Why Some Chicken Lay More Eggs Than Others

Free range eggs in a nest. Credit: Getty Images


After which came first, the chicken or the egg, the second most frequently asked poultry question may be, “Why aren’t my chickens laying more, better or any eggs at all?”

A chicken, properly fed and housed, will generally lay her first egg at between 20 and 26 weeks of age depending upon her variety, the breeding for egg production behind her, and the season of the year in which she was started. She should then produce eggs for the next 9 to 13 months.

For the first 30 days of her laying cycle the female may produce a number of smaller, “pullet” eggs. To definition, a female chicken is to be considered a pullet until she is 12 months old.

The chicken’s first laying cycle is the most productive and more eggs are produced in the first half of any laying cycle that in the second half. In the second half of the laying cycle the egg output will be more irregular and some differences in size and shell color may be noted.

With each following laying cycle a reduction of 1 percent to 15 percent per bird can be expected. There will also be a similar reduction in bird numbers due to needed culling and normal bird attrition.

Birds with shorter laying cycles and that are slow to molt should be culled from the flock as inefficient producers. Culling, removing birds from the flock for failure to develop properly or perform, has seemed troublesome to some producers. The needed skills are easily learned and individual birds can be evaluated rather quickly. The flock should be evaluated regularly beginning at hatching; it is a judgment call, and some will have trouble with the removal of a bird that at first glance, appears to be in good condition. The point is that the bird is retaining that look and that good condition at the expense of the egg basket.

When called to view a flock with egg producing issues a variety of causes, some great and some small, will often be encountered in a single flock. Among the more common are birds of a great many different ages including some truly geriatric hens, birds of breeds not known for egg production, an excessive number of roosters, birds that are poorly housed, that have experienced a recent stress load, that are being inadequately fed or that have never been individually evaluated.

Few are the health and performance issues that don’t have at least some nutritional roots. Poultry rations perhaps more than the feedstuffs for any other livestock species are meant to be fed in quite exacting amounts and to more exactly meet the needs of the birds at each stage of life and performance. They are consumed in amounts as small as fractions of an ounce per bird per day and because of that they must be fresh, highly palatable, and nutrient dense.

The feed store is not a place to bargain hunt. For example, it is now recommended that most starter/developer rations be fed until the pullets produce their first eggs and then be gradually changed over to a laying ration with a high level of crude protein. This means feeding a starter/grower ration until the birds are 22 to 26 weeks of age and can be a feed investment of up to 30 pounds of feed per bird. When asked to consult on performance problems I have seen birds taken off of feed by proper protein level by as early as six weeks of age, or birds being fed excessive amounts of grain rather than an age appropriate growing or laying ration.

Scratch grains are like candy to chickens and, if offered free choice, the birds will over consume them, knocking their diets badly out of balance. I have seen this especially with laying flocks. The feeding of scratch grains is best when kept to limited amounts and should never be used as a cost cutting measure. Scratch grain may be best offered in limited amounts that the birds will clean up in about 15 minutes each day.

The best way to save money on feedstuffs is to make sure that they are going only to those birds actually in production. This means taking each bird in hand and evaluating it for health, well condition, and egg laying condition. A bird approaching lay and continuing to lay well will present with a soft abdomen (a hard abdomen means the bird is putting on fat and no producing eggs), there will be good width between the tips of the pelvic bones measured in finger widths (2.5 to 3 finger widths), the vent will be moist and pliable, and the drain from the eggs output will show in the fading of skin color beginning around the vent and moving forward toward the head and then down the legs to the feet. This will be most noticeable on breeds with yellow skin and shanks.

Every bird in the flock will have a head in the feeder and adding to the costs of each dozen if eggs produced that day. It is also quite difficult to make an economic case for retaining a hen past her second laying cycle unless she is being retained for breeding.

