There are varying opinions as to why most people experience low egg production during the winter. Some say that it is the lack of light caused by the short winter days. Others say it is the lack of a balanced diet caused by limited insects and vegetation in the colder months. I believe that the answer can be found by looking at the big egg producers. They adjust the light, provide a balanced diet, regulate the temperature, and change their birds at regular intervals. They focus on providing the most optimal conditions for the things that they can control because they keep their chickens in dreadful living conditions. Federal law requires that a chicken have 76 square inches of living space (about the size of a regular sheet of paper). California is looking at making a law which would require 116 square inches (about a legal size paper). That has to be stressful for both young and old birds. Yet, they are able to produce eggs.
It is my opinion that chickens will lay eggs when their laying conditions are satisfied. I call them stress factors. As we can see from the big egg producers, chickens will continue to lay only under a certain amount of stress. In their case, the stressors are their chickens’ living conditions and lack of exercise. They choose to overcompensate in other ways in order to keep other stress factors minimal. If multiple stress factors are introduced, a hen’s biological clock goes off and she will stop laying eggs.
These are some of the stress factors that I believe contribute to a hen’s lack of egg production. If you can eliminate all or even most of these factors, you can enjoy an abundance of fresh eggs over the entire year.
Stress Factors Causing Low Egg Production
Lack of Light: 12 hours of light is ideal.
Cold Temperatures: Hens love 50-80 degrees.
Age of the Hen: Older hens generally lay less than younger birds.
Poor Diet: Hens cannot be expected to lay if they subsist on cracked corn.
Lack of Fresh Water: Hens need their water changed regularly.
Poor Living Conditions: Overcrowding is the primary cause.
Lack of Exercise: They must be allowed to free range.
Shorter Days and Colder Temperatures
In places that have very mild and even warmer winters (like Southern Florida) with more daylight hours, and if the chickens have a good diet, they will more than likely be able to lay eggs year round. However, as you move further north, you start introducing the stress factors of less light and colder temperatures. Here in Northwest Arkansas, we are technically considered to be living in the South. However, we frequently experience our share of freezing temperatures with regular lows ranging from the low teens to the mid 30’s. Because we live off grid, we cannot provide artificial light and electric heat to our chickens in the winter. These are the stress factors that I am unable to compensate for. So I am very careful to make sure that I overcome all of the other stress factors so that we can continue to have healthy chickens and regular egg production. I also select cold-hardy birds like Buff Orpingtons, which can handle colder weather.
Age of the Hen
Old chickens may not be able to cope with an increase of multiple stress factors, thus they stop laying. The fact that the big egg producers maintain a young flock by replacing their birds every two years or less definitely supports this theory. One of my goals is to maintain a young flock. When a bird reaches two years old, it is about time to replace her.
A Good Diet
Just like people, chickens need a good diet especially in the winter. I provide our chickens with commercial laying pellets around the clock so they get plenty to eat. Incidentally, they will consume about 4 ounces per day per bird. I would like to make my own someday, but so far I have not been able to buy the ingredients locally. During the winter months, I give them a snack of oats in the evening to increase their calorie intake for the cold nights. I also supplement their diet with meal worms several times a week. This is an excellent source for extra protein. We raise our own, but freeze-dried meal worms are available. Our birds also forage about eight hours when I let them out of the coop to free range. In the summer months, foraging for insects outside is not only beneficial to their health, but to ours! We’re grateful that they can do some damage to the pesky summer insects!
Fresh and Healthy Drinking Water
It is important for chickens to have plenty of fresh water. During the warmer days, I change their water daily and add a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar per gallon. ACV supports their immune system and detoxifies their blood. Some people even claim that ACV increases egg production and reduces stress. We use ACV that we make ourselves. Check out how we do it here. On the cold days that are below freezing, I change their water every two to three hours before it freezes. I draw water from our well and keep the bucket warm in the house near the wood stove. Chickens will drink one to two cups of water per day and more when it is hot.
- Floor space: They need at least 4 square feet per bird.
- Perch space: Ten inches for each bird is a good standard.
- Nesting boxes: One nest box for every four birds.
- Ventilation: Chickens need a place free from a draft on the cold nights, as well as good ventilation during the warmers days.
For more information about my chicken coop’s design, see 8 Things I Like About My Chicken Coop.
It is important for chickens to have plenty of exercise, so our chickens are allowed to free range. I wait until two hours after sunrise before letting them out for the day. I have found that releasing them too soon in the morning leaves them vulnerable to predators like racoons and coyotes. Waiting a couple hours makes a big difference because it allows these nocturnal predators to get to their homes after a night of scavenging. Free ranging is also important because birds left in their coop all day tend to get bored and can fight with each other. Our birds are free to forage for insects, sit in the sun on a cold day, and take a dust bath. They stay close to home and they naturally return to their coop at sundown.
I certainly believe, and I can speak from experience, that hens are capable of laying ALL year round. But they must be given the right conditions. If you are struggling with your own hens’ egg production, try to minimize their stress factors. If there are one or two that are out of your control to change, do your best to minimize the others. With a little attention and care, you can enjoy your farm fresh free range eggs for the entire year!