After a fox attack last spring, we’re down to only three aging hens and six five-month-old pullets. Instead of giving eggs to all our friends, I’ve had to buy them at the market. So this morning, after being out of town for the weekend, I walked out to the coop hoping to find an egg, or maybe two. Instead, there were close to a dozen!
Yup. A month ahead of schedule, our new pullets have become egg laying hens.
Since they’re just starting out, the eggs are not yet the extra large beauties that we’ll be getting in a few months. You can easily see from the photo how much smaller they are. Also, the chickens don’t quite have egg-making figured out. Sometimes the eggs contain two yolks, sometimes none. Sometimes they even lack a shell!
There are advantages to having pullet eggs in the kitchen. Have you ever tried to halve a recipe calling for one egg? Now you can. You can make one serving of pancakes , with no batter left over. And if two eggs makes too much French toast, use one big egg and one little egg. Plus, you can amaze my friends by telling them you just ate a five-egg omelet!
Now that they’ve started laying, I want to keep my hens producing over the winter. Normally, the short days and long nights induce molting. The hens lose their feathers, running around almost naked in the freezing weather. Then, they put their energy into keeping warm and growing new feathers instead of making eggs.
Since molting is triggered by day length and not by temperature, it’s easy to control with artificial light. We have a single bright bulb in the coop. It’s on a timer, so I don’t have to fuss with it..
We usually set the timer so that the chickens have 14-hour days. We keep the long day throughout the winter, and so they continue to produce eggs for us.
When I’m ready to have my ladies change their clothes, usually in early fall, I simply turn off the light in the coop. Although the hens can go outside any time they want, the inside of the coop is pretty dark (there’s just the hen door and a ventilation grill). Because their food dispenser is inside, they tend to come inside a lot. Apparently, that’s enough darkness, because right on schedule, the birds start shedding. In fact, the hen yard looks as if I fox had raided it, with all the feathers blowing about!
In a month or two, with new feathers in place, I turn the light back on. The hens think it’s spring, and start laying again.
Being able to control the molt to some extent means I can stockpile eggs ahead of time. An unwashed egg is covered with a dried mucus-y film called the bloom. This layer keeps bacteria outside while allowing air to diffuse through the shell. As a result, eggs last a surprisingly long time. They won’t be as fresh, of course, but they’ll still be edible, and definitely better than the ones I can get at the store.
I’m thrilled that my new birds are already laying eggs. I think I’ll go scramble a few for breakfast!