In the Golden Era of poultry keeping most farm flocks were based on a single pure breed. Those farmers were purebred breeders as well as egg producers. A flock now is too often made up of birds of many different breeds and thus of different body sizes and nutritional needs, has birds of many ages, and is rooster heavy. A rooster or two will keep order in the hen house and in breeding season one rooster for every 8 to 12 hens should maintain desired fertility levels. They will take a toll on hen condition if left with them too long and can be a source of stress that eventually impact egg production.

Flock stress can take many forms and come from many sources. It might result from vermin or even a snake in the chicken house, a predator attack, a sudden weather event, mixing together birds, and many other causes. A friend once reported that a period of strong winds over a period of days shut down flock output,

Support care for birds that have experienced stress would begin with the addition of a vitamin/electrolyte product to the drinking water. This can be done for a period of three days. Boosting crude protein levels in the laying ration will help the birds when dealing with heat of cold.

Chickens can cope with temperature changes that are seasonal, that come gradually. Adult birds can cope with quite cold temperature if shielded from dampness and direct drafts. The birds’ quarters should be inspected regularly for signs of vermin and predator inroads and draft sources. Just remember that while humans experience environments at head and shoulder level the birds are at roost height and floor level. A dime size hole at roost level could allow drafts to chill birds roosting near it.

A successful laying flock is constantly being shaped and reshaped. Poor performance are found and removed, selection is being made to add ever better performing birds, and the success comes from giving better feed and care to better performing birds.

Kelly Klober specializes in raising livestock using natural methods. He is the author of Talking Chicken, Dirt Hog: A Hands-On Guide to Raising Pigs Outdoors … Naturally, and Beyond the Chicken available from Acres U.S.A.

Tractor Time #51: Journalist Tom Philpott on Our Perilous Food System

Tom Philpott is the food and ag correspondent for Mother Jones. Before that, he covered the food system for Grist. His reporting has appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek and the Guardian. He’s worked as a bona fide farmer and now splits his time between Austin, Texas, and North Carolina. He has a new book out from Bloomsbury Publishing. It’s called Perilous Bounty: The Looming Collapse of American Farming and How We Can Prevent It. The book is the culmination of an impressive career spent holding industry and government accountable. Perilous Bounty tells the story of two U.S. farming powerhouses — California’s Central Valley and the Corn Belt of the Midwest. Through this lens, Philpott makes the case that current agricultural practices and policies are leading us down the road to environmental ruin. And yet, there’s still hope on the horizon.

To find out more about Tom Philpott visit www.tomphilpott.net/

Tractor Time is brought to you by Acres U.S.A. and Barn2Door. Subscribe to our channel on YouTube, iTunes or anywhere podcasts are available. Also, find us at acresusa.com, ecofarmingdaily.com, and don’t forget to subscribe to our monthly magazine.

Tractor Time Episode 50: Dr. Vandana Shiva on the Toxic Cartels

On this our 50th episode we welcome Dr. Vandana Shiva. A fearless advocate for peasant farmers throughout the world, Dr. Shiva is one of the most outspoken critics of industrial agriculture and its dire environmental and spiritual consequences. S

he is the founder of Navdanya, an India based organization that advocates for biodiversity, seed sovereignty and food independence. Navdanya runs an organic farm in the foothills of the Himalays and counts among its members millions of farmers across India, where the group has set up more than 100 seed banks. She is the recipient of many awards, including the Right Livelihood Award and the Sydney Peace Prize.

She is also the author of several groundbreaking books, including Making Peace with the Earth, Soil Not Oil and Who Really Feeds the World?. Her latest book is called Oneness vs the 1%: Shattering Illusions, Seeding Freedom. This is the book we desperately need right now. In an age of growing economic inequality, globalization and relentless corporate propaganda, we need people like her who are willing to stand up and speak the truth.

