Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Backyard Flock: The numbers game

Depending on the size of your family and the size of your lot, the ideal number of chickens to have in a backyard flock is about six. There are so many variables that go into this number that it probably shouldn’t even be mentioned. But six is the number that has always worked for us. Right now we have 13.

If you have six chickens that are in the productive stage of their life (six months to four years) you will be getting on average about four eggs a day. This will vary according to the seasons as they need about 12 hours of light to produce an egg. In summer, with six chickens and a family of four, you will be amazed at how fast the eggs pile up. You will have plenty to give away. But in winter, unless you leave a light on in the coop to make up for the lack of daylight, there will be days when you might be tempted to pick up a dozen eggs at the supermarket. Other factors that affect their egg-laying capacity are molting, broodiness and age.

Chickens usually molt every year. When they are making new feathers, their bodies use all the calcium they have stored up that would otherwise go into egg production. In Ohio, domestic chickens usually molt in late fall. Aside from the lack of eggs, a naked chicken is not a pretty sight. But, I will save that topic for another article.

When a chicken goes broody, all she wants to do is sit on a clutch of eggs. They can be hers or the eggs of other chickens; they can be fertilized or not. It makes no difference. Once she gets the urge to be a mother, she goes into a trance like state, stops laying, and sits on a pile of eggs for a couple weeks, thinking they are going to hatch. Fortunately, this usually only happens with certain breeds of chickens. I will also save this topic for another column.

Chickens are at their egg-laying peak from about six months, when they first start to lay, to about two years of age. In peak light, they will lay almost an egg-a-day during this age span. After that they will lay less and less until they reach the age of about six or seven years, when they will hardly lay at all. My best layers were my Barred Plymouth Rock and my Rhode Island Red. They never went broody, molted for only short periods of time, and produced regularly for about five years. Rocky, my Barred Rock, died of illness last winter at the age of five. Up until that time she had been a fairly regular producer, giving me two or three eggs a week near the end of her life. Pee Wee, my red hen, at almost six was giving me like production up until a few weeks ago when she molted. The molting is over, but she hasn’t started laying again. She deserves a rest.

This past May, we bought six new chicks at a hatchery, three Barred Rocks and three Araucanas. We did everything by the book in raising them. At six months, like clockwork, they started laying. It seems like the day they started, the rest of the flock (seven older chickens) quit. Was it psychological, or was it just a combination of the factors I mentioned above? With chickens, you can never discount the psychological factor. But, several of them are molting. In any event, we have all the eggs we can use right now, including green eggs that the Araucanas lay. But the days are getting shorter and I do not have an electric line out to their coop.

As you can see, if it’s eggs you want, you will have to introduce some youngsters into the flock every couple years. Following that pattern, if you are averse to serving up one of your pets for dinner and you are adept at keeping them safe from predators, your flock will inevitably grow. Hence the number 13.


JRB said...

Just curious -- my hens stopped laying in mid-September and still haven't started back up again. I can't remember when they restarted after their molt last year/how long their vacation lasted. Have yours begun to start laying yet?

Virgil Hervey said...

We are having the same experience. Our molters have not started laying again. We have two who are done molting and a couple who seem to be going trough a light molt, if there is such a thing. None of them are laying. We can tell because one is a Rhody that lays large brown eggs and the other is a Leghorn mix that lays white eggs. We are getting neither. Meanwhile, our six pullets gave us six eggs yesterday!