Three signs of autumn for the urban farmer: Falling leaves, falling rain and….falling egg production.
As the days shorten, backyard hens start to shift into vacation mode. That’s because chickens’ egg laying is directly connected to the available hours of daylight. When sunshine is in scant supply, they produce fewer eggs.
“Once you see 15 to 16 hours of daylight, you will see a gradual decrease” in eggs, said Richard Goforth, N.C. Cooperative Extension area specialized agent for poultry. In the dead of winter, the sun may shine for just 10 hours a day. Hens moult in late autumn and then take a break from egg-laying during those darker weeks. Egg laying takes a lot of calcium from a hen’s body and the rest lets her regenerate.
Once, eggs were more of a seasonal food, though farmers could get eggs in winter by keeping chickens of different ages, Goforth said. And kept cold, eggs will easily keep for eight weeks, he said.
Of course, groceries don’t stop carrying eggs in January. That’s because commercial operations concentrate egg production into a short time by selecting for breeds that produce a lot of eggs in one cycle – typically that means a white leghorn chicken – and by running lights 15 to 16 hours a day, Goforth said. A typical commercial laying hen’s productive life ends around 12 to 15 months.
Backyard hens, typically brown-egg-laying breeds, will produce their eggs over a longer span, though as they age, laying slows from a peak of one a day to one every couple of days or longer.
“Four or five hens will generally produce enough eggs for your family and in their prime, they’ll produce enough to give some away to the neighbors,” said Goforth. And urban chicken keepers may find a small bonus in doing their farming in a city setting: Hens exposed to nighttime security lights and other urban light sources may lay a little longer into autumn. Read more Backyard & Beyond chicken stories here, here and here.