Last week we received a greatly anticipated box of baby chicks. There is no rival for the excitement or cuteness of receiving a peeping box in the mail. The post office seemed pretty ho-hum about it but it definitely livened up an otherwise gray mailroom. We gleefully carried our prize to the car and tore into it before leaving the parking lot. Spaghetti and Sauce spent the ride home debating who belonged to whom and trying to identify the breeds of our “mystery chicks” .
These baby girls arrived as early Christmas gifts to bolster our egg laying pipeline. We’re excited by a couple of unusual breeds in this group – 2 blue egg layers and some lovely brown speckled egg layers. (I do love a colorful egg basket.) For now, they’re hanging out in the heated brooder until they grow big girl feathers to keep them warm outside. With a bit of luck, they will all turn out to be girls and start laying in April when most folks are just thinking chicks. All part of the grand plan!
Our oldest layers are 2 years old now and molting hard. Triggered by shortening days, they have shed last year’s feathers and look like emaciated, wet hens. Even they know they look bad. Some refuse to come out of the coop on these bad hair days. Below is a before and after of Maisy during molt. Trust me, it’s the same bird. She’s basically 1/3 of her usual size. (I should be collecting feathers and making pillows. Many mornings the coop looks like a hen exploded overnight.) But better days will come with a new coat of fine feathers to warm them through winter. And the girls will again grace the nest boxes with even bigger, beautiful eggs. In the meantime, egg laying has dwindled to a standstill while their bodies focus on feathers.
So how do grocery stores have eggs to sell in the winter? It’s kind of sad. Most commercial laying operations starve hens into a stress molt to accelerate the re-feathering process. Layer houses are also artificially illuminated through the winter to keep the hens cranking them eggs out. Without the natural rest period, the caged hens are spent in the spring when they will be culled en masse for chicken by-product. Meanwhile a new generation has arrived to take their place and start another cycle.
How can it be done better? Starting with smaller scale farms that allow animals to live naturally not as part of a factory assembly line. And year round chicks are part of the answer. (I like any solution that requires fuzzy peepers more often. ) That’s our strategy this year. Small, frequent batches of layer chicks being added to the farm so we have new girls adding to the nest boxes while others are in protein timeout. (It’s kind of like staggering lettuce planting to avoid a 1-week glut of lettuce and none the rest of the season).
We look forward to the new egg production in spring. And we greatly await the combination of fertile eggs (thank you rooster, Taco) and a broody hen (mama Maisy) so we can hatch out Buck Naked Farm’s first homegrown babies. So here’s to round 1 of new life on the farm! Not all birds need be spring chickens. In fact, we just think it’s better if some are Christmas deliveries.