Many flock keepers see eggs as seasonal produce in the homestead setting.
Winter time eggs are something of a rarity if you choose to let your hens follow their natural egg laying cycle.
However if you are desperate to have your chickens lay eggs during those dark and dreary months then it can be done.
There are a few tricks to keeping hens laying and productive during the winter and they are easy to implement and cheap to do. These methods are used by the poultry industry to supply the constant demand for eggs from the general public.
However these methods can be hard on the hens.
In this article we will discuss why chickens stop laying eggs during the winter and what you can do to keep your chickens laying.
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Why Do Chickens Stop Laying Eggs During Winter?
Chickens will stop laying eggs over winter because of a lack of energy and a decrease in their hormones.
During the spring and summertime you hens will be laying each almost every day.
This depletes resources such as calcium which is a finite resource within the hen’s body. If she does not have enough calcium then she will start to take (leach) the calcium from her bones which can lead to fractures.
So by the time winter comes around, your hen is naturally ready for a break.
The reduction in daylight will cause a hormonal change in your hen, signalling to her that it is time to rest.
She will take this time to gradually restore her energy levels to normal and replace all the lost or depleted vitamins and minerals in her body.
You can help her by providing a slightly higher protein feed (20% or better) and making sure she has access to oyster shell and fresh water too. If you can provide her with some fresh veggies and greens even better.
All of this will help to restore the balance and boost her energy.
Once the daylight reaches a certain length (~14 hours) she will naturally start to lay eggs again until the following winter. This is also why chicks naturally hatch during the spring.
Natural Ways To Encourage Egg Laying During Winter
Just about the only natural way to keep chickens laying eggs throughout the winter is to keep breeds that are known for laying eggs through the cold winter months.
Three specific breeds come to mind:
These breeds are cold hardy and will still lay eggs through the coldest months.
All three breeds have a large amount of fluff under their feathers to keep them warm during the winter months.
Two other breeds that get an honorable mention are the Buckeye and the New Hampshire Red.
They were also created in colder climates and will lay eggs through the winter. All of these breeds are fairly docile and should tolerate each other well enough. The New Hampshire Red can be a bit aggressive to others but it really depends on the strain you get.
The other way to keep some eggs coming in over the winter months is to invest in a couple of new pullets each year.
As you know, pullets will not molt during their first winter so they tend to keep laying eggs through their first winter. If you have only a small family then this is a great way to keep those eggs coming.
The only drawback to this solution comes if you have limited space for your hens or are regulated by zoning laws. Be sure to check your zoning laws before you think about doing this.
Artificial Ways To Force Egg Laying During Winter
Lighting is the single most important thing you can use to keep your hens laying eggs throughout the winter.
When hens have lots of light their body naturally produces the hormones that tell them to lay eggs.
Around fourteen hours of daylight is the golden number.
If they do not have enough light then they will not lay eggs – it is as simple as that.
During the winter you will need to add light to your coop if you want to force them to keep laying.
The light does not have to be blinding. A light bulb that gives you enough ambient light to read under will be enough – something like a 40 or 60 watt light will do the job.
It is important to have a warm light bulb. Avoid those that tend towards the blue end of the spectrum as they really do not work too well with your chickens. Choose one that gives off a redder or more yellow light glow.
The light bulb should be contained within a secure cage so that no chickens can accidentally fly into it and dislodge it or burn themselves.
You will also need a reliable timer that can be programmed to turn the light on at a predetermined time. The light should be added at the beginning of the day. This lets your flock roost naturally at night and not be suddenly plunged into darkness. You may have to adjust the timer incrementally to keep up with the fourteen hour light cycle.
Diet and Nutrition
You will hear some folks say that the only thing hens need to lay eggs during winter is light.
This is true to an extent because they will lay eggs with the right amount of light, but they also need the energy.
In the winter months it is harder for hens to supplement their diet from foraging because the ground is frozen and natural resources are limited. Because of this you will need to give them energy through good nutrition.
