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December 6, 2008 “Hens in Winter”

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

I think I might be running an industrial egg farm. It hasn\’t been going on for long, but who knows when it will end?

Here are the circumstances that led to my conversion from cuddly and compassionate, quasi-organic chicken keeper to steely-eyed factory-egg producer. A couple of weeks ago, my nine hens stopped laying. They had plenty of good excuses:

    The weather turned extra-cold extra-early.

    These are the darkest, cloudiest, shortest days of the year, and chickens need daylight to lay. (Right, I don\’t feel like doing much on cloudy days either.)

    They are not as young as they used to be. (Neither am I.)

    Some of them are molting. This is a natural process whereby birds lose their feathers and replace them with new ones. A molting hen does not lay. (Having experienced a number of “molts” in my own life, I can empathize.)

My empathy notwithstanding, I needed eggs, and I wasn\’t getting any. Meanwhile, the chickens were consuming extra-large rations of expensive laying pellets along with smashed apples, old pumpkins and other tidbits.

There is a magic bullet for getting hens to lay in winter: turning on the lights in the henhouse. Battery hens are kept under lights round the clock, year round. And as a result of this unnatural regime, by their second year they are spent, and slaughtered. I had read plenty of lyrical exhortations to let hens follow the rhythms of nature, wax and wane with the seasons, and so on. If there is one who is fervent about following the rhythms of nature, it\’s me. Let the hens sleep the winter away, I used to think, let me not interfere with the hibernation that the season imposes, to a greater or lesser degree, on all of us.

On the other hand, I don\’t keep my chickens as pets, not quite. I have chickens because I want my own source of protein, and manure for the garden. Their affectionate nature and quirky personality notwithstanding, it makes no sense to feed nine hens and a rooster all winter if we\’re not getting eggs. I had tried all the low-key methods I knew to keep them comfortable. I closed their door at sundown. I employed the “deep litter” bedding method, which means that rather than cleaning out the coop periodically, I keep adding hay and wood shavings. This covers up the droppings and keeps the smells away. Most importantly, as the stuff begins to compost, it generates a certain amount of heat. I also plugged in a heated waterer so they would have access to liquid (as opposed to a chunk of ice) around the clock.

But that was not enough to keep them laying. So I capitulated and decided to go the industrial farming way. I installed an energy-saving bulb and turned it on for a couple of hours in the evening, confident that it would return my hens to reasonable laying rates.

To my surprise, it didn\’t. I was still having eggless days. One frozen evening, after turning on the lights I stuck around to watch the chickens. There was water in the water bowl, plenty of laying mash in the feeder, freshly smashed apples all over the floor. What more could they want? And then it hit me—these chickens were cold. They stood about with their shoulders hunched and one leg hidden in their feathers. They pecked around half-heartedly at the food, but soon returned to their hunched positions, like wind-blown pedestrians waiting for a bus.

Now what is the nicest thing someone who loves you can do when you\’re chilled to the bone? Offer you something hot to drink, that\’s what! Hot cocoa, hot chicken soup (forsooth!), hot coffee, hot tea with milk or a little brandy….

I ran inside and heated a quart of water in the microwave. I shook a bunch of powdered milk into a bowl, added some long-forgotten Farina for good measure, and when the water was good and hot mixed it all together and took it out to the coop. I poured the steaming mixture into one of the chickens\’ rubber dishes, threw in some laying mash, and presented it.

They clustered round like filings around a magnet. The boss hen tried it first, shook her beak, dipped it again and drank deeply. Her friends followed suit, and so did the rooster Charlemagne. By lights-out the bowl was empty.

Next morning, there were two lovely brown eggs in the nest.

And that\’s how I\’ve been getting my two eggs a day every since. Ag-center types will say that it\’s the extra protein that does the trick, or the extra warmth. Perhaps. But I think that my hens realize that they\’ve been listened to and understood, and they are rewarding me in the only way they know.

Animals, and plants too, have a way of responding to kind intentions. If you have experienced this (or the opposite!) I\’d like to hear from you.

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