Get the Most Out of Winter Laying Hens

Learn how to have your eggs and eat them too by following these tips to develop year-round production, even in winter.

Photo by Kristi Cook

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.

Photo by Kristi Cook

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.

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