This post was updated (just for you) in November of 2016. Enjoy!
My hens are troupers. They are contented egg-laying machines, even through the coldest months. Though the temperatures have been very cold here in Nebraska for the past couple of months (down to 0° and below, some nights, and daytime highs in the single digits, many days) my contented hens continue to lay eggs day after day.
This is no happy accident! I’ve learned a thing or two in the dozen years that I’ve been keeping chickens. For the first couple of years, I didn’t understand how to keep my hens laying eggs all winter, and so their egg production would drop way down during the coldest months. But a little bit of information, and a lot of experience, as they say (don’t they say this?) is a very dangerous thing, and now I’ve got piles of eggs all over the place.
Piles. Stacks. Oodles of eggs! Seriously. So many eggs. Please don’t get tired of eating eggs, kids. Fried egg sammage, anybody?
How about some more frittata . . . anybody?
So, without further ado, here are my top five tips for keeping your hens laying all winter long. Follow these tips and it won’t be long before you’re having to find new egg recipes, too. (It’s a nice problem to have!)
More quiche, anybody?
1. Choose your breeds wisely, to begin with. Some chickens are heavier and have looser feathers and smaller combs, making them better at adapting to cold temperatures. From my experience, the following breeds do great for winter laying:
- Buff Orpington: a very calm, friendly chicken, so a good candidate if you have small children or enjoy a relationship with your fowl (and who doesn’t??).
- Rhode Island Red is a chicken that has roots in the U.S., is exceptionally cold-hardy, and is a one of the best layers there is. There’s good reason that this breed is ubiquitous in the feed stores in our area every springtime.
- Silver-laced Wyandotte is a thickly-feathered American favorite very well suited to the cold, with its bigger body and tiny rose comb. Plus, it’s a gorgeous chicken and will just thrill you to pieces if you have a rooster. These roosters are gorgeous, with their black and white lacey-looking feathers! (I have three, if anybody wants one . . . )
- Sussex: Sussex chickens are believed to have been first bred in Britain (in the area that was to become England) around the time of the Roman invasion of AD 43, making them one of the oldest known breeds. You might say they are “vintage,” making them trendy! And you might be right. They are heavy-bodied birds with small combs, making them good for cold weather areas, and they come in many colors. I’ve had good luck with the Speckled Sussex, and I enjoy those speckles on the feathers. They are also a very friendly bird.
- Araucanas: I’ve found that these colorful birds aren’t quite as prolific in their egg-laying as some of the ones mentioned above, but I always add several to my flock, because I love the blue and green eggs! Also, my eye enjoys the varied colors that these chickens come in: white, gray, blue, brown, and combinations! They’re just beautiful.
- Plymouth Rock, once known as the All-American chicken, comes in many varieties and is also a great winter layer. We have Barred Plymouth Rocks right now (see a hen on the perch in the photo above) and I have found them to be the nicest chickens. As a matter of fact, I have two of them that are broody right now, poor things–if they are broody again next summer, I’ll let them try their hands (so to speak) at being mamas.
2. Let there be (Additional) Light. This is a bit of a controversial issue, among chicken owners and especially sustainable-farming-type folks. I think their argument is this: since chickens in their “natural habitat” go into a molt and take the winter (or when the days get short) off from laying, that’s what is believed to be best for chickens today. I can see the reasoning in this, especially if you plan on keeping your chickens through their natural life, i.e., until they die naturally, whether they are laying or not. Of course this could be 5 or 8 or 10 years.
8 or 10 years of feeding chickens that are not producing a thing . . . hey, that’s okay if you have chickens as pets. We do have a number of chickens that are pets (around here, once they are named, they have automatic tenure until they die . . ) and I don’t mind that, but the great number of our flock are producers. They produce eggs until they don’t any longer, and then (after a suitable grace period) we butcher them and they produce tasty bone broths and soups. It’s the circle of life around here, at least for the chickens.
So I part ways with this “all-natural” philosophy, and I’m not ashamed to say it. (Dodging eggs thrown at me.)
Did you know that hens are born with as many eggs as they will lay in their lifetimes? So if you plan to keep your chickens (as pets, say) until they die a natural death, it may not make sense for you to use light to keep your chickens laying through the winter.
