Most livestock are only productive during specific cycles. In general, goats and cows produce milk only after birthing, hogs are suitable for processing only after months of growth, and sheep are relieved of their wool only once a year. Laying hens are no exception. Most chicken breeds shut down egg production during the annual fall molt, with nary an egg to be discovered until just before spring arrives. While this break from the stress of egg production is of great benefit to the hens, most of us humans want to enjoy omelets and other egg-based dishes year-round. And we can, with careful breed selection, attention to timing, and refreshing the flock as needed — all without the use of supplemental lighting.
Time to Rejuvenate
It’s true that laying hens can easily produce eggs year-round through the use of supplemental lighting during the short days of winter. However, this practice is losing favor among chicken keepers as we become more aware of the undue stress caused by this unnatural technique. Most chicken breeds need a break during the winter to allow the hens to replenish nutrient stores lost during the heavy egg-production days of spring and summer. In addition, this break allows hens to divert their energy toward staying warm and molting (a process that replaces worn, damaged feathers with new ones perfect for fluffing and holding in body heat). All these things help hens maintain a stronger immune system, age more slowly, produce more eggs the following spring, and, ultimately, live longer, healthier lives.
Select for Winter Laying
Creating a winter laying flock requires a multifaceted approach, beginning with carefully selecting the right breeds. While most breeds aren’t winter layers, there are plenty of hybrid and heritage breed options available. This often means overlooking the cute fluff balls available at the local feed store, and instead opting for mail-order chicks. With mail-order, you select the breed, rather than hoping to get lucky with the birds available at the store. Some of the best winter layers I’ve utilized over the years have been Black Australorps, White Leghorns, Barred Plymouth Rocks, Austra Whites, and Rhode Island Whites. You’ll want to avoid breeds that typically shut down egg production during winter, such as Rhode Island Reds, Ameraucanas, Black Sex Links, Golden Comets, Production Reds, and Orpingtons.
Time It Right
Once you’ve decided on the breeds you’d like to try, you’ll need to time the hatching or shipping dates so the pullets will mature and begin laying their first eggs about a month before daylight exposure drops below 14 hours. If your timing is off, and pullets begin laying much earlier than this, it’s common for them to cease laying in fall, just like older hens, and not resume until early spring. On the flip side, if egg production hasn’t begun before days get too short, pullets may simply wait until the following spring to start laying. I’ve found that this isn’t an exact science, so trial and error is required. I’ve also learned that there are no hard and fast rules, even among the same breeds, so my goal is to have my pullets begin laying between the end of August and the first week of September. This has produced the best results in my area, but yours may be a little earlier, or even a little later, than mine. With time and experience, you’ll develop a system that works for you. The key is to have the pullets begin laying before the older girls start their molts, as most breeds will lay right through their first winter and wait on their first molt (which halts egg production) until the second fall.
Keep It Fresh
After your flock’s first winter, you’ll most likely want to add a few new pullets to the mix to keep the upcoming winter egg production close to what you had the previous winter, as the nearly 11⁄2-year-old hens will produce slightly fewer eggs in their second winter than in their first. However, if you don’t have a large demand for eggs, you can skip this first addition. By the flock’s third spring, though, it’ll be beneficial to replace any hens you’ve lost to predators, culling, soup pots, and the like, with fresh, new pullets from the winter-laying breeds. Next to careful breed selection, this is the step that’s helped my flock the most, because it means high egg production throughout the entire winter, despite the aging of older hens. Most years, I’ll replace the hens I’ve lost, plus add a few more just in case the next year’s losses are higher than average. As an added bonus to this refreshing stage, I can add breeds we enjoy, such as
Ameraucanas and Rhode Island Reds, even though they aren’t winter layers. And the reason I’m able to add these breeds is because they’ll continue to lay throughout their first winter with the proper timing, so we never notice much of a drop in egg production.