Despite the fact that Dr. Shiva is routinely standing up against corrupt global power and what she calls the Toxic Cartels, she embodies joyousness. At first, it might seem incongruous. How can one be joyful in a time of such darkness. But maybe joy, in this case, is the absence of fear. Maybe that’s because Dr. Shiva has seen, again and again, peasants in her country standing up to power, whether it’s the British Empire or Big Ag.

Drawing inspiration from the Chipko Movement in the 1970s and from the millions of farmers who are today resisting corporate domination, Dr. Shiva believes that a right relationship with the Earth is always possible and ever-present, even in the bleakest of days.

Rodale Institute Bringing Organic Farming Research to the Southeast

A scene from the greenhouse at Rodale Institute’s center in Georgia.

By Kristie Wendelberger

Rodale Institute has been researching regenerative organic farming from its headquarters in Pennsylvania for over 70 years. But all farmers know that one size does not fit all in agriculture. That’s why Rodale Institute is committed to providing regionalized resources for farmers looking to learn more about organic practices in our country’s agricultural heartlands.

Rodale Institute opened the Rodale Institute Southeast Organic Center (RI-SOC) in 2019 to support Southeastern farmers — answering their questions about research, helping them transition to organic, and providing training through workshops, field days, lectures and apprenticeships. The RI-SOC is located in Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia, about 30 minutes southwest of Atlanta, on Many Fold Farm. With more than 300 acres of pasture and forested land to work with, the RI-SOC is poised to perform independent research at our facility, take part in replicated studies across several farms, or come to your farm to help you answer your research questions on your land.

As this is the RI-SOC’s first year, like many of you in the first year of farming, we have been busy building the farm. Our farm manager, Garver Akers, has spent hours in the office researching equipment, setting schedules and planning the first acre of fall garden space. He walked through the fields taking soil samples to test for pH, nutrient levels, and percent carbon; building deer fences; and installing our first greenhouse. In the lab, he retrofitted a walk-in cooler into a research growth chamber. As a trained farm educator, he took the lead working with our first Beginning Farmer Intern, Jewels Giuliano, who has flourished into a farmer in front of our eyes.

Meanwhile, I built our lab space, wrote grants and began research. I installed workstations and bought equipment, freezers and drying ovens. The lab is ready to process soil and plant samples to be sent out for nutrient analysis, experimentally grow plants in the growth chamber, and welcome workshops and classes to learn and experience hands-on research. To better understand the needs in the Southeast, we met with farmers to hear firsthand what their most pressing research needs are. We are now poised to start the new year answering questions revolving around varieties best suited for our hot, humid weather, ways to tackle mid-summer pests, and techniques to improve soil nutrient and microbial biodiversity.

We began our first research project studying the effect of cover crop and nutrient combinations under conservation and conventional tillage on soil nutrient and microbial biodiversity, yield, and fruit nutrient content. This project was funded by the USDA Organic Transitions program and in collaboration with Clemson University. The SOC and Clemson have sister experiments running to see the different impacts in Piedmont and Coastal Plain soils. We have an eight-block, split-plot design with conservation tillage versus conventional tillage as the main blocks, embedded with eight plots each of the following cover crop and nutrient combinations: hairy vetch only; winter rye only; chicken manure only; hairy vetch and winter rye; hairy vetch, winter rye, and manure; hairy vetch and manure; winter rye and manure; and a control plot with no treatment. Roma tomato and cucumber will be our rotating cash crops. Over the next three years we will look at how the soil nutrient levels, microbial communities and carbon levels change at 0-15, 15-30, 30-45 and 45-60 cm deep. We will assess cover crop density, crop yield and nutrient levels in the vegetables. Once complete, we will have a better idea of how to grow our southeastern soil microbial communities while obtaining the best yield and healthiest vegetables.

We had a great socially distanced year, taking the time to build a foundation on the farm that has made us ready to connect with our southeastern community now and into the future. We are looking forward to growing, with employment and volunteer opportunities available and a southeastern consulting program to be launched in 2021.
If you are a farmer or researcher that wants help answering your farming questions through research and collaboration, contact us at Southeast@RodaleInstitute.org. For more information on employment opportunities, volunteering and more, visit RodaleInstitute.org.

