As always with ongoing experience, new hypotheses emerge. Lately I'd come to think that the egg problem was nutritional in nature. The problem, I thought, either had to do with the size of the grind itself - the most significant evidence for which is the fact that industrial operations do it, and because it costs more to do so, you gotta figure there's a reason for it - or that the hens were not getting enough of their vitamin premix and calcium. Since the transition to organic grains, these supplements were offered free choice only, or not mixed in with their regular rations. The Fertrell's Poultry Nutri-balancer premix is formulated for 60 pounds per ton, and it was obvious that they weren't ingesting it at that rate.
Also with the transition to organic, we switched over to the organic formulation of the Fertrell's itself, which is identical to its non-organic counterpart expect in containing a synthetic version of the amino acid Methionine. This amino is crucial for laying hens in particular, and is only found naturally in animal proteins, e.g., insects, frogs, rodents, worms, etc., that the birds consume on pasture. (Remember: chickens are not vegetarians.) Currently there is a USDA exemption for Methionine in organic production simply because there is no available alternative on the market.
So yesterday I spoke with the poultry nutrition guru at Fertrell's, Jeff Maddox, and after describing the situation he identified the following two potential problems. The first concerned the temperature at which the soybeans are roasted. For cattle and other ruminants, soybeans are typically roasted at 270 degrees for 20 minutes. For poultry and pigs, however, the temperature must be higher for longer, ideally at 300 degrees for at least 25 minutes. The second potential issue was indeed a Methionine deficiency, which he diagnosed through the hens occasionally eating small, fluffy feathers that have fallen to the ground. (Again, think about lacking adequate animal proteins, of which feathers are nothing but.) Jeff recommended switching back to the original Fertrell's formula.
Also yesterday I went up to get this month's feed from Windy Acres. Mr. Farris takes his beans J&M Farms in Guthrie, KY, which is an organic dairy that has the only known independent roaster in the region. And, indeed, after speaking with the folks at J&M this morning, they're roasting the soybeans between 245 and 260 degrees. So either we're going to raise the temperature adequately, or roast the beans and keep them warm for a longer period of time. Temperature recommendations are 270 degrees for 25 minutes, 260 degrees for 35 minutes, or 250 degrees for 45 minutes. As for the Methionine, I've ordered the original Fertrell's formula, and it should be in within the week. (Incidentally, we also get the Fertrell's and the other minerals we use on the farm from the folks at J&M Farm.) Alternatively, Jeff said, the Methionine requirement can be met with 25 to 40 pounds of fish meal per ton, but this is not allowed in organic production.
In addition to these changes, I'm moving the hens through the pasture fairly quickly to get them in place for the winter. Once bivouacked I plan on introducing some lights to extend the appearance of day light and so induce them to lay. Animal Welfare Approved standards allow such artificial light, not to exceed 16 hours total per day. I have until now resisted this option as a husband, instead wanting to allow the hens an "all natural" laying cycle with the seasons. But people want to eat farm-fresh eggs year round, and its seems like many farmers do this just to pay the feed bills on heritage breed hens. Otherwise, I'm told, you're just keeping pet chickens. I'm interested to hear your thoughts.