To Cull or Not to Cull
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of keeping laying hens is deciding whether to cull. Traditional wisdom for keeping a flock in peak production is to completely replace a laying flock every two years, with some even recommending it every year. The rationale for this is that by the end of the second laying season, most hens are worn out and won’t produce enough eggs to justify feed expenses. This is by far the simplest approach to keeping a flock laying at peak production during the laying season. However, unless you’re replacing the entire flock every single year, this process won’t produce a winter laying flock, because the hens will still molt by their second fall, thus ceasing egg production during their second winter for nonwinter-laying breeds, unless you’re using supplemental lighting.
Instead, think of a winter laying flock as a balance between young and old winter layers. While winter layers do experience a reduced amount of egg production every winter after their first, each healthy hen will continue to lay between two and four eggs per week throughout each winter, with the actual number of eggs dependent upon not only the breed, but the individual bird as well. This thought process will help determine what your next step should be.
For instance, on our farm, we don’t cull unless a bird has an injury that can’t be humanely remedied. Because our hens free-range during the day, nature tends to do our culling for us. The occasional fox, stray dog, or hawk happens by a few times a year and takes a token meal. But because our losses are very few each year (we have a great mixed-breed dog who monitors his territory quite well), we consider these stolen meals a way of supporting a healthy ecosystem. Overall, our yearly losses average roughly 10 to 15 percent. This keeps our flock from getting so large that we have to cull, yet the losses are small enough to keep our egg counts in the range we wish them to be year-round, as long as we utilize all other components for maintaining a winter flock. Ultimately, the decision to cull the oldest birds for the dinner table is a personal choice, but not always a necessary action, when considering a winter laying flock.
If you don’t cull your older birds, just keep them. Despite their age, they’ll still produce plenty of eggs. My current oldest hen is about 6, and she earns her keep. Part of this is due to her undoubtedly good genetics. However, because I keep the flock healthy with good nutrition and suitable housing, and don’t push egg production with artificial lighting, my older hens still produce enough to pay their feed bills and even provide a profit most of the year. Eggs aren’t the only benefit old laying hens provide. I’ve found that older hens are wiser in predator avoidance. I’ve witnessed the younger hens run for cover when the old ladies scream a warning call, and I’ve seen the youngsters learn where all the best eats are when following their elders. Plus, I get lots of manure for composting and feeding my garden, so I’ve never found a need to remove the old hens or worry about the feed bills.
Building a winter laying flock is a matter of choosing the right breeds, timing the first season’s egg production, and refreshing the flock with new birds every year. If you use these tips, no supplemental lighting will be needed. Over the years, I’ve watched my flock’s size ebb and flow while profits from egg sales remained steady, feed bills never went unpaid, and the health of the flock stayed in top shape, all while keeping farm fresh eggs on the table every day of the year.
Photo by Brad Anderson
SIDEBAR: Gritty’s Tips for Extra Winter Care
Once you have your winter layers settled, follow these tips to reduce stress from the cold, which can have a negative impact on winter production:
- Ensure coops have plenty of thick, deep bedding across the entire floor to trap in the heat from the hens. Deep bedding also offers a cozy place to peck and scratch when the weather outside the coop is too nasty for the girls’ taste.
- While all coops need to be well-ventilated for a safe and healthy roosting environment, make sure to seal off any drafts, which can lead to increased stress and illness.
- Inexpensive windbreaks and covers just outside the coop door afford many benefits that keep the birds warm and healthy. For instance, they reduce the impact of wind, keep coop ramps free of snow and ice, and provide shelter from cold winter rains.
- On extremely cold days, in addition to high-quality feed, offer the flock several handfuls of corn first thing in the morning and about 30 minutes to an hour before roosting. This will keep them warm longer and reduce cold stress.
- Whenever possible, provide heated water rather than cold (or frozen) water to help maintain the flock’s body temperature within the optimal range for stress-free egg production.
- If supplemental heat is necessary, opt for items other than lights, such as coop-safe heating boards, which are available at various poultry supply companies.
Kristi Cook and her family have been building their homestead for many years. Kristi shares their experiences through her articles, workshops, and her blog.