You should give them a high protein (20%) feed. This is a little higher than regular chicken feed (16% protein) but the extra protein will help them deal with the cold weather.
Also you can do things like ferment their feed.
Fermenting the feed unlocks all the hidden nutrients in grains and this is a tremendously healthful boost.
It is also very cost effective and fairly easy to do for smaller flocks.
Watch the video below for more information.
Something else that is vital to chicken health is clean and accessible water. Make sure your hens have access to water over the winter months. Get yourself a good chicken waterer because if hens do not have water they will not lay.
Keeping your hens warm is important if you want them to lay eggs for you over winter.
Most chicken breeds do very well through the winter months but they do use some energy to stay warm.
Remember the coop does not have to be warm enough for you or I, these ladies have lots of fluff to keep them warm and they will huddle up together at night for extra warmth. All you need to do is make sure your coop stays a few degrees above freezing at least.
If you like the traditional methods and have a strong back, then the deep litter system will keep your flock warm enough.
However you can also use a chicken coop heater.
Also remember to keep drafts out of the coop. You can put up some sort of wind barrier if necessary (plastic sheeting or straw bales).
Dangers Of Egg Laying During Winter
While it is nice to have a supply of eggs all year round it is not without some definite negative effects on your chickens.
There is a reason that chickens naturally need to rest during winter.
Some people take the view that the hens are there to work and it is better to get the most you can from them in a shorter period of time than have them sitting around into old age when they are least productive.
This is a personal or business decision that only you can make.
What we do know is that hens suffer from a lot of stress especially in a continuous laying cycle.
They also suffer from a few physical problems when they are forced to lay over winter and we will talk a little about each of them.
A vent prolapse happens when the vent muscles become weakened from overuse.
When the hen pushes out the egg the vent everts a little. With a prolapse the vent pops out but does not return to its proper position.
While the prolapse can be pushed back in, it will likely pop out each time she lays an egg. The biggest danger to her are her sisters who may well peck at the prolapse and cause severe damage.
The chance of recurrence of prolapse is high (especially in older hens). You will need to keep her somewhere dark to prevent her from laying for several days and monitor her closely.
Egg Yolk Peritonitis
Egg yolk peritonitis is a sneaky and silent killer.
It can be very difficult to spot before your hen actually dies.
This happens when the egg exits the ovary but misses the lip of the infundibulum and enters the hens’ abdomen instead.
As we know, the yolk is packed with nutrition and if it becomes contaminated with Escherichia coli then it will set up an infection possibly leading to peritonitis.
This is a medical emergency and will need to be attended by a veterinarian.
Read our Definitive Guide To Egg Laying Problems for more help.
Unfortunately ovarian cancer is becoming more common with hens.
In commercial flocks hens are usually culled by the age of 2.5 years. Interestingly this is when their egg laying starts to decline but it is also around this time that ovarian cancer starts to rear its ugly head.
Approximately 5-35% of hens over the age of 2.5 years will get ovarian cancer.
The more eggs they lay, the higher the risk of cancer.
If you are keeping hens with an artificial light, and the light fails, then you run a high risk of sending your hens into a secondary molt.
During the winter months this can be quite disastrous.
To prevent this you should check your lights and timer frequently.
Should the unthinkable happen then you will have the unenviable task of keeping your flock alive through the winter months. You will need high protein feed, heat to maintain their temperature and of course, you can forget about eggs for a few months.
Whether or not you decide to have your hens rest through the winter months or put them to work is a personal decision.
It is difficult to keep your chickens laying naturally during winter because their bodies are responding to the natural circadian rhythm of life.
This article has given you tips and tricks to keep them happy and laying.
If you have any concerns about the health of your girls then it is probably best to let them rest through the winter months and regain their strength and vitality for the spring.
With care and attention your hens can live anywhere between 2-10 years.
Whether or not you want them to work hard for a living is up to you.
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