Dr. Kristie Wendelberger is the research director for the Rodale Institute Southeast Organic Center in Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia. She is responsible for expanding organic farming practices throughout the Southeast through research, outreach and education. Learn more about her work in Georgia at RodaleInstitute.org/SoutheastOrganicCenter.

How Holistic Financial Planning Can Create More Wealth

In Holistic Financial Planning, each enterprise is evaluated for its contribution to the whole and how well it “stands on its own feet.”

By Abbey Smith

As I listened to the budgeting conversation at a large ranching operation here on the west coast of the United States, where the Jefferson Center for Holistic Management was consulting, it suddenly hit me: scale doesn’t matter. The underlying patterns, habits and perceptions about managing finances on a farm or ranch are the same regardless of the size of the operation.

Thinking back to a conversation I had recently with a close friend and market gardener on a two-acre farm, I realized that we were having the same conversation. There were just a few more commas and zeros added to the budget here on this large ranching operation.

As the budget conversation continued, I tested my theory. Yep. It was proving true. If we either added or subtracted dollars from the cash flow in the budget, the number of acres managed, people employed and equipment owned, then at the core, we would be having the same conversation about a two-acre market garden and a three-million-acre ranching operation.

It doesn’t matter if we are managing a $10 million annual expense budget or $10,000 — the profit margin can be the same. It’s so liberating to realize, I thought, that we don’t have to spend tons of money, or have tons of land (but it’s OK if we do too) to be a profitable farmer or rancher. We can have the life we desire, at the scale of farming or ranching we desire, with some pretty basic planning procedures (something we call Holistic Financial Planning), a positive relationship with money and a few good habits when it comes to monitoring expenses.

Holistic Financial Planning

Holistic Financial Planning is a simple, cash-based planning procedure that allows farmers and ranchers to be profitable while maintaining the quality of life they desire and improving the health of their land base. This planning procedure creates an annual projection budget and then a plan for monitoring planned versus actual expenses monthly, controlling expenses and re-planning when needed. In Holistic Financial Planning, we think of expenses differently. Like other principles in Holistic Management, it takes commonly held truths and turns them on their head.

In most households, farms, ranches and businesses, we think of the relationship between income, expenses and profit in one of two ways. Let’s consider this from a perspective of a salaried employee managing her household budget. Let’s say her name is Sarah. She chose a high-paying job at a marketing firm because it supported the lifestyle she wanted. As her salary increased through the years, she allowed her expenses to rise along with it, so the money she was able to save, or set aside as profit, never actually changed. For Sarah, this is just “how it was” with money. Profit wasn’t something she believed she could control; it was just what was left over after all the bills were paid. She is a diligent financial planner and monitors her expenses. Sometimes she has to cut back on expenses to make sure she doesn’t exceed her income, but profit is never something she thought to plan; only income and expenses were ever planned.

In Holistic Financial Planning, profit is planned first. Then expenses are controlled to allow for the desired profit margin, given the income of the operation. Considering the farmers and ranchers I’ve worked with, there is usually a similar response to this concept. It ranges from discomfort to disbelief that this is even possible.

The beauty of planning for profit is that it allows the farmer or rancher to make intentional annual investments in their long-term land plan for the farm or ranch, or other investments that meet their Holistic Context and desired quality of life.

