Sometimes we take for granted the schedule and activities around a farm. Our tours highlight some of the disconnects that can exist between our customers and us as producers. These are great moments as we find our customers always interested in deepening their understandings of the cycles that bring their food from our fields to their plates.
Though it is the middle of winter at Wholesome Valley Farm we are already setting things in motion for summer. Right now, we are bringing in chicks that will be our future laying hens.
A laying hen doesn’t lay eggs as soon as she is hatched.It takes roughly 20 weeks for her to reach maturity. Compare that to a Cornish Cross broiler (meat chicken) that will mature at 8 to 9 weeks. And even at 20 weeks when the laying hen begins to lay eggs, they are a small, unmarketable size. These eggs known as pullet eggs are used in secondary products like pasta and baked goods.
A laying hen lays just 1 egg per day, at max. Her productivity is a result of nutrition, her environment, and daylight. Hens require about 12 to 14 hours of light per day to properly stimulate the hormones that dictate egg production. In the winter when the sun is quite lazy, we have to add artificial light to prevent a collapse in egg production. A timer turns on the lights before the sun rises and after the sun sets.
But that isn’t all we have to think about in the winter with laying hens. While there is no green grass on which to forage, we have to add alfalfa and kelp to the feed to add the beta-carotene that we all want in an Omega-3 rich egg. Brown egg layers like our girls down at the farm tend to consume more feed than white egg layers due to the larger size of their bodies. (This is also why brown eggs tend to be slightly more expensive in the grocery store.)
Large scale egg producers keep birds inside climate-controlled environments with artificial lighting used to stimulate hormone production. These producers expect 90% or greater egg laying productivity all year round. For us on a pasture managed system our goal is a 75% laying rate. A bird on pasture may be stressed from the heat, not drink enough water, or even just lays her eggs in a place where you can’t find them.
Even in the winter the hens are allowed outside. Chickens are naturally curious and will go outside even with snow on the ground. In the summer the chickens are fed outside to encourage foraging. They spend the summer rotating through the six sections around the chicken house in search of insects hiding in the grass. What you end up with is a great tasting egg, easily differentiated from the grocery store variety by their rich, orange yolks.