I. Understanding Why Egg Laying Stops
The winter slack in egg laying is not usually about temperature. Unless it is bitterly cold–for example, below 0˚F–chickens usually do just fine in the cold. The real problem is the changes in their environment that come with the winter.
Chickens need at least 14 hours of daylight for their endocrine systems to secrete egg-laying hormones. If they are not getting this much light, the hormones are not released and egg-laying may drop as a result.
While chickens may do just fine in the cold, the wind is another story. If it is windy, it doesn’t matter the temperature: your hens are going to be stressed out. Especially if there isn’t a place where they can get away from the wind.
In the winter, chickens have a tendency to avoid the outdoors because of wind and wet. More coop time can lead to crowded conditions. You may or may not be prepared for keeping your entire flock indoors all winter season. Crowding can increase boredom and in turn cause a number of other problems that create stress and reduce egg laying.
Cold weather also means that parasites have no place to go except onto or into your birds. Parasites tend to be more of a problem in the fall and spring, so it is important to treat birds accordingly. Diatomaceous earth is a good preventative treatment for external parasites; it can be applied to birds individually or placed in a dust bath area to encourage passive flock treatment.
For more severe cases, use pyrethrin dust and sprinkle down to the birds’ skin around the vent, back, wings, and legs, taking care not to get it in their faces. For internal parasites, choose a good poultry dewormer and follow appropriate egg withdrawal. Probiotics are a good preventative for internal parasites.
Predators tend to get desperate in the cold months, and one predator attack can set your hens back for a long time. Make sure coops and runs are predator proof.
The age of your hens has a lot to do with whether or not they will lay through the winter. Try to make sure that each season you have some young pullets born in the spring so that they will lay all through their first winter. Once chickens are 10+ months old, they will be able to go into a full molt each fall or winter where they shed their feathers and grow new ones. This can take 3 or more months. Some chickens lay through their molts while others don’t lay at all. This can be a severe setback to winter laying.
Another option is to choose a breed that will lay through the winter. If you are going to have an egg business, a production or hybrid bird is the best choice. These include black sex links (aka black star), red sex links (aka golden comet, cinnamon queen, red star, ISA browns), white leghorns (come in a number of varieties), production rhode island reds, production new hampshires, and many more.
There are also breeds that lay well through the winter just by nature. These include the Orpington and the Australorp, though there are many more. Be cautious because, while these breeds are known to lay well through the dark days of winter, they are not necessarily hardy in the face of cold. They have been selected to lay through fewer hours of light.
The breeds that are cold hardy include the Buckeye, Easter Egger, and the Salmon Faverolles. However, just because these breeds feel the cold less doesn’t mean that they are able to produce very many eggs in the shorter days of winter.
Egg laying is greatly influenced by stress, and one of the most stressful things for a chicken is to be in bad health. It is harder to maintain the health of a long-term, multi-generational flock than it is to maintain the health of a short-term, single generational flock of replacement pullets. Some general indications of poor health are: pale faces/combs, diarrhea (poopy butt), tattered feathers, lethargy, eye/nasal discharge, sneezing/wheezing, hunched up, swollen face. Chicken diseases and infections often have very similar symptoms, making them difficult to diagnose.
Prevention is the best medicine, but is not always possible. Specific winter health considerations are parasites and frostbite.
II. General Good Chicken Sense
The most important thing when dealing with frostbite is to have ventilation but not draft. Ventilation means that there is a passive air flow above the heads of the chickens, which is especially important while roosting or if they are going to be spending a lot of time in the coop. Frostbite is caused by moisture in the air, which is why a dry coop is necessary. The rule of ventilation is .25 to .5 square feet of ventilation per chicken. This may seem like a lot, but the chickens will be much healthier if they have this amount of ventilation.
Adequate space is important to keeping a coop clean and dry and minimizing stress. Standard sized hens need about 4 sq ft per bird on the interior of the coop and 10 sq ft per bird in their run. These numbers may be greater or higher depending on an individual flock. 0.5 to 1 ft of roosting space per hen. There is much debate on what an appropriate roost should look like. I have found that chickens will cope much better with a too-wide rooster than a too-thin roost. You can use sturdy tree branches, old 2x4s, 2x2s, etc. It is better to round off the edges of any square board they might roost on as their feet are shaped to grip a round roost. Space between roosts should be at least 1 ft in all directions (put them close together and watch for poopy faces in the morning). Nest boxes for standard sized hens can be anywhere from 8″x10″ to 14″x15″. Some people put out communal nest boxes for their hens. Remember to “coop train” young pullets by locking them in a coop and run during the first few egg laying months to make sure they are laying in the nest boxes and not in hidden nests somewhere else. 1 nest box will serve 4 birds, possibly more. Hens may choose a different favorite box each day, and you will find a large number of eggs there at the end of the day.
For feeders and waterers, hang them at back level to reduce waste. Provide appropriate feed for your chickens. 16-20% protein is adequate for layer hens; a higher protein feed in the winter ensures that they maintain weight.
For health reasons, you generally do not want to add adult birds to your flock. If you do want to add adults, quarantine them for 2-4 weeks to make sure they do not have any symptoms of illnesses before properly integrating into flock. The preferable method of adding to the flock is to raise up baby chicks and introduce them to your adults when they are 12-16 weeks old.
