring. We call it the “going back to school” syndrome. It may have something to do with the body’s desire for more protein heading into winter. Who knows? But every per capita consumption chart shows a curve that peaks in November and plummets in the spring, exactly counter to the normal production cycle of a chicken.
So what’s a farmer to do? The industry uses lights to stimulate off-season production. I shy away from this procedure because it extracts a heavier toll on the birds that I think might affect nutritional egg quality. We use hoop houses to keep the birds warm in cold weather. But no matter what we do, we’re always short of eggs in the fall and have plenty in the spring. Because fall is when beef and pork are best, we encourage folks to eat more meat in the fall and lay off the eggs; then eat more eggs in the spring.