Key principles

There are elements of the Holistic Financial Planning procedure that make it distinctly different from other budgeting processes. Here are the gamechangers:

Holistic Context: All Holistic Management planning procedures depend on a Holistic Context. Otherwise, how do you know which action is the right one, at the right time, for the right reasons, given the quality of life desired by those making decisions on the farm or ranch? Caroline Putnam, owner of Revivolution, took a virtual Jefferson Center Holistic Financial Planning course in late 2020. She said: “I live in Peru full time and have a smallholder farm in an indigenous village. I am focused on food systems transformation through regenerative farming. The holistic finance framework showed me how to make decisions with health and quality of life at the center. I think in traditional business models it becomes normal to think, ‘when I finally make this certain amount of income or reach this promotion in work, I will be able to live the lifestyle I want.’ In holistic finance, we flip this concept and say, ‘here is the quality of life I choose to live, and how do I ensure my enterprises rise to meet that standard.’ So, essentially, we are putting health and wellbeing at the center, as a pillar from which we make decisions.”

Calculating net worth: This is a process of defining all the wealth you have access to, and have created in your life. In a 2020 virtual Holistic Financial Planning course with Andrea Malmberg at the Jefferson Center, she asked course participants to think back to the first job they had — when they first started making money. The assignment was to tally all the income each person generated from that first job through the present day. “The idea,” Andrea said, “is to show that we do have the ability and means to generate wealth in our lives, but oftentimes we don’t realize it.”

Identifying log jams and adverse factors: As we organize our expenses in Holistic Financial Planning, after planning for profit, we categorize them into log jams, adverse factors and inescapable and maintenance expenses. Most people are aware of inescapable expenses (debt, taxes, etc.) and maintenance (monthly bills, repairs, etc.). However, log jams and adverse factors, when left unattended, often manifest “unforseen” disasters or “fires” we have to put out. Log jams are problems that keep the entire operation from moving ahead. They bring all enterprises to a halt.

“Most often, log jams are social,” Andrea said,”they are caused by our relationships with other people.” They usually are not financial or ecological. Adverse factors are smaller forces pushing against the operation or enterprise. A log jam may be an employee or employees quitting, and an adverse factor may be a summer road construction project that requires taking a longer, alternative route to get produce to a farmers’ market, which increases transport expenses. Planning to address these expenses in the annual Holistic Financial Plan essentially prevents the “fire” from starting. It allows for addressing the problem to be incorporated into the cash flow, instead of an unexpected expense that hurts the operation’s cash flow and decreases the profit margin.

Chain of production weak links: Each enterprise on a farm creates a chain of production. This is the idea that solar energy is captured by plants, converted into a product of some kind, taken to market and sold for paper dollars. At each point of transformation of that energy, there could be a weak link. The entire chain of production is only strongest at its weakest link. Enterprises are analyzed to identify a resource conversion, product or marketing weak link. Investments are then budgeted to address the weak link in the chain of production for that enterprise.

Gross profit analysis: A quick analysis of direct expenses and income for each enterprise on the farm or ranch (or household) provides insight into which ones are contributing the most to the overall operation and which ones may be a drain on it. This can be an emotional process if the most cherished enterprises don’t really stand on their own feet from an income and expenses standpoint. Oftentimes the idea of simply separating out each enterprise from the whole operation and analyzing it is a new process, shedding light on the health of the enterprise and one the operation as a whole.

Monitor, control, replan: Creating the Holistic Financial Plan is a great, and very important, first step. But it is just the beginning. The work comes in the monthly monitoring of actual expenses, income and profit compared to what was planned. This gives managers the opportunity to adjust their expenses and activities as needed to keep the budget on track. The “seeing” part is key. We cannot manage what we don’t measure. Many people managing farms and ranches don’t know how much they are spending or if they are spending the money on top priorities. And I say this with no judgement. I find a good practice of monthly monitoring to be very hard to develop. This is why we formed a support network at the Jefferson Center of course participants to help and encourage each other to create and manage financial (and grazing) plans.

Our relationship with money

It was such a relief to know that I was not alone in some of my emotional responses to finances: anxiety, guilt, fear. These emotions deterred me from doing the work of Holistic Financial Planning. When I did the work, it took tremendous energy to work through the emotions, which made it feel like such hard work. I realized I wasn’t alone when we talked about this during the Holistic Financial Planning course taught by Andrea Malmberg at the Jefferson Center in the fall of 2020.

