Forced Molt: Starving Hens For Profit

Lets’s talk about molting.

Anyone who has ever kept chickens knows about the molt, that egg-production pause where hens shed old feathers and turn into tiny, ugly dinosaurs for a few weeks. During the molt, a natural response to reduced daylight, egg laying stops. Chicken’s can’t throw energy into making new feathers and eggs at the same time, so a molt also provides the hen’s reproductive system with a much deserved rest.

Eggs used to be a seasonal item. Consumers expected color and texture changes as the diet of pastured hens changed with the year. During the winter, short daylight hours meant that egg supply went down, so egg prices went up. Before our food supply chain got all bizarre and terrible, farmers would pamper their hens with extra feed, hoping to delay molt as long as possible. The farmer that could keep their hens laying could charge higher prices, reaping a tidy return.

But this all changed with the advent of factory farms. The food-buying public grew to expect cheap, plentiful eggs at any time of year. Nowadays, big egg producers need hens laying all year long, not just on a natural spring-through-fall cycle. They do this by managing chickens in a totally synthetic environment.

Living in long, low sheds called “blackout houses,” factory farmed laying hens experience nothing like real “daylight” or “seasons.” What light they get is dusky red-orange: the dimmest illumination necessary, at the optimum spectrum, to trigger a hen’s laying reflex. When you are paying for lighting instead of letting the sun dictate the seasons, every watt-hour cuts into profits. In the Matrix-like synthetic world of these blackout sheds, a cohort of hens can be raised from eggs to layers thinking that longer days start in October and that fall comes in May.

These blackout sheds allow large scale commercial egg producers to keep multiple age flocks, strategically rotating one flock out of production and through molt while others are laying. This keeps egg production as consistent as possible.

Controlling daylight is easy, since it isn’t really “daylight” at all. But playing with light levels isn’t enough to force an entire shed of hens to molt simultaneously. More dramatic manipulation is necessary to keep egg productivity sky-high and egg prices dirt-cheap.

Since natural molting is an inconsistent thing, varying from bird-to-bird even within a breed, the big growers do everything they can to get an entire shed to go into molt at once. The technique they use is called “forced molting.”

Forced Molt

To start a truly simultaneous molt of thousands of birds precisely enough to maintain near-constant egg supplies takes more aggressive measures than turning the lights off earlier. The technical terms are phrases like “dietary restriction” or “dietary stress” but the net effect – for chickens in many American egg farms – is two weeks of starvation.

At the same time that their fake “daylight” suddenly ramps down to a bare minimum, these hens find their feed rations dramatically reduced or, more commonly, eliminated altogether. Because factory chicken farms are aware that starving egg layers for two weeks attracts a very negative public reaction, research is underway to determine the best, cheapest alternative. This turns out to be nutrient deprivation – withholding essential vitamins and minerals – to trick the birds bodies into thinking they are being starved without literally starving them. This technique reminds me of the terrible stories of aspiring models eating Kleenex to fill their bellies without ingesting calories.

Just how stressful is this? Over the two week period of a forced molt, a factory chicken farm expects to lose 1-1.5% of its flock from what is, essentially, starvation. That’s 2-3 times the regular monthly mortality rate for chickens in an operation like this (yes, 0.5-1.0% of a commercial flock dies every month).

Why bother with this forced molt stuff at all? In a synthetic world, why not just keep the hens laying year ‘round under conditions of high summer fake-sun? Well over the course of a laying season (about eighteen months for a new hen, and eight months for one that’s been through a molt) productivity gradually trails off. The molt provides a “reboot” of the egg-laying system and jumps productivity back up a bit. It also reduces the chances of reproductive illnesses.

The commercial egg farms have done the math. They know that taking hens “offline” for two weeks – even if it costs them 1.5% of their flock – pays off in greater post-molt productivity. And hey, not having to pay for two weeks’ worth of feed probably doesn’t hurt the bottom line either. 

There’s plenty to worry about as an egg or poultry consumer these days. Debeaking, cage conditions, waste streams, and more. How can a concerned egg consumer do their part to change – or at least avoid – these practices. In many countries outside the United States, forced molting through starvation is circumscribed or outright banned. But here, it is the norm for the 75% of egg producers who rely on blackout houses.

