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Natural Perspectives: Adventures in egg laying

August 15, 2012|By Vic Leipzig and Lou Murray
  • Three baby chicks warm up in their cage.
Three baby chicks warm up in their cage. (Lou Murray, HB Independent )

As egg farmers, Vic and I seem to be abject failures.

I got a nice young Barred Rock hen from Centennial Farm last fall because one of our three hens had died. I had hoped that the new hen, named Miss Hillary, would be a good layer.

But so far, she's been pretty worthless.

She laid two eggs last fall and then immediately went into molt and stopped. For a month, that poor, bedraggled thing just moped around, taking dust baths, and not producing any eggs.

By the time her feathers grew back, it was winter. Hens don't produce eggs during the short days of winter. It is during the lengthening days of spring that they are at maximum production.

When spring arrived, things turned around. All three of our girls began laying again. I even had enough of a surplus to freeze some extra eggs. But when summer arrived, Miss Hillary went broody on us.

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A broody hen stops laying and sits on eggs endlessly, trying to hatch baby chicks. A broody hen's body temperature goes up while she is broody. She tries to protect the eggs from any farmer who wants to remove them from under her. She won't budge from that nest. And unfortunately for our egg production efforts, a broody hen doesn't lay eggs.

Miss Hillary moved the eggs laid each day by Henrietta and Chicken Little underneath her to incubate them. I tried to explain to her that without a rooster, those eggs were infertile and would never hatch. But reasoning with a chicken is impossible.

I had to be diligent about removing eggs from the coop or they would overheat. Although Miss Hillary spread her wings, ruffled her feathers, and did her best to guard the eggs, she has a good disposition and didn't peck me when I reached under her for the eggs.

I checked with my chicken-growing friends on the Internet. They said that one solution is to separate the broody hen from the others, and put her in a place with no nest and no eggs for a few days. I tried that. It didn't work.

The next solution seemed rather drastic. Dunk her in a tub of cold water to bring down her body temperature. That sounded too traumatic — for me!

After two months, Miss Hillary was still broody and still wasn't laying. We were getting very few eggs because Henrietta had stopped laying for the summer. She is 4 years old and her best laying years are behind her. Chicken Little was valiantly carrying the load of providing us with eggs. But she is 3 years old and not laying every day any more.

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