Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Eggs All Year: A Trick of the Light

In the suburb where I live, even the traditional quarter-acre section is critically endangered, so perhaps it was unlikely that the local PaknSave would stock New Zealand Lifestyle Block.*

Nevertheless, when I went there today for half a dozen eggs, I was surprised and disappointed that I couldn’t also pick up a copy of this magazine.

Why shop for eggs when I have my own manufactory (or more appropriately henufactory) on my back doorstep, in the backyard? Because production there has ground to a halt. Even Henemoa’s seemingly endless egg supply has stopped.

Henemoa (foreground) and Alice enjoy an
after-dinner drink. Henemoa, who started her
moult this week, has joined the rest of the flock
in taking an egg break during the shorter days.
“Today’s consumers expect eggs to be available on demand,” writes Annie Potts in Chicken, her book about the lore and lifestyle of chooks, “but until relatively recently eggs were plentiful only for a few months of each year. 

It’s natural. With the days getting shorter in the lead-up to winter and its solstice, poultry moults: no eggs; ’nuff said.** And in the coldest season when the light is further reduced, hens may already have been graced with a fine new covering of feathers but they are still not in the least inclined to incubate or have babies.

Easter, which the southern hemisphere has in autumn, was first a festival of the northern hemisphere where, with perfect timing, it marked spring and new life — especially in the form of the egg, which hadn
’t been around for a while. With spring, the egg was back and people celebrated its return, sunny side up.

Year-round laying enables you and me to nip down to the supermarket for a carton of eggs. But it’s a trick of the light switch, something achievable only with artificial illumination. That’s the focus of the Lifestyle Block article that I was so keen to see. In the May issue, Sue Clarke writes about “How to use a lighting system to extend the working year for your hens”.

It turns out that this is more complicated than leaving the light on. “Just leaving hens living on a 16 hour day for all of their adult life is not going to work”, she writes. “If you intend to keep birds for longer than a one year laying period then you will still need to give them a ‘winter’ to give them time to moult and refresh their metabolism.”

Commercial farmers manage by culling those they call end-of-lays: birds that have provided eggs for 12 to 14 months get the chop. (Such hens are “spent”, I’ve read elsewhere.) It’s uneconomic for these farmers to feed hens for the two to three months of a moult without getting eggs in return, writes Sue: “It’s much cheaper to buy in a new batch of ready-to-lay 4–5 month old pullets.”

Backyard chicken-keepers can “simulate summer” and keep their hens laying longer, but 10 months of the year is the limit, and the article sets out a timeline with specific feed, light-time, and even bulb requirements for this to occur without harming the health of your flock.

Available, just possibly,
from a supermarket near you.
It’s fascinating, but for me it all feels a bit hard. Do I really need to extend my hens’ working year? The answer is no. I’m happy for Henemoa et al to have a long holiday and for nature to take its course, more or less.

In reality, the chickens in my backyard are pets or companions, not economic units. I’m not pretending to be a farmer, and I don’t even desire a lifestyle block. Here in suburbia, all that’s available is a lifestyle square, and that’s more than enough for me.

 Oh, and how do I know what Sue Clarke says in the latest issue of New Zealand Lifestyle Block? I bought it at another supermarket not far from here. There must be some aspirational lifestylers living in the area after all — people more aspirational than me, perhaps.


* lifestyle block (NZ) a rural or semi-rural residential property providing opportunities for small-scale farming, horticulture, etc. — The New Zealand Oxford Dictionary.

** I’ve said plenty about the moult in other posts, such as Amelia on the Outer and It Shouldn
’t Happen to a Hen.


  1. I remember spotting in a very old book of household hints a recipe for a solution for preserving eggs... lots of chemical-sounding things I seem to recall and I definitely recall shuddering at what the quality of the eggs might be like when fished out of this liquid concoction to finally use.

    Did a quick search just now and found this...


  2. Thank you, Jay! I'll be sure and do that next time I have an eggcess! Take a close look at the next carton I send your way...

    You've inspired me to do some delving of my own in the old family edition of Mrs Beeton that I have. There are bound to be some great tips in there.