If, however, egg production is important to you, as it is to me, you may want to use light to encourage your chickens to lay through the winter months. For my flock, it makes sense because I rarely keep a chicken (except for Babes and Little Red and Nellie and Butterscotch and Cruella and RedBeak . . . ) beyond her third or fourth birthday, because at that point she may be laying one egg a week, if that, and for me the feed costs are just too high to justify too many feathered pets in the barnyard. A few are okay. . . 😉
In any case, my hens do take breaks from laying during the absolutely hottest weeks (don’t blame them) and also the very coldest weeks (ditto) so I don’t feel guilty about keeping them laying through the winter. An idle chicken is an unhappy chicken, don’t you agree, and encouraging my hens to lay their eggs is easier than teaching them to knit, wouldn’t you agree?
Care for an egg, honey? Scrambled, fried, or poached?
My supplemental lighting method is very simple: I suspend a light bulb (I change it to a heat bulb during the coldest weeks of the winter) above their perches. I set a timer so the light comes on and wakes the chickens up very early, and so they’ll have about a 14-hour day. For example: right now it gets dark outside around 6:00 p.m., so I know they’ll be asleep on their perches by then. So the timer turns on the light at 4:00 a.m., so they’ll be up and moving about that early. Sorry, chooks, I know it’s early! I don’t let them out of the coop until I’m active, say between 7:30 and 8:00ish.
One more tip: I do check that light bulb very often, to make sure it’s still working. If you don’t check it and it burns out, you may not know about it until your chickens go into a molt and then your egg production will go way down, very quickly. So check the bulb!
This works very well for us, and I’ve never noticed that my hens are stressed or unhealthy, from this gentle nudge to keep them laying through the winter.
3. Fresh water and plenty of grain: Though I keep their feeders outside the coop, in their yard, I keep fresh water in the coop. Also, I sprinkle grain on the bedding when I shut the chickens into their coop at night. I do this so the chickens can start their eating and drinking and moving about as early as possible, also so they’ll not give in to boredom and start picking at each other and/or fighting. Chickens can be a cantankerous lot, especially if they are shut inside for long, so I provide other things that they can do, until I let them out for the day.
That brings me to . . .
4. Deep litter . . . You wouldn’t believe the piles of hay and straw and dry leaves that I pile into the coop through the fall! By winter, it’s several feet deep, and it’s cozy as all get-out in there! There are lots of great reasons for using the “deep litter” method, chief among them (to me) is that it makes for a more comfortable coop situation. Since I sprinkle grain in the coop every night, there are always little bits of food in there, so the chickens stay busy, turning the bedding and fluffing it up. Once a week I help them, turning the bedding with the pitchfork, and I add fresh bedding every month or two, too.
I’ve got to admit, I enjoy wielding that pitchfork! Honestly, I guess it’s one of those farm-woman-geeky things, but I like my pitchfork. 🙂
5. Outdoor feeding. Okay, I know that this is purely anecdotal, but the fact is, I believe my kiddos are healthier if they spend some time outside every day, even during the winter. I push and shove and encourage some outside activities most days of the year. So if my kiddos stay healthier by moving around outside in the sunshine, I think my chickens ought to, too. So I keep the feeders outside in the chicken yard, a good distance from the coop. The hens are forced to move about in order to feed themselves. Now when there’s a blizzard or a real cold stretch, I move the feeders inside. I do have a heart. 🙂
I open the yard gate in mid-afternoon, just like I do during the summertime, for free-ranging. Even though the world is frozen, the hens will take dust baths in my garden dirt, and find little bits of grass and weeds to snack on.
Also, I pile large amounts of brush and leaves and hay bales (the Christmas tree is going out there this week, too) in the chickens’ yard, so they’ve got plenty of places to peck and scratch and explore. I want to avoid the cold, hard, poop-covered bare yard. The chickens basically have their own compost pile going on in their yard, and underneath it all there are plenty of itty bugs that they can eat, now isn’t that cool?
So, that’s it! 5 super-easy tips on how to keep your hens laying eggs all winter long! It is certainly worth a bit of time and trouble for me to have a steady supply of eggs, even during the winter months.
I’d love to hear about your strategies for keeping your hens laying through the winter . . . or even why you may not choose to do such a thing. The comment line is open, gentle readers. I’d love to hear from you.
AND. . . hey! I just released a brand spankin’ new ebook, filled with over a hundred new chicken raising tips and tricks, learned by yours truly through over a decade and a half of raising chickens. Snatch yours up today!
Oh, hey, You! and if you want to keep up with me and my chickens and all the shenanigans around here, please be sure to check in on my social media. I post photos and videos on Instagram and Facebook that you won’t (I promise!) see anywhere else.
See ya there—!
- It all comes full circle
- 5 Things you can do NOW to prepare for your spring garden!