Today we’re going to talk about keeping your hens laying through winter.
And since mine have started to drop off in production, this is a topic near and dear to my heart.
There’s many reasons why a hen can drop off production in the winter, and we’re going to look at reasons why that happens, both biological and environmental, and what you can do about it.
Some people like to give their hens the winter off, or let nature do its thing and go with the flow as their hens naturally drop egg production in the winter. Personally, I like to be eating omelets year round, so I try to keep my chickens producing eggs in the winter.
Why do chickens stop laying in the winter?
The biggest reason hens stop laying in the winter is because the days get shorter, and so there’s less light. Egg production is triggered by light, specifically by the pituitary gland and the amount of light that is affecting the pituitary gland. And since shorter days mean less light, it triggers the pituitary gland to stop producing the hormones that command egg production.
Chickens need about fourteen hours of light per day to keep laying eggs. Now this isn’t to say every hen needs fourteen hours, and we’ve even bred chickens that will keep laying throughout shorter days, such as Production Reds. But generally speaking, most chickens need fourteen hours or so of light in order to lay eggs consistently.
From an evolutionary stand point, more energy is needed to keep a hen alive during the winter. And chicks are less likely to survive in the winter because chicks have a harder time maintaining their own body temperature until they feather out. So there’s less evolutionary value in producing eggs during the winter. So from that angle, it makes sense why hens don’t lay in the winter!
Now for people this stinks, obviously, because we have to work to keep egg production up, or just simply go without eggs.
How can I keep my hens laying?
There are several things you can do to keep your hens laying through the winter. The main thing is adding light. In order to keep your hens laying throughout the winter you have to supplement the light that your chickens get with artificial light. In our coop, we use battery powered lamps.
If you’re lucky enough to have electric lights in your coop, you can use those, or you can also use solar energy. That’s a great option if you are off grid. We’re looking at getting solar panels for our coop this winter, but for now we’re just using battery powered lanterns.
One thing to keep in mind is you need to use a strong light. When we first started putting lamps in the coop, the lamps just didn’t emit enough light and so it was useless. Obviously, you don’t need to blind your hens, but just using a small LED flashlight, in my experience, doesn’t work. So we use battery operated lanterns, which shed enough light to keep egg production up, but not so much that it’s overwhelming for my hens.
I advise you to skip infrared heat lamps. That’s the red light bulbs. In my opinion, the risks are way too high. Those heat lamps get really, really, really hot! And all it takes is a hen knocking it down (and chickens are great at getting into trouble) and you might lose your whole flock to a fire.
Putting a light in your coop is the top way to keep your hens laying throughout winter. But let’s talk about some other things you can do that are really just as important.
So the next thing we’re going to talk about is molting. If you don’t know what molting is, when hens molt they’re losing one set of feathers and replacing them with new ones. This could take a couple months, and while hens are molting they aren’t producing eggs.
Now when a hen molts, her body naturally puts all of its energy into producing new feathers, hence the drop in egg production. This generally happens in the fall and in early winter after your hen’s first year. Usually when she’s about eighteen months old, although I have had them molt at younger ages.
Now there’s really nothing you can or should do to speed up molting. I know in factory farms with chickens, they try to speed it up. But you really shouldn’t be doing anything to speed it up. It’s a natural process. But one thing that you can do that might help is to feed your hens extra protein, so her body can redirect extra energy into producing eggs.
So if you have a hen that’s molting, you can try a 22% commercial feed, or something with a lot of protein in it. Try things such as mealworms, black soldier fly larvae, or wheat fodder. If you like to feed eggs to your chickens, eggs are another protein supplement you can give a molting hen.
I supplement molting hens with my Fluffiest Feathers Ever Chicken Supplement. It’s packed full of protein and nutrients to help your hens have the fluffiest feathers ever! You can find it in the store here: Fluffiest Feathers Ever Chicken Supplement
Make sure your hens have enough to eat
The third thing that you can do in the winter to keep your hens laying eggs is to make sure they get enough to eat, especially if your hens are used to foraging.
During the cooler weather, foraging obviously gets harder, and as the weather turns cooler, chickens start using more nutrients and energy from whatever they’re eating to keep warm. So if they get too cold, they’re going to take all the energy and put it to keeping warm instead of producing eggs.
So it’s really important in cool weather to make sure that your chickens are getting enough to eat. And if your hens will be cooped up all winter, or if there is a lot of snow and they don’t want to leave their coop, you’ll need to watch how much they’re eating and increase what you’re offering so that they have enough energy to make eggs.
And when I give this advice, I’m assuming that you’re also providing a supplementary light to promote egg production because the bottom line is that without the supplementary light, most chickens won’t lay. But making sure that they have enough to eat is also very important.
You can simply feed more of your hens regular ration or supplement with mealworms, if you don’t already feed them. If it’s gonna be a cold night, you can offer corn. But as a consistent way to increase their feed, I don’t suggest feeding corn. You’re better off offering just more of what they already normally eat, and making sure that they’re getting enough protein and calcium.
