Natural Perspectives: These hens are just clucking around

Vic and I have three chickens but no eggs.

Our hens quit laying in late October this year. I've actually had to buy eggs from the store, three dozen so far. The store-bought eggs pale in comparison to our home-grown eggs in flavor, color, and freshness.

Part of the problem is that egg production slows down in winter. Another part is that all three of our hens went into molt at about the same time this year. When they are busy losing their feathers and growing new ones, they don't lay.

The last part of the problem is that two of our hens are almost middle-aged. They are nearly 3 years old, and their best laying years are behind them. If they lived at an egg factory, they would have been turned into soup by now.

Last year, we got only a dozen eggs in November and another dozen in December. It wasn't much, but Vic and I just adjusted our consumption and got by with what the hens were producing.

Henny Penny was a year older than the other two hens and had already stopped laying. Henrietta, our black Australorp, was molting and not laying either.

The job of keeping us in eggs November and December fell entirely upon the able shoulders (do chickens have shoulders?) or drumsticks or whatever of Chicken Little. By the time Chicken Little went into molt, Henrietta had resumed laying.

It all worked out.

Egg production reaches a maximum in spring. Our peak egg production was in March and April of 2010 when all three of our hens were younger and laying. We got an amazing 67 eggs in each of those two months. We were giving eggs away to our neighbors.

Ah, those were the days. Since spring of last year, it's all been downhill.

The late Henny Penny was never a very good layer. We didn't miss her when she went to the great chicken coop on high, because she hadn't given us any eggs for months prior to her demise. A real farmer would have relegated her to the stewpot, but we let her enjoy a comfortable retirement.

We have never set a limit on the amount of vacation time that our hens may take. We assume that any lull in laying is merely a vacation and that eventually they will lay more eggs. With Henny Penny, her vacation turned out to be full-fledged retirement as she never resumed laying.

Our latest acquisition, Miss Hillary, is a barred Plymouth Rock hen that hatched in January this year. She laid two eggs for us when we first got her in October, but hasn't laid one since. What a loafer.

Now all three hens appear to be finished with their molt, but not one of them has begun laying again. They scarf up their feed, scratch in the dirt, and gobble up the nice organic greens that I grow for them. But they are producing no eggs.

To address this dilemma, I have hatched a secret plan. I am going to acquire a fourth hen.

I talked to Jim Bailey at Centennial Farm in Costa Mesa. He is about to cull his flock, getting rid of his under-achieving hens. I intend to permanently hire one of his retirees. I don't mind having a flock that is a tad past prime. Of course, if I were any good at math, I would know that four times zero is still zero. I may end up with four non-layers.

Normally, we shouldn't need four hens for the two of us. A rule of thumb is that it takes one hen to supply one person with eggs. A good hen will lay about 250-280 eggs a year in her prime.

The average American consumes about 250 eggs per person per year. So it should take only two hens to keep Vic and me in eggs. But our hens are all going to be past their prime, so we'll need more than two.

Americans don't eat as many eggs as they used to. Back in 1945, annual egg consumption was 403 eggs per person.

By 1970, consumption had declined to 309 eggs per person. Perhaps due to concerns over cholesterol, annual egg consumption fell to 237 eggs per person in the late 1990s as the three-egg cheese and bacon omelet gave way on many breakfast tables to a healthy bowl of whole grain cereal with fruit.

Vic and I apparently consume less than the national average for eggs. Our total egg production for 2010 with three hens was 463 eggs, and we were giving them away. This year, we had only two laying hens most of the year, but they were older. We got only 313 eggs, and have had to buy supplemental eggs to meet our needs. It looks like our annual egg needs are around 350 eggs for the two of us.

Not all of the eggs at our grocery stores are local. Due in part to urbanization of former egg-producing areas like Riverside, people in California now have to import eggs to meet demand. There are about 37 million people in California, but only 21 million egg-producing chickens. This falls below the one person, one hen rule.

The top five egg producing states are Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and California, in that order. At least some of the eggs sold in California come from Iowa. The U.S. also imports 8 to 15 million dozen eggs each year from abroad. China is the world's largest producer of eggs, so some of the eggs in our food chain may come from there.

Food safety and food security are two of the reasons why we keep chickens. Another reason is to have really fresh, locally grown eggs. It certainly isn't to save money. Taking into consideration the cost of our coop, feeders, waterers, feed, city license, and the hens themselves, it has cost us about $2 for each egg. Not each dozen, each egg.

Those are some pretty expensive eggs. Those darn chickens had better get back to work pretty soon or I may reconsider the unlimited vacation plan that they currently enjoy.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at LMurrayPhD@gmail.com.

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