“Normally I am someone that turns the other way when we talk about accounting and financial planning,” Caroline Putnam, a fellow course attendee, said. After taking a Values in Action Character Strengths survey as part of the course, I realized that my core strengths are love, gratitude and perseverance. Drawing on these core strengths, I brought them to my work with finances and began to actually enjoy it. It wasn’t that hard when the emotional baggage dropped. I love to write poetry and journal. It slows my mind down, allows me to become fully present, to reflect and examine, and to find meaning in life. Projection budgets do the opposite to me. I feel pressured to predict the future, to promise to create gold out of straw, and then to be held to it for a year. Each month I have to look at how I measure up to this version of the future. Of course, this brings emotions with it too. Guilt or elation. Fear or joy. Clearly too much of my self worth was wrapped up in a budget. Now, before and during budget planning season, I write a lot of poetry, especially right before I work on a budget. It gets me in a flow state. Additionally, I realized that when doing bookkeeping and reconciling, I love to listen to 90s hip-hop music. It helps me focus and sustain energy. No idea why, or where that came from, but I’m going with it.

Now, when I do the work of budgeting or monitoring, it becomes just “addition and subtraction,” as Tony Malmberg, a Savory Field Professional and long-time holistic manager, said. I couldn’t believe how much easier it was to create annual budgets and do monthly monitoring, reconciling and other bookkeeping when the baggage of negative emotional response to the work was dropped.

Other bad habits we have, that I have noticed in myself and others I’ve worked with, are the following. The good news is that they are simply habits and can be changed.

We are not in the habit of paying ourselves as farmers and ranchers. For some reason this makes us really uncomfortable. Our time, energy and knowledge is valuable and needs to be acknowledged in the budget.

We don’t talk about finances enough. Why was the Holistic Financial Planning course with Andrea the first time I’d had an open and supported conversation with others about my relationship with money? We should talk about real things more often with people who have the desire and capacity to listen and share too.

We are used to doing things the way they’ve always been done. I love the look of joy and surprise in someone’s eyes when they realize that “absolute truths” about how their farm or ranch operates are actually just actions taken that were never questioned or examined, and then repeated (sometimes through generations).

We lack a long-term investment plan for the farm or ranch. Too many of us live in a state of constantly putting out fires. This becomes a habit — and perhaps an addiction to the adrenaline needed to live like this. Having a long-term land plan allows planned profit from each year to be invested in a way that takes the whole operation toward the long-term vision for the property and decreases the time spent in reaction mode.

Working on healing my relationship with budgets, spreadsheets and finances was liberating. Here are some ways to do this important work:

  • Take a Holistic Financial Planning course. The Jefferson Center offers at least two per year.
  • Take a Ranching for Profit course.
  • Form a management club, which is an outcome of a Holistic Financial Planning course with the Jefferson Center. Anyone can do this. Find other farmers and ranchers you trust and meet annually to deeply review plans and budgets, providing honest feedback and ideas.
  • Start talking about finances with people you trust. Let’s have real conversations. It feels good. It is energizing. It is healthy. It forms deep connections. All good reasons to take the chance of being vulnerable, which is required to have a real conversation.
  • Take the Values in Action Character Strengths survey, and begin applying your strengths to your financial planning process.
  • Make time for self-reflection. What emotional responses do you have to budgeting and tracking expenses that deter you from doing this work? How can you decrease your emotional response, or change it to a positive response, when you see a spreadsheet or are asked to create a budget?

Abbey Smith is a Savory Professional Educator and a leader of the Jefferson Center for Holistic Management, a Savory Global Network hub serving the West Coast. Learn more at jeffersonhub.com and savory.global. She lives in Fort Bidwell, California with her children Maezy and Sam, who are learning to love spreadsheets at a young age.