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Hens ovulate for the same reason female humans do: to reproduce. You may not realize it, but the egg that you ate this morning for breakfast is essentially a hen’s period. In women, a mature egg is released from the ovary once a month. If the egg is not fertilized, it is eliminated.
Chickens do not menstruate, but the cycle of creating and passing eggs is arguably even more physically taxing. This is especially true in modern hens who have been bred to produce such unnaturally high rates of eggs. The process of making and passing an egg requires so much energy and labor. In nature, wild hens lay only 10 to 15 eggs per year. The Red Jungle Fowl, the wild relatives that domestic hens descend from, lay one to two clutches of eggs annually. An average clutch has about 4 to 6 eggs. Their bodies could never sustain the physical depletion of laying the hundreds of eggs that domestic chickens have been forced to produce through genetic manipulation.
It is a common misconception that chickens are always just naturally giving us eggs. The truth is that the modern egg hens have been bred to lay between 250 to 300 eggs a year. The calcium devoted to this volume of egg-laying leaves their bones extremely brittle and prone to breaking. In addition, the hens’ legs, wings, and heads commonly become entangled in the wire cages. This causes them to be trampled by their cage mates. In the wild, hens only lay during the breeding season, and only enough eggs to ensure the survival of their genes.
Every year hens molt, or lose their older feathers, and grow new ones. Most hens stop producing eggs until after the molt is completed. Forced molting is the practice by the commercial egg industry of artificially provoking a complete flock of hens to molt simultaneously.
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 industry became dominated by factory farming, farmers would pamper their hens with extra feed. This did this hoping to delay the molt as long as possible. The farmer that could keep their hens laying could charge higher prices. In today’s world, the hens are no longer pampered.
Modern Egg Production
In industrial animal factories, hens live in arguably the worst conditions of any farmed animal. Living in extreme confinement and unable to perform any natural behavior, they suffer day after day in conditions that no living creature should ever have to endure.
The unnaturally high rates of labor-intensive, energy-depleting egg production that modern hens are forced to produce means that even on small and backyard chicken operations, hens are prisoners inside their own bodies. Overproduction of eggs is responsible for numerous disorders in hens. This includes often fatal diseases of the reproductive tract, osteoporosis, and other bone fractures, and total skeletal paralysis. The industry’s business model is based on a high volume of production, with a relentless motive to minimize expenses and maximize profits.
The public now expects cheap, plentiful eggs all year long. To accommodate this “need”, big egg producers force hens to lay eggs all year long by managing them in a synthetic environment. The light in the sheds is constantly manipulated in order to maximize egg production. The hens live in long, low sheds called “blackout houses” that trigger a hen’s laying reflex. The blackout sheds allow large scale commercial egg producers to keep multiple age flocks. To keep egg production as consistent as possible, the flocks are strategically rotated out of production and through molt while others are laying.
Playing with light levels isn’t enough to force an entire shed of hens to molt simultaneously. More manipulation is required to keep production high and prices low. Periodically, for two weeks at a time, the hens are only fed reduced-calorie feed. This process induces an extra laying cycle. The cheapest way to do this is nutrient deprivation, or withholding essential vitamins and minerals. This tricks the hen’s body into thinking it is being starved without actually staring them. Because this is so stressful to the hen’s body, over the two week period of a forced molt, the factory farm loses 1-1.5% of its flock. That is 2-3 times more than the regular monthly mortality rate for chickens in a factory farm.
After 18-24 months, the hens laying rate begins to decline, at which point the industry considers them “spent” and sends them to slaughter. Hens are hatched with the total number of ova that they will ever have, just as female humans are. Hens can lay for several years and the number of years will depend on the management and nutrition of the hens over those years. The higher the rate of production in the first year or two, the fewer years she is likely to lay eggs.
What About Backyard Farms?
You may be saying to yourself, “Oh, I will just get my eggs from backyard farms from now on.” In actuality, that does not solve the problem. The reality is that hens remain the product of intentional cruelty that is inflicted only because people want to consume eggs. To consume eggs is to legitimize this suffering. Domesticated hens have been selectively bred to lay between 250 and 300 eggs a year. Hens suffer from a host of fatal crippling disorders of the reproductive tract because they are genetically manipulated to produce an unnaturally large number of large eggs.
Read more about the problem with backyard farms here.
The only answer to this problem is to go vegan. There is no need for this cruelty, and there is no need to consume eggs.
Do you still want scrambled eggs? This this tofu scramble instead.