To help keep your hens laying toward the winter, you should also make sure that they’re getting enough calcium. This is really important. Winter is an especially important time to offer oyster shells as a calcium supplement. You should do it all year round, but winter is especially an important time to do it.
I just offer oyster shells separately in a bowl or a dish. Don’t mix it with their feed, just offer it separately so they can take it as they need it.
Without the calcium supplement, hens will start to draw calcium from their own bones which you don’t want. It’s not to say that if you don’t offer oyster shells, they will absolutely draw calcium from their bones, but if they don’t get enough calcium in their diet, it will start to come from their own bodies.
So I suggest that you offer them oyster shells as a supplement and let them eat at it as they need it.
If you have any concerns about whether your chickens are getting the right diet or are deficient in anything, you can always take them to a vet to have blood pulled to double check. But as long as you’re sticking to a recommended diet and feeding enough, your chickens should be okay.
Just remember, that I’m not a vet, so this is just a public service announcement. If you have any concerns about your chickens not getting the right amount of nutrients, have a vet pull some blood and double check it.
Now let’s just talk about scratch for a minute. I think you should avoid scratch at all costs, especially commercial scratch. If you make it from home and it has enough protein, that’s one thing. But commercial scratch … I suggest that you just save your money and don’t buy it.
Personally I think you’re better off offering more of the regular feed, or offering some other tasty treat.
Now something else that can shut down egg production in winter, even if you do everything else right, is stress. When a hen’s body is stressed, she’s less likely to lay. So when it’s very hot or very cold, she is less likely to lay because her body is having a little bit more stress. But there’s also environmental stresses that can be brought on by winter and confinement.
Now as it gets colder, you might choose to keep your hens in the coop more often. Or when there’s a lot of snow hens will choose to stay in the coop rather than brave the elements. This can lead to some environmental stresses, especially if they’re used to getting out and about a lot.
This is the classic issue of overcrowding. Overcrowding can lead to a drop in egg production and behaviors like egg eating, picking at each other, fighting. So when there’s snow everywhere and they don’t want to go outside, what are you going do?
Here’s what we do. In the past, we’ve put straw on the ground in the run. We don’t use shavings because shavings absorb water and it can become a boggy mess in the run very quickly. So we use straw which gives them a nice, clean place to walk and it’s a little bit warmer than snow.
Then to convince them to go outside we offer them treats, like mealworms. Pumpkin is another favorite. You can offer them any treat that they really go nuts for.
The situation of chickens being in the coop too much really becomes one of weighing the risks and the benefits. If they stay inside, what kind of behavioral, or even nutritional issues will they develop if they’re in the coop for long periods of time without sunlight. Vitamin D absorption can become an issue which then causes problems with calcium absorption. So look at the risks versus the benefits in making them go outside for a couple hours.
Obviously I’m not saying you should make them go outside in negative thirty degree weather or thirty mile an hour gusts. I definitely wouldn’t have them go outside in that case.
I’d definitely wait for a day when the weather is better. If you have really bad weather every day where you live, I’d consider building them an indoor warm area, like a greenhouse. But in reasonable winter weather, there’s no harm in making them go outside for a couple hours, and it will only benefit them and help avoid cabin fever.
Another option is what I like to call boredom busters. You can find a lot of examples out there on the internet. You can move perches around a lot to give them some interesting environmental things to think about. Something mine love are pumpkins, and literally what I do is I just break it in half and let them peck at the flesh and enjoy that for a few hours. We have about thirty chickens in our coop and it takes them a few hours to get through it all.
If you can’t find pumpkins in your area, you can offer them squash or other gourds. And the nice thing is that since the flesh is a little bit tougher in pumpkins and squash, it can take them some time to get through it, they get extra food, and they also love the seeds.
In my experience, the squash and the pumpkin keep them occupied longer which, in the dead of winter, when they’re bored, is always a good thing. It also keeps them moving around, which helps them keep their body temperature up.
With your flock, you can use some of these ideas to help reduce their stress levels, or you can always come up with your own to keep your flock occupied during colder days of the year when they might not want to go outside and play. And the less stress that they have, the more likely they are to keep laying throughout the winter.
If you want more boredom buster ideas you can head over to my article about my favorite gifts and winter boredom busters for your chickens.
So to sum up, making sure that your hens get enough to eat, get enough light, and have low levels of stress, will help you keep your hens laying eggs. Do you have any ideas you have on how to keep hens laying through the winter? What are your favorite winter boredom busters for chickens?
Maat van Uitert is a backyard chicken and sustainable living expert. She is also the author of Chickens: Naturally Raising A Sustainable Flock, which was a best seller in it’s Amazon category. Maat has been featured on NBC, CBS, AOL Finance, Community Chickens, the Huffington Post, Chickens magazine, Backyard Poultry, and Countryside Magazine. She lives on her farm in Southeast Missouri with her husband, two children, and about a million chickens and ducks. You can follow Maat on Facebook here and Instagram here.