Develop a good parasite prevention program of diatomaceous earth and wood ash for external parasites and probiotics and garlic juice for internal parasites. Have fecal tests done by the vet in the spring and fall or when you suspect internal parasites. Do regular physical examinations of your poultry to make sure they do not have external parasites, and be sure to know what you’re looking for. Worm, dust, and treat routinely and/or as necessary.
Don’t keep a chicken over the winter unless you have a good reason.
III. Special Considerations for Winter
Winter comes with particularly nasty weather. Wind, snow, ice storms, and extreme cold can cause chickens to want to stay indoors instead of venturing outside. Chickens that are cooped up often become bored, which can lead to various forms of aggression, egg eating, feather picking, and more problems. Staying in the coop all day also creates a smelly mess of poop all over the litter, meaning there is more work in adding fresh litter. If hens refuse to leave their coop, try to create a space outside that is pleasant for them to be in, even when a wintry storm rages. This includes providing a wind break, outdoor covering, mulch over the snow, etc. If your chickens still refuse to leave the coop, you can add corn to the litter, hang a cabbage from the ceiling, or make a suet ball for extra entertainment that doesn’t end with another chicken losing an eye.
Be sure to consider the other challenges of keeping chickens through the winter. To keep egg production up, stress must be limited. Therefore, when the cold weather threatens to freeze your hens’ waterers, you have to take action. Make sure to have some way to keep the water from freezing, whether it is using hot water and changing it out, using a heated bowl, or using a hot pan under a metal waterer. Eggs left too long in nests are also prone to freezing; once this happens, they should not be sold. Plan to either gather eggs more often or heat the entire coop. Remember that if you are relying on electricity, you should always have a backup plan for when the electricity goes out.
Feed consumption in winter is a tricky thing. Chickens actually tend to eat less when it is colder, though they need more calories to keep their bodies warm. Hens that are confined to a coop full time will consume noticeably less feed during the winter. An easy solution is to increase the protein content of the feed during the cold months. Hens that are allowed to free range or are in a rotated pasture coop during the warm months will actually consume more feed in the winter as the natural forage that they usually supplement their diets with is depleted in the winter.
IV. How to Defy Nature
A hen’s endocrine system is stimulated by light. When there are at least 14 hours of light in the day, her system is producing enough hormones to ensure that she will be at her peak laying abilities, as long as she is otherwise healthy. To keep these hormones in production, all you have to do is create artificial light to supplement the natural daylight so that the chickens believe they are still receiving 14 hours of daylight. Some people prefer white lights while others prefer red. If you are going to leave a light on 24/7, choose a red lamp as this will not be as disruptive to their sleep schedule. If you have a light on a timer, it is perfectly acceptable to use a white light. The best time to extend the day is in the early morning hours as the hens will then lay their eggs in the first half of the day. If you choose to extend into the evening instead, you will have many more evening layers. The upside to evening extension is that your rooster will not crow earlier than necessary.
Remember to keep your waterers thawed with your method of choice. Remember to change the feed rations to a higher protein feed. Another trick is to give cracked corn or another grain right before bed so that the chickens have something in their crop to give them the energy to produce heat all night.
Try to prevent health problems instead of treating them. For frostbite, proper ventilation is key, as is choosing a rooster with a shorter comb when you live in a cooler climate. Make sure the coop is as dry as possible in the winter. Heat lamps usually don’t help to prevent frostbite; in fact, heat lamps often just heat any moisture that is in the coop, which allows it to then condense and settle on the rooster’s comb. The best policy is a steady exchange of air throughout the coop.
Have a treatment program set up for internal and external parasites before winter starts.
Another interesting part of winter egg production is fodder. Fodder essentially
describes any sprouted grain, which is then usually grown until the sprouts turn green. There are some studies that claim feeding fodder to chickens in the winter can increase egg production, as well as make the hens happier and healthier. Essentially, sprouting grains makes the proteins, nutrients, and energy in the grains more available for chickens’ bodies to utilize. Fodder also has the added bonus of making the eggs taste like the chickens are ranging on pasture again, even in the dead of winter, and especially if you feed enough fodder.
V. Potential Problems and Complications
Defying nature to increase egg production, either for the back yard or for the large market, can be an excellent way to continue getting the best feed-to-egg conversion ratio out of your hens. However, there are some drawbacks to upping production in winter. Naturally, hens lay eggs in order to reproduce, and since winter is not a good time to raise babies, their hormones tell them to quit trying to reproduce during winter months. When you place a light out and they start increasing their hormones again, it goes against their basic biology. There is hearsay that claims there can be a decrease in longevity because of this kind of stress on hens, but there have been limited studies on this subject as the mass egg industry practices culling 18 month old “spent” hens.
Be cautious when using heat lamps as faulty electric wiring and lamp issues can cause barn fires. Secure the lamp to the top or side of the brooder with a metal stand, a tripod stand, a chain hanging from the ceiling, etc. Do NOT rely on the clamp to hold the lamp up. Beware of any moisture splashing onto the bulb. Chickens will become used to the heat from a lamp so that if there’s a power outage, they may not be prepared for the dramatic drop in temperature that follows.
Like other livestock, it is usually best to not heat adults. As long as they are out of the wind, rain, and snow, they should do just fine at least down to 0˚F. Routine temperatures below 0˚F may call for a small 100W bulb to keep the temperature up a few degrees.
Good luck out there with your birds, we are going to need it this year!