How would you like living without a vacation? Animals like vacations too. For people, time off revolves around summer out-of-school time. For animals, it revolves around seasons. Deer shed antlers and grow antlers; bears hibernate, birds lay eggs in the spring.
Did you catch that last one? Birds lay eggs in the spring. They don’t lay eggs in the winter. Chickens are birds. Birds do not lay consistently year-round; they take a vacation in the winter. Or at least they like to.
In the normal scheme of things, chickens vacation in the winter by molting (losing feathers and growing new ones) and significantly dropping egg production. Three things affect laying activity:
1. Day length–the longer the day, the better they lay; the shorter the day, the worse they lay.
2. Comfort–temperature, especially cold. Modern domestic chickens descended from jungle fowl, so they have DNA that enjoys tropical norms.
3. Age–where they are on the age scale has a lot to do with production. Normally hens drop production significantly after a couple of years.
Due to these three elements, egg production naturally peaks in the spring during lengthening days, warmer temperatures, and life rejuvenation. It plummets in the fall during decreasing day length, cooler temperatures, and life reduction.
Every year, Polyface wrestles with this cyclical ebb and flow of egg production. This spring we fed $10,000 worth of eggs to pigs because we couldn’t sell them fast enough, even at half price. That’s expensive pig feed. Of course, in the fall, we don’t have enough. That’s been going on since the beginning of time.
In the industry, with factory farm housing and controlled conditions, artificial seasonality mitigates these natural cycles. In a confinement house, you can adjust the temperature and light bulbs and artificially make the chickens think it’s always spring. In fact, this can be done perfectly enough to extract nearly two years’ worth of eggs in 10 months, thereby burning out the chickens in less than a year. That’s considered efficiency.
Here at Polyface, we can’t adjust the weather. We can’t adjust the sun. That said, we can adjust their life cycle by starting a flock laying in the late summer so their physiological trajectory rises during declining day length and cooler temperatures. At least we can mitigate one of the strikes. And as fall progresses into winter, we bring them into hoop houses that warm up with solar heat during the dead of winter to mitigate one of the other strikes.
But without further manipulation, we can’t eliminate all three strikes. As a result, production naturally cycles through the year–high in the spring, low in the fall. That is the nature of things. Birds don’t want to have babies (eggs) in the winter; that’s just a fact of life.
What exacerbates this situation is the market cycle. From the earliest recorded sales tracking (around 1900) U.S. egg consumption follows an inverse cycle–lower in spring and summer and highest in the fall and early winter. Why?
In the old days, spring and summer production excess became hatchlings to grow broilers (for meat) and replacement hens. That was the only time of year enough eggs were produced to replace the larder and yard flock. With artificial housing and lighting in modern times, this is not the case, but the sales trend continues. Why?
The answer is the back-to-school protein cycle. Think about your own family consumption of eggs. In the summer, the kids are home from school. They might wake up at 10 a.m. after mom and dad have already gone to work. They might eat some leftover cold pizza for brunch. They might eat an orange or stick a Pop-Tart or Eggo in the toaster. Does anyone care?
But when school starts and the family routine becomes much more formal, and mom and dad want kiddos to go to school with nutrition on the brain, suddenly thoughts turn to good breakfasts. And good suppers. Nutrition. Few things are as handily nutritious as eggs. No left overs. Just the right size to pack a good punch without over or under filling.
As the temperature cools off, our bodies crave protein. Fruit and veggies tend to cool us down internally. Meat, dairy, and poultry (including eggs) tend to warm us inside. Humans naturally crave different kinds of foods at different times of the year. Despite smart phones and apps, we’re still biologically far closer to our cousins of 8,000 years ago than we are to anything resembling Klingons or Vulcans.
The temptation for Polyface to build a factory house with artificial environment inverted to the natural cycles is severe. Anyone dealing with the “why can’t I get eggs now?” cries would just go ahead and build a factory house. But that’s not what Polyface is about. As producer and buyer, how can we work together on this issue?
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Remember back in the spring when we were feeding eggs to pigs and giving half off prices? What if you bought an extra 60 dozen, cracked them into ziploc bags, and froze them (half a dozen in a bag). Then for 3 months (October-December) you’d buy only fresh eggs for breakfast fried and use your frozen stash for cooking, scrambled, omelets, etc. You could have all the eggs you want and use modern technology–freezers and baggies–to counteract this natural production cycle.
Before the days of artificials, egg prices fluctuated dramatically throughout the year to reflect the spring abundance and fall shortage. Should Polyface return to this heritage-type practice and greatly increase the price of eggs in the fall, since they’re so dear?
Knowing how difficult it is to get folks to do things, perhaps Polyface should crack spring abundance, freeze them (ice cube trays, maybe?) to sell during the fall. All solutions are on the table.
Joel encountered an interesting one in Australia, where of course their spring is our fall. The farmer had eggs priced per dozen, but increased the price with each additional dozen. He said that way you could hoard them, but you paid more dearly. He said it tended to reduce purchases and spread the eggs around to more people. It sounds crazy, but people get crazy when they can’t get Polyface pastured eggs.
We wish solutions to these confounded chicken vacations were easier, but chickens don’t have calendars and the climate waits for no farmer … or customer. So here we are and we hope this missive both educates and encourages. Especially we hope it builds trust in the authenticity of the Polyface pastured egg. And regardless of the crying, weeping and gnashing of teeth on the phone and emails from you, our loyal and wonderful customers, thank you for your interest and patronage. We are a team.