Don’t assume that labels such as “Cage Free” or “Free Range” necessarily mean a cheerful happy-go-lucky Portlandia-approved bird frolicking in the sunshine, either. Plenty of open-floor blackout sheds exist, where the confinement may not be there, but the dusty dim air certainly is.

Most of the various labels that pepper an egg carton at your local yuppie-hippie market fail to address forced molting – the Humane Society has a nice summary of different egg label standards. “Certified Humane,” “Animal Welfare Approved,” “American Humane Certified,” “Food Alliance Certified,” or “United Egg Producers Certified” are the ones to look for if you’re concerned about forced molting through starvation.

Even better than trying to decode the morass of claims dotting an egg carton is to buy from a producer you know and trust – someone who welcomes you to their farm and will proudly show you how their hens live. Blackout houses are largely the purview of large scale producers, so a farmer’s market or co-op grower is probably a safe bet.

Of course I’m partial to just doing the whole thing yourself! Our little backyard flock keeps us well fed for eggs – we get more eggs than my family can consume – while also supplying us with fantastic fertilizer.

References:

Sensational Cool Season Salads from the Northwest Flower and Garden Show
The Apple of My Eye Cocktail

Comments

  1. I waited about 2 years for my hens to molt. There were four of them, now two. It seems some hens have a continuous molt. Mine just lost a feather or two at a time. They often had a feather or two just hanging. Next week, it would be just one feather. It was strange, but after the pictures I see, molts are just horrid looking. My hens missed about two weeks over Christmas, maybe a month, with no eggs. I freeze the abundance in the summer for just those times. Mine have no extra light, ever.

    After I heard the atrocities committed against hens, I got chicks and for almost five years have raised them myself. If I cannot eat my hens’ eggs, I eat none. Of course, freezing beaten eggs in Ball Canning and Freezing Jars helps with baking over the holidays. I freeze two in a 2 oz jar and five in a half-pint jar.

    I wish everyone would raise a couple of hens and treat them well.

    • Thank you so much for this most excellent info. I have 3 hens who went through their molting this winter. I paid close attention to their diet and comfort during this phase.The payoff to do it as nature intended has been remarkable. The girls are resilient, energetic and laying the most beautiful eggs now. Their feathers came back in pretty quickly and they are stunning. Explaining to others about the Cage-Free, Free-Range labeling has been a challenge,however, your info has been extremely helpful. I love your blog!

  2. Haha, “tiny, ugly dinosaurs for a few weeks”. SO TRUE! The industry is so disgusting, and there are such benefits to doing it yourself. I love having backyard chickens.

  3. Curious why you didn’t address potential food safety issues too, see: “Feed deprivation is used in the layer industry to induce molting and stimulate multiple egg-laying cycles in laying hens. Unfortunately, the stress involved increases susceptibility to Salmonella enteritidis (SE), the risk of SE-positive eggs, and incidence of SE in internal organs. ” Poult Sci. 2005 Feb;84(2):204-11. Abstract: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15742955

    I do like knowing where my food comes from…

  4. One of the reasons I love your blog is the wonderful information you provide to your readers. I never knew about forced molting and am now armed with the knowledge on choosing my eggs at least until I can raise my own chickens (soon I hope).

    • Mary Frances says:

      I second @carol’s comment – fabulous blog, with information that I (clearly) had not been aware of previously! Thanks for informing your reading public (and for the hilarious visual that I won’t be able to get out of my head of the “tiny, ugly dinosaurs”!).

      Dinosaur eggs, anybody? Scrambled or sunny-side-up?

  5. I buy organic eggs and try to get the best I can. I live in a historical town, Granbury, tx and there are not many people around with chickens in their yards to get eggs. We did that for a bit and people move away. The farms in Texas are an hour or more away & getting eggs is not so easy. We thought of a chicken coop in our back yard, but the environment is chasing possums and raccoons around our house at night. So, we’ll keep looking for a someone close that has chickens.

  6. Ugh I didn’t know about this. Would all grocery eggs be produced this way? I buy free-range ones from local, but probably large-scale producers. Hmm. Time to email and ask I guess!

    • Homebrew Husband says:

      Erin, I’d certainly reach out to your favored producers – call, email, check their website, try to identify the icons and logos on their egg cartons. In practice there’s a range of options a smaller and presumably more ethical producer can use to manage molt for their flocks/cohorts, not as aggressive but not as “efficient” either, so I hope you can find an egg producer in your area that plays nice with their hens!

    • Hi Erin, Price will indicate to a large degree what you are buying. I can speak for NW Washington as I am a farmer and personally know most of the egg producers. Conventional eggs are horrific and I would never eat them, however, organic eggs are simply a substitution of the corn / soy diet to certified organic feed and same living conditions. Free Range means the cages are removed and now the birds live in a broiler style long barn, which is not much better.
      Pastured eggs typically are your best bet, but I have been on a lot of these farms and their idea of pasture is what I call a dirt lot. They also use hybrid birds which I described in another post. Basically, you need to buy from a farmer that you know and most likely you will be spending about $7 a dozen at least here in the NW for that kind of quality.

      • Thanks both. I live in Vancouver, Canada – our food prices are much higher than yours unfortunately. I already pay $7 for free-range grocery store eggs, organic are even more. I’ve emailed both the egg producers I usually buy, and hope for an honest response. We live in a co-op right in the centre of town, and while we have beehives and a vegetable garden on our roof, we don’t have anywhere to put chickens.

        • Homebrew Husband says:

          Jealous of your bees! That’s our Next Big Adventure, this year or next probably.

          • I love our bees so much, this was our first year. Our hives were sponsored by a local posh liquor store, who used their share of the honey to make beer with one of the craft breweries. We’ll get to taste it any day now.

            There’s a great bee blogger in your area, actually – http://www.honeybeesuite.com

          • Yay! Heard back from one of the egg producers: ‘Zero forced moulting on our farm whatsoever.’ WHEW.

        • Hi Erin, I live in Whatcom County just across the border from you. Currently our pastured organically fed eggs are going for $7 a dozen as well. The Farmers markets actually set that price for us. The demand is so high for our eggs we have people actually join our CSA just so that they can get first access. We do not sell to any of the co-ops, but if your go to the Bellingham Farmers Market you can find our booth under the name Growing Washington. Eggs are definitely one of those things you can tell quality from the imitators.

  7. I do not think this practice is very common anymore. Now days the industry giants use hybrid birds that start laying at 5 months old, drop an egg 6 days out of the week for another 12 to 13 months until they are burned out and then slaughtered. I have raised about 400 of these brown egg laying hybrids such as black and gold sexlinks and have never seen one molt. I now raise hertage birds “black austerlorps”on pasture naturally with no artificial light, which most farmers will say is not profitable. Sustainability and a non industrial farm model is very important to me, but this is also my primary income so we will see how it goes.

    • Homebrew Husband says:

      We’ve got black and gold sex-links in our flock as well…great birds! They’ll absolutely go straight through their first winter without molting and without really pausing in laying. That’s pretty typical for the strong layers, though, since the molt reflex doesn’t really get triggered until the second winter.

      From what I was finding while researching this article, though, big commercial flock lifecycles are planned with one molt, after that first long 12-14 month laying period, then a second shorter 8-9 month laying period before The End. Mostly this was from relatively recent documents, so I’d suspect this is still a fairly common practice, though I’m sure there’s variation. Probably that’s how the math works out to get maximum return-on-investment after raising the chicks…

      Good luck on your pastured australorps! I admire your courage to strike out there, putting your values first even though everyone tells you it can’t possibly work!

      • Thanks Homebrew Husband, Those sexlinks really are little troopers its amazing a bird with the body size of a soda can can produce like that. With my commercial flock the birds were really haggard by the end of the 16th month and the cashflow went negative on me really fast. I believe these birds are designed to start early and finish at 16 months in my experience. I wasn’t getting any signs of a molt from them they were just burned out and this made me really sad so I was hoping that larger heritage bird laying hopefully one egg less a week and remain strong for an extra year of laying and compensate the lower production. I am also setting up a breeding flock so saving on the price per chick might also help compensate for the lower production. I can already see these black austerlorps are way better foragers than the sexlinks. I have to move my electronet at least twice as often to keep them from completely tilling up the pasture.

  8. Thanks for pointing this out. I’ve been looking for “certified humane” eggs for a while now since an earlier blog entry of yours. Luckily my local megamart has them. You can’t raise chickens in my county unless you own a 2+-acre property or pay prohibitive fees.

  9. Thanks for sharing this very important information. Shopping unfortunately gets harder and harder all the time, but I appreciate every effort to help me make informed decisions!

  10. Great information!
    I was pondering this statement for a bit, and why it should be a concern:
    “yes, 0.5-1.0% of a commercial flock dies every month”
    In a natural population, 1% monthly mortality would put life expectancy at 100 months or over 8 years, which would be excellent. But of course these flocks are probably all the same (young) age, so 1% mortality is indeed high.

    • Homebrew Husband says:

      I think you’re right and what we’re seeing here is the “bathtub curve” of mortality: high at the beginning of life (that 1% figure isn’t for chicks but for laying birds) and high at the end of life but generally considerably lower in the middle. I haven’t seen a detailed chart of this data, but that sort of curve is pretty typical.

  11. Wow – poor chickens. We had chickens growing up and I wish I could have them now (but alas, not allowed in my neighborhood. One day…).

    I’ve been buying “Naturally Nested” eggs (18 carton from Costco/Sams), and I’ve been trying to look them up but I can’t find any info. Has anyone gone down this path? I feel like this is a big company, and so there must be some answer out there.

    But I’m glad you called them dinosaurs. They definitely are mini creepy-looking dinosaurs. Compsognathus size maybe? *Jurassic Park nerd*

    • Homebrew Husband says:

      “Naturally Nested” is one of those terms that I don’t believe has any regulated meaning. It implies cage-free, but that doesn’t in itself mean anything with regard to forced molting or a bunch of other practices (in particular debeaking). If you’re buying commercial, the Humane Society link in the body of the post is a pretty good summary of the various terms and phrases on egg packages…and which ones actually mean something and about what: http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/confinement_farm/facts/guide_egg_labels.html

  12. If you really want fresh eggs from a sourest you can trust, why not grow your own? Sadly, most communities see fit to prohibit fowl ownership.

    We want to change all that.

    Arizona Senate bill 1151 proposes that every single family detached residence should have their right to keep at least a few fowl right in their own backyard. Please visit our website, and read up on the HomeGrown Freedom Act. Thank you.

  13. I didn’t know this was done to hens – another reason justifying my backyard flock. Right now they aren’t laying, but they are still as comical as ever.

  14. I know about many of the other issues with large-scale chicken farms but did not know about this particular practice. There really is no end to the horror associated with large-scale farms.

    I really do wish we were allowed to keep chickens. We have enough space for a small number (probably ~4 at any one time) but there is a bylaw that makes it illegal. Granted, I recognize that some people would be gung-ho to try it without enough knowledge and end up not taking care of them properly but for people like myself it is a shame. Our winters are also prohibitive but I am sure it could be managed just fine. *jealous*

  15. I have 6 free range New Hampshire red hens who are wonderful layers. They will be 2 years old on April 7th. Yes, I purchased from a retailer (Big R) as day-old chicks. They interestingly went through the molt only once, and that was this last September. Their personality totally changed! My sweet friendly ladies who followed me to the garden, wherever anybody went, turned into skittish, fearful little biddies. I wondered if they were ready for their exit but, no, they snapped out of it about 2 months later and are still very productive. Our first adventure with backyard chickens and we are hooked. Central MT – cold – but a good breed for us.

  16. I’ve been raising chickens for eight years now. I started with a 6 and have 70+ now, but I rarely see any of them molting. Once in a great while there will be a hen molting, but they loose at most 10% of their feathers. In all these years, I’ve only seen one or two hens molt so much that they stood out. Most of the chickens are heritage breeds.
    everchickdeservesamother.com

Trackbacks

  1. […] Forced Molt: Starving Hens For Profit – NW Edible […]

  2. […] if they’re people I want to do business with or not, but you should at least know what forced molting is. Eggs used to be (still are when raised traditionally) a seasonal item. The hens lay differently […]

Your participation makes this whole thing work, so join in! Comment policy: Wheaton's Law enforced here.

*